You remember Horaceville, and you remember it at a certain time of year. Murky late-autumn, after the cold had stripped the colour from the land but before the blizzards set in. Even at noon twilight seemed to be burgeoning, everything on the same spectrum of brown and grey and black and burgundy. The white of the birch trees and the frozen puddles was ghostly, like spilt milk. The place had the thick silence of a permanent Sunday evening. Every clear noise – a creaking gate; an owl’s scream – took you by surprise.
It wasn’t quite a town yet, but the idea of one was there. Homesteaders wanted to winter somewhere that felt familiar. In the cold they hurried from their houses to the church or the stores with their chins tucked in, scarves up to their eye-sockets. Horaceville was full of the sound of doors slamming.
At the end of this street of slamming doors lived Mrs Molloy, the vastest Indian you ever saw. She weighed three hundred pounds, and she was tall with it. She was a giantess; she was the way adults looked when you were a child. You could have climbed her.
She was none of the things a very fat person is meant to be. She did not really lumber; her clothes did not strain; she did not perspire or smell overmuch. Her black hair was neatly scooped back, and her sail of a shirtfront was as spotless as anybody else’s. She glided down Main Street, yards of wool skirt undulating over her tiny feet, every now and then swinging her head ponderously to squint at something with her small black eyes. Seeing her was like stumbling upon a big animal, a moose or a bear, that wasn’t interested in you. You knew it wouldn’t up and hurt you for no reason, but still. Its world was different from yours. You’d hold your breath until it had gone.
Molloy, the husband, was half Chippewa himself, but he was small and lean. You had to wonder how that worked out for them. Perhaps it did not matter: he was a trapper, never home. By the time the homesteaders returned to Horaceville for the winter, he had already gone. While they snuggled round their hearths he was up in the mountains. That was a perplexing thing. The other women were used to being away from their husbands, but it was hard (they said) to offer solidarity to somebody whose circumstances never matched their own.
The daughters showed no sign of their mother’s singularity. Long plaits; white pinafores; whispering their way to school. Normal, if you didn’t know better. As you came to the end of Main Street you could peep into their house and see the older girl stoking the fire, the mother looming over her beadwork.
‘Does he like her like that?’ some people whispered. ‘How much does she eat? Does she make her blouses out of bedsheets?’
You might have laughed, but something stopped you when she passed by. Mrs Molloy all alone, mouth shut tight, swinging her baleful head first this way, then that, like a bear in a ring.