Mr. Wiley waddled up our stone path, walking to the fractured beat of his walking stick. He is a man who can be heard long before he is ever seen.
“Weeds,” he gasped when I opened the door. He has the corrugated voice of a lifelong smoker. Laura’s biggest fear is that he’ll collapse in her arms. Smothered by an old man in overalls, she predicts.
“Weeds,” Mr. Wiley repeated, clutching a large, brown envelope. “Watch yourself. They’re sprouting between your cracks.” He gestured with his walking stick, blissfully unaware of any double entendre.
It was true. Green tufts scattered over the walk, like patches of unsightly, unshaven hair. When we first moved in we were anxious to keep the house clean and bright, postcard neat. We planted flowers, painted the eaves, built a two-storey birdhouse. Now the fence is peeling in a bad way and the mailbox leans to one side.
I looked at Mr. Wiley and nodded the way everyone around here nods: you let your head drop and slowly chew the inside of one cheek.
“We’ll be sure to look after it as soon as we get back.”
Now it was Mr. Wiley’s turn to nod the local nod. Only he’d barely let his slack jaw down before another cough lay seige. Laura swears it’s enough to rouse birds from their nests. He spit into a creased handkerchief, wiped his mouth.
“Of course, I didn’t travel all the way over here just to talk about weeds.”
Mr. Wiley is our closest neighbour. If you stand on the sagging crate by the tool shed, lean towards the road and peer through the scaffold of trees, you can see Mr. Wiley’s earth-red roof. Shingled and scrubbed, his house is as old as ours but in far better shape. Every week the stout, broad-shouldered wife of the only lawyer in town cleans the house from top to bottom. Every other Tuesday a young boy with bad skin mows the lawn and clips the pampered garden. Weeds perish long before they sprout in Mr. Wiley’s front yard.
“You don’t need an excuse to visit,” I told him.
Which was true. Despite the coughing, the hacking, the annoying habit of plucking loose threads from worn sleeves with yellow fingers, Mr. Wiley is a good neighour.
I invited him in for a cup of coffee. He declined.
“I know you’re leaving tomorrow,” he said.
“We’ll be back in a week.”
His lips folded into a crease. He has a brown, baked-apple face, topped with sprigs of white hair.
“I thought you’d want this.” He gave me the envelope. “Mrs. Osler found it.”
Mrs. Osler is the lawyer’s wife.
“Must have fallen down and got lost in the shuffle. Your daughter gave it to me for Thanksgiving.” He leaned forward. “To thank me for all the sweets we’d shared.”
I nodded without chewing my cheek. I thanked him and offered to drive him home. He shook his head, said he’d rather walk. Before I could convince him otherwise he was waddling down our stone path, a caricature of himself, poking at the weeds with his walking stick.
Laura was upstairs, packing. I couldn’t hear her open and close drawers, lift wire hangers out of closets. She is a woman who is seen long before she is ever heard. Soundless as a falling leaf. She pads into a room like a cat, curls up on the couch and snuggles up with newspapers her mother sends from back home. The pages barely rustle.
On the fridge, beneath a chipped Oreo magnet, was a list of things to do before we left. Order paint. Unplug computer. Call courier. Scott Henley: Sam, Adam and Eve.
Sam is a golden retriever who thinks he’s a chicken. Adam and Eve are chickens who think they are dogs. Scott Henley is the pock-skinned boy who mows Mr. Wiley’s lawn every other week. He agreed to keep an eye on Sam and the chickens. The computer, the courier, the paint are all part of our business. We make and design greeting cards, out here in our home in the country.
Adam and Eve were pecking and scratching by the woodpile. I sat down at the kitchen table, carefully opened the envelope and pulled out the single sheet inside: a portrait of Mr. Wiley that Casey had drawn. All the details that you’d expect are there, only they have the boundless, untethered quality that children bring to drawings. So Mr. Wiley’s large eyes look like spokeless wheels, and his eyebrows soar as high as birds in flight. Casey dressed him in crisp blue jeans hitched to a pair of red suspenders. A pen or a cigar grows out of a shirt pocket; I have seen Mr. Wiley chew on both. The laces on his brown shoes are neatly tied, the loops impossibly large. He is holding flowers in an outstretched hand. Dandelions, a clump of daffodils, some green ferns. Even at close range there’s no telling where the roots end and Mr. Wiley’s fingers begin.
Corn. Corn, he told us the morning we walked over to introduce ourselves. We stood by a slack clothesline, facing a bare field. Corn as far as you could see, Mr. Wiley declared, scraping the overcast sky with his walking stick, carving a soundless arc. Corn like you’ve never tasted. Corn like you’ve never seen. He leaned into his walking stick. Know why I had such beautiful corn, young lady?
Casey shook her head.
I told ’em. Whispered the words right into the ears of my corn. Looking good. You’re looking good. You’re looking very good.
Casey smiled. Children don’t often stop to gauge their reactions. Adults tend to weigh consequences before they speak. I didn’t know how to respond to Mr. Wiley’s confession that he whispered sweet nothings into the ears of his corn; Laura’s uncertain eyes mirrored mine. Was he pulling our urban legs? A polite challenge ran the risk of an insult. Overreaction could sound patronizing. So when Casey smiled I was relieved, greatly relieved, for no one would fault a five-year old for smiling, least of all an eighty-three year old man. Her smile was the green light we needed. That night, after I’d read her three pages from Stuart Little, she asked if she could be a cornstalk. And you pretend you’re Mr. Wiley, my daughter insisted. Brushing her fleecy hair behind an ear, I bent over and whispered, “Looking good. You’re looking good. You’re looking very good.”
Casey and Mr. Wiley picked flowers in the field where Mr. Wiley’s beautiful corn once swayed. After an hour, two hours, sometimes an entire morning, Casey would run out from the narrow path in the woods that divide Mr. Wiley’s home from ours, breathless and red-cheeked, the flowers a fragrant torch in her raised hand. Moments later she was at my door, anxious to show me the day’s catch, pleased and proud as only a five year old can be. A white milk pitcher we discovered when we first moved in made a perfect vase on the kitchen table.
They picked weeds in Mr. Wiley’s garden, and berries Casey stirred into thick jam. They collected the litter banking the sides of the road between our houses, compared cans and wrappers like amateur archaeologists.
At first we were worried, for all the predictable reasons. Yes, Mr. Wiley is a kind and generous eighty-three year old man. But he is a man, and we knew that some men take advantage of some girls in ways that are neither kind or generous. But we also knew that we had to trust Mr. Wiley, trust him as we trusted ourselves. Otherwise, we might as well have stayed in the city and lived our fortressed lives, behind reinforced doors bolted with locks and chains.
We didn’t want to do that. We came to the country to raise our daughter in a place where she could run without fear and have a dog who thinks he’s a chicken and pick flowers with an old man who lovingly whispers into the ears of his corn. I am a city person at heart, and can’t pretend otherwise. The firm reassurance of concrete beneath my feet, the neon hearth of an all-night restaurant, the protective shadows of skyscrapers: these are my comforts. But a city is no place for a child, not any more. Every time Laura reads the newspapers her mother sends from back home she shares another story that convinces us we made the right move. Oh, God, she’ll sigh, and I’ll brace myself. Seven-year olds are extorting money in schoolyards. They found a baby in a trash can. A teenager was killed for wearing the wrong-coloured shoes on the wrong block. I’ll look at her and it doesn’t seem right, my wife of seven years wrapped in a knitted cocoon, safe in one corner of the couch, talking about infants with severed limbs and young children killing each other over the colour of laces.
Children have a relationship with the elderly that adults can only envy. Not yet a threat, they’re too young to have learned to patronize the old. Maybe that’s what bonds the old with the young: neither are taken very seriously, both are powerless. He has four kids, Casey told us. A boy and three girls. Kids was a new addition to her vocabulary. Why tell her that Mr. Wiley’s “kids” were probably in their fifties, grey-haired, slow-footed, older than Laura and me? And does he have grandchildren? Oh, yes, Casey said. Lots of grandchildren. She was sitting at the kitchen table, colouring. But, she added, they live far away.
One daughter had moved to Europe; two worked as engineers. Casey marvelled at the idea of women driving trains, guiding steam engines over treacherous tracks. The son lived in California. Computers, Mr. Wiley explained. Software.
Mrs. Wiley had died of an aneurism, a word as foreign to Mr. Wiley as “software”. The flowers he picked with Casey made their way to his wife’s grave, in a manicured cemetery overlooking a chain of small lakes linked by dense bush. Fridays, Mr. Wiley waddled past our wounded mailbox and up the road to the graveyard, one hand clutching his walking stick, the other sprouting flowers.
“Cute picture,” a young man in a ponytail declared. He wore a blue apron over a T-shirt. “Your kid’s?”
I nodded, unwilling to give the details. He seemed satisfied and set to work, preserving Mr. Wiley under glass. We had decided to frame Casey’s artwork while we were in town. The store specialized in framing pictures while you waited. Laura was at her mother’s place, a condominium with a magnificent view of the city. Her father passed away before we had met and married. His picture sits on the mantle of an artificial fireplace. He was a handsome man in a subtle way. His eyes are trusting and calm, his mouth forever on the verge of a grin. Next to the photograph of Laura’s father is a vase; in the vase are Casey’s ashes. After careful thought and many late-night cups of coffee, we’d decided to scatter her ashes near our home in the country.
She was killed a year ago, on a cool, cloudy day in October when birds chose the leafy warmth of a tree over the chill of an open sky. I wonder now if it wasn’t somehow foretold. Sam was not himself that morning, barking in loud, choppy spasms. I have read that animals have premonitions of impending catastrophes, that dogs will yelp just hours before the ground convulses and an earthquake swallows homes and lives. Perhaps it wasn’t the open sky that kept the birds in their trees but something else, a scent only certain creatures smell.
I was in mid-sentence. The greeting cards that Laura and I make are a marriage of pictures and words. I was writing a card for someone who’d just been dumped by a lover. We aim for baby boomers with a sense of humour. “Remember: There are other fish in the sea.” That would go on the cover. Inside, I had written: “But…”
But what? I wasn’t sure. I was waiting, thinking about what to write, scribbling on a yellow legal pad filled with suspended phrases, possibilities, isolated words.
Backfire is common out here in the country; Sam’s barks did more to annoy than alert me. I figured he was chasing the guilty culprit, nipping at the tires of one of the many rusting pickups that swerve and totter down these country roads.
I paused, then returned to my fish in the sea, searching for the right words, playing with phrases.
A pounding knock. I recognized the sound of wood against wood. Mr. Wiley battered the door with such force he was still swinging when I finally opened it, breathing in a fierce way, almost ramming my knees with his walking stick. I feared he would die right then and there, gasping for air. His face was deflated and colourless, his rubbery lips a violent blue.
“Your daughter,” he whispered in a shredded voice. He pointed his walking stick towards the swath of trees that separates our homes.
A nameless fear bore through me. I ran towards the path between the trees, unaware of my own feet or the ground beneath me.
Two hunters stood in the middle of the path, luminous in their orange vests. One grabbed clumps of his hair, walked in semicircles, cried, “Oh, my God!” over and over again. The other crouched by Casey and stroked her head awkwardly, as if she were a strange pet.
She was still breathing when I reached her, a quiet rasp that reminded me of Mr. Wiley. The calm hunter explained that a third friend had gone to get an ambulance. I said nothing, and simply rocked Casey’s limp body in my arms. I whispered, “Everything’s going to be all right, pumpkin. Everything’s going to be all right.”
I touched her cheek, still warm from her run. I wanted to shake her, urge her to continue running until she reached our house, where we’d plant her flowers in the milk pitcher. There were no flowers in her hands, covered with white mitts. Later, in court, the hysterical hunter claimed he’d mistaken the white mitts for a deer’s tail.
I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t stop rocking, I couldn’t stop whispering, “Everything’s going to be all right.” I didn’t hear Laura run down the path, or Sam running behind her. Soon we were both caressing Casey. The hysterical hunter continued to walk in staggered circles. By then Mr. Wiley had arrived, wheezing, watching.
I leaned into Casey, brushed my lips against her neck, as if all she needed was a bit of air to get back on her feet again. The damp stain in her coat where the bullet had entered looked harmless, the kind that children acquire in the course of growing up.
Someone had mistaken my daughter for a deer. Seven hours later she died.
“Done,” the pony-tailed clerk announced. I looked up. Casey’s drawing of Mr. Wiley had taken on a different dimension. Glass and a gold frame made it seem timeless, ageless.
Walking back to the condominium, I thought of Laura and her mother sitting at the kitchen table, talking. They both cup their chins in the palm of one hand, doodling with the fingers of the other. The image of the two of them talking like that, pausing to sip coffee, was one of a thousand images that settled over me in the days after Casey’s death. I imagined her at fourteen, at twenty, at thirty-five, the grown daughter who sits with her mother, my wife, at the kitchen table, her chin cupped in her hand, sipping coffee. Her face was not a face I knew, not one I could draw, not so much a face as a feeling, a possibility. Some days, I picked up the phone and began to dial. I wanted desperately to phone the hunter. But what would I say? I drove by his house, only thirty miles away. I’d tell Laura I was going out for a drive, and park by his clapboard house, a bland affair with a gaggle of plastic geese planted in the front yard. He sells insurance, and has two children of his own. I would see their bicycles on the lawn, a grass-stained soccer ball, some toys. Through the curtained windows I learned to recognize his stooped posture. It cannot be an easy thing to live with, knowing you have taken the life of another, no matter how unintentional. Still, I can’t understand how a five-year old girl wearing white mittens can be mistaken for a deer. I have spent more than one evening looking at pictures of deer, at the shape and structure of their bodies. I have studied their delicate faces, looked into their fragile eyes. How is it possible? The question would linger, steady as rain, as I sat and watched the hunter set plates and glasses on his dining room table.
I had asked Mr. Wiley that very question. He has hunted himself; a large set of antlers crowned his front door.
“Anticipation,” he said. “Anticipation.”
We sat on his front porch, a plate of biscuits between us.
“What do you mean?”
He coughed and cleared his throat, plucked a thread from his sweater.
“When you’re hunting deer, all you’re thinking of is deer. Nothing else is on your mind. Nothing else should be. Deer, deer, deer. Anything else clutters up the brain.”
He paused to tap his flossy head.
“Soon you start to anticipate. Trouble with anticipation is it can turn on you.”
“Turn into expectation. I suspect that’s what happened to that fellow. Probably started seeing deer everywhere he looked. He never saw your daughter. He saw a deer because he wanted to see a deer. My understanding is that they’d gone into the woods early that morning and were heading home empty-handed. So you’re talking pride, too. Pride and anticipation. That’s no excuse, mind. And they had no business being where they were, so close to the road and all.”
Anticipation. The word meshed perfectly with my images of Casey in the weeks after she died. Casey at fourteen, Casey at thirty-five. I had anticipated a life for my daughter where she would grow, change, flourish in ways we come to expect as parents. Perhaps that’s what I should have told the man who killed my daughter, expecting a deer. I could call him up, whisper “Anticipation,” and hang up.
Laura and I walked up to Mr. Wiley’s house, the vase with Casey’s ashes cradled in her arms. He’d agreed to let us scatter her ashes in the field where his corn once grew.
As we approached his front door I remembered. I remembered I had not told Laura, for reasons I still don’t fully understand. About a month after Casey died I was walking along the road. Through the trees I glimpsed Mr. Wiley, perched on a step ladder in front of his door. I walked closer, planting my steps so as not to be heard. He had just removed the antlers above his front door. A large, discoloured patch remained. By the stepladder, next to his walking stick, was a can of paint. I am not a sentimental man, but the sight of Mr. Wiley painting that patch left me on my knees, crouched by the side of the road, weeping.
Country Life was first published in Shift Magazine