When William showed up to get his pullets that spring, he was so changed that at first I didn't recognize him. His clothes were dingy and hung loosely, the belt gathering in his pants like an accordion, and he looked terrible: thin, pale, and careworn. I was reassured, though, when he spoke with his characteristic self-effacing smile in the quiet, almost melodic intonation, the voice buried in the back of the throat, that is common at this end of the peninsula, where Gaelic hung on longer. The story itself, told in a few simple sentences, was restrained, uncomplaining, self-deprecating. His mother had lapsed into senility at the beginning of winter, he said, and except for some help from his brother on weekends, William had borne the burden himself, managing the farm, running the household and taking care of his increasingly difficult mother.
When we had put the pullets in the back of his truck, I said, "If there's anything I can do, let me know," as if I lived next door, instead of 10 miles away. I suppose I was trying to express my sympathy for a man who, in the midst of trouble, made no claims for himself.
Not long afterward, I had a conversation with one of his neighbors, who explained that William would lose the farm if he put his mother in the nursing home in Baddeck, as some people had advised him to do. The farm was in her name, and her property would be forfeited to the province if she became a welfare case. The neighbor told me that he had gone through a similar experience with his own mother, although there had been no problem with the farm ownership and he had had his wife and grown children to help.
"Why didn't you put her in the nursing home?" I asked.
"Well, you know yourself, there's no care like home care. And how would she get on, so far from home and only strangers around her?" He paused and smiled. "Besides, our mothers brought us into the world; at least we can see them out of it."
Early on a Saturday morning in mid-September, I drove our team and wagon the 14 miles to the Highland Village. For the first four miles, the clay roads of the backlands that the horses and I knew so well from hauling grain and logs, eelgrass, sawdust, slabs, lumber and hay - Robinson Road, the Yankee Line, the Boom Road, the Southside - are hemmed in closely by dark woods, with only two houses in ragged clearings along the way. When I turned onto the pavement of Route 223, the horses' shoes rang out loudly on the asphalt.
There are a few settlements of half a dozen houses, but for the most part, the houses are solitary, sometimes with miles of woods and old fields between. No one was up, and I didn't see a soul until I passed two men digging potatoes at Mackinnons Harbour. Rarely have I seen such perfect weather here: it was not only warm, sunny, and windless, but the air was so unusually dry that every detail, even far across the lake, was clear and bright, helping me, along with the leisurely pace of the wagon, to see things I had not noticed before: houses and barns and winding roads behind screens of trees down in hollows and on distant hills. It seemed, especially when I was looking at far-off buildings in the clear morning light, as if what I saw, emphasized by the stillness and the lack of moving figures, was a vast landscape painting that subtly changed as I moved slowly by. The world was new-made, sanctified, more real than real, exhilarating. Driving past William's farm - a pleasure to see, with its taut fences, sturdy gates and well-kept buildings - I looked for him, but he must have been in the barn doing chores, because none of the cows were out. As the wagon dipped down the hill beyond the farm, I wondered about his mother.
The Highland Village was celebrating Pioneer Day, and my wife and I were going there - she in a neighbor's truck with most of the gear - to perform such tasks as making cheese and soap. I made the soap, sitting on the grass beside a small fire, answering questions, joking with friends, having such a good time that I let the time slip by heedlessly. I should have left around 4 p.m. in order to get home before dark, so when I finally left at 5:30, I was a little worried.
Now I was driving west toward the sinking sun, and the solitude of the morning was superseded by an intermittent stream of traffic, as people were up and about at their weekend cottages along the lake. Children waved, and a woman ran out to photograph the horses. After awhile, however, there was only an occasional car, the cottagers had gone in to supper, and the road was left again to the horses and me. The day regained its special quality, warm and calm and wonderfully clear, with the light beautiful on every stone and branch. But it was a dying light; inexorably, the sun sank lower and lower, and the shadows reached out to me from far down the road.
The horses slowly climbed the hill to William's farm, where the cows were standing around in the pasture behind the barn as they always do after being milked. As I gained the crest of the hill, William stepped out from the field across the road and walked over to the wagon, looking as he used to before his troubles had started - spruce and clean, with a shining face. He told me that early in the summer, he had hired a neighbor woman to help out and that his mother was a little better now.
"We had a couple of bad times," he said, shaking his head, "and we nearly lost her, but we got her to the hospital in time. It was close there."
He said that he had heard me go by in the morning and had been waiting for me to return. "Mother always liked horses; she used to drive the team on the hay wagon. I've got her sitting in the window," he said, nodding toward the house." If you could drive in there . . . ?"
With William on the back of the wagon, I drove up the short lane as it curved around the corner of the house, and sitting by an open downstairs window was William's mother. The overwhelming impression was of whiteness - the window faced west, so the level sun shone full on the white house; the room was white; white pillows propped her up; someone stirring in the background was dressed in white; and William's mother's hair, whitest of all, streamed out from her face in a silvery aureole - to which she herself was strikingly contrasted with her dark blue robe and glittering black eyes. She remained motionless and speechless, but her eyes, in the intensity of their gaze, conveyed all the strength of her expression with so much power that I had to look away. William went over to the window, and I heard him talking to his mother about the horses when I climbed down and walked back around the corner of the house.
I waited a few minutes, looking down at the yellowed poplar leaves lying thickly in the lane, before I went back to tell William that I had to go. I had to get off the highway before dark.
As I guided the team in a wide turn around the yard, I looked back. William stood next to the window, smiling, his hand raised in farewell, and his mother was exactly as I had seen her. The dark eyes concentrated all the energy in the scene, but whether they were following the horses out of sight or were just staring ahead at the sinking sun I could not tell. I waved and drove out onto the highway. When I looked again, the barn blocked my view of the house.
I passed a man and a boy painting a shed, and an old man splitting firewood, but the shades of evening were drawing down, and I saw no one else until I came to the field where the men had been digging potatoes in the morning. One of the men was sitting leisurely in a chair on the lawn across the road, and I called out.
"How were the potatoes?"
"Good!" he called back.
At Ottawa Brook, the sun set, and the long shadows lost their sharp edges, blurring into the general dusk. The sky was still light above me, and the afterglow might last until I got off the pavement and onto the back roads. I called to the tired horses, urging them to quicken their lagging pace, urging them to press on into the darkening west. *