It was during that fall that his mother’s illness became inescapably apparent to David, the strange pallor that he had noticed that summer now a permanent feature of her face. There were other changes as well, though little noticed by him. His mother was always tired, often going to bed early in the evening when he and Eric did, and on particularly bad mornings it was their father who would rouse them get their breakfasts and send them off to the bus for school. Sometimes their usual after supper games, crib and rummy and kings on the corner, would be left to he and Eric alone.
The dim concern David felt for these developments, more a sense that this was unusual than any true understanding of what they implied, was offset by the arrival of harvest. It was his favorite time of the year, filled with bustle and activity, given greater meaning by the race to get the crop off before the weather turned. This year his excitement was magnified by the addition to the proceedings of the new hired man, a fellow named Jim from Enchant.
The hired man and his father worked from dawn till dusk, so long as the weather held and there was wheat to harvest. When David came home from school he would take the two lunch pails his mother had prepared, full of sandwiches, sliced cucumber and tomatoes with some cookies for desert, and two thermoses full of tea out to the grain bins where Jim was unloading the truck. Jim would give him a ride out to the field, keeping up a friendly chatter that to David’s ears sounded worldly and wise, and then David would run one of the pails and a thermos over to the tractor and combine his father was driving.
He would sit beside his father, nestled precariously on the armrest, with the various unfathomable gear sticks threatening to jab him in the back, as he made his rounds in the field and ate his supper. He enjoyed watching the swath disappearing into the combine, transformed into kernels of wheat straw that would be spit out the back of the machine. His father did not really say anything in these moments, focused on his supper and the task at hand, but David did not mind. It was enough to watch, to hear the throttle of tractor and the rumble of the combine as they worked. Sometimes, if his father allowed it, he would stay out on the tractor until his eyes grew too heavy and then Jim would take him home for bed.
On the weekends they would all eat lunch in the fields, sitting in lawn chairs out on the stubble in the shadow of the machinery. The talk would be on the progress of the harvest, how this field was going tougher than the last, how the equipment was holding up, and how the weather might threaten or bless in the days to come. David would listen to these conversations with fascination, feeling a part of some monumental task, the import of which he could not quite grasp.
One day, Jim seemingly tired of all the talk of work, asked about the Faulkenbourg Place.
“Why do they call it that?” he wanted to know.
His father finished the bread he was eating and said, “Albert Faulkenbourg homesteaded that quarter. He bought the house and put it up there in twenty two or twenty three I think.”
“What happened to him? Get moved out in the Thirties?”
“No. The year after he built it he was killed. He was disking a field and something spooked his team. He was thrown off his seat and the discer went right over him. Dad found him the next day.”
“That’s a hard thing.”
“Yes it was.”
“Your family bought it after that?”
“No, it went through a few hands,” here his father paused tantalizingly, as though there were much more to be said. “Bit of a bad luck place I guess you could say. Land’s a bit sandy too.”
Jim stayed on through the winter and into the next fall as well. During the summer, when more of his time was his own and he had much more freedom to navigate, David would often make his way over to the Faulkenbourg Place to chat with the hired man, who didn’t seem to mind the company. He taught David how to throw a proper curveball and told him about the time he had batted against Satchel Paige when the Negro Leaguers were barnstorming through Saskatchewan.
As much as he enjoyed the Jim’s company, the larger purpose of his visits was to be within the house. It was a compulsion, deeper than any understanding he was capable of. The thrill he felt as he stepped from the entryway, to the kitchen or the living room, to sit across from Jim and talk was something near ecstasy, especially now that he knew what had happened to Albert Faulkenbourg. To be in these same places where a dead man had sat and done the same things he had was an incomprehensible and new thing to David.
Jim left in the middle of the next winter, a particularly harsh one, even by the standards of the Canadian prairies. The first snow had fallen a week after Thanksgiving and stayed on through November and into the new year, accumulating into vast drifts that hardened into immovable dunes, reshaping the landscape entirely. The drifts in the yard were so large and solid that the cattle could walk out of their pens and the tractors were unable to break through them. The temperature offered no reprieve, staying well below freezing so that even the slightest breeze was cutting.
It was in January, when the days were at their shortest, the sun setting before five, making the cold seem to set in the bone all the more, that Jim came by their house to announce his leaving. David was at the kitchen table playing cards with his mother while his father finished his tea and read the paper. Jim looked sheepish as he unbundled himself on the porch and apologized for disturbing their evening. His father waved away his concerns and poured them both a glass of whiskey. They retired to the living room to talk.
Though David made a great show of playing his hands, he lost three games in a row as he tried to play and listen to what was being said in the living room between the two men.
“I’m just here to give my notice,” Jim was saying. “Sorry to spring it on you like this.”
“You’ve got something else then?” his father said, in that even tone he used to indicate disapproval.
“No, not exactly yet.” Here Jim stammered. “I know some folks in Maidstone.”
There was a pause where David could imagine his father taking a measure of the situation while he took a sip of his whiskey. “Is there a problem, something you’re not telling me?” he said. “I think I’ve been fair in all our dealings. I could understand if you had something better lined up. Lord knows you don’t want to be doing this your whole life.”
Jim’s discomfort was plain in the way he spoke. “It’s not anything you’ve done. You’ve done right by me Walter. I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity. Just time to move on I guess.”
“There’s not something else wrong is there?”
“No, no,” Jim said and there was a long silence. “It’s the house, if I’m being honest. There’s something about it doesn’t sit right.”
“How do you mean?” his father said, sounding confused.
“I can’t explain it really. I just don’t feel right in it, like there’s something else there with me.”
“A ghost you mean?”
“No. I know what you’re thinking. Jim’s gone crazy. I swear to you, it’s nothing like that. I can’t explain it. I know there’s nothing there. Can’t be. But it just doesn’t feel right.”
They left it at that, his father thanking him for his help and wishing him the best. Later David would overhear him talking about the situation with his mother, saying that maybe it was a blessing that he had gone when he had. “He can’t be right in the head, thinking there’s something in that house with him. Who ever heard of such a thing?”
David knew what Jim had tried and failed to tell his father, that sensation that escaped all words yet sunk deep into the center of his being never to be shaken free. Jim had been afraid of it, though he had tried to hide it in front of his father. David, though, felt no fear, only a longing that somehow he imagined would be made whole by the place itself and whatever lay within.
From Smeagol Blues by Clint Westgard
Forthcoming April 2013