My people came down from the mountains, brittle ghosts armed with blades and hacksaws. They were big eared, small-footed and had red-knuckled hands. They carried no expectations. The men were tough and canny, ready with violence, religiously upright, but secret drunks. The women bore the men, bruised and joking.
They were hard and selfish people, except perhaps one great-grandfather. Imagine a small man, balding, ears akimbo, wearing a clean white shirt. He has an accordion strapped to his chest and his small feet count measures as his fingers fly on the keyboard, the bellows wheezing.
He had three daughters and he taught them all to dance. When he finished teaching the girls, he taught the rest of the town to dance as well. He taught the loggers, and the fishers, and the women who served the coffee and made waffles from scratch at the pancake house. Dancing his way to respectability, the town eventually named an avenue after him.
You can still travel to this northern town, back up over the mountains, and down again to the valley floor. His town is on the Skeena River, where the Canadian National Railway meets the Yellowhead Highway. Following the strains of that ancestral squeezebox, you can find the street named for him, in gratitude for his gambol and sway. Standing beneath the street sign you will see the road goes nowhere.
His daughters–three sisters– chose different lives. One stayed put, dutiful. Two left town, travelling up over the mountains to new small towns in remote valleys where highways meet rivers. Of these, one found a husband, settled down, and did the normal things. She kept a clean house, raised good children and had a way with African violets. The third sister was lost. She was the broken one. A nurse called Fanny, she loved to work, was forced to marry, and could not stay away from the bottle. Why? Not necessarily a useful question. Perhaps as a child, she was made to dance against her will.
Eventually she drowned in her sorrow. There are not enough words to fill the emptiness she left behind. Like her father, she played the accordion, and while she lived, she tried to pass the love of this peculiar instrument on to her grandson. This, like so many other things, failed. Her progenies are hopelessly unmusical. I am of the granddaughters and grandsons, descendants scattered like streams and creeks moving away from the fault lines in the mountains to some greater waterway. Living by my wits on the shore of a mighty sea, I make poems and fill my pockets with round stones gathered at the water’s edge. I awaken when the moon is full; listen for ghosts, check for saw and blade. At times, I am seized by the uncontrollable urge to dance. Always, I am careful with my feet.
“My People Came Down From The Mountains” first appeared in Wordworks Magazine, 2021, as the BC-Yukon 2020 Flash Fiction prize winner.
IMAGE: Franklin Carmichael Bay of Islands from Mt. Burke 1931, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 122 cm, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. R.G. Mastin, McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Kleinburg, Ontario
Vicki McLeod is the author of four nonfiction books exploring being fully human in a technical world. Her essay, Georgie, was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize. She won the BC-Yukon 2020 Flash Fiction prize for My People Came Down from the Mountains. In 2021, her essay Leave with What You Came With was long listed for the BC-Yukon Creative Nonfiction prize, and All My Love, Alex, an essay collage received second prize in EVENT Magazine’s 2021 Creative Nonfiction competition. A graduate of the 2018 SFU Writers Studio, she is a west coast wild swimmer, living on Vancouver Island.