The Last Mean Sunlight of Spring

Winner of our 2012 fiction contest

By Joe Fero

It cleared again, the last mean sunlight of spring. It was summer now. The crows flew away from the river mouth, inland over the church, above the house, high above the white pine, and past Coyote, who remains.

And there’s a hole in the backyard and Toby’s going, Toby’s gone now, isn’t he? And after that damned bird disappeared you had no use for the tin of bacon fat, did you? And now we can’t use that tin, it’s had worms in it, can we?

Dad carried Toby up the stairs and laid him on the bed. Adults walked up to the house in twos and threes, and alone.

The old fisherman watched your boy below the dam, hopping along the riprap, following the river. Toby carried a stick in his hand, tripping from rock to rock. The fisherman said all the time your boy was dancing atop the rocks, tapping with the bamboo rod, feeling his way along by the side of the river, black crows arrayed above, marking the boy. Odd to see crows band near water. It’s the gulls that hang tight to the beal, grubbing for a scrap of fish. But the smelts have long stopped running and any dead smelts’ bones are picked clean by June. And the old fisherman looked up from his task. Vicious birds, gulls. They nabbed the one young crow with the crooked wing and spooned out the yellow jelly of its eyes, pecked and left black holes. The gulls released the crow and the blind bird stood and took its flight. The rest all followed, flying back inland now. And the fisherman lost sight of your boy for the squabble of crows and gulls. Tobias, when he looked back down, when the old fisherman looked back, young Toby was gone.

Dad tumbled down in a mass, Mom folded into his lap. Mom collapsing, legs twisting under her. I knew what had happened, felt it. Jane crying. The big Scot constable stepped over our threshold, in his arms a sodden, bent Toby. The doorbell rang.

It was the day I turned thirteen. We were all thinking of cake. We sat inside to keep warm. Jane crying. Kneeling in front of the fire now. A dark solstice day. The temperature dropping, the weather in from the east again, over the big lake, Lake Superior. Clouds charged with rain. A green storm.

What a striking cry crows make. The birds alighted on the red tile roof of the Catholic church. They lifted off towards the big lake. Clara could make him out from far away. The King could not ever quite straighten his broken wing.

—There. He’s in the lead. See?

Clara had an eye for his flying.

—That’s King Lear for sure. That’s Leary, Clara said.

There must have been a hundred or more. We looked back towards the white pine that stood above, in the field, the tree where we found the baby King.

Dad had his arm around her, he was speaking softly. Jane was crying. Clara and I climbed the two-by-four ladder to the tree house in the backyard. We would wait for Toby. Wait for cake. After supper, Toby had still not returned.

—Elizabeth turns thirteen today.

—We all scream for ice cream.

—It’s Lizzy’s birthday today.

—I scream you scream.

—And don’t forget after supper there’s cake.

—The bird is done. Table’s set, Mother said.

—Let’s eat, then, Father said.

—Aren’t we going to wait for Toby? Jane asked. What about Toby?

—Oh well, shall we tuck in, then? Father said. What do you say, dear? Boy’ll turn up soon enough. Still plenty of light.

Toby copies everything Father does. Father likes to fish. Toby thinks he can fish too.

Three girls and a boy later, Dad’s fate was sealed. She caught her man. In the end Dad was up north, working on the CN line. Mom summoned the RCMP to find him. Dad was already here, in Canada, off somewhere, before we arrived.

Mom sailed across alone, with me as a nine-month-old. “Jolly old” means England, you know. We have some family back in Jolly Old. On both my Mother’s and my Father’s sides we have relatives in England, still.

—I’m English, you know.

The way Mother says it, a play on the old accent, a poke across the pond to all those who stayed, those less bold. No one else has come. Not the two brothers who fought in the Great War, not Nell, not her parents. None want the new life in Canada. They’ll never come now, will they?

It was all Toby’s fault. Toby let the King go free. Let him out of his coop. King Lear would only come back for Clara or me. The King could fly now. He was getting stronger.

Any dumb kid could see that. Stupid kid.

—Here King Lear. Leary. King Lear, King Lear. Come Leary, come King.

—There are many ways of doing things as everyone supposes. Some people turn up their sleeves at work, Mom started.

—And some turn up their noses, we finished.

—And I cleaned up the sitting room, Clara said.

—And I took out the trash, I said.

—Elizabeth and Clara, would you set the table, please, Mom said.

Toby was going to catch it good. I don’t care how many worms he found, Toby was going to catch it but good. We let Jane tag along. We had to find King Lear. King Lear was our bird, he was our crow. Clara and I, and our younger sister Jane, all called out for King Lear.

That turkey would be dry without the bacon fat drippings. But that was true. Clara looked as if she were about to speak. I shook my head “No, Clara.”

—That bird will not set right if we’ve no fat to baste it in, now will it? Mother said. Your Father loves his tasty bird. And it is your birthday. Lizzy, have you seen my tin of fat? Seen Toby?

Supper drew close. We headed back to the house.

Freed from certain death. We saved the worms. But when they reach the surface they seek any water, where they drown. They crawl blind up through the earth for light, for air. The fresh rainwater feeding the earth is drowning the worms, so they reach up out of the earth, the earth light brown, sandy and sharp, when it rains.

—She’ll never think to look there, Clara said.

—Let’s bury the tin in the backyard, I said.

All those in Present River say an unbroken line of water runs fresh and cold from Lake Superior straight into our house. Mom standing on peeled black linoleum, bent before the water forever running cold from the kitchen spigot. White enamel sink. Our water is known as the best in Present River. Free of any taste or smell, Father says, as the all the best Canadian water is. Neighbours and friends stop by whenever passing for a glass of water running unbroken to our sink. Our house will forever be known for fresh water.

You fry the giblets along with the neck, in bacon fat. She dug deep into the cavity and yanked out the guts of the bird. Tomorrow it would all end up in the soup.

—We’ll make do. It’s the smell of a roast bird I crave, Mother said.

—Pope’s nose, Mother said, to no one in particular.

We would add the worms as time wore on. The worms could live in that mix, and we would stuff the tin with fat and leaves and bugs and earth. I pushed Clara ahead to Mother’s kitchen. We would borrow Mother’s wooden spoon to stir the earth and the leaves into the fat not wholly melted, and the worms. I loved to feel the leaves and the earth, light brown, sandy and sharp, along with the worms. We mixed it for the King.

But you know the puddles are like lakes, and I am a giant. The river runs into the lake stopped up by the dam. Then it falls down into Lake Superior. And I drop my stick into the river and I see it float away. Well, I walk down all the laneways and I pick the worms off the muddy puddle shores, then I follow the sandy rivers that flow beside our tar street, where the water runs fast, and I pick all those, then I make a twig boat and follow it down and down. The dam opens wide, then the river cuts white and yellow and brown over shale steps down to the big lake. The big lake swallows all the water from Present River. When the rain stops, you can trace the worms’ criss-cross paths through the sandy gutters beside our tar street.

—Dad would be proud of you. Good boy, I said.

—You got a ton of worms. Good boy, Toby, Clara said.

—But I want to, I can do it. I can, Toby said.

—No, Toby, you don’t know how yet. You’re not big enough.

—I want to feed King Lear. Let me feed King, Toby said.

We stole Mom’s tin of bacon fat.

And put some dirt on top, I said. Fill it full. Don’t worry. It’s okay, Toby, Mom said it was okay. You can put the worms in there. Be quiet about it. Now go to the icebox and borrow Mom’s tin with the bacon fat. It’s okay. Pick as many as you can. We need lots and lots for King Lear. It rained so there’ll be lots. Won’t that be fun? Toby, we need you to go outside to worm-pick. You are a big boy. Like dad aren’t you? We need a man to get them.

Toby was gone a long time. Toby, I’ll tell you what you can do. Toby, this is serious. I’ll tell you what you can do, Toby. Where did you go, Toby?

I should have let him feed the bird. Take care of that crow. He wanted to feed King Lear.

He should never have released King Lear. Toby is our brother. But Toby let the King run free.

At night we would cover the cage with a blanket. Lighter wood framed the wire top that we removed to feed King Lear. The pen stood three feet square, and was raised on stilts made of two by four wood. Birds like to be covered at night.

I could hear giggling from the bedroom then,

—Stop that right now. Tobias, stop it.

Thinking of my Father on a western ranch with cattle and horses but before the rest of us seemed so strange. Father had spent time in western Canada, out near Kamloops, British Columbia, alone on a ranch long before Mother and I ever sailed here.

Dear Edna. Ever Yours, Tobias. Letters locked inside a steamer trunk.

—No one will miss a bit of chicken wire, now will they? Dad said, as he hammered the staples to the wooden frame.

—Can you build it high, Dad? Like a throne?

We laughed.

—He is used to being up high. He’s a king you know, Clara said.

Father borrowed the mesh and the two-by-four wood from his job site.

—You’ll lose the one good job you’ve had once they find you’ve pilfered, Mother said. We’ll scarce last a week with you idle.

We would keep him in the backyard and once he could fly we would take him back to the field, to the white pine. Dad said name him King Lear.

—If you pick him up and carry him home, Clara, he can be your pet too.

—Lizzy, how can you swim across the Present River rapids and be scared of a baby crow? Clara said. How do you climb up the slate cliffs and dive down headfirst into Soldier’s Hole?

—Oh, Clara. I told you. I close my eyes. That’s all. Now will you please pick it up? Please. I can’t touch it.

Crows are so smart. I knew it would never. A crow would never ever swoop down and peck out your eye.

I would turn thirteen that spring, that spring day turning to summer, the year my younger sister Clara and I found the baby crow. The summer solstice is my birthday. Ravens circled high above. We went up to look. We were playing in the backyard and heard the racket. Jane crying. It had been pushed out of a giant nest made of white birch twigs that had fallen to the ground. His home was nestled high and tight between two branches in the white pine that stood in Coyote’s field above our house.

—Once that raven can fly he’ll swoop down and take your eye out, Mother said.

I watched on in horror. Mother swung once, hard, and knocked her own glasses off. The bird jumped. Clara slid in her dress under the table and sheltered the crow. Jane started crying. Mother lifted the corn broom high above her head with both hands and brought it down, barely missing the crow, who hopped off the back of the chair and half flew and half fell under the kitchen table.

—Mom, he’s injured.

—He has a broken wing.

—But we found him.

—He’s our pet.

—No, Mom, no.

—He’s a crow, he’s a baby crow.

—He’s not a raven, Clara called from under the table.

—Hold on, Clara, I said. Hold on.

Clara held the King wrapped tight in the folds of her cotton dress, under the table, waiting until it was safe to come out.

—By Jesus, get that bird out of my house, and don’t let me catch it in here again, Mother said. Get that damn bird out of my house right now. I’ll not have a wild bird in my house.#

Joe Fero has participated in writing workshops at the Banff Centre, Sage Hill, the Alexandra Writers Centre and the U of C. 



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