Excerpted from All the Quiet Places
The sultry weather had been building for days until the air weighed on Eddie’s bed like a damp blanket. His feet constantly searched for cool spots on the mattress but never found any. Even the burping frogs down at Heart Lake, a quarter of a mile away, stopped now and then to catch their breath. It was only when cooler air rattled the leaves on the poplars down by the outhouse and swept over the bed that Eddie fell asleep.
A screeching wind jerked him awake. The ceiling and walls cracked and thumped. He sat up. His little brother, Lewis, was fast asleep beside him, and no sound came from his mother’s bedroom on the other side of the paper-board wall. The slop bucket slid across the porch, hit the ground, and rolled banging across the yard. Eddie stood on the bed and looked out the window but saw only pitch darkness. Then lightning flashed across the sky, showing trees that leaned at impossible angles to the ground. With a loud crack a bolt of lightning struck the top of a cottonwood down by the river, and pieces of wood scattered into the wind like dandelion fluff. Eddie saw spots in front of his eyes as if he had looked at the sun.
Lewis woke up crying and stumbled to join his mother, but five-year-old Eddie was drawn to the lightning like a moth to a coal oil lamp. His hand felt the shaking glass with each thunder clap. A nail holding a loose board in a wall squeaked like it was being pulled out by a claw hammer. His mother called to him, and the three of them huddled under her blankets, listening to fir cones and pieces of boughs that hit the roof.
The next morning Eddie let out a long yawn as he stretched and arched his back. He heard water dripping on the hot stove. Psst, psst, psst. He jumped to his feet, and with his nose touching the window, scanned the ground around the house. There were trees down everywhere. The ferocity of the storm had made him think the whole world had been flattened, but it wasn’t as bad as he had imagined. Everything always looked better in the morning anyway. A squirrel ran along a trail of broken branches. Noisy birds chirped and swooped. Nuthatches flitting about on the roof of the outhouse were frightened away in a flutter when a robin landed among them.
Eddie jumped off the bed and was about to walk into the kitchen when he saw his mother at the table. Grace sat perfectly still, and a thin line of smoke from the cigarette in her fingers reached up to the ceiling like a string. The long ash on the end looked ready to fall, and the red glow was so close to her skin that Eddie wondered if she was getting burned.
Sometimes he found her sitting this way, red-eyed, quiet and still. He felt sad and wondered what he could do to make her feel better. She didn’t move when he pulled out a chair and only looked at him when his knee bumped the table leg.
Grace sat up and looked around as if she had been caught daydreaming. After snuffing out her cigarette, she filled a bowl with porridge from a pot on the stove. With a big spoon she scooped out a red glob of jam from the large can in the centre of the table and dropped it into the bowl. She slid it across the table to Eddie. Sitting back in her chair, she looked out at the downed trees.
“Looks like I’ll have to sharpen the Swede saw,” she said. “We’re going to have to cut up all that wood and pack it up to the shed before it starts snowing. Seems like it might be enough for the whole winter. And you have to go on the roof and fix that new hole. Don’t know how many shingles are missing.”
The thought of all the work made Eddie push his bowl away with his elbow and rest his head on his arms. That was when he noticed a dark form moving among the trees down at the edge of the clearing close to the river. He sat up and looked through the cracked kitchen window. The slightest movement of his head made the image drift away and back again. He felt a chill as if someone had run a finger lightly up his back.
Whatever he had seen—bear, deer, or moose—was down close to the river at a piece of land where his mother, grandma, and uncle had cleared away the brush for a garden large enough for the two families. They’d stopped when they found that just under the top layer of soil was a thick layer of roots. It wasn’t long after the work stopped that the ground became choked with Oregon grape.
When Eddie’s mother stepped out of the house and strolled down the trail to Grandma’s, he looked over to the wall where the .303 rifle rested on bent spikes. He stared at the gun for a long time. Grace always told him there were three things he’d better not do until he was older: make a fire in the bush without her, go down to the water by himself, or touch the gun.
But one day early this spring his uncle came home with a young deer slung over his shoulder. Uncle Alphonse hung the deer on a rail lodged in the branches of two trees. When the steaming guts fell to the ground, his blood-covered hands took out the liver and handed it to Grandma. She took it inside and sliced it into strips, coated the pieces with flour, and put them in a frying pan of hot lard. When she set the plate of meat on the table, Alphonse rubbed his hands together and smiled, something that didn’t happen often.
Grandma laughed that nobody loved liver like Alphonse. “You don’t want to try and take a chunk from his plate while he’s eating. He’ll bite your hand off.”
The liver must be the best part of the deer, Eddie thought, but when he tried a small piece, it tasted terrible and had a funny smell.
The deer had made everyone happy that day. Getting a deer would make his mother feel better.
Eddie stood on a chair, lifted the rifle off the wall, and pocketed a shell. The gun was heavy and awkward. When he banged the end of the barrel against the table leg, he could almost hear his mother saying, Watch what you’re doing! What’s the matter with you? Someday he would have his own gun and do whatever he wanted with it. But this time, when he returned with his kill, he hoped she would be happy and call him a great hunter.
He stepped outside, wondering what he would find. A deer would mean plenty of meat for both families. A bear would be okay too. His mother said its sweet-tasting meat reminded her of pork chops.
Broken branches lay all around the yard. A potato sack was wrapped around the clothes-line tree, and under the porch steps was a ripped shirt Eddie didn’t recognize.
As Eddie entered the clearing, the only sounds he heard were his breathing and his pants brushing against the spiky leaves of the Oregon grape. The slightest noise made him jump. A sharp thistle jabbed him above the knee, but he walked on without stopping or looking down. Keeping low, he crossed the clearing and crouched behind a shrub. After loading the gun the way he had seen his mother do many times, he held his breath, stepped out, and raised the gun to his cheek. But there was no game to be seen anywhere. Whatever it was that he had hoped to shoot and drag home had already moved on.
It was much brighter down in the Oregon grape now. Four trees had been blown over by the strong wind, and he discovered a ripe honeysuckle bush at the base of a tall cottonwood stump. At one time the cottonwood had been one of the largest trees around, but long ago another wind as strong as last night’s had snapped off the huge trunk. Now it rested on the bush floor like the bones of a giant.
Eddie plucked a handful of honeysuckle and sucked out the nectar. A hole near the ground led into the cottonwood’s hollow centre. He poked the barrel of the gun into the opening to scare out any animals that might be using the stump as a home. He squeezed his way inside, and his nose filled with the sweet smell of earth that had been disturbed for the very first time. He pushed rotting wood out through the opening with his foot until he had enough room so that when he lay down, his head and feet
touched both sides of the stump.
The tree made the bush sounds louder: the screeching jays and magpies, the chatter of squirrels, and the woodpecker that hammered away from morning until night on an iron-hard fir. The sky through the stump opening looked different somehow. Closer, bluer, like water in a deep lake.
When Eddie closed his eyes and took long, deep breaths, he heard hummingbirds poking at the trumpets of honeysuckle above a mumble of bees. Then he made out the distant cooing of a mourning dove. The sound of the river washing over rocks and logs made him want to sleep, but a loud shout on the outside of the stump made him sit up. He looked through a small crack in the wood and saw his mother only feet away, swatting the brush with a large stick as she called his name. When she moved out of sight, he ran to the house and placed the gun back on the wall.
Grace slammed the door behind her, glaring at Eddie.
He spoke quickly. “I didn’t hear you because I was playing on the other side of the house.”
Grace didn’t say a word. She took the gun down off the wall. Eddie watched helplessly as she drew back the bolt and the shell tumbled to the floor.
“What the hell are you doing taking the gun when I told you not to? You didn’t even have the safety on. You could’ve shot somebody.”
She hit Eddie with her switch until he fell to the floor.
Later that day Eddie made his way down to his new hideaway. He looked for a different way so he wouldn’t leave a trail for anyone to follow. He still stung from his mother’s switching and he mumbled his angry thoughts. “I hate you. And I’ll never tell you or anybody else about my hiding place. I’ll stay in there forever, and you’ll never find me.”
Once he crawled inside, his heart thumped in his ears, and it took a few minutes before the anger he felt toward his mother left him. After a few deep breaths, he felt safe and protected inside the space that was his and only his. The cool soft ground was his mattress, and the open top was his window.
“Maybe if I lie here forever, I can turn myself into a ghost. Uncle Alphonse says they’re everywhere but nobody can see them. Invisible, he calls them. Yeah. Invisible. I can scare anybody I want and make them wet their pants because they’re too scared to go to the toilet in the dark,” he said aloud.
He fell asleep smiling. When he woke, he imagined he was the last person on earth. The small house above the Salmon River, on a corner of the Okanagan Indian Reserve, where his grandma and Uncle Alphonse lived, would be empty and deserted. His mother and little brother would be gone. And Eddie, who was two months away from his sixth birthday, would finally have what he often wished for, to be all alone in the world.
Eddie felt hungry and headed back to the house for something to eat. But when he got to the front steps, he saw through the open door his mother sitting in a chair sharpening the Swede saw with a file. He knew what would happen. She was going to start cutting wood and she would make him go with her to help. He looked down to the trail to Grandma’s. Maybe if he visited her she would give him something nice to eat. Something out of a can or whatever she had. He ran down the trail. When he rounded the corner of Grandma’s tiny house, he saw his uncle standing by a small fire. With a small axe he was scraping away the blackened part of a long pole. Then he returned it to the fire.
“Whatcha doing?” Eddie asked.
Alphonse lifted his head. “What’s it look like I’m doing?”
Eddie shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno. Whatcha doing?”
“You already said that,” his uncle said. “Gwan inside and bother your gramma.”
Grandma stuck her head outside. “He’s making a pole for his gaff hook. Maybe when he goes to the river for the salmon run, we’ll get lucky and he’ll fall in. Come in here, Eddie. You had dinner yet?”
Eddie shook his head.
“Well, you’re just in time.”
Eddie sat at the table as his grandma turned over the fried bread sizzling in a pan on the stove. She stabbed at one piece, laid it on a saucer and handed it to Eddie. Then she slid a jar across the table.
“Apple sauce. My favourite,” she said.
Eddie spooned some on his bread. When he took a bite, he closed his eyes. The smell and taste of the apple sauce on the warm bread was so good it made him groan. “Mmm.” Eddie wondered how so many nice things came from such a small cupboard.
As Eddie walked up the hill toward home, the trail was speckled with sunlight, but off to the right of the path, shade stretched out into the darkness of the trees. All around his house there were wasps and mosquitoes, and it would be so hot he would feel tired and want to sleep again. He couldn’t decide if he should go to his secret place or down to the river. Then a chipmunk zoomed past his feet into the undergrowth. Eddie dashed into the bushes, but there were too many shadows to see the chipmunk. He stopped to listen for the sound of scurrying feet, but a light breeze swishing through the Saskatoon bushes and fir boughs made it hard to hear anything.
The hunt for the striped runner ended quickly. Eddie didn’t care. For a long time he wandered around the bush until he heard his mother calling him. He went toward the direction of her voice, but when she called again, it sounded like she was coming from behind. Lost and confused, Eddie panicked and shouted to her for help. She was there in no time at all and shook her head as she approached.
“I don’t have time to go chasing after you every time you get lost. If this happens again, I won’t come looking for you, so you better start paying attention when you go into the bush. Go out the way you went in. Look for marks on trees, like broken branches, and anything that looks different. And don’t stare at the ground. Look up once in a while.”
It wasn’t long before Eddie was back in the woods. He came across a rotten log in a beam of sunlight at a small clearing. He lifted a slab of bark, and underneath, white grubs twisted and rolled in the bright, warm light.
He kicked a large puffball that broke into pieces when it struck a tree. A noise above him made him look up. A dead tree leaned against a live one and squeaked when they rubbed together. When he found a tree scar covered in pitch, he smiled. He had found exactly what his Uncle Alphonse had told him to watch for.
“Keep an eye out for pitch because it’ll be your lucky day when you find some. Bush candy, we call it. You chew on it and spit out the first taste. Then after a while, the longer you chew it, it turns into gum.”
Eddie scraped his finger under the pitch until he had the same amount as a piece of bubble gum and put his finger in his mouth. He spit out the first mouthful and swallowed the next. His stomach rumbled, and he threw up. His sides were so sore that he doubled over holding his ribs.
His face and shirt were wet with tears and snot. When he was able to stand up straight, he looked for the way home but saw no such path. He was lost again. The small clearing had paths leading off in all directions. The fear inside him grew until he heard a squeaking noise off to his right. He moved slowly toward the sound and recognized the leaning dead tree he had seen earlier. He found bits of broken puffball spread around the ground, then saw the slab of bark where he had left it leaning against the rotten log. He ran out into the open.
“I found my own way, Mom!” he yelled, bouncing up and down. “I know where there’s worms, dry bark, and pitch for the fire. Want me to take you there and show you?”
“No. I got a job I need you to do.”
Eddie’s excitement left him. “We’re not gonna cut up all the trees, are we?”
“No. It’s too hot for that.”
Grace used the back of a hatchet to flatten an empty syrup tin and handed it to Eddie. “You get up on the roof and find where the hole is. Look for a missing shingle. Shove this under a shingle as far as you can. And don’t fool around up there and fall off. After you done that, go inside the attic and get the cat out of there. Damn thing was burying its shit in the shavings again last night. Kept scratching right down to the ceiling. I thought for sure it was gonna dig through and fall on me.”
Eddie found the hole next to the chimney and made the repair. Then he swung down from the roof onto the ladder and crawled inside the attic. It was hot and smelled of cat poop and wood shaving insulation. The asphalt siding and roof shingles stank of hot tar, and the fir trusses sweating beads of amber added the sweet smell of pitch. Eddie heard whispering voices from the battery-powered radio in the kitchen below. His mother was about to make bread. It didn’t matter how hot it was outside, she fired up the kitchen stove anyway. And because the old stove had so many holes and cracks, it burned armloads of wood until the temperature of the oven and the house felt the same.
Eddie carefully straddled the trusses and lay on his back. The wood shavings crunched softly under him. He closed his eyes, thankful to be alone if only for a little while, until he heard the squeak of the ladder. He sat up. Suddenly three-year-old Lewis appeared at the top of the ladder, smiling, with drool hanging from his chin. As he reached for Lewis, his little brother pulled away and almost fell backward off the ladder. It took a long time before Lewis allowed Eddie to squeeze past him and stand one rung below. They made their way slowly down to the ground.
“Lewis followed me up the ladder,” Eddie said. “I can’t go anywhere.”
Grace went to the woodshed, grabbed the hatchet from the chopping block and knocked the first three rungs off the ladder. Then she took Lewis by the hand. “Both of you get in the house where I can keep an eye on you.”
Dark clouds bunched overhead, and the air had a sharp, dusty smell—a sure sign of rain.
The moment Grace put Lewis on her bed, he fell asleep. In the kitchen Eddie kneeled on a chair to watch his mother punch down the dough. The table creaked, and a leg bumped the floor. She worked the dough hard, pushing and pulling, making it pop and snap. Then she cut off large chunks, shaped them and placed them into loaf pans. She covered the pans with a towel.
Eddie wanted to tell her about the flour on her cheek where she had scratched an itch or brushed back her hair, but the heat had made her grumpy. It was best to leave her alone. Squirming in his chair, he began tapping the table with his knuckles and swinging his legs back and forth harder and faster until the chair moved ahead with a squeak.
“Eddie, quit it,” Grace said.
But his legs seemed to have a mind of their own and wouldn’t stop swinging.
“Can’t you sit still for a minute?”
He crossed his feet but they began pushing and pulling against each other.
“Eddie, sit still.”
“It’s like you got ants in your pants. Can’t you do something else? Something quiet?”
“There’s nothing to do, Mom.”
“Boy, I can hardly wait until you start grade one. There’s nothing to do, there’s nothing to do. You need to be in school, not around here all day bothering me every ten minutes. Just sit there and be quiet.”
She scraped the hardened bits of dough out of the chipped enamel bowl with a knife. The sound made Eddie shiver. He cradled his face in his hands to watch how long it would take for the bread to rise, but the weight of sleep began tugging at his eyelids. Just as his eyes were beginning to close, there was a brilliant flash of light followed by a booming explosion that rattled the windows. Eddie jerked awake.
“God almighty,” Grace said, stepping away from the table. She looked up as though she expected the ceiling to come tumbling down at any moment.
Rain lashed down on the roof as if the bulging clouds had been stabbed by the lightning. Eddie’s chair tipped over onto the floor, and he ran to the doorway to let the cool air wash over him. Mist rose from the roof of the woodshed as raindrops flew in all directions. The far end of the clothesline disappeared into the haze. Mud puddles scattered around the yard looked like they were boiling. Eddie stepped out onto the top stair to catch a mouthful of rain, but the stinging beads of water made it impossible to open his eyes.
“Get your new boots on if you’re going out,” his mother shouted.
The new boots had been in the box of used clothes she had brought home from a rummage sale in Vernon. Eddie had also found a pair of turquoise pants with an elastic waistband that he had been wearing for three days. They had no pockets and no fly but they had bright yellow flowers on the front.
He could hear the rain slowing as they hunted for the new rubbers in the jumble box that held the coats, belts, footwear that didn’t have mates, and other bits and pieces that his mother didn’t know what to do with. Finally she tipped the box onto the floor. Eddie fished out bubble-gum-pink rubbers from the pile, pulled them onto his feet, and ran out into the rain. But he was too late. The cloudburst was over. He had missed the best part. Robins were already swooping down from branches to snatch up worms sprouting from the wet ground, and the puddles were calming down.
Eddie was thrilled when his mother came down the steps. “Get your rubbers on, Mom.”
“I don’t need them. I’m only getting some wood. You can grab an armload and help.”
She hurried toward the woodshed and skipped over a puddle on the path, but Eddie thought her shoes and dress didn’t look quite right for playing. He jumped into the centre with both feet, splashing muddy water onto her legs.
“Oh shit, Eddie,” she said.
She shook her dress, sighed, stacked her arm with wood, and walked back to the house. Eddie stomped his feet in the puddle again, this time splattering mud onto his new pants.
“Oh shit,” he said.
Grace looked back over her shoulder. “Hey, don’t say that.” Her smile erased the worry lines from her face.
Eddie liked seeing her smile again. Then suddenly her expression changed as if she was about to sneeze. She was looking behind him up to the road. He swung around, but from where he stood, the wild roses, thistles, and weeds were too tall, so he ran into the woodshed and stood on the chopping block. That’s when he saw a car driving slowly down the road.
“Get over here!” she shouted.
Grace dropped the wood in the box by the stove. Eddie ran to her. She pulled him close and looked into his eyes. “Now you listen to me. If I see who I think is in that car, I’ll tap you on the back, and you run over to the Cluffs’ as fast as you can. Ask them to call the police. Tell them Ellis Bell is back. That’s all you have to say. They’ll know.”
The Cluffs were a white family that lived on a farm by the highway on the other side of the river, the reserve boundary. They had the only telephone for miles around. She didn’t say why he had to do as she said. Her sharp voice, the look in her eyes, the tone of her voice, and the way she squeezed his shoulder until it hurt frightened Eddie like nothing before.
The car turned down the driveway. Grace put her hands on his shoulders, and they waited. The cold air hitting the warm soil had formed fog that floated fence-post high above the ground. The car rocked from side to side on the rut-filled road. Its wipers bumped back and forth to clear away the last drops of rain, and exhaust fluttered out of the tail pipe like a white silk scarf.
The front tires splashed through a deep puddle, spreading water onto the grass and rolling back down to form pools of brown, bubbling foam. Eddie felt his mother’s nails digging into his skin.