Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Home Schooling


by Carol Windley

“[An] elegant collection . . . Windley’s writing is calm and at times hypnotic, and her prose rhythms paint pictures of their own; she knows how to create the restful quiet of gentle waves breaking on a beach. And her images, often occurring in the context of dreams, can be startlingly lovely.” —Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date March 22, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4453-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Home Schooling—a mesmerizing collection in which “each story . . . is denser and more alive than many novels” (The Vancouver Sun)—marks the American debut of a mature, masterful storyteller who has won several major awards in her native Canada and been nominated for the Giller Prize.

Set against the moody landscape of Vancouver Island and the thrumming cities of the Pacific Northwest, the stories in Home Schooling uncover the hidden freight of families: in the title story, two sisters contend with their idealistic father’s sudden inability to provide for their family, and their own separate attraction to the same boy; in “What Saffi Knows,” a woman, now a mother herself, returns to a moment in her past when she held the knowledge that might have saved another child, but not the language with which to convey it; and in “Family in Black,” a young woman finds the contours of her world permanently changed when her mother suddenly abandons her father for a man who embodies everything her mother taught her to despise. In these stories, families dissolve and reform in new and startling configurations: ghosts appear, the past intrudes and overwhelms the present, familiar terrain takes on a hostile aspect, and happiness often depends on unlikely alliances.

With the invisibly perfect craftsmanship of Alice Munro, and the flesh-andblood sense of place of Annie Proulx, Carol Windley carves out territory all her own in these stories, each one a richly imagined and generous world that will stay with the reader for a long time.


“[An] accomplished story collection . . . Windley’s cagey moments of conflict deftly illuminate her narrators’ capacities for both pettiness and grace. . . . [Written] with a fast pace and an eye for fresh details that make her efficient, achingly human dramas absorbing and sympathetic.” —Publishers Weekly

“Windley’s characters in Home Schooling are burdened and shaped by their secrets, so much so that they often fail to travel well through daily life. The landscape of the Northwest where Windley lives—that transparent air and those watchful dark trees—provides the perfect setting for these incandescent stories. . . . Here, even the mystery of life’s slow, sure passing provides action to move a plot forward.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“[An] elegant collection . . . Windley’s writing is calm and at times hypnotic, and her prose rhythms paint pictures of their own; she knows how to create the restful quiet of gentle waves breaking on a beach. And her images, often occurring in the context of dreams, can be startlingly lovely.” —Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times

“Moving back and forth in time, Windley zeros in on life-changing moments witnessed in different ways, as if seen through different lenses. A provocative collection from a writer in complete sync with her characters.” —Deborah Donovan, Booklist

“Hints of Henry James inform the eight stories in Canadian writer Carol Windley’s American debut, Home Schooling. Like that earlier master, Windley pays scrupulous attention to small, consequential gestures, to a sense of the uncanny that marks the proximity of characters to places and things, and as much to what goes unsaid as to what’s spoken. Her tales emit moments of sudden radiance that unmask narrative mysteries while wrapping them ever more tightly around their outcomes. . . . . The opening lines of the astonishing title story are a high-wire act of narrative prestidigitation, mimicking the fault lines of memory and the compensatory gift of reinvention. . . . . [A] book of pure magic.” —Lisa Shea, Elle

Home Schooling is a collection of beautiful, haunting stories—intelligent, heartfelt, and true.” —Alice Hoffman, author of The Third Angel

“Carol Windley’s writing has a unique power, a perfect combination of delicacy, intensity, and fearless imagination.” —Alice Munro

“The families in Carol Windley’s remarkable story collection are as unsettled and moody as the wind-blasted landscape that shelters and confounds them. . . . [Windley] is deeply in tune with her characters, their dilemmas, their petulance, and the peculiar grace that allows them to accept, even sometimes to applaud, how far they’ve come. . . . Windley can create an almost tactile atmosphere of uncertainty and dread. . . . Our futures can be as wild and unpredictable as the waves crashing in from the Pacific, Windley tells us. Our destinies are uncertain despite our pasts, as our ties to other people steer a course of surprise and, sometimes, eventual contentment. . . . A haunting book that deserves our attention.” —Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

“Language is wielded like a slender blade in these stories by the Canadian author Carol Windley, swiftly piercing a perception and pinning it to the page. . . . Set on Vancouver Island and the mainland of the Pacific Northwest, these stories have their own uncanny atmosphere, remote yet familiar, cloaked in fogbanks and redolent of deep woods. . . . In the shattering piece that opens the collection, a child observes a crime occurring in excruciating slow motion but does nothing to stop it because she cannot assemble the reality of what she has seen, a nightmare scenario that artfully chills us to the bone.” —Amanda Heller, Boston Globe

“Mesmerizing . . . [Windley’s] characters are Chekhovian idealists and dreamers, refugees from the counterculture or from broken homes, actual and psychological orphans trying to reform themselves into new kinds of families . . . [and] what elevates [Windley] as a writer is her struggle to find a meaning in [those] characters’ fates, to discover their moral essence and, sometimes, even a magical truth.” —Dinitia Smith, B&N.com

“Captivating . . . Events violent and unhinged frequently hover at the edge of many of Carol Windley’s stories in her elegant new collection, Home Schooling. Characters frequently find themselves preoccupied by the darker things in life—people leaving, people dying, betrayals, and secrets. . . . The characters peopling Windley’s tales are only too aware of the volatility of life; and yet, at the center of their personal stories is resiliency. . . . She calls attention to the tenuous, fragile nature of existence, and yet also casts into relief the beauty of people’s efforts to stave off the darkest of events and fears, whether through action or inaction. . . . With her vivid prose and insightful characterizations, Windley has written an exceptional collection of stories.” —Erica Wetter, Bookslut

“Carol Windley’s short stories are impossible to put down. The scope of the subject matter is riveting: the world of the artist, the complexities of family relationships, and the innocence of childhood are written with a sure and deft hand. The characters are distinct and unforgettable, drawn with deep emotional roots, while the places they inhabit are described with wonder and truth. Moment by moment, Ms. Windley has written a masterful collection.” —Adriana Trigiani, author of Big Stone Gap and Lucia, Lucia

“[Home Schooling] is as delicate as it is intelligent. . . . An exceptional collection of beautiful words and resonant insights. Every single story is worthy of reading, and once read, returned to, whether for ambience or intelligence of thought or language. Windley’s gift with narrative and images gives truly inspired meaning to the phrase ‘creative writing.’” —The Globe and Mail

“Compelling, thought-provoking, emotionally rich . . . A powerful illustration of the storyteller’s art.” —National Post

“Home Schooling is a beautiful collection, full of sensitivity and utterly devoid of slick sentimentality. The stories are painstakingly realistic, conveying many facets of the family experience. . . . Windley’s fluid yet precise style captures the essence of the characters and their situations with immense grace.” —The Vancouver Sun


What Saffi Knows

That summer a boy went missing from a field known as the old potato farm, although no one could remember anything growing there but wild meadow barley, thistles in their multitudes, black lilies with a stink of rotten meat if you brought your face too close or tried to pick them. There were white fawn lilies like stars fallen to earth and bog-orchids, also called candle-scent, and stinging nettles, blameless to look at, leaves limp as flannel, yet caustic and burning to the touch. Even so, nettle leaves could be brewed into a tea that acted on the system like a tonic, or so Saffi’s aunt told her. She recited a little rhyme that went: Nettle tea in March, mugwort leaves in May, and all the fine maidens will not go to clay.

Imagine a field, untended, sequestered, grass undulating in a fitful wind. Then disruption, volunteer members of the search party arriving, milling around, uniformed police and tracking dogs, distraught relatives of the missing boy.

No place for a child, Saffi’s mother said, yet here Saffi was, holding tight to her aunt’s hand, taking everything in.

All the people were cutout dolls. The sun hovered above the trees like a hot-air balloon cut free. Saffi’s shoes were wet from walking in the grass; she was wearing a sundress that tied at the back of her neck and she kept scratching at mosquito bites on her arms and legs until they bled and her Aunt Loretta said she’d give herself blood poisoning, but Saffi didn’t stop, she liked how it felt, it gave her something to do. She could see her daddy, standing a little apart from the others, drinking coffee from a paper cup. He was a young man then, tall, well-built, his hair a sprightly reddish-brown, his head thrown back, eyes narrowed in concentration, as if he hoped to be first to catch sight of any unusual movement in the woods, down near the river. Saffi looked where he was looking and saw a flitting movement in the trees like a turtledove, its silvery wings spread like a fan and its voice going coo-coo, the sound a turtledove would make when it was home and could rest at last. But there was no turtledove. Never would there be a turtledove. Saffi was the only one who knew. But who would listen to her?

July 1964, in a town on Vancouver Island, in the days before the tourists and land developers arrived and it was quiet, still, and everyone more or less knew everyone else. There was a pulp and paper mill, a harbour where the fishing fleet tied up, churches, good schools, neighbourhoods where children played unsupervised. Children were safe in this town. They did not go missing. But now, unbelievably, not one but two children were gone, one for nearly six weeks and then three days ago this other boy, his red three-speed bike found ditched at the edge of the old potato farm, where it seemed he liked to play, hunting snakes and butterflies, but never hurting anything, just catching things and letting them go.

His name was Eugene Dexter. His jacket had been found snagged in a hawthorn tree beside the Millstone River, at the far end of the old potato farm. Or else it was a baseball cap that was found. Or a catcher’s mitt. You heard different stories. There was a ransom note. There was no such note. The police had a suspect, or, alternately, they had no suspects, although they’d questioned and released someone and were refusing to give out details. But, said Saffi’s mother, wasn’t that how they operated, secretly, out of the public eye, trying to conceal their own ineptness? She kicked at a pebble. A woman beside her spoke of premonition, showing the gooseflesh on her arms. Some men got into a scrum, like elderly, underfed rugby players, and began praying aloud.

One minute it was warm and then the wind made Saffi shiver. Behind the mountain dark clouds welled up, filled with a hidden, shoddy light. The boy’s parents arrived in a police car, lights flashing. But maybe Saffi was remembering that wrong. Maybe they drove up in their own car, Mr. Dexter behind the wheel. In any case, there they were, Mr. and Mrs. Dexter, making their way over to tables borrowed from the high school cafeteria and set up in the field, with sandwiches and donuts and coffee and mimeographed instructions for the search party, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising when Mr. Arthur Dawsley sidled up to Saffi’s mother and said wasn’t this turning into quite a three-ring circus? He was their neighbour. He lived on the other side of a tall hedge. Along the front of his yard was a picket fence painted green and on his front door was a sign that said: No Peddlers. When Saffi was small, less than two years old, she’d mispronounced his name, saying Arthur Daisy, and in her family it was the wrong name that had stuck. It didn’t suit him; she wished she could take it back. Her parents teased her, calling Arthur Daisy her friend, but he wasn’t. His hair the colour of a cooking pot sat in deep waves above his forehead. Under his windbreaker he was wearing a white shirt and a tie. He said he knew this gathering was no circus, that was merely a figure of speech, and not a good one, considering. He said he supposed he was too old to be of much help in the search, but surely he could lend a little moral support.

“Beautiful weather, all the same,” he said, and then walked in his peculiar upright, stolid fashion over to Saffi’s daddy, who averted his face slightly and emptied the dregs of his coffee onto the ground, as if the last thing he craved was a word with Arthur Daisy. At the same time the boy’s father was handing an item of clothing over to the police, a green striped soccer shirt, it looked like, tenderly folded, and the police let their dogs sniff it and they strained at their leashes as if they’d been given a new idea and the sound of their baying came like a cheerless chorus off the mountain.

Later the wind died down and the clouds built up, dark clouds edged with a beautiful translucent white, dazzling to the eye, and just as Saffi and her mother and aunt got in the car to go home there came a violent drenching downpour, and everyone said it was almost a relief; it was turning out to be such a hot, dry summer. This could be said of her: as a child she noticed things, she took things in, and to this day she can’t decide, is this a curse or a gift? A curse, she thinks, for the most part.

The child she was and the person she’s become: in a way they’re like two separate people trapped in the same head. Could that be? The child mystifies her. The child with her pallor, her baby-fine, dry hair; her solemn grey-blue eyes, her air of distraction and wariness. Her odd little name that her mother had got out of a book of names: Saffi, meaning “wisdom.” Who are you? I am Saffi, no one else. She feels sympathy for that child, of course she does, and affection, impatience, anger, shame. And sorrow. Shouldn’t someone have been looking out for her? Shouldn’t someone have been watching over her? “Daddy’s girl,” her daddy called her, but daddy didn’t have much time for her, not really.

When Saffi was in her yard she made a game out of watching for Arthur Daisy to leave in his car, which he did sometimes, not every day, and as soon as he was gone she crawled through a gap in the hedge into his backyard. She knelt in the shade, looking out at the things he kept there: a wheelbarrow tipped up against a garden shed, a pile of buckets, a heap of steamy grass clippings buzzing with blue-bottles, a mound of composted dirt he made from dead leaves and egg shells and potato peelings, garbage from his kitchen.

At the foot of his porch steps there was a folding chair and an overturned washtub he used as a table, a coffee mug on it. Two of his shirts hung from the clothesline like guards he’d left on duty.

He had painted his cellar window black, but he’d missed a little place shaped like a star and she could get up close to it and see a shaded light hanging from the ceiling and beneath the light a table with a boy crouched on it. He was a real boy. She saw him and he saw her, his eyes alert and shining, and then he let his head droop on his chest. Don’t be scared, she said; don’t be. He was awake but sleeping, his arm twitching, his feet curled like a bird’s claws on a perch. All she could see in the dim light was his hair, nearly white. He was wearing a pair of shorts.

She called him bird-boy. She whistled at him softly, as if he were a wild thing. She had to be careful. Since he’d got the bird-boy, Arthur Daisy never stayed away for long; he’d drive off and then almost at once he was back, slamming his car door and pounding up his front steps. Before he got that far, though, Saffi would have scrambled through the hedge, her hair catching in the branches so that she’d have to give it a cruel tug, but she never cried or uttered the least sound, and at last she was home free.

If Arthur Daisy didn’t drive away in his car, if he happened instead to be working in his garden and saw her playing outside, he’d call to her. “Well, Saffi, what do you think I’ve got?” He kept calling to her. Your friend, Arthur Daisy, her daddy would tease her. She walked to his house on the side of the road, placing the heel of one foot in front of the toe of the other, her arms out for balance. “Hurry up, slowpoke,” he would say, pushing his gate open to let her in.

He looked like the old troll that lived under the bridge in Three Billy Goats Gruff, one of Saffi’s picture books. He wore an old brown cardigan, the pockets sagging with junk. “What do you think I’ve got?” he’d say, and he’d pull something out of a pocket and hold it in his clenched fist and if she stepped back he’d bend closer, closer, his colourless lips drawn back so that she could see his stained teeth, gums the bluish-pink of a dog’s gums. She didn’t want to guess, she was no good at it. She covered her eyes until he told her to look and it would turn out to be an old nail or a screwdriver or the sharp little scissors he used for cutting roses.

“Well?” he’d say. “What do you say? Has the cat got Saffi’s tongue?” He slapped his hand on his trouser leg and laughed his old troll laugh and picked up his shovel and went back to work digging in his garden.

That summer Saffi’s mother got hired as an operator at the B.C. Telephone Co. on Fitzwilliam Street. Her first job, she said, since she got married. Her first real job, ever. If she had a choice, she wouldn’t leave Saffi every day, but the truth was, she had no choice, she needed the extra income; she’d lost interest in being poor her entire life. She ran up some dresses for work on her old treadle sewing machine, dark blue dresses, in rayon or a serviceable poplin, something she said she could gussy up with a little white collar, or a strand of pearls.

Saffi remembered her mother wearing those dresses to work for years. When at last they’d gone completely out of style or had simply worn out, she’d cut them into squares and stitched them into a quilt for Saffi, and Saffi had it still, folded away in a cedar chest her husband’s parents gave her for a wedding present. When she took it out and ran her fingers over the scraps of fabric, little cornfields, meadows of blue, she couldn’t help returning in her mind to those long-ago summer mornings, bright and hot, dreamlike, almost, when she’d clung to her mother and begged her to stay home, and her mother had given her a weary, abstracted glance and pulled on the little chamois-soft gloves she wore for driving. She kissed Saffi on the top of her head and then she was gone, and Saffi heard her backing her car out onto the road and driving away. Aunt Loretta made Saffi sit at the table and eat her breakfast, but Saffi’s throat ached from not crying and she couldn’t swallow a spoonful. Aunt Loretta rinsed her uneaten porridge down the drain—what a terrible waste, she said—and then she wiped Saffi’s face with a dishrag and sent her outside to play in the sun while she got on with tidying the house. Saffi sat on the front steps and looked at one of her books, with pictures of a frog prince, his blubbery mouth pursed for a kiss, a scraggly old witch with skinny fingers reaching out to grab anyone she could catch.

Even though she knew he couldn’t see her, she imagined the bird-boy was watching, and so she turned the pages carefully. She was good at reading, but poor at arithmetic. It wasn’t her fault. The numbers had their own separate lives, their own shapes, and refused to let her touch them. Nine in its soldier’s uniform the colour of an olive with a double row of brass buttons. Three a Canterbury bell, a curled-up snail leaving a trail of slime, dragging its little clamshell house behind. Seven had a licking tongue of fire and smelled like a thunderstorm. Four was the sea coming in along the shore, it was a ship sailing, it was blue and white and stood on its one leg.

The numbers said: Leave us be! Be quiet! Don’t touch! They kept themselves apart, like little wicked soldiers in a castle. The teacher held her worksheets up in class and said, Is this the work a grade one girl should be doing? Saffi had to cover her ears and sing to herself about the Pied Piper, how he made the rats skip after him out of town and then the children followed and the town got dark and the parents wrung their hands and lamented, Oh, what have we done?

When Aunt Loretta finished the housework she called Saffi inside and read her a story about a turtledove.

“I know what that is,” Saffi said. “I seen a turtledove in the cellar at Arthur Daisy’s house.”

Aunt Loretta said she must have seen some other kind of bird. “All we have around here is pigeons,” she said. “You know what a pigeon looks like, don’t you? And it’s I saw, not I seen.”

“It looked like a boy,” Saffi said. “It had white feathers on its head. It sang like this: cheep, cheep, cheep.”

“Oh, Saffi,” her aunt said. “You are a funny little thing.”

Outside her house the road was all churned up where her daddy parked his logging truck when he got home. Sometimes he’d swing her up into the cab and she’d sit behind the steering wheel and he’d get her to pretend she was the driver, telling her, “Start the engine, Saffi, or we’ll still be sitting here when those logs sprout a whole new set of roots and branches.” He made engine noises like a growling cat and she pretended to turn the wheel and he gave directions. “Turn left,” he’d say. “Gear down for the hill, now shift into third, that’s the way.” It was hot in the truck and there was a sour smell of her daddy’s sweaty work shirt, the smell of stale thermos coffee and engine oil, the beer her daddy drank. Her daddy always said he was a hard-working, hard-drinking man and people could take him or leave him. Leave him, was his preference. He liked a quiet life. He liked his home and when he got home he deserved a beer, didn’t he? “Yes,” said Saffi. “Yes, sir, you do.”

“Who are you?” her daddy said. “Are you daddy’s favourite girl?”

Her daddy. Danny Shaughnessy. He was away in the woods for days at a time, then he’d be home, he’d come into the kitchen, where Saffi was standing on a kitchen chair at the counter, helping Aunt Loretta coat chicken pieces with flour or peel potatoes, little tasks her aunt allotted her to fill in the last hour or so until her mother returned. Her daddy would go straight to the fridge for a beer and sometimes he gave Saffi a taste, the beer making her gag and trickling down her chin and her daddy laughed and kissed it away. Her aunt told him to leave her alone. He said Saffi was his kid, wasn’t she? He didn’t have to leave his own kid alone, did he? Aunt Loretta said he could at least take off his work boots and wash his hands.

“Don’t you have a kitchen of your own to go to?” he’d say. “Isn’t it time you got back to good old Vernon, Loretta?”

They fought like kids, the way kids at school went at each other, hands on their hips, faces thrust forward, then they agreed to an armistice and sat at the kitchen table and had a glass of beer together, Saffi with them, and her daddy praised her, saying what a doll she was, a real little lady. On the drive down from Campbell River, he said, he’d heard on the radio a boy was missing, ten years old, a slightly built boy, with white-blond hair, last seen wearing shorts, a blue jacket, running shoes. And then, just south of Royston, a boy who answered that description exactly was standing at the side of the highway. He’d blasted the horn at him, because kids never understood, they had no idea how much room a truck like that needed to stop, they’d run out without thinking. More than likely it was some other kid, but what if it was this Eugene Dexter and he’d just driven on by?

He had another beer. He talked about joining the search party, if they needed more volunteers. He had a sense for these things, he said, a kind of infallible sixth sense, which was why he never got lost in the woods or took a wrong turn driving the truck. He stood up and stretched his arms and said he was going to have a shower. What time was supper going to be, he wanted to know, and Aunt Loretta said it would be when it was ready and not a minute sooner.

“Daddy’s girl!” her daddy said, sweeping Saffi off her feet, holding her high above his head, shaking her as if she were a cloth doll, her hair flopping in her eyes, and she laughed so hard she thought her sides would split open and the stuffing would fall out. I’ll knock the stuffing out of you, her daddy said when he was angry. But he was teasing. He was never angry with her. She was his girl. He tossed her in the air and caught her safely, every time. His fingers dug hard into her ribs and she couldn’t get a breath.

“Can’t you see she’s had enough?” her aunt said.

If she wasn’t laughing so hard, if her daddy wasn’t laughing and cursing Aunt Loretta, telling her she was a tight-assed old broad, she could tell him she had this bad secret in her head that hurt like blisters from a stinging nettle. In Arthur Daisy’s cellar there was a bird-boy, a turtledove, its head tucked beneath its wing.

It seemed to her a line divided her yard from Arthur Daisy’s yard. Even after all these years she saw this line as a real thing, like a skipping rope or a length of clothesline or a whip, taut, then slack, then pulled tight again until it sang like a banjo string and nearly snapped in two. The line or the rope or whatever it was separated the dangerous elements, fire and air, from the more tolerable elements of earth and water. That was how she pictured it. She crept into Arthur Daisy’s yard, holding her breath, mousey small, so small and quick no one could catch her. She pressed her hands to the window. She had to see if the bird-boy was still there, perched on his roost. He was. He scared her to death. His skull was luminous and frail as an egg, yet he seemed strong to her, his gaze cold, not beseeching but full of strength, as if nothing could hurt him. His eyes were dark, like a bird’s eyes. What did he eat? Where did he sleep? She called to him, whistling a tune she’d made up. She told him not to be afraid. She cupped a black and yellow caterpillar in her hand. It was so small she felt her heart curl around it. She pictured the hawthorn tree near the river, light spilling in tatters through the leaves, the sun caught in its branches. She saw the boy’s jacket hanging there still, as if no one cared enough to take it home.

She held the caterpillar up to the window, saying, look at this, look at this.

All around there was fire and air, scorching her hair and clothes, leaving her weak and sick and shaking with a chill, so that her mother would have to put her to bed and take her temperature and fuss over her and say, What have you done to yourself, Saffi? She put a cold cloth on Saffi’s forehead and called her dumpling pie and gave her half a baby Aspirin and a little ginger ale to swallow it with.

What did Saffi see? She saw Arthur Daisy in his garden, snipping at blood-red roses and sprays of spirea, telling Saffi he was on his way to visit the municipal cemetery to put flowers on his mother’s grave. His dear old mother, who’d passed away twenty years ago this month, almost to the day, dead of a wasting disease, did Saffi know what that meant? It ate her body up, her skin, her flesh, and she never was a fleshy person. She shrivelled up to the size of an old lima bean, a dried pea. She’d scare the liver out of you, he said, and that’s a fact. That was what happened when you got to be the age he was, he told Saffi. You ended up having to visit the dear departed on a regular basis. He placed his scissors and cut flowers on the ground.

“What’s wrong with you?” he said. “Cat got your tongue, little girl?” He bent over, his hands on his knees. He looked at her. He looked into her eyes and she knew he saw everything in her head; he knew how scared she was.

“Well, well,” he said, straightening up and brushing a leaf off his sleeve. “Isn’t Saffi a funny little monkey?” he said.

Before she could do a thing—run, or squirm away—he’d reached out and pinched her arm just above her elbow. It burned like a hornet’s sting. “There, now,” said Arthur Daisy, turning his face away. He picked up his flowers. He pocketed his scissors. Don’t think anything, she told herself. Behind her in the house there was the bird-boy crouched in the cellar, eating crumbs from the palm of his hand. She saw him like that in her dreams. She couldn’t get rid of him.

Sleep: what was sleep? Saffi’s mother complained to Saffi that never before in her life had she suffered from insomnia, normally she didn’t even dream, and now she was lucky if she got two or three hours of decent sleep a night. It could be the heat, she said. Or it could be that her head was crackling with the sound of voices, her own voice repeating endlessly, Number, please, and One moment, please, while your call is completed, and then the voices of strangers, people to whom she’d never in this life be able to attach a face or name. She was in her bedroom, the blind pulled down against the evening sun. Saffi stood beside her mother’s dressing table, watching her take off her pearl earrings and put them away in a jeweller’s box. Her mother pressed her hands to her head. She wasn’t used to working, she said; her nerves were shot. She’d lie awake until dawn, her temples throbbing, and a feeling of unbearable sadness, of grief, would descend on her. It haunted her all day. She hated this summer, it was unlucky; it was a trial to her and everyone else.

The real reason she couldn’t sleep, she said, was that she worried about life passing her by, about not getting the things she’d set her heart on, like a nicer house, with three bedrooms, in case she and Danny decided to have more kids, which they might, a little brother or sister for Saffi, or maybe one of each. Wouldn’t that be fun? she said, picking up her comb and tugging it painfully through the snarls in Saffi’s hair. In the mirror her eyes were resolute and bright, the skin around her mouth taut and pale.

Aunt Loretta always said that as far as babies went, it was her turn next. Who could doubt her? At her house she had a nursery prepared, the walls papered with kittens tangled up in balls of yarn. There were drawers full of handmade baby clothes and a bassinet with a silk coverlet and when Saffi visited she was allowed to lay her doll in it. Aunt Loretta patted the doll’s tummy and said, What a fine baby you have there, and for a moment it truly did seem there was a real baby asleep in the bassinet, snoring and fat as a little cabbage.

On the drive home, Saffi’s mother would say what a shame, what a shame, but not everyone could have they wanted. She shifted gears with a brisk movement of her wrist. “You can have a perfectly fulfilled life without children, they say. Sometimes I almost wish . . .” She glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror, running a finger along the edge of her lip. “Well,” she said. “I wish Loretta luck, that’s all.” Saffi understood that her mother didn’t want Aunt Loretta to have a baby or anything else; she was afraid Aunt Loretta would use up all the available good luck, the small quantity of it there was in this world, thus stealing something irreplaceable from Saffi’s mother. But knowing this didn’t make Saffi love her mother less. If anything, it made her love her more, but from a little further off, like the time her daddy took her to watch Uncle Vernon’s team playing baseball and they sat so high up in the bleachers her daddy said they needed high-powered binoculars to figure out who in the hell was on the pitcher’s mound.

“You can make your life turn out any way you want,” Saffi’s mother said. “You can realize your dreams through persistence and hard work combined with just a smidgeon of good fortune. Just a smidgeon. That’s all I ask.”

She drove so fast, barely slowing at stop signs, that a police ghost car pulled her over and the officer gave her a ticket and Saffi’s mother said, “Not again!” Then she told the police officer he had such a nice smile it was almost worth it. Son of a bitch, she muttered, letting the ticket fall to the floor of the car, where it got ripped in half when Saffi trod on it getting out. She knew she should have talked to the police officer. He was right there beside her mother’s car. She could have said, Wait, I know where he is, I know where he’s hiding, please listen, but she’d remained in her seat, glued to the upholstery, the heat making her sweaty and numb. She hated herself; stupid, stupid Saffi, what’s the matter, cat got your tongue?

“We are all autonomous beings,” her mother said, her hands on the steering wheel. “We all have free will. It’s just a matter of getting a few lucky breaks, that’s all.”

Within a very few years, as it turned out, Aunt Loretta and Uncle Vernon were the parents of twin boys, and then less than two years later they had a baby girl, so Saffi had three cousins to love and help care for, but she never did get the brother or sister her mother had promised her. Life didn’t work out as expected, not then, or, it seemed, at any other time. In 1968, when Saffi was eleven, her father was forced to quit work after developing chronic lower back pain, diagnosed variously as a herniated disc, sciatica, an acute inflammation at the juncture of the sacrum and the iliac, perhaps treatable with cortisone injections, perhaps not. Her father said it was all the same to him, he was fed up with the whole deal. He stayed at home, he watched TV and stared out the window at the rain, drumming his fingers on the glass, a prisoner, he said. Saffi’s mother would come home from work and grab his prescription drugs up off the kitchen table and say in disgust, “Beer and painkillers? Not that I care. You’re not a child, Danny Shaughnessy, are you? You can do what you damned well like.”

Her father moved out of the house. He stayed at a dubious-looking motel on the island highway and collected sick pay until it ran out, and then he packed up and announced he was moving to Ontario. He said he was no good to anyone and Saffi’s mother said she wasn’t about to argue the point. His hair was prematurely grey; he walked with the slightest stoop, alarmingly noticeable to Saffi, if not to him. Take me with you, she had pleaded. Things went wrong all around her and she was helpless to prevent it. She wanted a normal, happy life, like other girls her age. Couldn’t her daddy see that? She beat her fists against his chest and he caught her hands in his, still muscular, fit in spite of the injury to his back, and he said, “Hold on there, little girl, that’s enough of that.” Saffi swore she’d never speak to him again if he left and he said, “Well, Sugar, if that’s how you feel.” But she did speak to him. She kept in touch. Several years later, in Ontario, he got married for a second time, to someone called Liz, and then in the 1980s he went back to school and became a photocopier technician.

“What did you say your job was again?” Saffi would tease him on the phone. “Could you repeat that? Could you just run that by me again?” She made him laugh. He said she must have inherited his sick sense of humour.

“Daddy,” she said. “I wish I could see you. I really miss you.”

He mumbled something and then recovered and said, in his new brusque yet genial voice, the voice of a man in business, with business contacts and a little windowless office of his own, that she would always be his girl. Of course she would. “I know that,” she said. “I know.”

But the summer she was seven, a little girl in a sundress, her hair in pigtails, she didn’t believe anything would change in her life. She wouldn’t allow it. “I am not moving to any new house,” she said, kicking at the table legs. She sat there crayoning the pictures in her colouring book black and purple. She gave the sun a mad face. Outside there was Arthur Daisy’s house with its dark cellar and a bird-boy trapped in it. He had claws and a head full of feathers. If she stayed close nothing bad would happen to him, nothing bad; he would sleep and wake and sleep again and one day he’d fly up into the air, blinking at the light. Shoo, she’d say to him, and he’d fly off like a ladybug.

July 1964, there were dogs at the old potato farm, straining at their leashes, anxious to be let go, to pick up a scent and run with it along the banks of the Millstone River. Or who knows, maybe the dogs dreamed of steak dinners and only pretended to sniff the ground. In any event, they didn’t seem to have much luck tracking anything down.

It was a day of brilliant sun eclipsed at intervals by dark clouds. And there was Arthur Dawsley, a man in his late sixties, a bachelor or perhaps a widower, a man seemingly without family of his own, a volunteer member of the search party, after all, in spite of his age. He was given a clipboard and a pencil and told to keep track of the other volunteers. At the end of the day his shoulders drooped a little with fatigue. He wasn’t much help, really, more of a diversion, chatting to the police officers, reminiscing about a time when it was safe to leave your doors unlocked at night, you could forget your wallet in a public place and pick it up later, the bills still folded inside. People said that, they got nostalgic for a vanished code of ethics or morality; wishful thinking, in Arthur Dawsley’s opinion. He was a likeable old guy, or maybe not so likeable, maybe more of a nuisance, full of questions and bright ideas, not that they were of any real value.

Not everyone appreciated him. A young cop by the name of Alex Walters gave him a hollow, exasperated stare and considered asking him why he was so darned curious and where he’d been, exactly, on the afternoon young Eugene Dexter was last seen, wearing a blue cotton jacket and carrying two Marvel comics, all of which had been recovered from the bottom of the field. Or were the comics found near the three-speed bicycle, red with gold and black decals, the kind of bicycle Alex Waters dreamed of buying for his own infant son some day? He’d have to check the report again to be sure. Questioning Arthur Dawsley was just a thought that came to him, a result of his increasing sense of fatigue and irritation, more than anything, although for a moment the thought felt right, felt germane, almost woke him up, then got pushed to the back of his mind. What kind of a boy had he been? What kind of boy, before he was lost? It was said he was in the habit of wandering around on his own, that he had a passion for collecting butterflies and tadpoles, that he’d been a good student who had, at the assembly on the last day of school, received an award for academic achievement and a trophy for sportsmanship, his name inscribed for posterity on a little silver plaque. He was well-liked, mischievous, yet thoughtful, a little withdrawn at times, unexpectedly serious, old for his years, some said. For weeks, for months, there had been posters stapled to telephone poles, pictures of the missing boy, his fair hair sticking up a little in front, a wide smile, his teeth milk white and slightly protuberant, a small dimple at the corner of his mouth. An ordinary boy. His parents’ only son. How was it possible he was there one day and gone the next? And how was it possible that not one but two boys had vanished within a few weeks of each other, as if they’d never existed, or as if they had existed merely to be each other’s shadow image, a sad confirmation.

There were no answers, it seemed. It was a genuine and terrible mystery that infected the town like a virus and then suddenly cleared up, leaving as an after-effect an epidemic of amnesia. Not even the land appeared to remember: each spring the old potato farm erupted in a vigorous new crop of tufted grasses and coarse-leafed weeds drenched in dew, lopsided with spit-bug saliva. Tiny grey moths and butterflies patterned like curtains rose up in clouds. Birds nested in the trees. Children played there, running through the long grass, switching each other across the shins with willow branches. On the other side of the Millstone River the marsh got set aside as a park and bird sanctuary and Saffi walked there almost every day when her own children were young and even she didn’t always remember. The field she glimpsed on the far side of the river did not seem like the same field. That was, it did and did not look the same. For one thing, the town had grown up around it, crowding at its outermost boundaries. Some of the alders and hawthorns near the river had been cut down. But it remained just a field, innocent, mild, apart.

For each separate person the Earth came into being. It began its existence anew and surprised everyone with its beauty. So Saffi believed. The loss of any individual, any single life, must, therefore, dull the perception of beauty. Wasn’t that true? Loss was something you fought. But if it happened you got over it. What choice did you have? You recovered and went on. Wasn’t that what the therapists meant, when they used the word “healing”? Wasn’t that the promise implicit in therapy, and, for that matter, in religion? And all the fine maidens will not go to clay!

What did Saffi know? What had she seen and forgotten, or not forgotten, but remembered, shakily, in fragments that, once re-assembled, would make up a picture she could scarcely bear to contemplate? For a time she’d suffered with some kind of anxiety disorder, quite incapacitating and disagreeable. She no longer took medication; she had no need of it. But what a struggle! It was difficult to pinpoint a cause for the spells of depression and exhaustion and what she could only think of as an unnameable dread, a nearly living presence that did, at times, choose to haunt her. She’d gone through a hard time when she was first married, when the children were babies, but she’d recovered, hadn’t she? She just didn’t have the luxury of understanding every little thing that had happened in her life. How many people did? Memory was so imperfect. The habit of reticence, of keeping secrets, was, on the other hand, easily perfected; it was powerful and compelling, irresistible.

She was a vigilant parent. She couldn’t help it. If she lost sight of her kids, even for the briefest time, she felt a bleak, enervating moment of inevitability and it was as if she herself had vanished, as if the world was simply gone, all its substance and splendour disintegrating into nothing. She wouldn’t allow it. Just as her Aunt Loretta had taught her to love and respect nature, to study and give names to all things—trees, grasses, wildflowers, all growing things—Saffi passed on to her children what she laughingly called my arcane secrets. Because wasn’t there something arcane and essentially troubling in wild plants—their brief tenure on Earth, their straggling, indiscriminate growth and contradictory natures, both healing and destructive, the small stink of decay at the heart of each flower like a reproach or accusation?

She taught her children to be observant, to see the wonderful, unexpected architecture of an ant’s nest glistening like molten lava in the sun. Listen to the crickets, she said. Look at the mallard ducks, how they swim in pairs, peaceably. Look at the dragonflies, filled with light, primitive, unsteady, like ancient aircraft. Even: Look at this robin’s egg, shattered, vacant, useless. Look at this dead raccoon, its paws stiff as hooks. Go ahead, look, she said. It won’t hurt you to look.

She had a recurring dream, only it was more the memory of a dream that recurred, rather than the dream itself. In the dream she got up from her bed and went outside. She crawled through the hedge and crouched there in its shelter. She could see Arthur Daisy by his shed, the door swinging open, and inside the shed it seemed there was a greater darkness than the dark of night. There was Arthur Daisy, striking with his shovel at the ground, which had baked hard as clay after a long drought interrupted only by that one downpour the day the search party went out with the dogs and all the other useless things they took, sticks to beat down the grass and maps and walkie-talkie radios. All of them searching in the wrong place. Saffi was the only one who knew. But who would listen to her? What was true and what was something else, a made-up story?

It happened on the seventh day of the seventh month; Saffi was seven years old. She saw the sevens in a line, affronted, braced like sailors, their little tongues of flame licking at the air. They linked up and made a barbed-wire fence no one could get through. They made a prison house no one could enter.

A mist was rising over the yard. In the mist was a turtledove. The bird-boy wasn’t lost anymore. He wasn’t a boy waiting near a riverbank for a shape to appear comic and deceptive and dangerous as a troll. He was indeed a turtledove, soaring higher and higher, giving the night a sort of radiance that came from within, his soul or spirit shining out. In the dream Saffi spoke to herself kindly, saying, Hush, hush, it’s all right. It will be all right. And the only sound that came to her from the soundless well of her dream was the ringing of a shovel against the unyielding earth.

Reading Group Guide

 by Barbara Putnam

1. “That summer a boy went missing . . . ” is the beginning of “What Saffi Knows.” Or should it be “What Saffi Might—or Might Not Know”? Talk about the speculation, the maybes in the story, as if the truth were behind a wavering Northwest mist. What is the “unnameable dread” that haunts Saffi even as she later tries to protect her own children? How are images of poison and decay woven into the story? How does Saffi, a person of arcane secrets, she says, create a mythology to redeem the lost boy? We are told that Saffi means wisdom. “As a child she noticed things, she took things in, and to this day she can’t decide, is this a curse or a gift? A curse, she thinks, for the most part” (p. 4). Do we think of Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess doomed never to be believed?

2. Each of these stories is rich enough with suggestion and provocative detail to fuel a novel. Why do you think Windley, like Alice Munro, her compatriot, chooses the form of short story? “The thing about stories is that they are like bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all over the place before they get to the top of the pole” (Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres). Is this is an apt image for a complex short story?

3. How would you describe the author’s quality of mind? If fiction is to provide a direct impression of life, it must come from, Henry James said, “an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue.” Spider webs have delicacy and surprising tensile strength as well as individual designs of great beauty. Which of the stories operate this way?

4. A major theme running through the stories is absentee parents, parents absent in fact or in spirit. In “Home Schooling,” despite her little boy’s severe homesickness, “Randal’s mother was always leaving on a trip—to New York City, to Dallas, to Riyadh. She was an executive with a petroleum importing company” (p. 36). What is her excuse for ignoring her son’s pleas? Is she co-responsible for his fate? In “Children’s Games” Marisa recalls her father’s treatment of her and her brother when their mother was diagnosed with leukemia. “He should have talked to them. He was too full of his own pain. That day he walked out on them. He went to the bar. He drove around in his truck. She didn’t know what he did. He just wasn’t there” (p. 155). In “Sand and Frost” we have the Episcopal priest who doesn’t want to hear about his college daughter’s miseries (p. 84) and the frantic mother on the ferry who tries to placate her grizzling children with soda pop and gummy bears (p. 85), another kind of inadequate parenting. More serious are the deserting spouses in “Family in Black” and “The Joy of Life.” How do the consequences of a deserting parent reach far into children’s lives? In “The Reading Elvis,” Graham “wanted to tell Father Dimitri that his mother had never loved him and had never forgiven his father for deserting her and Graham” (p. 192). Does this defection leave Graham with a loss of confidence and a yearning for belonging?

5. How are loss and guilt springboards for painful memory but also for acceptance and redemption? Is this true in the two first two stories? How do Saffi and Nori’s stories, both about lost boys, differ?

6. How are ghosts almost bonus characters in the stories? In “Home Schooling” ghosts are an arresting way of moving the past into the present. Talk about the Japanese festival of Oban and Nori’s effort to summon up Randal. “The island was full of dead people. Every inch of it, it seemed to Annabel” (p. 34). Do ghosts represent an expansion through imagination or a retreat from real life on the part of characters? Look at the ghosts wafting through “The Family in Black,” from Sherry’s spirit in her old house to Nolan’s visitation by his dead parents (p. 78). Are there examples in other stories?

7. Although they may not be admirable, some of the characters are vivid, highly effective takers. Of the actress, one of the spirits of the island in “Home Schooling,” we hear “she was a wayward, selfish creature, with her whiskey, her money, and her men. Everyone coveted her, men and women; she knew it” (p. 35). Another person who knows how to work the world is Annabel’s sister. “Sophie was always ahead of her. Sophie already knew how life worked, where to find the secret doors, what passwords to utter to get what she wanted” (p. 41-2). Do these seem to be learned traits or just inborn cunning and self-concern? Sherry, leaping into a second marriage in “Family in Black,” is dressed in a “beaded tulle dress, flowers scattered in her hair . . . Her laughter was high and bright, sharp as a flung sword” (p. 51). What have Sophie and Sherry left in their wake?

8. Windley creates some odious people, beautifully described. Who are some of your favorites? One possibility is Nolan Ganz, “an imperious little man” (p. 51). “He was old and ridiculous, with his narrow shoulders and short muscular neck and big, clumsy hands and staring, dark eyes . . . Everything had to be the best, the rarest and most esteemed” (p. 65). He reminds us of a troll in fairy tales, powerful, judgmental, and whimsical. He controlled them with the force of his personality. Another deliciously repellent figure is Graham’s mother in “The Reading Elvis.” She came to visit after the birth of her grandchild. ‘she held the baby as if it were a live charge. Then, like the wicked jealous queen in a fairy tale, she turned to Graham and announced: “I had such a strange dream! You and the baby were left on your own. Just you and a motherless child. It was the saddest thing. . . . As she spoke, she gave Annette a sly, sidelong glance. That was his mother: tactless, cruel, prescient” (p. 211). It is this mother who “ate now, alone, making lightning-fast stabs with her fork, like something mean and sneaky far down on the food chain” (p. 210). Are there events in their past that might partially account for their malicious behavior? What other detestable characters do you remember from the stories?

9. How is the ideal of a happy family scrutinized if not debunked in several of the stories? In “Family in Black” we read of a “house where people played real-life musical chairs and someone was always getting shunted out of the game . . .” (p. 67). Sherry says “You come into someone’s life and it’s like catching the second act of a play. You pick it up as you go along” (p. 68). How is Sherry’s life with Nolan a “faint, imperfect echo” of the novel Rebecca? (p. 71). Even as Nadia acknowledges that this is her new family, she sees that it is “a broken, patchily reassembled family in the early years of a century no one had yet learned to trust or had any reason to trust” (p. 81). How have gold-and-black images been contrasted in the story?

10. In the same story, how do Maurice and Nolan, even though they are brothers-in-law and old friends, yet represent opposite values? Compare their occupations, their appearances, and their relationships with Nadia.

11. In “Sand and Frost,” Lydia reflects on the past and the nature of self. “How strange, Lydia thought, that each person was made up of innumerable past selves and these selves were hidden and unreachable” (p. 87). Is it true that people’s pasts are “unreachable” in these stories?

12. How does Windley transmute feelings of “unnameable dread” (p. 18) into stories of both menace and humanity? Does her frequent use of fairy tale motifs and myths open paths into timeless archetypes? How, and in which stories?

13. One of the joys of the book is Windley’s taste for bracing malevolence. In “Sand and Frost” it is a five-year-old girl with small shrewd eyes . . . she began a long unvoiced indictment of Lydia’s primary failings, admittedly legion: her introversion, her possessiveness, which concealed a gaping maw of insecurity, her willingness to live exclusively in the milieu of disgruntled dreams . . . “The little girl showed off for Lydia, standing on one leg, arms out. Lydia prayed for shipwreck. She wanted to grab the little girl’s tatty unwashed hair and drag her down with her, down into the cold, uncharted recesses of the Georgia Strait” (p. 86). How can we do anything but cheer at the thought? In the same story, Lydia’s mother is fair game for her mother-in-law. “Lydia’s grandmother would cosy up to Lydia, inching her chair closer, so that she could say in a perfectly audible whisper: This is an interesting variation on beef bourguignon, I must say. Why didn’t I ever think of leaving the gristle on the stewing beef?” (p. 99). Where else in the stories are we struck by this mix of menace and comedy?

14. Even though the stories are intensely psychological, there are crackling plot turns and switchbacks. Which stories do you find most dramatic? Part of the drama comes from having our assumptions challenged or subverted. Francine Prose has described this disorientation: “The ground on which we are standing keeps shifting under our feet . . . And we may find that our own familiar and dependable moral framework seems to have weakened and been shaken loose.” Did you find this happening to you as a reader?

15. In “Felt Skies” how is Rachel like several other young women in the book? Her non-relationship with an unsuitable older friend as she waits for life to happen? About her mother Bethany, she says, “We were our twinned selves, like to like. We were in a dream. It was a good dream, mostly, all the menace and danger kept manageably distant, like a thunderstorm far out to sea” (p. 122). What happens to this good dream, to this nurturing mother who drives into the night to rescue her daughter again?

16. What is the origin of the title “Children’s Games”? What is the spirit of Breughel’s painting and why has it stayed in Marisa’s mind, especially at Serenity Cove? “Children’s games, she thought. Wasn’t that what this was all about: the same scene, the same probing, febrile games, people acting like children, defenceless, trying to laugh, aching to learn something true and enduring. The sense of something to be won or lost” (p. 155). Even as Marisa stands back in judgment, is she completely immune from the games?

17. In “The Joy of Life,” do we have any sense of Alex’s engineering or at least easing Desiree’s defection? In later years, “It suddenly occurs to Alex that she’s put a lot of energy into her life. In a way, she has been the real artist . . . She has achieved one perfect work of art. That is, she’s managed to get what she desired, what she most desired, which is Tom and his handsome white house overlooking Puget Sound” (p. 186). Is this the same Alex who was subjugated by the powerful Desiree? Triggered by the retrospective of paintings, Alex sees that “Linked, she and Desiree have managed to discover joy, more than separately they deserved or could have achieved” (p. 189). Which part of the story do you find most interesting?

18. Windley is a master of the contradiction that imparts truth. About Annabel, “Even in the dark, she saw the truth curled in his eyes like a snail and felt an urge to extract it with an ice pick” (p. 44). In Kathleen, needy and intransigent, “her eyes were cold yet beseeching” (p. 195). And further in “The Reading Elvis,” “How true, he thought, how amazing: what had vanished forever would always be in some sense more vivid, more real and accessible, than what in fact existed” (p. 210). What other paradoxes did you find effective?

19. In the end of “The Reading Elvis,” what is the grim suggestion about Graham’s fate? How have we been prepared by the large shelter dogs growling at the wedding kiss and Sarah’s oddly proud prediction about what would happen if they ever got loose? (p. 205). How much do we care ultimately about Graham—never quite making things work, always grasping, still feeling judged by his dead mother? Are we touched at least by his realizing that he is a more limited being than he would like to be?

20. Did you find that the ends of the stories provide answers? Rather than a click in the lock to close the story, are you left with still more questions and new angles? (Is “The Joy of Life” perhaps an exception? Or not?) In the end of “Home Schooling,” Annabel turns and looks back on the family scene. “For a moment she believed Nori’s fire had in fact burned their house to the ground, and they had gathered mistakenly in its luminous afterimage, unable, or unwilling, to see how tenuous their situation was, how fragile and beautiful and transparent they had become” (p. 49).

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro; A Family Daughter by Maile Meloy; The Dead Fish Museum by Charles d’Ambrosio; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom; You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett; The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr; Close Range by Annie Proulx