Spit Delaney’s Island

Spit Delaney’s Island

by Jack Hodgins

$18.95

  • February 2011
  • ISBN 978-1-55380-111-5
  • ebook ISBN 978-1-55380-121-4
  • 6″ x 9″ Trade Paperback, 208 pages
  • Short Stories



Jack Hodgins‘ first book, published originally in 1976, is once again in print — in a new edition. Winner of the Eaton’s Book Prize and nominated for the Governor General’s Award, Spit Delaney’s Island, a collection of short stories, put Vancouver Island on the map as a Canadian literary locale and set Hodgins off on his literary career.

Often compared to Faulkner’s fiction of the deep South, Hodgins’ stories develop through people who seem to live at the edge of the world, always in danger of falling off that edge. There is Spit himself, the keeper of a steam locomotive that has been exiled to Ottawa for display; there are loggers, country wives, bookstore owners, and people who “live up the mountain” in isolated communes.

Hodgins’ prose brings Vancouver Island to life in its touch, its taste and the sound of its dialects — a determinedly real world. At the same time he imbues his people with a sense that there is something more that they cannot see but which they sense and strive towards — a mystery or even magic that they can almost touch but which remains forever elusive.

“Jack Hodgins’ stories do one of the best things fiction can do — they reveal the extra dimension of the real place, they light up the crazy necessities of real life.” —Alice Munro

Click here to read a sample story from Spit Delaney’s Island

By the River

But listen, she thinks, it’s nearly time.

And flutters, leaf-like, at the thought. The train will rumble down the
valley, stop at the little shack to discharge Styan, and move on. This will
happen in half an hour and she has a mile still to walk.

Crystal Styan walking through the woods, through bush, is not pretty.
She knows that she is not even a little pretty, though her face is small
enough, and pale, and her eyes are not too narrow. She wears a yellow
wool sweater and a long cotton skirt and boots. Her hair, tied back so the
branches will not catch in it, hangs straight and almost colourless down
her back. Some day, she expects, there will be a baby to play with her hair
and hide in it like someone behind a waterfall.

She has left the log cabin, which sits on the edge of the river in a stand
of birch, and now she follows the river bank upstream. A mile ahead, far
around the bend out of sight, the railroad tracks pass along the rim of their
land and a small station is built there just for them, for her and Jim Styan.
It is their only way in to town, which is ten miles away and not much of a
town anyway when you get there. A few stores, a tilted old hotel, a movie
theatre.

Likely, Styan would have been to a movie last night. He would have
stayed the night in the hotel, but first (after he had seen the lawyer and
bought the few things she’d asked him for) he would pay his money and
sit in the back row of the theatre and laugh loudly all the way through the
movie. He always laughs at everything, even if it isn’t funny, because those
figures on the screen make him think of people he has known; and the
thought of them exposed like this for just anyone to see embarrasses him
a little and makes him want to create a lot of noise so people will know he
isn’t a bit like that himself.

She smiles. The first time they went to a movie together she slouched
as far down in the seat as she could so no one could see she was there or
had anything to do with Jim Styan.

The river flows past her almost silently. It has moved only a hundred
miles from its source and has another thousand miles to go before it
reaches the ocean, but already it is wide enough and fast. Right here she
has more than once seen a moose wade out and then swim across to the
other side and disappear into the cedar swamps. She knows something,
has heard somewhere that farther downstream, miles and miles behind
her, an Indian band once thought this river a hungry monster that liked to
gobble up their people. They say that Coyote their god-hero dived in and
subdued the monster and made it promise never to swallow people again.
She once thought she’d like to study that kind of thing at a university or
somewhere, if Jim Styan hadn’t told her grade ten was good enough for
anyone and a life on the road was more exciting.

What road? she wonders. There isn’t a road within ten miles. They
sold the rickety old blue pickup the same day they moved onto this place.
The railroad was going to be all they’d need. There wasn’t any place they
cared to go that the train, even this old-fashioned milk-run outfit, couldn’t
take them easily and cheaply enough.

But listen, she thinks, it’s nearly time.

The trail she is following swings inland to climb a small bluff and for a
while she is engulfed by trees. Cedar and fir are dark and thick and damp.
The green new growth on the scrub bushes has nearly filled in the narrow
trail. She holds her skirt up a little so it won’t be caught or ripped, then
runs and nearly slides down the hill again to the river’s bank. She can see
in every direction for miles and there isn’t a thing in sight which has anything
to do with man.

“Who needs them?” Styan said, long ago.

It was with that kind of question—questions that implied an answer so
obvious only a fool would think to doubt—that he talked her first out of
the classroom and then right off the island of her birth and finally up here
into the mountains with the river and the moose and the railroad. It was
as if he had transported her in his falling-apart pickup not only across the
province about as far as it was possible to go, but also backwards in time,
perhaps as far as her grandmother’s youth or even farther. She washes
their coarse clothing in the river and depends on the whims of the seasons
for her food.

“Look!” he shouted when they stood first in the clearing above the
cabin. “It’s as if we’re the very first ones. You and me.”

They swam in the cold river that day and even then she thought of
Coyote and the monster, but he took her inside the cabin and they made
love on the fir-bough bed that was to be theirs for the next five years. “We
don’t need any of them,” he sang. He flopped over on his back and shouted
up into the rafters. “We’ll farm it! We’ll make it go. We’ll make our own
world!” Naked, he was as thin and pale as a celery stalk.

When they moved in he let his moustache grow long and droopy like
someone in an old, brown photograph. He wore overalls which were far
too big for him and started walking around as if there were a movie camera
somewhere in the trees and he was being paid to act like a hillbilly
instead of the city-bred boy he really was. He stuck a limp felt hat on the
top of his head like someone’s uncle Hiram and bought chickens.

“It’s a start,” he said.

“Six chickens?” She counted again to be sure. “We don’t even have a
shed for them.”

He stood with his feet wide apart and looked at her as if she were stupid.
“They’ll lay their eggs in the grass.”

“That should be fun,” she said. “A hundred and sixty acres is a good-size
pen.”

“It’s a start. Next spring we’ll buy a cow. Who needs more?”

Yes who? They survived their first winter here, though the chickens
weren’t so lucky. The hens got lice and started pecking at each other. By
the time Styan got around to riding in to town for something to kill the
lice a few had pecked right through the skin and exposed the innards.
When he came back from town they had all frozen to death in the yard.
At home, back on her father’s farm in the blue mountains of the island,
nothing had ever frozen to death. Her father had cared for things. She had
never seen anything go so wrong there, or anyone have to suffer.

She walks carefully now, for the trail is on the very edge of the river
bank and is spongy and broken away in places. The water, clear and shallow
here, back-eddies into little bays where cattail and bracken grow and
where water-skeeters walk on their own reflection. A beer bottle glitters
where someone, perhaps a guide on the river, has thrown it—wedged
between stones as if it has been here as long as they have. She keeps her
face turned to the river, away from the acres and acres of forest which are
theirs.

Listen, it’s nearly time, she thinks. And knows that soon, from far up
the river valley, she will be able to hear the throbbing of the train, coming
near.

She imagines his face at the window. He is the only passenger in the
coach and sits backwards, watching the land slip by, grinning in expectation
or memory or both. He tells a joke to old Bill Cobb the conductor but
even in his laughter does not turn his eyes from outside the train. One spot
on his forehead is white where it presses against the glass. His fingers run
over and over the long drooping ends of his moustache. He is wearing his
hat.

Hurry, hurry, she thinks. To the train, to her feet, to him.

She wants to tell him about the skunk she spotted yesterday. She wants
to tell him about the stove, which smokes too much and needs some kind
of clean-out. She wants to tell him about her dream; how she dreamed he
was trying to go into the river and how she pulled and hauled on his feet
but he wouldn’t come out. He will laugh and laugh at her when she tells
him, and his laughter will make it all right and not so frightening, so that
maybe she will be able to laugh at it too.

She has rounded the curve in the river and glances back, way back, at
the cabin. It is dark and solid, not far from the bank. Behind the poplars
the cleared fields are yellowing with the coming of fall but now in all that
place there isn’t a thing alive, unless she wants to count trees and insects.
No people. No animals. It is scarcely different from her very first look at
it. In five years their dream of livestock has been shelved again and again.
Once there was a cow. A sway-backed old Jersey.

“This time I’ve done it right,” he said. “Just look at this prize.”

And stepped down off the train to show off his cow, a wide-eyed beauty
that looked at her through a window of the passenger coach.

“Maybe so, but you’ll need a miracle, too, to get that thing down out of
there.”

A minor detail to him, who scooped her up and swung her around and
kissed her hard, all in front of the old conductor and the engineer who
didn’t even bother to turn away. “Farmers at last!” he shouted. “You can’t
have a farm without a cow. You can’t have a baby without a cow.”

She put her head inside the coach, looked square into the big brown
eyes, glanced at the sawed-off horns. “Found you somewhere, I guess,” she
said to the cow. “Turned out of someone’s herd for being too old or senile
or dried up.”

“An auction sale,” he said, and slapped one hand on the window glass.
“I was the only one there who was desperate. But I punched her bag and
pulled her tits; she’ll do. There may even be a calf or two left in her swaybacked
old soul.”

“Come on, bossy,” she said. “This is no place for you.”

But the cow had other ideas. It backed into a corner of the coach and
shook its lowered head. Its eyes, steady and dull, never left Crystal Styan.
“You’re home,” Styan said. “Sorry there’s no crowd here or a band playing
music, but step down anyway and let’s get started.”

“She’s not impressed,” she said. “She don’t see any barn waiting out
there either, not to mention hay or feed of any kind. She’s smart enough
to know a train coach is at least a roof over her head.”

The four of them climbed over the seats to get behind her and pushed
her all the way down the aisle. Then, when they had shoved her down the
steps, she fell on her knees on the gravel and let out a long unhappy bellow.
She looked around, bellowed again, then stood up and high-tailed it
down the tracks. Before Styan even thought to go after her she swung
right and headed into bush.

Styan disappeared into the bush, too, hollering, and after a while the
train moved on to keep its schedule. She went back down the trail and
waited in the cabin until nearly dark. When she went outside again she
found him on the river bank, his feet in the water, his head resting against
a birch trunk.

“What the hell,” he said, and shook his head and didn’t look at her.

“Maybe she’ll come back,” she said.

“A bear’ll get her before then, or a cougar. There’s no hope of that.”

She put a hand on his shoulder but he shook it off. He’d dragged her
from place to place right up this river from its mouth, looking and looking
for his dream, never satisfied until he saw this piece of land. For that
dream and for him she had suffered.

She smiles, though, at the memory. Because even then he was able to
bounce back, resume the dream, start building new plans. She smiles, too,
because she knows there will be a surprise today; there has always been a
surprise. When it wasn’t a cow it was a bouquet of flowers or something
else. She goes through a long list in her mind of what it may be, but knows
it will be none of them. Not once in her life has anything been exactly the
way she imagined it. Just so much as foreseeing something was a guarantee
it wouldn’t happen, at least not in the exact same way.

“Hey you, Styan!” she suddenly calls out. “Hey you, Jim Styan. Where
are you?” And laughs, because the noise she makes can’t possibly make
any difference to the world, except for a few wild animals that might be
alarmed.

She laughs again, and slaps one hand against her thigh, and shakes her
head. Just give her—how many minutes now?—and she won’t be alone.
These woods will shudder with his laughter, his shouting, his joy. That
train, that dinky little train will drop her husband off and then pass on like
a stay-stitch thread pulled from a seam.

“Hey you, Styan! What you brought this time? A gold brooch? An old
nanny goat?”

The river runs past silently and she imagines that it is only shoulders
she is seeing, that monster heads have ducked down to glide by but are
watching her from eyes grey as stone. She wants to scream out “Hide, you
crummy cheat, my Coyote’s coming home!” but is afraid to tempt even
something that she does not believe in. And anyway she senses—far off—
the beat of the little train coming down the valley from the town.

And when it comes into sight she is there, on the platform in front of
the little sagging shed, watching. She stands tilted far out over the tracks
to see, but never dares—even when it is so far away—to step down onto
the ties for a better look.

The boards beneath her feet are rotting and broken. Long stems of grass
have grown up through the cracks and brush against her legs. A squirrel
runs down the slope of the shed’s roof and yatters at her until she turns
and lifts her hand to frighten it into silence.

She talks to herself, sings almost to the engine’s beat “Here he comes,
here he comes”—and has her smile already as wide as it can be. She smiles
into the side of the locomotive sliding past and the freight car sliding past
and keeps on smiling even after the coach has stopped in front of her and
it is obvious that Jim Styan is not on board.

Unless of course he is hiding under one of the seats, ready to leap up,
one more surprise.

But old Bill Cobb the conductor backs down the steps, dragging a gunny
sack out after him. “H’lo there, Crystal,” he says. “He ain’t aboard today
either, I’m afraid.” He works the gunny sack out onto the middle of the
platform. “Herbie Stark sent this, it’s potatoes mostly, and cabbages he was
going to throw out of his store.”

She takes the tiniest peek inside the sack and yes, there are potatoes
there and some cabbages with soft brown leaves.

The engineer steps down out of his locomotive and comes along the
side of the train rolling a cigarette. “Nice day again,” he says with barely a
glance at the sky. “You makin’ out all right?”

“Hold it,” the conductor says, as if he expects the train to move off by
itself. “There’s more.” He climbs back into the passenger car and drags out
a cardboard box heaped with groceries. “The church ladies said to drop
this off,” he says.

“They told me make sure you get every piece of it, but I don’t know
how you’ll ever get it down to the house through all that bush.”

“She’ll manage,” the engineer says. He holds a lighted match under the
ragged end of his cigarette until the loose tobacco blazes up. “She’s been
doing it—how long now?—must be six months.”

The conductor pushes the cardboard box over against the sack of potatoes
and stands back to wipe the sweat off his face. He glances at the engineer
and they both smile a little and turn away. “Well,” the engineer says,
and heads back down the tracks and up into his locomotive.

The conductor tips his hat, says “Sorry,” and climbs back into the empty
passenger car. The train releases a long hiss and then moves slowly past
her and down the tracks into the deep bush. She stands on the platform
and looks after it a long while, as if a giant hand is pulling, slowly, a staystitching
thread out of a fuzzy green cloth.

Click here to close the book excerpt.

Reviews & Awards:

Winner of the Eaton’s Book Prize

Nominated for the Governor General’s Award

Other Ronsdale books by Jack Hodgins: