Annette Martin’s novel-in-progress is set in outport Newfoundland and spans five decades. As a headstrong teenager, Lexie Fisher marries wayward Dan and quickly has three daughters, Iris, Rose, and Daisy. Newfoundland winters, poverty, and Dan’s drinking slowly fray Lexie’s mind. Her young daughters must assume adult roles—of one sort or another. Understorey Magazine is pleased to present an excerpt from The Alder Bed.
The Alder Bed: Chapter Twenty
By the spring of ’31, Mother’s behavior was becoming worrisome. Rose was nine years old, she was seeing that her mother was not well in some way. At times Mother was very childlike, she’d try to join in with Rose and Daisy and the Miller girls when they were playing Snakes-and-Ladders, or push she’d herself into line when they were jumping rope. And worse, she was slipping out of the house and wandering aimlessly around the community.
“People are talking about her, Rose,” Daisy grumbled. “I heard some boys making jokes about her.”
One cold, windy March day, Mother jumped out of her chair and headed for the door. Rose and Daisy followed to make sure she was alright. They’d given up trying to make her stay home, she’d get hysterical and fight them.
As they went up over the hill past Aunt Molly’s house, Molly called out from the doorway. “Daisy, Rose, it’s freezing, couldn’t you keep her home?” The answer to that became clear when Mother walked on past without a word, her face grim. “Hang on, then,” Molly said, running back into the house. She came out with an old black coat, caught up with Mother and somehow managed to get the coat around her.
A parade of lost souls, they straggled up the hill past Martin’s Medder and on down into the Cove. They’d just passed Howley’s Pond when Mother stopped dead in her tracks and turned around. “Thank God,” Daisy said, “I was afraid we were gonna end up in Heart’s Content.”
As they started back, a gust of wind caught the tail of Mother’s black coat, pushing it up like a cape. She began to flap her arms up and down. “Caw, caw. I’m a crow, a big, black crow. Caw, caw.”
Alarmed, Rose looked to Daisy for help. “Let’s just get her home before anyone sees her,” Daisy said. They had just made it to the Five Roads when Daisy groaned, “Oh, God, there’s a woman coming up the road. And a man coming from the Square.”
“Caw, caw,” Mother squealed, flapping her arms energetically.
“They’ll think she’s crazy,” Daisy whispered. “Pretend we’re doing it for fun.”
So they joined in, caw-cawing themselves, pointing at Mother and each other and laughing. Rose felt miserable, she knew she shouldn’t be making fun of her mother. She wished she was safe at home, away from the stares.
At that moment, Mother’s friend Dora Miller stepped out of Follett’s shop. Without a second’s hesitation, she put her arm around Mother. “Hello, Lexie,” she said calmly. “It’s Dora, m’dear, can I walk along with you?” Mother relaxed and Dora led her home, got her a cup of tea and sat with her for an hour before she got up to leave. “I think she’s settled now,” Dora whispered, running her hand over Rose’s hair. “Don’t worry, Pet, I’m always close by if you need me.”
That night, as she lay in bed fretting about her mother, Rose said a little prayer of thanks for Dora Miller. Thank you God for Miz Miller helping us, and that she lives close by. I hope you’ll make Mother better, and make Dad stop drinking. Amen. It had been a while since she’d said her prayers, but at that moment she thought it was proper.
Sometimes, Mother was a handful even for Dora Miller. The girls had just gathered around the rag mat in the Millers’ kitchen to play marbles when Mother barged in the door and sat down. “Marbles,” she said, excitedly. Rose and Daisy exchanged looks. They’d left her napping in the bedroom, thought it was safe to leave for a little while.
Four questioning faces turned to Miz Miller. “It’s alright, let her play. I’ll watch her.” Blanche and Lucy, the Millers’ daughters, rolled their eyes at their mother. Rose sighed. Wasn’t there one place where she could get away? Even as the thought occurred, she felt her cheeks burn with guilt.
“Huh!” grumped Blanche, disgruntled at her mother’s ruling. She was chewing on a wad of frankum, cracking and smacking and tonguing it around her mouth. She picked up the five marbles and tossed them into the air, pushing the gum out between her teeth as she did so.
Mother’s hand darted out, grabbed the gum and stuffed it into her own mouth. There was a sharp intake of breath from around the circle. Blanche looked stunned. “Give that back!” she squealed, sticking her finger into Mother’s mouth to hook the gum. Mother bit down hard. Blanche screamed. Lucy ran upstairs crying. Mother howled with laughter.
“Come on, let’s go,” Daisy muttered. “I’m getting sick of this.” As they started down the path, Mother struck up a chorus of Abide with Me.