She died at the age of thirty, at the clothesline in her own back yard on the first day of summer vacation. Dropped straight to the ground in her forget-me-not dress like a sheet dropped off the line. In the end, they accepted that there had been no way to predict or prevent what happened. The community discussed it for weeks. Some said perhaps they were too good to the Faradays, too generous. Some people said there must have been something going on, a disagreement of some sort, but there wasn’t. Anything that was going on was inside the head of Leonard Faraday where it could not be seen. No one could have seen it coming, no one – probably not even Leonard.
The day dawns as most do in summer, the moist perfume of overnight still sweet and clinging to each blade of grass, to each leaf and needle in the woods behind the house, while at the same time, the damp moss exudes the sharp, acrid smell of rotting things. A cloudless, blue sky promises swimming later in the day when the air warms and Matilda’s friend, Janet, finishes her chores on the farm. The morning’s clean crispness is beginning to warm a little now, but a chill still shivers in it and Matilda pulls her sweater around her. Settling herself on the back doorstep, Matilda, barely eleven, her eyes raised from the book she is reading, sees her mother fall. It is her mother’s beloved lime-green copy of Pat of Silver Bush by L. M. Montgomery, that she received when she was twelve, a gift for completing grade six in the one-room schoolhouse in Mushaboom. Matilda will remember the feel of that book, the cloth-like roughness against her fingertips, its hard cover resting in her hands the moment before it falls to the ground.
Her mother is hanging the family’s laundry on the clothesline, in the pattern that suits her. It says something, a line of laundry does; if it is hung well it is seen to say something about cleanliness and care and order and later that morning, she expects to regard it with pleasure from the large kitchen window that looks out on the woods and the back yard. Women sometimes do this, view as though through the eyes of onlookers, their morning’s accomplishment of fresh and flapping laundry, a sort of statement to passers-by who might happen to notice.
One moment her mother is hanging laundry on the clothesline and the next, she lies in a crumpled heap on the ground.
The land in the farming community of Fox’s Settlement is fertile, and the old homesteads, many still in operation as farms, punctuate both the winding main road, and the twisting side roads. The green hillsides are comfortably occupied by large, white houses with their barns and out-buildings, but Matilda’s house is not one of these. Her family’s house is five years old and sits overlooking the road, sharing its hill with the weathered, silvery-grey house owned by Leonard and Mrs. Faraday, his crotchety mother, as her father has been known to call her. Matilda’s father built their storey-and-a-half house himself and is proud of it, even though her grandmother’s hooked mats try to hide the fact that they have not yet covered the floorboards with linoleum. It is a good house, Matilda thinks, the best part being that it has three bedrooms: one for her parents, one for Matilda and her little sister, and the third for her two brothers. And it has a living room big enough to hold a large Christmas tree from their own woods behind the house, a fir, chosen by their mother and dragged home through the snow by Matilda and her father.
This morning, Matilda’s father is in the yard too. His head is under the hood of their ’56 Chevrolet coupe, blue-and-cream with no big rust spots or holes. He pulls out the long stick that measures the oil, wipes it with a rag, reinserts it, and pulls it out again, peering at it carefully. Every morning he picks up three fellows and drives the car into Dartmouth where they do carpenter work in a new housing development. Her father spends a lot of time working on it but Matilda likes it better than any car they’ve ever had, even though it was already five years old when he bought it.
She glances next door, hoping not to catch a glimpse of Leonard Faraday in his yard tinkering with his own vehicle, a rickety, black ’48 Ford half-ton, used for many years by his father to lug cases of beer and wine and hard stuff from the liquor store in town every couple of weeks. Mr. Faraday had treated it like a real business, not like some bootleggers who collect patrons in their homes in the evenings whether they want them there or not. He had kept it tight, open Thursdays, Fridays and weekends, an unnerving Doberman pinscher behind the small window through which the transactions took place. His father had finally been “retired” by an over-active church committee who reported him to the cops until they busted him for the last time and he gave up working altogether. Matilda’s father had bought the land from Mr. Faraday when his business was still thriving. Rumour was, he sold the land for fine money. Dorothy, on the other side of Matilda’s house had filled them in. Mr. Faraday hardly touched the stuff himself. The same cannot be said of Leonard, though. When it comes to the booze, it’s too late for Leonard, and Dorothy doesn’t have to tell them that.
Before last year when Mr. Faraday died, Leonard was sober enough to keep a decent flock of Road Island Reds and sell some eggs, but the scraggly half-a-dozen hens that are left now are seen picking and scratching at all hours, beneath the spruce and pines that are scattered along the driveway. It had been Matilda’s job to go to the Faraday’s door every few days for eggs, the money rolled up in a piece of paper in her pocket. Sometimes her mother gave her a paper bag, too, with a few warm biscuits or cookies in it for Mrs. Faraday to have with her tea. She feels sorry for her elderly neighbor, her only daughter far away in Ottawa, her only son, a drunk. Sharing with close neighbours is common practice in rural communities, among the men, too, who might borrow a tool they don’t have or some car oil in a pinch. But things are different on the hill now. There is no exchange between the men and no eggs to buy. Matilda still takes biscuits or soup now and then, when she goes next door to tell Leonard’s mother that she must return a phone message from her daughter; as for Leonard, he keeps entirely to himself these days.
Two days ago, Mrs. Faraday shuffled across the stretch of field between the two houses to return a call to her daughter that had come earlier in the day. Everyone at Matilda’s house had finished supper by the time she arrived, and her mother’s birthday cake with its overly-pink icing and fifteen candles, one candle for every two of her thirty years, sat on the kitchen table, waiting to be lit.
“Today is Leonard’s birthday, too,” she said, brightening at the sight of the cake and pleased, as if Leonard was a small child.
“What colour is Leonard’s cake?” her younger brother piped up bravely, but Mrs. Faraday didn’t answer and talked to her daughter on the phone. Matilda watched, with quiet horror, her mother cut into the cake, remove a large piece with two candles – enough cake for two – and place it on a plate. It had been her job to manage the beater while her mother put the ingredients into the bowl; she had made the frosting and spread it on the cake herself, allowing the others to count out the candles. After their neighbour left, Matilda’s father lit the thirteen candles that were left. Matilda did not understand either the smile or the tears on her mother’s face as they sang “Happy Birthday”, the ruined cake in front of her on the table. I wonder if Leonard lit the candles, she thought. She imagined Leonard’s bit of cake sitting on the table between him and his mother, its two candles lit and Leonard making a wish.
Matilda doesn’t like running into Leonard. His whiskery face. His bloodshot eyes, faded-blue like his greasy jeans. The ripe smell of him, like the dribbles of warm beer and whiskey in the bottles she and Janet found once, overhead in Janet’s shed. She’d rather he’d speak to her but he barely says anything, often appearing out of nowhere when she’s standing on the Faradays’ step, raising her knuckles to knock on the white door panel. It’s the only part of the door that has a smooth patch of paint left, the rest blistered and flaking onto the doorstep. When he does not appear out of nowhere, does not skulk past her, sidling in the door to fetch his mother for her, she waits for an answer from inside the house, knuckles smarting, until she hears footsteps approaching. She hopes it’s not Leonard but the old woman who answers the door, her shoulders wrapped in a red sweater even in the dead of summer.
Matilda sits on the back doorstep and reads; she is in another world. The morning sun hasn’t reached her yet and she feels cold. She hugs her sweater closer. Her siblings are in the house doing puzzles, the youngest still sleeping. It is almost silent outside. The only sounds, sweet bird song – chickadees and robins – and the clinkety-clank of her father tinkering with the car in the driveway. Matilda looks up. Her mother is hanging laundry. A sharp explosion cracks the sky, claps off the woods, circles the hill, the houses. Her mother is falling. Her father is screaming, a stuck record, running toward her, “Oh, my god, oh, my god!” a second crack splitting the sky, clap circling, father falling, hands to his face, fingers bloody. He rolls on the ground, legs writhing snakes, her mother lies crumpled, a heap on the ground, a growing stain on her forget-me-not dress, Matilda frozen on the step where she sits.
The church basement is full of people she knows. Matilda passes between and around dark suits and dresses and Sunday shoes, through the warm maze they make, toward the long table spread with a white cloth like the table at the front of the sanctuary on Communion Sundays. Plates stacked with egg sandwiches, buttered loaf arranged like fans, cookies and squares free for the taking. “…my body broken for you…” the minister says when communion is served. Arms bump her gently, “Sorry…sorry, dear…” Some hands touch her shoulder as she passes; other guests appear not to notice her silent form slipping between their conversations like a ghost, past their warm, freshly-washed and dressed and perfumed bodies, past their cups of steaming-hot tea…
Before the funeral, Aunt Tilly had guided Matilda, her young hand clutched in both of her own, to the front of the church where the casket stood, its dark lid open, and Momma, pale and quiet, sleeping there. Matilda stood motionless watching her face, certain she would open her eyes and look at her, smile like always. But she didn’t. She did not.
Leonard dies in prison of a heart attack after serving fifteen years of a life sentence. Mrs. Faraday goes to Ottawa to live with her daughter. Matilda’s father spends three months in rehabilitation learning to walk and talk right again, then, returns home, a brace on his leg and a permanent limp, to finish raising his family in the house he built on the hill. Matilda’s mother is buried in the cemetery nearby, in a plot out of view of the main road where Matilda can visit her in private. The newspaper printed a picture of their house, taken from the road, the day after the shootings. The clothes were still on the line.
They live at the edge of, “The Settlement”, as everyone calls it, one foot planted in Fox’s Settlement, the other in Paradise as her father has often said. It is a place that had not seen any big changes since Matilda’s family moved there five years before. The centre of the tiny community might easily be missed if driving through, defined mostly by the general store, the garage and the church tucked a little way off the road but still visible from it, all clustered within a quarter-mile of each other. The hillocks of the graveyard with its big, old elms and weeping willow trees, roll gracefully nearby, wheel tracks weaving through them, a grassy path that beckons to Matilda to go talk to her mother; she is waiting. Not far from the church a community hall stands, where suppers and receptions and dances are held, white-painted clapboard siding like the others, windows outlined in straight, black lines. Along the dirt road, The Settlement stretches out for a mile or two on either side of its core, and each small community is indicated in turn by a green road sign: “Fox’s Settlement”, “Paradise”, “Gibraltar”, “Pleasant Valley” – an idyllic landscape if ever there was one.