[Editor’s note: Read a Tyee interview with Carla Funk, the decorated poet who was raised Mennonite in Vanderhoof and is now writing a memoir, from which this is drawn.]
One image shadowboxed by memory, one emblem left open to the touch — that’s all it takes to draw me down. My fingers stray across my forehead, feel the tiny divots, and the story splits open, spills its colour, scent, and sound. Like inverse Braille half-hidden in the skin, the scars read back to me the sunshine glint on the silver rungs, the amber tang of sawdust, and my dad wagging his “obey me” finger in my face, his voice growly and curt: Don’t. Don’t climb that ladder. “You could get hurt,” he said. He held me by the wrist until I looked him in the eye. “You stay off it. You hear?”
I heard. I nodded. And pulled loose from his grip, a pattern I’d repeat for years to come. My dad in greasy coveralls squinted up toward the sun and the sound of hammers reverberating like shotguns in the open air, then turned back to his shop where the air compressor hissed and hours of monkey-wrenching lay ahead.
The carpenters were halfway through construction of our new house at the top of the Kenney Dam hill. What had for months looked like a mud bog, sinkhole, gravel pit and scrap yard was now rising into a two-storey split level classic. The gold hue of the new lumber shone. Echoing from the joists and rafters of what would be the attic floor, hammers on nails pounded.
Happy to be left alone, I poked around the yard. Always, a story took shape in this pocket of solitude. Across the property, my mother knelt, pulling chickweed and thistle in the roto-tilled dirt of next summer’s strawberry patch. Easily I imagined her into someone else’s mom, a stranger who’d take pity on me, an orphan, lost and starving, surviving on wild berries and moss as I straggled through the world in search of home. I plucked a petal from the bloom of an Indian paintbrush and sucked. That nectar on my tongue — sweet but scant — was hardly enough to keep me alive, but it would have to do. Somewhere in the poplar scrub, my brother stalked with a bow and arrow, tracking grouses. He became my invisible enemy, the shadow stalking me. My pulse kicked up a notch. In the ditch that bordered the driveway, spring rain had turned the clay-heavy dirt to a smooth mud. I stamped my sneakers in it, and left a chain of footprints in my wake, the clues my predator would use to find me, unless someone swooped down to rescue me first. Past the fuel tank on its stand in the trees, past the trailhead that led to the road, past the sandbox and woodshed, I crept, glancing over my shoulder, making myself afraid of what was coming, until I circled back to where I started, at the far end of the house, and the plot fell away.
Against the side where the chimney had been roughed in, the aluminum ladder leaned. I watched one of the carpenters descend, load the leather pouch on his tool belt with nails from a box on the ground, then climb back up. Every time a steel-toed boot landed on a rung, the ladder shuddered and creaked, but it held. When the man neared the top, he swung his leg up and over the final rungs, shifted to the roof, and disappeared.
When I curled my hand around an eye-level rung, the aluminum surprised me with its heat. My father’s words turned and twisted. Don’t climb that ladder and you could get hurt warped to if you climb and don’t get hurt. I tested my foot on the bottom rung. The sole of my sneaker gripped the grooves, and when I reached higher, the foot still touching the ground seemed naturally to follow in response. I knew the Eden story, how God told Eve and Adam, “Eat what you want, just not from this tree growing in the middle of the garden.” Every time I heard about how sin came into the world, I saw Eve reaching out to pluck that rosy fruit, and wanted to crash the scene and slap her hand away, yell for her to stop, don’t do it, don’t listen to the snake. That devil-serpent sliding in the grass, weaving up the tree trunk, circling Eve’s shoulder like a sneaky necklace was trickery, and still she listened to the charm and hiss, bit in, swallowed, and passed the poison on.
I was halfway up before my father’s voice came back again — Don’t climb, dim and faraway, more whisper than warning. I looked back across the yard, toward the shop, which seemed so far away and smaller now from where I stood. My dad was gone, in greasy coveralls beneath a truck, invisible, unseeing. I only wanted to see what the carpenters could see, what the world looked like from a higher station. I’d make it up the ladder and down again before he noticed.
Once I reached the final rungs, I swung myself over the top and off the ladder, half-crawling on my belly until the surface beneath me was solid and flat. In front of me, two ball-capped, tool-belted men knelt. Around them, tools. A level, a hammer, a silver square. Handsaws and tape measures. From the centre of the roof, a portable radio with an angled silver antennae chattered news. The man closest to me wore dark glasses and a flat wide pencil tucked behind his ear. His face, when I stood up, lifted to meet mine with a look of surprise, but he smiled, friendly enough, and thinking that I might walk to the end of the roof and back, I took a step toward him.
From that high up, I could see our full five acres — the tractor-tilled garden plot, the rust-red pig pen, the clearcut of stumps, and the birch and poplar forest beyond. The landscape stretched out wide and far, but from my higher station, the world and its inhabitants looked small. My brother, a rustling in the bushes. My mother, only a dot of blue and white amidst the brown. My father, the whirr of machinery and work drifting from across the property.
Whenever my mother chided me with the proverb about how pride goeth before a fall, I pictured the Looney Tunes cliff edge with its wide-eyed coyote scrabbling for traction, a joke in which the predator becomes the punchline, and everyone laughs because the villain gets what’s coming to him. Before I had even taken a second step forward on that roof, the foreman jumped to his feet and held out his hand like a crossing guard signalling Stop, as if he knew what was about to happen, saw what I couldn’t see — that where the chimney flue had been roughed in, an opening in the roof remained, half-covered by a sheet of plywood, but with enough room left for a girl my size to slip right through. Down on air, surprised by gravity, I fell.
From a great height. From grace. On stony ground. Flat on my face. To my knees, to pieces. All the ways to fall tumbled with me, around me, in me. The world itself cracked open, first utterance of the plunge from glory, light to dark. One moment I stood bathed in sunshine, thrilling to my new high station. Though I couldn’t see as far as the future, all those coming falls — scorch of whiskey from the bottle, the bedroom window sliding open like a secret, cigarette haloes on a stranger’s front lawn, first taste of his mouth, other mouths — flickers, flashes of how I’d try to leave the low-level view of the world, find a shaky rung and climb, I saw enough to know how height can feel like power. When I plummeted to black-out, that fall, like every fall, was both a falling forward and back, the story throwing out its hitch to hook me, the apple not far from the tree.
I woke up stumbling on rocks. Beneath my feet, the shifting crush of gravel made it hard to walk. My chest hurt, like when I tried to turn a backflip on the trampoline and landed on my head, my neck bent back, the wind knocked out. I lurched forward, blood in my eye. My arm dangled like pins and needles asleep, stinging. My shoulder burned.
The foreman found me in the framed-up basement, crying, looking for an exit. Perhaps because he was a father with a daughter only a few years older than me, he scooped me up, held me like a baby in his arms. Every step of his jog across the yard lolled my head and made the pain rattle and stab. He yelled my father’s name, my mother’s name, called out, Hey! Hey! And though my eyes were swelling shut, I saw it all, like a movie, in flashes, from far-away and overhead, but with the soundtrack dialled down. Voices and faces blurred to underwater sounds. My mom rising from the garden, her white sun hat falling to the dirt, her hands over her mouth. Then my dad, rushing out of the shop in his coveralls, wiping his hands on a grease rag. He throws open the pickup side door, and my brother flies from woods and scrambles over the tailgate into the box, pressing himself against the open rear window. I’m cradled in arms. I’m floating overhead, hovering like in my dreams of flight.
Faster, my mother said, drive. I lay across the bench seat, my head in her lap. The rev of the gas pedal gunned us down the hill toward town. The crackle of my father’s CB radio and his voice cutting into it, calling out to a passing logging truck that we were heading to emergency. Tire squeal on the corner at the light, my father’s name, sirens, the idling engine, and through the open window, another man’s voice, and my dad saying, Kid’s had an accident. Then the gas pedal, wind rushing from the open windows, and sirens all the way down main street, across the bridge, up the hospital hill.
The scissor blades slid cold across my chest. The doctor, his face hovering over me, told me to hold still, as he cut away my t-shirt — the new one, red and white and blue with stripes. Hem to collar, the t-shirt with the lace-up front, the one I’d learned to tie with a bow at the top, fell open, fell to pieces, then flew from the doctor’s hand to the garbage can in the corner of the room.
“You’ll have to keep her head from moving,” said the nurse. A black cloth fell over my face, and then again, cold scissors, snipping above my eye so that a slit of light came through.
My mother said, “Pinch my arm. Pinch as hard as you can” — her code for, this is going to hurt a lot. The needle in my forehead like a wasp, a fleck of hot ash. I kicked the air, gripped my mother’s forearm, her skin between my thumb and finger pinched so tight, the welt remained a week.
On the gurney, I lay beneath a paper sheet as the doctor hooked the suture needle into my forehead and tied off stitches in a jagged row. My favourite t-shirt, gone. My pants, pulled off and rolled up in my mother’s purse. My hair, matted and crusted with blood and dirt. Dazed beneath the overhead surgical lights, I sat up, hunched, as hands fitted a halter brace around my torso, and cinched it tight to hold my broken collarbone in place.
When my mother held me up the mirror above our bathroom sink, a stranger looked back. A girl who wore two black eyes nearly swollen shut, and above the left brow, a line of stitches. Dried blood streaked the cheekbones, scraped by rebar jutting from the chimney’s cinderblock. I couldn’t look away from her, that other self that peered back at me, proof I’d earned it all, that the fault was mine. I’d heard my dad say to mother, I told her to stay off, their voices tense in the brightness of the room.
For days, I lay on the chesterfield in an undershirt and pajama bottoms, humiliated as the neighbourhood moms and kids showed up with gifts and get-well-soon cards. Uncles and aunts and cousins stopped by, too, to hear my dad recount the story. He never tired of telling how he warned me not to climb the ladder, and then he dragged a vertical drop in the air with his finger — fffsh — down the chimney I went. Someone always cracked a Christmas joke — “You trying to play Santa Claus?” Someone always said, “Good thing the fire wasn’t burning.”
“Show them,” my dad said, pulling back the blanket. He pointed out my stitches, cuts, and scrapes as if to testify of how hard and far I’d fallen. I turned away and sulked into the cushions until my mother said, Okay, enough.
My bruises morphed from black to lilac to green to sallow gold. The wounds on my cheeks scabbed over, and began to fade. The doctor drew the halter tighter, but still, the broken collarbone felt wrong. For weeks, I lay around the house trying not to move. The pain in my shoulder throbbed when I breathed too deeply. When I moved in my sleep, I woke crying. My mother pressed her cheek to my forehead to check for fever, held a straw to my lips so I could drink my apple juice.
“Take her to Mrs. Giesbrecht,” my dad said. “She’ll fix her up.”
In the Mennonite community, Mrs. Giesbrecht was the one to see when your body wasn’t working, especially if the doctors couldn’t help. With her man-sized hands, she knew how to turn a breach baby, set a bone, align a spine, and unsnarl a knotted muscle — a gnerpl. Everything she knew she learned by practice, like the old midwives who apprenticed at the bedside instead of the classroom. Everyone called her a “care-o-practor,” and didn’t care that she had no certificate or diploma hanging on her wall.
She met us at the front door, quiet-voiced and smiling. She was a sturdy woman with large, thick glasses. She wore her brown-grey hair in a tight bun at the top of her head, slicked and piled up and held together with a nest of bobby pins. Most middle-aged Mennonite women wore simple dresses and head coverings, but Mrs. Giesbrecht wore dark slacks and a flowered blouse. After a few words with my mother, she led us through the living room where the curtains were drawn and her husband sat in front of the TV, staring at the screen. The whole house was dim, small, closed in, and the narrow hallway down which we followed her seemed to grow darker as we walked.
On a table covered with a quilt and a bedsheet, I lay on my back while Mrs. Giesbrecht rubbed liniment oil on her hands, the smell like hospital and sickness. She started on my shoulder, feeling along my arm, my ribs, then my neck. My mother sat on the edge of a bed tucked against the wall, holding onto her purse, telling Mrs. Giesbrecht about the fall. Mrs. Giesbrecht nodded, said, Yo, she understood. Though her hands pressed my shoulder, pulled my arm across my chest, nothing hurt. She spoke in Low German while she worked, in the kind of voice the grey-haired women used at prayer meetings. My mother sat quiet in the background, as in a dream, there and not there, and I floated in that threshold space between waking and sleep, my limbs heavy, and yet hollow, Mrs. Giesbrecht’s voice murmuring familiar sounds but no words I knew.
Then yes, oh but yo, that is it, Mrs. Giesbrecht said, and her hands tightened on my shoulder, stretching and turning, a pain now, but different than the stab and ache — this time like orange easing into yellow into white, and then as if fitting together a notch into a groove, she shifted my collarbone with one clean, quick maneuver. What the fall had broken in me, she fixed, and set right the off-kilter part that wouldn’t heal inside, my body malleable as mud in her hands. When I sat up and drew in a breath, my ribcage didn’t burn, my shoulder didn’t throb. Mrs. Giesbrecht pulled my sleeve back over my shoulder, and my mother stood up, fished in her purse, and handed her a 20-dollar bill, payment for my backroom healing, however small the miracle.
At the end of that summer, we moved into the new house. Because the main floor wasn’t yet finished with carpets and flooring and paint, we lived in the basement through the first winter. Where months earlier I’d stumbled over crushed rock and staggered through the lumber framework, we now ate our meals, watched TV, practised piano, bathed, slept. In the living room, every time I watched my mother kneel at the fireplace with kindling and crumpled newspaper, strike a wooden match and send smoke rolling up that chimney, I saw myself falling all over again. Falling through darkness, falling into flames. Climbing charred from the hearth like some girl out of myth. “It could have been worse,” my mother always said. “It could have been so much worse.”
When I climbed that silver ladder to the sky, I knew that what I was doing was wrong, and because it was wrong, I wanted to do it. The old story’s forbidden thrill that lay coiled up inside me asked to be fed, wanted to be tasted. My father’s voice saying No, saying Don’t, made me crave the yes and why not. The voice that urged me rung by rung toward the roof was deep down in me, I knew it, a little hiss that tendrilled from the heart of me, the same whisper that slipped me hints and missives. Sneak another lemon drop, when my mother turned her back. It wasn’t really you who ripped the page. You don’t know how it happened, how the teacup cracked, why the clock fell off the wall. The climb and fall cut in me a promise of more to come, more stitches and scars, more of the laying on of hands in future room, in darkness, and more of me rising from the sick bed, from the dirt, more of me waiting to be set right, made new.