A Bird in the House

A Canadian novelist, who was born in Manitoba in 1926, MARGARET LAURENCEwent with her engineer husband first to Somaliland and then to Ghana. While he was employed in constructing public works, she studied the native Africans, translating their folk tales and writing about them in her short stories and novels. Two of her books, THE TOMORROW-TAMER and NEW WIND IN A DRY LAND, were published by Alfred Knopf last spring.


THE parade would be almost over by now, and I had not gone. My mother had said in a resigned voice, “All right, Vanessa, if that’s the way yon feel,” making me suffer twice as many jabs of guilt as I would have done if she had lost her temper.

She and Grandmother MacLeod had gone off, my mother pulling the low box sleigh with Roddie all dolled up in his new red snowsuit, just the sort of little kid anyone would want people to see. I sat on the lowest branch of the birch tree in our yard, not minding the snowy wind, even welcoming its punishment. I went over my reasons for not going, trying to believe they were good and sufficient, but in my heart I felt I was betraying my father. This was the first time I had stayed away from the Remembrance Day parade. I wondered if he would notice that I was not there, standing on the sidewalk at the corner of River and Main while the parade passed, and then following to the Courthouse grounds where the service was held.

I could see the whole thing in my mind. It was the same every year. The Manawaka Civic Band always led the way. They had never been able to afford full uniforms, but they had peaked navy-blue caps and sky-blue chest ribbons. They were joined on Remembrance Day by the Salvation Army band, whose uniforms seemed too ordinary for a parade, for they were the same ones the bandsmen wore every Saturday night when they played “Nearer, my God, to Thee” at the foot of River Street. The two bands never managed to practice quite enough together, so they did not keep in time too well. The Salvation Army band invariably played faster, and afterward my father would say irritably, “They play those marches just like they do hymns, blast them, as though they wouldn’t get to heaven if they didn’t hustle up.” And my mother, who had great respect for the Salvation Army because of the good work they did, would respond chidingiy, “Now, now. Ewen — ” I vowed I would never say “Now, now” to my husband or children, not that I ever intended having the latter, for I had been put off by my brother, Roderick, who was two years old, with wavy hair, and everyone said what a beautiful child. I was twelve, and no one in his right mind would have said what a beautiful child, for I was big-boned like my Grandfather Connor and had straight lanky black hair like a Blackfoot or Cree.

After the bands would come the veterans. Even thinking of them at this distance, in the white and withdrawn quiet of the birch tree, gave me a sense of painful embarrassment. I might not have minded so much if my father had not been among them. How could he go? How could he not see how they all looked? It must have been a long time since they were soldiers, for they had forgotten how to march in step. They were old — that was the thing. My father was bad enough, being almost forty, but he wasn’t a patch on Howard Tully from the drugstore, who was completely gray-haired and also fat, or Stewart MacMurchie, who was bald on the back of his head. They looked to me like imposters, plump or spindly caricatures of past warriors. I almost hated them for walking in that limping column down Main. At the Courthouse, everyone would sing “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, lest we forget, lest we forget.” Will Masterson would pick up his old army bugle and blow the “Last Post.”Then it would be over, and everyone could start gabbling once more and go home.

I jumped down from the birch bough and ran to the house, yelling, making as much noise as I could.

I’m a poor lonesome cowboy
An’ a long way from home

I stepped inside the front hall and kicked off my snow boots. I slammed the door behind me. making the dark ruby and emerald glass shake in the small leaded panes. I slid purposely on the hall rug, causing it to bunch and crinkle on the slippery polished oak of the floor. I seized the newel-post, round as a head, and spun myself to and fro on the bottom stair.

I ain’t got no father
To buy the clothes I wear.
I’m a poor lonesome . . .

At this moment my shoulders were firmly seized and shaken by a pair of hands, white and delicate and old but strong as talons.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, young lady? Grandmother MacLeod inquired, in a voice like frost on a windowpane, infinitely cold and clearly etched.

I went limp, and in a moment she took her hands away. If you struggled, she would always hold on longer.

“Gee, I never knew you were home yet.”

“I would have thought that on a day like this you might have shown a little respect and consideration, Grandmother MacLeod said, “even if you couldn’t make the effort to get cleaned up enough to go to the parade.”

I realized with surprise that she imagined this to be my reason for not going. I did not try to correct her impression. My real reason would have been even less acceptable.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly.

In some families, “please” is described as the magic word. In our house, however, it was “sorry.”

“ This isn’t an easy day for any of us,” she said.

Then I remembered that her younger son, my Uncle Roderick, had been killed in the Great War. When my father marched, and when the hymn was sung, and when that unbearably lonely tune was sounded by the one bugle and everyone forced themselves to keep absolutely still, it would be that boy of whom she was thinking. I felt the enormity of my own offense.

“Grandmother — I’m sorry.”

“So you said.”

I could not tell her I had not really said it before at all. I went into the den and found my father there. He was sitting in the leather-cushioned armchair beside the fireplace. He was not doing anything, just sitting and smoking. I stood beside him, wanting to touch the light brown hairs on his forearm, but thinking he might laugh at me or pull his arm away if I did.

“I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it.

“What for, honey?”

“For not going.”

“Oh, that. What was the matter?”

I did not want him to know, and yet I had to tell him, make him see.

“They look silly,” I blurted. “Marching like that.”

For a minute I thought he was going to be angry. It would have been a relief to me if he had been. Instead, he fixed his eyes above the mantelpiece where the sword hung, the handsome and evillooking crescent in its carved bronze sheath that some ancestor had once brought from the northern frontier of India.

“Is that the way it looks to you?” he said.

I felt in his voice some hurt, something that was my fault. I wanted to make everything all right between us, to convince him that I understood, even if I did not. I prayed that Grandmother MacLeod would stay put in her room, and that my mother would take a long time in the kitchen giving Roddie his lunch. I wanted my father to myself, so I could prove to him that I cared more about him than any of the others did. I wanted to speak in some way that would be more poignant and comprehending than anything of which my mother could possibly be capable. But I did not know how.

“You were right there when Uncle Roderick got killed, weren’t you?” I began uncertainly.


“How old was he, Dad?”

“Eighteen,” my father said.

Unexpectedly, that day came into intense being for me. He had had to watch his own brother die, not in the antiseptic calm of some hospital, but out in the open, the stretches of mud I had seen in his snapshots. He would not have known what to do. He would just have had to stand there and look at it, whatever that might mean. I looked at my father with a kind of horrified awe, and then I began to cry. I had forgotten about impressing him with my perception. Now I needed him to console me for this unwanted glimpse of the pain he had once known.

“Hey, cut it out, honey,” he said, embarrassed. “It was bad, but it wasn’t all as bad as that part There were a few other things.”

“Like what?” I said, not believing him.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied evasively. “Most of us were pretty young, you know, I and the boys I joined up with. None of us had ever been away from Manawaka before. Those of us who came back mostly came back here, or else went no further away from town than Winnipeg. So when we were overseas, that was the only time most of us were ever a long way from home.”

“Did you want to be?” I asked, shocked.

“Oh, well,” my father said uncomfortably. “It was kind of interesting to see a few other places for a change, that’s all.”

Grandmother MacLeod was standing in the doorway.

“Beth’s called you twice for lunch, Ewen. Are you deaf, you and Vanessa?”

“Sorry,” my father and I said simultaneously.

Then we went upstairs to wash our hands.

THAT winter my mother returned to her old job as nurse in my father’s medical practice. She was able to do this only because of Noreen.

“Grandmother MacLeod says we’re getting a maid,”I said to my father, accusingly, one morning. “We’re not, are we?”

“Believe you me, on what I’m going to be paying her,” my father growled, “she couldn’t be called anything as classy as a maid. Hired girl would be more like it.”

“Now, now, Ewen,” my mother put in, “it’s not as if we were cheating her or anything. You know she wants to live in town, and I can certainly see why, stuck out there on the farm, and her father hardly ever letting her come in. What kind of life is that for a girl?”

“I don’t like the idea of your going back to work, Beth,”my father said. “I know you’re fine now, but you’re not exactly the robust type.”

“You can’t afford to hire a nurse any longer. It’s all very well to say the Depression won’t last forever; probably it won’t, but what else can we do for now?”

“I’m damned if I know,” my father admitted. “Beth-”


They both seemed to have forgotten about me. It was at breakfast, which we always ate in the kitchen, and I sat rigidly on my chair, pretending to ignore and thus snub their withdrawal from me. I glared at the window, but it was so thickly plumed and scrolled with frost that I could not see out. I glanced back to my parents. My father had not replied, and my mother was looking at him in that anxious and half-frowning way she had recently developed.

“What is it, Ewen?” Her voice had the same nervous sharpness it bore sometimes when she would say to me, “For mercy’s sake, Vanessa, what is it now?” as though whatever was the matter, it was bound to be the last straw.

My father spun his sterling silver serviette ring, engraved with his initials, slowly around on the table.

“I never thought things would turn out like this, did you?”

“Please,” my mother said in a low, strained voice, “please, Ewen, let’s not start all this again. I can’t take it.”

“All right,” my father said. “Only — ”

“The MacLeods used to have money, and now they don’t,” my mother cried. “Well, they’re not alone. Do you think all that matters to me, Ewen? What I can’t bear is to see you forever reproaching yourself. As if it were your fault.”

“I don’t think it’s the comedown,” my father said. “If I were somewhere else, I don’t think it would matter to me, either, except where you’re concerned. But I suppose you’d work too hard wherever you were — it’s bred into you. If you haven’t got anything to slave away at, you’ll sure as hell invent something.”

“What do you think I should do, let the house go to wrack and ruin? That would go over well with your mother, wouldn’t it?”

“That’s just it,” my father said. “It’s the damned house all the time. I haven’t only taken on my father’s house, I’ve taken on everything that goes with it, apparently. Sometimes I really wonder — ”

“Well, it’s a good thing I’ve inherited some practicality even if you haven’t,” my mother said. “I’ll say that for the Connors-they aren’t given to brooding, thank the Lord. Do you want your egg poached or scrambled?”

“Scrambled,” my father said. “All I hope is that this Noreen doesn’t get married straightaway, that’s all.”

“She won’t,” my mother said. “Who’s she going to meet who could afford to marry?”

“I marvel at you, Beth,” my father said. “You look as though a puff of wind would blow you away. But underneath, by God, you’re all hardwood.”

“Don’t talk stupidly,” my mother said. “All I hope is that she won’t object to taking your mother’s breakfast up on a tray.”

“That’s right,” my father said angrily. “Rub it in.”

“Oh, Ewen, I’m sorry!” my mother cried, her face suddenly stricken. “I don’t know why I say these things. I didn’t mean to.”

“I know,” my father said. “Here, cut it out, honey. Just for God’s sake, please don’t cry.”

“I’m sorry,” my mother repeated, blowing her nose.

“We’re both sorry,” my father said. “Not that that changes anything.”

After my father had gone, I got down from my chair and went to my mother.

“I don’t want you to go back to the office. I don’t want a hired giri here. I’ll hate her.”

My mother sighed, making me feel that I was placing an intolerable burden on her, and yet making me resent having to feel this weight. She looked tired, as she often did these days. Her tiredness bored me, made me want to attack her for it.

“Catch me getting along with a dumb old hired girl,” I threatened.

“Do what you like,” my mother said abruptly. “What can I do about it?”

And then, of course, I felt bereft, not knowing which way to turn.

MY FATHER need not have worried about Noreen’s getting married. She was, as it turned out, interested not in boys but in God. My mother was relieved about the boys but alarmed about God.

“It isn’t natural,” she said, “for a girl of seventeen. Do you think she’s all right mentally, Ewen?”

My parents, along with Grandmother MacLeod, went to the United Church every Sunday, and I was made to go to Sunday school in the church basement, where there were small red chairs which humiliatingly resembled kindergarten furniture, and pictures of Jesus wearing a white sheet and surrounded by a whole lot of well-dressed kids whose mothers obviously had not suffered them to come unto Him until every face and ear was properly scrubbed. Our religious observances also included grace at meals, when my father would mumble “For what we are about to receive the Lord make us truly thankful Amen,” running the words together as though they were one long word. My mother approved of these rituals, which seemed decent and moderate to her. Noreen’s religion, however, was a different matter. Noreen belonged to the Tabernacle of the Risen and Reborn, and she had got up to testify no less than seven times in the past two years, she told us. My mother, who could not imagine anyone voluntarily making a public spectacle of himself, was profoundly shocked by this revelation.

“Don’t worry,” my father soothed her. “She’s all right. She’s just had kind of a dull life, that’s all.”

My mother shrugged and went on worrying and trying to help Noreen without hurting her feelings, by tactful remarks about the advisability of modulating one’s voice when singing hymns and about the fact that there was plenty of hot water so Noreen really didn’t need to hesitate about taking a bath. She even bought a razor and a packet of blades and whispered to Noreen that any girl who wore transparent blouses so much would probably like to shave under her arms. None of these suggestions had the slightest effect on Noreen. She did not cease belting out hymns at the top of her voice, she bathed once a fortnight, and the sorrel-colored hair continued to bloom like a thicket of Indian paintbrush in her armpits.

Grandmother MacLeod refused to speak to Noreen. This caused Noreen a certain amount of bewilderment until she finally hit on an answer.

“Your poor grandma,” she said. “She is deaf as a post. These things are sent to try us here on earth, Vanessa. But if she makes it into heaven, I’ll bet you anything she will hear clear as a bell.

Noreen and I talked about heaven quite a lot, and also hell. Noreen had an intimate and detailed knowledge of both places. She not only knew what they looked like, she even knew how big they were. Heaven was seventy-seven thousand miles square, and it had four gates, each one made out of a different kind of precious jewel. The Pearl Gate, the Topaz Gate, the Amethyst Gate, the Ruby Gate —Noreen would reel them off, all the gates of heaven. I told Noreen they sounded like poetry, but she was puzzled by my reaction, and said I shouldn’t talk that way. If you said poetry, it sounded like it was just made up and not really so, Noreen said.

Hell was larger than heaven, and when I asked why, thinking of it as something of a comedown for God, Noreen said naturally it had to be bigger because there were a darn sight more people there than in heaven. Hell was one hundred and ninety million miles deep and was in perpetual darkness, like a cave or under the sea. Even the flames (this was the awful thing) did not give off any light.

I DID not actually believe in Noreen’s doctrines, but the images which they conjured up began to inhabit my imagination. Noreen’s fund of exotic knowledge was not limited to religion, although in a way it all seemed related. She could do many things which had a spooky tinge to them. Once when she was making a cake, she found we had run out of eggs. She went outside and gathered a bowl of fresh snow and used it instead. The cake rose like a charm, and I stared at Noreen as though she were a sorceress. In fact, I began to think of her as a sorceress, someone not quite of this earth. There was nothing unearthly about her broad shoulders and hips and her forest of dark red hair, but even these features took on a slightly sinister significance to me. I no longer saw her through the eyes or the expressed opinions of my mother and father, as a girl who had quit school at grade eight and whose life on the farm had been endlessly drab. I knew the truth —Noreen’s life had not been drab at all, for she dwelt in a world of violent splendors, a world filled with angels whose wings of delicate light bore real feathers, and saints shining like the dawn, and prophets who spoke in ancient tongues, and the ecstatic souls of the saved, as well as denizens of the lower regions: mean-eyed imps, and crooked clovenhoofed monsters, and beasts with the bodies of swine and the human heads of murderers, and lovely depraved jezebels torn by dogs through all eternity.

The middle layer of creation, our earth, was equally full of grotesque presences, for Noreen believed strongly in the visitation of ghosts and the communication with spirits. She could prove this with her Ouija board. We would both place our fingers lightly on the indicator, and it would skim across the board and spell out answers to our questions. I did not believe wholeheartedly in the Ouija board either, but I was cautious about the kind of question I asked, in case the answer would turn out unfavorable and I would be unable to forget it.

One day Noreen told me she could also make a table talk. We used the small table in my bedroom, and sure enough, it lifted very slightly under our fingertips and tapped once for yes, twice for no. Noreen asked if her Aunt Ruthie would get better from the kidney operation, and the table replied no. I withdrew my hands.

“I don’t want to do it anymore.”

“Gee, what’s the matter, Vanessa?” Noreen’s plain, placid face creased in a frown. “We only just begun.”

“I have to do my homework.”

My heart lurched as I said this. I was certain Noreen would know I was lying, and that she would know not by any ordinary perception, either. But her attention had been caught by something else, and I was thankful, at least until I saw what it was.

My bedroom window was not opened in the coldest weather. The storm window, which was fitted outside as an extra wall against the winter, had three small circular holes in its frame so that some fresh air could seep into the house. The sparrow must have been floundering in the new snow on the roof, for it had crawled in through one of these holes and was now caught between the two layers of glass. I could not bear the panic of the trapped bird, and before I realized what I was doing, I had thrown open the bedroom window. I was not releasing the sparrow into any better situation, I soon saw, for instead of remaining quiet and allowing us to catch it in order to free it, it began flying blindly around the room, hitting the lampshade, brushing against the walls, its wings seeming to spin faster and faster.

I was petrified. I thought I would pass out if those palpitating wings touched me. There was something in the bird’s senseless movements that revolted me. I also thought it was going to damage itself, break one of those thin wing bones, perhaps, and then it would be lying on the floor, dying, like the pimpled and horribly featherless baby birds we saw sometimes on the sidewalks in the spring when they had fallen out of their nests. I was not any longer worried about the sparrow. I wanted only to avoid the sight of it lying broken on the floor. Viciously, I thought that if Noreen said, “God sees the little sparrow fall,” I would kick her in the shins. She did not, however, say this.

“A bird in the house means a death in the house,” Noreen remarked.

Shaken, I pulled my glance away from the whirling wings and looked at Noreen. “What?”

“That’s what I’ve heard said, anyhow.”

The sparrow had exhausted itself. It lay on the floor, spent and trembling. I could not bring myself to touch it. Noreen bent and picked it up. She cradled it with great gentleness between her cupped hands. Then we took it downstairs, and when I had opened the back door, Noreen set the bird free.

“Poor little scrap,” she said, and I felt struck to the heart, knowing she had been concerned all along about the sparrow, while I, perfidiously, in the chaos of the moment, had been concerned only about myself.

“Wanna do some with the Ouija board, Vanessa?” Noreen asked.

I shivered a little, perhaps only because of the blast of cold air which had come into the kitchen when the door was opened.

“No thanks, Noreen. Like I said, I got my homework to do. But thanks all the same.”

“That’s OK,” Noreen said in her guileless voice. “Anytime.”

But whenever she mentioned the Ouija board or the talking table after that, I always found some excuse not to consult these oracles.

Do YOU want to come to church with me this evening, Vanessa?” my father asked.

“How come you’re going to the evening service?" I inquired.

“Well, we didn’t go this morning. We went snowshoeing instead, remember? I think your grandmother was a little bit put out about it. She went alone this morning. I guess it wouldn’t hurt you and me to go now.”

We walked through the dark, along the white streets, the snow squeaking dryly under our feet.

The streetlights were placed at long intervals along the sidewalks, and around each pole the circle of flimsy light created glistening points of blue and crystal on the crusted snow. I would have liked to take my father’s hand, as I used to do, but I was too old for that now. I walked beside him, taking long steps so he would not have to walk more slowly on my account.

The sermon bored me, and I began leafing through the hymnary for entertainment. I must have drowsed, for the next thing I knew, my father was prodding me, and we were on our feet for the closing hymn.

Near the Cross, near the Cross,
Be my glory ever,
Till my ransomed soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.

I knew the tune well, so I sang loudly for the first verse, but the music to that hymn is somber, and all at once the words themselves seemed too dreadful to be sung. I stopped singing, my throat knotted. I thought I was going to cry, but I did not know why, except that the song recalled to me my Grandmother Connor, who had died the year before. She had been a very religious woman, but not in any sanctimonious way, and we had all loved her, even Grandfather Connor, who did not seem like the sort of person who would love anybody. I wondered why her soul needed to be ransomed. If God did not think she was good enough just as she was, then I did not have much use for His opinion. “Rest beyond the river” — was that what had happened to her? She had believed in heaven, but I did not think that rest beyond the river was quite what she had had in mind. To think of her in Noreen’s flashy heaven, though — that was even worse. Someplace where nobody ever got annoyed or had to be smoothed down and placated, someplace where there were never any family scenes —• that would have suited my Grandmother Connor. Maybe she wouldn’t have minded a certain amount of rest beyond the river at that.

When we had the silent prayer, I looked at my father. He sat with his head bowed and his eyes closed. He was frowning deeply, and I could see the pulse in his temple. I wondered then what he believed. I did not have any real idea what it might be. When he raised his head, he did not look uplifted or anything like that. He merely looked tired. Then Reverend McKee pronounced the benediction, and we could go home.

“What do you think about all that stuff, Dad?” I asked hesitantly, as we walked.

“What stuff, honey?”

“Oh, heaven and hell, and like that.”

My father laughed. “Have you been listening to Noreen too much? Well, I don’t know. I don’t think they’re actual places. Maybe they stand for something that happens all the time here, or else doesn’t happen. It’s kind of hard to explain. I guess I’m not so good at explanations.”

Nothing seemed to have been made any clearer to me. I reached out and took his hand, not caring that he might think this a babyish gesture.

“I hate that hymn!”

“Good Lord,” my father said in astonishment. “Why, Vanessa?”

But I did not know and so could not tell him.

MANY people in Manawaka had flu that winter, so my father and Doctor Cates were kept extremely busy. I had flu myself, and spent a week in bed, vomiting only the first day and after that enjoying poor health, as my mother put it, with Noreen bringing me ginger ale and orange juice, and each evening my father putting a wooden tongue depressor into my mouth and peering down my throat, then smiling and saying he thought I might live after all.

Then my father got sick himself and had to stay home and go to bed. This was such an unusual occurrence that it amused me.

“Doctors shouldn’t get sick,” I told him.

“You’re right,” he said. “That was pretty bad management.”

“Run along now, dear,” my mother said.

That night I woke and heard voices in the upstairs hall. When I went out, I found my mother and Grandmother MacLeod, both in their dressing gowns. With them was Doctor Cates. I did not go immediately to my mother, as I would have done only a year before. I stood in the doorway of my room, squinting against the sudden light.

“Mother, what is it?”

She turned, and momentarily I saw the look on her face before she erased it and put on a contrived calm.

“It’s all right,” she said. “Doctor Cates has just come to have a look at Daddy. You go on back to sleep.”

The wind was high that night, and I lay and listened to it rattling the storm windows and making the dry and winter-stiffened vines of the Virginia creeper scratch like small persistent claws against the red brick. In the morning, my mother told me that my father had developed pneumonia.

Doctor Cates did not think it would be safe to move my father to the hospital. My mother began sleeping in the spare bedroom, and after she had been there for a few nights, I asked if I could sleep in there too. I thought she would be bound to ask me why, and I did not know what I would say, but she only nodded, and in some way her easy agreement upset me.

That night Doctor Cates came again, bringing with him one of the nurses from the hospital. My mother stayed upstairs with them. I sat with Grandmother MacLeod in the living room. That was the last place in the world I wanted to be, but I thought she would be offended if I went off. She sat as straight and rigid as a totem pole, and embroidered away at the needlepoint cushion cover she was doing. I perched on the edge of the chesterfield and kept my eyes fixed on The White Company by Conan Doyle, and from time to time I turned a page. I had already read it three times, but luckily Grandmother MacLeod did not know that. At nine o’clock she looked at her gold brooch watch, which she always wore pinned to her dress, and told me to go to bed, so I did that.

I wakened in darkness. At first, it seemed to me that I was in my own bed, and everything was as usual, with my parents in their room, and Roddie curled up in the crib in his room, and Grandmother MacLeod sleeping with her mouth open in her enormous spool bed, surrounded by half a dozen framed photos of Uncle Roderick and only one of my father, and Noreen snoring fitfully in the room next to mine, with the dark flames of her hair spreading out across the pillow, and the pink and silver motto cards from the Tabernacle stuck with adhesive tape onto the wall beside her bed: Lean on Him, Emmanuel Is My Refuge, Rock of Ages Cleft for Me.

Then in the total night around me, I heard a sound. It was my mother, and she was crying, not loudly at all but from somewhere very deep inside her. I sat up in bed. Everything seemed to have stopped, not only time but my own heart and blood as well. Then my mother noticed that I was awake.

I did not ask her, and she did not tell me anything. There was no need. She held me in her arms, or I held her, I am not certain which. And after a while the first mourning stopped, too, as everything does sooner or later, for when the limits of endurance have been reached, then people must sleep.

IN THE days following my father’s death, I stayed close beside my mother, and this was only partly for my own consoling. I also had the feeling that she needed my protection. I did not know from what, or what I could possibly do, but something held me there. Reverend McKee called, and I sat with my grandmother and my mother in the living room. My mother told me I did not need to stay unless I wanted to, but I refused to go. What I thought chiefly was that he would speak of the healing power of prayer and all that, and it would be bound to make my mother cry again. And, in fact, it happened in just that way, but when it actually came, I could not protect her from this assault. I could only sit there and pray my own prayer, which was that he would go away quickly.

My mother tried not to cry unless she was alone or with me. I also tried, but neither of us was entirely successful. Grandmother MacLeod, on the other hand, was never seen crying, not even the day of my father’s funeral. But that day, when we had returned to the house and she had taken off her black velvet overshoes and her heavy sealskin coat with its black fur that was the softest thing I had ever touched, she stood in the hallway and for the first time she looked unsteady. When I reached out instinctively toward her, she sighed.

“That’s right,” she said. “You might just take my arm while I go upstairs, Vanessa.”

That was the most my Grandmother MacLeod ever gave in, to anyone’s sight. I left her in her bedroom, sitting on the straight chair beside her bed and looking at the picture of my father that had been taken when he graduated from medical college. Maybe she was sorry now that she had only the one photograph of him, but whatever she felt, she did not say.

I went down into the kitchen. I had scarcely spoken to Noreen since my father’s death. This had not been done on purpose. I simply had not seen her. I had not really seen anyone except my mother. Looking at Noreen now, I suddenly recalled the sparrow. I felt physically sick, remembering the fearful darting and plunging of those wings, and the fact that it was I who had opened the window and let it in. Then an inexplicable fury took hold of me, some terrifying need to hurt, burn, destroy. Absolutely without warning, either to her or to myself, I hit Noreen as hard as I could. When she swung around, appalled, I hit out at her once more, my arms and legs flailing. Her hands snatched at my wrists, and she held me, but I continued to struggle, fighting blindly, my eyes tightly closed, as though she were a prison all around me and I was battling to get out. Finally, too shocked at myself to go on, I went limp in her grasp, and she let me drop to the floor.

“Vanessa! I never done one single solitary thing to you, and here you go hitting and scratching me like that! What in the world has got into you?”

I began to say I was sorry, which was certainly true, but I did not say it. I could not say anything.

“You’re not yourself, what with your dad and everything,” she excused me. “I been praying every night that your dad is with God, Vanessa.

I know he wasn’t actually saved in the regular way, but still and all —”

“Shut up,” I said.

Something in my voice made her stop talking.

I rose from the floor and stood in the doorway.

“He didn’t need to be saved,” I went on coldly, distinctly. “And he is not in heaven, because there is no heaven. And it doesn’t matter, see? It doesn’t matter!”

Noreen’s face looked peculiarly vulnerable now, her high, wide cheekbones and puzzled childish eyes, and the thick russet tangle of her hair. I had not hurt her much before, when I hit her. But I had hurt her now, hurt her in some inexcusable way. Yet I sensed, too, that already she was gaining some satisfaction out of feeling sorrowful about my disbelief.

I went upstairs to my room. Momentarily I felt a sense of calm, almost of acceptance. Rest beyond the river. I knew now what that meant. It meant Nothing. It meant only silence, forever.

Then I lay down on my bed and spent the last of my tears, or what seemed then to be the last. Because, despite what I had said to Noreen, it did matter. It mattered, but there was no help for it.

EERYTHING changed after my father’s death. The MacLeod house could not be kept up any longer. My mother sold it to a local merchant who subsequently covered over with yellow stucco the deep red of the brick. Something about the house had always made me uneasy — its tower room, where Grandmother MacLeod’s potted plants drooped in a lethargic and lime-green confusion, its long stairways and hidden places, the attic, which I had always imagined to be dwelt in by the spirits of the family dead, the gigantic portrait of the Duke of Wellington that hung at the top of the stairs. It was never an endearing house. And yet when it was no longer ours, and when the Virginia creeper had been torn down and the dark walls turned to a light marigold, I went out of my way to avoid walking past, for it seemed to me that the house had lost the stern dignity that was its very heart.

Noreen went back to the farm. My mother and brother and I moved into Grandfather Connor’s house. Grandmother MacLeod went to live with Aunt Morag in Winnipeg. It was harder for her than for anyone else, because so much of her life was bound up with the MacLeod house. She was fond of Aunt Morag, but that hardly counted. Her men were gone, her husband and her sons, and a family whose men are gone is no family at all. The day she left, my mother and I did not know what to say. Grandmother MacLeod looked even smaller than usual in her fur coat and her black velvet toque. She became extremely agitated about trivialities, and fussed about the possibility of the taxi not arriving on time. She had forbidden us to accompany her to the station. About my father, or the house, or anything important, she did not say a word. Then, when the taxi had finally arrived, she turned to my mother.

“Roddie will have Ewen’s seal ring, of course, with the MacLeod crest on it,” she said. “But there is another seal as well, don’t forget, the larger one with the crest and motto. It’s meant to be worn on a watch chain. I keep it in my jewel box. It was Roderick’s. Roddie’s to have that, too, when I die. Don’t let Morag talk you out of it.”

During World War II, when I was seventeen years old and in love with an airman who did not love me, and desperately anxious to get away from Manawaka and from my grandfather’s house, I happened one day to be going through the old mahogany desk that had belonged to my father. It had a number of small drawers inside, and I accidentally pulled one of these all the way out. Behind it there was another drawer, one I had not known about. Curious, I opened it. Inside, there was a letter written on almost transparent paper in a cramped, angular handwriting. It began, Cher Monsieur Ewen. . . . That was all I could make out, for the writing was nearly impossible to read and my French was not good. It was dated 1919. With it, there was a picture of a girl, looking absurdly old-fashioned to my eyes, like the faces on long-discarded calendars or chocolate boxes. But beneath the dated quality of the photograph, she seemed neither expensive nor cheap. She looked like what she probably had been — an ordinary, middle-class girl, but in another country. She wore her hair in long ringlets, and her mouth was shaped into a sweetly sad posed smile like Mary Pickford’s. That was all. There was nothing else in the drawer.

I looked for a long time at the girl, and hoped she had meant some momentary and unexpected freedom. I remembered what he had said to me after I hadn’t gone to the Remembrance Day parade.

“What are you doing, Vanessa?” my mother called from the kitchen.

“Nothing,” I replied.

I took the letter and picture outside and burned them. That was all I could do for him. Now that we might have talked together, it was many years too late. Perhaps it would not have been possible anyway. I did not know. All I knew was that I understood at last what the bird in the house had really been.

As I watched the smile of the girl turn into scorched paper, I grieved for my father as though he had just died now.