From The Outlander, published by Anansi in 2007. The Outlander, Gil Adamson’s fourth book, won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2008.
The widow realized she had been only half listening. She glanced at her benefactor, expecting to see her lost in her own thoughts too. But there was the feral face, watching intently, the eyes moving back and forth as if reading a book. The old woman only talked so that she could observe.
“It was dark much of the winter, and cold. We women spent time in our beds after the chores, just to keep warm. We sat together with the sheets pulled up to our chins, and the dogs lay at our feet and the cats crawled in under the blankets. We all had fleas. You simply lived with that fact.
“One spring, we went off to Winnipeg to buy a new stove. We had a cart and two massive oxen that together could pull almost a ton. They had the ridiculous names of Maxwell and Minnie. I was terrified one of them might step on me and kill me. As they walked past you, the ground shook. My father had purchased this pair of monsters from a man outside Russell. They were tremendously stupid, gentle animals with huge woolly heads. They looked prehistoric. Well, we lumbered along all day and through the dusk into night. There was no moon overhead, nothing to show us our way, but we all trusted in my father. I remember we were lying under many blankets, and the moon was completely blurred by mist, and beautiful, you know? So I went to sleep. Now, when I awoke, it was to the most terrific uproar, my parents shouting, the other girls screaming, and the cart leaping as if the ground itself had begun to tear apart. I realized that we were speeding through the trees at top speed, the oxen apparently gone mad. It was all I could do to seize my younger sister and hold us both to the floor of the cart.”
“What was it?” the widow said.
The bird lady smiled to see how well her tale had taken hold. “Well, I peeped my head over the railing and realized the oxen were charging toward a small light, a house perhaps, I couldn’t tell at first. And then I could see it was a barn. Alone on a frozen field, surrounded by trackless forest, was a farm, and the oxen had found it. In fact, it was their home. This was the very same farmer who had sold them to my father. Without the moon to guide him, my father had drifted too close to Russell, and the oxen had smelled home and made for it, with a vengeance. A pair of oxen can move pretty quickly when they see oats in their future. It makes sense now, doesn’t it?
“The farmer and his wife were nice people, but perhaps a little childish. They put us up for the night and fed our oxen. The wife gave us biscuits and told my sister ghost stories that failed to frighten her but kept her up all night pondering the mysteries of death. She wouldn’t let me sleep, and I was at my wits’ end to shut her up. I remember sitting up and hissing, ‘Why don’t you just go ahead and die then, and let me sleep!’ Finally, in the morning, my mother’s beloved cat could not be found. We all went searching without success for almost an hour, until finally a plaintive mewing was heard, and we found him pressed between our hosts’ mattresses. The wife had hoped to keep him. I still remember her tears as my mother carried the miserable, limp animal to the cart in the frigid morning and placed him in his cage.”
“Your mother kept the cat in a cage?
“That strikes you as odd? I suppose it was odd. But we’d be here all night if I tried to explain my mother’s mind. I’m not even sure I could.”