Treading Water: chapter 12

When I got the job holding the hose for the house burnings I figured: hey, it’s a job. It’s not like anything I could say or do will make any difference to this backwater called Bear Creek. It’s all going to be under water—35 feet of water—in a few months’ time, and by then we’ll all be long gone. And me, Paul Shannon, 16 last week and wanting cash for all kinds of things, it was a good opportunity. Past years, I’d be spraying trees in the spring, picking fruit in the fall, pruning, picking and packing—an endless cycle. Man, the number of times I’d go to bed at night after a day of picking and then pick all damn night again in my dreams, only to wake up and have to do it all over again.

But with B.C. Hydro buying folks out—they started a couple of years back, in ’65, when that treaty was signed for the dam—lots of folks were gone before the trees even blossomed and now lots of trees are gone, too, leaving rows and rows of stumps. Last night at dinner my mum said to my dad: “John, it’s like living in a war zone, destruction and smoke everywhere. It’s a wasteland.” And my dad said, “yup,” and looked at me, because it’s what my mum says every day. “How was your day, Paul?” he asked me, to change the subject. It wasn’t much of a change, though, because my day involves burning down houses.

“We did the old Klassen place,” I said. “Went up like kindling.”

Mum glanced at me, a look I couldn’t read, and then returned to cutting up her pork chop, knife sharp against the china plate. “Poor old Tom,” she said. “Glad he didn’t stay around to see the old homestead go. He was born there, you know.”

“He’s got that job in Castlegar, been making that trip from here at five a.m. every morning  for two years. Bet it’s a relief to be closer to the job,” offered my dad. Dad likes to put a positive light on things. “How’s the car fund coming?” He asked me.

“Coming,” I said.

From the beginning of all this Dad knew first hand how each person felt about leaving. He always said it’s amazing how much people can tell you in a five minute ferry trip. This past month, a lot of the people he’s been taking out are crossing for the last time, sometimes in tears, all their stuff piled up on pickups. Some spend the whole way looking back, he told me, and some just look straight ahead. Me, I’d be looking forward. Besides, the view looking back isn’t exactly pretty. What you see are the stumps of trees and piles of brush and the remains of burnt houses. And the smoke hangs there, sometimes all day. My mum says we’ll be smelling it in our clothes for months after we’re gone. I will for sure. There’s black under my nails I don’t think will ever come out.

Like I told my buddy Ken: it’s a job, somebody’s going to do it, might as well be me. That was a few weeks back. We were sitting on the wharf after supper. The smoke in the air made the sunset really red and cast the whole valley in an eerie glow.

“It’s a dirty shame,” said Ken, chucking rocks into the water, and I knew he was echoing what his parents—what everybody—had been saying for months. There’s not a thing we can do about it, they’d say, but it’s a dirty shame. Ken wasn’t looking forward to the move to Edgewood. “We’re all going different directions,” he said. “It’s like this place never existed.”

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