The River and The Sea

An Excerpt from The River and The Sea

The River and The Sea is told from the perspective of Jack Butler, one of three men slowly dying from cold and starvation in a ramshackle cabin on the Thelon River in Northern Canada in the winter of 1919-1920. One of the other men in the cabin is Edward Underhill, the husband of Jack’s former lover, Sarah Underhill.

A January morning. Terrible cold, terrible hunger. The constants. At the back of those constants, another. Her. Sarah. Far away, eight hundred miles to the south. I opened my eyes and there, across the cabin, her husband, Edward, wrapping rags of blanket around his legs, tying them on with twine from our old parcels. Edward, who had hardly been home a month before planning to leave again. Pulling the capote down over himself, picking up the .303. Outside the north wind roared on. At the door he stopped, his hand on the wooden latch, and looked back, his eyes going around the walls, over the table with its mass of sorted bones, on to Harry in his bunk, his face to the wall. He came to me and saw me awake.

‘I’m going out,’ he said. Quietly, to not waken Harry I suppose. ‘You never know.’ His tongue moved across the cracked lips. ‘One can’t just stay here.’ I had nothing to say to him, and after a while he turned away again to the door and raised the latch. I waited to hear him say some last, ridiculous, thing. ‘Keep resting your foot,’ he said. Then, ‘It must be hell not to be able to get about.’ Everything was hell. Edward, this is a world of frozen hell.

Two years before, in the last year of the Great War, Sarah Underhill is driving Jack Butler to Footner, hoping he will stay there and work on her land and that of her neighbours. Jack may have other ideas.  

She worked at her long dark hair where it had been pinned up. ‘My name’s Sarah,’ she said. She held out a hand. ‘Sarah Underhill. Mrs Sarah Underhill.’ I sat and looked back at her, at the extended hand, at her quiet expression, at how she had strung out this information. I took the hand and shook it.

‘Just Jack Butler.’

‘Ah, just Jack Butler.’

A man came out with a tray with a tea pot and cups and a saucer with slices of lemon. There was a plate of sandwiches. He put the tray on the table. As he straightened again he looked at me, and kept looking, and then went indoors again.

‘Footner is such a small place. But it’s got its own charms. It’s also a very new place, which is one reason why we are more short of able men than most.’ She poured tea into a cup and passed it to me. Those hands were not as pale as I’d imagined them, but square and strong and capable. ‘That and the high rate of recruitment. We have been very patriotic. Help yourself to the sandwiches.’ It was cool here on the porch, in the shade, the road in front empty, the lake water lapping across the way, two or three canoes far out, men fishing. The sandwiches were salmon and cucumber. I took another. The sky so blue, soft small white clouds crossing it.

‘A pretty spot,’ she said. The shore here was thick with trees, birch and poplars and aspens as well as pines, but the hills just above were as dry as before. ‘You know, when you spoke of enlisting…’ she said, and then stopped. ‘What did you think I was thinking?’

‘What the woman who gave me the white feather in Winnipeg was thinking.’

‘You are Irish,’ she said. She poked with a spoon at the lemon slice in her black tea. ‘Not British.’ Maybe Footner would be nothing like the hills around but like this lake shore: a green well-watered place. A second Okanagan. So I told myself.

‘Why don’t you finish those?’ she said, pointing to the sandwiches. ‘Footner’s a while ahead yet. I would only have to cook you a late luncheon there anyway.’

‘You know I can’t pay for any of this?’

‘I’m not looking for money.’ She was looking over my shoulder by now, at the motor car I thought. ‘No, indeed not,’ she said.

BUT: there is an another perspective from which The River and The Sea is told, one that has no place in the book. It is this:

1959. Oyster River, a small town just south of Campbell River, on the east coast of Vancouver Island. A lovely late summer, early autumn perhaps, morning. A man in his sixties walks out of his wooden house onto the road. Limping a little he walks along the road. He stops, looks at the view.

What he’s looking at is the Pacific, but that narrow part that lies between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Canada, called the Strait of Georgia. It is beautiful. It’s blue and calm and you can’t see from here the deadly fast currents that run when the tides turn. Rising up out of that blue, seemingly calm, sea are the loveliest mountains in the world. Permanently snow-capped, a long line of jagged, pure, terrible peaks: the Coast Range of British Columbia.

On the far side of those mountains lie the Shuswhap, the Monashee, the Columbia, the Cariboo ranges: the Rockies. But in between, in the rain shadow of the Coast Range, there is an arid land of pale dust, of baking, scorching summers, low rainfall, and running through it, fed by the snows of the mountains, the sunken, clear, fast, Thompson River. It’s a land where nothing much grows but sage and bunch grass and prickly pear cactus.

He stands there and looks at the blue sea, the blue sky, the beauty of the Coast Range, this man.

Over forty years before he had fled from France. He had changed his name and come to that dry, hopeless place on the other side of the Coast Range. He had fled before he inflicted terrible pain and loss on others. He had fled too before he became another of what so many had already become, a member of a truly lost generation, not of novelists and poets and artists, but of ordinary men, out of ordinary jobs, ordinary, orderable, biddable men, now lying shattered in holes and shell craters and mass graves, or no graves at all.

And there, in that dry, hopeless place on the other side of the Coast Range, he had met a woman and fallen in love, until her husband came home from war and he wasn’t wanted any more, he had thought, and his love turned to hatred, he had thought. Now, forty years later, he runs his tongue across his lips, and feels her kiss him there again, and presses his arms to his sides, and feels her hold him there again.

He stands another moment. He walks slowly back to the wooden house. He goes to a room at the side furtherest from the road, sits at a table, takes out a sheet of paper, begins to write. What he is writing is The River and The Sea.