Set in southern Ontario in the late nineteenth century, at a time when the machine age was coming into its own, Perpetual Motion chronicles the fortunes of settler Robert Fraser, a man obsessed with power and control. Driven by the idea of inventing a perpetual motion machine which will utilize natural energy, he neglects and destroys not only the nature around him but his own family too, as his overbearing rationality becomes a kind of tragic lunacy.
First published in 1982, Perpetual Motion is Graeme Gibson’s superb evocation of a time when faith in material progress is still challenged by superstition and a lingering belief in magic. It is an ironic yet compassionate examination of the painful consequences of human folly.
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Graeme Gibson was born in London, Ontario, in 1934.
An important spokesman for Canadian cultural identity, Gibson was the initial organizer and a founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, and was its chairman in 1976. He was also an organizer and founding member of the Writers’ Trust, a non-profit organization, and was subsequently its chairman. From 1987 to 1989 he was president of the Canadian Centre of International PEN.
In 1990, he won a Toronto Arts Award for writing and publishing, and, in 1992 he received the Order of Canada. He is the author of four novels, Five Legs (1969), Communion (1971), Perpetual Motion (1982), and Gentleman Death (1993).
Graeme Gibson lives in Toronto, Ontario.
“. . . and let me not be ashamed of my hope.”
– Psalm 119
With the rushing of wings, darkness gathered in the forest behind him. Robert Fraser stretched, rubbed his head with both hands, and cautiously arched his back to ease the pain.
Late that morning when his ploughshare had caught and held fast, he’d cursed the bloody rocks, the tree stumps, the roots and the land. Ned and Smoke had paused, then soothed by his voice leaned back into their harness with the uncertain excitement of animals remembering previous defeats. He’d strained against the handles, coaxing, driving with his legs and bearing down until he felt the obstruction lifting. He watched incredulously as it broke the surface, an enormous yellow bone rising to meet him. It was as long and thicker than his leg and for an instant he heard it like breath escaping the body. “Whoa,” he shouted at the horses, recoiling as the bone shuddered against the mouldboard. Smoke was trembling, prancing as if the earth had begun to scorch her feet. Even Ned was agitated. Feeding them strands of tobacco, massaging and pulling their ears, he whispered a confidence he scarcely felt.
After scraping mud in strips from along its length, crouching beside it at last, he cleaned both ends. He worked methodically. Poking at it with his belt knife, he decided it was the leg bone of an elephant, it had to be! He knew about elephants, astonishing creatures with small dark men riding on their heads. Once in Toronto he’d discovered that an elephant had left the previous day for Montreal. After dinner the men had recounted how a handsome young woman in costume had permitted herself to be encircled by the animal’s sinuous trunk and then, to the astonishment of the crowd, she’d been lifted high in the air where she gracefully waved her arms and arched her back. Patting his waistcoat smooth with both hands, one had described how the young woman, now supine upon a Moorish carpet, had commanded the beast to rest its foot directly on her face. Nobody had ever seen anything like it and from time to time she comes to Fraser in dreams, a slim and pretty woman, neat in her brilliant costume, a simple tension in her arching back and loins – she postures elegantly, her arms beating the air like wings.
His pipe lit, he’d contemplated the bone for the better part of half an hour, in a welcome drying wind that burst from the treetops, gathered momentum across his field and whipped the smoke away from his mouth almost before he exhaled. With strands of dirty hair slapping his forehead and cheek, his trousers trembling the length of his calves, he crouched in concentration, his body folded down upon a rock. The bone rested across three furrows, with the shadows of clouds rushing on the land. He didn’t see the straggle of wild pigeons shoot low over his field, nor hear the querulous shriek of a hawk somewhere in the forest beyond his fence. Fearing an evil omen, as if with spring the earth had cast up a warning, he tried to understand if he should bury it again. . . .
Lifting the bone impulsively, cradling it like an infant or a corpse, he heard it again: a telluric sigh, an infinitely resigned and mournful breath that resisted him as he straightened, weighed him down as he struggled onto the unworked ground at the edge of the bush. Releasing the bone, stepping back as it fell, he waited; nothing more happened. Fetching his shovel he drove it into the earth, to uncover another bone almost immediately. And then a third. One after the other he placed them on the ground by the first, meticulously reconstructing what he’d begun to disinter.
And so the day had progressed with the growing certainty an elephant could not have come to die here beneath his land. The bones he found were too old, too porous; he could have crushed the smaller vertebrae in his hands. Whatever the beast, it had been waiting long before that day six years earlier when Joshua Willow, the half- breed, had stopped and said, “She starts here and runs to the stream.” Robert Fraser would never forget that moment. Just twenty-four years old, he’d stood on his land for the first time, and it had been indistinguishable from everything else on the route. The monotony of the bush was overwhelming; it more than diminished, it threatened to absorb him, transform him into a thing, an object like the birds. He’d left Mad River with Joshua just after dawn and for five hours they had walked in the silence of a heart beating without movement or sound: each tree and tangle of bush was like the next, each turn in the path endlessly repeated what he had just seen; it was as if a dark cloth was being dragged across his eyes. Vegetation caught at his clothes, brushed his hands and face as if to hold him, to enclose him with tendrils and take root. While air had moved in sunlight among the treetops, the forest floor was damp and still.
Flat- faced and silent, almost disapproving, Joshua Willow had watched Fraser stand appalled, barely able to hear the water he could not see; and somewhere to the north and west, less than a hundred paces from them, this intricate and marvellous cage of bones had been lying even then just below the surface of a small clearing in the forest.
With the rushing of wings, darkness gathered in the forest behind him. The wind subsided, leaving the earth unnaturally still. The noise of his breath, the fatigue of the body inside his clothes, the sudden rasp of his shovel against another immense bone – these now familiar sounds thundered in his ears like blood. High above him, torn and ragged clouds streamed northward as he dropped once more to his knees on the wet earth. Clearing carefully with his hands and belt knife, following the hard plunging curve of bone, he encountered a ridge that must have been the brow and then the first of two gaping sockets; both of them, indeed the entire skull, were clogged with dirt. After excavating the interior, he rolled it out of the shallow pit and manoeuvred it into place among the disinterred and reconstructed maze of bones spread out on the tangle of last year’s growth.
Another clutch of pigeons circled rapidly over the forest, to alight in some beech trees at the other end of his fence. This time he heard the urgent wings and as he turned to watch them land he saw a larger flock away to the south. The birds in the wood had begun to call plaintively; half a dozen flew down to perch on the fence, their voices trilling, echoing curiously in his head.
With the distant sound of a gun from Casey’s, he returned to the pit. Dragging an ochre tusk to the skull, he imagined a great beast moving irresistibly, bulling its way in the forest, the angular ribs, each separate vertebra in a line, the empty sockets, those grinding teeth bigger than his fist, all of it clothed again, rising on massive legs. . . .
Finally, climbing to sit on his fence, filling his pipe and immensely weary, feeling the silent flight of bats about his head, he faced the grotesque jumble of yellowed bones. Light convulsed beyond the forest; yellow and orange it swelled to a sombre green, a shaft stabbed brightly up, throwing the tops of trees into relief before vanishing like lightning. Pausing to relight his pipe he heard the winnowing of wings falling above him; and the night wind, setting leaves in random motion, breathed on his face. Reaching for the ground with his foot, gingerly climbing down, pressing both hands into the small of his back, carefully he twisted and stretched, chewing the stem of his pipe until his muscles relaxed, the pain subsided.
“That’s it,” he said. By Jesus, it can be done. “I’ll do it!”
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