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Back To The Land by Andrea Winkler

Lydia surveyed the mass of brambles in the backyard. She’d need more than a weed-whacker to make a dent. Only three months since they’d moved in, and the list of home improvements had become as barbed and unruly as the backyard brush.

It was Stephen who suggested they move to Cumberland Village, on Vancouver Island. Surrounded by forest and farms, it was still only a short drive to Costco. Narrow shops along the main street held all the exurban necessities: a gluten-free bakery, record store, and brewery. Their real estate agent had said it was perfect for a couple who wanted to get away from it all, “without going full bush,” she’d winked at Lydia.

Lydia had followed the urban exodus trend on national radio and in the gossip of Stephen’s friends. Under lockdown, a city tends to lose its verve. Quiet boxes, piled on top of one another; denizens on lunch time yard walks, penned in by arterials. She’d held her breath, as Stephen’s eyes became saucers listening to rural anecdotes. How so-and-so moved to Nelson and now raises chickens, how another works remotely for a credit union and makes paraffin-free soap. Lydia tried to make their apartment comparable. She looked up soap-making recipes online, ordered sourdough starter. But Stephen complained it wasn’t the same. They needed land, to feel their hands in the earth.

When Stephen transferred a deposit for the oldest house in the Village, he talked of chopping firewood and sitting on the veranda, fresh starts, and new beginnings. Lydia imagined yawning farm fields with all the space in the world for Stephen to untether and her to float away. She felt a hole in her stomach, sucking air from her lungs.


Lydia turned away from the brambles, took in the solid wood beams buttressing the kitchen walls. “Old house, but good bones,” the real estate agent had assured them. A gust of cold wind burst into the kitchen. Lydia rubbed her arms, followed the frigid current upstairs to the spare room, where the window, flung open, tapped the side of the house. She heaved on the metal crank, but it wouldn’t budge. Jumped when the door slammed shut behind her. The wind, she thought, and continued to tug at the ice-cold knob. As suddenly as it started, the wind quieted, her own frustrated grunts filling the room.

Push in.

Lydia paused at the gentle instruction from behind her. The wind, she thought again. Shivered as a gentle gust tousled her hair and grazed her shoulder.

Push in. 

A voice, a woman’s, closer.

Lydia’s body buzzed. She pushed the crank; it closed easily. She looked out the window, at the empty street that led to town, forced herself to re-focus on the pane’s reflection. Hers and nothing else. Just the wind, she told herself again. When she turned, her lower jaw fell. A petite older woman in the middle of the small room, hands folded, warm eyes set deep. Hair pulled into a bun, loop of pearls around her neck, she looked like a cabinet card of a distant relative.

The woman moved closer, smiled. I’m Jenny, then after a pause, this is my house.

Lydia’s mind fumbled over the possibilities, but her body softened, the buzz settled, replaced with a strange relief. She moved toward Jenny, her house.


Jenny felt cracks as they formed. Mysterious bump in the night; a cracked furnace valve. Scratches in the kitchen wall; a burgeoning rat nest.

Stephen bought a mountain bike, a fishing rod, and waxed his skis. At dinner, he regaled Lydia with stories of all the community had to offer. But Lydia preferred Jenny’s stories. Jenny had followed her husband from England to start a new life, sung soprano at the Methodist church on Sundays, helped forge their home from local timber, strong enough to hold against brutal west coast winter storms.

One day, as Lydia emptied the rat trap, Jenny told her about the last mine collapse. Her Jimmy had been inside. How she’d kept up the house, sure he would return, even when they stopped searching, even when she woke one morning and saw her body, still laying in bed.

Lydia nudged the stiff rat carcass into a paper bag, emptied it in the compost set up near the brambles, returned to Jenny waiting on the porch. “Was it a relief?” Lydia asked. She thought of the certainty in this place, the day-to-day.

Jenny agreed. She had made the house her own piece of heaven. Lydia moved the trigger rod of the new trap into place and thought of the solid wood beams, scaffolding for God’s Great Kingdom,


She felt Stephen watch her across the table. Forks scraped against plates. Lydia broke the silence, “Did you know the mines in Cumberland were more dangerous than those in England?”

“I did not.” Stephen reached for the beer stein he’d won at Oktoberfest for guessing the ingredients of a Bavarian sausage.

Lydia worked the roast in her mouth.

“Jesus.” Stephen shrunk into his sweater, as a chill filled the room. Mid-December crept through the kitchen window, ajar, played with the candles set between them. He waited a beat, then pushed his chair back, closed the window, giving it an extra shove to keep it in place.

“Almost forgot.” He sat down again. “We’re invited to Jessie and Amber’s for dinner this weekend.”

“Wonderful.” She didn’t recognize the names, but she’d been paying less attention to the details of his dinner stories. Stephen cleared his throat. The scrape of cutlery filled the kitchen again, echoed through the house.


Vocal harmonies of bluegrass and high-pitched laughter lapped them into Jessie and Amber’s home. Amber took their coats, introduced her to Joe and Dora. Stephen greeted Joe with a back slap and the women with hugs. Lydia plastered on a smile and glanced at the clock.

Over foraged mushrooms, wild caught salmon, and backyard potatoes, Stephen’s new friends swapped tales of back-to-the-land adventures. Amber-dyed wool with mushrooms. Joe made a Greenland paddle. Their voices rose, tales piling atop one another. Lydia pushed the kale (from Dora’s winter garden) around her plate.

            After dinner, they gathered in the living room for a nightcap, Bob Dylan played on vinyl. Jessie was lamenting the horrors of home renovations. Lydia surveyed the modernist décor and sniffed. Eggshell white walls, pendant statement lamp hanging low in the living room. This could be any hipster metropolis bungalow. 

“Don’t get me started.” Dora sat cross-legged on the floor. She and Joe had lived in an older home when they first moved to Cumberland that had two sewer back-ups and one chimney fire in less than a year.

  “We’re now the proud owners of a non-descript, suburban vinyl-siding house, built one year ago and we love it.” Joe bumped the table lamp, throwing his arms in the air with mock exuberance.

“Everything is still under warranty.” Dora raised a glass.

Lydia sank into the couch as voices piled on top of each other again, out-doing one another with the horrors of moving into old houses. Termites, eroded foundations, leaky roofs, faulty electrical wiring. Lydia sat still, smiling, nodding occasionally, eager for the night to end. Good bones, she thought. Her body stiffened, imagined their words pinging off her, ricocheting into the modernist tomb they called a living room.

At the end of the evening, as Stephen and Lydia stood in the foyer, layering up for the short walk home, Amber presented Stephen with a mason jar full of a strange globulous mass. Lydia winced at the sweet and sour vinegar smell inside.

“What is that?” she asked, once outside, eyeing the jar.

Stephen muttered something about yeast culture, a SCOBY, she thought he said. His words slurred together, heavy and flat. A tick she’d noticed when he was irritated, drunk or both.

Lydia nodded, already looking forward to being home, with Jenny.


            The rustling was faint. She was surprised it woke her. Then grew loud: metal across the kitchen floor. She was in front of the fridge. It jerked back-and-forth, until the door flew open, purging itself of the burbling mason jar that shattered on the floor; an orange-brown liquid oozed toward her. Laughter came from the living room. Don’t get me started on those old appliances! It was Dora (or was it Amber?), followed by the tinkling of glass. Lydia shook her head and the room was quiet again. A coolness clasped her feet, climbed her legs, gathered and re-formed itself around her.

            “Stephen!” she called out. The blob ebbed along her torso, bound her arms to her body. Stephen appeared in the entryway, holding his stein.

“Yes?” he asked, clearly annoyed to be pulled away from the laughter rising again in the other room.

            Lydia opened her mouth to respond, but the blob, cool and wet, pushed against her lips. She wanted to tell him this was his dream. But it oozed into her mouth, forcing it wide. The sticky-cool on a path toward her nose.

Stephen cocked his head, moved toward her, her body held rigid in place, exposed. She flinched when he thrust his hand toward her midsection, pulled out a pulsating mass, squeezed its juice. She noticed the stein’s bucolic motif: a small wood house tucked into a soft green field hedged by thick, canopied trees. His dream. Her throat ached. She met his eyes; he looked bored. His back blurred as he walked away toward the now-muffled laughter in the other room.

            Lydia woke trying to suck in breath. Her body stiff, until she shook it, just to be sure. She turned toward Stephen, facing the opposite wall, as close to the end of the bed as he could get, she thought. She watched the steady rise and fall of his rib cage. She reached her hand toward him, careful not to touch.


Lydia barely noticed the first week Stephen stayed away entirely. Late evenings turned into missed mornings, that stretched into absences for days at a time.

Lydia stood tippy-toed on a stool, swinging at cobwebs. A creak upstairs made her pause. Take in the silence of the whole house, how full it felt, how warm. Jenny appeared, looking up at her. Is it only us now? she asked.

Lydia stepped down from the stool and walked toward the kitchen window. She had replaced the brambles with raised garden boxes. A chickadee hopped along the wooden edge. Almost time for spring planting.

Lydia smiled. There was no place she’d rather be. She’d become untethered, but hadn’t floated away. She wouldn’t float away. She pressed her fingers into the cool marble counter, and it welcomed her. She closed her eyes, her fingers flattened, then lengthened, reached toward the kitchen walls.

Lydia thought of her first meeting with Jenny, in the drafty spare room, the stillness and calm. A craving she didn’t know she had.

Lydia leaned into the counter, her legs stiffened and strengthened. She inhaled deeply. With the expanse of her chest, her shoulders unhinged and flew outward. The crack of her bones filled the house and she felt a satisfied sigh as they merged with the rafters, buttressing her home. Solid beams. Good bones. Her entire being unraveled, breaking into a million shards and then, there was quiet and she slept.

She woke to the tickle of bird feet on the roof, the soil moist beneath her belly. An itch in her hip, she knew, was where a new rat nest grew, the draft in her mid-section where the spare room window hung open. A warm wind carrying the first hints of spring fluttered along her back. The floors of the house creaked, as she adjusted herself, at long last, settled.

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