Blanket of Stars: A Novel

Updated: Apr 8, 2018

Eleven years ago, I entered UBCO's Master of Fine Arts program and started the journey to becoming a member of the first MFA grad class at UBCO. For my thesis, I was writing a novel about five generation of women. The novel was set around Patterson Park Standardbred Race Track, in Ladner, BC, where for a period of my childhood, I had my mare stabled.

Three days before Christmas the second year of my MFA degree, I was in a car accident, and as a result, I almost dropped out of school. Instead, I abandoned this novel and wrote a completely different thesis. Today, while looking through my files for something else, I discovered the first 80 pages of "Blanket of Stars." Here is an excerpt.




Prologue

It was my mother's suicide that killed Great Grandmother Abigail. At least, that is what people say.


I have no memories of either of them; I was barely two years old the year they both died. I have only the stories of others, stories that have dulled, to some minor extent, the absence of these two women in my life. I have their stories, and I have the one old black and white photograph, faded now to a dull yellow, with a crease that runs through my mother's chest and heart, a crease that makes it impossible to see the little bundle – me -- wrapped in blankets and held in her arms. But in the picture my mother and my great grandmother are both smiling, and this is more comfort than you can know, since five months later they would both be dead.


Abigail O'Reilly was, by all accounts, one of the spunkiest, most progressive women in the town. And strong. You had to be strong, back then when you were pioneers building a whole new town, a whole new family, a whole new life. People say Great Grandmother Abbie was never one to give up, no matter how hard a thing, not when it mattered to her or her people. She was so young when she and Great Grandda married – by today's standards still a child. But she got her family through more than one disaster, and they say Great Gran would have gotten my mother through, too, if she'd been given half the chance.


Mom never gave Great Grandmother that chance, never told a soul what she was planning to do. And there's no point wondering what my life would have been if.


They've always said my mother, Constance Thompson, was Abbie's favourite. They had the horses in common, see, and that was something Grandma Anna says she never did understand. Like it just completely skipped a generation, somehow, that need to be rooted to the horses and the land. Grandma Anna got the poetry of Great Grandda's Irish soul, but she never did have the feel for the horses. I'm told my mother had it, and I have it, and my own daughter, Carrie, well, she surpasses us all.


It all started here, my family history, on this plot of land where I now stand. Once a bustling, thriving success with the heart of many in its green agrarian hands, Patterson Park lies abandoned now, vacant save for the joggers and dog walkers and teenage paramours ignoring the metal Keep Out warning signs.


Abandoned save for dog walkers and me, that is. For while it has been half a lifetime since I have been back, I am once again standing in this place where warm summer wind rushes through tall, unmowed green grasses, rustles through purple stalks of ripe clover, through neglected spatterings of dandelions. I am standing where horses once played and lives came and went. Where the late afternoon sun burns through my blue cotton t-shirt to scald my shoulders, to freckle the office-white skin of my nose. Here is where it started for my family.


Here, where the tears falling from my eyes refuse to gel, where my restless sandals propel me around the once forbidden surface of the half-mile race track, where dust settles into the creases of my open toes.


My eyes water the compressed dirt of this race oval too late. Time has marched on for all. This bare field of wild grasses, this weed-strewn compress of rutted dirt is all that remains of the plot of land where Abigail first met her man, where her man met his fate, where my mother met destiny. Now, even the cattails in their track-side moat are turning to fluff, weeping at destiny. There is a price to be paid for progress. There are winners, there are losers.


It was supposed to be the best part of life, where work met play. Race track, site of drama -- theirs, mine. When they looked, that is what they saw. Life. Beginning. Hope.


I see death. A beautiful, wild, fragrant kind of death, perhaps, but death, all the same. Grandma Anna says the best of life is death. I look across this field and remember the buildings that stood here once and remember the horses that chewed these grasses and remember the people who filled the long-gone grandstands. I see endings, not beginnings. I wonder if she is right. I do not know why I cry. Don't know if these tears are for them or for me, but they are a long-overdue catharsis of salt-streaks and snot, and they leave me empty and drained and burned like rain drenched grass scorched under a sudden sun.


I have both women in me. Great Gran Abigail, who never gave up, and my mother, Constance.

I can think of her more easily as Connie than as mom. Poor, unfortunate, desperate, Connie. Enough said. But Connie, favourite grand daughter of the indomitable Abigail O'Reilly, gave up in the most definite and dramatic way possible, and she exists here in me, right alongside Great Gran. I know her in ways I would not have my own daughter know.


Carrie, with her new veterinarian's licence and her kind-hearted fiance, with her hopes and her dreams and her heart that bleeds for everything broken, is everything in the world that a mother could love. She and Steve are young, but they are starting things out right. They are pursuing their own beginnings; they have their own stories to make.


I have the stories of all of them inside me. Their stories are mine. But in every story, there remains the unknown. The mind knows what it will, closes out what it won't.


There is a hard-packed rectangle of earth here, compressed under the grass, and I look from a distance, even as my feet draw me closer. Burning the back of my eyes is the memory; rough, dark green plank walls, shabby white trim, dirt floors, a glossy palomino head bobbing impatiently over the top of a stall door. My mind closes against the mists of memory, closes against what it sees, against the shudder that rubs itself into the crevices of my skin.


Both women exists in me. My mind closes...


Blanket of Stars

Part One

Chapter One


“Abigail Elizabeth Klomppe, how many times do I have to tell you that the stables are no place for a nice young lady?”


Abbie poked her head up from behind the glossy bay shoulder of the Standardbred gelding she was grooming. “Good morning, moeder.” She smiled her sweetest smile and the random rays of sunshine filtering into the barn from the high square window of the stall settled on her, burning copper highlights into her head of thick dark hair. “How are you this morning? All ready for the fair?”


Helen Klomppe narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “There is no sense smiling at me like a little angel when your hands are full of that horse and you are standing ankle deep in his bed; we both know you are no angel. Now, put down that brush and come inside the kitchen with me. There are things to be done there. Leave the horses to the men, child.”


The phony smile dropped from Abbie's eyes. With a scowl that matched her mother's, Abbie fisted her hands against her hips. “Moeder,” she said, drawing out the word.


“Alexander,” Abbie's mother called, “deal with your daughter.” Without hesitation and without sparing Abigail a further look, her mother turned on one heel and, lifting her skirts to keep them from scraping the dirt floor of the barn, walked decisively to the sliding dutch stable doors.


Abbie heard her father's muffled voice from the stall two doors down where he worked prepping their standardbred stud colt, Ben Thompson, for his first race as a trotter. “You'd best go then, nakomeling. Your mother needs you.”


Disgusted but knowing it was useless to resist – her father's decisions, however gently issued, were final – Abbie threw the brush. She froze as it clattered against the stall door, waiting with one eyebrow cocked for her father's reproof. Behind her, the gelding snorted and tossed his head then shoved his forehead into the small of her back and sent her stumbling towards the door.


“Hey,” Abbie protested, “where's your loyalty you big brown fool of a horse?”


There was a sudden guffaw of laughter and Abbie turned from lecturing the gelding to stare icily at the spot where her middle brother, Jacob, stood with arms propped against the top of the stall door.


“Looks like Bart there agrees with mother; a barn is no place for a lady. Not,” her brother smirked, “that there are any ladies here that I can see.”


“Oh ha. Stop, please. My sides are just killing me.” Abbie stepped over to the door then smacked at her brother's overgrown bicep when he didn't immediately move from her path. With a flourish, he stepped aside and waved her ahead of him. “M' lady,” he said, then burst out laughing again.


Abigail sailed past her brother with her nose in the air, then stopped abruptly and turned to face him, a puzzled look on her face. She took a step closer and sniffed the air. “Jacob,” she said, “You need a bath.”


Her brother buried his nose into his armpit, then lifted his head and grinned at his sister. “Mmm, sweaty. That's man smell. Probably from doing man's work. In the barn. Where men do their men's work.” Abbie glared at him then flounced off. “That's right,” Jacob called behind her, “Be a good girl and run along now. Woman's work waiting. In the kitchen.” He smacked a hand against his thigh then turned and found their elder brother, Thomas, standing behind him with arms folded across his chest. “What do you figure women's work is, anyway?” Jacob asked Thomas with a smirk.


“Right about now, little brother, I'd guess that any work Abbie might do in the kitchen will involve fouling your breakfast.”


Jacob snorted. “She wouldn't dare. Moeder would never let her out of the kitchen again if she started messing with the meals.”


“You'd better hope you're right,” Thomas said.


Jacob frowned thoughtfully at the door where Abbie had disappeared then shrugged. “Nah. She wouldn't.” Turning, he grabbed a forkful of hay and tossed it into Bart's stall.


It seemed like years later that Abbie climbed into the carriage behind her mother and Thomas' wife, Mary, although in reality it had been less than two hours. In those hours she'd been forced, as far as Abbie was concerned, into the most ridiculous form of slave labour. Chopping and peeling and scrubbing in the kitchen, with her mother directing, supervising and barking out orders as crisply as any drill sergeant, was as irritating and, Abbie believed, demeaning, as it was boring. Someone seriously needed to explain the concept of equality to her moeder. The very idea that in this day and age she could be required to make a bag lunch for auction – as if she could care for any boy who would even think that bidding on some stupid lunch could possibly impress her – was, it was... it was 1914, for goodness sakes. Beyond that, there were no polite words to describe what her life was coming to.


Sometimes she found it hard to believe she'd even been born into such a family. She glanced with distaste at the crumpled brown sack sitting on the seat beside her and shook her head. Her loud sigh was masked by the sound of the carriage lurching forward as Thomas flicked the reins across Blue's broad back. Even so, her mother turned from the front seat to look enquiringly at her daughter.


“What was that, Abigail?”


“Nothing moeder. I didn't say anything.”


“Mmm hmm.”


When her mother turned around again, Abbie squirmed in her seat. She hooked a finger into the lace collar that was scratching against her throat and pulled it away from her neck. She took a deep breath, then wiggled some more. This stupid dress moeder had insisted she wear was too tight. It was uncomfortable and tight and completely impractical, and she hated it.


Janice Van Hugendoorf had told her about this lady, George Sand, and how she dated the composer Chopin and would only ever wear mens pants. Janice said George Sand was an unbearable scandal. Abbie looked down at the long layers of her ruffled white skirts and decided this Sand person had the right idea. Today, she vowed, she would get this ridiculous tea gown as dirty as conceivably possible. She smirked. A strategic tear or two might not be a bad idea, either. After all, it was just plain ludicrous to expect her to go to the races wearing such fluff. With her mind busily scheming, Abbie settled deeper into her seat and, letting herself anticipate the excitements the day might held, began to enjoy the ride.



Sounds of a stable filled the ears of Charlie O'Reilly this fresh June morning. Sounds of horses chewing and stomping and blowing dust from nostrils buried deep into flakes of hay; sounds of harness buckles rattling, and deep male voices murmuring the soft steadying types of endearments known to charm maidens from their knickers and to calm the hottest blooded of horses. They were good sounds to the mind of Charlie O'Reilly, simple and fundamental and solid. They were the sounds of an honest life, sounds, on this bright going-to-the-races morning, underlaid by the sweet smell of equine sweat and the tang of well-oiled leather, and by the pervasive backdrop of clover ripening in nearby fields -- an olfactory backdrop that reminded Charlie of the hills of county Clare, back in Ireland.


Charlie stood at the shoulder of the mare he was tending and, resting his hand flat against the graceful crest of her neck, looked about him. Paterson Park, some might say, had little enough to recommend it. The fair grounds and standardbred race track was little more than a hunk of bare land on the edge of a town made up of other hunks of bare land all linked by proximity to Chilukthan Slough and the resultant access to water transport. Truly, Ladner's Patterson Park wasn't much to boast over. There was a well-trodden fenced grass and sand racing oval, a clapboard grandstand for spectators, a hastily constructed row of holding stalls for the horses participating in the races, and little else. The place had been this way pretty much from its first race, sixteen years earlier, or so the other trainers said. As such, the park suited its town, as Ladner had yet to decide if her future lay in the canneries along the shores of the Pacific Ocean or in the backs of the farmers as they laboured, hacking out a living from the land. While it was true that some of the more prominent citizens had started to settle in, building homes for their family's, to Charlie the entire town seemed to be existing in a kind of undeveloped limbo while waiting for its citizens to make up their mind which was the best purpose for the area to pursue. Those kinds of decisions, and the development that came with them, Charlie knew, was another kind of race just waiting to happen.

Charlie loved a good race.


Where the development of the town was concerned, Charlie had a definite bias in his opinions.

The land that the track and its town rested on was flat and pocketed with standing water, perfect for the breeding of mosquitos and other pests. It also lacked the rugged breath-stealing majesty of the mountains that rose in smoky magenta mystery in the northern distance. Some might say it lacked the excitement of the rapidly developing city of Vancouver, to the North, or the entrepreneurial direction of New Westminster, to the West. And yes, the town was situated near the sea, and her lucrative trade routes. But so was Steveston. So was Richmond. So, for that matter, was Vancouver.


Let them have her, Charlie thought. As far as Charlie was concerned, those other towns could take the Pacific Ocean. Just leave him the land. This rich, fertile, wonderful land.


The lands on which the town of Ladner and on which Patterson Park race track found themselves situated was rich alluvian soil moistened with a thousand rains – a farmer's dream, full of the promise of all the cycles of life. The canneries were good for the economy of the town, no question there. But they also dumped their wastes into the local canals, polluting the drainage ditches the farmers depended on for irrigating their fields, for growing the food the town's citizens needed to survive. Still, it was the sea and its transport routes that had the town on the map at all. She was still new. She could go either way. Charlie's vote went to the land. Let others have the sea; leave him to dip his fingers into the fields of moist black dirt.


“And wouldn't that just be fine.”


Charlie looked out from the mare's stall and saw a world that glistened with a touch of the sun. There were those without imagination who might see the race track and its assortment of shelters as grubby and of ramshackle quality. Charlie had never been one to lack imagination.


There were those who failed to see that along with the limitless shades of green in these fields came almost infinite possibilities for the future of the area. Those same failed to see the track for the symbol it was of all that could be made here. But others, Charlie O'Reilly included, looked at the jumble of buildings clumped together beside the racing oval and saw more. Those looking with their heart and not just with their eyes saw the truth; Patterson Park was a vision, and it was a dream. It was hope for a future that bettered both animal and man. The park was life, and it was community. And today the park had the poetry and the music of home running through Charlie's mind just as surely as the upcoming races had adrenaline pumping through his veins.


It wasn't only Charlie affected by the races to come. On this day the spareness of the facility couldn't distract even those with far less imagination than Charlie O'Reilly from the undercurrent of anticipation and excitement underscoring the activities at the racetrack. Today when the horses and the sulkies they pulled thundered around the race track oval, when they flashed past the finish line one ahead, one behind, months of work would be rewarded. Of course, there would be losers just as surely as there would be winners. These were the stakes.


And today, for Charlie O'Reilly, the stakes were high. High both for Molly and for himself. Here, in the battle soon to take place on the soil of this race oval, was truth. Here was purpose. Charlie's purpose was to win.


There was an extra element at the park today. Overnight, two large tented canopies had been constructed to the far right of the trotting oval. All morning carriages had been arriving, and ladies dressed in skirts of fluff had descended from those carriages to gather under the awnings and do whatever it was that such ladies did. While Charlie might shake his head over the impracticality of wearing long skirts to a stable, he was not at all oblivious to the wearers of those skirts. Every so often the sound of female voices, the bell-like trill of their laughter, drifted on the wind to the long barn row where Charlie worked. He was not unaffected. But for today, women were a distraction he didn't need. He was here to race. He raced to win.


“It's our day, it is. And isn't that just so, Molly, me luv?” The hand that rested on the mare's neck glided down its length, smoothing over the coarse hair of her mane, giving two firm affectionate slaps on the mare's glossy shoulder. Her ears pricked when Charlie started to hum, the bass of his voice vibrating against the walls in the narrow space of the stall. When he started to sing, the mare's only comment was the lazy swishing of her tail.


Is a mháithrín an ligfidh tú chun aonaigh mé

Is a mhuirnín óg ná healaí é

Is a mháithrín an ligfidh tú chun aonaigh mé

Is a mhuirnín óg ná healaí é

Beidh aonach amárach in gContae an Chláir

Beidh aonach amárach in gContae an Chláir

Beidh aonach amárach in gContae an Chláir

Cén mhaith demh é ní bheidh mé ann.


“What are you singing to that horse, sir?”


“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Charlie turned to face the female voice at the stall door. The woman standing there was young – very young – with dark hair piled into a knot of some sort that seemed to be slipping sideways in an awkward decent from the top of her head and with an entirely amused expression lighting her young face with mischief. For an instant Charlie met the girl's eyes as they sparkled at his expense.


“You startled me, lass,” he said good naturedly, then frowned. “You shouldna be here, a fine young lady like yournself...”


He stopped abruptly, left the rest of the thought unsaid. He knew enough about women, even young ones, to know when to leave off. This woman's eyes had narrowed to a fine squint and looked more than a little prepared to spit. And Molly, God bless her, chose that moment to make an entrance, sticking her nose over the half door of the box stall. The irritation vanished from the woman's face instantly, and she reached out, palm up, and, cooing all the while, let Molly nuzzle the salt from the skin of her hand.


“You know horses.” It was a statement, not a question. “I take it back, then, that other thing.”


“As you should.” Her voice was melodic now, dreamy and slow, and Charlie knew she spoke to the mare as much as to himself. She had moved her palm up to flatten against the star on Molly's forehead, and she rubbed the mare until Molly tossed her head. Then the girl chuckled lightly, and let her hand fall away. Only then did she look over at Charlie, and the smile on her face was relaxed. “So what was it you were singing to her?”


“Only a bit of Irish good luck.”


“Well, this is as good a day as any for a dose of luck, I suppose. Will you sing it again?”


Charlie angled his head sideways as if listening to the tune in his head, as if deciding, while she waited. Then his eyes cut to the mare.


Is a mháithrín an ligfidh tú chun aonaigh mé

Is a mhuirnín óg ná healaí é

Beidh aonach amárach in gContae an Chláir

Cén mhaith demh é ní bheidh mé ann.


And what does it mean?”


“A lot of nothing, really.” Charlie laughed softly. Then he looked at her and this time when he sang he switched the gaelic for english.


Oh mammy won't you let me go to the fair

Oh dearest love, don't plead with me

Oh mammy, won't you let me go to the fair

Oh dearest love, don't plead with me

There's a fair tomorrow in County Claire

There's a fair tomorrow in County Claire

There's a fair tomorrow in County Claire

Why should I care, I won't be there.


She laughed. “And yet here you are.”


“And here you are.”


Abbie shut her eyes and her nose wrinkled. Then she opened her eyes and turned away from the pretty bay mare and the singing Irishman with the gentle brown eyes and the abundant smile lines.


“Hello moeder,” she said, her voice resigned.


“You,” her mother said, taking hold of the soft flesh of her daughter's upper arm, “will come with me.”


“Yes, moeder,” Abbie murmured, eyes down, voice submissive. There was no arguing when her mother used that particular tone.


“And you, sir,” her mother's tone was cool, “are?”


“Charlie O'Reilly, ma'am.” He stepped forward, offered his hand, let it drop when she completely ignored the gesture.


“Do you make it a habit to speak to unaccompanied young ladies, Mr. O'Reilly?”


He could have pointed out that it was the girl who had stopped him, spoken to him, and not the other way around. The words were on his tongue. But he looked over at her, saw her cheeks pink, saw the embarrassment and the resolve underneath the miserable display of obedience and civility. Knew without question that this was a lass with a core of independence that was strong. Not an easy filly to tame, he imagined, but one who was merely biding her time. It was a good trait, Charlie felt, in horses and in people, to know one's mind and have the strength of will to go with the knowing. It made the gel interesting to him, that she so clearly had both qualities. For the girl's sake, he kept his answer mild. Politely, he reached up and pulled the wool cap from his head. “Ma'am.”


“I'll thank you to stay away from my daughter, Mr. Reilly.”


“O”Reilly.” It irked. He couldn't deny it, so he stressed his point. “O'Reilly. Ma'am.” He met her eyes now, met coolness with civility. She said nothing more, merely tightened her grip on her daughter's arm and began to move away. He stood, watching them leave, and saw it when after only a few steps the girl wrenched her arm free and turned back to him.


She smiled at him, her version of an apology. “Your mare,” she said.


“Yes?”


“She races today?”


He nodded. “Three-year-old maiden trotter.”


“What's her name?”


“This here is Shelena Blue. You'd best call her Molly.”


Abbie smiled. “Molly.” She looked at Charlie. “She's lovely, sir. Good luck to you both today.”


“Thank you, miss.”


“Abbie. You'd best call me Abbie.” He chuckled at her mimicry and for an instant they smiled together, then she turned and hurried away after her mother.



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