What Do You Want to Know For?

Jan Ubels/Flickr
Jan Ubels/Flickr

We were saddened to learn that Alice Munro passed away on May 13, 2024, at the age of 92. This short story, which our previous editor, Robert Wilson, called “mysterious and affecting,” appeared in the first issue of the Scholar to feature fiction.

I saw the crypt before my husband did. It was on the left-hand side, his side of the car, but he was busy driving. We were on a narrow, bumpy road.

“What was that?” I said. “Something strange.”

A large, unnatural mound blanketed with grass.

We turned around as soon as we could find a place, though we hadn’t much time. We were on our way to have lunch with friends who live on Georgian Bay. But we are possessive about this country and try not to let anything get by us.

There it was, set in the middle of a little country cemetery. Like a big woolly animal—like some giant wombat, lolling around in a prehistoric landscape.

We climbed a bank and unhooked a gate and went around to look at the front end of this thing. A stone wall there, between an upper and a lower arch, and a brick wall within the lower arch. No names or dates, nothing but a skinny cross carved roughly into the keystone of the upper arch, as with a stick or a finger. At the other, lower end of the mound, nothing but earth and grass and some big protruding stones, probably set there to hold the earth in place. No markings on them, either—no clues as to who or what might be hidden inside.

We returned to the car.

About a year after this, I had a phone call from the nurse in my doctor’s office. The doctor wanted to see me. An appointment had been made. I knew without asking what this would be about. Three weeks or so before, I had gone to a city clinic for a mammogram. There was no special reason for me to do this, no problem. It is just that I have reached the age when a yearly mammogram is recommended. I had missed last year’s, however, because of too many other things to do.

The results of the mammogram had been sent to my doctor.

There was a lump deep in my left breast, which neither my doctor or I had been able to feel. We still could not feel it. My doctor said that the mammogram showed it to be about the size of a pea. He had made an appointment for me to see a city doctor who would do a biopsy. As I was leaving he laid his hand on my shoulder. A gesture of concern or reassurance. He is a friend, and I knew that his first wife’s death had begun in just this way.

There were 10 days to be put in before I could see the city doctor. I filled the time by answering letters and cleaning up my house and going through my files and having people to dinner. It was a surprise to me that I was busying myself in this way instead of thinking about what you might call deeper matters. I didn’t do any serious reading or listening to music, and I didn’t go into a muddled trance as I so often do, looking out the big window in the early morning as the sunlight creeps into the cedars. I didn’t even want to go for walks by myself, though my husband and I went for our usual walks together or for drives.

I got it into my head that I would like to see the crypt again and to find out something about it. So we set out, sure—or reasonably sure—that we remembered which road it was on. But we did not find it. We took the next road over and did not find it on that one either. Surely it was in Bruce County, we said, and it was on the north side of an east-west unpaved road, and there were a lot of evergreen trees close by. We spent three or four afternoons looking for it and were puzzled and disconcerted. But it was a pleasure, as always, to be together in this part of the world looking at the countryside that we think we know so well and that is always springing some sort of surprise on us.

The landscape here is a record of ancient events. It was formed by the advancing, stationary, and retreating ice. The ice has staged its conquests and retreats here several times, withdrawing for the last time about 15,000 years ago.

Quite recently, you might say. Quite recently now that I have got used to a certain way of reckoning history.

A glacial landscape such as this is vulnerable. Many of its various contours are made up of gravel, and gravel is easy to get at, easy to scoop out, and always in demand. That’s the material that makes these back roads passable—gravel from the chewed-up hills, the plundered terraces, that have been turned into holes in the land. And it’s a way for farmers to get hold of some cash. One of my earliest memories is of the summer my father sold off the gravel on our river flats, and we had the excitement of the trucks going past all day, as well as the importance of the sign at our gate. Children Playing. That was us. Then when the trucks were gone, the gravel removed, there was the novelty of pits and hollows that held, almost into the summer, the remains of the spring floods. Such hollows will eventually grow clumps of tough flowering weeds, then grass and bushes.

In the big gravel pits you see hills turned into hollows—as if a part of the landscape had managed, in a haphazard way, to tum itself inside out—and hollows where before there were only terraces or river flats. The steep sides of the hollows grow lush, in time, bumpy with greenery. But the tracks of the glacier are gone for good.

So you have to keep checking, taking in the changes, seeing things while they last.

We have special maps that we travel with. They are maps sold to accompany a book called The Physiography of Southern Ontario, by Lyman Chapman and Donald Putnam—whom we refer to, familiarly but somewhat reverentially, as Put and Chap. These maps show the usual roads and towns and rivers, but they show other things as well—things that were a complete surprise to me when I first saw them.

Look at just one map—a section of southern Ontario south of Georgian Bay. Roads and towns and rivers appear, as well as township boundaries. But look what else—patches of bright yellow, fresh green, battleship gray, and a darker mud gray, and a very pale gray, blue and tan and orange and rosy pink and purple and burgundy brown. Clusters of freckles. Ribbons of green like grass snakes. Narrow fluttery strokes from a red pen.

What is all this?

The yellow color shows sand, not along the lakeshore but collected inland, often bordering a swamp or a long-gone lake. The freckles are not round but lozenge shaped, and they appear in the landscape like partly buried eggs, with the blunt end against the flow of the ice. These are drumlins—thickly packed in some places, sparse in others. Some qualifying as big smooth hills, some barely breaking through the ground. They give their name to the soil in which they appear (drumlinized till—tan) and to the somewhat rougher soil that has none of them in it (undrumlinized till—battleship gray). The glacier in fact did lay them down like eggs, neatly and economically getting rid of material that it had picked up in its bulldozing advance. And where it didn’t manage this, the ground is naturally rougher.

The purple tails are end moraines. They show where the ice halted on its long retreat, putting down a ridge of rubble at its edge. The vivid green strokes are eskers, and they are the easiest of all features to recognize when you’re looking through the car window. Miniature mountain ranges, dragons’ backs—they show the route of the rivers that tunneled under the ice, at right angles to its front. Torrents loaded with gravel, which they discharged as they went. Usually there will be a little mild-mannered creek running along beside an esker—a direct descendant of that ancient battering river.

The orange color is for spillways, the huge channels that carried off the meltwater. And the dark gray shows the swamps that have developed in the spillways and are still there. Blue shows the clay soil, where the ice water was trapped in lakes. These places are flat but not smooth, and there is something sour and lumpy about clay fields. Heavy soil, coarse grass, poor drainage.

Green is for the beveled till, the wonderfully smooth surface that the old Lake Warren planed in  the deposits along the shore of today’s Lake Huron.

Red strokes and red interrupted lines that appear on the beveled till, or on the sand nearby, are remnants of bluffs and the abandoned beaches of those ancestors of the Great Lakes, whose outlines are discernible now only by a gentle lift of the land. Such prosaic, modem, authoritative-sounding names they have been given—Lake Warren, Lake Whittlesey.

Up on the Bruce Peninsula there is limestone under a thin soil (pale gray), and around Owen Sound and on Cape Rich there is shale at the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment, exposed where the limestone is worn off. Crumbly rock that can be made into brick of the same color it shows on the map—rosy pink.

My favorite of all the kinds of country is the one I’ve left till last. This is kame, or kame moraine, which is a chocolate burgundy color on the map and is generally in blobs, not ribbons. A big blob here, a little one there. Kame moraines show where a heap of dead ice sat, cut off from the rest of the moving glacier, earth-stuff pouring through all its holes and crevices. Or sometimes it shows where two lobes of ice pulled apart and the crevice filled in. End moraines are hilly in what seems a reasonable way, not as smooth as drumlins, but still harmonious, rhythmical, while kame moraines are all wild and bumpy, unpredictable, with a look of chance and secrets.

I didn’t learn any of this at school. I think there was some nervousness then about being at loggerheads with the Bible in the matter of the creation of the Earth. I learned it when I came to live here with my second husband, a geographer. When I came back to where I never expected to be, in the countryside where I had grown up. So my knowledge is untainted, fresh. I get a naive and particular pleasure from matching what I see on the map with what I can see through the car window. Also from trying to figure out what bit of landscape we’re in before I look at the map—and being right a good deal of the time. And it is exciting to me to spot the boundaries, when it’s a question of the different till plains, or where the kame moraine takes over from the end moraine.

But there is always more than just the keen pleasure of identification. There’s the fact of these separate domains, each with its own history and reason, its favorite crops and trees and weeds, its special expression, its pull on the imagination. The fact of these little countries lying snug and unsuspected, like and unlike as siblings can be, in a landscape that’s usually disregarded, or dismissed as drab agricultural counterpane. It’s the fact you cherish.

I thought that the appointment I had was for a biopsy, but it turned out not to be. It was an appointment to let the city doctor decide whether he would do a biopsy, and after examining my breast and the results of the mammogram, he decided that he would. He had seen only the results of my most recent mammogram—those from 1990 and 1991 had not arrived yet from the country hospital where they had been done. The biopsy was set for a date two weeks ahead, and I was given a sheet with instructions about how to prepare for it.

I said that two weeks seemed like quite a while to wait.

At this stage of the game, the doctor said, two weeks was immaterial.

That was not what I had been led to believe.

But I did not complain—not after a look at some of the people in the waiting room. I am over sixty. My death would not be a disaster. Not in comparison with the death of a young mother, a family wage earner, a child. It would not be apparent as a disaster.

It bothered us that we could not find the crypt. We extended our search. Perhaps it was not in Bruce County but in next-door Grey County? Sometimes we were sure that we were on the right road, but always we were disappointed. I went to the town library to look at the 19th-century county atlases, to see if perhaps the country cemeteries were marked on the township maps. They appeared to be marked on the maps of Huron County, but not in Bruce or Grey. (This wasn’t true, I found out later they were marked, or some of them were, but I managed to miss the small faint Cs.)

In the library I met a friend who had dropped in to see us last summer shortly after our discovery. We had told him about the crypt and given him some rough directions for finding it, because he is interested in old cemeteries. He said now that he had written down the directions as soon as he got home. I had forgotten ever giving them. He went straight home and found the piece of paper—found it miraculously, he said, in a welter of other papers. He came back to the library where I was still looking through the atlases.

Peabody, Scone, McCullough Lake. That was what he had written down.

Farther north than we had thought—just beyond the boundary of the territory we had been doggedly covering.

So we found the right cemetery, and the grass-grown crypt looked just as surprising, as primitive, as we remembered. Now we had enough time to look around. We saw that most of the old slabs had been collected together and placed in the form of a cross. Nearly all of these were the tombstones of children. In any of these old cemeteries, the earliest dates were apt to be those for children, or young mothers lost in childbirth, or young men who had died accidentally—drowned, or hit by a falling tree, killed by a wild horse, or involved in an accident during the raising of a barn. There were hardly any old people around to die in those days.

The names were nearly all German, and many of the inscriptions were entirely in German. Hier ruhet in Gott. And Geboren, followed by the name of some German town or province, then Gestorben, with a date in the ‘60s or ‘70s of the 19th century. Gestorben, here in Sullivan Township in Grey County in a colony of England in the middle of the bush.

Das arme Herz hieniedan

Von manches Sturm bewegt

Erlangt den renen Frieden

Nur wenn es night mehr schlagt.

I always have the notion that I can read German, even though I can’t. I thought that this said something about the heart, the soul, the person buried here being out of harm’s way now, and altogether better off. Herz and Sturm and nicht mehr could hardly be mistaken. But when I got home and checked the words in a German-English dictionary—finding all of them except renen, which could easily be a misspelling of reinen—I found that the verse was not so comforting. It seemed to say something about the poor heart buried here getting no peace until it stopped beating.

Better off dead.

Maybe that came out of a book of tombstone verses, and there wasn’t much choice.

Not a word on the crypt, though we searched far more thoroughly than we had done before. Nothing but that single, amateurishly drawn cross. But we did find a surprise in the northeastern corner of the cemetery. A second crypt was there, much smaller than the first one, with a smooth concrete top. No earth or grass, but a good-sized cedar tree growing out of a crack in the concrete, its roots nourished by whatever was inside.

It’s something like mound burial, we said. Something that had survived in Central Europe from pre-Christian times?

In the same city where I was to have my biopsy, and where I had the mammogram, there is a college where my husband and I were once students. I am not allowed to take out books, because I did not graduate, but I can use my husband’s card, and I can poke around in the stacks and the reference rooms to my heart’s content. During our next visit there, I went into the Regional Reference Room to read some books about Grey County and to find out whatever I could about Sullivan Township.

I read of a plague of passenger pigeons that destroyed every bit of the crops one year in the late-19th century. And of a terrible winter in the 1840s, which lasted so long and with such annihilating cold that those first settlers were living on cow cabbages dug out of the ground. (I did not know what cow cabbages were—were they ordinary cabbages kept to be fed to animals or something wild and coarser, like skunk cabbage? And how could they be dug up in such weather, with the ground like rock? There are always puzzles.) A man named Barnes had starved himself to death, letting his family have his share, so that they might survive.

A few years after that a young woman was writing to her friend in Toronto that there was a marvelous crop of berries, more than anybody could pick to eat or dry, and that when she was out picking them she had seen a bear, so close that she could make out the drops of berry juice sparkling on its whiskers. She was not afraid, she sai—she would walk through the bush to post this letter, bears or no bears.

I asked for church histories, thinking there might be something about Lutheran or German Catholic churches that would help me. It is difficult to make such requests in reference libraries because you will often be asked what it is, exactly, that you want to know, and what do you want to know it for? Sometimes it is even necessary to write your reason down. If you are doing a paper, a study, you will of course have a good reason, but what if you are just interested? The best thing probably, is to say you are doing a family history. Librarians are used to people doing that—particularly people who have gray hair—and it is generally thought to be a reasonable way of spending one’s time. Just interested sounds apologetic, if not shifty, and makes you run the risk of being seen as an idler lounging around in the library, a person at loose ends, with no proper direction in life, nothing better to do. I thought of writing on my form: research for paper concerning survival of mound burial in pioneer Ontario. But I didn’t have the nerve. I thought they might ask me to prove it.

I did locate a church that I thought might be connected with our cemetery, being a couple of country blocks west and a block north. St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran, it was called, if it was still there.

In Sullivan Township you are reminded of what the crop fields everywhere used to look like before the advent of the big farm machinery. These fields have kept the size that can be served by the horse-drawn plough, the binder, the mower. Rail fences are still in place—here and there is a rough stone wall—and along these boundaries grow hawthorn trees, chokecherries, goldenrod, old-man’s-beard.

Such fields are unchanged because there is no profit to be gained in opening them up. The crops that can be grown on them are not worth the trouble. Two big rough moraines curve across the southern part of the township—the purple ribbons turning here into snakes swollen as if each of them had swallowed a frog—and there is a swampy spillway in between them. To the north, the land is clay. Crops raised here were probably never up to much, though people used to be more resigned to working unprofitable land, more grateful for whatever they could get, than is the case today. Where such land is put to any use at all now, it’s pasture. The wooded areas—which everybody in our part of the country calls the bush—are making a strong comeback. In country like this the trend is no longer toward a taming of the landscape and a thickening of population, but rather the opposite. The bush will never again take over completely, but it is making a good grab. The deer, the wolves, which had at one time almost completely disappeared, have reclaimed some of their territory. Perhaps there will be bears soon, feasting again on the blackberries and thimbleberries and in the wild orchards. Perhaps they are here already.

As the notion of farming fades, unexpected enterprises spring up to replace it. It’s hard to think that they will last. SPORTS CARDS GALORE, says a sign that is already weathering. TWO-DOOR DOGHOUSES FOR SALE. A place where chairs can be re-caned. TIRE SUPERYARD. Antiques and beauty treatments are offered. Brown eggs, maple syrup, bagpipe lessons, unisex haircuts.

We arrive at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on a Sunday morning just as the bell is ringing for services and the hands on the church tower point to 11 o’clock. (We learn later that those hands do not tell the time, they always point to 11 o’clock. Church time.)

St. Peter’s is large and handsome, built of limestone blocks. A high steeple on the tower and a modern glass porch to block the wind and snow. Also a long drive shed built of stone and wood—a reminder of the days when people drove to church in buggies and cutters. A pretty stone house, the rectory, surrounded by summer flowers.

We drive on to Williamsford on Highway 6, to have lunch and to give the minister a decent interval to recover from the morning service before we knock at the rectory door to seek out information. A mile or so down the road we make a discouraging discovery. Another cemetery— St. Peter’s own cemetery, with its own early dates and German names—making our cemetery, so close by, seem even more of a puzzle, an orphan.

We come back anyway, at around two o’clock. We knock on the front door of the rectory, and after a while a little girl appears and tries to unbolt the door. She can’t manage it, and makes signs for us to go around to the back. She comes running out to meet us on our way. The minister isn’t home, she says. She has gone to take afternoon services in Williamsford.

Just our informant and her sister are here, looking after the minister’s dog and cats. But if we want to know anything about churches or cemeteries or history, we should go and ask her mother, who lives up the hill in the big new log house.

She tells us her name. Rachel.

Rachel’s mother does not seem at all surprised by our curiosity or put out by our visit. She invites us into her house, where there is a noisy interested dog and a self-possessed husband just finishing a late lunch. The main floor of the house is all one big room with a wide view of fields and trees.

She brings out a book that I did not see in the Regional Reference Room. An old soft-covered history of the township. She thinks it has a chapter about cemeteries.

And in fact it does. In a short time she and I are reading together a section on the Mannerow Cemetery, “famous for its two vaults.” There is a grainy photograph of the larger crypt. It is said to have been built in 1895 to receive the body of a three-year-old boy, a son of the Mannerow family. Other members of the family were placed there in the years that followed. One Mannerow husband and wife were put into the smaller crypt in the comer of the cemetery. What was originally a family graveyard later became public, and the name of it was changed from Mannerow to Cedardale.

The vaults were roofed with concrete on the inside.

Rachel’s mother says that there is only one descendant of the family living in the township today. He lives in Scone.

“Next door to the house my brother’s in,” she says. “You know how there’s just the three houses in Scone? That’s all there is. There’s the yellow-brick house and that’s my brother’s, then the one in the middle, that’s Mannerows’. So maybe they might tell you something more, if you went there and asked them.”

While I was talking to Rachel’s mother and looking at the history book, my husband sat at the table and talked to her husband. That is the proper way for conversations to go in our part of the country. The husband asked where we came from, and on hearing that we came from Huron County, he said that he knew it very well. He went there straight off the boat, he said, when he came out from Holland not long after the war. In 1948, yes. (He is a man considerably older than his wife.) He lived for a while near Blyth, and he worked on a turkey farm.

I overhear him saying this, and when my own conversation has drawn to a close, I ask him if it was the Wallace Turkey Farm that he worked on.

Yes, he says, that was the one. And his sister married Alvin Wallace.

“Corrie Wallace,” I say.

“That’s right. That’s her.”

I ask him if he knew any Laidlaws from around that area, and he says no.

I say that if he worked at Wallaces’ (another rule in our part of the country is that you never say the so-and-sos, just the name), then he must have known Bob Laidlaw.

“He raised turkeys too,” I tell him. “And he knew Wallaces from when they’d gone to school together. Sometimes he worked with them.”

“Bob Laidlaw?” he says, on a rising note.

“Oh, sure, I knew him. But I thought you meant around Blyth. He had a place up by Wingham. West of Wingham. Bob Laidlaw.”

I say that Bob Laidlaw grew up near Blyth, on the Eighth Line of Morris township, and that was how he knew the Wallace brothers, Alvin’s father and uncle. They had all gone to school at S.S. No. 1, Morris, right beside the Wallace farm.

He takes a closer look at me and laughs.

“You’re not telling me he was your dad, are you? You’re not Sheila?”

“Sheila’s my sister. I’m the older one.”

“I didn’t know there was an older one,” he says. “I didn’t know that. But Bill and Sheila. I knew them. They used to be down working at the turkeys with us, before Christmas. You never were there?”

“I was away from home by then.”

“Bob Laidlaw. Bob Laidlaw was your dad. Well. I should have thought of that right away. But when you said from around Blyth, I didn’t catch on. I was thinking Bob Laidlaw was from up at Wingham. I never knew he was from Blyth in the first place.”

He laughs and reaches across the table to shake my hand.

“Well now. I can see it in you. Round the eyes. That’s a long time ago. It sure is. A long time ago.”

I am not sure whether he means it’s a long time ago that my father and the Wallace boys went to school in Morris Township, or a long time since he himself was a young man fresh from Holland, and worked with my father and my brother and sister preparing the Christmas turkeys. But I agree with him, and then we both say that it is a small world. We say this, as people usually do, with a sense of wonder and refreshment. (People who are not going to be comforted by this discovery usually avoid making it.) We explore the connection as far as it will go and soon find that there is not much more to be got out of it. But we are both happy. He is happy to be reminded of himself as a young man, fresh in the country and able to turn himself to any work that was offered, with confidence in what lay ahead of him. And by the looks of this well-built house with its wide view, and his lively wife, his pretty Rachel, his own still alert and useful body, it does look as if things have turned out pretty well for him.

And I am happy to find somebody who can see me still as part of my family, who can remember my father and the place where my parents worked and lived for all of their married lives, first in hope and then in honorable persistence. A place that I seldom drive past and can hardly relate to the life I live now, though it is not much more than twenty miles away.

It has changed, of course, it has changed utterly, becoming a car-wrecking operation. The front yard and the side yard and the vegetable garden and the flower borders, the hayfield, the mock-orange bush, the lilac trees, the chestnut stump, the pasture, and the ground once covered by the fox pens are all swept under a tide of car parts, gutted car bodies, smashed headlights, grilles, and fenders, overturned car seats with rotten, bloated stuffing—heaps of painted, rusted, blackened, glittering, whole or twisted, defiant, and surviving metal.

But that is not the only thing that deprives it of meaning for me. No. It is the fact that it is only twenty miles away, that I could see it every day if I wanted to. The past needs to be approached from a distance.

Rachel’s mother asks us if we would like to look at the inside of the church before we head off to Scone, and we say that we would. We walk down the hill, and she takes us hospitably into the red-carpeted interior. It smells a little damp or musty as stone buildings often do, even when they are kept quite clean.

She talks to us about how things have been going with this building and its congregation.

The whole church was raised up some years ago to add on the Sunday School and the kitchen underneath.

The bell still rings out to announce the death of every church member. One ring for every year of life. Everybody within hearing distance can listen and count the times it rings and try to figure out who it must be for. Sometimes it’s easy—a person who was expected to die. Sometimes it’s a surprise.

She mentions that the front porch of the. church is modem, as we must have noticed. There was a big argument when it was put on, between those who thought it was necessary and even liked it and those who disagreed. Finally there was a split The ones who didn’t like it went off to Williamsford and formed their own church there, though with the same minister.

The minister is a woman. The last time a minister had to be hired, five out of the seven candidates were women. This one is married to a veterinarian and used to be a veterinarian herself. Everybody likes her fine. Though there was a man from Faith Lutheran in Desboro who got up and walked out of a funeral when he found she was preaching at it. He could not stand the idea of a woman preaching.

Faith Lutheran is part of the Missouri Synod, and that is the way they are.

There was a great fire in the church some time ago. It gutted much of the inside but left the shell intact. When the surviving inside walls were scrubbed down afterward, layers of paint came off with the smoke, and there was a surprise underneath—a faint text in German, in the Gothic German lettering, which did not entirely wash off. It had been hidden under the paint.

And there it is. They touched up the paint, and there it is.

lch hebe meine Augen auf zu den Bergen, von welchen mir Hilfe Kommt. That is on one side wall. And on the opposite wall: Dein Wort ist meines Fusses Leuchte und ein Licht auf meinem Wege.

I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

Nobody had known, nobody had remembered that the German words were there, until the fire and the cleaning revealed them. They must have been painted over at some time, and afterward nobody spoke of them, and so the memory that they were there had entirely died out.

At what time? Very likely it happened at the beginning of the First World War, the 1914–18 war. Not a time to show German lettering, even spelling out holy texts. And not a thing to be mentioned for many years afterward.

Being in the church with this woman as guide gives me a slightly lost feeling, or a feeling of bewilderment, of having got things the wrong way round. The words on the wall strike me to the heart, but I am not a believer, and they do not make me a believer. She seems to think of her church, including those words, as if she were its vigilant housekeeper. In fact she mentions critically that a bit of the paint—in the ornate L of Licht—has faded or flaked off and should be replaced. But she is the believer. It seems as if you must always take care of what’s on the surface and what is behind, so immense and disturbing will take care of itself.

In separate panes of the stained-glass windows are displayed these symbols:

The Dove (over the altar).

The letters Alpha and Omega (in the rear wall).

The Holy Grail.

The Sheaf of Wheat.

The Cross in the Crown.

The Ship at Anchor.

The Lamb of God bearing the Cross.

The Mythical Pelican, with golden feathers, believed to feed its young on the blood of its own torn breast, as Christ the Church. (The Mythical Pelican as represented here resembles the real pelican only by way of being a bird.)

Just a few days before I am to have my biopsy I get a call from the city hospital to say that the operation has been canceled.

I am to keep the appointment anyway, to have a talk with the radiologist, but I do not need to fast in preparation for surgery.


Why? Information on the other two mammograms?

I once knew a man who went into the hospital to have a little lump cut out of his neck. He put my hand on it, on that silly little lump, and we laughed about how we could exaggerate its seriousness and get him a couple of weeks off work so that we could go on a holiday together. The lump was examined, but further surgery was canceled because there were so many, many other lumps that were discovered. The verdict was that any operation would be useless. All of a sudden, he was a marked man. No more laughing. When I went to see him he stared at me in nearly witless anger. He could not hide it. It was all through him, they said.

I used to hear that same thing said when I was a child, always said in a hushed voice that seemed to throw the door open, half-willingly, to calamity. Half-willingly, even with an obscene hint of invitation.

We do stop at the middle house in Scone, not after visiting the church but on the day after the hospital phoned. We are looking for some diversion. Already something has changed. We notice how familiar the landscape of Sullivan Township and the church and the cemeteries and the villages of Desboro and Scone and the town of Chesley are beginning to seem to us, how the distances between places have shortened. Perhaps we had found out all we are going to find out. There might be a bit more explanation—the idea of the vault might have come from somebody’s reluctance to put a three-year-old child under the ground—but what has been so compelling is drawn now into a pattern of things we know about.

Nobody answers the outside door. The house and yard are tidily kept. I look around at the bright beds of annuals and a rose of Sharon bush and a little black boy sitting on a stump with a Canadian flag in his hand. There are not so many little black boys in people’s yards as there used to be. Grown children, city dwellers, may have cautioned against them—though I don’t believe that a racial insult was ever a conscious intention. It was more as if people felt that a little black boy added a touch of sportiness and charm.

The outside door opens into a narrow porch. I step inside and sound the house doorbell. There is just room to move past an armchair with an afghan on it and a couple of wicker tables with potted plants.

Still nobody comes. But I can hear loud religious singing inside the house. A choir singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Through the window in the door I see the singers on television in an inner room. Blue robes, many bobbing faces against a sunset sky. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir?

I listen to the words, all of which I used to know. As far as I can tell these singers are about at the end of the first verse.

I let the bell alone till they finish.

I try again, and Mrs. Mannerow comes. A short, competent-looking woman with tight grayish-brown curls, wearing a flowered blue top to match her blue slacks. She says that her husband is very hard of hearing, so it wouldn’t do much good to talk to him. And he has just come home from the hospital a few days ago, so he isn’t really feeling like talking. She doesn’t have much time to talk herself, because she is getting ready to go out. Her daughter is coming from Chesley to pick her up. They are going to a family picnic to celebrate her daughter’s husband’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

But she wouldn’t mind telling me as much as she knows.

Though being only married into the family, she never knew too much.

And even they didn’t know too much.

I notice something new in the readiness of both this older woman and the energetic younger woman in the log house. They do not seem to find it strange that anybody should wish to know about things that are of no particular benefit or practical importance. They do not suggest that they have better things to think about. Real things, that is. Real work. When I was growing up, an appetite for impractical knowledge of any kind did not get encouragement. It was all right to know which field would suit certain crops, but not all right to know anything about the glacial geography that I have mentioned. It was necessary to learn to read, but not in the least desirable to end up with your nose in a book. If you had to learn history and foreign languages to pass out of school, it was only natural to forget that sort of thing as quickly as you could. Otherwise you would stand out. And that was not a good idea. And wondering about olden days—what used to be here, what happened there, why, why?—was as sure a way to make yourself stand out as any.

Of course some of this kind of thing would be expected in outsiders, city people, who have time on their hands. Maybe this woman thinks that’s what I am. But the younger woman found out differently and still seemed to think my curiosity understandable.

Mrs. Mannerow says that she used to won der. When she was first married, she used towonder. Why did they put their people in there like that, where did they get the idea? Her husband didn’t know why. The Mannerows all took it for granted. They didn’t know why. They took it for granted because that was the way they had always done it. That was their way and they never thought to ask why or where their family got the idea.

Did I know the vault was all concrete on the inside?

The smaller one on the outside too. Yes. She hadn’t been in the cemetery for a while, and she had forgotten about that one.

She did remember the last funeral they had when they put the last person in the big vault. The last time they had opened it up. It was for Mrs. Lempke, who had been born a Mannerow. There was just room for one more, and she was the one. Then there was no room for anybody more.

They dug down at the end and opened up the bricks, and then you could see some of the inside, before they got her coffin in. You could see there was coffins in there before her, along either side. Put in nobody knows how long a time ago.

“It gave me a strange feeling,”she says. “It did so. Because you get used to seeing the coffins when they’re new, but not so much when they’re old.”

And the one little table sitting straight ahead of the entrance way, a little table at the far end. A table with a Bible opened up on it.

And beside the Bible, a lamp.

It was just an ordinary old-fashioned lamp, the kind they used to bum coal oil in.

Sitting there the same today, all sealed up and nobody going to see it ever again. “Nobody knows why they did it. They just did.”

She smiles at me with a sociable sort of perplexity,

her almost colorless eyes enlarged, made owlish by her glasses. She gives a couple of tremulous nods. As if to say, it’s beyond us, isn’t it? A multitude of things, beyond us. Yes.

The radiologist says that when she looked at the mammograms that had come in from the country hospital, she could see that the lump had been there in 1990 and in 1991. It had not changed. Still in the same place, still the same size. She says that you can never be absolutely 100 percent certain that such a lump is safe, unless you do a biopsy. But you can be sure enough. A biopsy in itself is an intrusive procedure, and if she were in my place, she would not have it. She would have a mammogram in another six months instead. If it were her breast, she would keep an eye on it, but for the time being she would let it alone.

I ask why nobody had told me about the lump when it first appeared.

Oh, she says, they must not have seen it.

So this is the first time.

Such frights will come and go.

Then there’ll be one that won’t. One thatwon’t go.

But for now, the corn in tassel, the height of summer passing, time opening out with room again for tiffs and trivialities. No more hard edges on the days, no sense of fate buzzing around in your veins like a swarm of tiny and relentless insects. Back to where no great change seems to be promised beyond the change of seasons. Some raggedness, carelessness, even a casual possibility of boredom again in the reaches of earth and sky.

On our way home from the city hospital, I say to my husband, “Do you think they put any oil in that lamp?”

He knows at once what I am talking about.

He says that he has wondered the same thing.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Alice Munro is the author of many collections of short stories and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her work has often appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Grand Street. This story is included in a collection titled The View from Castle Rock.


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