LARES FAMILIARES, 1981
Mal, his mother and sisters, arrived nearly late for Granddad Thorne's sixty-fifth. Mom nervous, Mal itchy in good clothes, reading silently in the back seat the whole way over, the Classics Illustrated Aeneid he'd grabbed on his way out the door, trying to ignore his little sisters' incessant fighting. They were the last car in, and Uncle Billy was waiting with the door open when they arrived.
Mal heard Granddad laughing before he even set foot in the house. He was relating the familiar and terrible story of his own uncle Dave, who had died after a collision with a Douglas fir that was seventeen feet around the butt. They were skidding it down to the tracks, back in the days of steam, when it loosed, mad like an old man and defiant to the end, free-sliding to the bottom of the cut, where Dave was arguing with the foreman about that day's substandard breakfast. It missed the foreman, but in its rage shattered Dave's spine. He lived a few hours longer, so his brother Malcolm—Mal's namesake and great grandfather—could say goodbye, but he couldn't speak from inside the red mash of a face, his broken jaw, his eyes tracking back and forth across the bunkhouse ceiling.
It happened in autumn, a night when damp air doused the fires, and lanterns could not brighten the bunkhouse where he lay. That's how it was when Thorne men died in the bush.
In the dark reaches of the front room Granddad laughed.
The shiver started in Mal's gut, and rather than go in and say hello-how-are-you like you were supposed to, Mal set down the two pies Mom had him carry and slid into the covered porch to hide out with The Aeneid and hope no one found him before dinner.
Her arms full of birthday cake and pies, she stepped inside just as the Douglas fir snapped its cables. She felt the familiar story in her teeth, and thought—as she always did—of the moment Uncle Dave must have looked up and realized what was coming, a split second before the bone-crack.
She fled to the kitchen where she could not hear the rest of the story, just the rumble of his voice, what with the comforting noise of women washing dishes and women singing along with the radio. Children begging for slivers of the roast's dark crust in a kitchen as hot as summer, though it was October.
She still saw the long familial litany of logging-camp dismemberment that only began with Uncle Dave, when her mother looked up from where she mashed potatoes and instructed her daughter-in-law to whisk the gravy. Mom turned sharp-eyed to Annie as she set the birthday cake down on top of the fridge and said, "Where's the ice cream? Did you leave it in the car?"
"Oh," Annie said, and thought of the week's grocery trip, squeezed into the hour after work, the kids waiting grumpily, and she bitterly tired. She'd forgotten toothpaste as well.
They would attribute this to her perennial mismanagement and say something like Annie always was that kind. Even though she'd got up at five that morning to make pastry and cut little birds and leaves into the crusts. She had made seven minute icing and chocolate curls—
"You said you'd look after dessert! I knew you should have just done a plain cake!" Her voice rising. "I just knew it!"
Dad would, on principle, refuse to touch his birthday cake because who ate birthday cake without ice cream? And he'd say something like Women. Heads on backwards. Buncha mop squeezers. Mixed company, and kids, so he wasn't going to say much worse than that, though Annie had heard them all at one time or another: axe wound or dumb clunge. To everyone else—eating in silence around the chill of his refusal—her pastry birds and chocolate piping would taste like ash.
"Cake and pie," Mom muttered, "but no ice cream?"
"I'm sorry," Annie said. Fifteen minutes into town, the same back, but already quarter-to-five. The unmeasureable reservoir of his scorn, a cold always in reserve that might at any moment overspill, and if it did— "I'll go right to the Safeway. I think it's open," she said, untying her apron. "If you could just wait dessert—"
"—It's too late." The gravy sputtered. "Ruined," she said, which might be the gravy or the failure of dessert. Or the whole enterprise of Sunday dinner and family going back to the day of Annie's birth. "I noticed Mal didn't even say hello to his Granddad."
"I'm sorry," Annie said, again, and this time her eyes prickled.
In his hiding place Mal could still hear voices, but endeavoured to ignore the details of their stories. He tried to read, starting over at Aeneas's escape from Troy with Anchises on his back and Ascanius at his feet.
He could see his uncle Billy on the porch, smoking cigarette after cigarette, the cherries flaring and falling as he dropped them into an old coffee tin. When he paced the length of the front porch he dragged his right foot, and his right arm curved protectively around his ribs, where the log had rolled from its berth on the back of the truck and pinned him to the ground.
Twenty years earlier he would have died in camp, bleeding out from the severed artery in his right thigh. They might have tried to set his leg in the hours he had left, and feed him opium if he was lucky. Because it was 1979, though, a helicopter got him out to a hospital on the mainland where they put him back together with plates and pins stuck deep into his surviving bones, long spindles of metal that conducted the cold right into his brain.
In the front room Granddad started in on a new story, his voice loud enough that Mal could not quite ignore it.
"One of those treehugger faggots was up a tree?" —Aeneas left Troy with the lares and penates, too, whatever they were, carrying them like he carried Anchises. "I would count to three—" Three slams of Granddad's fist on the Naugahyde arm of his recliner "—and I would make my first cut, and then maybe I would have a smoke, and then I'd make my back cut and I'd give the bastard thirty seconds and if he doesn't come down on his own, I'm felling him—"
Lares and penates. Lares and penates. Household gods carried all the way to Carthage and then Latium with Aeneas, a thin line drawn from Troy to Rome.
"—And if he makes it to the ground I'm going to fucking buck him myself—"
Men shifted in their seats, worried not by the sentiment but the cursing, which the women wouldn't like if they heard it from the kitchen. Keep that kind of language for the garage and the camp, mister.
In the kitchen the 5pm news interrupted AM radio crooners, which meant supper was in a couple of minutes. Mal did not yet know it, but his mother fought tears as she contemplated the failure of her dessert. On the step Billy dropped his last cigarette and opened the door, standing a moment in the hall among the discarded shoes and piled coats, as though unsure of himself—
"Treehugger faggot going to end up like a goddamn logger," Granddad laughed. "He'll end up like Bill!"
The door to the covered porch opened, and there was Billy heading for the old beer fridge, right past Mal's milk crate.
Billy turned around. Mal said, "Uh—" and scrambled for some excuse about he wasn't actually hiding out.
But a funny thing happened, in that Billy did not ask why he was hiding, but looked down at Mal's comic.
"That's a good one."
Mal nodded. Billy was the one who'd given him all the Classics Illustrated. For this reason Billy would be—until the end of Mal's life—his favourite uncle. Just now he opened a stubby full of homebrew Granddad had put up the previous month.
"You want one?"
Mal shook his head. Sometimes there was root beer, but it was homemade, unsweet and foggy with yeast.
Billy shut the door and sat down on the other milk carton, unspeaking, his right arm limp at his side, and his crooked right leg stretched out. Mal couldn't see it, but knew that under the wranglers there were masses of tight and puckered scars, his skin knotted shut along the suture lines.
Granddad called out, "Where's Bill? Get Bill!"
Billy remained on his milk crate.
That was when Mal heard three slow taps on the door just outside their refuge. When Billy answered the door, Mal expected the usual: a bleary-eyed veteran friend of Granddad's, dragging his wife into the house because of an invitation Granddad had issued and forgotten during some night down at the Legion.
It was none of those familiar strangers. It was a girl poorly dressed for the weather, just a zip-up sweatshirt and jeans with dark patches on the knees. Her hands were balled up in her pockets.
Billy spoke first. "What's up, kid?"
"Can someone give me a ride home?"
"—oh!" she said, as though just remembering. "I am also cold and would like to come in for a minute. I'm looking for Malcolm."
She took a step from the ugly shadows of the porchlight to the warmer gold of the house. Mal couldn't guess her age: a regular twelve or a skinny fifteen or something else entirely. Her eyes were dark and—could it be?—whiteless like an animal's eyes, whorled red-gold and brown like finely worked and oiled cedarwood.
Over the girl's shoulder lay the forest's edge. No movement in the trees, even so he wanted to pull Billy away from the door, and lock it tight and say nothing to anyone in the house—
"Well, you found him. You look frozen solid, kid, come on in and warm up," Billy said.
He held the door for her, his left gesturing at the entrance hall. Something nearly formal about the invitation—
"—No!" Mal shouted, but maybe not even out loud because neither noticed, and it was already too late. The breeze that attended her already tunneled deep into the interior, fluttering the pink silk roses on table by the mirror, and on into the front room where some heavy man's voice called out, "What the hell? Shut the goddamn door!"
Too late, Billy shut the door. She said, "Thank you for letting me into your house. I need a ride."
"Where do you live? I might be able to run you home."
"I live over there." She gestured with her bony little chin. "People are weird about letting people in. That is very strange, since I'm only a kid."
Then, like the gust of night air, the girl was already in the living room. Her arrival marked by silence and a new freshness that dissipated the beef and woodfire fug of the house. Granddad surrounded by listeners at whom he gestured with his cigarette. He was a large man, thick-bodied and heavy-shouldered.
"Hello," she said. "I came looking for Malcolm. He is my friend."
Mal had never seen a girl walk into a room full of men like that, right into the middle of things.
"Frienda Malcolm's." Granddad said Mal's name as though he had forgotten he had such a grandson. "I thought you were someone else for a minute."
"Last time I was here no one let me in. I was all alone."
"Well, I don't know you," the old man said. "Never seen you before in my life."
The girl smiled, indulgent, as though Granddad was a child who lied. "Billy let me in," she said, like it was an answer. "It's good to find my way back in."
"I'm going to run her home before we eat," Bill said. "Just take a minute."
That was when Grandma—drawn by the uncharacteristic silence, perhaps, or the fresh scent that reminded Mal of Grand Fir—left the kitchen in her apron and said, "Billy, who was it—"
She stopped when she saw the girl, and her first look was to Granddad, still in his chair staring through the doorway where the girl had brushed past Grandma without a look.
Mal followed her into the kitchen, but not before he heard Grandma whisper to Billy, "Dinner's in five minutes!"
In the kitchen the girl announced, "I am a friend of Malcolm's. Billy is giving me a ride home."
Mal's mother stepped forward. "Mal didn't say you were coming. What's your name?"
"My name," the girl said, "is Tracey."
"You should at least warm up first. And there's lots to eat. You could join us."
Tracey's voice was soft when she answered, "No, thank you. You are very nice. Not everyone is so nice."
"If you're sure you don't want roast beef," Billy said, "we'd better run you home. You know the way, Mal? You better come along."
Tracey's smile was beatific and full of teeth.
The last thing Mal heard was Grandma's meant-to-be-overheard whisper to an aunt: "You know what kind of girl just shows up chasing a boy like that."
Annie smelled Grand Fir. It wasn't from the stove in the front room, nor the woodpile outside the kitchen door, but green and fresh, as though she had stripped a twig and warmed the needles in her hand.
How did she know Tracey? A bake sale or a funfair. At the bus stop, waving to Mal as he made his way home, or walking along the road past their house. Tracey with her familiar voice, and the kind of name she should know, with her dark and peculiar eyes that were, somehow, homely. Tracey Thorne. Old Malcolm Thorne's youngest. A temporarily forgotten cousin who had—just for a moment—been lost in the chaos of Sunday dinner.
When Billy's taillights disappeared she returned to the kitchen and her earlier anxieties: the absence of vanilla ice cream, the way Mal always found a place to hide, and the opposing worry that he would, eventually, end up in the front room, a man like all the other men, permanently enraged by government interference and treehugger faggots.
She kept it quiet, because it was probably shameful that she, eldest daughter of a logger, exwife of a logger, sister and sister-in-law and granddaughter to loggers, was secretly pleased with the downturn that had left much of her family unemployed. The whole town was suffering. An American company had bought the stumpage rights and the mills. There were fewer freighters in the little port every season.
And fewer dead men. But even so: what were they all supposed to do? Go north and gut fish for four months a year. Or take up small engine repair. Or get a welding ticket. Or drive truck. Or go to the city and work on the docks, unpacking the enormous freighters sailing in from China, and load other freighters sailing back out with all the lumber that remained on the coast, the century logs, the five-hundred-year logs.
Nevermind him, he's not our kind. We're not made for that, her grandfather, the first Malcolm, had told her when she was a little girl and asked about her uncle moving to the city. We're made for something else, and he'd gesture at the trees that rose high and thick all around the house. What that meant for a girl, she was never sure, except that you spent a lot of your life worrying.
And it meant you knew the stories. When Malcolm Thorne arrived in the valley he was the youngest and the poorest and the bravest of his three brothers, following them into the lumberwoods when he was just sixteen, having scraped together the fare to go west. He was the handsomest and the smartest too, and the day he escaped the homestead he dropped his father on the front porch with a broken nose, mother and sisters crying. He never saw them again.
He arrived by steamer and walked up island instead of taking the train, following the long trail over the mountains. It took him a week, tracking slash after slash along what was now the highway. Those nights were so quiet he could hear the salmon splashing in the inlet below him as they ran past sea lions and eagles on their way to spawn in Goldstream. He passed beneath the trees, and the raven flew overhead, and the cougars stalked him through the September evenings. Under the moon he looked up to see the trees shifting around him, heard the trunks groan as a path opened, and he—sixteen, the youngest and bravest of his brothers—set foot upon it.
The forest closed behind him. The story ended.
"And then what?" six year old Annie insisted.
"Let me ask you, girly-girl, what would you have done?"
Annie thought. "I would have followed."
He nodded and said, "Your Dad, on the other hand. He's not like you and me. We follow."
"But what happened?" she asked.
"You tell me!"
Here he rolled back his left sleeve and showed her the faint gleam and knot of scar tissue that ran from the crook of his elbow to the bone of his wrist. As an adult she knew he'd earned it at the end of a flying cable. As a child she knew he had earned it during some adventure under the trees, a battle against a foe with dark wings, perhaps for the heart of a dryad.
Dryads and scars were fine, sure, like the story of a young man lost, the forest opening around him, but what had become of it all? All his brains and courage meant was that he was the only one of three brothers who survived long enough to have kids, and all those kids followed in a litany of death: Uncle Dave first, then Uncle Cam drowned under the log boom; Uncle Sandy had become a whistlepunk after he lost his arm. And here was Billy, his insides held together by metal and scar.
Next up her own Mal, her sweet kid, just two years younger than Malcolm had been when the woods took him. If the forest opened a door she was not sure she wanted him to step through.
Mal remembered being afraid when he had opened the door and first seen Tracey, but sitting in the front seat of Billy's Trans Am (1974, Billy always liked to remind him, the only year for a Trans Am), he could not remember why she frightened him. The sky was starless and cross-hatched by branches. Billy let the engine warm up, then they splashed down the long, potholed drive toward the road.
"Which way, Tracey?"
"Malcolm knows." Billy looked at him. He shrugged. "Silly! Go right," Tracey chirruped from the back seat.
There were no headlights on the twisting October road that climbed, curve by curve, into the mountains around the valley.
"You okay back there?" Billy asked. "Getting any heat?"
"Annie needs vanilla ice cream. It's very important."
Billy smiled. Mal could just make out his grin—cockeyed because of the scar along his jawline—in the reflected glow of headlights on wet asphalt.
"Which way, Mal?"
He could not say why he opened his mouth, nor why he answered, "Right, then take the Renfrew road." It had, in old Malcolm's day, marked the edge of virgin timber.
"Got it. Light me a smoke?"
Before Mal could do it he heard the crinkle of cellophane, the brief flare of a match and then—over the back of the seat—a Player's Light.
"Thanks," Billy said, and dragged deeply and the tension along his scarred jaw released.
"You came a long way, Tracey. What are you doing all the way down here?"
"I came to see Malcolm. It's been a long time since I saw him. I missed him."
"But you've been by before, haven't you, Tracey? Maybe just when I got back from the hospital? I feel like you came by once."
"Maybe I did," Tracey said. "Maybe I said hello through the little window in the front room, the one that was beside your bed. You kept it open when you were sick because you liked to smell the air outside. Maybe I missed you."
They arrived at her corner, the turnoff blocked with a government-yellow road closure gate. Billy pulled onto the shoulder. When Mal cracked the door the sound of water roared in from the culvert. Outside their faces lit temporarily by the interior light, the scars along Billy's jawline deepened by shadows, one eye pulled crooked by the split skin along his temple.
"You sure?" Billy said. "You know there's roast beef back home."
Tracey let the door close, and there was no light but the flat grey sky overhead, and the sound of water and branches, and the wind that cut among them, and the smell—so strong now, so sweet—of fallen leaves, the resinous perfume of a young Grand Fir growing from the ditch's bank.
Tracey stood in the track's mouth. It seemed to Mal that the forest parted slightly before her gaze and he saw, or might have seen, a faint, flickering sort of light, as of fire, somewhere up the mountain.
"You are not your grandfather's child, Mal. I am happy to know you," she said.
What grandmother had a voice like that? What lost sister?
He realized he still held the comic in his hand, and without thinking he offered it to her. With a kind of ceremony she bowed her head, and took it from him.
"Not quite a hecatomb." A giggle trilled at the back of her throat. "But it is meet. I will see you soon. You might come to earn your name.
"And as for you, Billy. You will go back to school in Vancouver. You should get a job as a janitor in the meantime, and a room in an old house in Kitsilano. You will study economics and Greek literature and philosophy and then figure out you want a degree in Forestry Management. I'll prepare the way, and in your last semester you will meet a man who works for the ministry. He is mine and he will offer you a job that brings you back to me."
Billy said nothing.
She touched Billy's jaw where the scar still puckered, pulling his smile out of true. "The offering is not found wanting. The oblation is made. The door will open."
Billy knelt, painfully, his bad leg held crooked. Mal was kneeling, too, though he did not know when he had done it. It was like something in the pages of a book—
There was her rippling laugh as she added, "Of course neither was his blood found wanting, but perhaps you will be luckier than your father."
Then she was gone along the track, and the flicker Mal had seen was just a flash of wet leaf, or the red light of Billy's cigarette in the corner of his eye.
It took Billy a while to get on his feet. When they finally got back into the car he lit another cigarette from the pack Tracey had left on the dashboard.
"This is a really fucking good cigarette," was all he said on the way home.
In the silence Mal thought about how at the beginning of the Aeneid there's Aeneas and Anchises and Ascanius, but there was also the irresistible thread that bound them together, there's the lares and penates, carried all the way from Troy to Rome, who are both the familial genius and the easily-disappointed patron. Who can help or hinder depending on their mood on one day or the next, and depending on how well you honour their desires. Who are both the loveliest and the most dreadful, both the fresh cut and the scar that heals it over. The threshold god and the household god and the god of the ground itself from which you are born.
He thought of Malcolm arriving in the golden age before the wars, the youngest of three, who had been first up the long spars and into the deep valleys of the island's interior, the unmapped places. Old Malcolm—the ancient one, who belonged to the virgin forest and the age of heroes—wandered through uncut stands of Douglas Fir 140 feet tall, who was lost and found and lost again. He might be a character in black ink in the pages of a comic, disappearing into the green centre of the wild.
"Do you ever want to go back?" Mal asked Billy as they pulled into the driveway, the gravel popping like gunshots under their tires. "Into the woods?"
"Nope," Billy said. He turned off the engine and together they listened to rain on the roof, the houselights glazing the wet grass, gold bars and shadows reaching toward the edge of the forest where it touched the lawn. A hundred feet in there, Granddad used to warn him, and you might as well be a hundred miles. That's how easy it is to get lost.
"Can I have a smoke?"
Billy lit another one. They sat in silence until Mal asked, "Who was she?"
"She knew us."
"I was thinking about Aeneas and the Penates. Or the Lares." Mal realized he had never said those words aloud. He wasn't sure how to say them. "I was thinking about how they're sometimes good and sometimes really bad, but—" Mal didn't know how to finish the sentence.
"If you learn anything from those sorts of stories, it's that you should be polite to strangers. We better get in before Grandma kills us both."
Billy was out of the car then, but Mal dawdled, wondering if Granddad had ever met someone like Tracey, and if they had met—in town, or in the woods, in a camp or a gas station or a church parking lot—what had come of it?
It was in the house.
A reckless breeze. Something wild from the interior that defied clear cuts, that rushed past new highways and the breakneck erosion of the watershed to arrive here, and blow out their candles, and ruffle the heads of children, and the hairless scalps of old men. It disordered the stack of birthday cards on the sideboard in the dining room. A slight, hilarious little breeze that now occupied every room, as fresh and cold as Grand Fir in winter.
Though Tracey was gone, Annie still sensed her, like a shadow in her peripheral, the curious stare, the eyes like oiled wood. Something in her friendly and conspiratorial grin, a just-for-you sort of smile that made Annie smile right back. How thin she had been and how cold she had looked, so Annie-the-mother wished she'd thought to send a roast beef sandwich with them. Tracey. A cousin who had once been her best friend, only temporarily forgotten. Someone for whom she'd waited, though she had only just this moment remembered her absence.
Mom called the men in to dinner, but Dad only said "Bill home? No? Then I'm not eating. You can if you want."
Of course no one else would. She returned to the kitchen, now full of potato steam, so the faint thread of Grand Fir and rain diffused, and it made her sad thinking of the wild green interior toward which the girl walked.
Without thinking she was opening the freezer door to the sound of a faint giggle from somewhere behind her, and on the shelf—right in the middle, where she could not have missed it before—an enormous bucket of vanilla ice cream.
Granddad was affably angry when they opened the front door. Five thirty, and the meal cooling on the table.
The first thing he did was ask Billy, "Where's the girl?"
"We dropped her off at her mom's. Wasn't far—just out near Kinsol Trestle. But her mom got talking and held us up."
That seemed not quite right, but Mal could see the trailer they'd visited, the gravel driveway, Tracey and her Mom waving. It seemed to overtake another memory, one of distant fire and Grand Fir, and he searched his memory, as though something was missing. He'd given her his Aeneid, but maybe she'd bring it to school—
Nothing happened until dessert.
Mom made a little ceremony of it, with grandkids carrying the basket of presents and the various platters, singing "Happy Birthday" by the light of green candles. The little kids chattering in anticipation at the thought of cake and pie, chocolate and vanilla. Maybe if Granddad felt good that day he'd re-light his birthday candles and set them in your slice so you could blow them out.
Granddad did not feel good that day. He drank rye and pushed beef around his plate and then, when the lights were out and the lit candles of the birthday cake glowed he had listened hard-faced to the song, refused to touch his slice, and finally said what had kept him surly all through the meal. He turned to Bill—who was talking about maybe moving to Vancouver. Maybe Kitsilano, where the old houses went cheap by the room—and said, "You let her in. You fucking let her in—"
"—too late now, they let her in. She'll be back. She'll be back every night knocking, stupid bitch, knocking at all the windows and doors. Won't be a goddamn thing I can do about it."
Annie asked, "Is that such a terrible thing, Dad?"
"You have no clue what her kind is or what they can get up to. It was bad for me, but it'll be worse for you. You let her in and no way you're going to get rid of her now. You know what it takes to get rid of their kind?"
A great shove against the table flipped his dessert plate onto the floor, and Granddad stood, staggering backward. Drink always made his limp more pronounced, and he dragged his right leg from that old scar, earned his tenth season in the bush. They felt the slam of the backdoor more than they heard it, a shudder that ran through the house itself and up their spines so one of the littlest kids cried out.
He was probably headed for the treeline again. No one ever followed when he headed for the treeline.
Insulated, somehow, against the chaos, Mal slowly demolished the dinner plate his mother had piled with blackberry pie and chocolate cake, ice cream, and—because Mom still thought he was a kid—a green candle shaped like a tree. He began with the pie, which was warm, with ice cream melting over the dark fruit, redolent of August. It was the most delicious ice cream he had ever tasted, smooth and speckled black and not too sweet. He felt giddy just eating it, that ice cream, and thought of Tracey. He thought, also—where did the image come from?— of the island's interior, of a long walk through the rain toward a flickering light, and the trees all around groaning outward to make clear his path.
A plan formed in his head for next weekend, how he would get up earlier than anyone else, in the darkness of Saturday morning. How he would pack a sandwich and set out on his bike for the Renfrew road. He remembered this one time he'd seen a government-yellow gate beyond which the road curved mysteriously, and no one could tell him where it went, or why it was there. He imagined following it around the next curve where—why would she be out in the middle of nowhere?—Tracey waited for him.
REBECCA CAMPBELL is a Canadian writer and academic. NeWest Press published her first novel, The Paradise Engine, in 2013, and her short speculative fiction has appeared in Lackington’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tor.com. You can find her online at whereishere.ca