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Authors: Margaret Laurence

The Fire-Dwellers

THE AUTHOR

MARGARET LAURENCE
was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, in 1926. Upon graduation from Winnipeg’s United College in 1947, she took a job as a reporter for the
Winnipeg Citizen
.

From 1950 until 1957 Laurence lived in Africa, the first two years in Somalia, the next five in Ghana, where her husband, a civil engineer, was working. She translated Somali poetry and prose during this time, and began her career as a fiction writer with stories set in Africa.

When Laurence returned to Canada in 1957, she settled in Vancouver, where she devoted herself to fiction with a Ghanaian setting: in her first novel,
This Side Jordan
, and in her first collection of short fiction,
The Tomorrow-Tamer
. Her two years in Somalia were the subject of her memoir,
The Prophet’s Camel Bell
.

Separating from her husband in 1962, Laurence moved to England, which became her home for a decade, the time she devoted to the creation of five books about the fictional town of Manawaka, patterned after her birthplace, and its people:
The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House
, and
The Diviners
.

Laurence settled in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1974. She complemented her fiction with essays, book reviews, and four children’s books. Her many honours include two Governor General’s Awards for Fiction and more than a dozen honorary degrees.

Margaret Laurence died in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1987.

THE NEW CANADIAN LIBRARY

General Editor: David Staines

ADVISORY BOARD

Alice Munro

W.H. New

Guy Vanderhaeghe

If I pass the burial spot of Nero
I shall say to the wind, “Well, well” –
I who have fiddled in a world on fire,
I who have done so many stunts not worth doing
.

—Carl Sandburg,
Losers

ONE

Ladybird, ladybird,
Fly away home;
Your house is on fire,
Your children are gone
.

C
razy rhyme. Got it on the brain this morning. That’s from trying to teach Jen a few human words yesterday. Why anybody would want to teach a kid a thing like that, I wouldn’t know. Half those nursery rhymes are gruesome, when you come to think of it. Here is a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Just the thing to make the sprouts sleep soundly, especially if followed by that prayer about if I should die before I wake. Maybe it’s okay, though. Prepares them for what they can expect. Stacey, you sure are joyful first thing in the morning. First thing, hell. It’s a quarter to nine, and here’s me not dressed yet.

The full-length mirror is on the bedroom door. Stacey sees images reflected there, distanced by the glass like humans on TV, less real than real and yet more sharply focused because isolated and limited by a frame. The double bed is unmade,
and on a chair rests a jumble of her clothes, carelessly shed stockings like round nylon puddles, roll-on girdle in the shape of a tire where she has rolled it off. On another chair, Mac’s dirty shirt is neatly folded. Two books reside on the bedside table –
The Golden Bough
and
Investments and You
, Hers and His, both unread. On the dressing table, amid the nonmagic jars and lipsticks are scattered photographs of Katie, Ian, Duncan and Jen at various ages. Hung above the bed is a wedding picture, Stacey twenty-three, almost beautiful although not knowing it then, and Mac twenty-seven, hopeful confident lean, Agamemnon king of men or the equivalent, at least to her. Sitting on the bed, Stacey sees mirrored her own self in the present flesh, insufficiently concealed by a short mauve nylon nightgown with the ribbon now gone from the neckline and one shoulder frill yanked off by some kid or other.

  — God knows how old this damn nightie is. I’ve got to get some new ones. One, anyway. We’re not all that broke any more. I’ll get two, today, both fancy as hell. What difference will that make? None. Look at that Christly book – why do I keep it on the bedside table? I’ll never get around to reading it.
Essential background
, the guy kept saying. He had probably read it a thousand times. If I wanted to take yet another evening course, why did I have to pick Mythology and Modern Man? Sounded classy, that’s why. I went twice. Fees wasted.

Stacey looks at her underwear on the chair but makes no move toward it. Her eyes are drawn back to the mirror.

  — Everything would be all right if only I was better educated. I mean, if I were. Or if I were beautiful. Okay, that’s asking too much. Let’s say if I took off ten or so pounds. Listen, Stacey, at thirty-nine, after four kids, you can’t expect to look like a sylph. Maybe not, but for hips like mine there’s no excuse. I wish I lived in some country where broad-beamed
women were fashionable. Everything will be all right when the kids are older. I’ll be more free. Free for what? What in hell is the matter with you, anyway? Everything
is
all right.
Everything is all right
. Come on, fat slob, get up off your ass and get going. There’s a sale on downtown, remember? Singing ad on local station –
Dollar Forty-nine Day plink plink
. Funny thing, I never swear in front of my kids. This makes me feel I’m being a good example to them. Example of what? All the things I hate. Hate, but perpetuate.

Stacey gets dressed and takes Jen, two, over to Tess Fogler’s, next door. Tess is still in her housecoat, but being tall and slender looks as though ready to receive the Peruvian ambassador. Tess’s hair is honey-blond and even this early in the day is done in a flawless French roll. Stacey, who is shorter than she would like to be, is wearing her pale-blue last year’s spring coat and, because her dark unruly hair needs doing, a small white veil-enfolded straw hat which she dislikes.

  — My God I look awful how does she always look so

Tess, it’s terribly kind of you.

Heavens no, I’m always glad to

Well I certainly appreciate

Jen’s no bother, are you honey?

Mumble mumble squawk

My, she’s determined not to communicate, isn’t she?

  — That’s right, rub it in. If you had kids, you’d know it’s not such a laugh.

I guess the other kids wait on her too much.

Come on, honey, want a cookie?

She’s just had breakfast.

  — Don’t feed the animals. I know your cookies. Shortbread. Last time she threw up when I got her home. God, I’m ungrateful.

Tess, thanks a million – I’m really grateful.

It’s nothing. Now you run right along now.

What cat noises go on in her head? Maybe none. Maybe only me. Stacey, you rotten old bitch.

  — Tess, Katie will pick up Jen on the way back from school at lunchtime if I’m not back, okay?

Sure, okay.

Stacey walks to the corner of Bluejay Crescent and gets the bus downtown. But she does not go to the sale. She gets off near the waterfront and starts walking. She is not cracking up. It is just that she has lived in this city, jewel of the Pacific Northwest, for going on twenty years, and she does not know anything about it. Inexplicably and suddenly, she feels it is time she learned. She knows she will not learn this way.

The pigeons are shitting all over the granite cenotaph, she is glad to see. Stacey stops and reads the inscription.
Their Names Shall Live Forevermore
. And on another side,
Does It Mean Nothing to You
. No question mark. Along the steps at the base, three old men sit in the feeble sunlight, coughing and spitting, clenching their arms across their skinny chests, murmuring something to one another, memories, perhaps, or curses against now.

  — I guess they feel at home here. It was their war, my father’s war. He spoke of it once, just once. Mother was out one evening, and Rachel was seven and asleep. He told me about a boy of eighteen – hand grenade went off near him and the blast caught the kid between the legs. My dad cried when he told it, because the kid didn’t die. My dad was drunk, but then he wouldn’t have spoken of it if he hadn’t been. Mac never talks about his war, never has, not that he talks much about anything any more. Ian was ten this year and Duncan seven. Well, even if I’d had four girls, so what?

The streets are just beginning to waken. They keep late hours at night in this part of town. A few men in wind breakers and jeans are hanging around café doors. At Ben’s Economy Mart, the windows are full of little penned cards –
Get a Load of This Bargain Only $10.95, How About This at $4.75? We’re Cheating Ourselves at $9.95
– and other pieces of folk literature, propped against suitcases, kitbags, lumberjacks’ boots, bush knives, thermos flasks and shiny double-bitted axes. In the lobby of the Princess Regal Hotel, some yawning yellow-toothed fishwife, fleshwife, sagging guttily in a print dress sad with poppies, is sweeping up last night – heel-squashed cigarette butts, Kleenex blown into or bawled into, and ashes. Old men are sitting there, too, sitting in the red plastic-covered chairs, waiting for the beer parlor to open, so somebody can stand them a drink and they can accept haughtily, their scorn some kind of sop to their pride.

  — What is it like, really? How would I know? People live in those rooms above the stores, people who go to the cafés and bars at night, who prowl these streets that are their territory. Men down from the forests or off the fish boats. Faithless loggers clobbering their faithless women. Kids gaming with LSD –
look at me, Polly, I’m Batman – zoom
from sixth floor window into the warm red embrace of a cement death. Ancient mariners tottering around in search of lifeblood, a gallon of Calona Royal Red. Whores too old or sick-riddled to work any classier streets. Granite-eyed youngsters looking for a fix, trying to hold their desperation down. Is it like that? All I know is what I read in the papers. “Seventeen-Year-Old on Drug Charge.” “Girl Kills Self, Lover.” “Homeless Population Growing, Says Survey.” “Car Smash Decapitates Indian Bride, Groom.” “Man Sets Room Ablaze, Perishes.” All sorts of cheery stuff. What do I know of it? I see the dead faces in a mocking
procession, looking at me, looking again, shrugging, saying
There’s stability for you
. Do I deserve this? Yes, and yet god-dammit,
not
yes. Nearly twenty years here, and I don’t know the place at all or feel at home. Maybe I wouldn’t have, in any city. I never like to say so to anybody. I always think they might think it’s obvious I’m from a small town.

Stacey Cameron, nearly nineteen, expert typist, having shaken the dust of Manawaka off herself at last. Stacey, five foot three, breasts like apples as it says in the Song of Solomon. Stacey in scarlet dressmaker suit, fussy lace blouse. Good-bye to the town undertaker, her father, capable only of dressing the dead in between bouts with his own special embalming fluid. (Dad? I’m sorry. But I had to go.) Good-bye to her long-suffering mother. (Now I’m not sure any longer what lay behind your whining eyes.) Good-bye to Stacey’s sister, always so clever. (When I think you’re still there, I can’t bear it.) Good-bye, prairies. On the train, a Newfoundland woman with six kids, going to join her husband in an army camp in Chilliwack. None of them had ever seen a train before. One of the kids vomited in the Ladies’, and Stacey started to help her wipe it up. Then the porter came in and said he’d do it. He was brown and big and he looked at Stacey with amusement. It hadn’t occurred to her that on a train you weren’t expected to clean up as you were at home. The lady left with her bleak brat, and the porter said
Where you going?
Stacey told him Vancouver, and he asked if she had a place to stay. She said, chirpy as a sparrow now, out of pure need, I thought I’d look around.
Don’t look around, sweetheart
, he said.
Go to the YWCA. That’s what I tell all the prairie girls
. So she did that. Small-town girl.

Stacey’s children will need to know this city. At present, the boys’ domain is only the back yards, the white-flowering dogwood trees for climbing, the alleys where garbage tins teeter and lean castaway cats scrounge, the garages empty in daytime and littered with planks and tins of nails and stiffened paintbrushes – the places where children plot their secret revolutions.

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