Read a Story - Alex Colville
You can see the train from up here
by: Tom Smart, Executive Director and CEO, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Ann and her brothers liked to climb the big oak tree in their back yard. The tree seemed to reach down to them with its lowest branches—just a small hike up from the ground. Stepping off the wagon, Ann got her leg up on the bottom branch. Her brothers, who were slightly taller and more flexible, were able to just swing themselves up on the limbs of the tree and climb up, hardly jumping from the ground.
Dogs don’t climb, and this odd fact always seemed to surprise the Colville kids. They never went anywhere without their favourite dog Tam, that father got the family. She was so smart. Able to track just about anything that moved. And she was fast, running and not looking at anything else other than her quarry—so fast that she would cause your head to whip around. She never really caught anything though. She seemed to enjoy racing and barking as much as Ann liked hanging around her brothers, especially when they were climbing.
The higher up you went in the tree the further you could see into the marshes. Past the tracks, you could see the swampy weeds and mud flats (where their boots got stuck last fall), and then onto the tidal plains – where the ducks and waterfowl landed to eat. Tam often ran in a frenzy straight into the tall grasses after birds, but she never caught one. She always bogged down in the sticky clay. If you were lucky you could catch a view of the tidal bore coming up from the bay. You could really make sense of the rising tide as it curled its way inland. A ripple you couldn’t stop.
Ann’s Mom told her and her brothers that it was dangerous to be playing in the marshes when the tide was coming in. There were tales of people getting caught behind the bore and being sucked away into the ocean. Other stories had them swallowed up in the quicksand that appeared under your feet without a moment’s notice. Still others had to do with the short-wave lines that criss-crossed through the flats. It was said—with some authority—by the older boys that the radiation from the wires could cause your heart to stop for no reason at all.
Ann didn’t believe any of this guff, but she always paid attention to the times of the high tide, just in case. She usually made some excuse to be on the edges of the marshes when the moon was pulling the water toward their backyard.
Being in the tree was one of her excuses, and she used it this afternoon because high tide coincided with the passing of the express train due in Moncton at five o’clock in the afternoon. Sometimes you could even catch the eye of the engineer, who would wave at you and maybe even blow the horn as he flew by—below you and not too far past the edge of the field.
This afternoon promised a double bonus—a safe haven from the tide and a choice vantage to see the train whiz by. As it came around the bend, Ann saw the bore closing in on the bridge. What luck that both things happened at the same time. Her brothers missed the moment—Ann prided herself on her powers of perception and good luck—as they were concentrating on getting higher in the tree and teasing Tam by throwing acorns down at her. “Mean,” thought Ann.
As Ann was about to call out, she saw that something caught the dog’s eye, causing Tam to turn her head and run headlong onto the berm that held both the train and the tide. The engineer obliged the waves and calls from the tree with a jaunty hoot followed by a chest-pounding blast that drowned out Ann’s screams and Tam’s aborted bark.
Alex Colville, b. 1920
Children in a Tree, 1975
casein tempera on board
51.1 x 73.4 cm
Gift of ICI Canada Inc.
McMichael Canadian Art Collection