He came on foot. Like a mirage, he rose in a shimmer of heat waves above the winding dirt road leading to our door. I watched him from the shadow of our enclosed porch.
I was fourteen on that hot July day in 1966, would be fifteen in less than a month. I leaned against the porch doorway and squinted into the sun while the last dregs of water drained from the wringer washer beside me. Outside, the week's laundry hung limp and motionless on the three clotheslines stretched across the yard. Sheets, hurtfully white in the brilliant sunshine, created a backdrop for the orderly procession of our family's attire. Mom stood out on the wooden laundry platform, her mouth full of clothes pegs, her back to the road. She reached down and plucked a denim shirt from the wicker basket at her feet, snapped out the garment with a crack of wet fabric and pegged it to the line.
There was something different about my mother that day. On washdays she usually wore a kerchief tied in a rolled knot in the middle of her forehead. That afternoon, bobby pins and combs held up her hair. Wayward blonde locks and wispy tendrils escaped around her face and at the nape of her neck. But it was more than that. She was distracted, flushed even. I was certain she had applied a touch of Avon rouge to her cheeks. Earlier, she had caught me studying her face as she fed my brothers' jeans through the wringer.
'Oh, this heat,' she said, then pushed back her hair and tucked it behind her ears.
Her attention was not on the road though, as she hung the last load, and I saw him before she did. I watched as he came around the bend by our bottom pasture. He crossed over the cattle guard, through the flickering shadows of poplar trees, and back into the naked glare of the day. He carried a large green duffel bag on one shoulder and a black object slung over the other. As he got closer I saw it was a guitar case bouncing against his back in the easy rhythm of his unhurried steps.
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From After River. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2008 by Donna Milner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.Hippie. It was a new word in my vocabulary. A foreign word. It meant oddly dressed young Americans marching beneath peace signs that urged, 'Make Love, Not War!' It meant Vietnam War protesters sticking flowers into the gun barrels of riot police. And it meant draft-dodgers. Some of whom, it was rumoured, were entering Canada through the border crossing a mile and a half south of our farm. Still they were nothing more than rumours. Rumours, and the snowy images from the hit and miss television reception in our mountain valley. I'd never seen one in the flesh. Until now.
'What's wrong?' Mom's voice broke my trance. She stepped in from the laundry platform and handed me the empty basket. Before I could answer she turned to look down the road. As she did, our cow dog, Buddy, lifted his head, then bolted off the bottom porch step where he had been sleeping in the afternoon sun. The border collie leapt over the picket fence and raced past the barn, a blur of black and white, barking a belated warning. 'Buddy!' Mom called after him. But by then the long-haired stranger was kneeling in the dust on the road, murmuring quiet words to the growling dog. After a moment he stood and, with Buddy at his side, continued up to the yard. He smiled at us from the other side of the fence as the border collie licked his hand. Mom smiled back, smoothed her damp apron and started down the porch steps. I hesitated for a moment before I put down the laundry basket and followed. We met him at the gate.
She was expecting him.
She wasn't expecting the heartache that would follow like a cold wind.
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From After River. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2008 by Donna Milner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.