canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Ellyn Peirson 

There’s a reason why I walk down this prairie road every day. Back and forth, back and forth, for two years now, between the cross I drew on the barn door and the stick-cross I jammed in the ditch a mile away. I’m telling you this in case you happen to see me sometime. If, for some God-only-knows reason, you happen to be on this road south of Moose Jaw, or you’re here to check out the truth of my story. Choose a bright, prairie day. That way, you’ll avoid quagmires. These parts aren’t called the Big Muddy for nothing.

You’ll be in the right place if you see the smoky lavender of the prairie grass and the burnt yellow of the wild wheat bordering the road. And not much else. No traffic. No life. The road itself will be cracked in the way that only the prairies can sculpt muck. Dried muck like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle... one of those jigsaws that’s all in tones of one colour. Tones of gray. It won’t be easy to see me. I’ll be blending right in with the dirt. So, you’ll have to be in the right area of the map. Mid-prairies. Mid-desolation. Side-by-side. There’s not a lot of relief in either location.

You’ll also know me by my tears. I should become Saint Somebody and cry the tears into the parched dugouts for the farmers. As Saint Somebody, I’d have no hope for myself, of course. That’s the whole point of sainthood. Besides which, my tears are my penance, ordered by a God who refuses to, or doesn’t, understand why I did what I had to do.

I’d do anything to stop crying.

But that would mean I’d never have known Joey. Can I go so far as to say I’d do anything not to have known Joey?

No. I can’t go that far. But it would be a lot less painful if I could. I can’t go that far, wishing that he’d never been born. No faint hope clause for me. I’m that selfish. I needed Joey. Even if he never got a speck of what he needed – from anyone.

I still need him. I have my ways of keeping him close. And I need him close so that I can try to make up for what happened to him… his torture. But, there’s no way I could never have known him. How does anyone cancel out ever having known a brother? Ever having loved a brother? Ever having seen a brother destroyed?

And I’m no saint.

Joey was five years old when I was born, and without him, I’d never have made it this far along my life-line. Not that I’m particularly grateful for any horizontal line. Life in our family turned out to be more vertical than horizontal.

Joey’s the one who dealt with the craziness on his own for all those first family years - straightening it out when he could, dodging it when he couldn’t, absorbing it, hiding it from the neighbours and church folk, patting it down and shaping it into morsels that he could swallow like a correct-dose-for-your-age chewable vitamin.

So, by the time I got to collect memories of Joey, he was already eight years old.

God, he was smart then! His teachers were all wrapped up in his smarts in science. They said he’d do well someday in physics, the kind of future that would become as apt but unattainable for Joey as the Nobel Peace Prize is now. He deserved it, though. More than any famous scientist ever did. He did away with time and ended a war.

And he was sure enough of himself back then to tell Dad that if he laid a finger on me, he’d pay for it. "Someday I’ll be bigger than you, Dad, so don’t touch Rosie, or I’ll kill you. I will; I’ll find a way." And Dad hit him instead of me, and then Joey took off and Dad ran after him until he had no more breath. That’s the first I remember of Joey staying away overnight. Even though I was scared without him, I knew he’d be safe. He had his secret place, the one he dug under the barn. On my own, I might have been scared of Dad’s rages and Mum’s pathetic compliance; but I knew Joey would be back. Joey went to his safe place lots in our history as brother and sister. And he always came back because Joey was my brother and protector.

He said so himself. Those exact words.

By the time I was six and Joey was eleven, we were closer than any other brother and sister I’ve ever seen. Joey looked out for me, and I looked out for him. I could never protect him, though… not the way he could protect me. Sometimes, when Dad said he was going to kill Joey, we’d hide together in his secret place. We’d developed a code to keep us safe. We could give each other eye-signals when we picked up on Dad’s black descent into a mood. We figured out how to rebel and talk back without ever saying a word.

Dad was a big man, average height, broad, strong and in good shape. He had hands on him the size of shovels and a voice like thunder. And he used both to intimidate. There was no escaping him if he reached out to grab you as he launched into one of his tirades. Your only hope was that he’d start the ranting before he lunged. You’d get a head-start that way. Then in those few seconds, you could run. Run from the noise of the man and the god-awful content of his rages. Run from the stink of alcohol and sweat. He’d go on about how his grandfather had suffered in the Ukraine and how we were lucky not to be bashed around like he was when he was a kid growing up in a sod-house on our property. And then - sure as there’s grasshoppers in the summer - he’d flip into craziness, and Joey would get locked into being Dad as a kid when his father used to beat the crap out of him. It took me a long time to understand what Joey meant when he said Dad was made crazy by his Dad and that I’d probably be safe because I was a girl. He said Dad didn’t know the difference between the two of them. "But I won’t go crazy like Dad, Rosie. I promise."

During the rages, Mum would always just sit there or start making a pie. Robotized. Mum, the android. Mum, the ghost. Or, was it Mum, the shadow? She was Dad’s shadow. Doing what Dad wanted, even if he hadn’t asked. Following him, going ahead, clinging, sticking at his side, one with him at high noon. She was as quiet as gasoline before it’s poured on a fire. And as deadly. Because as soon as Dad would go after Joey, Mum would start mumbling, "See, you’ve done it again, Joey. You’ve made your Dad mad, Joey. Stop doing it! Do you want to get us all killed, Joey?" Mutter, mutter, mutter. And her chants fueled the fire of wild red and orange shouting, hitting, crying until all I could do was run upstairs and slither under the bed. Once I started pounding Dad to make him stop beating Joey. I quit that in a big hurry. That only made Dad fling me away while he went after Joey harder than before.

Mum was a bedraggled form of whatever she had been that drew Dad to her. She was tall, skinny and had probably been pretty with her flaming red hair before Dad took everything personal away from her. She hardly ate a thing. It was like she was trying to disappear. Rather than talk to us, she would beseech us with those huge haunted eyes of hers. "Be quiet. Comply. Stop. Be like me," her eyes would almost talk out loud. And, once she got there, she was even more deadly out-loud. "How many times do I have to tell you that your Dad has enough on his mind with this farm? How do you expect him to make this God-forsaken land work for us?" Then, more often than not, she would go and darn socks and mend stuff that wouldn’t be worn or make a pie that no one wanted and she’d never eat. And talk to herself. By the hour.

I figure Joey saved both Mum and me from being beaten, time and time again.

Despite Joey’s vigilance so Dad wouldn’t touch me, he finally did. Once I hit eleven, he started taunting me. Pretty soon taunting became yelling, and that escalated to slapping me around. More than anything in our lives, Joey couldn’t take this. "Leave Rosie alone, Dad, and I’ll do whatever you want. Just leave her alone!"

Dad just laughed at that one. "Leave her alone?" His booming laugh was more terrible than his shouting. "Like this?"

And he hit me so hard, I flew against the sink and fell. I wiped my hand over my mouth. A streak of blood covered the back of my hand, and I swallowed a mouthful of the salty stuff and gagged. "I’m okay, Joey. Leave us alone. I can settle Dad down." The roar of Dad’s laughter got inside my head like the blades of a thrasher. I hated him! God, I hated him. "Go, Joey! Run!"

Just as Dad charged at me again, Joey kicked him in the back of the knee, and Dad went down, hard. And then, like they were rehearsing for some play that never went on stage, Dad turned on Joey and out the door Joey went. Only this time, Dad reached him. Joey ended up in bed for a day over that one, with Mum dabbing his cuts and saying, "Why, Joey? Why?", like an incantation meant to change Joey’s ways. Like he was the evil one.

Just like he did with Joey, Dad pulled me out of school when I was twelve. For religious reasons. Honest. Like he ever cared about God or the old Doukhobor beliefs. What he really wanted was for us to work our guts out in the barren field and not find out about the world. He did a good job in that department.

That’s when Joey really began to change. He’d stay as close to me as he could when he and Dad were in the house. And he’d keep Dad longer and longer in the fields or with the livestock when it was time for me to go help with supper at the end of my work day.

Gradually, Joey became docile, like the cows, the starving cows.

And I got scared – more than I’d ever been.

And Mum talked to herself more, even when she was cooking or cleaning.

So, we all went along in these strange bodies of ours for the next couple of years, working the unworkable soil and cattle and descending into mindless habits and speechlessness. Except for school-learning from Mum and the big talks Joey and I would have when we slipped out through our bedroom windows and smoked roll-your-own cigarettes behind the barn, we were prisoners. Prisoners in solitary. There were fewer beatings for Joey in this period and never in the house; but something had gone out of him. Maybe it was his spirit. He got thinner and quieter, step by step… pitifully.

And then it happened. The thing that Joey must have known would happen. I finally got it – I finally understood what Joey was so scared of – the night Dad came into my room to get me.

It was the harvest time, of emptiness. I’d been asleep for a while, and I woke to Joey screaming, "Get out of there, Dad!" And Dad was near me and then Joey was on his back, pounding him around the head. Dad roared, and Joey went after his eyes. "Run, Rosie! Run!" I flew past them and down the stairs. Out to my road. I didn’t stop until I got to the neighbour’s fence-line, a mile from our house. My breath burned; my sobs tore through me like I’d never be able to breathe slow and normal again. So I lay down in the ditch that night, shaking, my nightgown my only cover against the cold prairie darkness. And went to sleep. Right there. On the gravelly, prickly, hard-baked earth, with the hoary moon and stars as a quilt.

I woke as a car drove by and sent smoldering dust into the roaring pain in my head. The lilac sun was just rising, making things look gentle, for god’s sake. Oh God! Joey! Gripped again by fear, I knew I had to get home fast. I remembered that Joey had passed the point of no return, and my heart beat like it was going to explode. Joey would pay for this – he’d moved into the territory of the great wrath of Dad. I knew it, in that yawning, aching crater of horrid facts that lived deep inside me.

I ran back like someone on the fly from the devil. Only I was flying toward him. But I had to go to Joey. Pure terror propelled me. I stumbled and fell on my knees. And as I brushed the gravel out of my scrapes, my mind cleared and the panic turned to intent. I was as clear as I’d ever been.

I would save Joey.

I reached the driveway and walked. I had to think and breathe. Time stopped. I’d moved into a dream… slowly, Rosie…do it, Rosie… step, step… take hold now… go to Joey… find Joey… find Joey….

I walked in the front door, and there was Mum, rocking and rocking and chanting over and over, "Oh my, oh my," like she was completely broken. The dream shifted. I clicked into action. "Oh my, oh my…."

She couldn’t hear me or see me, so I took her by the shoulders and shook her. Hard. "Where are they, Mum? What’s happened?"

She looked at me, her hair stuck to her cheeks and mouth, her eyes staring, like she’d never seen me before. And then she looked right through me and out the window to the barn. "Oh my. Oh my. Joey, Joey, Joey."

I hit her. Across the face. It stopped the confounded chanting. "Tell me what happened, Mum! They’re in the barn, aren’t they? Have they been there all night?" She nodded.

Oh, my god, Joey… you protected me, and I couldn’t stay by your side… I’m so sorry, Joey…. I started toward the kitchen when Mum snapped out of it, "Rosie, he has a gun."

I stopped for a split-second and then went ahead through the kitchen into our broken-down porch – right to the gun cupboard. Dad’s rifle was gone. I took Joey’s and loaded it. And I left for the barn.

It was all as silent and unreal as any prairie ghost town, hanging in the dust and the wind. Me walking across the property in my grimy nightie carrying a rifle, my hair all over the place, scuffed-up slippers on my feet and scratched all over. But I wasn’t crying. And I wasn’t scared anymore.

I cocked the rifle and swung the side-door of the barn open slowly. The light beamed in on the hay, casting sharp lines that confused me. The bitter crop-smell caught my breath.

And then I saw them. Both of them. Dad was slumped against a rotten beam and Joey was lying down in front of him. Flecks of haydust glinted in the shaft of light. Are you both asleep? Joey? Joey?....

Ah, no, Joey, you’re not going to wake up, are you Joey, are you Joey? Ah, Joey….

His chest was covered in blood. His crystal blue eyes looked straight up past his strawberry hair. And there was Dad, awake and looking at me, his gun across his knees. Joey’d beat him up good. And I knew my brother was dead. Because of me.

Dad looked at me. With blood oozing from one eye, he started laughing. Vile excuse for a man. "I killed your saviour, Rosie. What do you think of that, Rosie?"

Brutally cold like him, I moved toward him. He couldn’t lift his rifle to save his soul. But I lifted mine. To my shoulder. And I looked at him. And I didn’t care whose soul was lost or saved.

And I shot him. I shot him – deadly aim – between the eyes.

The one good skill he’d ever taught me.

The police and the coroner bought my story. I’d run away and returned… to find Joey dead. Dad was going to kill me, too. Mum’s silence backed me up. So did Dad’s rifle. I’d re-loaded it. So, we got them buried. Dad in the old cemetery a few miles away. But, I buried Joey’s ashes beneath the stick-cross in the ditch… here. It’s my way of staying by his side.

That's why you'll see me on this muck road, south of Moose Jaw, in the Big Muddy. Most days, I do this back and forth atonement for Joey. And the scorched dugouts along the way take my tears and stay dry. Three years, so far, of barren grief.

Three years of looking after Mum. It doesn’t matter how much I tell her she’s okay, she wrings her hands and paces all day. She can’t even cook now… calls me Joey… mumbles… all day… sometimes even at night. She left the other night, and I didn’t know. Some neighbours found her the next morning, just sitting at the bottom of Joey’s cross, her arms crooked, rocking. Like she was holding a baby, singing "Go tell Aunt Rodie" over and over.

The neighbours said I should put her in a home.

But I have to atone… have to.

I’d do anything to stop crying.

Except forget Joey.



Her childhood in Regina rumbling inside her, Ellyn Peirson moved to Ontario at eighteen.  She currently manages a private counselling practice and designs websites. Over the past four years, she has completed a novel, begun a collection of short stories and is half-way through her second novel.  Her poetry has been her constant companion; Italy is her newest seduction. See also: 







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