I received a lovely message this morning from “an old gal from Saskatchewan” who asked if it were possible to submit a short story that she had written. I am always impressed by people who reach out, so I happily agreed to have a look. Author/writer, Audra Hollingshead sent me a wonderfully written story about a prairie icon from the 30’s, entitled “Butterflies of the Night”. It is about the unclaimed red lights in all prairie towns in the early days. Audra thought that this story might be of interest to our readers … and I wholeheartedly agree. Enjoy. – Kate
BY AUDRA HOLLINGSHEAD
I recall when I was a child living in a small village, an old woman who, blind in one eye, and moving her old, bent body around with the aid of an ornate walking stick, frequented my father’s Post Office every day. With her bewitched hair and colourful layers of handkerchief-cornered clothes, she always looked as though she’d been hit by a tornado while hanging the wash. My father called her Squint-Eye Marie. In my mind, I have always spelled Squinteye as one word, for to me, then, it seemed the same as saying, Helen, or Madeline. I never learned her given name.
The sight of this ancient relic has long since vanished, becoming simply a memory, but still, to me, a memory as fragrant as the dried rose petals in the potpourri basket which she kept alongside a sepia-toned photograph of a baby on her bedside table.
Squint-Eye Marie had been, it seems, proprietress of the unacclaimed village House of Pleasure … a Butterfly of the Night.
To think of some Prairie villages, no matter how small their population, as having nary a woman of ill repute would not only be a miscarriage of truth, it would also be diminishing that Prairie village of its history, if not its colour. The Hey Cowboy, you wanna get lucky? gals of Prairie villages were considered the Jezebels – stuck between borders in no-woman’s land; the souls for whom local Evangelical church women bombarded the gates of heaven in prayer – rarely to any avail. The remainder of the town ladies – the not-quite-so-pious, whispered behind work-reddened hands, and in secret wondered of a late Saturday night if their husbands truly were playing cards, or whether they had been lured astray by the village Hussy.Our Marie began life much like any other child of the downtrodden. Eleventh child of a railway
Our Marie began life much like any other child of the downtrodden. Eleventh child of a railway labourer father and a slightly mentally deficient mother from a poor dirt-farming Prairie family, Marie entered the world with a draft up her backside in a dead-of-winter gale that moaned through the lost-chinking cracks in a one room decrepit shack alongside the railway. They called it home.
There was no way on God’s green earth that the previous ten children who, through some unspoken truce with the Almighty, had all remained alive, would not have witnessed Squint-Eye Marie’s conception as well as her birth. Had there been any walls, one could have heard a canary pecking its seeds next door. Having babies in that shack was like cows delivering calves. There being nowhere else, everyone was free to listen and watch. By this stage, however, it was old hat for the most, and food of any kind would have generated much more enthusiasm and curiosity than the birth of yet another mouth to feed.
It is understandable that gambling, for the poor, is endemic in any country, gambling being synonymous with hope. Forget that all hope is lost as the few pennies which could buy potatoes go to the bookie on a three-legged horse. It is, nonetheless, hope. The first child’s name was Hope. Thereafter all hope was abandoned. Discarded field turnips sustained their lives.
Somehow Marie prospered on those turnips, and abuse, and rose to great heights with a third-grade education to become the ticket taker at the local cinema house.
Marie didn’t look like the other ten. Local gossip had it that the milkman had called. She was beautiful. Her silky, dark hair curled charmingly around her face, her limbs were straight, her fair complexion clear, and her eyes were an astonishing violet, fringed with long, dark lashes. Best of all, she had an innate ability to charm.
Somehow, as time went on and she searched for a way out of life’s prairie, she grew up, filled out, and attracted the attention of every male over the age of 13 within the small community. It was at age fourteen, at the movie house, that Marie began her career.
The theatre projectionist, Harold, a man of 30 something, handsome, but with questionable morals and energy, and purported not to be able to open his mouth without a glass in his hand, eked out enough money to buy his booze by running the movie reel machine at the local theatre on Saturday nights. He lived at the top end of town in a big, old, porched house with his mother – a transplanted Britisher who, some claimed, was Gentry; though the ramshackle house that clung like a barnacle to the side of the hill belied money. No one ever saw the mother except for a country girl, Agnes, who lodged with them during the school term and paid her way by cleaning house and washing dishes. Agnes claimed the old lady (used derisively in this instance) would not let her use dish soap and she had to wash the greasy pots in cold water. I have subsequently learned that back then, used dishwater was fed to the hogs and that hogs’ insides – and outs – didn’t conscience soap.
It seems, or so Helen Polovnikov, the recognized town gossip, told my mother – somewhere behind the rack of women’s underpinnings in the local dry good store, that Marie’s first little dalliance – which supposedly took place in a corner of the cramped projection room in the theatre, resulted in a boy child who looked awfully like Harold.
No one could be certain of this of course, and neither speculation in the town beer parlour nor prayer in the local church produced any rational solution – save that the church attendees would not inflict any penance on Marie other than that of shunning her, and the parlour patrons would carry on as usual. Local justice is strong indeed. The local Priest, having apparently determined that Marie’s parentage was nominal Catholic, saw that the child was promptly, and properly given up and placed in the confines of a Catholic orphanage in some distant community.
Somewhere along life’s treacherous path, Marie had encountered old age. Her once supposedly glamorous job in the movie house – as well as her nighttime flutterings, had left her a sadder sight. No longer did she entertain in either of her chosen roles. Her daily forays to the Post Office and the grocers now her only contact with other humanity.
I was about eight-years-old at the time Squint-Eye Marie first spoke to me. Though in some abstract way my elder sister and I had been cautioned never to consort with a woman the likes of Marie, all thoughts of shunning her were abandoned when I heard several obstreperous Elementary-school lads hurling insults at the old cripple as she struggled to unlatch the front gate of her paint-peeling fence.
“Witch! Witch!” they shouted from the safety cover of some prickly old Caragana bushes across the unpaved road from her house. Embarrassed for her, I turned on the little blighters, hissing for them to cease their hateful teasing.
“Why do you defend me?” I jumped in fright at her cracked voice yodelling behind me. Missing teeth showed as her face wrinkled into a semblance of a smile as I turned toward her, cowering just a little, wondering if the boys had been right to a degree in their assessment. She had a kind of chicken bone frailty, and her once remarkable hair, now a few stray clumps, looked quite like a garnish on a Canape tray. I thought then how old Horace Von Pelt, the radio repair shop man had said – within my hearing, that he wouldn’t take her to a dog fight “ ‘Cause I’m afraid she’d win”. He had laughed loudly at his own joke.
“Come!” she commanded me abruptly, finally having wrested open the gate. Though she did have the appearance of a witch – her nose almost meeting her chin, something about her sang out to me, and leaving my three-year-old sister sitting in the yard next door, painting her bare stomach with red nail polish she had lifted from inside the adjacent Hair Dressing shop, I found myself following Marie through the old, weather-warped door of her house.
It was inside this tiny dwelling – gifted to Squint-Eye Marie by one of her now-dead benefactors, that I learned that things are not always as they appear. It was a lesson I have never forgotten. A lesson in Mother’s love.
“I knows what they say about me,” she said, peering at me with her one good eye. I looked away, shy and uncomfortable with her physical appearance.
“There are them’s what have, and them’s what don’t,” she said sagely. “I have made my own way.” With this she turned and shuffled into the small kitchen. I could hear her running water into a tin kettle and placing it on the stove. Taking in the living room I was amazed to notice how clean and tidy it was. Hand crocheted doilies covered every available surface. Atop these were trinkets – perfume bottles, china ladies, fancy boxes. From my current vantage point of age I wonder now if these – like her tiny house – had been gifts from suitors.
She didn’t speak again until we sat companionably on her old sofa drinking chocolate from fine china cups.
“Somewhere,” she said, “I have a son.” At this she beckoned me to follow her into her bedroom. The photograph was old and sepia toned. A solemn, fat, round baby peered up at me from a small frame on the table beside her bed. “I have never seen him,” she said. “I think of him every day as he is there – a baby, in the picture.” She wiped a tear from her good eye. “My only wish is that somewhere, he is happy.”
I have lived my life again in the telling of this story. Thoughts of my own children pass through my mind and I wonder if I could so stoically have accepted losing one of them to circumstance beyond my control – to never knowing what they became, or how they lived their life. Though but a child myself, then, I felt hot tears stinging my eyes – compassion for this strange creature who was, in fact, a mother like my own. Oh that today it would be possible to take Marie in my arms and cosset her in her loss. That I could erase her hurt and loneliness. That I could have been old enough to comfort her – this woman of the sisterhood of mothers.