Amber Waves by Linda Hall ©
Silvie dried the tops of the glass jars with a damp dish cloth. Thirty-two hot jars of pickled beets now stood in precise rows right next to 24 jars of peaches and 14 jars of pickled carrots. Behind her, the pounding of the sea was occasionally interrupted by the lonely call of a sea gull. She reached to switch off the stove and almost immediately the water in the canner settled down. Next on her list were pies—apple pies for the freezer. She bake two dozen of them before she was through. She got down the Crisco and flour.
The gentle whoosh-shuuuaa, whoosh-shuuuaa, whoosh-shuuuaa of the waves reminded her of summer days and collecting shells and camping near the beach. She paused every now and again to listen. It comforted her. The sea had always comforted her. But that’s what it was supposed to do. That’s what the sign in front of the prescription counter down at the Value Drug Mart in town said that it would do. They had five different sounds you could buy on cassette: Brook Sounds, Ocean Sounds, Rain, Birds, and Night Sounds. She had picked up Ocean Sounds when she was in town yesterday. The ad said it would relieve stress. But that’s not why Silvie bought it.
Outside her window the sun glinted on the barn, reflecting light into the kitchen and momentarily blinding her. She watched their dog lope across the lawn. Someone must be coming. Silvie adjusted the blinds and saw Matt climb out of the hired man’s truck. She scrambled across the counter to switch off the tape before he heard it, and dropped two knives, a fork and the Crisco in the process.
“What are you doing home in the middle of the day?” she asked quickly bending down to retrieve the Crisco which was rolling toward him across the floor.
“What, I can’t come home in the middle of the day just to see my wife all of a sudden?” he laughed.
She heard him clomp down the basement stairs whistling. Silvie removed the cassette and flung it in the back of the cutlery drawer for the time being. There was really no reason why she didn’t want Matt to know about her Ocean Waves tape. She planned to tell him sometime, just as soon as she figured out what she would say. He would think it was quite funny.
“How’s the combining coming along?” she called down the stairs.
He mumbled something she couldn’t hear. She knew what Matt would say. He would say it was silly to spend $12 just to hear the waves for 30 minutes. You could put an empty canning jar up next to your ear and get the same effect. He was probably right. It probably wasn’t the real ocean anyway, just some synthesizer somewhere.
But Matt had never understood about the ocean. During their yearly visits to her family in Port Hardy, B.C., Silvie would walk down to the wharf and spend hours gazing out into the bay. She’d search for fishing boats she recognized, and watch the tugs pull log booms from Otter Point on the left to the light buoy on the right. Matt would walk with her, sit with her, and pretend to try to be interested in the difference between a trawler and a seiner, but it wasn’t the same for him she could tell. He soon grew bored and restless, not to mention the fact that his cowboy boots sounded hollow and out of place pounding down the streets of Port Hardy next to all the quiet rubber gum boots.
The whistler ascended the basements stairs apparently finding the tool or whatever it was he was looking for.
“I’ll bring supper out around six thirty,” she yelled after him. “We’ll all come, we’ll have a picnic.”
“Great!” he paused and stuck his head back in the screen door. “Hey, I love you!”
“I love you, too, now get out of here. I’ve got work to do, and so do you!”
Silvie was 40 years old, in love with her husband and devoted to her children, but every so often she wondered how she ever got to be a farm wife. If anyone had told the shy, skinny kid who traipsed along the beach that she would one day be living on a farm in Alberta, she would have looked up from her bucket of crabs, rocks and sea weed, and said with surprise, “a farm?” And yet that was exactly what had happened. She had three children, the oldest 13 who had never known any life but the farm. She grew an immense garden and canned or froze everything in it. During harvest she often helped with the combining until two or three a.m. or until the early morning dew made it too wet to continue. And during the winter she substitute taught in town 24 miles away.
But, every once in a long, long while she wondered what her life would have been like if she had stayed on the coast. She could have married an accountant and be living in West Vancouver. On Saturdays they would jog along the sea wall and then lunch in an little outdoor cafe along Robson. She could have married someone from her graduating class and they both could be teachers in Oak Bay and living in a huge bi-level with a double garage. Or, she could have married a back to nature artist type and be living on Salt Spring Island and raising sheep.
If the job market in 1972 had been different, any one of these scenarios could have been her life. When she graduated with a teaching degree from UVic, she sent her resume to all of the places she wanted to live—Vancouver, Victoria, Coquitlam, Sechelt. When she was turned down she moved her resumes inland—Penticton, Kelowna, Salmon Arm, Trail. Still no response. It was a tough time for brand new teachers in B.C., everyone said.
So she got a job in Woolco in Victoria and lived with her aunt. After six months on minimum wage she realized that Canada did have nine other provinces. When she saw an ad in the Vancouver Sun announcing they were interviewing in Edmonton for teachers for rural Alberta, she packed her one good outfit and set out in her old VW beetle.
She had only been to Alberta once before. When she was 11 her grandparents had taken her in their camper to the Calgary Stampede. She remembered the glaring heat, the noise and smell of the animals and the twangy music. She watched real cowboys with huge hats and flapping leather pants ride wild animals. She laughed at the clowns, but the bulls terrified her. Her grandpa bought her drippy hot dogs, cotton candy and a cowboy hat with plastic ties which fastened under her chin. She wondered where that hat was now.
Vacations in her family usually ran north-south instead of west-east. Her dad said that once you got past the Rockies there really wasn’t much to see anyway. So they never went. Instead, they drove down to Victoria, took the ferry across to Port Angeles, and camped on the rugged Washington coast, where cold waves pummeled the gray rocks. Silvie loved it there. Or, they drove over to Long Beach and rented a cabin. When she was in grade 12 she hiked the West Coast Trail with a school group. It rained a lot.
Teaching jobs weren’t quite as tight in Alberta, and she got a job teaching grade four in a small farming community. She knew it wasn’t permanent. As soon as something opened up in Vancouver she’d head back.
Then she met Matt. He was tall and gentle and funny and wore cowboy boots and blue jeans. He took her to the farm where he worked with his Dad and brothers. They walked for miles. She couldn’t imagine one family owning all this land. He pointed out the fields which had grown wheat and those which had grown canola the season before. He explained to her how it was a gamble every year as to which crop which fetch the highest price at harvest. He told her why sometimes they didn’t plant anything at all. He called that summer fallow. He introduced her to his horses, and she stroked their soft noses. He promised to take her riding sometime. Together they climbed up into the new combine, and she said it reminded her of the cockpit in the Starship Enterprise. She asked him if he had ever pressed the wrong button and found himself in outer space by mistake. And he said no because they hadn’t bought the model with the hyperspace control. It cost an extra thousand bucks.
They got into a truck which was so rusty and encrusted with mud that she was surprised when the thing actually started. They drove down to where the farm bordered a small, reedy lake. He pointed across the lake and explained that they leased that land and kept some cattle on it. He called it “insurance.” His older married brother mostly looked after the cattle, he said.
Later they sat on a rail fence beside the barn and watched the sun set. Silvie thought she had never seen anything so colorful as the streaks of orange, pink and red which completely filled the western sky. They were quiet. Matt looked past Silvie then, out past the barns and outbuildings and the animals, past the neat round stacks of hay, out to the very ends of his land, as if at some private dream. When he turned back to look at her, she felt as if her heart would burst.
They were married in the spring and moved into a mobile home on a new section of land. Here they would live until the house they planned was finished. Her mother-in-law taught her how to garden and can, and how to make the kinds of hot suppers that you could take out to the fields at harvest. Silvie was horrified the first time she watched Matt service a cow with A-I. And when it was calving time she understood precisely what Matt meant when he had said, “if they’re having trouble calving, sometimes you have to go in after them.”
Because they were struggling at first, Silvie kept her teaching job right up until after her third child was born, taking maternity leaves and going back to work as soon as she could. Her mother-in-law or sister-in-law babysat her toddlers. Now, she only subbed during the winter.
Occasionally someone would ask her if she missed B.C. and the mountains, and she would always reply, “not the mountains so much as the water.”
She dug out Ocean Sounds once more, put it back into the cassette player, and began rolling out pie crust and cutting up apples. Finally, her kitchen table and every available inch of counter space was laid with neat, round pies. It was past time to get supper started. She’d have to hurry if she planned to get it out there by six thirty like she promised. She’d have to hunt for the kids. They really would have a picnic tonight, she decided. And then she would stay to help with the combining. They had had extraordinarily good weather for harvest, but one never knew when bad weather would set in.
She climbed into to the pickup, placed the hamper of hot food beside her, and turned around and waved to her children to please sit down in back. As she drove down the familiar dirt road out into the field where Matt and the hired men were working, a white gull swooped down in front of her. She wondered about that gull. Had it flown east from Port Hardy little by little, and was now so firmly entrenched on the land that it couldn’t find its way back? Did it miss the salt smell of sea weed, the sound of a fog horn at night, the taste of fresh ocean fish? Would it ever go back to stay? Did it really want to?
More about Linda Hall: http://writerhall.com/