An excerpt from
In My Father's House
But Roper was no fool. He had straightaway known Stevie was going to have problems believing what he had been trying to say. He would have to see it with his own eyes. Hear it with his own ears. Take it in and spit it out of his own senses a few times until it began to feel alive. He hadn’t anticipated that Stevie would go blab to Jimmy. Although thinking back on it now, it seemed perfectly logical that he would have done so. Stevie always offered everything to Jimmy—hoping to gain that small pat of favor—completely unaware that each time he did so he also gave away another small piece of himself.
“Hey. Hey, Roper. Slow down, will ya?” Stevie’s voice cut sharply through Roper’s thoughts and he stopped so they could catch up.
He watched without amusement as Stevie scuttled up the hill, pigeon-toed feet almost crisscrossing in front of him so that he was in an ever-present danger of tripping over himself. Roper knew Stevie already held a very small thimble-full of confidence in most situations and lacked even that in the forest.
He’d read far too many stories about wolves and their thirst for hunting down the weakest and the smallest member of the group.
Roper began to relax a little as he led them deeper into the forest. This was his place. His home and, although he’d lost it for a while, peace was beginning to return to him now as gently as the sun’s warmth after a rain. He retreated far into his mind; followed the muffled drum of his feet deep inside his thoughts.
Long stretches of time passed when he forgot he wasn’t alone. But then a branch would snap behind him, thorns would scratch at a canvas jacket, or he would hear the tumbling-thump of someone’s stumble and he would become aware again of the two figures following him closely.
The trees grew denser. Old fir and spruce hanging with black moss like ancient men in tattered cloaks. Roper could feel Jimmy and Stevie’s apprehension growing thick around him. Without him, they were lost. Neither of them would admit that, but all three of them knew it was true. If Roper chose to bolt and run off it would be days, maybe even weeks until they found their way back out of the forest again. He smiled at the thought. He liked the full swell of power that surged through him. He wondered if Jimmy would eventually break down and cry; he knew Stevie would. Maybe they would get eaten by a wolf or a cougar or a bear and disappear. Become a part of his forest forever. Part of its cycle of life.
The heaviness of the forest began to ease into stands of lean-trunked poplars and graceful birch trees. A small swampy meadow opened up suddenly before them. They started across it, each one glancing every so often at the surrounding forest which gave the feeling of a closed curtain with they themselves on stage.
“Jee-aces-almighty. Why didn’t you tell me we had to walk halfway to China just to see this bloody thing?” Jimmy complained.
“Shh,” Roper said. He drew to a stop, eyes shiny and alert as he scanned the treetops.
Stevie and Jimmy slid their eyes between Roper and the trees.
“What?” Jimmy said, anxiety rising to the top of his voice. “What the hell you looking at, Roper? You see fairies fluttering around up there or what?” He spat on the ground and kicked at the spot with his boot.
Roper burst out laughing. “No. I don’t see any fairies, Jimmy. Why? Do you?”
Stevie tittered. His sense of balance was off here in the woods where Roper almost seemed to wear the upper hand.
Jimmy smacked him with a glare. If Stevie had been possessed of a tail, he’d have stuck it between his legs.
“Only fairies I see around here is you two.”
Jimmy had his fists coiled on each side of him. A cobra in each hand, poised to strike. He looked ready to clobber Roper. Sink one fist then the other into his laughing face. But something held him back. Roper suspected it was because, although Jimmy had undeniably bashed him a good one back in grade three, other than a slight curve to Roper’s nose, nothing else had really changed.
“Look,” Roper said, pointing up into the trees.
Jimmy and Stevie followed the path of his finger.
“What? Ain’t nothing out there.”
“Ya there is, Jimmy. Just look.”
Jimmy rolled his eyes, obviously trying to look disinterested, but ended up staring hard into the trees once again.
“Ya got yourself an imagination bigger than the town library, Roper. Everyone says so, ya know.”
Roper shrugged the abrasive accusation from his shoulders.
“Ya do, Roper. Just like our last campout. Darn near got us all killed with that balarky you pulled....”
Roper held silent, his eyes fixated on the trees. Almost magically something began to discern itself from the glossy-green of the leaves and he pointed it out.
Jimmy shook his head with disbelief.
“Gaw! Are you joking? That? Don’t tell me you dragged us all the way out here just to see an old crow’s nest.”
“Ain’t a crow’s nest, Jimmy. It’s a raven’s.”
“Crow. Raven. I don’t give a care if it’s a porcupine nest. I should thump your ass dragging me all the way out here.”
Roper nodded distractedly. High above them a raven swooped and soared, a metallic purple glint shimmering off its feathers as it landed in the tree.
“Look, Roper. Whoopee-wow. A crow in a tree. Ain’t I glad I wasted half a bloody day tromping through the forest to see that. Hey, maybe you can bring a whole wagonload of people out here to see your crow. Maybe charge them admission so ya can make some money while you’re at it.”
“Ain’t a crow, Jimmy. Told you. It’s a raven.”
“Crow. Raven. Same bloody thing. Just a dumb ugly bird.”
“Raven’s ain’t dumb. They’re real smart actually.”
“Ain’t so smart when I use them for target practice,” Jimmy grinned.
Roper sighed. “They are smart. Sometimes they even wash their food before they eat.”
“Gaw! Get off with you. Why you always gotta go and make all that bullshit up for anyhow?”
“Do they really wash their food?” Stevie asked.
Jimmy eyed Roper warily.
“How do you know?”
“With your own eyes?”
“I don’t believe ya neither, Roper. Ain’t no birds do that.”
“So, this is all you wanted me to see? A bird nest in a tree?”
“Ya. I guess so.”
“That’s ‘shore a bum-steer of a surprise, Roper.”
Stevie stuck his hands in his pocket and dropped his head down. Roper felt a little tug of guilt. He knew Stevie would have spent the last couple of days building up the surprise for Jimmy. Had probably even added in a couple of things of his own that Roper hadn’t quite said. He was clearly disappointed, already wondering aloud how he could make this waste of time up to Jimmy.
“There’s baby ravens in it.”
Jimmy and Stevie perked up.
“So, I want to get one. Bring it down.”
“What for?” Jimmy asked, openly intrigued.
Roper looked at Jimmy, then Stevie, then back to Jimmy.
“So we can teach it to talk.”
“Yaw!” Jimmy exploded, stepping back and stomping around in a circle, holding his head like he’d been hit. “Talk? What’s wrong with you? You can’t teach a bird to talk you numb-nuts.”
“That right?” Roper countered calmly.
“Ya. That’s right-bloody-right.”
“What about parrots then? They talk.”
Jimmy looked up at Roper, his jaw angling for words. “Ya, well, well, that’s different. Everyone knows parrots can talk. Come on, Stevie. I’m going home.”
Stevie vacillated as he watched Jimmy stomp off across the meadow.
“You’re just fooling with us, Roper. Right?”
Roper shook his head.
“Come on, Roper. Talking birds? That’s a bunch of bull—”
Roper held his eye.
Stevie anxiously looked once more at the trees, then took off across the meadow in his tottering, loping gait.
“I’ll see ya in the morning, Roper. Don’t be late.”
Roper sighed and slowly started after them.
What he really wanted to do was to lie down in one of the hollows of the meadow and sleep. But he knew he could not let them travel through the forest alone. They would be lost in no time. They had few skills to read the rocks, trees, stumps, logs, skulls, nests and hills the way he could. Each one as carefully laid out as road signs in his mind. He crossed to the edge of the forest. A fragile breeze was once again beginning to fan the day. He stopped to listen. From high up in the trees he could hear the unmistakable sound of voices whispering.