He would use these branches as poles to mark out the perimeter of the site, about twenty square feet comprising one scrub bush, one small hawthorn, a sizable area of deep heavy snow, and the ice along the shoreline. Much would happen here, he knew, in the next week or so, some of it natural, some of it caused by his own activities. When the poles were in place, he began to record the site with his camera, first the whole area and then the details, reducing the depth of field in stages until he was able to capture a thorn on the small tree, a grey, cracked milkweed pod with one remaining seed attached, and the feathered end of a tall weed stalk that had somehow not succumbed to the weight of snow. He enjoyed these exercises in increasing intimacy and was warmed by the knowledge that he would be able to remain for a period of time in the vicinity of the natural references that would move him.
He was also pleased by the remnants of abandoned architecture that he had seen here and there on the island, the way these weakened structures had held their ground despite time and rot and the assault of a century of winters.
After Jerome and his family had drifted down from the north in his early childhood, they had lived first in a small suburban house and then in an apartment building perched on a cluttered edge of Toronto, far away from such haphazard architecture as tool sheds, chicken coops, stables. And yet, his otherwise solemn and often angry father could be brought to levels of brief excitement in the vicinity of childhood projects such as the making of kites, go-karts, tree houses, or forts in scrub lots slated for future development. The engineer in him, Jerome now believed, that part of him he had been forced to abandon when the mine closed, could be miraculously, though falsely, shaken into wakefulness by something as simple as the placement of load-bearing lumber in a tree. His enthusiasm waned quickly, however, as did Jeromes, and these projects were almost always left unfinished, slowly decaying on the margins of the property, until Jerome returned to them later and took a renewed interest in their construction and eventual restoration. After the horror of his fathers death, Jerome would call to mind the structures on the now residential lots, and he found that he would be able to recall almost exactly the way a tree house had creaked in the wind, one loose board knocking against a branch, or the way the large nails had looked in his fathers palm, his mouth, and then the same nails after a year or so, exposed and rusting during the decline of winter. Once, as a young adult, Jerome had walked all over the low-rental housing development that occupied what had been the vacant land, looking for the tree near a dirty stream where one of these projects had begun to take shape. But both the stream and its culvert were gone. There was simply no way to place even the few scraps of memory he had retained. His first project, then, would be an attempt to rebuild what he thought of as the few good moments of his childhood and would take the form of temporary and incomplete structures playhouses of a sort that he made himself with torn plastic, discarded wood, and broken objects found in abandoned lots.
He remembered a journey he had taken a few years before on a train, a journey he was able to recall now only in terms of the images he had collected while staring out the window. Trains were vanishing from this vast cold province and were often halfempty,
those who were there likely being too poor to afford the kind of cars he saw on the freeway that for part of the journey mirrored the path of the railway. He had been thinking about the early days, about vacations taken when his father was still relatively well, holidays that were spent in one provincial park or another, he and his parents crammed into a tent that his father had bought at an army surplus store. He remembered the sight of this tent, an ominous bundle strapped to the roof rack of their deteriorating car along with the bicycle that his father had given him and that he seldom rode. He also recalled the campfires his father had taught him to make, the configurations of which were named after architectural structures such as the teepee or the log cabin. It wasnt until years later that he realized that the ignition of these constructions, made so that air might move more freely and carry fire farther, faster, was like the burning of the history of the country in miniature, a sort of exercise in forgetting first the Native peoples and then the settlers, whose arrival had been the demise of these peoples, settlers in whose blood was carried the potential for his own existence.
From A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart. Copyright Jane Urquhart 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of MacAdam/Cage Publishing.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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