Lucille Graber looks out the kitchen window, the rope in her hands. The harsh morning sunlight, reflecting off the snow, makes her squint as her eyes follow the older boys — Dean, Hugh, Lyle and Wes — walking, skipping or trudging to join their father in the fields. She continues to gaze for a few minutes after the boys disappear past the barn, and then turns and looks at the others, who are standing beside the table, waiting.
Keith, Dennis and Ralph are too young to do chores and too young to go with her into town for the weekly shopping. Keith waits patiently as she ties the rope around his waist. Ticklish Ralph giggles at its rough touch. Dennis, as usual, squirms and fusses, but goes still as she gives him a stern look.
The rope feels heavy as she ties it to the table leg.
She opens the stove door and puts in some more wood, and picks up her purse and her shopping bags.
“Be good, boys. I’ll be home soon,” Lucille says. She kisses each in turn, takes her coat off the hook, puts on her boots, and walks out into the frosty Saskatchewan morning.
The boys wait patiently at first. But as the sun climbs higher into the sky and the room cools down, they get restless. Ralph needs to use the toilet. Dennis, bored, pinches Keith, who punches him back. Eventually, with a lot of effort and a bit of help from Dennis, Keith unties the knot. He rubs his bruised hands and sits down. Dennis also flops onto a wooden chair — the one with the wobbly leg. Ralph rushes to the outhouse, colliding with his father as the older Grabers arrive from the fields for lunch.
Donovan Graber walks through the open door, carefully wiping the melting snow from his boots on the mat. He hangs his coat on its hook, noticing the empty space where Lucille’s coat should be. The older boys shed their outerwear too, though not as carefully; they are hungry and want their lunch.
Donovan tries not to show his surprise that Lucille isn’t home — no point alarming the boys — and wonders where she is and why lunch hasn’t been made yet. His eyes, now adjusted to the darker light of the kitchen, widen slightly at the sight of Keith holding the rope behind his back, a guilty look on his face. Donovan’s smile reassures the boy.
He doesn’t bother calling out — if she was home, she’d have made it known by now. Something must have delayed her in town. Donovan scrounges in the cupboards and icebox and improvises a quick lunch for the seven boys and himself.
They eat fast — Lucille often jokes that she didn’t need her husband to buy her a vacuum cleaner, the Grabers did such a good job of hoovering up their food — and mostly in silence. Donovan hardly notices what he’s eating or what his sons are up to. He’s thinking about the afternoon’s chores, thinking about Lucille, thinking about what to do with the younger boys. He barely notices when Wes gets up and clears all the plates away, or the tread of footsteps outside.
But he does notice the methodical thud on the door.
Wes, standing at the sink, starts to make a move, but his father shakes his head and pulls back his chair. He walks slowly to the door, and hesitates, takes a breath before turning the handle.
It creaks when he opens it— I should oil that someday, he thinks — and nods at the man standing there.
The boys — six of them at the table and the seventh at the sink — try to see who’s there, but their father is blocking their view.
Determined to see, Dennis and Ralph get up and stand behind their father, clutching his trousers. Recognizing the man on the threshold, they look up at the police officer in fearful awe.
At the table, Dean shuffles guiltily and swallows. Shit!, he thinks. Has Constable Booth found out about the smashed Co-Op store window? Hugh feigns indifference, pretending to be studying the John Deere calendar tacked to the wall in front of him. Lyle imitates his father and nods laconically at Martin. Wes starts to wash the plates and thinks about his mother.
Donovan Graber opens his mouth as if to speak, but finds he can’t say anything. He swallows, dryly, takes a deep breath and says finally, “Afternoon, Martin.”
“Afternoon, Donovan. May I come in?”
Corporal Booth wipes his boots on the frayed mat and sits at the table. He keeps his coat on.
“Coffee?” Donovan asks.
Martin Booth shakes his head.
Donovan sits opposite him and the other boys also scramble to sit down, except for Wes, who continues to watch from the sink. He knows there can only be one reason the constable is here, but part of him doesn’t want to listen, doesn’t want to learn the bad news.
Martin speaks quickly, stammering a little as he hurries to say his piece.
John Pedersen’s car had been found in the drainage ditch near the Maidstone road, with Lucille and John standing beside it. Both seem all right, Martin stresses, but they’ve been sent to the hospital in Lloydminster for observation. “You never know with an automobile accident. And they were out in the cold for a long time before Frank Hegarty happened to come along.”
Donovan exhales, unaware he’d been holding his breath. The boys, previously still, now twitch and squirm as young boys do. Wes dips his hands in the cooling dishwater, takes out a plate and begins to wipe it, his eyes unfocused. Hugh has exhausted his study of the calendar and briefly glances at the corporal. Dean also looks at the officer but when Martin looks back, he quickly drops his eyes, hoping he didn’t somehow give away his guilty relief.
The corporal continues, more slowly. “Lucille said she’d been walking into town when John came by and offered her a lift. I guess she was feeling the cold, because everyone knows old John Pedersen can’t see too good anymore.” He grins. “Cataracts, they say.” Donovan and his sons look at him. Dennis is open-mouthed. Ralph looks puzzled.
Dennis starts to speak — he wants to know what cataracts mean — but Martin starts talking first. “Don’t worry, lads,” he smiles. “Your mom’s okay, but I don’t think she’s going to be accepting any more rides from John Pedersen.” He drains the rest of the cooling coffee and prepares to rise.
“I’m heading back into town. I’ll drive Lucille home a bit later if you’d like. You’re not on the telephone yet?”
Donovan shakes his head. Dennis wants to speak again, to say how they will be on the telephone soon, but his father shushes him.
Martin nods, rises and heads to the door.
“See you around, Donovan. Be good, boys.”
Dean frowns, wondering if the statement was aimed at him.
Martin puts on his cap and opens the door. A cold wind briefly gusts through the kitchen as he shuts the door behind him.
The Grabers listen for a moment to the sound of the footsteps, the car door, and then the start of the engine.
“I’m still hungry!” Ralph says. His father puts his hand briefly on his shoulder, and shakes his head with a brief frown followed by a smile.
“Come on boys,” he says. “We have work to do.” He looks briefly at his sons. “That’s right, all of us.”
He leads them out of the kitchen.
Last in line, Keith starts to close the door and then realizes the rope is still in his hands. He throws it towards the table and turns and leaves, closing the door behind him. The rope catches the edge of the table, but — slowly at first, but then with more speed — slithers down to the floor.
The knock at the door — Dean’s point of view, first-person narrative:
That wasn’t much of a meal — stale bread, mealy apple, hunk of cheese. I don’t see how I can live on that and be expected to work all afternoon.
Was that a knock at the door? I guess mom must have forgot her keys. Why’s she so late anyway?
Oh shit, it’s Corporal Booth! Did I say that aloud? None of the others are looking at me, so I guess not.
How did he find out about last Saturday night? And why in hell did we have to get drunk on that rye and then go smashing windows? Shit!
Please God, let him be here for another reason. I promise never to drink rye again and to go to church every Sunday!
What should I do? How the hell did he find out? There was no-one around! Jack must have confessed, the snivelling idiot. Should I run? Can I deny it? Christ, my heart is pounding. I hope no-one else can hear it. Calm down. Deep breath.
Oh-oh, here he comes. Should I deny it? Or confess?
Wait a minute. He’s not even looking at me. What’s that he’s saying? Something about mom in an accident. Thank God for that.
No wait, I didn’t mean that! Thank you, God. No more drinking rye with Jack from now on, I promise.
The knock at the door, Wes’s point of view, third person narrative:
Wes takes the dirty plate and, without thinking, wipes it with the dirty dishcloth. He’s worried about his mother. Never, as long as he can remember, has she not been home to give them lunch.
She’s never not been home at lunch, he thinks as he puts the still dirty plate in the drying rack. What if she’s dead, or — and he pauses — run away? He wouldn’t blame her, he thinks, looking around at the dismal kitchen and the rest of the family. I’d like to run away too. Why couldn’t she take me with her?
When the knock comes at the door, he jumps, but then dries his hands and starts to head to the door. But he sees his father is getting up, so he goes back to the dishes. He takes another dirty plate and begins to wipe it, but his eyes are following Constable Booth as the mountie trods towards the table.
He swallows in fear and stops washing, his hands in the cooling dirty water. He knows there can only be one reason the constable is here, but part of him doesn’t want to listen, doesn’t want to learn the bad news.
But he does listen, and gradually his heartbeat slows, and he even allows himself a smile and resumes washing the plate.