31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 15: “What Saffi Knows” by Carol Windley

May 15, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From Home Schooling

Home_SchoolingCarol Windley’s short story “What Saffi Knows,” from her Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted 2006 collection Home Schooling, kicks off with a palpable air of menace. “That summer a boy went missing from a field known as the old potato farm,” the story begins, and though the details of the boy’s disappearance remain tentative and opaque in the early stages, the language Windley uses to set the scene is heavy with foreboding. The opening paragraph presents us with “bog-orchids,” “thistles in their multitudes,” and “black lilies with a stink of rotten meat.” The imagery is of barrenness and decay, culminating in “stinging nettles” that are “blameless to look at … yet caustic and burning to the touch.” The nettles can be “brewed into a tea that acted on the system like a tonic,” prompting the recollection of a children’s rhyme: “Nettle tea in March, mugwort leaves in May, and all the fine maidens will not go to clay.” The tea’s properties may be healing, but it is impossible to ignore the little ditty’s insistence, in its final clause, on death.

The creeping dread in the opening is surely intentional, and fully appropriate for what follows. A crowd of people resembling “cutout dolls” gather in the potato field – further described as “untended” and “sequestered”; the wind blowing through the grass is “fitful” – to search for the missing boy, named Eugene Dexter. It is July 1964, and ten-year-old Eugene is the second boy in six weeks to go missing in the small Vancouver Island community. Details of the new boy’s disappearance are sketchy and frequently contradictory:

His jacket had been found snagged in a hawthorn tree beside the Millstone River, at the far end of the old potato farm. Or else it was a baseball cap that was found. Or a catcher’s mitt. You heard different stories. There was a ransom note. There was no such note. The police had a suspect, or, alternately, they had no suspects, although they’d questioned and released someone and were refusing to give out details.

The circumstances surrounding Eugene’s disappearance are narrated retrospectively, told in the close third person from the point of view of Saffi, an adult in the narrative present, but a girl of seven in 1964. As a child, we are told, Saffi “noticed things, she took things in, and to this day she can’t decide, is this a curse or a gift?” One of the things Saffi notices around the time of Eugene’s disappearance is a young boy who appears to be locked in the basement room of her family’s solitary neighbour, Arthur Dawsley:

He had painted his cellar window black, but he’d missed a little place shaped like a star and she could get up close to it and see a shaded light hanging from the ceiling and beneath the light a table with a boy crouched on it. He was a real boy. She saw him and he saw her, his eyes alert and shining, and then he let his head droop on his chest. Don’t be scared, she said; don’t be. He was awake but sleeping, his arm twitching, his feet curled like a bird’s claws on a perch. All she could see in the dim light was his hair, nearly white. He was wearing a pair of shorts.

What Saffi knows is that her next door neighbour (whom everyone in Saffi’s family refers to as “Arthur Daisy” on account of a mispronunciation the girl made of the man’s surname when she was not even two years old), “a man in his late sixties, a bachelor or perhaps a widower, a man seemingly without family of his own,” has in his basement a boy who resembles in all the pertinent details the missing Eugene Dexter. “Saffi was the only one who knew,” Windley writes in the story’s opening scene. “But who would listen to her?”

Who indeed? For seven-year-old Saffi is unable to convey her knowledge to her parents, who are too preoccupied to pay much attention to her in any case, or to any other adult in a position to take action to help the boy. She tells her aunt Loretta, “I seen a turtledove in the cellar at Arthur Daisy’s house,” something Loretta assumes to be a flight of fancy on the part of her young niece. The comparison is completely understandable: Loretta has just finished telling Saffi a story about a turtledove, and Saffi makes the association because of the boy’s fair hair, which is described as being so blond it appears almost white. Attending the search party at the story’s beginning, Saffi thinks she sees a turtledove, “its silvery wings spread like a fan,” but realizes belatedly that she is mistaken.

The turtledove, of course, is an emblem of peace; in Windley’s story it attaches to the boy as a means of locating his innocence, which is in stark contrast to the language used to describe Arthur Daisy. Saffi’s neighbour is portrayed as physically repulsive, with “colourless lips,” “stained teeth,” and “gums the bluish-pink of a dog’s gums.” He looks, Saffi thinks, “like the old troll that lived under the bridge in Three Billy Goats Gruff.” He is pictured working in his garden, cutting away at “blood-red roses” that he will take to the grave of his mother, who died of “a wasting disease.”

Arthur Daisy’s interactions with Saffi are presented in creepy, not-quite-predatory terms: he encroaches physically on her space and intimidates her into silence, then needles her with his favourite question: “Cat got your tongue, little girl?” At one point, he pinches Saffi’s arm and it “burned like a hornet’s sting.” He asks her to guess what he’s got concealed in his hand, an item that turns out to be “an old nail or a screwdriver or the sharp little scissors he used for cutting roses” – all things that could be pressed into service for violent purposes should one be so disposed.

The question Arthur Daisy asks Saffi – “What do you think I’ve got?” – is resonant with an earlier line in the story, when Saffi thinks that she must be careful prowling around her neighbour’s property: “Since he’d got the bird-boy, Arthur Daisy never stayed away for long.” Saffi knows what Arthur Daisy has “got” concealed in his cellar, but she is unable to communicate this knowledge. Her aunt misunderstands her, and when a policeman stops her mother for speeding while Saffi is in the car, the girl thinks she should divulge what she knows, but can’t bring herself to do so: “She hated herself; stupid, stupid Saffi, what’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”

The guilt and ghosts of Saffi’s childhood follow her into her life as an adult and a mother; she finds herself overly protective of her own children, never losing sight of them for even a second without succumbing to “a bleak, enervating moment of inevitability … as if she herself had vanished, as if the world was simply gone, all its substance and splendour disintegrating into nothing.” She notes the “indiscriminate growth and contradictory nature” of living things, “the small stink of decay at the heart of each flower,” and encourages her children to observe shattered robin’s eggs and dead animals: “Go ahead, look, she said. It won’t hurt you to look.”

What Saffi knows, however, is that it does hurt to look, especially if one does not have the language to convey what one has seen. “Memory was so imperfect,” the adult Saffi thinks. “The habit of reticence, of keeping secrets, was, on the other hand, easily perfected; it was powerful and compelling, irresistible.” Saffi carries her knowledge with her throughout her life, without any resolution as to the fate of the boy in the cellar. In retrospect, the adult woman even questions the veracity of her own childhood comprehension: “What was true and what was something else, a made-up story?” As for the rest of the town, “There were no answers, it seemed. It was a genuine and terrible mystery that infected the town like a virus and then suddenly cleared up, leaving as an after-effect an epidemic of amnesia.”

For her part, the adult Saffi’s memories manifest themselves in anxiety disorders, depression, and exhaustion. She suffers recurring nightmares of Arthur Daisy’s shed, inside of which “it seemed there was a greater darkness than the dark of night.” In her dreams, the only sound that manages to cut through “the soundless well” is “the ringing of a shovel against the unyielding earth” – a memory of Arthur Daisy’s shovel digging into his garden, but also a suggestion, ever present and horrible, of a gravedigger’s shovel preparing the ground to receive a fresh corpse.