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Deserted Houses

A Story by Dorothy Fraser


People write books about ghost towns, and historical societies go to look at the remains of old mining settlements but all round the fringes of the Okanagan there are ghost houses too, each by itself at the end of a forgotten wagon road.

Five miles into the bush there is a house built of huge hand-squared logs. Men experienced the physical weariness, day by day, of this demanding work, but they had the pride of craft in building so fine a house in the wilderness, of making a home. The chimney was built, the walls chinked and lined, the floors laid, the windows made tight. Then the family moved in. The aspens were cleared from the big meadow, fences built and a corral constructed, barns for the livestock, and a root-cellar for keeping the winter vegetables from freezing. It was a homestead, built up by experienced people who knew what they were doing.

What happened? Why did they leave? Round each house there is a mystery.

Nothing is left but the shell of the big log farmhouse. Somehow those people managed to take away all their belongings. Even the heavy kitchen stove is gone. Perhaps they were able to leave without regret and set up their household goods somewhere else. Perhaps they moved to a farm in the valley and made a success of it.

But many didn't. Round some of the abandoned houses a feeling of failure, even of calamity, seems to hang in the air. In a deserted house by a lonely lake there was that most cherished possession of every household: a trunk with old photographs and little family treasures. These things are always handed down from mother to daughter, and either a broken-hearted woman had to leave suddenly without her ancestral belongings, always meaning to return, or a tragedy had occurred and there was no woman to claim them. Who could have left behind the wedding snapshots, the baby pictures, the faded faces of grandparents?

Often there are broken pieces of dishes and jars. Collectors poke through the pile for a bit of glass made purple by years in the hot sun, or a fragment of ancient china, or even a bottle of long ago. If the name of the early settler is still known, as it often is, there is prestige attached to having these discarded bottles or even discarded medicine vials in a collection.

There are broken home-made chairs ingeniously constructed from tree branches, and simple tables covered with patterned oilcloth, and invariably there are rusting bedsprings and pieces of stove-pipe. Sometimes even farm machinery could not be taken away, and what regrets were left behind with that piece of equipment once so bright and so useful in the daily work.

In some wild places you will come unexpectedly upon a straggling lilac bush, the last remnant of a homestead. You know there was a house and family here, that here a woman wanted something beautiful, something to be the start of a garden in the new land, a reminder that life has a refinement and a delicacy beyond mere utility. Its bunches of flowers and its sweet scent --- that most nostalgic of scents --brought from her old home a feeling of continuity, and when she left she no doubt took along a slip of the enduring bush.

Then too, the climate changed. A drier cycle set in, and the scattered farms in the bony hills no longer had enough fall for the dry-land crops, and the wild grass was too sparse for the stock. They had to move on. Even the next-year people. And pioneers are usually next-year people.

At first these deserted houses with their peeling flowered wallpaper were used temporarily by hunters who left their traces with beds of dried-up spruce boughs and a great number of shot-at tin cans. Here they told their hunters' tall tales half the night, warm and dry in the cold deer-hunting season.

Some of the more accessible houses then became the community houses of the young men and women who were looking for a life of return to simple values, growing their own food, spurning the technological age, trying to live quietly in love and peace. They built amateur fences and poorly artificed little buildings, and they had no familiarity with growing vegetables or raising chickens. It was all harder than they had expected. They have gone too, taking with them just a bundle on their backs, again leaving pitiful possessions behind.

Vandalism is now being added to natural decay. Windows have been smashed and doors broken down. Not only deserted houses have suffered. On the edge of the Okanagan an abandoned church has been desperately ravaged. Nothing is safe any more.

And Time itself will finally topple all the deserted houses and return them to the earth. Nothing will be left as a memory of the mating and birth and death which have occurred in them, the hardness of work and the bitterness of sorrow, the joy and the love, the warmth and the welcome.

For the deserted houses were the shelters of those who worked as hard as anyone has worked, making a subsistence living from unyielding climate and soil living lonely lives with only rare meetings with far-away neighbours.

A woman's hopes and fears once rose the rafters of all these houses. The man would take the horses and wagon on a two day trip for supplies. Alone in the immensity of the mountains, with bear and cougar about, what did the woman do? She watched the children, fetched water from the spring, fed the live-stock, made bread, chopped wood, kept the stove going.

Hardy and capable as these women were, able to do everything in house and farm, they yet listened and listened for the sound of the horses on the second afternoon. Then as it was nearly dusk, they lit the kerosene lamp and put more wood on the stove. The granite coffee pot was filled and put on to boil. The heavy black pan was set to warm, and slices of deer-meat cut off for frying. The table was laid and a loaf put out. The children were made to come in and wash their hands and faces. Their man was coming home.