The Witiko’s Necklace
and Other Fabrications
by Brian Reynolds
Published by Brian Reynolds at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Brian Reynolds
“Shakespir Edition, License Notes
Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favourite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.
Cover: Brian Reynolds
The short works in this collection were written between 2000 and 2006. Among them, some were published online or in print between 2004 and 2006. All of the stories have been recently revised. In retrospect, many of them seem quite dark. Parts of some of them—it will be obvious to readers of Mouse (2015, Shakespir)—became fodder for that novel. Many, if not all of them, owe a great deal to excellent writers at the Zoetrope Virtual Workshop who generously critiqued them. I also received invaluable help from numerous friends and a copy editor who wishes to remain anonymous.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
(first appeared in Lichen)
(first appeared in FRIGG)
(first appeared in Event)
(first appeared at Bound Off)
(first appeared in The New Quarterly)
(first appeared in Vestal Review)
(first appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly)
(first appeared in FRIGG)
(first appeared in Whistling Shade)
(first appeared in Slow Trains)
(first appeared in FRIGG)
I met Xavier in January, across the creek at a pool hall dance. On a whim, to chase away the blues one Friday night, I walked the gravel road that linked us to the reserve. Escape another episode of Dallas with the other women teachers, check out the local music scene. Hey, maybe even meet some cute Native guys.
I spotted X across the room, sitting on one of the green felt tables pushed against the back wall, laughing it up with a group of young men in denim jackets. His black hair grazed his shoulder every time he turned his head. All of them were lean and fit, broad shouldered, somehow soft in how they moved and gestured. All of them were non-stop laughing. But even though X was sitting down I judged him taller than others by how they showed deferral, what appeared to be respect. He didn’t seem to notice me, yet I was pretty sure he did.
The Cree of Otter Creek see everything. They rarely look each other in the eye as if it breaches local etiquette. My grade four students studied desks, floors, blackboards, even books in order not to look at me directly. At first, I thought they must be scared or reticent or somewhere off in dreamland, but by Thanksgiving holiday I knew they took in every detail. Then I thought it might be just a game: to see without being seen. I played along and kept a tally. I teased them when I caught one peering up at me through long, black eyelashes, but still I had it wrong. I gave up trying to understand it and simply copied them as best I could.
That night, I walked across the crowded floor, faced him eye-to-eye and said, “I’m Ashley.” I’m sure it came off white and pushy, but it saved us both from staying in the shadows till the end without a nod or shy hello.
He grasped my outstretched hand as if it were a kitten. I’d have called it “limp” five months before, but by the evening of the dance, his gentleness of touch meant simply I-am-here, not the firm greetings-I’m-not-afraid-of you-I’m-offering-you-a-chance-to-be-civil that people use in places further south.
“Eh? I don’t understand Cree.”
He grinned. His white shirt collar and cuffs flashed purple in the single strobe light blinking though the hall. “Sahbeeyay’s my name. It’s English.”
“I don’t think so. Could you spell it?”
“X-a-v-i-e-r. Kapashesit. My family name means ‘small.’ That’s Cree.”
His voice was gentler than his touch. I nodded toward the middle of the room and he accepted.
We danced until the band exhausted all the off-key classic rock and country Scotch-taped to the neck of the lead guitar. The grown-ups drifted home to tend their wood stoves, and youngsters pushed the tables back in place and racked the billiard balls.
He walked me back to my apartment so we could dance to my music, on my side of the creek. Government housing, the store, my school, a nursing station, the Catholic church. Everything important except the power plant lay on what we called the Mission side where I’d lived and taught the past five months. “Home” for me was far away. I showed Xavier the waltz that night. He taught me “tall” depends on context, touch creates its own sweet plurals. He showed me how a blouse can lose its buttons with a single, skilful move.
“You smile a lot, Sah-bee-yay.”
He grinned a row of perfect teeth. “Sounds funny when you say it. People call me X.”
“Say it again. I want to get it right.”
He laughed. “X.”
“That sounds too much like beer or porn. Say, ‘Xavier’ the way you say it.”
“‘X’ will do just fine.”
He only smiled. While we talked, he touched my hair, studied the auburn curls as though they might be on the unit test. I caught his eyes, the instant when he peeked at me. There was nothing else to do but kiss him then, our mouths tumbling down a grassy slope too dizzy to care where it might end. He read my mind. He leaned away from me, took a shirttail in either hand, then sprayed mother-of-pearl confetti across my living room carpet.
He didn’t say a word, didn’t ask a question, not with sound until he whispered “Ashley” sometime later when we were wet with sweat, still trying to keep as much skin touching skin as possible. He didn’t whisper it to me; he said it to my flesh, still so sensitive it shivered at his warm, moist voice. “Ashley.”
I slowed things down in days to come. The Mission made me feel uneasy. The Department didn’t care. The other teachers thought X was cool—as long as he was just a weekend guest. But. Over coffee, they mentioned clauses in the lease. Casually. Nothing untoward nor manifestly racist.
My weekends with X made up for any gossip as well as job frustrations and disappointments. On Friday evenings, sometimes with just a sheepskin jacket for a coat, X would amble through a blizzard up my stairs, and it would take me all that night and most of Saturday to warm him up and feed the parts of him that always seemed in need.
Naked, he’d sit cross-legged on the double mattress, my bedspread wrapped around his shoulders, the remnants of my supper resting in his lap.
“It’s good, Ash.”
“I can make more. You still look hungry.”
“Wish you had a woodstove.”
“I’ll turn the heat up.”
“Just come sit here.”
I shrugged my robe onto the carpet and slipped inside his makeshift tent, an arm around his waist, my free hand warming here and there, a knee, a cheek or arm, lightly rubbing while he ate.
“Teach me a word, X.”
I spanked him hard along his hip. “In Cree. What’s “meatball” in Cree?”
He frowned and raised his fork to stare at it. Then he took a bite and slowly chewed.
“Please. I want to know. I want to talk to you.”
“Just talk then. I understand you.”
“Please.” I licked his shoulder and ran my finger down his spine.
“Wiyas? Last week you said it meant bacon.”
“Both. Your fingers make me shiver.”
I kissed him then, his mouth still full of pasta. I fumbled for the plate. My fingers curled around the warm spaghetti, sauce and all, and rubbed it on his hairless chest and muscled belly before I pushed him back and slid on top of him. He laughed at my critique of wiyas. Not the only time he laughed at me.
Easter came in March that year and, with a little prodding, X invited me to meet his family. I should’ve known. I’d talked to parents of my students in their homes. I’d had a cup of tea with Native friends over in the village. But this was Easter. In my mind, there should’ve been a table full of ham and pumpkin pie, prayers or hockey tournaments.
We sat on kitchen chairs in their living room, warmed by a woodstove made from an oil drum watching TV with the sound off. A boom-box played Hank William ballads while, on the silent screen, Phil Donahue strutted up and down the aisles and X’s family made up dialogues in Cree—things he might have been talking about. They spoke too fast for me. I couldn’t catch a single word and when they laughed—and they laughed often—I had no idea what or who was being laughed at.
X’s granny touched my shoulder and motioned me to follow her. In the kitchen, she pointed at a large pot bubbling on the stove. Toothless, she grinned and waved her hand. “Wapos,” she finally said. Then she grinned and nodded to confirm.
X turned from the flashing screen to me. “It’s rabbit stew. She wants you to help yourself. Guests eat first.”
“Hurry. We’re starving,” said Stevie from my class. His older sister smiled and cuffed his ear in jest.
His granny handed me a camping plate. I reached across the cast iron cookstove and helped myself to dumplings, a piece of wiyas, and some spuds. I found my chair and set the steaming supper on my knees. It smelled delicious. I started with a dumpling, slightly rubbery but flavoured from the meat. Stevie, miming Donahue, made a speech into a hair dryer like it was a microphone. I couldn’t help but laugh, a laugh that turned into a choke when I realized my error. There, staring up at me from the pool of broth were two bright blue eyes, a scruff of meat along each cheek—the head.
X smiled from the far side of the room but stared at Mr. Donahue and Stevie. “Use your fingers to crack it open for the brain.”
The next weekend he took me out on the Bay. We planned to drive across the sea ice to an island camp he knew. A sunny afternoon on his Ski-doo. A comfy trapper’s cabin nested in the trees. Just us, like we were off to see Niagara Falls or do a play in Montreal. The plan was wine and candles and playing in the warm spring snow.
The Bay was huge—bigger than I thought was possible. Cold and overcast. The snow machine was ancient; it started belching smoke as soon as land was out of sight. I pounded on his back to make him listen. “What’s wrong with it? Can you fix it? How far are we from home?”
“Enough, Ash.” He squatted on the duct-taped bench-seat, looking at the solid wall of grey in each direction.
“Tell me you can fix it, X!” No other tracks. No one would happen by and offer help. “X, talk to me!”
He pulled tobacco from the inside pocket of his coat and started rolling cigarettes.
“Goddammit, X. How much trouble are we in?”
He licked the paper and lit the first without a glance in my direction. I grabbed his arm. “X!”
“Shut up.” Not “kipitaway,” which I would have understood, or simply “hush” in English. He took a drag before he looked at me. He shrugged. His voice was colder than he’d ever been with me before. “If we panic, we can’t do anything. It’s serious. Don’t make it worse.” The rest he whispered to his mukluks. “Take a deep breath. We’ll do the best we can. That’s all there is to do.”
He did his best. He got us back to Otter Creek.
“April showers” was a couplet my students couldn’t get. The April sun was sometimes warmer, but when clouds rolled in, they dropped their weight in heavy, wet snowflakes that sometimes buried houses. Toward month’s end, another heavy weight was dropped. Gliding through the sky like eagles, college students came by air, triumphant in the finish of their year at southern universities.
X showed up one April Saturday—not his usual Friday—long after midnight, knocking softly on my door. He was never chatty, often taciturn; this night he was mute. He only nodded for a greeting and shook his head when I began to cook. He took me in his arms, held me, carried me to bed.
Sometimes a person doesn’t want to read the silent language or ask a fatal question. Ignorance is best sometimes.
This time Xavier was warm and not in any hurry—not at first. I won’t forget a single move he made. Not the way he carved my shapes or breathed me into him. Not the drizzle of his fingers down my front. Not his sudden and ferocious need. His anger. The eyes he hid from me.
“She’s back,” I said the minute he rolled away from me. I had no idea who she was or where she might have been or why I didn’t run away from it.
He looked surprised. “Sheena. Third year, Queen’s.”
“I’m sorry, Ashley.”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“Why tell me now? Afterwards.”
“We talk then. I feel close. I have the words. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“You’re such a bastard, Sah-bee-yay. You really are.”
The river finally broke the first of May.
Between the reserve side and the Mission side, a little stream meandered nearly lost in its exaggerated banks. That dry channel of the thousand mile river was impressive, more than a football-field wide and deeper than the tallest local trees. A one-lane gravel road slipped down the bank and bridged the creek, spanned the valley and climbed back up the other side. On that road, my students walked to school and back twice a day; patients struggled to the nursing station; the pious went to the church. It was nothing special, just a steep depression in a vast flatland, a wind-swept, snow-covered gap all winter. A battered pickup would rumble though it now and then, kicking up a trail of dust or snow. Kids waded in the knee-deep creek in summer and sometimes trapped a fish in shallows. Ski-doos used it as a ten-lane super highway. Break-up caught me by surprise.
All winter, people told me it would be amazing. They showed me pictures, and I nodded at the people standing next to globs of white. They told me pictures couldn’t do it justice. “It’s just too big,” they said, “for cameras.”
One afternoon, sun pouring in the classroom windows, snow all melted a week before, the principal poked his head inside the door and said, “Dismiss your students now; the ice is breaking.” Perhaps he hoped the calm with which he spoke would be contagious. If he did, it didn’t work.
Eyes widened. Books slammed against the battered desks. Students started speaking Cree instead of English.
“Kinipi!” I recognized “hurry up” then “river” and “be quiet.” But none of them were quiet. They all talked at once and left in minutes without my solemn, “Class dismissed,” running, pushing, laughing as they headed toward the village.
I followed them and watched. An hour after the last child crossed, water spread across the valley floor, covering the road with grey-brown torrents, rising steadily, lifting the bridge and carrying it away. Then the thunder of the ice came. Then the ice itself. It rolled down the valley twisting full-grown spruce and cedar like they were wooden matches, a glacier in time-lapse, a horizontal avalanche. Water became a massive conveyor, hauling blue and teal and amber blocks of ice the size of fridges, some the size of houses. Ice pushed up along the bank until it filled the valley, then pushed above it creating new banks when it slowed.
“Holy shit,” another teacher said.
I only shook my head.
That evening, the thunder stopped. The water level dropped. The jammed ice crouched there tense and grumbling. Now and then a pressure crack erupted like a drover’s bullwhip, and all the while somewhere down below its surface, a secret river swirled and threatened. Break-up would sit like that all spring, melting—a wall between my students and the school.
It was not a prison wall, however. Almost as soon as it stopped moving, the pack ice itself became a bridge, and people started making trails from block to block. Two weeks later, my principal announced the school would reopen. “Class as usual for those who choose to come,” he said. “Choosing to come” meant climbing, sliding, testing, tightrope walking step by step across a maze of thawing slabs of ice. Kids! My students!
“That’s crazy. Someone could get killed.”
“Ashley, we aren’t forcing them to come. If we don’t open, we’ll be here all July making up these days.”
“What if someone gets hurt?”
“It looks scary to you, but it’s not to them. It’s like this every year. Kids have been hanging out at the store and nursing station every day this week. They cross. If they want to, they do.”
“This is nuts. I’ll go over there. I’ll hold my classes in the pool hall. I don’t want my kids on that ice.”
“I mean it.” I fought back tears. I wouldn’t budge on this. Things might be “different” here, but no charge of mine would fall down some crevasse because of me.
“I’ll check with the Department. I’ll recommend against it. Contracts. Insurance. Too many complications. Don’t get your hopes up, Ashley.”
“You check. They should get back to you by August or next year. I’m going over Monday.”
It hurt when X betrayed me, but I was over him enough to call him up and make him show me where and how to get across. I followed, barely keeping up with him. He seemed to glide from one foothold to the next, always knowing what was solid, what was not. He did it as a favour. It meant he’d have to cross four times to come and get me and bring me back and then return. He owed me, though, and I collected.
“Just follow the road,” he told me. “You won’t have any problems if you stay on the path.” Then he’d added softly, “Be careful, Ashley.”
I knew the word he meant and should’ve known the way he meant it: meskanaw, his word for “road,” the word for “trail” as well. To him it might be just a torn-off branch revealing where a moose had broken through the spruce; maybe it meant “way,” like tao. The beauty of a single word; its treachery, as well.
Monday morning, I stood looking at a field of fog and broken ice as far as I could see in front of me or left or right. Behind me, a real road curled back to where I lived.
Atop the three steep notches carved into a mud-brown ice block, I squared my shoulders with the bag of books I carried on my back. This was what I’d wanted. I eased across the frozen crest and down into a shallow frozen valley, a broken hockey stick in hand to test the ice each step along the way.
Yesterday was sunny, too warm for jackets. This morning I was trembling from the chill. I felt the heft of the supplies and wondered if the extra weight could make things different from my practice journey yesterday. Were there places a size six could step with ease, but add on thirty pounds of paper and I’d be sliding down to who knew what or where?
Ten yards in, I knew I had a problem greater than the weight. There were no coloured flags or handrails to mark my way, just frozen mud from other travellers’ boots. Ten yards in, the boots had cleaned themselves. The tracks were gone. Ten yards in the ice was all I saw. Yesterday, I’d tried to focus on the path in spite of X’s tight blue jeans and thoughts of what lay underneath. Today just ice and fog and me. Today’s distraction was flakes of falling snow. The wind picked up and I had no idea whether I was travelling in a circle or headed back the way I’d come. I poked with my stick and felt a chunk give way. Stay on the meskanaw, he’d said.
It snowed harder. The backpack and the icepack both were threats. One weighed me down and cut into my shoulders; the other tried with every step to swallow me. Panic whispered in my ear. There was no road. No second chance. No X to save me. One false move. And not a soul to even hear me scream. The wind blew harder. Drifts erased the edges of the ice, the cracks, the holes.
I tapped the flat, white cake in front of me. Would it support my weight? I raised the stick and thrust it hard. Nothing but a shell. I stumbled forward, grabbed at air. My fingers found a grip between two icy boulders. I teetered on the brink before I caught my balance. I watched my stick slide out of sight between two giant slabs.
Wind whistled, mocking me. Ice moaned. Rain storms last week, five hundred miles south might raise the river level now, might move the ice again. A pressure snap, a crash of rotting ice. I jumped. I was the enemy now; I knew it. I searched my memory for how to breathe.
I shrugged my packsack off. Deep breaths now. Stay calm. Stay real. Just think. “Do nothing till you know what you are doing,” X had said. He hadn’t told me how to make a compass out of ice. He hadn’t mentioned carving walking sticks from wind or snow. I’d lost the thing I thought I needed most. Right then I thought I needed him.
I breathed. I breathed again, then closed my eyes and tilted my head back. I yelled into the wind and felt the snowflakes sting my upturned face. I peeked, pretending not to look.
Fog. Swirling snow. And something else above me. Hydro wires. Two strands that linked the village power plant to our side of the river, faint arrows pointing opposite directions. I’d take my time, test every step. I’d find a meskanaw or make one. I swung the pack onto my shoulders and did the hardest thing of all—decided which to follow.
Matthew, the boy, stands on the narrow beach in his damp socks looking out across the bay. His padded jacket is wetter than his socks. His pants, beaten by the wind, are almost dry against his trembling legs.
On the horizon, the waves look furious. They seem to leap about like grown-ups fighting. The shallows extend almost a mile, and by the time the surge reaches the boy, it only slides in and out across the dark brown sand—spent, now harmless—the sea blindly feeling for his feet, unable to find him.
The sky and the water are abstract smudges. The grey clouds churn and spit gales of grey rain into the grey bay, but to him, on this afternoon, it is only a background—like the painted scenery for the Otter Creek Indian School Christmas Concert. Only this stage has nothing on it at all. On the surface of this northern sea, Matthew has seen nothing for hours. He wishes his eyes would play tricks on him, wishes he could pretend a speck of green hull, the bright orange dot of a life jacket, a waving brown arm, or a bobbing black head of hair, but he only sees what is real, only the sea. It can’t be real, but it is. There is nothing out there anymore, nothing except cold grey water and cold grey sky.
Four hours ago, he was dragged and pushed by his Uncle James, stumbling, gagging on the saltwater, staggering through the shallows with uncontrollable shakes until James finally found the sand and the crisp autumn weeds—scattering the plovers and sandpipers, the nervous yellowlegs. He heard James’ hard breathing and felt his strong hands under his armpits. Matthew mostly felt the cold and his own exhaustion, mostly the safety of the sand. Matthew only smiled when James used his own soaked jacket as a blanket for his nephew. He was too exhausted and too glad to be out of the struggle with the sea to thank his uncle. Matthew was too surprised to try to stop him when, without even catching his breath, without saying goodbye, his uncle grimly turned and waded, swam, waded, swam again back into the cold, nightmare water. He’d find the others, Matthew thought as he looked up and then down the beach to see where his father would come stumbling up out of the sea, to see who his father would be carrying to the shore. He wasn’t worried then, not even when he saw no one. His father would be okay. Four hours ago, Matthew was only glad to dig his fingers into the cool sand and rest his arms and watch the yellowlegs scurry around him looking for food in the surf. Matthew only felt the joy of being alive.
Five hours ago, Matthew had laughed bravely at the sudden storm, had grinned at the pitch of his family’s freighter canoe as it climbed the massive waves. It was like he imagined a rollercoaster would feel, the kind he’d seen in movies shown at the school sometimes on Friday nights for just a dime. Yes! His young sisters screamed each time the boat crashed down into the saddle of a wave. In English his father cursed the motor. His uncles and older brothers used mixing bowls and pots to bail the water that spilled over the gunnels. His mother muttered in the bow and held tightly to a thwart with one hand and clutched his baby brother with the other. She was worried—like the girls. Still, Matthew trusted the skill and strength of his father and brothers and uncles. The men knew what they were doing. Soon he too would be a man and would have his own job in the boat, his own responsibilities. One more day. It was hard to wait, but today he was still a boy. Five hours ago, he’d laughed at the inconvenient storm and had wished only that they could get to their hunt camp faster so he could play while the grown-ups set up the tents and cooked the supper.
Eight hours ago, Matthew had stood near the riverbank and leaned on a broken hockey stick, watching his parents pack boxes and bundles into the canoe. “Matyu,” his father said to him in Cree, “get the guns now. The way I showed you. Pointing down.”
Matthew nodded. He wanted to turn and run immediately, but he didn’t. In his heart, he skipped and threw his arms over his head. He shouted in his mind and sang out, “It’s happening. This is the beginning. Tomorrow it will happen!” This was not just an errand to help his father. Men packed the shotguns and the ammunition so they would stay dry in the boat because it meant feeding the family, because without the guns they could do nothing in the bush and would have to return to the village empty-handed. Packing the guns was an important job, a first job for the hunt. When the geese flew over the hide, the guns would fire properly, and by the end of the week, the family would have enough food for the winter. I’ll be a part of that this year, he thought.
“Nistam niska,” said Matthew before he turned and walked across the river road toward his house. First goose. He stretched to make his stride seem longer, his twelve-year-old body taller. He kept his poise but let his thoughts race into the future. When the geese would come across the flats, his father and his older brother and his father’s brothers would stay quiet in the blind until Matthew killed the first one. Only then could the others start to hunt, and then the others would count Matthew an adult. He smiled and thought about the evenings at the camp, the children in their sleeping bags, while he’d sit around the fire with the other men trading stories, the women plucking his geese for the smoking racks.
His dream of the hunt had been interrupted by the distant shrieks and honks of a migrating flock. Without thinking, eight hours ago Mathew swung the hockey stick to his shoulder and pointed it at the sky, shouting “Bang! Bang!” like a child.
Yesterday, Matthew had sat at his grade six desk at the school while Mr. Comstock, his teacher, stood with his back to the class and wrote the topics for their one-page story about “My First Goose” or “Our Family Hunt Camp” or “What I Did Over Hunt Week.” Matthew creased the tabs on the wings of his paper glider so it would curve to the left in a soft, smooth arc like a Great Grey Owl about to dive for its supper.
“Before you start to write, class, think. Write down some ideas. Then organize them.”
Matthew tried hard to ignore his teacher’s voice. He was going to be a real hunter not a teacher. Hunting geese was something you did. Hunting geese was real. Reading and writing were games; they were about pretending and imagining. Nothing wrong with games, he thought. Nothing wrong with dreaming that ohomiso, the silent white owl, might fly in through the window and swoop down on a plump young rain-bird. Whoosh. Scree. Bouff! Tomorrow they would pack and go the camp. The day after tomorrow! Then he would be the hunter—a real hunter. He would pull the trigger and watch a real niska tumble out of a real sky—a ball of feathers in slow motion. Nistum niska He cocked his arm to throw the plane.
“Matthew Trapper! Put that down. Now! Or you’ll be here after school even if the break does start tomorrow. Class, settle down. It’s not the holiday yet. It’s still school. Let’s get some work done.” The teacher held his hands up to his face and blew the chalk dust off his fingers. “I expect a full page on one of these topics from every one of you. No excuses. It’s due the first day back after your break. Use the class time that’s left to pick your topic and begin the outline.”
Matthew tore the airplane in half and put his head down on his desk. Then, as if he were about to take a long trip, Matthew closed and locked all the windows and doors of his senses, shutting out Mr. Comstock, shutting out the assignment, the buzz of the other students, the classroom, the school, everything but the fact that day after tomorrow he’d stand up in the circle of spruce boughs and raise his new shotgun and fire it and become a man. No teacher could change that.
“Matthew.” No matter how hard he tried not to, Matthew still felt the hand on his shoulder, still heard his name being called by the teacher. “Matthew!” Then the pressure on his shoulder went away, but the words came into his head. “Well, go on and pout if you have to, as long as you’re not disturbing the class. I know you’re thinking about the hunt tomorrow, Matthew. I know how important it is. That’s tomorrow. Today school is your hunt. This essay is your first goose.” Then it was over. The teacher moved on to the next student, telling her how important it was to bring the finished story with them on the first day after the hunt break.
The teacher didn’t understand. He said he understood, but he didn’t. No white teacher could understand how important it was. But his father, too, had said school was important. His father said, “Work hard in the school. Learn to read and write their language. Someday that will be the only way there is.” Yesterday, Matthew had slowly raised his head from his desk after remembering his father’s words, had found his notebook and pencil, and had reluctantly started on the outline for his essay.
“Yesterday” is years ago, a life ago, to Matthew now. It’s a montage of memories to go with the day he learned to dribble a basketball. The times he pretended he was a Maple Leaf while skating on his neighbour’s outdoor rink. When he hunted snowbirds with his slingshot, dreaming they were bear or moose. Bragged he could catch a fish with his bare hands. Yesterday is laughing at his sister’s jokes. Yesterday is shooting geese with hockey sticks.
Now. Today, Matthew, the man, looks down from the grey backdrop of sky and water without seeing any hopeful colours; he looks down at the beach. His one remaining hip wader lies next to his damp sock feet. He squats on his haunches and reaches a finger down to touch the white ring of salt that’s formed around the khaki boot. He touches his blurring finger to his lips and squares his shoulders as he stands and begins the long walk home along the blurring shore back toward the village—empty-handed.
Our Daily Bread
He loves my buns. Martha pressed the dough onto the counter, turned it once, then shoved it firmly back into a ball.
Positively stuffs himself on starch. David ought to weigh at least a ton but hasn’t gained an ounce since we got married. Men get off so easy: adoration from the kids instead of stretch marks. He’ll saunter in and set his toolbox by the door, sniff the yeast and shout, “What’s for supper, Mart?” before he pecks me on the cheek, grabs a bun, and raves about the bread. Heavens to Betsy, it wasn’t only food back when. No. He might’ve pulled my clothing off before he set the toolbox down. He might’ve kneaded my breasts. Martha smiled, remembering the time that they made love right there on the kitchen floor. But that was at the start of things, when everything was fresh.
Now, he’d reach directly for the baking—barely glancing at the baker. Life had marched right past her, hardly even stopped to smile. Not that she was either fat or old, but keeping house and having kids—now grown and out from underfoot—had left her body sagging here and there, left a hint of crow’s feet. So what is left? David? The prospect of a dinner roll is clearly more exciting than rolling in the hay.
“Darn it, anyway.” Baking bread is hell on nails. Like doing dishes and hanging out the wash. Back then my hands were soft and supple. This morning my pretty Midnight Blues are stained with white. She crushed the ball and folded it with vengeance, then mauled it back to round and sprinkled flour across the kitchen counter. She pressed her abdomen against the Arborite. I’m going to lose five pounds next month. I will. Back then, when David was attentive, then I was just an eight. I’ll lose fifteen more by Easter. I will.
It isn’t hopeless. I am “pretty.” The perm still has lots of body. My ankles still are trim. David works too hard. Maybe things will change. Maybe we can get away come summer, somewhere with a beach. Thirty pounds by June, I really, really will. She shoved the crusted heels of both her hands into the dough.
Martha breathed the yeast aroma, felt the dough begin to warm. Well, nothing’s perfect. Bless him, David always makes a fuss about his food. With buttered fingers, she greased her masterpiece and placed it in the bowl, then covered it and set it where the winter sun would give it life. She kissed her fingertips, a sweet reward for all her work—before succumbing to temptation: sucked them one by one inside her mouth.
Wash my hands. Do the breakfast dishes, maybe fix my nails and try to save the polish. The doorbell interrupted. Who in the world? I’m still not dressed. In just her nightgown and a wrap, she headed through the living room, thankful that she’d done her hair and face before the bread. It rang again. “I’m coming!” Why can’t we get a chime? A little elegance? If his precious Hudson wasn’t always breaking down, maybe we could doll things up a bit.
She cracked the door and saw a boy, a man-sized case beside him. Selling Bibles likely? Is that salvation in his smile? “I’m busy now.” She pulled the housecoat closed across her neck and shivered at the frost.
“I really am too busy today.”
“Ma’am. I’m glad to catch you in this morning. This would only take a moment.”
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen, ma’am. Five minutes of your time.”
“I’m not a ma’am, okay?”
“Beg pardon, ma’am. Many of your neighbours are regulars of ours. I’m sure if…”
The draft chilled her bare feet. “It’s freezing. But just for a minute.” She didn’t need another Bible but a little chat—before the dishes? She swung the door a little wider, stood back a step to let him enter, then stopped him on the welcome mat.
“Thank you, ma’am. It’s cold out there today.”
“Why aren’t you in school? And please don’t call me ma’am.”
“Yes, ‘m. I’m off a term to earn some money for tuition. This isn’t charity. This stuff is good. People really like it, ma’am— Beg pardon, missis…” He set the case down in the hallway and started on the clasps.
“It’s Martha. Not out here. It’s drafty. Leave your shoes. You’ll wet the carpet.”
“Martha, ma’am. I’m James. It’s good to meet you.” He reached and took her hand and squeezed it lightly. He used a toe to pry his still-tied oxfords off. “Thank you. You won’t be sorry.”
She led him to the loveseat and kept herself a coffee-table distant on the well-worn chesterfield.
“I represent the Adams Company. Quality products for the kitchen and the…”
“James? James, I hate to disappoint you. We don’t need polishes and such.” David throws a fit unless I shop for bargains. “Get the cheap one,” he says. Every time. “Don’t drive us into debt.” I’ll only let the boy warm up. Won’t even think of buying
“Not a problem, ma’am. Our top line is Bath and Beauty.” He slid a different catalogue atop his knees.
“I don’t think, really…”
“How long have you been at this, James?”
“Not long, ma’am. The Adams’ Creams and Lotions are on special. I’ve got free samples.”
“May I speak frankly, ma’am? A woman in your condition… So far along… A little pampering… a different lipstick or something for those nails.”
Martha flushed. In my condition? You think I’m pregnant! You twerp! I’m not that fat. And what would you know anyway? You’re just a kid. Martha pressed her arm against the cushion, starting to get up. “I’ve heard enough. I’m in the middle of some baking.”
“That polish that you’re using—I couldn’t help but notice, ma’am—it’s toxic. The fumes. And not just to the child, the DBP, dibutyl…”
“It’s what I use, James. Have always used. I like the smell. Did you say, DDT?”
“Ma’am, D-B-P. It’s dangerous for hormones. It’s in all of them. And there’s formaldehyde and solvent. It’s deadly, ma’am.”
Martha stood. “It’s just the price that women pay, I suppose, to look presentable.”
“Your hands are lovely, ma’am. But your health’s important, too.”
“And, of course, Adams’ polishes don’t have those things. Right, James?”
“No, ma’am, they do. They all do.”
“Then, I don’t get it.”
“I could show you an alternative.”
Lovely hands, he said. Sweet child. “They once were nice, thank you, James. The housework…”
“Let me demonstrate. You’ll be thrilled with the result, I promise.” He reached into the case.
She eased back on the couch and let him take her hand in his. With a deftness that amazed her, he filed each nail and gently scraped the flaking polish. She let him slip her hand into a wooden bowl he’d filled with liquid. It smelled and felt like applesauce, warm and cinnamony. Her shoulders slumped as James massaged her fingertips and talked of product benefits in slow, erotic tones.
Some kid. Right off the street. Amazing, how it tingles. “Where’d you learn this, James?”
“We get extensive training at the Adams’. It’s better if you just relax. Not talk at all unless you have to. Maybe close your eyes?”
Next, he gently worked an oil along the crevice of each cuticle. Not like any manicure she’d ever had. Of course, she hadn’t had that many—one to celebrate her wedding day, another for her children’s graduations, but none of them like this. She swooned at every touch. She sensed the nightie’s rayon cling against her flesh in private places. She felt a whisper up her spine. Lurid scenes began to form behind her closed eyelids. Imagine being naked on the sofa now. Him peeking down my cleavage while he works. Or is it David? Wanting, touching me, curling up against my side. The power of his arms, the tickle of his moustache. His bold, brown eyes devouring me. Martha ran her tongue along her lips.
James shaped the cuticles, working slowly with an orangewood stick.
Could anything feel more sexy? Maybe next he’d use the stick to gently shape… Good grief. Martha’s blush spread from her neck and spilled onto her cheeks. Get a grip on yourself, Martha! What if he reads minds the way the reads my senses?
He dried her hands and fingers one by one as if she were his child. His towel was fleece. It squirmed across her knuckles; it strolled along her palm. She nearly whimpered, “More.”
James began to sand and smooth each nail. He held her hand in his and with a pumice-stone, he worked the tiny ridges smooth. She ached. He talked about the Adams’ Fine Grit Blocks, the set of Adams’ Buffing Files describing every step, extolling pay-offs for her effort and her patience. “One hundred percent natural,” he said. He mentioned price, touched on warranties, droned on about environment and something called “ecology.” She couldn’t concentrate on anything but clothes—how restrictive they could be. Lord, these little toys. Imagine. She lost all sense of time.
“Adams’ Moisturizing Cream,” he said and started new massages. Maybe she was dreaming. Maybe David waltzed her across the carpet, down the hall, and into bed. Maybe he was home now and hungry for her body, as hungry as she felt, right then, for his. Maybe that was why she felt the surge, the thrust of passion or maybe it was real, the mouth that teased her. Martha winced as James’ long fingers slid across her own and pulled them slowly, firmly from the base out to the nail. Martha squeezed her thighs together and felt a quiet jolt.
A second spasm tingled down her legs.
James jumped as well. “He’s kicking, right?”
“What? Who’s kicking?”
“The baby, right?”
Martha raised an eyebrow. “I don’t mind it when he kicks.”
“I’ve got a little brother. I felt it once. You know.” He blushed.
“Yes, James.” She smiled at him. Martha, remember he’s a boy!
“It stopped, now, James. I’m fine.”
“I could do your other hand. If you have the time, if you think that you could order…”
“The Cream? Or set of Pumice Stones? The Fruit Solution for the soak? Was that okay?”
“They’re all simply wonderful. Yes, please do the other hand. I’ll order two of everything, and…”
“And an after shave. Something nice. My husband’s birthday.” She didn’t ask the price. With effort, Martha did behave herself as James applied his chamois to the newly gleaming nails. They felt like talons, and Martha yearned to arch her back and sink her claws into the furniture and give a feline yawn, then slink across the rug and shrug her tail. She was too busy flexing them to see the salesman out.
Later on, she punched her dough and shaped it for a second rise, and saw it through the baking. Then stood naked at the full-length mirror while filling up the tub. She watched the sparkles of reflected light nest against her chin, admired how they winked through arms in self-embrace, how they cupped a breast and rolled a nipple. She loved the way they peeked from pubic hair. One hundred per cent natural. She walked them up her rolling hips and slid them down the valley. She skipped them, danced them until she nearly overran the bath.
Martha took her time, forgot to dust the living room, forgot to thaw the beef she’d need for meatloaf. She forgot about the clock until the water finally chilled her.
Then she laid out outfits on the bed. The cocktail number? It shrank ten years ago. The sun dress with the daisies? Not in winter. That teddy? Memories of that: a torrid summer night before the kids were born—then remembered David’s laughter the last time she struggled part-way into it. Her closet was depressing.
Martha stood beside the vanity and touched the bottles on display. Some scent to complement the nails? But what? None of those made David notice, nothing even drew a smile.
Without a stitch of clothing, Martha walked into the kitchen where ranks of Kaisers cooled and dinner rolls, still joined together, snuggled on the breadboard. The smell was overpowering though the oven warmth had faded. Martha felt a chill and pulled an apron on, tied it round her neck and at the back, just that and nothing else. Maybe something fast for supper. He’s always starving after work. She checked the time. Too late.
Instead, she found the gift she’d bought that morning thinking that she’d hide it. She opened it and sniffed. Then Martha dabbed some, lightly, once behind each ear, careful just to wet her finger pads in order not to stain the gleaming nails. Underneath the apron, she touched a drop between her breasts.
The front door closed. She heard the stamp of workboots, the clank of toolbox on the floor. It took a minute. She held her breath. “Wahoo!” She smiled. “Mart? Y’ baked today! It smells delish!”
He pushed into the kitchen, smiling. David eyed the riches on the counter. “Oh, Mart. It’s wonderful.”
“Got a manicure today.” As he fondled rolls, she laid her palm across his knuckles. She might have slapped them yesterday, admonished him to wash his hands or go without. This time, her fingers only crept up lightly on his wrist.
“Yeah? How’d we afford that?”
“It was free.”
David turned and frowned. “Jesus! You’re naked.”
“I’m feeling lazy.”
“What’s going on here?”
“Just a manicure. A salesman came this morning.”
“What the hell was he selling?”
The bread had been forgotten. His eyes met hers. They asked her questions that they hadn’t asked in years, and suddenly she knew the answers—now that she had claws.
“He was so sweet, David. He didn’t charge a thing.” It made her blush to be so coy.
“Just kiss me, David.” And he, of course, did.
Brother Gabriel stands in the doorway of his classroom, legs spread, arms folded across his chest, trying to fool his student into thinking he’s not afraid. A speech is required, some kind of warning; he isn’t shy about issuing ultimatums, but if his voice quakes, even the slightest quiver that betrays his fear, it will give the boy an advantage, tip the balance out of his control. This will not end well, he’s almost certain.
“Go to your seat. You have no choice. Go now before you make it worse on yourself.”
The boy looks his teacher directly in the eye—eyes that meet his at the same level even though the boy is barely 15. Brother Gabriel isn’t cowed by the boy’s height or the biceps bulging from his torn tee. He isn’t all that worried knowing the boy is a veteran of reform school and small town jails, knowing the boy considers himself an adult. It’s what is behind the eyes that worries him: a combination of hatred and resignation; the boy has nothing to lose either way.
“I’ll go now.” The boy’s voice is not the angry shout of a teen bully. It’s quiet and firm, almost sad, as if he knows what is about to happen.
Gabriel drops his eyes, breaks contact with the boy’s slack face. His mouth is too dry to form another word. He only shakes his head and waits for the punch or the push or the laugh that will end things.
Ten years ago Brother Gabriel answers a faint knock at the door of the mission and finds a child standing in the snow without even a jacket. It must be minus forty. Too cold to snow, the stars burn bright in the night sky. The northern lights are dazzling. “Who are you?”
“Visit now?” the boy asks.
“It’s after midnight.” Gabriel pulls the boy inside and shuts the door against the impossible cold, shivering in his sweaters and long johns and heavy pants with the mission furnace running full blast, shivers at the sight of the child in just a cotton shirt and jeans. “How did you get here?”
“I want tea,” the boy says.
The boy does not identify himself that night, never reveals his age, does not give a single explanation of how his father took his parka and locked him out to teach him a lesson about coming home late. These are things Gabriel will discover later when the police and Family Services get involved.
It’s two years later when the Ontario Provincial Police officer stands on his front stoop, holding the boy, who is now seven, by his shirt collar muttering “fuck you” over and over.
“This is the lad that broke your window, brother. He’ll be going to court next month. You’ll be asked to appear as a witness.”
“I didn’t see anything. I couldn’t identify…”
The officer interrupts, “Just about the extent of the damages, sir.”
And after court that year, nothing—nothing for the next eight years—not until a week ago when the boy appears in Brother Gabriel’s Grade Eight class and begins a systematic assault on anything productive going on there. Paper airplanes? Ha. Fart-noises during lecture? Ha. Those are childish things that ordinary students do. Someone steals the teacher’s lesson plans and tests. Someone vandalizes the washroom so badly they have to close the school one afternoon. Someone has the other students so frightened they won’t speak in class. Today the boy defiantly lights a cigarette while still sitting in his seat at the back of the room just before the final bell, and Brother Gabriel tells him he will have to serve a detention. Says it in front of the other students.
He can’t let him just walk out. He can’t force him to sit down; he can’t make him talk this through. He can’t change the past, the things that need changing now.
The boy rolls his eyes and smiles, thinking how much he will enjoy his cigarette while walking to the store after the assault. A small reward for levelling the scales of justice.
Brother Gabriel knows the violence will mean suspension, probably expulsion, possibly jail. That’s the price of justice. That’s the way things are.
Mapping William’s Lake
When the old wimistikosho teacher stops, Winyum is unsure whether the man is exhausted or suffering from the cold. Asking him might seem impolite, might impute weakness, might embarrass his white teacher. The other wimistikoshowak, the ones who work at the Otter Creek Indian Day School, the Mission or the Nursing Station act as if they are the okimaw, like they are in charge of everything. Mr. Harrison is no different.
A mile from the village, the white man and the boy stand at the edge of a small oxbow lake, a clearing in the dense black spruce forest that hugs both sides of the Otter River. It’s February. The snow is a yard deep. The temperature is minus thirty. The sky is a powder blue blanket, cloudless, so close that Winyum, age ten, feels he could touch it if he climbed the tallest tree.
The teacher takes off his wool mittens and retrieves a piece of paper from the pocket of his parka. Winyum worries about the man’s fingers freezing.
“This?” He waves the paper. “This is why we are here. Exploration. I’m expanding the boundaries of my map,” the teacher says. “Jesus, it’s cold.” Mr. Harrison has talked about his map in class. His “little project.” He calls it his “record,” his “way to keep track of things,” his “way to remember and communicate to others.” Maps are “vital to understanding where you are.”
Winyum nods and waits, eager to push on so he can warm up.
“Here’s a thought. For coming out with me today, how would you like to have a lake named after you? Your very own lake. I’d like to do that for you, William.”
Winyum grins. There is a partridge sitting on a low cedar branch a few yards away. It is stone still, its feathers blending perfectly into the underbrush, invisible to the wimistikosho drawing on his paper. It would show his teacher up if Winyum picked up a stick, if he quietly stalked the foolish bird and killed it with a swift blow to it neck. It would make a mouth-watering supper. His mother would be proud, but he resists the temptation out of politeness to the old man.
“William Lake. Or maybe William’s Lake. That’s better, don’t you think?” Mr. Harrison erases and redraws his lines. Then he points across the lake. “Over there. That funny shaped point on the far side. You think it’s safe to walk across?”
Winyum hesitates, then nods. It’s been thirty below for a month. There must be five or six feet of ice there now. Maybe the teacher is making a joke.
Winyum starts off, one snowshoe sinking just enough so the other can glide lightly over its edge, grazing the mukluk on the other foot, creating a quiet song against the snow. Skating. Striding across the lake like the priest says Jesus walked on water. Then he hears another curse from the old man behind him. “Jesus!”
He turns to see one of Mister Harrison’s snowshoes waving in the air, still on the shore, still attached to his leg. “Damn it. William, help me out of here. These damned willows!”
Heading back to the helpless man working his way deeper into the snow bank, Winyum contemplates cartography: lines that contain so little of the information people need to live in Otter Creek.
His mother would be spooning uncooked dumplings into the moose stew bubbling on the cookstove. She would glance up from time to time at the riverbank awash in ripening rosehips. She’d see a sudden lace curtain of snowflakes driven by the north wind, too early to portend winter. It’s barely October, still months before Christmas holiday, ten more weeks before Billy comes home from high school in North Bay. He imagines how she would hear the chatter of wild geese flying low over the village. The scent of her cooking would fill the plywood shack like it was insulation.
Billy sits slump-shouldered in the back-row-corner seat staring out the classroom window. Long weekend coming up. Thanksgiving decorations in the hallway, a holiday too short to send the boarding students all the way back north. Four hundred miles by air. I’ll miss the goose hunt. What he misses most is the sound of Cree at the kitchen table, the happy gurgle of his baby sister propped in her tikinakan against a wall. He misses the teasing. He misses the laughter. He misses the smell of his mother’s cooking.
Ms. Graton is halfway though the lecture to her Grade Nine General Science class. It’s the third time she has given this lesson today, perhaps the hundredth time in her twenty years as a teacher: the difference between actual mechanical advantage and ideal mechanical advantage. It’s not the easiest concept in the curriculum but she tries to make it clearer by demonstrating with a small block and tackle and a set of black metal cylinders topped with brass hooks. It gets harder every year and no small part of the problem is her failing eyesight. Her pointy nose almost touches the weights as she tries to read the numbers engraved on them.
In Billy’s mind, a flying wedge of Canadas rises above the sudden flash of snow and heads south across the wide river only to bank into the wind and track back over the village toward an inland lake. This time they are greeted by a chorus of children who speak their language well and invite them to come a little closer. Aww-uck! Aww-uck!
Outside Chippewa Secondary School in North Bay yellowing poplar leaves flutter and glisten in the morning sunlight like a hypnotist twirling a million pocket watches. Billy wonders what it would be like to be hypnotized. Then stares at his teacher’s aquiline nose that seems to be an arrow about to complete its flight into the object she holds in her fingers. The nose is a mokoman, a knife he could use to sharpen a stick. A knife sharp enough to fillet a whitefish. Billy covers his mouth to supress a giggle.
The nose moves from the cylinders to the blackboard while Ms. Graton squints behind her thick glasses and writes letters and figures, multiplying and dividing them, showing each step in the process twice. The chalk squeaks. It’s been a long day; perhaps she’ll do Chinese for supper. A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
The other students, none of them from his village, busily copy the note. The girl in the seat next to his hears Billy snicker and looks up at him. Then goes back to writing in her notebook.
Billy imagines an army of white people with knives growing out of their faces. His family and friends would like this image, this joke. They’d build on it, exaggeration upon exaggeration, until it became a tale so tall people would double over in laughter and beg the tellers to stop. The teakettle would giggle on the cookstove. Even the fire would laugh so hard it would choke and pop, its faint spruce smoke sweetening the story. I will miss the hunt this year.
He opens his binder, careful not to let it snap, careful not to call attention to himself. While the others wave their hands and shout out answers, trying to be noticed, Billy tries to blend into the desk as if he were a fool hen, invisible against the branches of the black spruce. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t make eye contact. He’s never the first or the last student coming into class; he’d rather drop the course than walk to the back of the room with all those eyes watching him.
He takes a sheet of paper and folds it the long way down its midline. The week before Christmas the DC-3 with its oversized wings and twin props will wail and shiver as it charges up the runway ready to leap into the air to carry him home. Billy uses his thumbnail and index finger to crease the paper. When the Indian and Northern Affairs charter finally lands on the gravel airstrip, there’ll be a big crowd of people there holding their moosehide hats against the plane’s wind, waiting for him and the other high school students. Carefully he folds the isosceles right triangles at one end, then more triangles, each more obtuse than the last, until the glider’s nose is like his teacher’s. Perfect. When he gets to the door of the DC-3, he will be able to see forever across the vast flat muskeg, but all he will really see is his father’s battered pickup parked beside the plane, his brothers crowded on the open tailgate. Finally, he folds two small flaps at the back of the wings to stabilize and control his glider, tabs that will make it go exactly where he wants it.
“William? William! Please tell the class the formula for mechanical advantage.”
Heads turn toward the back of the room.
“Good morning, William. Can you recite the formula for us, please.”
The class smiles, all of them looking directly at him.
“William, it’s written on the board. I’ve been writing it and explaining it for the last ten minutes.”
A girl in the first row whispers something to the boy next to her. The boy laughs.
Ms. Graton steps away from the board and walks toward Billy. “Daydreaming again. It’s hard to understand this if you don’t even try.”
Billy slides down in his desk, staring at the glider.
“You need to copy what I write on the board. If you have a question, you need to raise your hand. You need to understand these things in order to pass the course.”
Billy slides his hands lightly over the paper. Stares at his desk. Tries to parse the situation into elements he can understand and control. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the teacher’s boxy shoes right next to his desk.
She sighs. She lowers her voice. She puts her hand on his shoulder. “Billy?” She slips the paper from under his fingers and raises it close to her face as if she were trying to detect the sweet aroma of aviation fuel in its wings. “This won’t be on the test. You have to try or I can’t help you.”
Billy peeks to the side. The girl next to him is waving her outstretched arm. “Ms. Graton? Ms. Graton?”
The teacher turns but touches his hand. “I’ll see you after school, Billy.” She crumples the plane and drops it in the trash on her way to the front. “Yes, Martha?”
Billy looks straight ahead and doesn’t blink. His cheeks burn. In his mind, he unpacks his cardboard suitcase slowly, putting the socks and underwear neatly back in the dresser drawers. He carefully unfolds and smooths the wrinkles from the shirts and hangs them in the closet. He takes the small medicine bundle from his imaginary luggage and puts it back under his pillow in the room where he boards. The plane is gone. There is no way to get home until Christmas.
A Winning Hand
“GL,” she wrote; then Paula pressed the enter key. Her screen stayed blank for nearly half a minute.
Finally an answer: “What’s that?”
“Good luck. U R a newbie, right?”
“What? I know the rules for cribbage. First time online.”
Paula sips her coffee before she posts, “RL, U any good at cards?”
“LOL. Real life? You up for this? LOL is laughing out loud, BTW. Crib?”
“I didn’t come to learn a new language. What if we just play the game?”
“O by the way, BTW.” Paula giggles. “I’ll take it easy on you. Promise. M or F?”
“I’m guessing M.”
“F here. You probably got that already from Bored Housewife.”
“Just tell me how you make these cards go in the crib.”
“LOL. I’ll walk you through it, Happy Gambler. You’ll catch on fast.”
“I might do better with a RL board and pegs.”
That was February.
Paula helped him figure out the codes and took him on a guided tour around the site. At first, he seemed all thumbs about computers. He seemed all business at the games, intent on maximizing hands and minimizing errors. She softened him with flirting, took him for a stroll along a moonlit beach the first game that he won. She led him down a path in her imagination, let him walk her to her virtual door. Cute. A gentleman. He didn’t try to rape her, didn’t pump her for her RL name and address. In fact, he seemed surprised about the flirting. Well, yeah. Wasn’t that the point? She kissed him on the cheek in parting; then hoped she hadn’t scared him off. By then, she wanted more although she couldn’t say it, couldn’t even say it to herself. It warmed her cheeks when he suggested that he’d probably be back again on Friday. “Same time if you’re around.”
His profile didn’t tell her much. His nick was Happy Gambler. Name: unknown. Gender: Male. Status: nothing. Age: a blank. Location: Canada. Interests: Reading, Movies, Cards. Photo: none.
But hers was less than thorough also. A few pounds shaved, a few years lost, a wrinkle smoothed in Photo Shop. The rest was fact: Toronto housewife. There wasn’t any box to flesh out all the things that really mattered. Mother of a teenage boy whose room could qualify for hurricane relief, mother of a husband, Lester, who shared things fifty-fifty by taking out the trash on Tuesdays. RL she’d given up on both of them, packed a mental suitcase several years ago, and now she waited, impatient for her son to finally leave the nest so she could fly away herself.
That was February.
She’d started surfing months before. One day while she was hunting darks to fill a load of laundry, she settled at her son’s computer intending just a single game of solitaire like the one she’d watched him play the night before. Paula fiddled with the buttons and finally turned it on. It looked like fun. In fact, she didn’t find the funny deck of cards for weeks; she did find icons leading her uncomfortably inside of Sam’s libido. Paula wasn’t shocked. It wasn’t any worse than finding Playboys tucked between his mattress and the springs. She jumped from picture sites to chat to cyber sex before the month was over. The laundry wasn’t done that week and no one seemed to notice.
Strange men with stranger names had been her eager teachers. They’d shown her how to hide her files and clear her history and burrow into places in the hard drive where Sam would no more go than turn his dirty socks before he tossed them in the corner near the hamper.
Eventually it bored her. Illusion had its limits. The very best of cyber lovers had a knack for making it seem real, but as soon as it was over, they were nameless, faceless strangers once again. They might show up for encores in puppet bodies with different nom des plumes but with all the words the same. More often they disappeared completely.
She found more satisfaction playing games—not solitaire, but Spades or Crib with other online people. Backgammon, Scrabble, even poker just for fun. Games where people used a nym and sketched their personalities, games that sometimes led to other things—if a person played their cards just right.
In her second week of crib with Happy Gambler, she upped the ante. At her suggestion, games were worth an article of clothing, and no fair cheating either. Of course, they’d talked of other things. By then his name was Robert. Not Rob nor Bob, and never, ever Bobby. His age was forty-seven, so he said. Three years a widower, he lived in Windsor, four short hours away. He said he sold insurance. Respectable but boring. Less boring with his pants off, Paula hoped.
“I don’t get the ‘Happy Gambler’ nick, Robert.”
“What’s not to get?”
“You don’t seem much like a gambler. You’re so methodical.”
“Gamblers can be careful.”
“I guess. ‘Happy,’ though? Gamblers don’t always win.”
“I never risk a stake I can’t afford to lose.”
She paused a bit to chew on that. “That doesn’t seem like real gambling then, does it Robert?”
“LOL. You’re playing word games now. It seems like gambling when I win.”
“Tell the truth. What RL gambling do you really do?”
“I could bluff you here.”
“A little poker with some friends—more talk than taking risks.”
“Like I said.”
“This thing with you could be a gamble, Paula.”
“You think? I don’t.”
“For me it seems it could.”
“Just remember this is cyber space. It’s not RL, Robert.”
Conversations came and went that February. Their chats with cards or dice became a part of daily life when Sam and Lester weren’t around. Cyber kisses drifted off from cheeks to lips to other body parts. They dredged up pasts and posted them to help explain their feelings, but friendly competitions still excited them the most.
“It seems like I’m about to take a chance,” he keyed one afternoon. “A real one. More risk than…” And that was where it ended.
Than what? She thought about the possibilities. Surely he had real time friends, female friends and maybe lovers. Maybe someone new. Maybe he was getting ready to close his eyes and try to pass a snowplough going up a hill.
“Bigger than I’m used to” finally crossed her screen.
“How big is this bet?”
“A lot. All in.”
“Everything? Don’t tease me, Robert. What were you betting on?”
And then she waited, finally went to make a cup of tea and nearly dropped it when she read what he had written: “You.”
She real life blushed but didn’t write that down. She made a joke about his flattery. She typed out “RTI” and signed off instantly. Real time interruptions came in handy. She’d say it was a call from Lester or Sammy’s school was cancelled suddenly. Lies were nothing new in cyber space.
Paula held that blush in memory. It marked a change from dreams to plans. She took the time to think things through, how Sam might fare without her? The money in the joint account? Alibis. Did internet romance make any sense at all?
Paula stayed offline and tidied up the living room and fixed a roast for supper. It kept her busy, away from staring into mirrors or worrying her nails. It passed the time until it was too late to go online again that day—like counting chips to hide the value of her cards.
In early March, he brought it up again. “We ought to get together. RT I mean.”
“We are together now.” She choked the sip of coffee toward her lungs instead of to her stomach. Don’t do this, Robert.
“Slide a little closer then. Let me whisper in your ear. You know exactly what I’m suggesting.”
“It’s your turn, Robert. Play. It’s too noisy here in cyber space to hear you whispering.”
“We should do this. Really. I think you’d like my voice, right against your ear.”
“The stakes are way too high.”
“I’m serious, Paula. Would it be so bad?”
She took a breath. She counted up to ten before she wrote, “I’m not sure. It could spoil everything. Isn’t this enough?”
“Not for me. You’d be happy just with this? It doesn’t sound like that.”
“I’ve never, Robert. Everything would change. There’s a lot of things to consider.” She placed a trembling finger on the exit icon.
“Paula. Let me call you on the phone. Right now.”
“Oh, Robert, no.”
That was March. Computers soon were obsolete, facsimiles of mellow laughs and smiling hums and poignant pauses. Sound was suddenly invented, sensations they had only dreamed about.
He told her that her voice was deeper than he’d thought, and not just huskier, but fuller, richer, changing ordinary spellings into music, symphonies of meaning. LOL? Ha. He said her laugh was easy. He made some comment every time she chuckled. “Easy. Like happiness itself.”
She had more trouble flattering him about his sound. His hesitations took some getting used to. His voice turned meaning inside out and upside-down. It put her off at first; it made her wonder if the cards he held were high or low, if he might fold or raise or check his bet. It was, hmm, and well, and maybe not, or “but” with nothing after it. “But what!” she screamed sometimes inside her head. “You’re thinking something. Say it!” And yet it wasn’t thinking she disliked. Lester thought all right. Lester thought the Leafs might lose. He thought the snow might melt in spring. He thought it might be nice to win the Lotto 649. Robert thought that Stephen King wrote well, said little, had a formula that made him rich. Thought proper health care was a right of being human. Robert thought the Group of Seven captured something very special about the Canadian Shield, that Paula’s voice was “easy.” It took a little while, a week or two, to like that voice as much as any voice she’d ever heard. By then, they’d started April.
“You want to play some crib?” asked Paula, twisting the phone cord around her finger. “It’s been awhile.”
“I can’t get into it. Not after talking on the telephone.”
“I miss our games.”
“They were only games. Just ways to pass the time.”
“We had fun.” She laughed, half because she knew he liked the sound of it.
“Mm. That turns me on. Let me undo that top button of your blouse,” he said.
She almost purred. “I’m unbuttoning. All of them.”
“Let’s make a plan.”
“My plan is making you smile this morning, Robert.”
“Hmm… I like your plans. But… I need to see that smile. Sure, I know there’s a chance it won’t… Well… Just turn it around. It seems so much harder not to. Harder for you, too. But…”
“Robert, I have to consider the others. Sam and Lester.”
“Yes. But… Okay… When I insure a property, I know it might get robbed or who knows, maybe there’ll be an earthquake.”
“That’s what I just said.”
“Wait… That’s no excuse for not insuring buildings, Paula. You… You play it safe. You plan it out. Make the risk as small as possible.”
“There’s still a risk.”
“Nothing’s foolproof. But…”
“My head is spinning, Robert. We have to change the subject.”
Of course, they didn’t change the subject. Of course, the subject eventually changed them.
Robert said his April phone bill was immense. He said it didn’t matter.
Paula started having April nightmares. She woke up biting lips and clenching teeth and punching pillows. She woke up frightened that she’d said a name inside her dream. She woke up with an image of her son or husband standing right behind her as she swooned into the phone. She woke up angry that she didn’t know the odds, the chance of drawing to an inside straight, the likelihood of slips. There must be odds for things like that. Maybe this was crazy?
They made their plans while final April showers beat against the windows. He’d fly from Windsor, rent a car, pluck her off some corner in Toronto. They’d drive up north an hour or two. They’d spend a weekend filling in the third dimension, check it out, take it for a spin, kick a tire, and try the passing lanes. Come what may, he said. Somehow that made perfect sense.
“Les hates my sister. She teases him. He’d never call her in a thousand years.”
“You visit her sometimes… Just you?”
“Sometimes. She picks me up. Drops me off. No word from him all weekend. Never.”
“Emergencies? What if Sam gets hurt?”
“Cover all the bases. I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“You’re right. We shouldn’t do this, Robert.”
“That’s not what I said, Paula.”
“Damn you! Robert. I’m going crazy. I’m so confused.”
“It’s going to happen.”
“Slow down. Deep breaths. It has to. All in, Paula.”
“What’s ‘all in’ again?”
“The bet you make when you’re convinced you’re going to win.”
“Are we certain, Robert?”
“We’ll go shopping for that sexy negligee?”
In June, Les was busy watching Blue Jays; Sammy had exams.
“There’ll never be a better time,” said Robert late one afternoon. “A sweeter pot there’ll never be. We’ve got a winning hand.”
That’s all it took. Paula and her sister had a heart to heart. It wasn’t hard. The way her sister saw it, Paula was a fool for putting up with Les. It sounded like a movie script. She’d drop by Friday afternoon before the boys got home. Make sure the neighbour saw her. Paula would introduce her sister, leave the key next door, and joke about the boys not knowing how to microwave their frozen suppers. A drive to Yorkdale Mall and wait outside of Silver City for her date. There was a quiet, lakeside town remembered from her childhood. Peaceful. Pretty. They’d beat the traffic north. The odds were clearly in their favour.
Paula couldn’t keep her hand from shaking as she fried the breakfast eggs. “Don’t forget to feed the cat.” Lester poked his head above the Sun and glared. “Remind Sammy he has his homework and exams to study before he disappears with friends.”
It worked the way they’d planned it. Robert drove a new Corolla. He looked a little short when he got out to lift her bag into the trunk. Too short? Or maybe she was just a little tall? Her sister squeezed her hand and whispered, “Please, be careful, Paula. You never know.”
Robert held her door. He spoke her name and looked her in the eye and buckled up, and then the car behind them honked propelling them into a maze of traffic. No exit now. She barely spoke through ramps and cloverleafs. No fender-benders. Don’t put the car into a ditch. Don’t get your picture on TV. Don’t make mistakes, she thought but didn’t say. “You’re not nervous, are you Robert?” She stared out at the disappearing city.
“I’m being careful. Sunny day. Good road.”
“What’d you think? When you first saw me, Robert?”
“Paula… You’re even more exciting than I pictured. I wasn’t worried. Not a bit.”
“We’re crazy, Robert, aren’t we? This isn’t like me. I’ve done nothing like this in my entire life.”
“Was she worried?”
“My sister? About me? With some stranger from the internet? She’ll likely have a sleepless night.”
“Should I feel guilty?” He glanced at her.
“Eyes on the road, Robert. She’d be pleased as punch if I got strangled. Just so she could tipoff Lester at the funeral I’d been cheating. She’d probably send you thank you notes in prison.”
“Joke, Robert. Why am I so jumpy?”
So they talked about the weather and the traffic and the news.
It was nearly time for supper when they quit the highway for Orillia. Childhood memories for Paula: The Sunshine Sketches Restaurant, the cruise across the lake, the quaint resorts, tourists looking for a trophy fish. She’d forgotten Rama until she saw the smiling logos stuck along 11, the new casino out on the reserve. The little town had grown into a city and everything was Rama now. She thought she should be thinking sexy underthings, not calculating odds, not second-guessing this affair.
Robert placed a hand on Paula’s knee while gliding through the motel parking lot. His first real touch. It made them strangers once again, another new beginning. She was barely comfortable with seeing him, and now there was his flesh. She’d let the shadows form his neck and shape his jaw that afternoon. She’d watched how blinks of eye matched voice and how his fingers talked while he was driving. How strange to meet a man inside his brain and get his image later on. How strange to know his history and his moods before she knew his smell and touch.
“Is it that we’re cheating?” he said.
“Lester?” She laughed. “I’m not worried about him.”
“Not Lester. Me knowing all your cards before you deal them.”
“Now what’s that supposed to mean?
“We’ve talked for months, Paula. I know you. But… It just seems backwards.”
She smiled. “That’s what I was thinking.”
“Maybe we should go for coffee somewhere. I’d like to look at you.”
“Robert, if you’re having doubts, I understand.”
“I’m not in any rush. Yes, we’ll have a coffee. And then check in.”
Downtown they found a quiet restaurant that housed a gallery of prints, a place that sported checkered tablecloths and china cups with saucers. He ordered strudel. She tried to smile. What was it that she’d seen in him before she’d really seen him? His jaw was wrong. It took all afternoon to come to that conclusion. By telephone, his skin was darker, tanned. His cheek bones didn’t jut as much. RL, he was even less decisive than his voice. Petty observations? Perhaps she was a disappointment, too?
She found their silence strained. Before today, she barely waited till he finished speaking to say the things that flooded through her mind. Now conversations bubbled from a dozen other tables, making theirs seem like a tomb. She forced herself to speak. “I didn’t realize how much Casino Rama changed this town.”
“Prosperity. It’s business, Paula.”
“I don’t completely understand why people gamble. How often do they win?”
“Casino odds aren’t good. It’s human nature to take a shot at something big. Um… A chance to make your dreams come true.”
“Getting something for nothing.” Her voice fell. She realigned the silver on her napkin.
“Paula. What’s wrong? You’re scared of this.”
“Do we know what we’re doing, Robert?”
“You’re second guessing. You never win that way at cards.”
“Maybe we should spend our luck on cards this evening. I’ve never been inside a real casino.” She looked him in the eye but didn’t smile.
“If that’s what you’d like.”
Suddenly she’d like that very much. The whole idea of being naked for this stranger seemed more than she could manage. She’d play some twenty-one, put quarters in a slot machine, and then head back to stay the weekend with her sister. “People always talk about it like it’s fun.”
“You look sad. You’re disappointed, aren’t you?”
“Maybe it’s the town. It changed so much from when I saw it last.”
“I love you,” Robert said.
“I’ve watched you write those words a hundred times. I’ve heard you whisper them.”
“I meant them.”
“I know. I meant them, too.”
“Then, what’s so different, Paula.”
“Real life’s different.”
“Well. It’s real life now. Is it all that bad?”
“Robert. I’m just not sure. It seems so fast.”
“Nothing’s certain. Nothing is possible if you never try… A winning had doesn’t come around that often. It’s hard to walk away.”
“There isn’t any middle ground between walking away and going all in?”
“Of course there is. It’s up to you.”
“It’s up to both us. And it feels like all our chips are already on the table. What if one of us is bluffing? What if one of us is scared? Robert?”
Paula waited, then finished for him. “Sometimes a person wants to win so bad, they’re willing to take a reckless chance.”
“So is this being reckless, Robert? What made us bet all in?”
“This wasn’t any bluff. You’d know. You know I’m neither desperate nor scared.”
“I think it’s me.” Paula reached out and traced the outline of his hand the way a lover might when things were at the start. “I might be both. I might be low on chips.”
Robert smiled. “Not even close.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to fold this time. Let’s go to the casino tonight. Let’s have some fun. Let’s leave all in until we’ve had some real time walks. Maybe in the fall. Who knows? I’m not in any hurry.”
Robert sipped his tea, then lightly placed his hand on hers.
Tea with Harry Carey
Amelia turned the volume down. That dreadful Harry Carey was positively bleating “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” As if his drunken seventh-inning stretch was what the game was all about, as if the fans had suffered all that afternoon for him! Even on the radio, even trying not to, she pictured Mr. Carey’s slack jaw and beer belly disgracing Wrigley Field. Not because the Cubs were getting slaughtered, no, she ought to turn it off because of him. Might still, she thought.
She put her knitting by her teacup, found her cane, and hobbled to the open kitchen window above the double sink. Sean and Tanya were having tea as well. They’d spread the pieces that remained of Sandra’s plastic set, yellow mugs and purple pot, across a ragged baby blanket near the swaying, dangling willow strands where Sandra always played. Sean’s smile expressed his misery, poor boy. Amelia nearly rescued him right then, nearly proclaimed his right to freedom and the catcher’s mitt forlornly waiting in the grass.
Lloyd, when he was still alive, would drive the Hudson to Chicago twice each summer so she could “smell the grass,” he said, so little Sandra could taste the ballpark franks, so they could breathe the baseball air and see the ivy-covered fence in living colour. Were it not for that, she’d likely hate the game, she’d likely skip the disappointment of listening to her team find clever ways to blow a lead or fall apart on crucial plays. If they hadn’t made those trips, she might’ve watched the Cubbies on TV, but now it was the radio she favoured. She could close her eyes and see it all, could almost hear her husband softly talking to the players, “Next time. You’ll get it next time.” You’ll hit it, catch it, throw it, steal it next time. “Next year they’ll win for sure.”
Amelia smiled. Tanya was the image of her mother, showing Sean the way to hold the plastic mug, his baby finger pointed out to centre field. A proper little lady. Sean’s face said possibly the apple juice-faux-tea had gone to vinegar. A good kid, Sean. Takes care of his young sister; accepts the hand life dealt to him today.
Well, good for him, she thought. He’s learning lessons now no doubt will serve him well when he gets old and lives alone.
Amelia turned back to the kitchen table, eased herself onto the padded chair. Ten years. You’d think the memories of Lloyd would fade. She turned the volume up. Bottom of the seventh, the Cubs went one-two-three. Her eyes were feeling heavy when she heard the backdoor slam.
“Gran!” Tanya, in tears, ran in and threw her arms round Amelia’s waist. “I hate him.”
“Hush. You don’t mean that.” Amelia stroked the child’s short red curls and pulled her head onto her lap. “Sean? You were playing so well together. What happened?”
“It’s not fair. He smashed it. He just smashed it”
“What did he smash, darling? I’m sure it can be fixed. It must have been an accident. It’ll be okay.”
“He put his big fat foot right on the tea pot and stomped it.”
“Oh my. Well, it was old, Tanya. We’ll get you another set. One with no missing parts.” Amelia pulled her grandchild up so she could look her in the eye. “I don’t imagine Sean… His heart just wasn’t in it, hon. I’m sure he’s sorry now.”
“He’s not. And it belongs to mama anyway. He’ll get it good when we get home.”
“I think your mom won’t miss it. She has her own, real tea pot now.” The great cast iron octagon required two strong men to lift it. No one would ever stomp on that. “Where’s Sean now?”
“He ran away!”
Amelia simply stared at her and waited.
“Okay. He took his dumb old glove and went down to the park. I’m supposed to tell you. He wouldn’t even let me come.”
“Why don’t you and I have tea?” Amelia dried her grandchild’s tears. “We’ll listen to the game together. Then we’ll walk down to that park and watch him play.”
The game was almost over anyway. It was the eighth when Johnson took strike three, DeJesus and Buckner stranded first and third; then Amelia turned it off and said, “Let’s go.” It didn’t matter really. She closed her eyes. Next time, she thought. Winning wasn’t everything. The ivy would be just as green. The air would smell like popcorn no matter what the score or who was singing seventh-inning anthems. Amelia reached her hand and lightly, bravely rested it on Tanya’s, a gesture she so often made, reaching out in vain to cup the phantom hand of Lloyd. This time, yes, “Let’s go watch your brother win his game.”
The Medicine Line
At the kitchen table, after announcing to her daughter her intention to leave the reserve, Alberta ducks back down behind the Careers section of The Globe and Mail. The Toronto paper is two weeks old; the jobs are thousands of kilometres away; the skills and experience and contacts required are even further distant. No matter. The newspaper is a place to hide, a place where her know-it-all teenage daughter might find it harder to aim her criticisms.
“As if. Which one of those cool jobs you looking at, Ma?” Jo doesn’t even furrow her pierced eyebrow. Doesn’t look up from her game of Patience.
Alberta hesitates. “They need a Director of Operations at the International Airport in Halifax. For one.”
“Tantay Hanivax na?” Louisa, Alberta’s mother, asks the city’s location in her nearly toothless Cree as she arranges three blue plastic mugs in a row on the counter, then turns to check the progress of the teakettle moaning on the wood cookstove.
“She’s not going to any Halifax, Gran. She can’t even manage her correspondence course. Director of Operations. Bullshit.” Jo snaps a card off the deck. “Pick again, Ma.”
Alberta sinks deeper behind the newsprint. Books with the prominent Lakehead University logo lie at one end of the table. “Okay, smarty-pants. Principal of Havergale College. All girl school. You would love it, Jo. Toronto. You are always dreaming about Toronto.”
“Gag. I’d fit right in. Can you see me in some preppy uniform? How can you be a principal before you’re even a teacher? Finish your course first.”
Louisa pulls a clean margarine tub from under the counter and starts making her by pouring boiling water over a half dozen Red Rose teabags.
Alberta puts the paper down and folds it. “We need to leave. I don’t want you to do your high school all alone in the south.”
“I knew it! You don’t really want to leave; you want me to have a bodyguard. I’m not even going. Forget it.”
Louisa looks at her daughter and granddaughter, pressing her lips as she squeezes the floating packets, one at a time, between a fork and tablespoon.
“Then I guess I’m free to go anywhere I want.”
“So go. Who’s stopping you? I can stay with Gran.”
Alberta runs her finger along the cover of a book. She’s just finished number seventeen in her twenty-four lesson history course: “Native People and Newcomers.” She hasn’t yet mailed her essay, “The Medicine Line,” but it’s now, finally, inside the university’s manila envelope waiting for a stamp. She chose to write about the arrest of a group of “Canadian” Cree in 1881 by the U.S. Second Cavalry for hunting on “American” soil. How their weapons and some of their clothing were confiscated in the middle of winter before they were “deported” to freeze and starve trying to walk barefoot back to Chief Piapot’s encampment. Invisible borders meant little to buffalo hunters back then. She glares at her daughter, angry at the lines that encompass them both. “I am free to go where I want.”
Louisa mixes flour, lard and water into a paste and adds it to the tea until the mixture is the same brown as a summer beaver’s soft belly fur. She sweetens it with nearly a full cup of sugar. Then she sets out a plate of bannock cut into thin slices before clearing the books into the living room.
“Those are important, Mama. I haven’t finished with them,” says Alberta.
Jo picks at a bright red fingernail. “So what you going to do down south? Work in some restaurant waiting tables or what? Get some factory job?”
“I’ll have to see. See what there is.”
“Mino restaurant. We should have one here. Indian restaurant.” Louisa laughs to herself as she slowly stirs the tea and tips the bowl carefully above each mug.
“None for me, Gran. Coke?” Jo is up already and half inside the fridge, searching.
“Mona minwasin Coke,” Louisa hisses as she slides into a chair at the table. “You want off the reserve? Just go across the creek. Toronto is too far. No one will find your restaurant there.”
“The other side is still here, Mama,” says Alberta.
The Otter Creek Reserve lies on one side of a sometimes-trickle of water, a dry channel of the the Otter River; the mission and the former residential school sit on the other.
“Bullshit.” Jo pulls the tab on her soda. “It’s two different worlds. It’s further than you’d think.”
“Not that far. You need to get more exercise, Jo. Build up your muscles if you think that’s too far.”
“Not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“When you walk across with Gran? Like to get water or see the priest?”
“Same distance. Maybe slower is all.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
Louisa sips her tea.
“Like we’re talking while we walk. And Gran is going on and on in Cree about a mile a minute so I can barely understand her, okay? Well, every time we hit the bridge—I mean exactly when our feet first touch it—even if she’s right in the middle of a sentence, she switches to English. No lie.”
Louisa raises her eyes to glance at her granddaughter.
“I don’t think she even knows. And it’s not just her. Others do the same. And it works the other way coming back—English back to Cree. It’s weird. Like magic.”
Louisa tells her daughter in Cree to make a restaurant on the mission side if that’s what she wants to do. They have running water there. The kitchen in the school is no longer used. A restaurant would be nice, she says.
Alberta looks out the kitchen window. “It could be complicated,” she mumbles, lost in thought, “across a medicine line.”
“Whatever that is,” says Jo. “Whatever.”
The aging DC-3 lurches first to one side then the other as it dips toward the runway. Constable Vernon McLeod, Ontario Provincial Police, braces against the seat in front of him. He clenches his teeth to keep from losing his breakfast onto his starched uniform. No barf bag. What a first impression that would make.
Vern can almost hear the Corporal chuckling. “It’s a bit rustic, lad. Different up there, that’s for sure. Take your time. Feel your way in. You’re the only cop they have. You’re the bloody law itself to them. You’ll be fine. It’s only for a few days anyway.” Easy for him to say behind his desk three hundred miles south.
“Different” is an understatement. All morning he watched trees or muskeg pass beneath them—the land breadboard flat, broken only by this little clearing, the Otter Creek Reserve. It’s his first trip north, his first time flying Akik Airways, first landing on a gravel runway. Finally, the swaying plane touches down, then lifts, then down and up and down again. The passengers, all eyes on the policeman, shout the number of each bounce. Nine! There’d better be a washroom in the terminal, he thinks, a clean one.
Ten minutes later, he stands on the unpaved apron, squinting through the August glare at the word “AIRPORT” on a piece of cardboard stapled to the door of a plywood shack. Vern flexes the muscles in his legs and straightens his back, but his stomach still churns. The chance is slight this terminal has a bucket, let alone a toilet. Get his duffle quickly. Find the place he’s booked to stay. Then, get the hell lying down as fast as possible.
A man unloads freight and luggage from the broad-winged plane, twin props turning slowly in the breeze. He’s the largest man Vern’s ever seen. On the bed of a battered pickup backed against the aircraft’s cargo door, the man leans out over the truck’s tailgate into the belly of the plane and lifts a steamer trunk all by himself as if it were a briefcase—lifts it, Jesus, not slides it, lifts it, arms straight out, turns, carries it to the front of the half-ton, and sets it down gently—smiling all the while.
“That is my boy,” says the old Native standing next to him. “Andrew-sheesh. Means Little Andrew. Funny name, eh, now that he is grown up?”
Vern tries to laugh, be polite at least, but chokes instead. His throat is dry. He’s sweating. His bare arms look pallid, almost pasty in this crowd of swarthy brown. His English words stand out against the nasal Cree used by almost everyone but him. There’s more. The land itself unsettles him. No shade, no trees in sight. Well, yes, in sight, beyond the airstrip, beyond the lake and village, that’s all there is—trees. The horizon is a jagged line of spruce. The awful flatness disconcerts him. Raised in BC’s Cariboo, he longs for mountains, hills at least, to give some kind of shelter from the endless sky.
The old Native slaps his dusty jeans. “Andrew-sheesh, he is a good boy. Hard worker. Me, I am Simon. Good thing you found me. I am chief here, me. It is always good for strangers to come see the chief first thing.” The old man kicks at a large rock imbedded in the packed gravel. He waits and Vern wonders what he’s expected to reply, if there are protocols his Corporal didn’t properly explain. The old man’s eyes are on his son. “Airport Chief too. Some big wind today, eh?” He wobbles his open palm and smiles. “When you going back south?”
“I’m only here till Friday. Two nights.” He offers a handshake. “Vern McLeod.”
The old man ignores it. “Where is that Charlie? Charlie came the last three times.”
Vern worries he’s done something wrong before he’s even started? “Charlie transferred. Otter Creek is my assignment now.” His assignment, this part of it, is flying in for several days every second or third month. His Corporal said, “Even then they’re over-policed up there. Crime in Otter Creek is bloody ten-year-olds stealing candy from the Hudson’s Bay. That and liquor.”
“You will like it here, Vern McLeod. Air good. Not like the city. Maybe I will take you fishing sometime. Maybe hunting.”
Vern nods but doesn’t answer. Those things could put him in a situation where he’d be breaking laws if it were out of season.
His thoughts are interrupted. From the corner of his eye, he’s seen the giant baggage handler drive the truck behind the terminal. He’s heard its door slam. Still, he jumps when a large hand presses on his shoulder and the chief’s son grasps his fingers lightly.
“Hi, mister. Welcome to Otter Creek. Hope you like it here. Me, I’m Andrew.”
The old man says two syllables in Cree, and the son’s hands disappear into his pockets.
Vern looks up at the youth’s broad chin, then tips back to make eye contact. “Nice to meet you, Andrew.”
The old man continues in Cree. Then his son speaks to Vern in English. “It’s my birthday. Big party later. You come, okay? I’m going now. Still lots more work to do.”
The father frowns. Vern has no idea what’s being said but feels the tension rise between the two of them. “Happy birthday, Andrew. I’ll take my bag now. If you could point me toward the rectory? They said that’s where I stay. I’ll get settled in and do some work myself.”
“Good meals at the Medicine Line Restaurant,” says the chief. “Rectory. It is right over there.” He points to a large white building on the left.
“Don’t forget my party,” says Andrew-sheesh as Vern slings the duffel over his shoulder and starts down the dirt road. Maybe it’s the air; his legs are not as rubbery, his breakfast seems more settled. This might not be so bad, a chance for R and R. Then he sees a dozen youngsters waiting in the road beside his building. For him? Why would kids be looking for a cop? The Corporal is likely right. This trip is mainly showing off the uniform and making sure these people understand the rule of law extends across their sea of trees, into their little clearing.
It’s late that afternoon when the last youngster leaves the single room that serves as office, holding cell, and Vern’s apartment. He’s listened patiently to tales of courage and cunning, all of them ending in some violation of The Criminal Code, none of them requiring him to do a real interrogation and certainly not an investigation. He’s convinced as many as he could to make some kind of restitution, avoid the court, forego the grand performance—the Corporal’s words—held inside the restaurant twice a year with lawyers and a judge flying from the nearest southern city. Vern will be the Crown’s sole witness even though today he’s been more priest than cop. He’s listened to confession. He’s given them advice and information, sometimes absolution. He’s told them all: jury trials are not a local option, court is scheduled for September, a judge decides their fate, the laws must be obeyed.
What they really want to know is what TV is all about and if ordinary people have indoor plumbing where he’s from, the far places Vern’s been and the marvels he’s seen. Vern wonders, is getting out of Otter Creek what motivates their crimes? Some only want their exploits written down and read aloud in court. Just bravado? Boredom maybe? They are, every one of them, polite and shy and eager to be helpful—nothing like the hardened street kids he’s confronted in the city.
Vern explains their options, hoping they can understand his English. Paying for a crime is serious business. Prisoners aren’t allowed to come back home for hunting geese or parents’ birthdays. In the end, Vern sits inside the bedroom-cell alone. He’s been the star attraction of this upside-down burlesque, but he has “apprehended” no one.
What’s next? He’ll investigate these petty crimes tomorrow, but now, should he patrol the village or wait here for a call from someone in distress? Should he try to mingle with the locals? Attend that party for Little Andrew and get to know these people, engender some respect or trust? Or something?
He hears a knock and, “Anybody home?”
Before he can react, the door opens to two young women. White. One is blonde, tall, thin. The other: redhead, medium, average. Both have blue eyes. Both wear jeans, red flannel shirts, and running shoes. Details noted automatically.
“Are you busy?” asks the blonde.
“I’m Phyllis. This is Tina,” says the redhead. “We won’t keep you. Welcome to Otter Creek is all.”
“Nurses,” says Tina. “At the Station.” She waves to her left. Then looks at Phyllis. They laugh and point in opposite directions. “There’s only two of us. And a doctor once a month. So, if you’re busy…”
“Come in, come in. There’s just one chair, I’m sorry. I’ve finished taking statements. Not certain what comes next.”
“It’s too nice a day to stay inside. We could show you around,” says Tina.
Vern nods. The perfect way to get his bearings.
The “tour” is two tours really. The “village” is a single dwelling—cloned a hundred times, arranged in rows and columns on the dusty clay—a peeling frame box, its unscreened windows open for a breeze, the occupants apparently unmindful of the flies. A large thin dog sleeps below each sagging porch. Ragged children with hockey sticks and balls lounge on steps. They laugh and chatter in their language. An outhouse stands in back. Two-by-eight planks span the filthy ditches between the gravel road and dirt paths to each backdoor. They’re all the same, he thinks, until he spots one of his gentle criminals and has to catch himself from waving.
The second tour is called “the Mission” by the nurses. The buildings are two-story whitewashed cinderblock, facing inward in a long rectangle—a green, freshly mown playground in the centre. An ex-residential school with its old kitchen converted to the restaurant. Apartments for the teachers. The Nursing Station and residence. A post office and The Bay. The church and rectory. They all have screens and indoor running water. No dogs. No laughing children. Beyond the Mission lies the silent airstrip and the empty, ramshackle terminal.
“It’ll be more lively on this side next month,” says Tina, “when the teachers all come back.”
“It’s just so dead here summers. Can you tell we’re desperate for company?” Phyllis purses her lips to suppress a laugh.
“Phyl is always desperate, Vern. Better lock your door tonight.” They both giggle.
“Seriously. What do you do for fun in Otter Creek? There must be something.” They stand in front of the church, Vern hoping the nurses won’t disappear back to their own jobs and lives too quickly. Should he invite them to that party? Or maybe they’re serious about visiting tonight. They’re both pretty and the prospect makes him grin.
“We walk the airstrip a lot. We could? There aren’t so many blackflies there. It’s not exactly dinner and a movie,” says Tina. Vern guesses she must be the boss. She’s the one he’d fancy most coming through his unlocked door at midnight.
“Not quite a concert or a nightclub,” says Phyllis. “We like it, though.”
“A walk sounds fine to me,” says Vern. He checks his watch. It’s after seven. The sun is low against the western spruce. “When’s that restaurant close?”
“Late,” they say together.
The half-mile plus walk each way is nothing special. Vernon thinks it odd there isn’t any fence, but he hasn’t seen a fence at all in Otter Creek. He asks about the possibility of planes. None are scheduled, not this evening, not tomorrow, not till Friday when he’s due to leave. Nothing at all is special but the sky.
At the runway’s end, out of sight of the village and the Mission, the deepening blue splashes down around them as if it were something they could touch. A distant range of nimbus has blown up from the west. The fading sun puts on a light show for them, pillars of peach and scarlet pouring around the peaks and through the crannies in the clouds.
Making conversation, Vern confides the kinds of crimes and criminals he’s interviewed that afternoon. He scratches at a blackfly bite behind his ear. “I really don’t get it. They were almost eager to be arrested. Not one excuse. Not one lie. Is it just a joke to them?”
“Maybe it’s about counting coup,” says Phyllis.
“These are kids. Twelve, fifteen, eighteen,” says Vern picturing naked adult warriors riding bareback across the plains. “Counting coup? I don’t connect it.”
“Yeah. Just to prove they could. To shame the person they did it to. Maybe. I don’t know. Did you ask them?”
“I asked about the stuff they took. They threw it all away, tossed it in the bush, or gave it to their friends. I asked about the damage. They just shrugged. They said it didn’t matter.”
“Teasing. They laugh at everything,” says Tina. “That’s face.”
“They see property kind of different, too,” says Phyllis.
“The judge will have to sort it out,” says Vern. “I don’t get it, really.”
“Everything is saving face in Otter Creek,” says Tina.
Vern brings up the party. Would they like to go? Do they know this Little Andrew, this mountain of a man among the people Vern has known? “What sort of person is he?”
“A pussy cat,” says Tina. “He might be the sweetest guy on the whole reserve.”
“Handy to have around if you need to move a freezer or a patient,” says Phyllis. “But he’s scared to death of needles. A damn good thing we’ve never had to calm him down.”
“Calm him down?”
“Drinking. That’s what keeps us busy here. People tend to get a little crazy when they drink. They need some help to make them sleep it off. Giving them a needle, that’s usually the easy part. It’s fixing up the things they’ve done before we get them quiet. That’s the bad part,” Tina says.
“Should I know about this?” asks Vern, shaking his head. “I hope not.”
“No, you shouldn’t,” says Tina. She takes her time, picks up a stone, and throws it out across the silhouetted willows into the moonlit lake. “It’s two hours to get a Med-evac in here. That’s when we earn our pay—keeping them alive until the plane arrives. Let’s talk about something else.”
“We have a rule, Vern. You get caught talking shop, you do all the laundry for a week. Otherwise we’d go nuts. Tell us something fun you did the last time you were in Toronto.”
It’s dark completely except for the universe itself lighting their path around the terminal as they trek back across the Mission compound to the restaurant. The air is cool. The frogs are singing. It seems more like the kind of place Vern ought to pay to visit, not get paid, but his stomach flutters still. Maybe it’s a hunger pang. Maybe it’s the nurses. Maybe “serving and protecting” means something very different here.
Rabbit stew and bannock is an instant hit with Vern, standard fare for both of his companions. There’s no wine, of course, since “off duty” isn’t possible for either cops or nurses, and Otter Creek is “dry” by Order of the Chief and Council. They talk about it, though. When Phyllis says a glass, right then, would make it seem like home, Vern agrees with her. “Civilized,” he says. It might be possible to bring a liquid present for his friends next trip. A private sip would do no harm and could make their isolation a bit more bearable, but the trio make their toasts with tea this evening. They spin short tales of places they have been and things they’d like to do.
They’re deciding if they’ll forego dessert or not when Andrew stumbles through the Medicine Line’s front door, struggling to pull it closed behind him. Visibly intoxicated.
“Me, I’m twenty-one!” he shouts. “Coffee for everyone! I pay!”
Their conversation stops. Around the dining room, Vern hears silverware clatter onto plates. Phyllis and Tina exchange a look that Vern can’t quite interpret.
“What’s wrong? Come on. Let’s party. I’m twenty-one! I worked all day; now it’s time for fun.”
Vern sees the women eye the door. “You two should leave,” he whispers. “This could be trouble.”
Tina shakes her head. “Might be later—over in the village. A long night, maybe.”
Vern starts to ask what problems they expect, what he ought to do to keep the peace, but Tina stops him with her eyes.
“That’s okay. Hey!” The huge head turns in their direction. “The nurse is here! No trouble now. Everything is fine.”
Andrew weaves toward their table. Halfway there, he leans against an empty chair and it collapses under him. The wood splinters and Andrew crouches to save himself from falling.
“Oh. Sorry for that!” He grins sheepishly as he straightens. “Hey! Don’t worry. Me, I’m okay. Free pie too. For everyone. On me. Happy birthday!” His words are slurred. He takes more halting steps and lays a broad palm on Tina’s shoulder. She smiles weakly up at him.
Vern pushes his chair back; he isn’t smiling. “Andrew! Don’t do that.”
Andrew laughs. “Mister! You’re here too! Now I see you. Welcome to Otter Creek! You have some dessert!” Andrew’s hand doesn’t move.
Tina shakes her head slightly. No. She splays her fingers above her empty plate. Don’t intervene.
Vern reads her messages but thinks he knows how scared she really is. She must be. Even if he didn’t mean to, Andrew might inflict a serious injury—on her or anyone. He’d crush her shoulder if he stumbles. Drunk and disorderly in a public place. There’s no avoiding it. Vern stands. “Andrew.” Vern is calm, controlled as if he were trying to show, by contrast, how loud and threatening the young man has become. “Andrew. Look at me, Andrew.”
“I am talking to you, mister. Order anything you want!” says Andrew-sheesh but the hand doesn’t move. “You help my people. You have your dessert now. On me. Anything! Sit down, mister! Order apple pie!”
The waitress goes from table to table taking orders and filling cups. “Only two pieces of pie left,” she tells her customers, “but plenty of cake and Indian pudding.”
“Sit down, Vern,” says Tina firmly.
Vern swallows. He stares at the hand. The charge is going to be assault if the nurse will testify. “You’re scaring people, Andrew. Don’t talk so loud. You need to get some sleep.”
“Vern,” Phyllis pleads. She smiles and reaches up to pat Andrew on his arm. “We’ll all have some of that dessert now, right Vern?”
Vern’s mind races. If he had a back-up. If there was a cell, a real one. There must be some way to knock Andrew off his feet without harming any of the customers, some way to get that meathook off her shoulder.
“Nobody is afraid of me. I am Andrew-sheesh, me. Everybody knows me. Anything you want is free. Just order.” Then finally, his hand slides from Tina’s shirt as he wipes his sleeve across his mouth, and Andrew slumps into the vacant chair between the nurses. “Go ahead and order, my friends!”
Vern sits. His heart rate slows. He turns to Phyllis. “You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to. Andrew wouldn’t make you eat against your will, would you Andrew?” He stares directly into Andrew’s eyes. If he makes a threatening move, Vern will shove the table. Try to tip the chair and Andrew with it. Then Vern will see how drunk this boy really is, what he knows about fighting. “You two go ahead and have something if you want. I couldn’t eat another bite.”
Andrew frowns. “My birthday, mister.”
Enough is enough. It’s aggravated assault if anyone gets hurt, fourteen years. “You need to sleep now, Andrew. You’ve had your party. Now it’s time to go home.”
Andrew stares at the constable and speaks slowly. “You don’t understand, mister. Bring my friends more coffee.”
“It’s time to go home, Andrew. I don’t want to have to run you in.”
Andrew’s smile is gone. “You are mixed up, mister. I am home. Otter Creek is my home. You do not live here.”
The restaurant is suddenly quiet. Vern can hear the couple at the next table breathe. Phyllis looks at Tina. Vern straightens his silverware on his crumpled paper napkin. He searches Andrew’s eyes. There is neither anger nor submission on the young man’s face.
Tina mouths the word, “Please,” at Vern. She looks tiny and frail sitting next to Andrew.
A long minute passes before the showdown ends, before the chief’s son staggers to his feet. He doesn’t touch anyone to steady himself. He bows his head slightly. “No problems, mister,” says Andrew as he takes a step toward the door, a step behind Vern.
Vern is in the middle of a short sigh of relief when he feels himself surrounded by tree-trunk pinchers. The youth has him in a bear hug, his arms trapped at his sides. “What the… Put me down! You’re assaulting a police officer!”
Vern loses his voice as he feels himself and his chair being lifted smoothly, quickly into the air. He loses his dignity when some of the patrons begin to laugh and clap at the spectacle of his helplessness. He loses consciousness as he is pushed headfirst through the closed door—the door finally coming off its hinges.
Vern opens his eyes. He’s lying on a bed of some kind. A cot. A canvas cot. Wearing only his underwear. A stiff white sheet covers him from the chest down. Where…
“Good morning, Vernon.” It’s Tina—still in her red flannel shirt and jeans. Her eyes betray she hasn’t slept. “You gave us a little scare last night.”
Vern tries to sit up, but her soft hand presses him back down.
“Not yet. Just relax. Everything is fine. You’re going to be fine.” As she talks about the “slight concussion,” Vern remembers he’s in Otter Creek and then Andrew-sheesh and then the Medicine Line Restaurant. And then the door.
“Andrew’s back now. When someone told him what he’d done, he panicked and ran off in the bush.” She places the loose blood pressure cuff around his bicep and begins to squeeze the bulb. “Hush now. Relax. Half the night they were out searching. They finally found him and told him you’d be okay. He’s sober now. Keep this under your tongue. He’s got quite a headache. You’ll have one too.”
He hears Phyllis in another room. Other voices. Cree. It must have been a busy night for them. There’ll be tons of paperwork to do. This time real investigations. Statements. Real charges to be laid. He feels dizzy.
Tina tells him she’ll radio his Corporal soon and depending how Vern feels in a few hours, she may order a Med-evac or put him on someone else’s Med-evac to see a doctor.
“Your temp and pressure are fine. You’re going to live, Vern.” The soft hand is resting on his chest again. “You have a visitor. The chief is here. I couldn’t say no to him, not to a chief. I told him five minutes only. He can be quite a talker. Don’t stress yourself. He promised. Just five minutes.”
“Tina?” Vern doesn’t want to talk to anyone but her. He wants her to stay.
“Later, Vern. Rest now. I have a little problem in the other room that needs my attention.”
He pulls the sheet up around his shoulders. Suddenly, he’s ashamed of having been bested in front of her, but she makes a note on a chart and leaves before he can say anything. As she goes, the chief appears, passing her in the doorway without a word and moving to the middle of the room. He carries his Montreal Canadiens ball cap in his hands and slowly works his fingers around its band, turning it in circles over his chest.
“Officer Vern McLeod, my son, he is very worried now. He wants to apologize to you himself, but the nurse says wait until later.”
The chief walks to the window. Vern clears his throat.
“The nurse, she says you are not supposed to talk. Now you rest. Liquor is very bad here, Officer McLeod. Very bad. My son says to give you these.”
Simon reaches to the bed and Vern feels a weight against the sheet.
“Those are the keys to his pickup. My son, he gives you his truck.
“I can’t take his truck. You should know…”
“Officer McLeod.” The chief turns his back to Vern. “It is hard to explain this in your language. My son, he says this is to make things right. He says to make you understand. He says a truck is better than words to show how he feels.”
The chief turns and waits. Vern shakes his head. He winces. None of this makes sense. Especially not the truck. He shrugs at the old man’s back, trying not to move his head.
The chief shuffles toward the door, then stops but doesn’t turn. “Andrew-sheesh he did not mean to hurt you, to…” Vern sees his shoulders droop. “To assault a police officer. He is grown up now. I know how big my son will look to your judge. I have seen your court many times. Your judge will be afraid, but not brave enough to admit it. I know what your judge will say. They will not see Andrew-sheesh, my little son. Only his people really know him.”
Vern has nothing to say in answer. He pulls the sheet up and over his head. He doesn’t want to look at Simon’s back or hear the sadness or bitterness in his voice. Vern wants to say he didn’t make this problem, not any of their problems; he didn’t cause this crime. Instead, the young offenders flood his mind. He hears them laughing. This time they are laughing at him, making his headache worse.
The old man waits, pulling the cap back over his grey hair and straightening the visor. Vern hears the drip of a broken faucet somewhere out of sight behind them. He hears Tina’s voice on the radio phone talking to his Corporal. He hears Phyllis trying to quiet a crying child. Finally, the old Native goes out, leaving Vern alone with the keys and his thoughts. Leaving him without so much as a hill to hide behind, with only this small, flat clearing: Otter Creek.
Candace and Cindy roll their eyes and smirk at Mr. Watson, the way he holds his clipboard up against his weirdo tie like anyone would care what he’s been writing. They watch him walk right past their project and talk to Janice Hiller. Well, la-di-freaking-da.
They kick each other underneath the table, then giggle. They’re doing Science. They’re passing Science actually. Mr. Watson said any Grade Eight student who manages to plan a project, who totally finishes it and enters it in the Prince Andrew Middle School Science Fair will pass his course. It’s planned, done, entered. They’re cool. They’re going to pass. Woohoo!
Janice at her table is explaining how the wing bones in her skeleton of a pigeon—which can-you-believe-it actually looks like some kind of bird—are roughly similar to the bones in the front leg of her skeleton of a rabbit—which totally looks like a scrunched up human baby. Gak. Boiling up animals and picking out all the bones and gluing them back together—gross. Janice is weird. The whole idea of touching bones, like from animals, well except for maybe Colonel Sanders, is totally gross.
The table to their right displays charts with per cent thingys and chemical letter stuff stapled to a corrugated backboard. It belongs to Sally Ann Piper. She says she spent two whole evenings writing the title—“Which Washing Detergent Gets Clothes Brighter?”—in fourteen day-glow colours. It’s a freaking work of art. Cindy says Sally Ann’s father did the write up. Candace says she deserves a prize for just the title. Hey, why not? Even though Sally Ann hasn’t been at her station all evening. She’s been checking out Ja-son’s entry, the point guard on the B-ball team. Ja-son’s project is: will drinking tons of Pepsi screw up his foul shot? Awesome, right? That’s another reason for giving her the prize.
Mr. Watson keeps asking Janice questions, then stops and writes stuff on his clipboard. Janice will win, of course. Like somebody cares.
Candace punches Cindy in the arm. They both laugh.
“Bor-ing,” says Candace.
“Let’s walk around,” says Cindy.
“Let’s kick some butt,” says Candace.
“We could check out Ja-son? He might need some help.”
“If Sally Ann like breaks her arm? Or takes a faint? Let’s rumble. Let’s make some noise.” Candace opens the box of baking soda and begins to pour. “I’m loading it right to the freaking top.”
“You think? You’re gonna get us both in trouble,” says Cindy. “Watson said just sit here.”
Candace clucks like a chicken.
Cindy laughs. “Then go for it, girl. Dare.”
“We could tip it up. Aim it right at Janice.” Candace cups her hand over her mouth like she’s a terrorist, like Mr. Watson could read lips. As if. Like he’d even notice if the fire alarm goes off. She pours the last of the white powder into the hollowed out heap of modelling clay.
“No. Sally’s! Wait. Ja-son’s! Aim it there.”
“What if he gets hurt?”
“Yeah, like baking soda’s gonna kill somebody. Ri-ight.”
“May-be,” says Cindy. “Like ’d know anyway. It’s an experiment, isn’t it?”
Candace re-aims the cone of clay a little to the left of Jason’s project, ten yards, two aisles away. The whole town would be so pissed if Jason got hurt in the middle of the playoffs.
“We should’ve tested it first,” says Cindy.
Candace makes the chicken noise again.
“Okay, okay. Which one?” Cindy puts a hand on each of the two plastic pitchers sitting on the table.
“Well, duh. Mom uses vinegar to clean the coffeemaker. So that’s for cleaning up the mess. Your job. It so stinks.”
“Right.” Cindy hands the pitcher marked “WATER” to Candace who pours it over the baking soda and the girls watch—incredulous as the thin “lava” leaks quietly over the sides of the clay mountain, out across their table, down their crude sign—“How a Volcano Works”—and puddles on the floor. Well, duh.
Two aisles over, Jason launches another tennis ball at his pipe cleaner hoop, while Sally Ann Piper claps. Candace and Cindy clap too. Then parents and students, without stopping what they’ve been doing or looking up, join the spontaneous applause. Jason winks in their direction and the girls barely suppress a scream. “Science is so cool,” says Cindy as she pours vinegar onto a paper towel to clean up the mess.
Candace and Cindy roll their eyes and smirk at Mr. Watson, the way he holds his clipboard up against his weirdo tie. Like anyone would even care what he’s been writing. They watch him walk right past their project to chat up Janice Hiller. Well, la-dee-freaking-da.
They kick each other underneath the table, then giggle. They’re doing science. They’re passing Intermediate Science 2! True. Mr. Watson said any Grade Eight student who manages to plan a project, who totally finishes it and enters it in the Prince Andrew Middle School Science Fair will pass his course. It’s planned, it’s done, it’s entered. Sweet. They’re going to pass. Yes!
Janice at her table is explaining to Watson how the wing bones in her skeleton of a pigeon—which can-you-believe-it actually looks like some kind of bird—are roughly similar to the bones in the front leg and paw of her skeleton of a rabbit—which (Hurl!) totally could be a scrunched up human baby. Boiling up animals and picking out all the bones and gluing them back together—so, so gross. Janice is just weird. The whole idea of touching bones, like from animals, well except for maybe Colonel Sanders? Unacceptable.
The table to their right displays charts with per cent thingys and chemical letter stuff Scotch-taped to a corrugated backboard. It belongs to Sally Ann Price. She says she spent two whole evenings writing the title—“Which Washing Detergent Gets Clothes Brighter?”—in fourteen different day-glow colours. It’s freaking genius. Cindy says Sally Ann’s father did the write up. Candace says she deserves a prize for just the title. It’s art, why not? Even though Sally Ann hasn’t been at her station all evening. She’s been checking out Jason’s entry, point guard on the B-ball team. Jason’s project is: will drinking tons of Pepsi screw up his foul shot? Awesome, right? That’s another reason for giving her the prize.
Mr. Watson keeps asking Janice questions, then stops and writes stuff on his clipboard. Janice will win, of course. Like anybody cares.
Candace punches Cindy in the arm. They both laugh.
“Lame,” says Candace.
“I’m bored. Let’s walk around,” says Cindy.
“Let’s kick some butt,” says Candace.
“We could hit on Ja-son? He might need some company.”
“If Sally Ann like breaks her arm? Or takes a faint? Let’s party here. Let’s make some noise. Maybe he’ll come over.” Candace opens the box of baking soda and begins to pour. “I’m loading this sucker right to the freaking top.”
“You think? What if somebody gets hurt,” says Cindy. “Watson said just sit here.”
Candace clucks like a chicken. “Dare.”
Cindy laughs. “Then go for it, girl.”
“We could tip it up. Aim it right at Janice.” Candace cups her hand over her mouth like she’s a terrorist, like Mr. Watson could read lips. As if. He’s so into her. Like he’d even notice if the fire alarm goes off. She pours the last of the white powder into the hollowed out heap of modelling clay.
“What if we accidentally hit Watson? Wait. Aim it at Sally’s experiment.”
“Aim it at Sally.”
“Like baking soda could kill somebody? So not.”
“May-be,” says Cindy. “Like you’d know anyway. We never really tried it out?”
Candace re-aims the cone of clay a little to the left of Jason’s project, ten yards, two aisles away. The whole town would be so pissed if Jason gets hurt in the middle of the playoffs.
“You sure about this?” says Cindy.
Candace makes the chicken noise again.
“Okay, okay. Which one?” Cindy puts a hand on each of the two plastic pitchers sitting on the table.
“Well, duh. Mom uses vinegar to clean the coffeemaker. So that’s for cleaning up the mess. That’s your job. It so stinks.”
“Right.” Cindy hands the pitcher marked WATER to Candace who pours it over the baking soda and the girls watch—incredulous—as the thin “lava” leaks quietly over the sides of the clay mountain, out across their table, down their crude sign—“How a Volcano Works”—and puddles on the floor. Well, duh.
Two aisles over, Jason launches another tennis ball at his pipe cleaner hoop, while Sally Ann Piper claps. Candace and Cindy clap too. Then parents and students, without stopping what they’ve been doing or looking up, join the spontaneous applause. Jason winks in their direction and the girls barely suppress a scream. “Science is so cool,” says Cindy as she pours vinegar onto a paper towel to clean up the mess.
Her glowing face is a beatitude. Sister Angelique’s smile inflates her, makes her diminutive form seem big enough to fill the doorway of the recently converted storeroom, just this moment newly christened “The Special Class Room.”
She surveys her work with pride. Sinful pride. Yet when all is said and done, isn’t that her job as principal; isn’t it her calling to take pride in how the Otter Creek Indian Residential School is run? It’s what she’s charged to do—her mission, her sacred mission. In fact, she’s tacked the job description to her office wall beside the crucifix as if the two were tea and milk instead of oil and water.
Now she’s finished visiting the classrooms from grades four to seven, collecting needy students for her project, has herded them as would a short, grey mother hen into their new learning environment and watched them take their seats. She inhales the sharp, clean smell of paint while all twelve sets of wide, brown eyes explore the walls and windows before they come to rest on her. She taps her fingers with her thumb inside the sleeve of her coarse vestments, ticking off what she’s achieved today.
There’s the letter from the Otter Creek Education Committee demanding that the school provide help for their “students with special problems.” Schools for white kids in the south have programs for those with special needs. These kids are entitled to some help too. As if she’d let them down. They were almost rude about it. Well, now it’s taken care of. Now she’ll tell them fait accompli—the Special Class is up and running. Check.
The letter from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs refusing her request for funding a so-called qualified Spec-Ed teacher. Well, she hadn’t thought they would. It was very clever of her, though, to seek and get permission to use the teacher’s aide from kindergarten in “special situations for students having difficulty in the regular stream.” No one could argue with that, not in the Department or the Committee. Check.
All her teachers were plagued by unruly students. What did they expect so far from civilization? They’d demanded that she should somehow fix the situation. As if wilfulness were not a part of being Indian. Of course there were a few bad apples in every class, but not enough to spoil the lot. The troublemakers interfered with those who tried to learn. Disrespectful, sometimes violent kids. Some teachers were getting huffy, speaking out at meetings. Today she let them each pick three, any three they thought might need a change of scene. A stroke of inspiration. Staff morale was never higher. Check.
Then, of course, the disgraceful rumour going round that Alice—only a teacher’s aide but nevertheless one of her staff—was engaging in an out-of-wedlock liaison with a young man from the village. Of course, one couldn’t reprimand for that, not a government employee. The last thing she needed was a meeting with a PSAC shop steward. But decency and righteousness and godliness demanded something need be done. And now, of course, it has. Alice will need some instruction while trying to cope with these mischievous students, and Sister herself will provide that guidance, will use the job itself to lever her compliance. The will of God will certainly prevail. Check.
It’s there, reflected in her smile. She’s done it. She’s solved them all and in a single afternoon. The Otter Creek Special Education Program with Alice as the teacher is about to celebrate its first communion, its fiery baptism both at once.
All eyes are on her now. Everyone is quiet. They must be wondering why she’s brought them to this bright new room. Even Alice looks a little dazed confronted with this motley group of troublemakers. Sister is on the verge of opening her mouth and forming the magic words explaining everything—Special Education—when one child breaks eye-contact. One child’s eagerness has flagged. One child slides down in her desk, her hands covering her face.
“Mary Rose Cheechoo?”
The child turns away. Her old teacher had said, “Truant. Sassing back. Instigating conflict. Wilful inattention.” But this is not defiance. Sister Angelique, can feel her anguish without seeing her face.
“Mary Rose, what’s wrong?”
Sister Angelique has been in Otter Creek long enough to not expect an answer, not to personal questions asked in public. She’s been a teacher long enough to quickly grasp the situation and guess the problem for herself. Oh my, she thinks, eleven rowdy boys. One girl will never do.
She glides to the side of the youngster and tips closer to the child, careful of her wimple. “Mary Rose,” she whispers. “Who is your best friend in your old class?”
The youngster takes her hands away and swallows hard. Her face seems to shatter as if it were shell instead of skin covering her thoughts. Even Sister Angelique can read her mind, can see the horror written in those bright, inquiring eyes. She can see the child’s fear of naming anyone, anyone at all to be added to the roll of this soon-to-be-nightmare class.
But Sister Angelique has come too far, invested too much to do anything but wait patiently for Mary Rose to whisper a name. She smiles at the child to comfort her. Alice will be sent to fetch the new girl so Sister Angelique can stay here with Mary Rose. A few tears can’t be allowed to interrupt the march of progress, can’t be allowed to foil a perfect plan.
Perhaps the Bishop himself will hear.
Raking Summer Leaves
“Death’s not imminent, Vernon.”
Vern stops raking and frowns a question at the Widow Edfors, his neighbour to the west. Wearing large white garden gloves, she loosens soil around the violets that edge her sidewalks, stopping now and then to shoo a gnat or pull a wayward foxtail. Vern limps back to herding leaves beneath his sprawling maple.
She doesn’t interrupt her work, doesn’t catch his silent query. “Just thought you might be worried,” she says. “Nothing lasts forever, of course—but not real soon, not this time.”
Vern leans the rake against the maple’s trunk. The August heat is irritating. So is the smallness of his lot. The absence of a fence. Being old. It might be easier if Edna still, at sixty-five, was not a picture in her shorts, kneeling, messing with her flowers. Say something, Vern. “Oh?”
She laughs. “Your tree. Those circles on the leaves? That’s why they’re falling early. It’s just a fever, though. Not the end. Next spring, you’ll see.”
“Freddie’s a surgeon.” She laughs again. “Tree surgeon. Visited last weekend.”
“Oh.” The leaves, of course. No one else’s tree is sick. He wishes he was grinning like a sophomore, saying, my, your flowers brighten up the neighbourhood. My, you’re getting tan, Edna. My, you have a lovely laugh. If he only could. He wishes he’d called the nursery before he gave up hope, found out the chances for survival, not hear it from her silly nephew, Freddie.
“Be another scorcher today, Vernon. Shame to lose that shade so early. It’s a lovely tree. Afternoons, it keeps my porch so pleasant. We’ll have it back next year. You’ll see.”
“You’re raking almost every day now.”
Vern says nothing. He looks away from her. He scowls at lawns as smooth as blankets stretched across a row of GI bunks. Before the war, he golfed on greens like that. As if they’re, each one, cut and watered daily. Edged around the oriental shrubs and iris. As if things had to be unblemished before they even counted. He blinks.
Then he sees it. Two yards down—lying in the middle of a pool of grass so clean it might reflect the image of a person peering into it—a black-splotched maple leaf. His. The only leaf outside his ragged, eye-sore lawn for as far as he can see. He winces.
“Would you like a glass of lemonade, Vern? It’s fresh. You look like you could use a break?”
He looks at her, catching just the bonnet as it’s tilting back toward the ground. Again he winces, this time from a sudden, sharp sensation in his leg, the leg that hasn’t been there forty years, the leg that won’t grow back next spring. A breath of humid air rustles through his pile, threatening to scatter it if he accepts the invitation.
“A lemonade?” he says.
“Should I bring it out? Or would you rather come inside? Your leaves will still be there. Not likely they’ll evaporate, Vernon.”
Alice hears a baseball slap into a glove and glances up from rolling out her crust. Through her kitchen window, her imaginary husband plays catch with her imaginary boys: Martin, twelve—back then—and Jerry, five. She doesn’t panic. She lets the fragile treasures of her past unfold as if they were captured on a reel of Super Eight in faded colour.
“A strike, Martin. Nice throw.” Her husband, Bud, encourages, “Keep it up, son. You’ll make the Show someday.”
“Throw a pop-up, Dad.” It’s brush-cut Jerry, begging for attention. Trying to outshine Martin, but it’s Martin’s slightly shaggy hair, Bud wants to ruffle right this minute. It’s Martin that he’s rocked beside the radio since the boy was born, explaining plays, cooing softly going-going-gone or underlining the importance of a sacrifice bunt or can of corn with a man on third.
“Catch it, Jer. Glove up. Here she comes.” Bud is tall and ramrod straight in spite of hours of stooping on the factory floor. Perhaps a bit aloof. Well, he’s a man of principles and actions. “Good. Now let your brother throw another strike. Three fingers on the seam, boy. Remember. Eyes on the target, Martin. Shoot the glove.”
Alice blinks. The lawn is empty. The rhubarb leaves along the backyard walk are undisturbed by careless feet, no longer threatening to hide an errant ball.
She lays a tea towel on her pastry and dips her hands into the breakfast dishwater. There’s other work to do—where she can be distracted by people that are real. She dries her hands and walks the length of their small house onto the front porch where, hoping for a breeze, she’s set a folding table for the typewriter. She’ll do the minutes now and listen to the game across the street.
Typing things is tedious; it requires concentration. She balls her fists, gouges fingernails into her palms, except her pointers. They crook above the Remington moving left and right, jerking at each key like robins at a worm. Her body hunches. She focuses on letters, not on speed or meanings. Don’t think of Martin either. Don’t think of Bud. Her eyes flick back and forth in quest of what comes next, ignoring neat black text created snap by snap, character by character, the carriage slowly shunting right to left. A ping announces one more line is finished and Alice pulls the carriage lever.
She proofreads what she’s written. Even on the screened-in porch, the morning is too hot for mid-September, too hot for hunt-and-pecking. Must be cooler up where Martin is this morning. One would hope. Who knows where Bud might be?
Angry words beyond the windows interrupt her. Jerry and three other boys stand near second base and argue. Alice stops to watch them. Across the maple shaded lawn and quiet dead-end street: a vacant lot, the local baseball diamond, a string of idle boxcars for an outfield wall.
“Rhubarb.” Martin’s word. She says it to the yellow-jacket bumping at the screens. Why call a fight a rhubarb? It’s sour enough before you add the sugar? It’s all tangled. That’s for sure. Once it’s heated up. But hardly threatening or whining. Nothing there of being safe or out or taking sides. No pantomiming how a glove had maybe swiped a tag. Or hadn’t. Who cares who’s right; it’s just a game. It’s just for fun. Rhubarb. If she hadn’t volunteered to type the minutes, she might have finished baking, might have headed off the argument with, “Fresh homemade pie, boys! Flip a coin about that call.” A few more lines of typing, then get back to working on her bake sale contribution. Typing up the minutes of the PTA is so much worse than making pastry. When Martin was in school, she wasn’t in the PTA. There was no need to be, to set things right. Everything was different then. Think about Jerry or think about the typing. Martin must be fine.
“You never touched me!”
“Never did, man. You know it.”
“Just like this.”
“I guess I would’ve felt it.”
“Guess you would’ve, if you didn’t cheat.”
Wes Kaminski puts a hand on the nearest shoulder of each player, squeezing till they wince. “Safe.” Wes is two years older, thirteen, a head taller, a smoker, strong enough to be both ump and player in their made-up games of two-on-two, anything-hit-to-right-is-an-out.
“Jeeze.” Surely Jerry knows better than to take on Wes.
“Right.” Wes’ teammate, Chuck Low, stomps his foot on second, the square they’d scratched into the damp, black Iowa soil. “Bring me home, Wes.”
“Jeeze.” Jerry tosses the green-brown hardball toward the mound, which isn’t a mound at all but a slight depression off-centre in the makeshift infield, a football-shape, a splash of mud drying in the end-of-summer sun.
Larry Williams picks it up, pretends to scuff a leather surface that if scuffed much more might break the stitching, and peel the cover down to yarn and cork. He eyes the batter while Jerry saunters out to deep leftfield almost to the weeds along the tracks.
“Boys!” Alice’s voice sifts through the screens that hide her. It must seem as if the house itself has spoken. “I’ll set some Kool-Aid on the steps. If you want to take a break.”
Thankful for a momentary breeze, Alice starts again, telling her fingers what to do out loud. “S-e-c-o-n-d-e-d space b-y cap M-r-s where’s that little dot, space, cap M-c, cap N-e-i-l period.” She checks the copy, then looks up, distracted by the crack of pine against the ball, just in time to watch her Jerry settle underneath the lazy fly. He taps his glove before he raises and opens it and lets it gulp the ball. Like his older brother, Martin. Just like his father taught him.
Wes! He shouldn’t swear. He wouldn’t if his house were closer to the lot. His mom would pull his ear or wash his mouth with soap. Alice pushes the carriage lever. She’s done enough so she can finger through the set of carbons, making sure she’s got them all turned right-way forward. Do it right the first time; don’t make mistakes. Or else she’ll have to start all over. Don’t ever make mistakes. Show them. What Mr. Parkinson, the principal, has asked for: five copies, typed. No rush. Monday morning would be fine. Looking down his nose like she was dirt. Poor Alice McNeil. Lost her husband too. For now. Well, what would she expect? They could’ve stopped him somehow? They could’ve raised him better?
Stop it. Pick the rhubarb. Alice stands and puts the hard-shell case lightly atop her machine, protecting precious work. Protecting it from what?
The envelope had slipped unnoticed to the floor. The letter barely trembled in her husband’s steady hand. Former Corporal Bud McNeil, 100th Infantry Division, 397th Regiment, Distinguished Unit Citation, Silver Star, Ardennes-Alsace. “Order to Report for Induction” was printed at the top. The name “McNeil, Martin” was neatly typed beneath it.
Alice watched them from the kitchen doorway. With Buddy, everything was drama. A crisp military turn, left toe placed outside the right instep exactly, and then he’d spin and face about, shoulders back, neck straight. Yes, sir. Then his clowning grin would make them laugh. There was no glint of humour in his eye that day, however.
“It’s a privilege, Martin. It’s a chance to give something back for all the things you’ve been given.”
“Yes, sir.” Martin touched a finger to a light-brown sideburn as if he guessed his father thought it needed cutting.
“When you come home, you’ll see things differently. You’ll appreciate what you take for granted now. You’ll make us proud, son.”
“Sir. There’s talk that if I started college in the fall… What if… I don’t know exactly…”
“Martin. This is not ‘what if.’ It’s too late for that. Someone has to go. There’s a quota to be filled. If it wasn’t you, someone else would have to.”
“I was thinking…”
“Son, it’s not about ‘thinking.’ It’s final. It says ‘order’ at the top. You don’t ‘think’ when you get an order, son. They’ll teach you that. You act. When the manager tells you to bunt, you don’t swing away. You do it, right?”
Alice interrupted. “We always talked about them going to college.”
“It’s an ‘order,’ Alice. That’s all there is.”
The conversation ended. The theatre got dark. The curtain rose with Alice sitting in the audience. Quiet please. Detroit is burning down. A carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin’s hit. Red China’s helping out the North Vietnamese. Cassius Clay gets sentenced. Hell, no. He won’t go. It was a movie Alice would’ve liked to leave, to stand and smooth her rayon dress and walk back up the aisle, but of course she couldn’t. No one went for popcorn, not in Alice McNeil’s balcony.
For the others, everything seemed normal. Bud kissed her on the cheek before his calloused hand swept the lunch pail off the counter on his way to work each morning. Jerry and the neighbour boys played baseball in the vacant lot. Martin worked as lifeguard at the pool. But for Alice, nothing was the same
“Bud, can we at least talk about Martin?”
“What about Martin?”
“About the Army.”
“He’ll be fine.”
“There’s nothing else to say.”
Three weeks later Martin packed a bag while Bud was making cardboard boxes at the plant. “I can’t go,” he told her. “Nothing about it is right for me.”
“You can’t stop me. I know Dad will be upset. I can’t help that.”
She sighed before she said, “I’ll get your Dad’s wool socks. It’s cold up there. You’ll need your winter jacket.”
“They have summer too, Mom. Don’t worry. Don’t be scared.”
Her throat closed up. Crying wasn’t right. He’d be safe, at least. He’d be alive; that’s all that mattered. She handed him the jacket.
She drove him to the bus depot, her mind wandering, half-listening to his speech about democracy and oil, the places he would go and things he’d do to make her proud.
“Don’t worry, Mom. It’s for the best.”
She hugged him right in front of all the other passengers and was surprised he let her do it. She handed him the grocery money, watched him climb aboard, watched his tiny wave from the window up above her. He might be brave. Or not. It didn’t really matter. This wasn’t over though, not for her. Fade to black. There was no intermission. Act Two was underway as soon as she got home.
While Alice peeled the apples for a cobbler, Bud telephoned the FBI. She heard him shouting. “Of course, you can. It’s a goddamn Greyhound bus; it’s not a Panzer. My son’s making the biggest mistake of his life, and you can’t stop a goddamn Greyhound bus?”
She did the laundry and darned a sock. She sewed a patch on Jerry’s jeans. She made a macaroni casserole and watched her husband sit beside the telephone talking to himself. “They could have stopped him. I don’t get it why they didn’t.”
Alice ate her supper in the dining room with Jerry. Bud sat moping on the couch, the television off, the silence almost frightening.
“Buddy McNeil, you have to talk to me. Tell me what you’re thinking. It’s been two weeks.”
“There’s nothing to say.”
“You’re not the only one who’s hurt. I need you.”
“I’m going for a walk.”
“Are you blaming me for this? You think I could have stopped him?”
“Don’t wait up for me.”
It was giving Martin the money or giving him the lift. Not calling Bud at work. It was not knowing what to say to Martin. Raising them too soft. Something else she’d done. Or everything. Or things she hadn’t. Bud would never say exactly what it was.
Another week. They showed Martin’s yearbook picture on TV. “Failure to report for induction.” Big news. The station placed it right before “the Brady boy was killed by landmines” and “Melvin Everet lost a leg.” Bud didn’t eat his supper and didn’t say a word.
Alice tried to change the channel, tried to move them on to something else, but weeks of silence grew around them like the backyard rhubarb, cutting off all sunlight to the grass, silence more substantial than the solitary figure sitting by the phone.
Buddy left the week before the start of Jerry’s school. By then the calls had started. The former friends and distant relatives with sad condolences or venom or sly superiority. One uttered threats. Another only wept till Alice finally set the handset down beside its cradle and went back to washing dishes.
“I can’t stay here,” he’d said.
“What are you talking about, Buddy?”
“I just can’t stay inside this house.”
“Our son made his choice.”
“He’s not my son.”
“Where would we go?” There was a flicker in his eye when she said “we.” She knew she’d got it wrong. “Bud? What are Jerry and I supposed to do?”
Bud finally stood. He finally placed his foot and made his military turn. Eventually, while packing underwear into his duffle, he told her things about their joint account. While standing in the doorway waiting for a taxi, he mumbled words like “need some time” and “change of scene” and “get it sorted out.” Then, without eye contact, without apology or even a goodbye, he left. The credits finally rolled; the movie finally ended.
Jerry comes into the kitchen with the empty Kool-Aid pitcher while Alice pinches pastry. Her hands perform in harmony, twisting top and bottom crusts into a fluted edge. Eight pie tins line the counter.
“What’s that on your shirt?” She says it calmly, keeping one eye on the rhubarb pie in front of her. Her fingers press against her thumb.
“Nothing!” He heads back outside.
“Jerry.” Her floured hand finds his shoulder.
“They said I lost the ball on purpose.”
“Now that would be a silly thing to do. What were they thinking?” She turns him to her. “Jerry?”
She touches the bloodied tee-shirt, then touches the stain beneath his nose. “This was not about some worn out baseball.” She squats on her haunches and tips his forehead back so she can see into his clotted nostrils.
“Wes said we’re cowards. Just like Martin.”
“And what would Wes know about that big word?”
“I miss Dad.”
“He’ll be back. He needs some time is all.”
She hugs him to her. Feels him stiffen, holds him at arm’s length so she can look him in the eye. “You take a bath now and change that shirt. I’ll set a pie aside for us.”
“What are all the others for?’
“The church bazaar. Now git.”
She watches as he shuffles to the bathroom. She’s never baked for church bazaars, not before her son ran off. She puts three pies inside the oven, sets the dials and pushes buttons, then walks back to the porch to finish typing. Tomorrow will be church. Monday will be school and Alice is a brand new crossing guard.
She sits down on the straight back chair and slides up to the table, lifting the cover off the Remington as she scoots. Alice glances across the flow of cursive sentences that lie beside the small machine. She looks at what she’s done so far. Typing is precise, so perfect—but in the end, so formal and so cold. No hesitation, no warm embracing of a page like cursive writing does.
One finger, one letter at time, she says it softly as she types, “Cap P-r-i-n-c-i-p-a-l space, cap P-a-r-k-i-n-s-o-n space s-p-o-k-e space a-b-o-u-t space t-h-e space n-e-e-d space f-o-r space c-r-o-s-s-i-n-g space g-u-a-r-d-s space o-n space, cap L-a-k-e-v-i-e-w space, cap A-v-e-n-u-e period.” Jerry is okay. Bud will come back soon. Rhubarb pie for our dessert tonight.
Something of Value
Roger saw the skirt, tried not to stare, but couldn’t stop his double-take. Four future classmates giggling at a drinking fountain near the high school’s central office. Two wore baggy coveralls, each with one strap dangling. Another, dressed in too-tight, flowery cotton pants. The fourth one wore a skirt. Wemistikosh eskwayshishuk. White girls. He shook his head. That skirt! So short. Bare legs in public. Holy, Man! Shannon won’t believe it.
He forced his gaze discretely to the summer-polished floor, wondered would it stay that shiny after school began next week. Not even trying to hide their conversation. I’m deaf or something? Ininiwak have ears!
“Mar –– lene!”
“Girl? You blushed.”
“Nice ass for real.”
Roger pushed through the glass door marked ADMINISTRATION into frigid air-conditioning. Crazy white girls. He set the tattered flight bag on his foot just like ohkoma showed him. Grandmother warned him whites would steal him blind. One handle missing, three dollars at the Sally Ann, it held a pair of Brooks running shoes, most valued of the things he’d brought for school. A parting gift from Shannon.
Three women sat working at their typewriters; none glanced up to see him standing at the counter. Invisible as well as deaf, he waited.
His journey. Yesterday all day on buses; Tuesday he spent watching out the window of a crawling muskeg train; Monday, caged inside a six-seater Beaver floatplane. So many lakes and trees. Trying to make the mental map he always made when travelling in the bush, it was too hard. Too far. Too complex. If he had to walk back home, he’d lose the turns; he’d never make it. Don’t look back, the nuns had said. Look ahead to high school. Your future is down there, they said. Now the door had closed. Going back right now was not an option.
On Sunday afternoon, he parted the curtain doorway to his room and shooed his younger brothers out to play. “Take my slingshot. There’s snowbirds in the schoolyard.” He held the drapery up for Shannon to come in. The youngsters laughed and so did she.
The smell of cooking goose. The sound of Hank Williams on the record player. Smell of sweet grass. Mama’s knitting needles clicking, Papa turning over on the couch. Smell of Shannon’s hair. Sound of Shannon’s heartbeat. He dropped a disc onto the CD player’s tray. Any disc would do.
She undressed and slipped shyly underneath the Hudson’s Bay wool blanket. Light filtered through the thin cloth door. He removed his shirt, his jeans, his long johns.
In bed, her body curved to his. They kissed. Mouths open. Eyes open. They drifted through every word in every language without one sound to spoil the meanings.
Standing at the counter in the office, Roger studied everything, tried to memorize each colour and each shape. The faces of the women first. Which one was okimaw? Who was principal? No, a principal would have a separate room. But Sister had no office? Maybe all three are bosses here. Each one rates a telephone. Each one has a desk. If only I could talk to Shannon, together we could map it out.
“Yes.” The red-haired one finally looked up and pushed her glasses down onto her nose.
Roger had not asked a question, so he ignored her answer.
She raised her voice as if he hadn’t heard “Can I help you?” She stood.
“I don’t know,” Roger said. How could he know? He hoped she could.
“You must be new? From somewhere north. Some reserve.”
Roger nodded and then studied the floor. New here. Not a child. Not some reserve. My reserve. Where I tracked and killed a moose. Where I cut a cord of wood in half a day. He peeked to find her looking at his face. He rubbed his shoe against the bag.
“Have you filled out one of these?” She waved a sheet paper.
“I…” The English words evaporated. He fought the urge to turn and run. Home. Shannon. He squeezed his eyelids shut. “Wait!” He reached his fingers into the breast pocket of his denim jacket, a pocket flap bordered by ohkoma with a golden ribbon for his trip. “She writes it.”
“Who wrote this?”
“Sister.” He spread the scrap of paper flat across the counter. He read it awkwardly, “They will provide a… registration form.”
“Sister Angelique. Otter Creek Indian Day School.”
“Oh-kay! Now we’re getting somewhere. Step over here. What’s your name? Your birth date? Sit there. I’ll need a Band Number, a Social Insurance Number if you have one. We’ll get you registered. I need to call Indian Affairs and get you onto our account. I’ll see if Native Counselling is in yet.”
“Roger Ashamuk. No. My name is Loon. Roger.” Sister said “Loon” is easier for them to say.
“Have a seat, Loon Roger.” She laughed.
Help me, Shannon. This is hard. Strange beyond belief. He scooped the wounded bag up with his toe, transferred it into his hand, and followed his new boss to benches near the office door.
“You wait right here. I’ll try to find someone… A counsellor. We’ll get all this paperwork done in no time. Don’t disappear on me, okay?” And she was gone without waiting for his answer.
Seconds later, a tapping on the glass beside him. The short skirt again. No one was allowed to wander unattended in the halls of the Otter Creek Indian Day School. No one seemed to notice here. No one seemed concerned. She smiled. At him? She ran her tongue along her painted lower lip. What’s going on? Where did her friends go?
Then the door swung open. The girl stood right in front of him, looking directly at his face. Too dangerous to make eye contact. Her bare thighs too tempting.
“Hey, handsome! I’m Marlene. Whuzzup? You look like you could use a friend.”
Roger grasped the satchel and set it on his lap, covering himself, feeling in his heart that something would be stolen from him soon.
The Fool Hen’s Dance
Creeping through the black spruce, Seegwin cradles the twenty-two the way his father showed him—barrel pointing sideways. His eyes dart from shadow to branch, scanning the sighing forest the way white kids study their spelling words. In his mind, his partridge trembles.
Tonight Grandmother will sit by the woodstove plucking its feathers, promising the boy a trip onto the muskeg to watch their mating dance. “At dawn. See them in the spring snow. Bow to your partner; bow to your corner. Circle left. Dosado.” While Grandmother laughs, the partridge will simmer in her cast iron pot.
Now, a single plume against the sky. Seegwin squints it into shape, glances down to check the safety.
Looks up. Nothing. Gone completely.
Behind and to the left, . He swings the gun.
“Single file promenade home!” he whispers.
“Over here!” the fool hen trills. “Allemande left.”
Halfway down the hall to get a cup of coffee, Beckett picks a scrap of cardboard off the floor and sees the blood: a crimson splatter marring parts of Ludwig Van Beethoven. Someone has vandalized Cantor’s ASPIRE TO EXCELLENCE bulletin board. Pictures of dead composers and musicians hang askew, their scalloped Bristol borders torn. The smear of haemoglobin sends a different message now. Empty staples jabbing at the air aspire to something else.
Sometimes, Beckett spends his fifth-period prep sitting in the staffroom staring into space, too tired to count again the days and years until retirement. Today, after having sent his restless Grade Eight students off to Ms. Cantor’s music, Beckett tidied up his classroom desk and read the note he’d intercepted: “Cyn 2 Brad, C U @ 4!!! heart sin” The heart was illustrated. The “n” looped up along the margin and ended in a daisy. He was glad he’d let it slide. “They’re not the easiest group I’ve had,” he thought, “not the hardest either.” Then he’d gone for joe and found the trouble in the hallway.
Beckett trails red spots on the cream tiles to the boys’ washroom hoping it isn’t one of his. It’s always hard having kids this age in an elementary school; it’s even harder on a reserve. He knows how many grudges they hold against the former Royal Marine who shouts at her quiet aboriginal charges from the start of each class until its end. “Well, music’s difficult to teach,” thinks Beckett, “to kids so shy they rarely speak.”
And there’s Brad, standing by the row of sinks, trying to stop the bleeding with a wad of paper towels. Brad is two inches taller than Beckett. Jet black hair touches his shoulders; his headband is a woven rawhide rope. He’s failed eight twice. He’s been back in school just six days now since his last suspension—smoking in the teacher’s parking lot this time.
Behind Brad, Becket sees one stall door hanging by a single hinge. He sees Brad’s skinned knuckles. He thinks about the test this Friday that Brad is going to miss.
“She kicked me out before I even got inside her fucking room. I didn’t do nothing, sir. I didn’t say a word. Not a fucking thing. She just says, ‘Office, now!’ and points down the hall like I’m her fucking dog.”
Beckett sees the approaching tears, holds out his arms and lets Brad, the toughest kid in the school, collapse against him and bleed onto his crisp, white shirt.
He climbed down off the rig’s running board into slush that lined the shoulder of the road. He stretched. He felt the comfort of the ground beneath his boots, felt the silent starlit night ease through him. A dumpy little restaurant too far north to be important. He’d pushed all day for this. Rolled the dice a dozen times in endless, blinding snow with just a glimpse of spruce to hint the margin of a ditch. He’d pushed the rig, twenty over when he could, pushed himself by skipping lunch, then almost lost control at dusk along a guard-railed precipice. Numb from the droning of the diesel. For her. For sixty minutes here. With her.
THE JADE EAGL winked its wounded advertisement from its aerie on the roof. He stumbled through the parking lot and stomped the slush onto the crimson welcome mat. No trucker’s stop. This late, the place was empty. It had no business being there, he thought; no way it paid the rent.
First time he’d stopped, he’d had no choice. Joss. It could’ve been most anything. “Joss” he figured. “Fate” or “destiny,” he thought it meant from books he’d read. She’d intercepted him before he had his jacket off with, “You want beer?”
It jarred. He’d asked if they served Scotch. “I check,” she said. What kind of waitress wouldn’t know? He’d almost left, but she was back and begged her pardon, “John Walk. Good?”
“It’ll do. Red? Black? Black I hope.”
“It gold. I sorry. No good?”
He’d mumbled, “Good, for sure.” With quiet eyes, she had becalmed him. Sparkling, like the silver hoops against her eggshell neck. “A double.” He’d splayed two fingers like she might not understand. “In one glass, please. No ice.”
He lost an hour that evening chatting up the hostess. Just listening to her voice. He’d stopped again the next time through. A dozen times since then. In conversations he’d invented as he drove the rig, he called her Joss.
“Take ice,” she’d said his second trip, in August. “Ice better.”
“No, thanks.” He fell in love.
“You eat buffet? Good.”
“Could I see a menu?”
“No menu. Sorry. Buffet only. I bring ice. Just in case.”
She always stopped beside his chair to ask if things were right. “You here April. No eat egg roll then too? No like? You too skinny?”
She’d dissolved into his blood like booze. He’d tried to keep a balance. Don’t jeopardize your family: twenty years of marriage, kids, a house. And so he’d fought it. Knew the wiles of women. Knew the tangled web of joss.
“You have dessert? You stay in town tonight?”
Her chocolate eyes cut through him. Her hair, cropped short. Her scent was jasmine. He was too old for her, too tall, too coarse for skin like porcelain. His callused hands might bruise the peach-sized breasts that faintly swayed beneath her sweater. His touch might mar the fragile thighs that curved beneath her dress.
“Neat,” he’d said. “No ice; no water.” Then he added, “Some things are perfect just they way they are.” Like you, he didn’t say out loud.
“Not good,” she’d argued. “You try ice. I get.” Then two weeks later, as he’d walked inside the door again she’d nearly shouted, “You back!” and brought him Scotch with ice before he’d even found a table. “Try egg roll. Good today. Rest now. Long drive?”
She remembered. He hadn’t made a pass. The light that danced across her face when he’d walked in, belonged to him and no one else he’d watched her seat or offer drinks.
He’d stopped more frequently that fall and winter. Always she was there, always brought the drink without him asking. Always added cautions about the weather and the road. “You okay, for sure? You careful drive. Not drink too much.”
Once, he watched her as she spoke her language with an elder at the cash. Her father? He thought he heard her switch to English. Did she say, “He nice?” She’d glanced in his direction. Giggled. Maybe.
Last trip, he’d almost made a move, nearly joined the ranks of customers who no doubt hit on her each day. He’d argued with the trees since Lake Louise about fidelity; he’d thought he’d got it right. He’d ask her name, ask her when her shift was over. Did she have a fella? Did she care he had a wife?
“You late tonight. Drink make sleepy. Careful.” She winked at him with more than just her eyes, he thought. “You home far?”
Don’t remind me. “Calgary.”
“Far. Motel edge town? Good sleep. Long drive?”
“Long. Yes.” Book the room and come right back and offer her a key. He’d watched her feet in clogs that shuffled back and forth in little tasks that seemed to have no purpose but to show the outline of a calf behind a faded satin sheath.
“No good pork. Chicken good,” she’d confided. “Family you? In Calgary?”
“Yes. A wife. The boys are grown and gone. A girl, twelve.” He’d sipped his Scotch that time, deciding not to press the issue.
This night was different. He needed her. Tonight the cold had come in earnest, turning sleet to ice. Then a billion stars on which to wish. He’d pushed it far enough. This time his joss was right. She placed the drink in front of him.
“That’s winter, eh?” he laughed uneasily.
“Drive big truck how many year?”
Come sit. Come let me buy you one for all the times I’ve thought of you and smiled. “Ten years, I guess. Before that, a packing plant. Cutting meat all day.”
“Truck better?” Her smile made it more an affirmation than a question.
“The pay’s better. Itchy feet I guess. I like to travel.” Did she understand itchy feet? Why not slide in across from me. Let me rest my hand on yours, our knees just brushing?
“Yes.” He smiled. “I’m happy.” Starting to undress her. A cheap motel. The sleeper in the rig. Perhaps, her place. It didn’t matter where. He’d take her clothes off slowly. He took a gulp of Scotch and pushed his empty plate away and finally asked a question in return. “How about you? You like working here?”
“You’re good. You have a way with people. You always cheer me up.” He’d ask her name. She wouldn’t let him down. She blushed. He’d never seen her blush before. “It shows… how you like people. Probably not much to do for entertainment around here.”
She blushed again.
He smiled. At how she’d look without the blouse. Standing in a dimness, illumined by the glow of that sweet blush. Shadowed by the closeness of his body. “When’s quitting time?” She frowned. “When do you get off work?” His pulse beat faster.
“When finish dishes.”
Incredulous, “You have to do the dishes, too?”
She laughed. He liked her laugh. “No wash dishes. Twi wash. More drink? Almost close now.”
“Sure. I’ll be staying here tonight. Another double.” He watched her move behind the bar and pour his drink, dreaming his arms encircling her, his hands exploring, her naked flesh beneath him.
“No drive. Stay here tonight. Motel up road.” She set the tumbler on the table.
“Maybe. Or maybe just the sleeper?” Wherever you’d be comfortable.
“Behind the cab, there’s like a bedroom. Double bed. It’s nice. Warm and comfy.” Ask to see it. I’ll offer you a tour. Let my fingers touch your shoulders as I lightly kiss your neck. Keep asking questions.
“Cab? In truck?”
“Behind the seats up front. It’s all closed off. Real private like.”
“Always you have bedroom.”
“Sometimes it’s lonely.” Take the cue.
“Close now. Take time with Scotch. No rush.”
He grinned and teased her, “The dishes must be nearly done.”
Timed perfectly, he saw the kitchen help appear. An older woman, slump-shouldered, plain, an apron loose around her neck now stood beside the swinging doors. Her eyes downcast. She seemed too small, thin. Invisible, he thought. Her hands. She rested them, palms up on the bar as if she’d put them there for someone else to scrape and stack and dump into a rubber bin. Quitting time, he thought. Right, Joss?
“Enjoy drink, mister.” She crossed toward the woman and whispered near her cheek. Tell her that you won’t be home tonight, he thought. Tell her that you have a friend. Say you’re horny, eh? He heard the older woman giggle. He nice man. You tell her that.
He watched them. Saw his hostess lift limp, red hands in hers, not like a dirty plate or saucer, but with tenderness, the way he planned to cup her breasts before he kissed them. Joss used a lotion, worked slow, strong circles through each muscle, past the joints, between each slender digit of the woman’s hands.
Unhurried, unashamed of who might see, slowly Joss raised one damp palm against her cheek and then against her lips. Then smiling almost like she had for him, she lifted, like it was a flower, a lock of sweat drenched hair and tucked it over Twi’s left ear. A sister? From different fathers if she was. Little he could see familiar in the two.
Patience. Maybe she would get her coat and hover by his table waiting for the ice to lose its amber tinge, then lead him to the sleeper or her room. He’d ask her name, for sure.
Joss moved toward his table. Stopped. “You come back soon. No drive tonight. Okay?”
She stepped beside the kitchen helper, smiled that smile. Leaned closer, kissed her lightly on the lips. The older woman glowed, seemed suddenly much younger, then kissed her back and giggled like a child before they left.
Left him studying his ice and contemplating joss.
An Eskimo Curlew
Lawrence hadn’t knocked. I let The Star collapse across my makeshift coffee table and watched the rain drip off his yellow mackinaw and puddle on my hardwood floor.
“Your boots!” he said. “I need them. Creek’s coming over the road, Ben. Rising fast. I need hip waders. I’m trapped over here if the ice by Callahan’s gives way.”
He smelled of gas, a sure sign he’d been stealing wood again out at the Point. Fine dust from his dull chainsaw covered his shoes and pant legs. He was a fool for getting caught in a downpour, double-caught by breakup. He was a bigger fool to think I’d loan my waders at the time I’d need them most. My fool, unless I helped him now. I stood and filled the kettle, intending to make tea.
Refusing him would be no better. Either way I’d lose.
I’d moved to Fishing Cove last June, almost a year ago; Lawrence and his wife showed up at my place a few weeks later. I’d bought the two room bungalow on Beaver Island and carried all my things in wheelbarrow trips along the path down through the gut, across the wooden footbridge that spanned the little stream, up the other bank, and through a stand of old-growth pine to what would be my studio and home. One room for living, one for work.
I paint. I came to Fishing Cove to work, not hibernate. I’d had it with Toronto traffic jams and trendy Yorkville galleries. I didn’t come here looking for a place to grow a stash or scratch a living off-the-grid. Ben Law’s were hot; I had a name, a clientele, a deadline for an upcoming one-man show.
Fishing Cove, the mainland village sixty yards across the shallow gorge, is mainly tourists, mostly summer folk, the normal cottage kitsch and tales about the wily pike that snap a twenty pound test like sewing-thread. A sleepy town: obligatory Bank of Commerce, Shoppers Drug, Tim Horton’s and a Valu-Mart. In and Out Beer and LCBO. Ice down at the Esso. Enough gift shops, espresso bars, and antique stands to qualify as quaint. The Dew Drop Inn and Angler’s End were booked until Thanksgiving when the town became a village once again. Victoria Day, the cottagers and businessmen came back, chased out the mice, and dusted off the same old lies about the fish.
Lawrence Weiser ran an eight-month bookstore—The Narrative Hook. In winter, he searched through barrels and bins along Toronto’s Yonge Street in quest of fishing lore that he could turn into his summer profit. Year round, Annie Weiser told me, she dreamed of books without a wiggling trout and grinning sportsman on the cover. She longed to tan on tropic beaches, listen to a string quartet at Massey Hall, take in the Broadway shows on Broadway. Fantasies like those made Annie smile but only raised a smirk from Lawrence.
And Annie’s smile was something else. I remember it the afternoon she dragged her husband down the path across the bridge to meet the artist who’d bought a vacant cottage on the island. She was pretty—smile or not. A slender redhead. Delicate. But teeth was all I saw that day, her prominent incisors when she grinned. If I were Heinrich Kley, I would’ve drawn her as a mouse. Ben Law does portraiture, however, human forms that celebrate what others often see as flaws. I fell in love with Annie’s rodent teeth that afternoon; I couldn’t help myself.
Lawrence made the introductions. “Law, right? The painter. We heard you’d bought the Hampton place. Welcome to Fishing Cove.” He stood a half-foot shorter than his wife. Solid. A broad moustache curled between his heavy eyes and retail grin.
She shook my hand. “Abstract figures. I’ve seen your work, Mr. Law, at Michael’s and The Auk. They’re wonderful.” Then she showed her teeth again.
I gave the tour, saying little, letting lines and colours do the talking. I hadn’t come to Fishing Cove for friends or customers. I wasn’t hiding either.
“Lawrence, look. Doesn’t this remind you of a Munch? Amazing, Mr. Law.” She took her time. She made the kind of small talk people make at openings, the kind that tease about a sale: this one would fit that space along the stairs, or isn’t that the colour of the chesterfield?
Lawrence studied brushes on my workbench, saying “no” with not-so-subtle gestures. “It’ll be quiet here, Ben,” he said. “The island properties are boarded up. People want a place accessible by car these days. And then this flap about a curlew.” I raised my eyebrows. “You plan to stay year-round?” he asked.
“You’ll need five, six cords of firewood. Not supposed to cut it on the island anymore. Habitat conservation. Jesus. Some birder thinks he saw an Eskimo curlew. That was it. No more anything.” He looked at me for some reaction.
What was I supposed to say?
Lawrence took a step toward me. “It’s bullshit, Ben. If they really saw one, it was only passing though.” He pinched his upper lip and moustache. “This island’s got the perfect spot for cutting wood—unless someone makes a call to MNR.” Right from the start, before I offered them a cup of tea, he tried to put me on the spot, and would’ve, too, if Annie hadn’t saved the day.
“Mr. Law. Ben. Do you use models?”
She’d only seen the abstracts. I pulled some studies I had done before I left the city, sketches of kids in city parks and riders on the subway, some finished paintings of another artist who modelled on the side.
“Look at this one, Larry. It’s amazing, Ben.”
“Down at the far end,” he said. “Not much. I only cut enough for spring and fall.” Lawrence looked me in eye, daring me to blink.
In July, Annie stopped me at the Valu-Mart. “Oh! Ben! How’s the painting coming? Don’t you find it lonely over there?” She laughed.
Her teeth. I couldn’t help but stare.
“Depressing, isn’t it, when the most exciting thing in Fishing Cove is flavoured coffee. How does a cultured person stand this place?”
I measured eye-widths from her chin up to her nose. The zygomatic process to the corner of her lips. The layers of colour. The way the shadows formed her cheeks.
“I’m serious. Where’s the nearest gallery? Real gallery. The nearest anything? Not counting bookstores that specialize in bait.” She grabbed a random tin of coffee. “It’s all so sad.”
Our carts ran side by side. I peeked again. Cadmium green flecked her cobalt eyes.
Later at a small cafe, we each sipped mocha cappuccinos. “Fishing Cove,” she said. “It sounds romantic—cottage country. Nature! Of course, I counted on our winters in the city. Plays, concerts, libraries. The bubble burst the moment we arrived. A lousy little tourist trap. His so-called store makes just enough for us to scrabble back here every year a little more in debt. He loves it, but I’m dying here.”
I closed my eyes and drew her face from memory.
We met again next week—for tea. “Lawrence? I hardly see him. He’s probably at his store trading stories with the customers or somewhere in his boat, off feeding the mosquitoes.” She wrapped her fingers round the coarse blue mug as if it might be flesh. “Maybe splitting kindling. I hope he isn’t filling up my kitchen sink with fish. This place was made for him. Every single tree grew just for Larry.”
We were at the Inn Cafe the first time posing was discussed. By then, I had the parts of her I wanted. The hair could use a wayward curl to draw the eye down to her mouth. The nose was fine, a little flatter, maybe. The cheekbones might be lower. I’d do the under-layers fast. An eight-inch brush like I was painting houses.
“He’d never put out money for a portrait—not the fee you likely get. I wouldn’t ask. I mean… Well, models must be hard to find up here. I… Well frankly, being in a Ben Law painting, I’d feel like I was famous. Foolish me. Imagine. Annie Weiser hanging in a gallery.”
I saw the danger, felt the fire. I should’ve turned her down.
“You’re sure? Ben, this means so much. Yes. I’ll make it clear to Lawrence. As long as supper’s on the table, he’ll forget we even talked. He won’t be interested, not unless you paint me sitting on an outboard motor. You’re sure? I’m not too plain or over-the-hill?”
I overlooked the common misconception artists all want starlets for a model. It’s not perfection. It’s the drama of a line or shadow. It’s mystery of a curve.
“Then, when do we begin?”
We started on a Monday afternoon. Costumed. Not just to be discrete, not for Lawrence’s sake. All I wanted—all I thought I wanted—was her smile. Of course, it didn’t take much flirting at the breaks for me to realize I’d be a fool to pass up more. “You can’t imagine how this makes me feel, to have a man so totally immersed in every detail of my body. Am I blushing, Ben?”
Of course, she was. We laughed at that before we kissed, before we touched, before our mutual passion took control. Of course as soon as it was over, the questioning began.
“Oh, Ben. God, what have we done?” She wrapped a sheet around herself and sat cross-legged on my single bed. Strands of hair were plastered to her cheeks. “I’m not like this, Ben. I’ve never done anything like this before. Now what? What do we do next?”
“We” was something I’d forgotten to consider. I squinted; I made her face dissolve into a geometric shape, the edges blurred, the features muted. The tones, sepia. I kissed her, too. Gently in the hollow space between her scapulae, then softly on the lips to reassure her.
What came next was not unlike what came before. I painted her sometimes. Sometimes, I took her in my arms the moment she came creeping through my door. Sometimes, I went to Fishing Cove, for barbeques with them or the three of us walked down along the Little Fishing River. Annie thought it made things less conspicuous. What I usually felt was awkward. Lawrence seemed absorbed in food and fish, never curious about my paintings of his wife.
“We ought to take the boat out, Ben. Pike are amazing fighters. Don’t worry. We all start out as tenderfoots. I’ve got the gear for both of us. You can’t live in Fishing Cove and not go fishing.”
“Ben’s got other things to do, Larry. He can relate to things without killing them. Art, for instance.”
“Catch-and-release, Annie. I keep telling her, catch-and-release. You’d think it would sink in after fifteen years.”
“You’d think fifteen years of baiting hooks might get a little boring.”
“Fly tying is an art,” he said. “Like sculpture. That’s half the fun of trout.”
“It takes up half the guest room, too. And more than half your time.”
“You’d rather have me spend it at the Dew Drop drinking whiskey? There’s lots worse things than fishing, Annie.”
Annie might’ve worried I’d quit my art for pike, but her main concern was friendship. One early-autumn afternoon as she found the markers for her pose, she stopped and hugged the cotton housecoat tight around herself and shivered. “You might get friendly, and friends don’t have affairs with their friends’ wives,” she said. Lawrence wore me down, though, and I gave in to him as well. Or maybe it was curiosity. Perhaps the face behind the man. The attraction of his thick moustache. The way his eyes would barely flicker from the shadow of his brows.
I let him show me where he cut his wood that fall. Two miles along a path behind my cabin, through the pine and down into a bog of cranberry and cedar, then past a rise to where a forest fire had killed a stand of spruce. Their smooth white trunks stood like stalks of wheat waiting for the harvest. Completely dry, easily split, begging to be sawed and used before they rotted, something technically illegal ever since the sighting of the curlew. He showed me where the riverbank sloped gradually enough so he could haul it out by boat in spring or, if the spring was late, where he could pull it on the frozen river in sled-loads by Ski-doo.
“I’ll fell a few and cut them into lengths. You try your hand at splitting. Build some muscle. Help you lift those brushes, eh?”
He freed me from our conversation when he pulled the starter and revved the chainsaw while I used his rusted axe. I checked my watch and wiped my brow more often than was needed to help build up his woodpile, phantom curlews peeking through the fireweed and saplings, blisters forming on my palms. He finally stopped and shouted. “This is real work, eh? You should get out more. Paint nature, Ben. I could sell them in The Hook.”
I might’ve laughed if he’d been joking.
“Here. I brought us coffee.” He tossed a thermos at me.
I asked about the bird, if he felt guilty. Sportsmen always say they’re big on conservation.
“Look, Ben. All this wood, just going to waste. Nature’s always making trade-offs. But this time, there’s nothing to get hurt. It’s a figment of someone’s imagination. If there ever was a curlew here, which I doubt, it’s gone now.” He stood and stretched, then started gassing up his chainsaw. “You’ll need a saw. And a place to cut. You should’ve already started for next winter.”
I nodded. I bought my fuel from local men who stacked it on the far side of the river. I got my exercise by hauling it across the creek—and making love to Annie Weiser.
They left in mid-November, shuttering the bookstore and packing up their battered Volvo for Toronto. “Back to civilization,” they said, both waving their so-longs and flashing me a final look at Larry’s hollow eyes and Annie’s sexy teeth. And I survived quite well all winter, joined the local curling club and struggled back and forth across my bridge to do the weekend socials at the local A.C.W. I was ahead of schedule for my one-man show in June. The solitude agreed with me, and they were back before I missed them.
They came the first of April, in time to tidy up before the mid-May tourist season. Spring was late this year. Ice still blocked the river and our creek. One last blizzard dumped thick, wet snow on backyard hockey rinks and closed the school again.
The day Annie stomped her snow boots on my porch, I was ready for some company. Her smile was just as moving. She’d started wearing pony tails, but more than hair had changed with Annie.
“I missed you, Ben. First time coming back, I wasn’t totally depressed.” She had her sweater off before she’d finished talking. Nothing underneath. “Don’t worry. He’s at the Point by snowmobile. He’ll be hours digging out his precious wood and fixing up his trails.” Her hunger had a carefree texture it had lacked before. She didn’t check that every drape was tightly closed, the deadbolts slipped in place.
“I’m going to your opening in June. We’ll go together. He doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter what he’s thinking anyway. It’s over, Ben. He doesn’t know it yet; he may never even notice that I left.” Her fingers swept across my chest and pushed me back onto the bed. “Goddamn, I missed us. Next winter, I’ll be here to keep you warm.”
Somehow, her hair pulled back like that, completely changed her face. The lines swept everything away; they pulled the eye up away from her mouth. Everything seemed rounder, thicker.
Three weeks later, Lawrence tracked his mud into my kitchen and caught me waiting for the kettle, trying to decide about my boots.
“The waders, Ben? It’s big, I know. But, I have reasons.” Lawrence always had his reasons. “It’s not the store. It’s Annie.” Thunder interrupted us. He slumped into a chair beside my table.
“I’ve got to get back. That’s all. Help me.”
“Maybe wait until tomorrow? What if it breaks midway, catches you on the bridge or something.”
“Ben. It’s Fishing Cove. If the ice jams wrong, it might be weeks. I’m going now. I need your waders.”
“You’ve spent some time with her. You must’ve seen the change. Something snapped this summer, Ben. It’s like we came unglued.”
Our eyes locked, and what I saw was not a man about to panic nor the desperate husband of my lover nor an arrogant little cuckold. What I saw was chocolate. Bits of raw sienna and maroon over-painted on a grey nine or even eight. His eyes on canvas.
“I’m crossing, boots or not. It’s someone else. He’s likely with her now. I’d go crazy over here.”
It’s likely, I would too—with him around, so I found my waders and my slicker.
“I won’t forget this, friend. I don’t have to tell you, what I said was private. She’ll have to come to me. If I push her, she’ll leave. I’m not prepared for that. We never had this conversation.”
Of course, we had the conversation, no matter how I wished we hadn’t. “We’d better go,” I said.
Outside, he shouted through the wind and rain while rushing down the trail, “Hurry! Current’s deadly just below the bridge. Six years ago, a Jackson kid got caught. Grabbed a rail, held on until his fingers froze. Nothing we could do but watch. Never should have cut today.”
When we rounded the last bend, my stomach sank. The gentle stream had swollen to a raging river. The path and bridge were both submerged. The railings showed. The water swirled a foot or two above what used to be my only link to Fishing Cove.
“Carry me! You’ve got the boots. Just across the bridge!”
Piggyback? To make that trip alone seemed foolish. A man sitting on my shoulders would make the footing twice as tricky. This was crazy. Almost as crazy as giving in to Annie’s teeth. Now, I had to get him off my island or listen to him moan for days about her infidelity.
“Let’s go!” he yelled. “When the ice at the point gives way, it’ll be too late!”
I found an aspen pole discarded on the bank, something to steady us against the current, then squatted on the road to let him throw his muddy legs across my shoulders and grab my head to get his balance. My hands climbed up the walking stick, taking extra weight with both my arms while straightening. He was heavy, but not as heavy as I’d thought. I took a step and nearly slipped. Clay.
“You can! Just take it easy! Go!”
Calf-high, the water pressed against me. I used the pole to brace each sliding step. The easy part. If we slipped here, the only consequence would be a wetting; we’d flounder for a bit in shallows before we grabbed some willow scrub along the river’s summer banks. Once at the bridge, the price of any error would be dear. The water rose. Whirlpools threatened to unbalance us. Teal—mixed with orange to soften it.
“Quick! Move, Ben! It’s rising fast! You’re taking all day!”
The water swirled almost level with the bridge’s railings. He gripped my throat. Rain splashed my face. The spray of water made it hard to see.
“Two more steps! Do it! Oh, hell! What’s that noise?”
Not the roar of ice flooding down the channel. The bridge’s wooden timbers groaned and twisted in the torrent. I stepped onto its surface. I’d found a rhythm on the path. Mud sucked the dimpled soles to help my grip. Now clay-slick rubber touched the smooth wet pine. I slipped. The handrail stopped us.
“You’ll kill us both, you fool!”
I righted. I slid each boot along the planking, first one and then the other. Then the crack of wood.
The downstream handrail broke and flew into the torrent. I stumbled. Lawrence pitched above my head, one hand locked onto the collar of my raincoat. I fought to keep my balance, my head above the water. The river pulled. Lawrence choked me. I dropped the pole and caught the upstream handrail. There we stayed. Soaked. Me gasping for air as Lawrence slowly strangled me. Both of us, waiting for the other railing or my grip to fail.
“Can’t swim,” he yelled. “We’ll die! It’s freezing!”
My boots were filled with ice water. My feet and legs were numb, but my grip held. With one hand I pulled Lawrence toward me. I hauled him to the rail and placed his shaking hands around the plank.
“This’ll go, too! Got to move,” he shouted, hand-over-handing toward the far end of the bridge.
“We can’t make it! I lost the pole,” I said.
“I’m going! You go back!” His teeth chattered.
“You can’t make it! It can’t be done!”
The bridge heaved beneath us. “I will!”
“I have to.” He grabbed my collar again and pulled his face close to mine. “Go back, Ben. I have to be with her!”
“You damn wood-stealing fool, it’s me.”
He blinked. His jaw clenched shut.
“It’s me! I’m the one with Annie!”
I grabbed his jacket, the colour draining from his face. The rail disappeared below the roiling surface with a shudder. I took a cautious half-step backwards, still holding his sleeve.
He didn’t move. I tugged. “It’s over! Everything is over,” I shouted. “Come on! We’re still alive!” His eyes became eyes again, filled with sadness and fear, no longer shapes and colours.
He reached his icy fingers onto mine. We helped each other scramble toward the shore. Slipping, sliding off the road. On hands and knees, we pulled ourselves with underwater bushes back the way we’d come.
When it was calm enough for us to stand, we helped each other up. Shaking and panting, we watched the bridge itself give way and tumble down the river. I clapped him on the shoulder and pointed back toward my cabin. But Lawrence stood his ground. He tipped his chin toward the distant bank. And through the rain and fog, I thought I saw a pastel figure flip her pony tail and turn away, a drop of pigment spreading on a sheet of grey, wet watercolour paper.
An optical illusion.
The Dove of Mondezibar
So here’s the set-up: I’ve had at most an ounce or two of this sinfully elegant single malt—neat, of course—and I’ve tottered off to bed to savour a deep and peaceful slumber. The wife being at the mother-in-law’s because she—the mother-in-law—is having a row with the father-in-law, and of course the smartest thing to do in such a situation is to don the hobnailed boots and the boxing gloves and insert yourself squarely in between the combatants. Oh yeah.
Of course, I was expected to tag along to offer whatever I could by way of complication. Or was it support she wanted? Naturally, I was eager to lend the expertise I’d acquired in twenty years of marital bliss to the collective hundred years of the other three combatants, but I couldn’t for the simple fact I have a real job. And, we have a daughter—and dragging the granddaughter onto the battlefield might have seemed like a workable tactic to the wife, but to miss a week of school, just to watch reality TV without the TV? It seemed a tad excessive.
So the wife is away, leaving me to babysit the barely-thirteen-year-old-going-on-twenty daughter, and it being a Friday night and the daughter out for a movie with her girlfriends, I’ve already confessed to having had a wee deoch an doris. I’d earned it.
So I might’ve been disoriented—slightly—when, a few hours after retiring, I’m called through the living room to answer a steady bashing at my front door and the coloured strobes of a police cruiser dancing across the furniture through my mostly-closed eyelids.
I compose a short speech on the way to the door consisting of a pithy, “What the fuck?” but a gaping yawn pops out instead.
“Mr. Perkins? Harold Perkins?” The burly OPP is a five-six blonde movie starlet look-alike who you could pull out of her uniform through one of her shirtsleeves—which is to say, she’s petite and cute and not quite what I expected the Ontario Provincial Police to throw against my door.
“Yes,” I say.
“Mr. Perkins, I have your daughter in the car.” Oh, boy. That’s a can of mace in the face.
My daughter. “Princess Natalia Lynette, the Dove of Mondezibar” she printed off her computer in 48 point Copperplate Gothic and then thumb-tacked it to her door when she was seven. Added “Private/ Do not enter” in a separate memo affixed with super glue when she was eight. That’s Nat. So what flashes though my mind is not the list of “current issues” stapled to my brain: the white lipstick issue, the belly button issue, the short skirt issue, the thong issue, the pierced eyebrow issue, the black lipstick issue, the tattoo issue, and the too-many-issues issue. What does flash through my mind is the dim hospital room where a night shift nurse brings me a bunting too small to be real and places it in my arms and says, “We’ll get things all cleaned up in just a minute. Then we’ll bring you both back in to see her mom.” And there I am, all alone with Nat for the first time and for the first time in my life I’m genuinely afraid, terrified this fragile life might shatter in my hands if pressed too hard or might fall to the floor if pressed too lightly. Nat. I see her sitting in the back seat of the police cruiser. She looks the other way as if that might hide the fact of where and who she is.
The constable on my porch is calm. “She tried to run. She wouldn’t tell me anything until I threatened to put her in a cell. She’s quite inebriated, but she’s old enough and sober enough to know the consequences of resisting arrest and refusing to answer.”
“Not this time, Mr. Perkins. There were three other girls. They had a mickey of vodka. You should drop by the office tomorrow after she’s slept it off. Talk to her, okay?”
The officer walks me over to the car and opens the door for Nat. “You’re being released into the custody of your father. You can get out now, Natalie.”
While I’m thanking the officer, Nat takes slow studied steps toward the house. I catch up to her as the patrol car backs down the driveway. “Are you okay, princess?”
Her sobbing, suddenly audible, is all I can hear as I open the door. She staggers toward the stairs that lead up to her room and empties her stomach on the hand-woven Persian runner.
Then she lets me hug her and I’m terrified she might shatter if I press too hard or she might fall if I press too lightly. I realize I’m the only adult in the house; my breathing has stopped completely, and I wonder if I can hold it together until my wife returns next week.
“Those… things?” The stranger touches Patrick’s wrist with one hand and taps the train’s window with the other.
Patrick blinks and shakes his head toward the blur of evergreen sliding past the glass. “What things?”
“I see them all along the track. In nice neat stacks. They look like cedar shakes, but there’s nothing there to shingle. Nothing here at all but trees.” The tourist in a red lumberjack shirt chuckles at this wry assessment of the land. “And more trees.”
“Shims,” says Patrick and closes his eyes. The train lurches, speeds up, then falls back into its steady clickety-clickety lullaby. He’d like to fall instantly asleep. He’d like to have said nothing at all and hopes the terse reply will suffice. His father wouldn’t have waited for the question; he’d have anticipated it. He would have chatted all the way from Moosonee to pass the time. He would have told his story and listened with interest to that of the man sitting next to him on the five hour trip.
“Shims? Never heard of that.”
Patrick glances out the window and sights a mile post. They’re seventy out. Twenty more to Otter Rapids. Almost a hundred more to Cochrane, the southern terminus. His father would arrive there wondering where the time had gone, surprised they’d reached the end so soon. Patrick sighs quietly and gives in. “Muskeg,” he says. “Frozen solid in winter. It’s like a bottomless pit in summer.” Then he explains how, when the first track was laid for the Canadian Pacific Railway across the shield north of Superior, carload after carload of fill was dumped to form the roadbed. Even then, after the ties were down and rails set in place and spikes driven in, when the first steam locomotive rolled out onto the new track, the navvies watched as the chuffing monster slowly sank out of sight into the muck. “Frost heaves,” Patrick says. “Crews are always out using shims to level the rails so we don’t ‘bush.’ Run off the rails.”
The tourist turns to the window. Hoping for a moose or a bear. They all do. What they see is trees. Five long hours of trees.
“You’ve been up here before,” the tourist says.
Patrick closes his eyes again, in spite of what his father would’ve done. “Yes,” he mumbles. A hundred times: fussing in an infant carrier, chasing other kids up and down the aisles, standing in an open window between cars smoking an illicit cigarette, studying for exams on the back and forth to high school. Maybe this will be the last trip. Who knows?
“Beautiful country,” the tourist says.
Patrick says nothing.
Half an hour later, the train slows to a stop. A jovial, tinny voice from the PA explains in French and English they’ve now arrived at the halfway point of their journey. “This stop will let the brakeman conduct a routine inspection of the train’s undercarriage. Passengers may detrain and take photos for ten minutes.”
Outside the window to the east, the bush has opened onto a panorama of rock and cascading water below the Otter Rapids dam. The tourist clambers past him and heads, with the others, for the exit.
Patrick counts to one hundred, then rises. A man in a light blue uniform waits at the door for him. They were friends, the conductor and his father, having shared thirty years of trips along this line, having sat at the back of dusty, rocking cars playing crib and sharing sips of Crown Royal whiskey. In the narrow drafty space between the coaches, the conductor unlocks the metal door for him, the one facing west, away from the dam, where no one is allowed to go. He doesn’t lower the step. Patrick jumps down to the siding.
Yarrow and wild buttercup grow along the edge of the coarse gravel.
Patrick is supposed to scatter the ashes here. The will has specified here and named him to do the scattering. That’s why the conductor opened the door for him, why he is on the goddamned train at all. But there are no ashes when a drunk tourist falls over the railing of a cruise ship in the middle of the night. Patrick could say a prayer, but that’s something his father would not have wanted. He could make a speech to the silent wall of trees, but his father would’ve said, “They’re trees, son. Trees don’t have ears. People will think you’re crazy.”
Patrick turns his back to the empty train and urinates onto the light grey stones. He shakes and zips, then walks back to the door, imagining how it must have looked more than a hundred years ago to stand like a tourist and watch a powerful engine slowly swallowed by the earth.
Hauling Rita’s Water
Morgan removes a beaded moosehide mitt and slides her palm along the surface of the wooden yoke—polished smooth from years of wear, graceful in its tapered hollows. Within herself she’s shaking, but her hand is steady; her brow, relaxed. She’s been trained to keep her cool, control her voice in times of stress. It’s written in her job description. “I’ve seen these every day since I arrived here,” she says. “I’ve never touched one. It’s really light.” She lifts it up in front of her, her parka rising slightly, exposing her flimsy nursing whites to a frigid north Ontario wind.
She faces Rita Williams beside the outdoor tap on a slick hump of ice behind the Mission Rectory; her stance is open, knees bent slightly for balance, her toes straining for a grip. An incline has formed from drips, when people rinse their pails or accidentally slop. Staying in one place is difficult. Gravity tries to skim her downward, away from the building and the water pipe.
“You’re about to see why we make them light.” Rita snorts. “My father carved it by hand. To fit my mother’s shoulders. Fit them perfect when she was my age. She says the water almost carried itself in those days.” Rita covers her mouth and chokes back a cough. “You’ll see.”
“Just tell me what to do, okay?” Morgan places the first pail under the pipe and turns the wooden spigot.
“It’s not real complicated.” Rita slowly slide-steps backward as the pail starts to fill. “But there’s always a chance you’ll make it entertaining.” The water gushes against the white five gallon plastic container, thundering away the silence between the two young women. Rita coughs again as Morgan lifts the brimming bucket with both hands, then turns and sets it down behind her. She’s positioning the second pail when Rita shakes her head and says, “Now you did it. You were supposed to turn the water off while you switched the pails.”
“They can hear it inside. Father Benoit, he’ll be upset. ‘Wasting water,’ he’ll say. He’ll lecture us at Mass. ‘You Indians are too lazy to close the pipe between pails,’ he’ll say. Then he’ll shake his head as if we’re little children.”
“He’s cute when he gets mad. Mama thinks so anyway. He’ll get wound up, start listing every sin in Otter Creek. Booze and sex. Sniffing gas. Perversions. Pere Benoit likes that word a lot.” She winks at Morgan. “We think he gets off hearing us confess.”
Morgan slips the mitten back in place and turns the spigot off. She hadn’t thought about confession. “Does he know? I suppose you have to tell him everything. Tell him it was me, okay?” The water slows to a dribble, then stops. Silence.
“Now there’s a thought.” Rita’s voice is playful. “At least about the water and how you forgot. He won’t believe me though. White chicks don’t haul water.”
Morgan exhales slowly, forcing herself to relax. “I’ll tell him then. About the water, I mean. He’d better not call me lazy.”
Rita laughs. “Right. You should. You should convert just to get your penance for wasting water?”
“You just never know what I might do, Rita. What’s next?” Morgan sets the second pail in line with the first.
“You really don’t have to do this, you know. The thought was nice, but that’s enough. I can manage.”
“So can I.” Morgan folds her arms, squats between the pails, and waits till Rita hooks the ropes onto the handles and fits the yoke around her neck, then steadies it while Morgan straightens, accepting the full weight of ten gallons of water onto her shoulders. Morgan starts a cautious step. The arms of the yoke bow slightly, threatening to spring upward and spill part of her precious cargo. The edges of the yoke pinch her neck and shoulders. She stiffens, afraid she might slip on the ice.
“Looks good,” says Rita. “Now, take your time. It’s a long way. Don’t slop half of it or fall down so we have to come back here and start over.”
The rectory sits between the nursing station and a river bed—deep, wide, and dry most of the year except for a small stream meandering through it near the middle. The “Mission” is on one side: school, rectory, nursing station, Hudson’s Bay store, housing for government employees, and the airstrip. The Otter Creek Reserve is half a mile away on the opposite bank. The Mission side has indoor plumbing. Morgan steps off the ice and onto the snow-packed gravel road. She ought to focus on the pails, but her thoughts follow their own path. They carry a different burden. We’d have to start over? Today it’s we. A week ago…
A week ago, alone, half-standing, left knee on the seat, right foot on the running board, Morgan drove the snowmobile upriver, alert, ready to shift from side to side as needed for a sharp turn. She slowed, looked left and right, then kept on tacking back and forth across a channel of the frozen river, searching for the firmest ice—any subtle change in colour or the texture of the snow, any sign of danger.
Old Albert, the caretaker at the Nursing Station, had told her it was “plenty safe” as he held his outstretched palms a foot apart to show the thickness of the ice. It didn’t make her any braver though—not all by herself, an hour out of Otter Creek. Old Albert would be sweeping floors or cleaning toilets, not standing by to help in case of hypothermia.
Spruce and poplar walled the riverbanks, hiding any sign of life. Charlotte, a diabetes patient, had given vague directions. “You come visit our camp. Follow sipiy. Sipiy take you right there. Easy.” Well, finding the the river wasn’t hard. But there were Ski-doo tracks going every which way, and Charlotte wasn’t standing on the sipiy waving flags to signal where to turn off. Finding people in the bush was harder than she’d thought. The geese were back; the hunt had started. The school had closed. Whole families moved out to spring camps where some would stay until after breakup. Otter Creek had shrunk to half its modest population, so Morgan put the only other nurse in charge so she could check up on her patient. See for herself why all the fuss, explore a little bit, enjoy the warming April sun.
There! Flattened willows made an opening. Faint tread marks marred the snow. She steered the Health and Welfare’s Ski-doo up the steep embankment and through a hidden cut into a clearing with a cabin-tent—a wisp of smoke the only thing that moved. Morgan killed the engine. She stepped onto the crunchy snow, stretched, and pushed back the parka’s hood to let the sunlight dry her light-blonde close-cut pixie. A small bird whistled softly from the black spruce, and from inside the tent she thought she heard a thin dry cough.
Now, halfway through her one-year contract, she’d lost her doubts about the job, about the move six hundred air miles north into the wilderness, about the isolation and the riddle of her Native patients. Still, it seemed the perfect hiding place, the perfect refuge. TO had strangled her. Its cops kept hassling her friends for nothing more than being who they were. Hiding who she was from parents and their crowd was even worse. But it was Stella, the image of her lover’s lifeless, doe-brown eyes that finally, in the spring of ‘87, pushed Morgan to bolt the city and run for cover. Stella. Jesus, don’t go there. Morgan took a federal job and stepped back in the closet expecting nothing but escape. Otter Creek surprised her. The unpretentious smell of evergreen beguiled. She grew to trust the shy and honest people. The flat, bleak landscape stirred in her a hunger for adventure. Now she’d made it six whole months and had no plans of ever leaving.
“Wachiye.” Morgan said it to the tent, its outside walls banked high with snow, the smoking stovepipe elbowed through a metal ring inserted in one side.
A shadowed face peered from behind the cracked entrance flap. “Yes?”
“Tan-te-mah-kiy-o-Williams?” From memory she slowly pronounced the question Albert had given her.
The face smiled broadly. “If that’s your best Cree, we’d better hope you know some English. Come in.” The face retreated. An arm held out the flap. “You seem to be looking for a ‘tent’ or maybe a ‘stomach?’ Which is it?”
Morgan ducked into a world unlike anything she’d ever seen. It was warm inside, warm enough the woman urging her to enter was dressed in just a long-sleeved cotton blouse and jeans, calf-length moosehide slippers, no mitts or toque or scarf. Houses in the village were so drafty people wore their coats indoors. Sunlight filtered through the canvas here: soft, yet bright. Village houses, lit by TV screens and naked bulbs, seemed dingy. The tent looked spotless. The floor, a smooth green covering of spruce and cedar needles. Bedding rolled. A kettle simmered on the stove. The scent of chlorophyll and sweet grass. All in contrast to the rank and cluttered homes of Otter Creek.
“Come in! Before we lose the heat. I’m Rita.”
“The Williams’ camp? I’m looking for Charlotte?”
Rita suppressed another cough. “My mother. And you must be the nurse. Welcome.”
“I’m Morgan.” She glanced down at her dripping boots.
Rita’s laugh was thin but musical. “Waterproof floor. Don’t worry.” She pulled a roll of bedding near the stove. “Sit here. Nice day for a drive in the country?”
“I haven’t seen you at the Station. You must be a visitor.”
Then Rita looked away, said nothing until the silence was unsettling, almost threatening. Finally she said, “My father and the boys are at the hide, hunting. Mama is checking her snares. The girls went with her.” Her voice was gentle. Her face, hard. She moved to one side and pushed a swing jerried to the ridge pole of the tent. “My sister’s baby. Maskosis. Little Bear.” She squatted on a sleeping bag beside the rocking infant.
“I love this tent.”
Rita only nodded. So thin, Morgan thought. She had the body of a teen, almost model-gaunt, but eyes and carriage older. It seemed odd, since Otter Creek women bulked-up before their twenties, developed hard, round features from bearing children, splitting wood and hauling water.
“I hope I’m not intruding. Everyone’s so hyped about the geese. I’ve never seen a hunt camp.” Morgan slipped her knapsack and her parka off together, then fumbled in the pockets for her camera. “It’s so toasty here.”
“Papa and the boys are coming now.”
A snowmobile’s purr quickly turned into a roar then choked to silence near the tent, but before the engine quieted completely, three boys piled through the doorway all speaking Cree at once, not a word Morgan understood. It wasn’t hard to guess, though, from the motions accompanying the talk: crouching, springing up and sighting along an arm, “bam-bam-bam,” and then the flutter of an elbow, hand tucked in an armpit. Wide eyes and grins accompanied each action.
Rita gave her whole attention to her brothers as she cut them each thick slices from the large brown circle of baking-powder bannock. Once they’d jostled back outside, Rita switched to English. “Winyum. The youngest. He’s killed his first goose today. Now the hunt can really start. All of them can shoot now.” She placed a steaming mug by Morgan on the boughs. “I gave you Carnation and sugar. If that’s okay.”
“Let me get a picture of Winyum with his goose,” said Morgan. “He’s just as proud as—“
“No.” Their father stood at the table, eyes down, brow furrowed.
“Thomas? Thomas Williams, right?” Morgan knew him from the clinic. “What?”
“No pictures. We are glad you come. Charlotte, she will be back soon. You will stay and eat with us.” He looked at Rita and shook his head. “No picture.”
While Rita and her father spoke in Cree, Morgan buried the offending Nikon in her pack. The boys had left a crack between the tent flaps and she could feel the draft. Finally, Thomas and his daughter laughed. The boys outside began to shout. None of this made sense to Morgan. She’d taken lots of pictures of her patients, of smiling children, of people on the road. No one had complained. No one seemed that superstitious, no talk of souls being captured by a lens. Maybe a hundred years ago. But six months work in the clinic had taught Morgan not to expect every act to make good sense or every question to have a simple answer.
The return of Charlotte and the girls revived excitement about Winyum’s goose, and Morgan watched his mother pluck and clean it. Down and feathers were saved in separate bags. The wings becoming whisk booms. The guts, fish bait. Charlotte singed the pinfeathers off the head and neck; then, trussed and hung it with a cord above an outdoor fire to twist and untwist, dripping fat in hisses on the flames. “Sagabon. Winyum’s favourite way to cook it,” Rita said.
In the mix of noisy children and excitement of the meal, Morgan’s mystery of the pictures was forgotten. Winyum’s pride was palpable and she enjoyed just being there. Had she been the only guest of honour, her presence might’ve made things awkward. That afternoon, she felt privileged to see their private ceremony, something she might’ve missed or they might’ve changed if she were the only cause for celebration.
Later, helping Rita wash the dishes, Morgan talked about the trip back through the slush. “I know they say the ice is safe, but I’d feel better getting back before it’s dark.”
She was unprepared, unable to control her breathing, reluctant to believe it when Rita rolled her sleeves to wash the greasy plates revealing railroad tracks of needle scars. Without a way to stop it, her mind snapped pictures that couldn’t be discarded.
Her eyes met Rita’s. Then Morgan turned away. Eyes snapped another picture: Rita’s jaw bulged out in anger—or suppressing one more cough.
Morgan can feel the sweat trickle down her back as she inches down the slope toward the river bed. She looks for bits of gravel showing through the snow to help her grip the road, trying not to spill. She wishes she’d taken time to change to jeans or snow pants. She wishes the wind wasn’t from the north, sweeping down the valley forcing her to keep her parka zipped. “Christ, this is heavy, Rita. I had no idea.”
“I actually do know how heavy it is, yes.”
Maybe Rita will volunteer again to take the load. Not even a quarter of the way. Morgan grits her teeth. White girls don’t haul water. Lazy Indians. She’d like to meet Father Benoit on the road right now. “There must be some trick to this. It can’t be this heavy for everyone. Old women do this. Am I doing it right?”
“Talking about it doesn’t make it any lighter. Think about something else.”
Thinking about other things might be much worse. Morgan says nothing.
“I bet you’re wondering about my father. What he said at the camp about taking a picture?”
“I wish I could speak your language sometimes.”
Rita snorts. “Then learn it. Talk to some kid in Kindergarten. They might give you more sympathy. You’ve got a choice, at least. For them it’s sink or swim—figure out the teacher’s English or sit there until they outgrow their desk.”
“Nothing seems fair today.”
“Let’s talk about that photograph.”
Morgan would like to turn her head if she could move her neck. She’d try to read the look on Rita’s face. If she could, she’d reach out and touch the straight black hair, tumbling from her friend’s toque down to her waist. If she could think with the pain searing her neck and shoulders, she’d sort out all the implications of this sudden impulse to carry Rita’s water. She can barely count the steps she’s taking. “What did he say?”
“He’s all mixed up about this. And too stubborn to listen to reason.” Rita explains how he’d once seen a picture of some Inuit in a glossy magazine. Probably National Geographic. Full of ads for fancy cars and diamond-studded watches. That made the picture seem valuable to him. “Here’s a family dressed in skins, standing in front of their igloo with nothing but bone spears and nets. Across the page is some resort in Mexico. He says the people in the picture got cheated, is all. He thinks your photos could somehow make you richer while we stay just as poor.”
“He knows I’m a nurse.” The pain makes it difficult to speak.
“You look more like a mule than a nurse today.”
“If I laugh, I’ll spill this.”
“Then don’t laugh. Papa thinks Otter Creek should stay private, is all. Maybe even secret. He’s just proud.”
“God. You do this every day?” The snow-packed road is pocked with soft depressions where the snow melts in sunlight, then freezes as clouds move in. Two old men pass them going the other way to the store or post office. Maybe to the clinic. The men look straight ahead as if they are the only ones on the road; they talk in their own language and sometimes press their lips together. Morgan is sure they are trying hard not to break down in laughter—at her.
“On washdays, five trips for a big family.”
“Bring your laundry over to my place next time. Jesus.”
Rita seems to think that’s funny too.
For a moment Morgan relaxes into the music of her friend’s voice, forgetting the pain and pails, and she’s surprised when the one on the right suddenly swings forward. She tries to slow it without dropping her left shoulder. Finally the swinging stops. She regains her balance. She tells herself she will never again take a sip of water without remembering this trip. “I didn’t know…”
Rita laughs again. “It’s the same exact water you have in your apartment, girl.”
“I don’t think so, Rita. No.” This day has changed everything. Not just the water.
Earlier that morning, watching from her office window, Morgan didn’t recognize the woman on the road bundled in a heavy parka walking slowly toward the Nursing Station. In one hand she carried empty lard pails; in the other, a yoke. She’d walked right past the Rectory. Nothing special. Patients often came to see the nurse, then stopped for water going home. Wells and sewers for the village were still on drawing boards somewhere in Ottawa, and getting water from the Mission side into the village was going to cost a bundle. Just the facts of life in Otter Creek, the way they’d always been. When the woman set her pails and yoke beside the stoop, Morgan glimpsed her face: Rita Williams.
The waiting room was empty, and Morgan met her there and asked about her family.
“Still out at their camp,” said Rita. “The cold weather. The geese fly when it gets warmer.”
“It’s slow here too. But you came back?”
Morgan nodded. Few Natives had jobs in Otter Creek. Those that did were cleaners, caretakers, aides. She waited for some further detail or the reason for this visit to the clinic, but Rita simply stood there. The pause became uncomfortable. Then it turned into a question, but what question?
Rita carefully surveyed the room, then lowered her voice. “I’m at the school. I help the Cree Language teacher with syllabics. I thought you’d seen me there when you were visiting the classrooms. It’s about work. I need a note. I have a little cold. I called in sick the last three days. Now I need a note or they’ll write me up and dock my pay. It’s nothing really; just a note.” Rita followed Morgan to an office with a metal desk, two wooden chairs, and an examination table. A wall of shelving was nearly filled with manila files. “All I need is just a sentence on your letterhead. Your signature.” Rita slumped into a chair. “That’s all. That’s all the nurse before you ever gave them.”
Morgan pulled a folder from the shelves and sat down with the desk between them. “Your chart is remarkably thin. Almost blank. Born in ‘60. You had your needles as a kid. A physical in 1974 for going south to high school. That’s it?”
“I guess I’m pretty healthy, nurse.”
“That’s thirteen years of nothing? If you’d received a form for work, there’d be some record. A carbon copy here.”
Rita shoulder-checked the closed office door.
Morgan lowered her voice. “No one’s here but Sr. Francine. Talk to her in Cree if you want. She’s just an aide though. She can’t sign the note. She’d have to talk to me.”
“You look pale. I’ll take your temp and BP. I’ll need some history.”
“Then you can’t get the note. Not without a diagnosis.”
Rita leans across the desk. “I told you. It’s a cold. I have a thermometer at home. A low-grade fever.” Rita rubs her hand across her mouth. “Please. It’s nothing to you. I’m not asking for meds. I’m not feeling well. You’re the nurse. I need a day or so more rest is all.”
“Rita, I can’t. I’m responsible. You should understand that. It’s the same at school, I’m sure. There are rules.” Rita’s eyes were pleading. “It’s only an exam. If it’s the same cold you had in the bush last week still hanging on, it could’ve turned into something worse. I should do some tests. There’s a doctor in next week. I’ll make you an appointment. If it’s more serious, I can get you on a plane to Muskoshee or even Kingston. But nothing happens unless I write it in your chart.”
“Mona. Do you understand ‘no?’ It’s simple.”
Morgan closed the file. It wasn’t hard to guess. Addicts always needed an excuse, needed an enabler. Morgan had seen it in Toronto. Intervention, detox, rehab. She didn’t want to scare the woman off, but giving in was not the way to go. Success depended on the addict asking for some help. “I want to help you, Rita. Talk to me. Tell me what’s really wrong?”
Rita turned again toward the door.
“Everything is confidential here. Nothing goes outside this room. You have to trust us, Rita.”
Rita lowered her eyes and clenched her teeth.
“Help is here if you want it.”
“The note would’ve helped,” Rita said as she pushed her chair away from the desk.
“Rita, wait.” Morgan covered the woman’s hand with her own. “We’re not busy. Sister can call me if there’s a problem she can’t handle. Let’s get out of here. We’ll take a walk. Or I could make you tea at my place.”
A moment passed. Rita didn’t have much choice and Morgan knew it.
“How much further?” It’s difficult to think, difficult to see anything except the road two feet in front of her.
“You’re doing fine, Nurse Morgan.”
“You do this even when you’re sick, don’t you?”
“The nurses tell us to drink lots of fluids when we get sick.”
“Stop.” They’ve passed the short wooden bridge that spans the frozen creek, and now the road rises steeply to the village. Morgan squats to let the plastic buckets come to rest on the road. She slips the hooks and painfully stretches erect. She rolls her shoulders first forward and then back.
“You going to make it, girlfriend?”
Girlfriend. “Just a break. I can be as stubborn as your father.”
“Stubborn is easy; smart is hard. Have you figured out a way to make this little trip inconspicuous? We’re attracting a lot of stares.”
“First things first. I’ve got a hill to climb.” Morgan blinks and breathes deeply before she squats again. “Help me get this thing hooked up.”
“You are tougher than you look, nurse.”
One foot, then the other, then another gulp of air. That’s all. Steps and breaths. Rita’s voice becomes an echo, sounds about her sister and a rabbit and a camp, like a radio somewhere in another room. One more step. Not half as tough as Rita Williams.
Moving from the Station to the Nurses’ Residence hadn’t changed a thing. Rita’s sullen silence was expected. People needed time to open up, to choose what they would do. But, settled in the living room with mugs of cooling camomile tea, Morgan finally grew impatient. “Let’s stop playing games. Tell me how bad it is, how deep you’re into this.”
Rita stared at the floor, lips quivering.
“Rita, anything you say is off the record here. Someday you’ll have to trust someone. I’m not punched in. You’re not my patient now. You want to talk, I’m here. I’ve seen your arm. The tracks.”
At first it seemed like Rita’s breathing and the kitchen clock would be the sole reply. Then she sniffed and looked down at the floor, her voice just above a whisper. “I’m not using. Not anymore. Toronto. I started at a party, my first year of college. Junk. H. It lasted for a year. It doesn’t matter why I started or how I stopped. I did. That’s the story. Beginning, middle, end.”
“The end? Really?”
“It’ll never end. I’m not using now. I haven’t for a long time; that’s all that matters. So, you know. Now I want the note.”
“I still need reasons. If that’s not it, then what?”
Rita shrugged. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I don’t get it. Why can’t I examine you?” Then it hit her. What if Rita didn’t want a dyke nurse touching her? But she couldn’t know. No one knew in Otter Creek.
“It’s no secret here that I used. Except on this side of the creek. I don’t think the principal knows. Not the priest. I don’t think. Secrets don’t last long here. I’m clean. The people that matter understand that. Why can’t you?”
“I have a cold. A cough. You don’t need tests for those.”
“This is really about me, isn’t it? Don’t lie. You’re afraid of me touching you?”
Rita pulled her long hair in front of her face, then sat up rigid and folded her arms across her chest. “Damn you.” She pursed her lips. “It’s just a cold.”
“If you think I’m still on H, well, you can go to hell!”
The anger didn’t frighten Morgan. Stella threw things. Once she’d smashed every plate they had against the kitchen wall. As if a broken dish could make a person straight or normal or change how people felt. Anger wasn’t pleasant. Anger was so much better than jumping off the tenth-floor balcony onto St. Clair Avenue. Morgan kept talking to wait her patient out. “I’m not the enemy, Rita.”
“You’re even more stubborn than the last nurse.” Rita took her cup into the kitchen. “This stuff isn’t tea. You said, tea.”
“There’s water in the tap. Convince me. I’m listening.”
It took awhile. Rita walked back in the living room, sat down, and drank the water. Morgan counted to one hundred before her guest began to speak, so softly Morgan leaned forward to hear. “I’ve seen you in the school. You go down to Grade Eight. My sister Jill’s in Eight. You talk to them.”
“I do public health. I give out information. Things to keep them safe and healthy.”
“You scare them sometimes. You scared Jill.”
“Sorry. No, I’m not sorry. They need to be scared. Smoking is a problem here. It’s dangerous. So is alcohol. So is sniffing. The facts are pretty grim.”
“Diabetes. Eating right. The incidence is high. And STD’s. Herpes and chlamydia are ten times the average in this province. It’s an epidemic here.”
“Rita, if AIDS ever came to Otter Creek, it could wipe out half the village. I scare the shit out them if I can. Condoms? Well, the Church puts pressure on the principal. People here need condoms. I can’t change a culture that doesn’t have the same moral hang-ups about sex as mine does. I’m sorry if I scared your—“ Then she saw an eyelash flicker, saw the life had ebbed from Rita’s face. Morgan’s mouth stayed open, but words refused to come. Eventually she swallowed. She told herself she was professional. She told herself to lie, but what came out was, “Shit. From the needles?”
“Your chart’s blank.” Morgan turned to get a tissue and her sleeve caught the tea cup on the chesterfield. “Shit.” She stood and ran to grab a towel to blot the stain spreading on the carpet.
Rita sat, head bowed, ignoring the spill. “The chart has to be blank. I’d have to leave. I’d lose my job. I work with kids. Who’d believe it’s safe?”
Morgan pressed the cloth so hard into the carpet’s pile she broke a nail.
“Who’d eat off my mother’s dishes? Who’d ever play with Maskosis? Jill’s new boyfriend? It goes on and on. Even if I left, it wouldn’t stop. Even when I die it wouldn’t.”
“This isn’t thin ice, nurse. People here know danger. But nothing like this. It would change everything.”
Rita stands and walks to the picture window overlooking the compound. “No one. Just the other nosy nurse. The one who wrote my notes before you came.”
“If I’d known, Rita, maybe I could’ve—“
“What? Cured me? She promised. Now you’re going to promise. You’ll never tell anyone.”
“Of course, I promise.”
Rita shook her head. “Easy to say. Hard to do.”
“I promise.” Even if it weren’t her job, she’d kept secrets—big ones. Even when it didn’t matter anymore, even then she’d lied to Stella’s parents.
“Not your boss, not the other nurse or aide, not next year, never.”
Morgan squeezed her eyes together.
“This is Otter Creek,” said Rita. “If it was interesting at all, I’d know your favourite breakfast food.”
Morgan grasped her hand. “We can run some tests in private. White cell count. Send them out with numbers, not a name. They’ve got new drugs.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. You’d start a panic. Fingers would get pointed. People would get hurt. I see a doctor in Toronto. She knows what’s going on.”
“There must be something.”
“Yes. Forget I ever told you. Act normal. Write the damn note. I know what I’m asking. If you weren’t so goody-goody, you’d be off the hook scot-free, I’d have my note, just another crazy Indian you had to deal with in the clinic.”
“I can be your friend.”
Rita looked down at the pale fingers cupped atop hers and grinned. “What kind of ‘friends’ did you have in mind?” Morgan pulled her hand away. “That’s no prob for me, but what about your own big secret?”
Morgan shook her head. “How—“
“Nothing interesting is secret here for long. I can be your friend, but people will be curious.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Morgan dropped her chin onto her neck. “Everyone here knows?”
Rita stood and pulled her up and hugged her lightly. “It’s no big deal, not here.”
Morgan’s voice breaks. “There must be something I can do.”
“The note is what you can do. You have no idea, do you? Not a clue.”
If Rita still is telling stories, Morgan no longer hears her. Her heartbeat and her breathing are too loud. She knows she won’t make it. It’s too far, the water weighs too much.
Less than an hour ago, she’d sauntered back into the Station, past Sr. Francine without a blush—aware of each inflection, every subtle move that could betray her feelings. She’d typed the note, mistakes in every line, left the carbons in, forgot them till the envelope was sealed. She did it, though. Handed it to Rita with an awkward smile. Accepted Rita’s soft, mikwetch, and absurdly thanked her in return—for what she had no idea. She’d walked her through the waiting room and said good-bye, then grabbed her arm and told her, “Wait. I’m coming too. I’ll help you with your water. That cold of yours. You shouldn’t get all sweaty.” She hadn’t given it away, but there was nothing close to “natural” in hauling Rita’s water.
Now, she stops. Now her thighs and back are screaming too. “I don’t think I can, Rita.”
“Hey, you did, girlfriend. We’re here. You’re my hero.”
Morgan bends her legs and lowers the pails onto the packed snow by Charlotte’s backdoor. She places her hands on her knees and stretches her neck as far back as she can. Light-headed, she opens her eyes to the overcast sky.
“What’s next?” Rita smiles with her whole face. “You have some other plan to make me look invisible?”
“Sarcasm will get you nowhere. Normal might take awhile,” says Morgan, “but it’ll be worth the effort.”
“Normal here is having tea.”
“Yes, tea. With my special water, right?”
Rita shrugs. It’s not her ordinary shrug. It’s not defiant or careless. It’s playful and teasing. “We’d need a fire. Someone forgot to lay a gas line onto the reserve.”
“That sharp tongue of yours. It could be trouble. So I’ll make a fire. So what?”
“Are you up for splitting kindling, nurse?”
“I suppose you’re offering to teach me, girlfriend.”
I see old man Bindler coming but I can’t avoid him. The second he spots me he’s yelling out my name.
“Billy! Hey, Billy Weston! Hang on.”
Run for it? Not me. Not on Bindler’s lawn with maybe sixty other kids around us. You can’t outrun your economics teacher, anyway. Not in Stubblefield, not until you’re clutching your diploma.
“Yes, Mr. Bindler, sir.” It’s midnight here, warm and moonlit. One a.m. in New York City, where I’m headed after next week’s graduation.
“You know who did this.”
And that’s the reason I’ll be heading east. Sixty kids and Bindler picks on me. Every freaking time. You get a rep in Stubblefield, it lasts until you die. I shrug at him. That’s what I do—whether I know the answer or I don’t. Whether I’ve done the things they say or if I’m innocent, I only shrug.
Bindler waves the apple at me. Like we all haven’t seen it a dozen times already. Like the sight of it is going to break me down. Old man Bindler watches “Perry Mason” way too much.
“This isn’t funny, Weston.”
Well, it is funny. Be a riot in New York City. Not the window part. Like getting something thrown through your window at ten o’clock at night won’t crack you up. Not Bindler, that’s for sure.
But calling in the law was funny. In Stubblefield, at least. Bindler should’ve known. There’s just one cop; the town won’t front the cash to put a CB in his car. It’s not a cop car anyway. Just Merle’s old Barracuda, a flashing light he’s jerried to its roof. Who Bindler really calls is Widow Cochrane, secretary at the school, police, and fire hall. It’s her home phone after five.
She gets in touch with Merle if its anything important, but Merle’s never at the office. He’s out with us—patrolling, leading a parade of twenty cars of bored kids waiting for something interesting to happen. We know where he is, of course, but no one else does. So Cochrane gets onto her bike, rides down past the Town Square and climbs the water tower to turn on a red light, Merle’s secret signal something’s up.
Merle’s busy, though—at the A&W chatting up the carhops. He’s lucky he’s got sixty unpaid deputies. We let him know. Then he calls the widow who tells him to get his fat butt over to Allan Bindler’s house; there’s been an actual crime in Stubblefield.
Most funny is watching Bindler’s face when Merle arrives, light flashing, followed by twenty cars of kids that park behind him down the next two blocks. Merle watches “Perry Mason” too. He dusts down the broken window with baby powder and photographs the half-eaten apple, studying the teeth marks. With a magnifying glass, he checks the gravel driveway for tire tracks. He flips the pages in his blank notebook while interviewing old man Bindler. All the while Bindler is getting hotter since he knows it must be me.
When my teacher finally spots me, Merle’s sitting in the Barracuda trying to read his writing, oblivious that Bindler is waving the evidence in my face. “Billy I know you did this. And when I find out, you’re going to get what’s coming to you.”
“Sir, I was with the Sheriff all evening. I have like sixty witnesses. Ask Merle. I couldn’t have.”
“You won’t be laughing when I get the truth.”
That made the perfect exit line. I wish him lots of freaking luck before I walk away. I’ve got better things to do. I’ve got to find Shawn and Nolan. Dopes. Like where are they anyway? They’re supposed to be right here with all the rest of us. Otherwise, they’ll be prime suspects.
So dumb they get the wrong house. Old biddy Hancock’s place—giving me a freaking “D-“ in math—is next door, not here. Jesus, Stubblefield. You’d think they’d know where people live. Not like freaking New York City.
Listening to the Game
Thick, damp wind rattles the Venetian blinds. Ira sits in the rocker, listens to the baseball game in the vacant lot across the street. He smells the rain approaching. He tastes it. He feels it even though he hasn’t seen a dark cloud or swaying maple branch, a blue sky or field of green for fifty years, not since the accident.
He ought to feel down along the leg of the rocker and find his cane, tap-tap-tap out to his daughter’s kitchen, and tell her that the windows will need closing. He should, but listening to the game, to the children’s voices has hypnotized him.
“Humm batta batta batta.”
“Talk it up.”
“Heeeey, batta. Swing!”
In all those years, the songs are just the same. The chants designed to make a young lad lose his nerve or break his concentration haven’t varied since Ira was a kid. He listens. He imagines what every voice looks like, the position that it plays, the way it holds its hands and rocks up on its toes. He seeks the central players—the battery—neither of them speaking but both revealed by banter, every other player focussed on them, bouncing sound waves off them, giving them a form.
“Missed it a mile.”
“You got his number.”
“Smoke it past him again.”
Ira was a catcher. Here. In the house his daughter now owns. He’d played out there, razzing like the others. His voice was softer though, talking to the batter close up and personal. “Looking for a fast ball? Down the pipe? He’s getting wild. Maybe miss inside? Not afraid, are you?” George Cardinal. Big and strong like Ruth. A homerun hitter, one who rattled easily. Prone to stepping in the hole, cocking the bat, and trying for the fence on a lazy change-up that’d make him look just like a fool. “Swing!”
“Come on guys. Some chatter.”
“Shaking in his shoes.”
All part of the game, Ira thinks. Always was. Was back then. Have to learn to shut it out, learn to concentrate. Stay inside yourself, they told him. Tunnel vision, Daddy said. Don’t you beat yourself. Shut out all the noise. It’s just you and the pitcher out there. Just you and the ball. Ira loved to tease George Cardinal. “Shoe’s untied, George.”
“Dad?” He’s heard her coming, sensed her from the moment that she set the spoon against the stove and walked from tile across linoleum to carpet. She’s standing there beside him, his only daughter, smelling of spaghetti sauce with garlic and some onion. “Dad? How’s the game? Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”
“I’m just fine. I was listening.”
“It’s getting dark in the west. We’re going to have quite a storm.”
“I felt it.”
“I should close the window. I hate to, though, if you’re listening.”
“No. You go ahead.” Easy to say, don’t mind their chatter. Hard to do, he thought. When it was his turn to bat and the crowd was on his case he almost always let it get to him. He never would have made it as a pro. “The rain’s almost here. They’ll have to stop the game anyway.” He was good at rattling others, though. Very good at that.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
“I’m fine. I think I’ll just lie down for awhile before supper. I always like the sound of rain.” Yes, he’ll rest his eyes, his perfectly functional blind eyes attached to a brain with a smashed occipital lobe. He’ll close them and see it, in perfect focus, the last image that he ever saw.
He sees a cobalt sky with one white cloud shaped oddly like a mermaid. For decades he’d played the game that children play turning clouds to other things. Finally he decided that his cloud, the only cloud he had to play with, was half-fish, half-woman with an arm held out above her head. He sees the cloud behind Eddy Wilkerson, the short stop, moving fast to cover second. Tyler Jones is stealing. George Cardinal is at the plate, one strike, two balls, when Ira whispers, “Fast ball! Swing!” The mermaid waves. Ira rises to take the outside pitch and throw to second. George steps back and swings for the fence. The last colour, shadows, shapes he’ll ever see.
Fade to black.
“Fifteen minutes, Daddy. Can you hear the thunder?”
He stood. “You have no idea how beautiful that sounds, love. It’s just as pleasant as listening to the game.”
Taxi: To the Sunny South
The once-white 1955 Chev Impala, battered and missing its front bumper, belches smoke from both its tailpipes while idling on the snow-packed narrow road. Yes. Theodore nods at Amelia; that has to be it. He stares out their picture window, trying to make out the driver through the car’s frost cover. All he sees with certainty is a youth pounding his open palm against the horn.
Amelia shakes her head.
“Taxi’s here, love. I can’t be sure. It looks like August Loon is driving,” he says calmly. Augustine was in his Grade Five class last fall at the Island Indian Day School. Until Christmas, until his family moved across the river to the railhead town of Muskoshee. He must be all of twelve this year, thirteen at most. “Looks like his uncle put the lad to work.”
“He’s a good kid. A bit young is all. I hope he’s still in school.”
“Call a different cab, Teddy. Please.”
“Fat chance of that here. If we don’t hurry, we’ll miss the train. Spring Break. If we miss the train, we miss the charter from Toronto. Bermuda, Amelia. I’m sure the boy knows how to drive. He made it over here, didn’t he?”
“Teddy.” One word from Amelia, his bride of eight short months, speaks novels with her tone. Crossing rivers on a road made of ice is bad enough. I don’t care if the child is your star pupil; he’s still a child. Bermuda isn’t anything at all if we die in that river before we get there. This is it. If you sign a contract here next year, you’re coming back alone. All that and more in just his whispered name.
Thuds rain against the door. “Somebody here call a cab?”
“You go right ahead, Millie. I’ll get the bags. Coming!” Just concentrate on sandy beaches and lots of suntan oil. Tomorrow afternoon.
“Hey, Mrs. Hay-ch! Where you off to? Let me help you with your suitcases, Mr. Hay-ch.”
“It is you August. I thought so. How’ve you been? Still in school, I hope.”
“It is the holiday, Mr. Hay-ch. Of course, I am not in school, me. I am right here.”
“Right, August. This is Mrs. Hobart. We tied the knot last summer.”
August kicks the trunk to open it. “Me, I am good at knots, too. Better hurry if you are going over. The train is never late going south. Sometimes it leaves a little early.”
Once in the backseat, Amelia sidles close and leans to whisper in Theodore’s ear. No need; the engine is loud enough to mask anything but shouts. “Teddy. He’s sitting on two cushions just to see!” Teddy pats her arm. “And why does the boy call us Hay-ch? Doesn’t he remember you?” She mimics the hard “H” perfectly.
“Of course, he remembers, Millie. It’s just his English.” Theodore leans over the seat. “You’re not out hunting geese, August?”
August accelerates, then turns around to face his former teacher. His brow furrows and he articulates each word as if he’s speaking to a child. “I am driving taxi, sir. My uncle Abraham is hunting. Upriver now. We are in the taxi now, sir.”
Amelia pounds Theodore’s back. “Let the boy focus on the road, Teddy.” She pulls him back beside her. “There must be some other way to get across this river, Teddy. You can’t tell me this is it for taxis.”
The boy turns back again. “Not to worry, Mrs. Hay-ch. River is still pretty safe this early in the morning. I will get you there on time. No problem. You guys will make it to the sunny south all right.” Then he turns and cracks a vent, maybe trying to clear the frost from the inside of the windshield. He lifts the mike from the walky-talky that’s duct-taped to the dash. “Hang on a sec, Mr. Hay-ch. Auggie here, over.” Static. “Two for the train station. Just going down the bank now, over.”
“Augustine, you have been across this morning, right? Has anyone besides you crossed the ice today?”
“Do not worry, Mr. Hay-ch. Lots of good ice still. Just leave the driving to me. Relax and think about your holiday.”
The sun is fully up now and the river snow is tinged with lemon. The slushy parts, grey and teal.
“You still a teacher, Mr. Hay-ch? Nice job, eh, Mrs. Hay-ch.”
“Can you make him keep his eyes on the road, Teddy?” A bend and the ice road suddenly becomes a wide strip of water with large piles of snow along either side where it was ploughed all winter.
“August. You’re doing fine. The river’s looking kind of wet this morning.”
“Must be hard work teaching us Indians, Mr. Hay-ch. Nice you are getting a break. Must be warm in that sunny south.”
“August, you’re driving off the road!”
“Not to worry, Mr. Hay-ch. Little soft up ahead. There is a hole just there where a half-ton went through last night.” He points.
“August? Both hands on the wheel, lad.”
“I will try the ice over here. It looks safer. Safety first, eh? That is what Uncle Abraham says. ‘Safety first.’ And ‘the customer’s always right.’ He says that, too.”
“August, there’s no track over here. There’ve been no cars here.”
“Teddy, tell him to take us back. Right now.”
“August, you said the road was fine.”
“Never know, Mr. Hay-ch. Conditions always changing on the river. Maybe try it a little further over that way. Hang on to something. I need to gun it here. I think.”
“He thinks, Teddy? He thinks!”
“We’re almost there, Amelia.”
“Need a break, Mr. Hay-ch, now and then. Especially being a teacher.”
“Please don’t say ‘break,’ August.”
“A holiday, Mr. Hay-ch. ‘Fun in the sun,’ my uncle says. ‘Relax and you will live a long time,’ he says.”
“We’ll be lying on a beach tomorrow afternoon,” says Theodore quietly, probably too quiet for either of the others to hear. And later, at the train station, while Amelia is emptying her stomach in the Ladies, Theodore pays the fare, adds an outrageous tip, and stands next to Augustine watching fat flakes of spring snow fall through the brilliant sunlight.
Taxi: Abraham’s Shortcut
In total darkness, three men walk the gravel road along the bank. The teacher, Theodore Hobart, closest to the river, hears the quiet crunch of their footfalls echo out across the water and the sharp trill of spring peepers trying to attract a mate. A gentle wind breathes through the scrub blanketing the foreshore flats.
“Hey, chief!” Simpson, the man furthest from the bank, yells in the direction of the river, “Where the hell are you? Hey! Can’t see a goddamn thing down there.” Simpson is District Manager, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
Between them, stumbling first onto Theodore and then onto Simpson, cursing the lack of streetlights, the Regional Director from Toronto, extends one arm straight out in front of him as if he’s blind, as if there might be a tree growing in the middle of the road. As if a bear or wolf might be standing there silently, waiting for its supper.
They’ve just finished a meeting at the Island Indian Day School about establishing a high school in Muskoshee where Aboriginal students along the coast could attend closer to home, closer than the hundreds of miles south in cities where they are now expected to board with strangers to finish their secondary schooling. At this meeting, like those that have been held over the past twenty years with the same objective, the government men listened attentively while parents and teachers explain the importance of a local school. Coffee and cookies were served, but before money or dates or control could be discussed, the wemistikoshowak, the white men, announced they had a plane to catch. The meeting was adjourned. The decisions were deferred.
“Chief! Call out or something!” Simpson shouts hopefully at the driver of the water taxi who brought all three of them across six hours ago. Then, Simpson refused to pay the old man to guarantee he’d be here now to take them back—long after the other boat drivers are home to suppers and their families. “He’ll be there, sir. These taxis work on Indian Time, but money talks, the same as anywhere.”
Theodore cringes. “Be careful.” He is the designated chaperone, the local teacher assigned to meet them at the airstrip and see them safely back and forth across the river. “It’s slippery on the bank.”
Theodore’s bosses wear suits and ties and polished leather shoes. Theodore is dressed in jeans and rubber gumboots. It’s spring after all. It’s the north. The nearest sidewalk lies two hundred miles south.
“Ota!” the taxi driver calls.
The old man, of course, is not a chief, not even a member of the Council. He’s simply Abraham. On the trip over, Theodore only nodded a hello, uncertain the old man would know him. Theodore sees the orange spark of a cigarette being flipped into the water. Then, the powerful beam of a six-volt lantern flashes back and forth across the steep bank, playing on the line of one-by-twelve’s that zigzag through the soft clay down a cut to a rough dock and the waiting boat.
Theodore watches their feet, waiting for a patch of frost to slide the city shoes off a plank into ankle-deep muck. The men wave their arms for balance, briefcases flapping, but no one slips and falls.
Glow from the lantern shows Abraham hunched in the stern, his parka zipped up to his neck. The creases in his face are deep, weathered from hauling tourists back and forth across the river every summer, from hauling boxes in his old Impala once the river freezes thick enough to support a car. Two bucks a person, fifty cents per box.
Without so much as a splash of mud on their dress pants, the bosses scramble over the gunwale and down onto a bench bolted between the thwarts. The freighter canoe’s hull rubs peacefully against the dock. Theodore takes the bench behind theirs.
“Good man, chief. Better fire up your putt-putt. Time’s a-wastin’. We’re not going to miss this plane,” says Simpson. Then, as if the old man were deaf, he says to the Regional Director, “Sir, when they’re sober, these people can be pretty dependable. Treat them right, don’t tempt them with a pocketful of money, and they’ll be there for you. If we’d paid him the fare coming over, no way he’d be here now.”
“It seems like a scam, Simpson,” the Regional Director says. “He takes us to the dock at the other end of town. Then we need another taxi to drive us up to the airport.”
“That’d be his nephew, Augustine, sir, the one that brought us down. Keeps it in the family.”
“But the airport’s right by the river. Why doesn’t he take us directly there? Save time. Save money.” Both men smile at the simplicity of the plan .
Abraham checks his fuel lines, primes the engine, and pulls the starter rope on the Johnson 40. He puts it in reverse and backs the canoe away from the dock. He loops a line around one hand to help him keep his balance standing in the stern. With the other hand, he grips the throttle.
“You want some help with the light?” Theodore offers.
Abraham smiles. He aims his nose at the moon rising through a filigree of spruce branches on the western bank.
Simpson shouts above the motor. “You take us upriver. Airport. Understand? Not the public docks. Have you got that?”
“Mona minoshin. No good. No dock at the airport. Taxi waiting for you now.”
“Well, there must be some way, chief. You’ll find a place to drop us off when we get out there. Then you take this man back to the island.” He rests his hand on Theodore’s shoulder. “If you want to get paid, I guess you’ll take us where we say.” He nods at the director to show he’s taken care of everything. “He’d have no trouble pulling in if he were hunting moose.”
Theodore turns. In the dim light, Abraham shakes his head.
Once in the channel, he opens the throttle and the freighter canoe tilts back in the water, cutting a wake that glistens in the moonlight and drowns the noise of the men talking. There is no need to hear them. They consult their watches every few seconds. They nod at the driver. Simpson signals by making little circles with his index finger.
Fifteen minutes later the engine slows, and the canoe swings toward the shore. The river is calm now—not as flat as glass but sparkling with pinpricks of light reflected in the chop. There is a broad flat patch along the shore made golden by the moon, and Simpson points toward it, shaking his finger and nodding his head. High above, atop the bank, the harsh, white runway lights glare behind a silhouette of willow and wild rose. The bank itself is black, an empty hole between the starry sky and what seems to be a beach.
As they approach, Abraham shuts the engine off, and for long minutes the only sound is that of canvas sliding over saltwater. He shakes his head. “Mona minoshin. Not here. We go to docks.”
Then Simpson stands and climbs across two thwarts to face the old man. “Here, chief.” He reaches out a ten and a five. “That’s for him too. You keep the change. You’re a good man.”
“No good here.”
“Too late to go back. We’re cutting it close, as is.”
“No beach.” Abraham shakes his head.
“Looks fine to me. Where’s the path? Can you take us up?”
“Mona. No place to tie up here. Too soft.”
“We’re in a rush.”
Abraham nods. “Nete meskanaw. Path. Over there. You take the flashlight. Leave it at airport.”
“No thanks, chief. Just point, okay. We’ll find it.”
Abraham shakes his head. As Simpson and his boss work their way to the bow, the canoe quietly slides through the shallows. They climb up onto a gunwale on either side. Their polished oxfords gleam in the moonlight. They grip their briefcases and coil for the leap. The sound of the clay hissing under the hull tries to warn them.
Abraham mutters under his breath as the men jump, sinking up to their knees in the clay slip. Theodore covers his mouth. If it were light, his laughing eyes would give him away. The bosses turn in unison. Abraham points toward a spot in the black line of brush as he restarts the motor and puts the Johnson in reverse.
Photographs of Watikwan as a Child
Oliver Harrison was searching for a nail file when he found the photo album. He’d already checked the medicine cabinet and the night stand, but failing eyesight meant he often overlooked the obvious. Sometimes he lost his focus. Sometimes he put away his coffee mug, freshly washed and dried, inside the fridge or peered intently at his missing glasses without a clue of where he might’ve left them. Perhaps senility was setting in—or worse. But when he opened the kitchen junk drawer and felt back beneath the clutter of the old receipts and Christmas cards, the moment his withered fingers touched the shoelace-binding of the album, he knew exactly what it was.
As if it were incendiary, he pulled it out with caution and hugged it high against his chest, then found his cane and took the thin, black booklet slowly through the high-rise condo to his sitting room. He eased himself into the rocking chair beside the cool, north-facing window. Then he waited for his heart to slow, uncertain if it raced because of exercise or dread of traveling back in time. The photographs had aged for over forty years, pictures taken by a teacher working on a north Ontario reserve, a young idealist, a dreamer never once imagining he’d someday grow old while the people in the album would stay the same—frozen for all time. The far away and long ago ghosts no longer begged for objectivity, no longer frowned when Oliver stepped outside himself, put himself into their moosehide shoes. He knew their futures. He thought he knew their dreams and apprehensions.
Oliver lifted the cover, and there was Watikwan, a name almost forgotten, as fresh upon his tongue as when the boy first spoke it. Four of Watikwan on that first page, each one a story. Were someone to have touched his shoulder then and ask him if he ever found that nail file, he would have thought the person daft. “What in the hell are you talking about?” he would’ve said.
“A thousand words,” is what he muttered.
“Vodka what?” says the young teacher turning from the window to his student. Outside, autumn’s first flock of Canadas wing south across the muskeg beyond the schoolyard; their tenor voices crack into falsetto distracting members of his class. “You studied what, Albert?”
The boy waits. Patience, Oliver thinks. Give him time to plan it out in Cree, then translate into English. “Last year we—in Sister Marguerite’s class—we use the dish-in-air.”
“Yes, yes. We’ll use dictionaries too, Albert.” Lord, grade five! We’d better use them. The class is struggling in the grade three level readers.
Albert grins. He’s less hesitant this time. “We did vodka brewlery in English class, Mr. Harrison. I’m pretty good, me.”
“Yes. You’re very good, Albert. Now get ready for recess.” Oliver rests his hand briefly on the boy’s shoulder. With a grin like that, that dubious twinkle in his eye, and having spent last summer with his aunt down south, it’s likely he’ll have Albert in detention writing lines and cleaning chalk erasers before Thanksgiving holiday. He seems a good lad, but a Cree kid here with the spunk to talk directly to a teacher will surely get in trouble. The rest are sheep: quiet, shy, so polite he’s never heard a disrespectful word, never seen a frown. Oliver has taught at the Otter Creek Indian Day School for two years now and has seniority over everyone except the nuns—some of whom have been cloistered here for twenty years or more.
“Class! Yes, I heard the geese. Now put away your pencils. We’ll finish English after recess.” That’s one command that doesn’t need repeating.
What was Albert saying anyway? Vodka-vodka-something.
The bell rings and he dismisses them. He catches Sister Marguerite in the dim corridor on her way out to the yard.
“Sister?” He waves across the children filing down the stairs. They all converse in Cree. Some do goose calls. Fall hunt is near and their excitement is palpable.
“M. Harrison. Duty today pour moi.”
“This will only take a moment, sister.” She twists her face, indicating Oliver is not her principal. God is Sister Marguerite’s boss. She’s made that clear to Oliver; she’s more concerned with souls than proper punctuation. “Sister, Albert Trapper just spoke to me. Something I couldn’t understand. Vodka. Something to do with your dictionaries.”
“Mais, oui. Nous étudions le vocabulaire. But of course. Naturellement, I teach dem in English. VOH-ka-bew-ler-y, of course. Dere is some problem, M. Harrison?”
Later, standing at his window, watching the tide of black-haired, brown-skinned children waiting patiently in lines for the broken teeter-totters and the only swing, Oliver sips his coffee. Jesus H. Christ. Is it any wonder that they don’t speak English well? Half the staff are nuns, first language French. The only Indian teacher is from India. One from Hong Kong, one from Sweden.
The battle’s lost, Oliver thinks, before they even start. When TV finally comes this far into the boondocks, of course then things will change. They’ll come to school with handy English phrases: “Gimme a Big Mac” and “Reach fur the sky, Injun.”
His dead-end rant stops with the ringing bell.
Outside, students dawdle toward the building—most of them. There’s trouble on the far side of the yard. Sister Marguerite wags her finger at a group of students, some of them his. He can see Albert mimic her, wave his finger back directly in her face. Suddenly they bolt. They head pell-mell toward the school, the sister in pursuit. Her grey habit billows like a thunderstorm around her.
The ones in front are fives, his fives. No contest. They make the school door ahead of her by twenty yards. The younger ones are not so fleet, but none of them are Sister’s target. As she passes the little ones, she taps each lightly on the shoulder as if she’s noting names for later, but this won’t be a game for her. There’ll be no ollie ollie oxen free for anyone today.
Students have already come into his classroom. Already there are tip-toe faces pressed against the window as Sister hits the steps and lunges through the downstairs door.
“That’s enough, class. Show’s over. Take your seats. The bell is the bell. Take your seats now. Kinipi! Hurry up. We have English to finish. Api, Sarah! To your seat now!”
They’re just complying when Albert slithers through the door, closes it behind him, and flips the lock.
“Albert Trapper. And why are you so late?”
“I stop for drink, sir.”
“Take your seat, Albert. You’re sweating awfully hard; I can see you needed that drink.” Oliver is moving toward the door when the handle turns; then it rattles and everyone can hear a breathy “M. Harrison!” from the other side.
“I’m on my way!”
“Don’t open it, Mr. Harrison! Don’t!”
“Sit down, Albert. I’ll take care of this.”
Oliver has barely turned the lock when the door slams open and the red-faced nun stomps across the threshold. He’s barely opened his mouth when she bellows, “Fuck you, Albert Trapper! Fuck you, slut!”
Oliver’s mouth remains open.
Albert hasn’t taken his seat. He’s retreated to a back corner. Sister starts toward the cowering boy, but Oliver’s hand finds her shoulder. Physically restraining a nun. What are the odds of a lightning strike inside a classroom?
“Sister! Could we have a word in the hall? Mr. Trapper might need some time to collect his thoughts.” He turns to the class. “The rest of you. Your Reading. Keep working on the questions, page sixty-seven. If you get stuck, go back and reread page sixty-six. Quietly.”
“Quietly” is superfluous. The class has never been so quiet.
“Dis is not over, M. Trapper,” says Sr. Marguerite over her shoulder as Oliver ushers her into the hall.
Once there, he can see she is trembling as much as Albert was. “Sister?”
“What means dis ‘Fuckyouslut’?” she asks Oliver once she’s caught her breath. “I say it right back at him.”
Oliver blushes while Sister Marguerite waits patiently for her voh-ka-bew-ler-y lesson. After school, thinks Oliver, during detention he’ll take Albert’s picture peeking over the large Canadian Oxford Dictionary on the back table. He may even take the photo home at Christmas, have it blown up to eight by ten and framed for hanging on his wall.
His long black hair held back by a moosehide headband, Albert peeks up at Mr. Harrison. It’s February. It’s lunch hour and Albert notices Mr. Harrison’s eyes dart from the clock to the open classroom door. “Not coming back this afternoon, me, Mr. Harrison.”
“What’s wrong, Albert? You’re feeling ill?”
“I feel good, Mr. Harrison. I have work to do this afternoon.” It’s a risky conversation, one Albert would rather have in Cree—if his teacher spoke Cree, aside from “sit down” and “hurry up.” The other grade fives almost never speak to their teacher. No one talks to him about things outside the school; no one but Albert would dare announce in advance that he is cutting class.
“Your work this afternoon is fractions, Albert. Subtracting fractions is the hardest work of all. You’d better tell whomever that you’re busy here in school.”
“I go get wood all afternoon, Mr. Harrison.”
“Let your father cut the firewood by himself.” Albert can hear Mr. Harrison’s stomach rumble. “You run home now and get some lunch or you’ll be late for class. The bell is the bell, Albert.”
Albert smiles because Mr. Harrison always says “the bell is the bell” and each time he says it, Albert wishes all English sentences were so sensible and easy. Now he must construct a difficult speech for his teacher, one he doubts will be understood, one that is tricky to utter aloud. Mr. Harrison moves his feet and frowns. “Big party at my house last night, Mr. Harrison. My house is cold now. Catch up with school tomorrow, me.” Anyone in his village would already know this without having to be told, that his baby sister needs a warm fire, that his father and mother would be asleep after the all-night party. Any ininiw, any Human Being, would understand this, but Mr. Harrison only bites his lip and grunts.
“Your place is here, Albert. I expect you here.” Mr. Harrison shakes his head. “Go now. Get some lunch. Is it any wonder you kids slip further and further behind each year? Go home. Don’t play along the way. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
“Tomorrow, Mr. Harrison.”
An hour later a bitter wind is poking at the worn seams in Albert’s parka as he drives across the river and then down the bush road. When he guides the battered snow machine onto his family’s narrow turnaround, stands of spruce and cedar block the wind and blunt the cold a little. Albert shifts from one side of the seat to the other, using his body to help steer through the twisting moguls of fresh snow. He ducks low to avoid overhanging branches. He looks back, checking the sleigh, making sure it’s firmly on the trail as he slows and stops at a place where there are dying trees that will burn in the woodstove without causing a chimney fire.
A Canada jay swoops low through the forest like an artist making a single, perfect brushstroke, perches on a nearby stump, and cocks its head. Without the growl of the Ski-doo, the bird’s soft “whee-ah, chuck” is suddenly loud.
As Albert fills the chainsaw with gas and oil and takes the lightweight trimming axe from under the tarp, he talks to the jay. “I am the boss today. They have the sickness. I cut the wood; I take care of my family.”
The jay struts and whistles.
“I didn’t bring you any bannock, not today. Next time, maybe.”
Whirr. The jay flutters to a branch and scolds.
Albert cuts four black spruce, trunks no bigger around than his slim waist. The snow is deep; Albert is careful with the chainsaw, turning it off as he moves from tree to tree, trampling the snow around each one before he sets the roaring saw against the bark and lets it chew itself into the wood the way his father taught him. He checks the wind in the treetops to know where they’ll want to fall. After each cut, after he puts the chainsaw down, he leans into the trunk and lets the last half-inch of frozen stump crack like a rifle shot through the silent forest. Each time the boughs whoosh softly into the snow, the jay screams and Albert laughs at its odd sense of humour.
Removing branches is the hardest. Albert takes off his parka so it won’t get wet from his sweat and then freeze the cloth solid on the drive home. When he carries the axe to each fallen tree, the curious bird follows him like a dog. Straddling a tree trunk, Albert slides the axe along the bark, knocking off the small dead twigs and moss that dot them. Then he stands in the waist-deep snow and raises the axe above his head to clip the largest limbs.
“Watikwan,” says Albert to the jay. He points to the sharp nub of limb left where he’s trimmed it. “That’s my nickname. When Father carries a tree over to the sleigh, he says the watikwan bites his shoulder. Maybe I was a bad baby, eh?” Albert laughs with the jay.
After he cuts the logs into stove lengths with the chainsaw, after he loads the long box-sleigh, after he shivers himself warm again inside the cold parka, before he pulls the starter until the engine catches, he sits on the skidoo seat and watches the jay. “You never come into the schoolyard, Wisakichak. I don’t think you will like it, but it is fun for me sometimes.” As Albert leaves the turnaround, the jay soars high above the tree tops, blending into sky like smoke or cirrus clouds.
The next morning at school, Mr. Harrison taps his ruler on the desk like he always does to get their attention. “All right, children. Settle down now. The bell is the bell. We’ve lots of hard work to do this morning.” Then he turns to glare at Albert. “Did you have your fun playing in the bush yesterday, Mr. Trapper? We missed you.”
Albert says nothing, only grins and blushes. Mr. Harrison is lucky to live in the teacherage with an oil furnace that runs even when there is a party; if Mr. Harrison had a baby sister she would never get cold.
“That’s about what I thought. Well, kids will be kids. Let’s start with a review of common denominators for those who were truant yesterday. You pay attention, Albert. It’s time you did some work.”
Albert says nothing, but he thinks, “Whee-ah, chuck,” and smiles. Maybe someday he’ll give Mr. Harrison the Polaroid photo that his proud father took yesterday—an out-of-focus boy standing beside a sleigh piled high with firewood.
“Tantahto? How many?” Albert’s cousin shoves one hand in the front pocket of his torn jeans; from the other hand, a slingshot dangles carelessly.
Albert can feel his face warm as he kicks at the melting slush. If he says, “None” or says, “None yet” the older boy will laugh at him. If he says nothing at all the boy will pull his catch of snowbirds from his pocket and make Albert feel still worse. Lying is not an option so Albert laughs before his cousin can snicker, laughs to show it doesn’t matter. Laughs to show Albert is younger anyway, and by the end of the morning he’ll have snowbirds too, something for his own mother’s cast-iron cook pot.
Albert’s cousin catches the laughter and returns it, but he pulls out the handful of brown and white anyway. Four small white heads, eight tiny feet. “Nawo.”
Albert nods, the way he’s seen his father nod to honour the moose or geese of other hunters. Four is not very many, but it’s a start. It’s food. His cousin has done well and Albert, nearly eleven, knows it merits his respect.
Now the older boy points his nose at a small flock of birds that has flown into the adjoining yard, turning their wings in unison from brown to white as they dip and circle, all landing at the same instant like a single patch of slush falling from the sky onto the dead grass. His cousin has claimed them by seeing them first. He returns his catch to his pocket, crouches, and readies his slingshot as he sneaks through the grass toward his prey.
Albert walks the opposite way, hopeful of his own chance. There are many snowbirds, but the prospect of hitting one with a stone seems small.
It’s early afternoon when his father studies the splash of brilliant green and yellow, limp in Albert’s broad palm. “I have never seen one like this, Watikwan. It must have got lost. Sometimes during the migration, a flock will get spread out. Maybe there was a bad storm. Maybe this one became confused.”
Albert grins. A breeze off the northern muskeg riffles his ebony hair, but he doesn’t shiver. Albert eyes the small bird memorizing it so he can draw and colour its likeness. Maybe he’ll show his teacher. Maybe Mr. Harrison will know how to find its name. For now, it is enough he has stumped his father. He has discovered something new in his rich and complex world far from the nearest highway. “It is the only one, then. It’s mine. My kill. I can name it.”
Albert raises his nose to the wind to show his father how he stalked his prey. He mimes the way he kept his head just inches from the ground as he closed the distance on the bird so different from the grass around it. He tells his father he thought it was an empty bag of crisps until it spoke to him, until he heard it sing. He shows the way he placed the smooth round stone into the centre of the bundled rubber bands borrowed from Mr. Harrison’s unattended desk, how he drew it back and… bam.
Albert’s father simply nods and places the strong brown fingers of his other hand gently on his son’s shoulder.
“I name it maskwashiy. I saw it in the grass. It stood in the grass and sang to me. It died there in the grass.” Albert runs his finger along the birch-crotch he has carved into a weapon. He feels its slick, lean strength come into him and he puffs out his chest.
His father bows his head. “Watikwan. Its journey across the sky was long and lonely. The wind has brought it to you. But neither the wind nor the sun know its name. Only the bird itself knew that.”
“The others will be jealous. My pinashish. My bird.”
Albert’s father sits on the stairs of their back porch so his eyes are at the same level as Albert’s.
“No one has killed a bird like this,” says Albert. “Only one snowbird came to me today, but this bird it is worth ten of them. Twenty. This one is special. I will go show the others.”
Albert’s father closes his fist so only one yellow leg and a bit of beak, a fleck of feather shows.
“It came to me. It’s mine. I want to show it. Give it.”
“Why did it choose you, Watikwan?”
The tightness in his throat keeps Albert from answering. He wants to say the bird came to him because it knew he was the best hunter, because it would make his cousin and the other boys know how good he was, how his fingers and toes stung from the cold after a morning of wandering the village while managing to kill only one small snowbird, how he had earned it. Albert knows his father’s reason. The tightness makes arguing impossible.
“To satisfy your hunger. Now honour it. Take it to your mother.”
Albert’s face falls. Would the other boys believe him without the proof? His prize. There is nothing else to say. Nothing can stand against the rightness of his father’s words, but if Albert draws its picture well, then Mr. Harrison, at least, will understand its importance, will praise him in front of the other hunters who’ll have nothing but snowbirds to talk about. Mr. Harrison may even take a photo of the drawing like he has before, one with Albert holding it out and smiling boldly.
“She will cook it. You will eat it with your supper.” His father’s fingers uncurl and he extends his arm so Albert can take it—his bird with no name.
When Oliver’s students finally settle, he walks up and down the rows of brown-eyed smiling faces placing sheets of paper, ripe with ditto fluid, face-down on every desk.
“No peeking means no peeking,” he says to one overanxious student. “Wait until everyone has the test, then we’ll all start together. Don’t panic. It’s just a quiz. Do your best. You’ll do better if you just relax.”
He stops at Albert Trapper’s desk. The boy is hunched atop a different piece of paper, and Oliver is about to remind him about clearing desks and paying attention, about to tell the boy he ought to listen, get his mind onto his schoolwork, but just in time he sees what Albert has been doing. Just in time, he stops his tongue. It’s another drawing—this one, a portrait of the teacher. “Albert? Let me see.”
Oliver has never known anyone of any age who draws like this. Many of his students are good in Art—keen observers of things around them, above the norm at judging distances and angles, advanced in eye-to-hand co-ordination—but Albert, he’s something else entirely. If he keeps it up, even if he never gets any better than he is right now, the boy has real potential. Especially if he does his secondary somewhere like Toronto, someplace with a first-class tech school, a school with real artists for teachers. Then all this talent could turn into a good career.
Albert passes the drawing to his teacher without comment. Other students crane their necks to see.
This is not a cartoon or disrespectful caricature. The eyes are perfect, almost blinking from the page. It’s so effortless, they might have drawn themselves. “Someday, Albert. Someday you’ll to be famous. That’s the truth. What’s this here along the edge?”
“My name in Cree, Mr. Harrison.”
“Syllabics. I can’t read them, Albert. Your initials? Just three marks?”
“My whole name. The dot and triangle says ‘wah.’ The ‘upside down U’ with the little line, it says ‘ti.’ Then ‘kwan,’” he says pointing to last syllabic. “My Indian name. Watikwan.”
“The register says: Albert Trapper. You mean, all year you’ve had a different name and no one told me? Do the rest of you have different names?”
There are giggles and the shuffling of feet, but no one speaks. “Some do,” says Albert. “That is OK, Mr. Harrison; we know our English names. A name is a name.” Albert strains, pressing his lips together, but can’t suppress his laugh.
“Wah-teh-kwan?” Oliver shakes his head. “Watikwan, today you’ve got a grammar quiz. You put away your art for now. English class is English class.” The boy is smiling. The praise pays off. More flies are caught with honey. Although finding nouns and verbs in simple sentences seems such a waste for a gifted student like him, what must be done, must be done. In spite of all his foolishness and opposition to authority, Oliver likes him, wishes he could somehow rescue him from this lonely patch of muskeg so far from real culture. He’s bright. In the right environment, he’d surely thrive. He’d deliver papers every morning instead of killing finches. He’d have two sober parents who wouldn’t let him skip his lessons just to keep them warm. He’d be famous, not be perpetually in trouble with the nuns. Oliver touches the boy’s shoulder. “Do your best on this, Watikwan. Leave the drawing until art.”
He turns back to the class. “Ready? Begin now.”
Seventeen of Oliver’s students flip their quizzes in unison as if they were a flock of snowbirds; then they lean forward, their lips parting slightly as they mouth the sentences. His eighteenth student slides an unfinished portrait on top of the test and uses his small but graceful fingers to gently rub circles, contouring the pencil lines together to bring the teacher’s solemn face to life.
After class, after Watikwan finishes making up the quiz, then Oliver brings up the possibility of art school. “You should take a stab at it. Who knows how far you’d go. You need to try, Watikwan. You need make it happen.” Then he stands his student by the chalkboard, the portrait sitting on the ledge beside him. Then he snaps the picture as Watikwan shuts his eyes against the flash.
For the final weeks of school, Albert is Watikwan in Mr. Harrison’s class. In the years that follow, when the boy visits the Grade Five classroom to show his former teacher scraps of paper with birds or trees or human figures, then Watikwan is Watikwan.
One winter night the following year, the youngest brother of the school’s custodian drops by the teacherage to pick out melodies on Oliver’s acoustic Martin. He asks if Oliver would like to cut some wood the coming weekend. A chance to see the bush and do some manual labour. “It might be fun for you,” he says. Oliver sees it as a chance to take more pictures, to learn about the people of Otter Creek. The man teaches him a word while Oliver struggles through the snow with a trimmed log on his shoulder on his way to lay it on the pile beside the sleigh. When Oliver complains how the sharp ends of branches pinch into his flesh, the other man laughs and says, “A watikwan. A watikwan is biting you.”
The final time Watikwan bites his former teacher is five years later, a year after Oliver has moved back to southern Ontario. The day he sees Watikwan’s name, the name Albert Trapper really, buried in a small article on an inside page of the City section of The Toronto Star, Oliver is teaching at his new school where the grade five students read from grade five readers and each teacher speaks English distinctly and correctly.
Oliver sips his coffee in the staffroom while reading the paper. His gaze floats over the stories while his mind checks off the points he will be make in his next class.
“Accident at Central Tech.” The headline is small. The paragraph, short. An Aboriginal grade ten student at the new art school, Albert Trapper, while cutting bronze ingots on a band saw in the school’s metal shop, preparing to melt the pieces to cast one of his exceptional sculptures, this Albert Trapper accidentally severed all four fingers on his right hand. School officials are investigating. That’s all it says. In spite of the neatly lettered sign above the staffroom sink, at the end of the period, Oliver neglects to wash his coffee mug and put it back inside the cupboard. The bell is the bell, after all.
Now, decades later, the old man’s eyes have fallen closed. They open suddenly at the sound of the photo album hitting the hardwood floor. Once fully awake, Oliver shakes his head until the youngster’s phantom scream becomes a whimper, becomes the sharp pain inside his shoulder. Arthritis once again.
Leaving the album next to the rocking chair, Oliver Harrison heaves himself up and shuffles across the room. Somewhere in his small apartment he’s misplaced a nail file. It has to be somewhere. A nail file is just a nail file, and it can’t walk away by itself.
“Here’s my little sis.” Buddy put his arm around me and pulled me from behind the couch to meet her.
Mister Norman Rockwell could’ve painted it, a cover for the Post. Buddy, all red-faced and flustered in a way I’d never seen him, looked just as handsome as could be in uniform. Dress greens, he called them. Corporal. I was sure that was the top.
He’d brought her home to meet the family.
“Bring her over here.” Ma dried her hands and draped the dishtowel on her shoulder.
“Don’t you be shy now.” Pa hitched up his Sunday pants.
“Oh my, she’s a looker, son.”
“Ma, you’re gonna scare her off.”
Rockwell would’ve caught the laughter, the gleam in Mama’s eye. He’d sprawl a Setter or a Golden right across our braided rug. (Artistic licence: we never had a dog.) You’d smell the turkey in his painting. (But, of course, he’d hide the bulge in Buddy’s pants.)
I slipped back into my hiding place and tugged my bobby socks up tight. Buddy had the jitters. It was painful watching him. I’d never seen a time my brother wasn’t cocky, wasn’t in control.
“What’s her name, son?
“Last name, Buddy?”
It brought the house down. What a stupid joke. Mary laughed so hard she almost gagged. Rockwell would’ve left that out, but he’d have made her special. He’d have made her cotton dress look satin. He’d have made her chests look bigger. I remember how she really looked. Especially, her legs. Silk stockings. Real. Not nylons. Silk.
God, I hated her that day. Silk stockings my big brother had rolled down, had rubbed each time he put his hands between her thighs, each time he jabbed her with his finger.
Buddy never touched me after that. Never did the things he used to.
In the backseat Ellen squares her shoulders and slightly lifts her chin toward the driver. Her husband squirms beside her. In front, two plainclothes Metro policemen talk quietly.
“Be faster walking.”
“Should’ve stayed off College.”
“Wrap up this one fast. It’s the kid’s birthday tonight.”
“Yeah—if we ever get through this gridlock.”
Ellen smiles, lost in thought, glances vacantly at people passing on the sidewalk. No one seems to notice the dark blue ‘67 Coronet, windows down, the men in suits chatting quietly, the couple in the back—a young man with fists clenched against his cheeks, a young woman basking in the transformation from lowly bank teller to possible homicide eye-witness.
She smooths her polyester skirt against her thighs. Willie’s fists might be a warning: keep your mouth shut, El. But she finds it rude to not contribute to their conversation. Willie’s problem. Not hers. “What a beautiful day. Indian Summer. Too nice for work.”
The detective riding shotgun turns. “You’ve been with the bank, how long, Mrs. Stockton? It’s a shame we had to interrupt your shift.”
Willie rolls his eyes.
“I don’t mind missing the afternoon at all. Balancing especially. Sometimes we’re still there after seven. No one leaves if someone’s out a penny. Six months. It seems like years.” Too bad for Willie. The pigs, to him, are always out to spoil his fun. These guys seem friendly. “Serving and protecting” doesn’t sound so bad to her. Ellen loves Toronto, and police civility seems part of that. It doesn’t hurt to treat them normally. “The pay’s rotten, but sometimes it’s interesting.”
She hasn’t broken any laws. No reason not to act polite. But Willie always sees a downside. The “angry young man” who’d courted her two years ago, it seems to her, is acting like a whiney little boy.
“It won’t take long. This should thin out once we get on University, ma’am.”
An hour before at the Scotia branch on Bay, the manager called her in his office and introduced her to Detectives Smith and Billings. Once she was alone with them, they’d shown their badges, added Homicide to their rank, then asked for her address and the last time she’d seen Peter, the man who lived upstairs. They told her she’d been let off early—with pay, of course—and wanted her to come with them to answer questions. On the drive to pick up Willie, they were silent.
They left her in the car alone outside the Central Library where Willie is a clerk. When they returned and he’d slid in beside her, his hands were shaking, as if they’d broken down the door, revolvers drawn, and threatened him with handcuffs. Of course, Willie would assume he’d be the hero of this plot; this would be about a joint he’d smoked in high school or cheating twenty bucks on taxes. While she waited, Ellen thought of Peter. Someone must be dead if they were homicide detectives. No way Peter could’ve harmed another person.
Cloak and dagger stuff. It’s a year for that: ‘70. Instead of bombing postal boxes, the FLQ took hostages two weeks ago. Now Trudeau’s declared a state of war. Lots of things are secret. Maybe this fits in some way. She may hold a puzzle piece she doesn’t realize. Riding undercover, anything seems possible; everything seems heavy. Whatever it’s about, it might be on the evening news. Ellen might be, too.
Finally, traffic moves and within minutes they’ve arrived. Not at a Division station, but St. Michael’s Hospital. The officers get out and each one holds a back door open. Willie grasps her wrist. Ellen turns. He makes a face at her. It isn’t comfort that he needs; it’s confirmation. He wants to see her fear, wants her to fake it if she has to. A proper wife would be alert for traps, would fight or flee whichever he decides. Well, not this time. This time it’s big. Ellen shrugs her shoulders as she steps onto the street, flips her straight blonde hair and stretches her cramping back and legs.
A morgue. A body. Someone to identify. Someone who isn’t Peter. Someone who isn’t Tree. Some stranger with nothing familiar on the toe tag—something Ellen’s seen in movies at the Empress back in Listowel. But this is far from Listowel, the sleepy town two hours west where Ellen graduated high school. A broken nose from fighting at the Paddyfest is crime in north Perth County. Speeders returning from Elmira’s Maple Syrup Days occupy the O.P.P. up there. Here, it’s murder.
It’s chilly in the stairwell. Willie’s running shoes squeak above the hollow drum of leather on the tiles. Ellen’s been to funerals—her father, an aunt, and both her mother’s parents. She’s seen cadavers, but dropped her nursing at the U. of T. before she’d worked on one. Dropping? That was running out of money and running into Willie. Falling into love and falling off a cliff the day they thought she might be pregnant. She’d let him talk her into marriage. Ellen Jenkins, dwarfed among the towering banks downtown, streetcars rumbling next to her, the sidewalk shaking from the trains beneath. It was either Willie, then, or back to Listowel and Mom.
At the bottom of the steps, as Billings disappears behind a set of swinging doors, she grips her husband’s finger and slides her thumb across his knuckles. He’s tense.
“We’d like you to view a body, Mr. Stockton,” says Detective Smith. “See if you can recognize him. It won’t be pleasant. We think it’s the man who lived upstairs from you. We need to know for certain.”
Willie pulls away from her. Not Peter. This is somehow wrong—getting neighbours to identify a corpse. What about his family? Why not Tree? Wouldn’t tracking down the next of kin be proper?
The doors swing open. “Ready,” says Billings.
Then Willie disappears inside, and Ellen blushes. Sure. Pick the man. They’re tougher, more reliable. Willie couldn’t bring himself to say hello to either Peter or his friend. He’s likely never once looked Peter in the eye, afraid it might rub off. But Willie is the one they pick; they leave her standing in the hall. Not that she’s so anxious. She dreads it, but riding in the car, she thought she might be helpful, might have knowledge of important facts. “I guess men make better witnesses?” she says.
Smith smiles, then reaches in his jacket for a pack of cigarettes. “Smoke?”
Ellen shakes her head and nods toward a sign forbidding it.
Smith purses his lips and slips the package back. “It’s either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Never takes them long.”
“Where was the body, Officer?”
“Apartment upstairs from yours, ma’am. It’d been there for a week at least. It’s not in good condition. Maybe that’s why your husband got the honours.”
“It? Good condition?”
“The heat was on. Surprised you didn’t smell it.”
“God. We missed the garbage day last week. I thought it was the trash, not someone dead. And right upstairs?”
Smith slips his hand inside his jacket, withdraws the cigarettes, taps one out, then puts them back as the doors swing open once again. Willie comes out first, his face pale, a finger curled against his lips. Billings follows him. “There’s a bench over here, Mr. Stockton.”
“Maybe we should get him some air,” says Smith.
Willie shakes his head at Ellen, then takes the steps.
“This could be unpleasant, Mrs. Stockton.” Billings doesn’t look at her. “Your husband wasn’t certain, so we’d like your help on this. Could you take a look, ma’am?” Ellen nods. Her stomach churns as she pushes inside the room—cooler than the hallway, large and lit by fixtures hanging low above three central tables. “You’ve seen your neighbour, Peter Turner, close enough you’d recognize him?”
“Yes, of course I’d know him.” One wall glints silver from a row of large metallic cupboards, doors all closed but one. Underneath the nearest set of lamps, a naked human form. Ellen walks toward it, her fingers worrying the hem of her cardigan.
A power tool hums in an adjoining room. Formaldehyde. “Is this him, Mrs. Stockton? Is this Peter Turner?”
She winces. Maggots. They’ve found the softest tissues, wiggling toward the light, as if they needed gulps of air before they swim back down into the warmer, rotting flesh—the face and genitals. Openings, brown around the edges, what was once a mouth, nostril, eye. A thin brown slit across the chest. God.
“Yes,” she whispers. “It’s him. Our neighbour.” Why would someone… Just her age. Too young. She hugs her arms across her chest and shivers.
“You’re sure? Your husband said the lighting on your stairs was poor.”
“I’m positive.” She swallows. Six months they’d shared a common stairway to flats above a hardware store on Queen. Peter and his friend, some mornings as she left for work, were getting in from parties. Sometimes coming up with bags of groceries, she passed them going out. Times she’d sat in Peter’s kitchen with a cup of Chinese tea. “His friend? He’s okay?” The words choke out. She searches all her pockets for a tissue.
“Ma’am? A friend? Was there someone else regularly up there? The landlord said he lived alone.”
Of course, he didn’t live alone. Ellen doesn’t want to cry. Just get out, go home. She’s done her civic duty. Now she badly needs a place to blow her nose. What’s she supposed to say? He had a lover. The first time she knew for certain, in late July, she’d forgotten something, had passed them on the stairs, then turned around, had seen them kissing on the landing, Peter’s hands firm against the small of Tree’s lean back. They caught her gaping and scrambled up the stairs and slammed their door. She’d never seen men kiss. Not like that in Listowel. Not in public. This isn’t anybody’s business, especially not the cops. Her legs feel heavy; her voice trembles. “Sometimes, yes, a friend was there.”
“That’ll do, ma’am. You’ve been a big help.” Billings guides her back upstairs where Smith is fishing for some sport that Willie can discuss. Her puffy eyes and Billings’ smile must have given things away, and Willie scowls at her. Well, too bad, Willie. She’s told the truth, in spite of all his cautions about establishment courts and wasting time as witnesses, the dangers of involvement.
“We’d like you both to look at pictures. We’d like to have a chat with Mr. Turner’s friend. You didn’t see another man, Mr. Stockton?”
“I’m not sure. The hall’s too dark.” His eyes twitch.
“You knew that he was homosexual?”
“How the hell would I know that?”
“Willie.” Ellen shakes her head. “We talked about it. More than once.”
Interview Room Four at Fifty-one Division is small and stuffy. Through large glass doors, Ellen watches Willie and Detective Smith in the next room at a table similar to hers. Willie faces away from her. He shakes his head, tilts his chair, and sometimes waves an arm. Smith’s eyebrows raise. He doesn’t smile.
Billings buys her coffee and talks about his family, about their jobs and Willie. “Toronto must be quite a change from Listowel. I grew up in Hearst. Came down in ‘52.”
Billings doesn’t seem a bit porcine. He’s not Chicago’s Democratic Convention. He’s not Kent State. This is her Toronto.
“We’re checking on his family, but frankly, in a case like this one, often none turns up, Mrs. Stockton.”
Ellen looks at him. Cases like what? Murder cases? It hadn’t seemed odd, not to meet his relatives. So Peter didn’t talk about his family. So what? Ellen’s mother didn’t come for visits either. Ellen didn’t talk about her small town life, but maybe it was more. What if Peter’s parents felt the way her parents would’ve? What if being gay was more than they could handle? Maybe Peter’s family didn’t know or care about his death? She’d never thought. Maybe Peter died—for them—some time ago.
“Ma’am, the man you saw with Mr. Turner…”
A week ago, the murder, he said. Tree has to know. He must be devastated. He must be terrified. “I’ll try to help in any way I can, officer.”
“You’d recognize his photograph?” He spreads an album out in front of her.
“Oh, I’d remember him. I’m good with faces.” Ellen can’t help but smile. She’ll do her part. They’ll catch the scum who did this to her friends. Willie might scoff, but this is personal; this is more than civic duty. More than cleaning up the streets or even if it’s somehow part of all that FLQ stuff up in Montreal. Peter was a friend. She starts at the top left profile and looks at each one carefully, left to right, top to bottom, one page at a time. What if Tree had shorter hair before she’d met them? “These are all, what? Victims? Criminals?”
“Actually. That book is members of the community.”
“What community?” she asks, knowing the answer before the words are out of her mouth.
“It’s a very closed group. You said you knew he was a homosexual.”
They changed the law. There is nothing wrong with being gay now, no reason for a book of mug shots now. “But…”
“You’re right. This book… It’s not official anymore.”
“Then what are these people accused of doing?”
“Mrs. Stockton, we need to talk to this suspect. The pictures are a tool, a very useful tool right now.”
She bites her lip. Suspect? Tree? She won’t make trouble—for Peter’s sake. She won’t drag her soapbox out or let her husband say, “I knew you’d lose it, embarrass us in public over nothing.”
Instead, she pauses. She puts her finger on each picture in the book, steadying her hand and wasting time. She mumbles, “Something like him,” or “Not quite like…”
They’d fit. They looked a couple. Climbing up the stairs, they didn’t bump like Willie did with her, they rubbed together. Maybe all the grace was Tree’s, a short, slight Native guy from somewhere so far north she couldn’t quite imagine it. He walked as if he were a river flowing up the street, his long black hair glowing purple in the sun. He had the gentle manner of a man who’d spent his youth driving snow machines and paddling canoes instead of pushing through a crowded subway station. Together. They eased both worlds together into one.
“Take your time, Mrs. Stockton. This is important.”
From the back, Tree might’ve passed as female. His slender hips swaying. Deeply tanned. Nearly hairless on his arms and legs. Always kind; always quiet. They both seemed gaunt, in need of home-baked meals. She suggested having them for supper, but Willie had a fit. How was he supposed to talk to faggots? What interests could they have in common? As if they came from Mars. So they came for lunch on Saturday while Peter was at work.
Tree talked about his home. “First Nations” sounded strange. He talked of tanning beaver pelts and how to cook a bannock. Women’s work, he said. But no one there paid any mind to that, except the priest. No one owned a book of mug shots or had a special bar or private beach for people of a certain lifestyle. If he hadn’t been in love, he would’ve gone back home, he’d said, “Long time ago.”
She understands their passion. Willie used to look at her like that when they first started going out, before they settled into marriage. Hungry. Not caring who knew or what they knew. Just wanting it every minute of every day. Ellen knows the way they felt.
She smiles at Billings when she finally shuts the book. Willie left the other room some time ago. “I’m sorry. The man’s not there. I would have recognized him. I’m certain. Nice picture of Peter though.”
“Could you describe him?”
“Sure. The stairwell isn’t all that bright, but I know how he looked.”
“Age? Hair colour, eyes? Distinguishing marks? Height and weight? Anything you remember.”
She sketches out a detailed picture of the man they want for questioning, wondering all the time what Willie might’ve told them, where Willie is right now. Probably drinking coffee, getting angrier each second his supper is delayed, how his wife is sucking up to “pigs” and wasting energy defending “fags.” In the end, Billings shakes her hand and praises her eye for small detail. She’s thankful Willie doesn’t hear.
Soon they’re riding in the Coronet again—in silence, east on Queen, rutted with its streetcar tracks and stopped by people sticking out their arms at crosswalks. Home to their apartment, a yellow tape across the landing.
“Well? Thumbscrews, El? They break you?” He’d been sitting at the kitchen table staring into space since they got home. Ellen makes a salad while last night’s meatloaf warms.
“Very funny, Will. Billings was polite. The whole thing stunk. We should get in touch with Peter’s family.”
Willie stands. “Jesus. Exactly what we don’t need—more involvement. Sometimes you’re nuts. We waste a whole day at the copshop. A killer walks right past our door, and you want to meet the faggot’s folks? Just pray the cops get his creepy friend before he comes after us, okay?”
She shakes the strainer full of lettuce, raining water on the soaking breakfast dishes. “I didn’t find the picture they wanted. Did you?” She holds her breath.
“I found three. All looked pretty close to me. Two of them, supposedly in jail. The third’s living in B.C. My cop says you described him differently. Hell, I don’t remember what he looked like, really. I thought big. He took up the whole damn stairs whenever I went past him.” Willie slumps back on his chair. “Beard and moustache, right?”
“I don’t remember any beard, Willie.” She forces calm into her voice. “What colour was his hair?”
“Kind of German, eh? I don’t know. Brown, I guess. What did you say?”
“Black.” She fills the bowl with greens. She’d love to touch that hair, riffle it just to see Tree’s grin.
“Took you long enough.”
“I was careful. I thought it was important.”
“Jesus. It is important. There’s a damn queer, a killer who thinks we might’ve ratted on him. We should move. This place has given me the creeps ever since that guy arrived.”
“The guy has a name.”
“You can be such an ass sometimes, El. Your friend? And your other friend, the killer, right?”
“Supper.” She places the bowl on the table.
“Look. We’ve been though this. This place is nothing but a dump. You got bums asking you for change each morning. You got whores on the street every night. And top it off with queers next door. ‘Queen’ Street, all right. We’re moving. That’s final.”
“Did you want water with your supper? Or tea? The meatloaf should be hot.”
“Are you listening? Are you getting this?”
“I hear you fine, Will.” The first time she’d really met them, she’d run out of baking soda in the middle of a cake. She’d knocked and blurted out her question—before she realized they were wearing only towels. Hair wet. Water droplets shining on skin. Giggling about who does the cooking. Tree finally went to get it. By the time she left them, Ellen felt something was different, something was odd in their behaviour. It took her days to place it. When she finally did, it shocked her. What was different was they’d treated her as if she were a person. Like another woman might have.
“You’re not the least bit worried, are you?”
“Oh, I’m worried, Will. Very worried.” She moves to the oven and turns away from him to hide her face while checking on the meatloaf. Tree. His gentle eyes. Him coming home one afternoon and finding Peter’s body. His tears. No one to tell, no one to comfort him, no one to trust. Afraid of the police and maybe Peter’s family. Afraid of Willie Stockton and his wife. Tree would take his things and catch the next bus north. Or hitchhike. He’d vanish. Like water running down the street.
“The cops will get him, El. Hell, they found us quick enough. Not our business, anyway.”
“Right. With our descriptions.” Tree’s mug shot wasn’t all that good, but it was there. She’d told them he was big. Italian. No chance she’d miss that accent. Her memory for voice was just as good as face.
“I hope you’re right, El. Is this the only dressing for the salad?”
Ellen lifts her heavy, woollen coat off a chair-back and pulls her arms through sleeves. “I’m going out. I need some air.”
“Out? Didn’t we just decide it’s dangerous?” He glares at her. “You’re acting like a child. Sit down and eat your supper.”
Ellen keeps on buttoning. She squares her shoulders and lifts her chin a subtle fraction toward the door.
The Witiko’s Necklace
An hour before dismissal a young woman slinks out the front door of Moosonee Public School. The first thing to hit Diana is the cold. The temperature has dipped to minus thirty; with wind, it takes her by surprise. Slaps her exposed cheeks and nose and freeze-dries her tears in ways that blur her vision. A glancing blow she hardly feels. Her mind too numb by what has just occurred inside the office.
The second blow is seeing Dougal slouched against the flagpole.
“What the hell? Haven’t you done enough? You got me fired. Son of a bitch, Doogie. You goddamn got me fired.”
He purses his lips but only stares at her as if her words are wrong, as if the speech he’s planned is still the only thing important.
“Why are you even here? I thought you went back north. You have to leave. I can’t be seen with you.”
“They fired you?”
“So far, that’s it, Doogie. Just. Terminated. Just.” As if it’s no big deal. To you, it’s nothing, right? “Get the hell away from me. I can’t be seen with you.”
“They can’t do that.”
She only shakes her head. It can’t get any worse than this, this nightmare, this total humiliation. But as soon as the thought is fully formed, she knows it probably will.
For a week her principal, Brad, avoided her, turned around and walked the other way as if he’d just remembered something whenever they met in the hall. That’s Brad. The coward. A casual flirter before the word got out she had a boyfriend. She dithered for a week about stopping by the office after school to have a little chat. Make it clear she didn’t know. It was an accident. If she had known, it never would have happened. She didn’t though. It was too embarrassing to blurt it out. Confess. She met a guy. They hit it off. Things maybe went too far, too fast. Things happen, eh? And the minute, the very second she found out he was a minor, she kicked him out. She sent him packing. She told him to go home wherever the hell up north that was, go face his parents. What else was she supposed do? She thought about resigning. Would that look better on her record? Two weeks ago she put it all together, broke it off right then and there. She hasn’t seen the guy in two whole weeks—until right now. She didn’t want to. Well, why go into that. Absolutely, she didn’t want to. It made her crazy just to think about it.
And then today. She has her Grade Twos sitting in a circle on the carpet ready for a story. This isn’t an easy job. Her first year teaching. It’s hard but she’s doing it. Doing it well, she thinks. The kids. They’re hers—her responsibility. She gets it. In fact, that’s what the principal says this afternoon after he’s walked into the class and introduced them to their brand new teacher. Later in the office while she signs the waivers, he nervously explains the Board’s official position: exactly what had been her responsibility to her students and the whole community. While she listens quietly. Sitting in the chair where students usually sit, students who make fart noises during class or get caught smoking in the washroom. Now she’s sitting here. There’s no pause where she can say: I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again. She doesn’t get the strap. What she gets is a month’s pay and two weeks to pack her things and vacate her accommodations. He doesn’t give a pep talk. He doesn’t say: everything will all right, Miss Hamm. Just: you might never get another teaching job, but there are other jobs out there. Unless the child’s parents decide to press charges.
Jesus. He’s not a child. He’s six feet tall.
Dougal: “I thought maybe we could talk. I’m going on tomorrow’s plane. Back home.”
“We talked! It’s over! What other kinds of trouble do you imagine that I want from you?”
“It’s not fair.”
“Tell me about fair.”
“I mean getting fired.”
“It wouldn’t be against the law to have a cup of coffee, would it?”
Already she has turned into the icy wind and heads toward her bungalow on Wabun Street. She closes her eyes and hopes he isn’t following her. She doesn’t have the energy for anything right now but sliding one winter boot in front of the other along the slippery snow-packed road.
An hour past midnight, Dougal shifts his weight to the right side of the bench seat and turns his Ski-doo from the bush trail out onto the muskeg. He leaves the well-packed trail along the river east of Otter Creek, a track that twists through stands of spruce and mogul drifts, the bright light from the snow machine throwing strange shadows into the dense forest. Now, he’s headed south, pulling a box sleigh with little in it but some gas and clothing. Now, suddenly the trees are gone save for the occasional scrub tamarack; the land is flat and desolate. The trail is faint; it sometimes disappears completely, but that’s no worry. Until he hits the next frozen river, the next band of trees, all he has to do is keep himself pointed south—arrow straight, through pristine snow. Nothing to stop him. Nothing to go wrong. Four days have passed since he waited outside her school in Moosonee, hoping to catch Diana, hoping to make one last plea for common sense, for her patience, for a chance to unfold his plan to make things right. “Just listen,” was on his lips when he discovered she had lost her job. All because of him.
The mercury thermometer on the gas shed read minus forty when Dougal left Otter Creek. Cold doesn’t scare him. His father is the boss, the high-and-mighty Mister Gregor Stewart, the Otter Creek Hudson’s Bay Store manager, so Dougal always has the best: proper parka, Standfields, boots, a brand new Ski-doo while others still mush dogs, while his Cree peers shiver in their jean jackets and running shoes. The preppy of the North. His father always sees to that; cold is not a problem. No one in Otter Creek ever forgets he’s the son of Mister Stewart.
He should be back in the railhead town of Moosonee by dawn, nothing but snow and trees between here and there to slow him down. The engine’s drone, muffled by his zipped-up hood, is reassuring.
Other things—not so much.
His thumb against the throttle, even though it’s clad in the fleece-lined moosehide mitt his Cree mother tanned and sewed for him, begins to numb against the cold. His ears still burn from the lashings that his father administered before he left, his mother cowering in the kitchen as she tidied up the remnants of their supper.
“Ye’re nothin’ but a wee bairn,” he’d screamed at Dougal. “A snivelling coward. You’ve not the sense of a stone. A dinna ken how ye cud be so foolish. Throwing yer life away like that.”
“I couldn’t keep up with the other kids down there, da. The others were so far ahead. They laughed at me. I was homesick. I knew you’d be angry, but I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Ye’re a Stewart, lad. Ye ha th’ chance ta be someone. Ta finish school. Noo yer not even fit ta be a clark in th’ store. Yer shite. Mebbe ye think stocking shelves is a guid job. Nae. Ye’ve much ta larn aboot life.”
Dougal studied his shoes. There was no point answering his father. There never had been. His father was a giant. When he stood behind the fur counter in the store, his hair bumping the overhead lamp, saying this stretched beaver was worth nothing at all and this pelt would only buy a can of beans, when he said there’s no more credit until you make a payment, when he closed the door and said “We’re nae open ‘til Monday. Off ye gae!” that was Mister Stewart, that was the boss, the man with the power of life and death and the will to exercise it.
“Ye cannae spend yer life flanging that hoor in Moosonee. Listen ta yer da. The morn ye’ll be ah th’ store, lad. Ye’ll be stockin’ shelves an’ totin’ goods until th’ next semester starts in yer North Bay high school. Guid nicht.”
It was to his mother that he whispered his plan. He’d go back to Moosonee, back to washing dishes at the Chinese restaurant. He’d make his apology to the woman that he loved, that he’d harmed by loving her. Maybe somewhere down the road, maybe there was still a chance. It was his mother that treated him like a man. It was his mother that got the key to the gas shed, that made him a sandwich to keep him company on the long drive across the barren lands. It was always his mother. She comforted him, believed in him, told him the stories of her family and their ways. Secretly taught him a word or two of Cree. She kissed him and held his hand and gave him back the necklace he’d given her two years before at Christmas. “For luck,” she said. “A gift is important. Now you’re the one who needs it.”
Dougal rolls his shoulders to ease the stiffness that is forming there. It’s a six-hour drive by snow machine from Otter Creek to Moosonee, a trip he’s made with his father more than once to freight a drum of gas or load of hardware for the store. He knows the trail. He understands the land, the weather. His da taught him well. He’s never done it solo, but right now he’s much more worried about Diana. Thinking about her, thinking about them together helps the time slip past and the cold disappear. He avoids any thoughts about his father and how he’ll react in the morning when Dougal isn’t there to take his orders or submit to his anger.
More bush ahead. The trail is more clearly packed here as he slides up onto his knees so he can better use his body for the turns. Slightly higher on the seat, he thinks he sees something through the trees. A light? Eerie. Travellers are scarce out here. He’s never met another person out on the trips with da. A chill goes up his spine. Then he laughs at himself. What was he expecting? A witiko? The monster that his mother cautioned him could jump out of the bush into a sleigh, a monster that could turn you into another witiko by only looking at you, even if you only said its name aloud, even if you only dreamed about it. There was more. Her own great-great-grandmother. Childish thoughts. She’d said nothing about a witiko having a flashlight and so he smiled.
It is a light. He slows and tugs his hood to get a better view. Odd. The glow flickers between the silhouetted spruce and cedar. It grows brighter as Dougal threads his way through hairpin corners, as he swings his weight from side to side across the seat to help the runners grip the snow. Low branches overhang the trail and rub against his coat. He brakes the snowmobile and stops. It’s just an open fire pit abandoned. Embers mark a traveller’s break for smokes, someone headed north or south making tea or seeking warmth.
Dougal lets the engine idle. Better to waste a little gas. Don’t take a chance on any trouble starting it again. He rifles through his pack for coffee and the sandwich that his mother made before he left. He doesn’t find the thermos. He must have left it. He isn’t thirsty anyway. Getting there at dawn, he’ll either have to wake Diana up or loiter by the teacherage and play the fool again. A boy again, a child waiting for permission to come inside.
He grabs his pack and, one step off the trail, stumbles into waist-deep powder snow. A gust of wind blows sparks against the night as Dougal wades toward the fire.
Quickly, he rescues half-burnt sticks and builds a flame. Then, he struggles to the nearest trees and breaks dead branches for his fire. Maybe he should’ve brought a hatchet or an axe. No. No need for that. Won’t linger here for long. Travel light. Fewer problems. In minutes, the blaze grows hot enough for him to slip his mittens off and warm his fingers.
Frozen bologna. He takes a bite or two and throws the sandwich in the fire. His real hunger is for Diana. He feels inside the thick, down coat, then beneath his sweater to the flannel pocket of his shirt. He pulls the necklace out and slips it quickly in his gauntlet where he can touch it, run his fingers down its smooth round beads as if it were a rosary. A farewell present. His last-ditch try at magic. An apology perhaps.
When he hears the howls behind him, he only smiles. Ghoulish moans on a moonless night. But, wolves attacking people is another myth—this one spawned by whites. They serenade him: a soprano first, then altos. The purring snow machine provides the rhythm. The rising wind, a chorus. Maybe they’re inviting him to run so they can give a futile chase. She’ll be impressed about the wolves. Mother Nature, that’s Diana.
The wind lolls its tongue and snarls while bounding toward him. It’s shifted to the east. The temperature has risen. Spit doesn’t freeze mid-air; it lands, then slowly crackles into ice. The first fat flakes of snow to melt against his cheek are no surprise at all.
He struggles back beside the Ski-doo and reties his pack. He leaves the necklace in the mitt where he can feel it as he travels, where it can fester worse than wind or hungry carnivores. Or witiko.
It doesn’t go his way, this winter night out on the vast muskeg. It isn’t long before the gentle snow evolves into a howling blizzard, until the wind and white attempt to make a meal of both the boy and his beads.
Much later when the night begins to weaken in the east, it finds Dougal jogging in place, trying to warm his feet and legs, barely noticing the subtle break of day. The swirling white slowly changes hue. The wrench, a phantom in his numb fingers, more quickly finds the nuts that seal the fuel pump. The flashlight’s beam looks weaker, but everything important stays the same. His feet and fingers ache. He slips a hand beneath his coat to warm it on his chest. He fights his panic by listing every thing he has to do in order to survive.
Hours ago the engine’s purr, barely audible above the howling wind became a rattle. The snow machine lost power and slowed. The rattle finally coughed and died. He hadn’t notice it at first; his focus was all on trying to find a trail as blowing snow consumed it, leaving only the angle of the driving wind to hint a heading south. He checked the single plug for spark, the lines for fuel. Fine. He pulled the starter rope, hoping it would catch, pulled repeatedly until he was exhausted. Wet with sweat, he kicked the yellow hood until it cracked, until his feet had feeling, until he squatted, his back toward the wind, cursing at the storm. Like an angry child.
His mother whispers the importance of staying calm. The snow and wind whip across the flats and build long drifts against the broken vehicle. He tests each line again, rechecks the settings on the carburetor, makes sure the plug is arcing. Nothing’s flooded; there’s gas and air and spark. Everything is right, but something isn’t. He checks the lines again.
Eventually, it’s clear: the blizzard isn’t waning, he’s lost, the snowmobile is junk. Dougal allows himself the luxury of tears. He stands and shouts into the wind, screams her name as if she is the one to blame, as if there might be someone there to hear.
Then he does the only things he can. Leaving the hood careening in the wind, he pushes back along the wreck and finds his snowshoes bungeed to the seat where his mother made him put them. “I won’t need these in Moosonee. It’s a real town, Mom.” She made him take them. He doesn’t know just where he is or which direction he should go. He knows he can’t stay here. Trees would shelter him if only he can find them.
Sitting sideways on the frozen seat, Dougal removes his heavy store-bought boots. He winces at the cold and rubs his naked toes before he covers them with dry, wool socks and wraps his feet—first in duffle, then in moosehide, binding each one tight against his ankle with leather thongs. Abandoning the store-bought boots takes all his will, but hope now rests with moccasins his mother sewed for him, snowshoes that his uncle fashioned.
His feet tremble as he ties the lamp-wick bindings so his toes, once they are flexible again, can curl around the wooden crossbars, so his soles can balance on the rawhide web. To make the knots secure, he bares his hands, getting wet and cold from driving snow, so cold he must command each movement to sling the pack onto his back and zip the parka hood back into a cave.
His wild dash to see Diana ends. Escape from the angry lord of the HBC is over. The wind is now his boss. Now it’s just about survival.
Hours later, the pain begins. As his frozen toes and fingers warm from the exercise, the fire stabs up into his calves and forearms, burning him from the inside out. He has no choice. He keeps on moving.
When he begins to sweat, when his fingers finally only tingle, he once again feels the necklace against the lining of the mitt. Get rid of it. He can’t afford distractions now, but he’s invested far too much in its making and its magic to do the thing he knows he should.
What would be worse: showing up at her mother’s door unannounced or picking up the phone and warning her she’s coming? The comfort of her mother’s warm, Hello? Mom, I lost my job. They fired me. And then her puzzlement: Diana? What happened, love? Tell me how that happened. And then what’s next? Then the long, long silence. And nothing after that. Nothing easy springs to mind.
Diana sits in her living room two days after the termination, still in a daze. Stacks of empty cardboard boxes dragged home from the Moosonee Bay litter the carpet. A pile of paperback books at her feet. Her hand limp in her lap, too weak to lift even one slim volume. Her mind rerunning the story of Dougal Stewart, trying to shape it into a form her mother could recognize and understand. Could somehow forgive.
Mom, I met him at a dance. I went with a friend—one of the nurses from the TB hospital. A dance in the gymnasium out at the old Canadian Forces base. Sometimes a fiddler came out onto the stage and played a reel, but no one was dancing and Diana doubted the wisdom of even going. It was cold in the gym. The people lining the walls acted like they were in middle school. The whole adventure seemed like a waste of time. Nobody was even looking at anyone else. The music was off key. The tempo kept changing. Could they not find a record player and some current 45’s? “What is wrong with you people?” she wants to scream at them. And then this tall young man walks straight up to her and looks her in the eye. “Dougal Stewart,” he says. “May I have the pleasure of a dance?” For crying out loud, he’s talking English. Maybe he’s a teacher from up the coast. Or maybe he’s an intern from the hospital. He looks older than her, older than she feels at least. They don’t shake hands, although her fingers twitch to do that. They are already on the dance floor and he is holding her close like he knows what he is doing. They are laughing quietly at the attempt of the band’s vocalist to render Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” in a kind of baritone pidgin. And it is only two tunes later that Diana leans close to his ear and says, “I have Elvis and Ricky Nelson back at my place.”
And then she blushes.
Just after Thanksgiving, she remembers. Of course, it was. If he were going to school down south somewhere, a holiday, they’d maybe put him on the train to come this far so he could catch a plane from here to somewhere further north. She didn’t ask. He didn’t say. He didn’t look fifteen. He didn’t act fifteen. He was so cocky, so self-assured. He spoke to her in English and she really missed that. Maybe that was it. It doesn’t matter what was it. It happened. Before Christmas he’s showing up at her house almost every night. He is quite the handyman and even cooks sometimes: toasted cheese or Klik and potatoes. He has some crummy dishwashing job over at the Mandarin Cafe. It doesn’t matter. He’s there for her. He’s a person that isn’t another teacher. He’s polite. She doesn’t feel like she’s a thousand miles from home anymore. There’s music and a hug when she gets home from school. I was such a fool not to ask.
It’s after school. Just getting dark outside. She’s working on her lesson plans, thinking of ways to get them to do more reading and writing. To say things out loud in English. That was the hardest thing of all. So strange for kids that age. That’s what she’s doing when Doogie comes in the back door stomping snow all over her kitchen floor. “I’m in here,” she calls out weakly. Maybe he doesn’t hear. “Working.” She rubs her temples with her thumbs wondering if there is an alternate universe where pencil marks on paper are not a game like darts or marbles but a way to communicate. She hears Doogie rummage through the cupboard under her sinkprobably looking for something to drink.
“We’re out, Doogie. There’s time. You could run to the LCBO. Get a bottle of wine, too, okay? For supper.”
“You go. I’ll start supper.” Is there something etched in his voice that should have given it away, something that she’s missed? I didn’t see it—never, in all that time. Was it wishful thinking?
“I’m busy, Doog. You never go. I’m willing to help with the money, but… I just want to finish this before I forget. You go this time, okay?”
“I guess I’m not that thirsty. Really.”
“Well, I am. Come on you can do this for me. I’ll make it worth your while.” She smiles at the prospect.
“No? Are you serious? Please. For me.” Now she’s in the kitchen glaring at him.
Dougal says nothing for a minute, then turns away from her and speaks to the wall. “I forgot. I have to finish up at the restaurant. I better go. I’ll be back later.”
“Wait. What’s wrong? You’d better tell me what’s going on.” She grabs his arm.
For a long time he won’t say anything and she’s mostly concerned the pop shop is going to close. She keeps asking him why and what’s up until finally he turns to look at her. “They won’t sell to me. My birthday isn’t until June.”
“You’re only twenty?” She laughs. “You don’t have a fake driver’s licence or something?”
“I know the guy that works there. If I call him and give you my Visa, he might let you deliver it to me. Just this once. For me.”
“He won’t.” He studies his shoes looking guilty as crap.
She hesitates. Then she softly spits it out, “How old are you? Really.”
He crouches down in front of the open cabinet like he might try to hide in there. “I’m old enough,” he says to the cupboard.
He turns to her and stands. He pulls her to him, placing his hands on her buttocks, squeezing.
She grasps his wrists firmly and backs out of the embrace. “How old?”
He says nothing and her voice becomes hollow. “Answer me.” And the last thing she wants is an answer. The last thing she wants is to know.
He rests his hands on his hips. She sees for the first time how hard he wants to make himself look bigger and smarter and more grown-up. His voice is measured, but so much weaker than it has been for the past four months. “I will be sixteen in June. It doesn’t matter.”
She closes her eyes and sinks onto a kitchen chair. God, if that were only true, she thinks. “You’re. Fifteen. And… And it does matter.” In her mind she sees them sharing a quick kiss in the Bay, holding hands on the street, having a meal at the Mandarin. “You’re fifteen.”
She feels like she is talking to him from the other side of the universe. “So this is a problem, Dougal. No it’s more than a problem.”
“Who the hell cares? It’s not their business.”
“My job, Dougal. You know I’m a teacher.”
“You hate that job. A few minutes ago there weren’t any problems. Nothing has changed. Nothing important. You still have time to make it to the store.”
“Your parents? Do they know where you are? What you’re doing? About me?”
“My mom would understand. My father is a crazy man. He doesn’t get one single thing about me. They’re not your problem.”
“I shouldn’t have to explain this, Dougal. A problem is like finding a mouse in the basement. A court won’t call this a problem. I’m a ‘person in a position of trust’ to them and you are a ‘child.’ Just in case something like this ever comes up in your high school civics class.” Her voice cracks and she fights to hold back the tears.
“Fuck that. What we have isn’t about any law. The law doesn’t know anything about us, what we have. Why is age, all of a sudden, so important? Everything was fine. It was good. You can’t say it wasn’t. I’m the same person. I was never a kid to you.”
She nods her head and thinks, and everything she thinks terrifies her. “You have to go.”
His hands reach for her neck, softly, exploring upward under her hair, just grazing her earlobes, making them tingle. “Not now,” he says. “We’ll sort this out later.”
She shakes his hands away and turns in the chair to face him. “No. Go home. Go back up north. That home. Do what you have to do but try not to involve me. Please. Finish school. Go back to wherever. Go somewhere. I can’t be the person that helps you now.”
“You’re the only person that can help me.” His voice is the grownup voice she’s let seduce her for months. His voice is warm and soft, mature and childlike at the same time. It is the voice that’s helped her through the last semester of frustration as a stranger in a strange land. “Come to bed,” he whispers.
“What if?” asks Dougal.
Her lips press together.
“Don’t say it,” he says. “You can’t be doing this. Don’t throw all this away.” His eyes glisten.
How could she have missed the little boy in them? “Doogie.” Her mouth droops. “This is so hard. We can’t go back now. We can’t undo anything. We sure as hell can’t go forward either.”
“I’ll be sixteen soon. I don’t need high school. I don’t need some fancy job. You’re my future. You’re what I want. You feel the same. I know you do.”
“You have to go right now. It’s over.” That’s all that she can say.
“You can’t do this. I have a say in it.” One hand presses his cheek as if it could stop the impending flow of tears, as if crying might reveal he wasn’t a real man. “You haven’t got the right. I’m in this as much as you are. We need to talk it out.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. I need to eat now. I still have a job. You can’t come here. Not any more. Ever.”
“No. We can’t leave it like this. We have to work it out together. We always worked things out together. We’ll fix it. Please. Please, let me stay here tonight. Just please give me that.”
“Doogie.” She closes her eyes.
“Just come to bed with me.” He grabs her shoulders and tries to pull her toward him.
“No.” She swivels, losing a slipper, retreating to the bedroom, slamming and locking the door behind her. “Go home, Doogie. You have to go.”
It’s just his voice now, but every word hurts. “Everything is good. This is the best winter ever. It wasfor both of us. This can’t be wrong. It can’t be happening. There has to be a way. There has to be,” he shouts through door.
“I’m sorry,” she mouths the words silently, pressing her cheek to the door, letting herself cry. “I didn’t know. I didn’t.”
“You never asked me. You wanted it just as much as I did. You want it right now. Let me in.”
“No. Just go. It’s over.”
“You’re just like him. Da. You think you have the power to do anything you want. You don’t care if you hurt someone as long as you get what you want. I’m not a little kid. You’re the one acting like a kid. You are. You’re just like him.” She hears him slide along the door down to the linoleum. “Just let me in. I only want to talk. What we have is right.”
“Don’t do this, Doogie.”
“You’re the one that’s doing it, Diana.” Then he’s up again. “Please.” Then he kicks the door. “You think a fucking little door will stop me?”
“Don’t!” She feels the door strain against the jamb when he kicks it a second time. “Don’t make me call the cops, Doogie. Just leave.”
“You did this. You’re the one to blame. You didn’t have to do thisnot to me. You didn’t have to.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispers again into the door, her heart pounding, her body shaking as she hears him retreat through the kitchen, crying, raving, not bothering to close the back door, letting the winter wind scream across the floor and creep viciously into her bedroom.
Now. On the living room couch, she dries her eyes with a tissue and decides to leave the packing until tomorrow.
Half the beads are seeds—polar bear berries, each berry bursting with a clutch of fingernail-long seeds, tapered at the ends, delicately striped yellow and brown. Hard as rocks when dry, he’d picked and pierced them point-to-point while they were ripe. The alternating ones are round glass beads purchased from his father’s store. His mother loved them, kept them in a moosehide bag inside a birch container with other special things. Rarely wore them. Loved them; but loved him more. Knew how much he’d need some crutch to lean on, some concrete thing to see him through his next few days.
As the day strengthens and black dissolves in blinding white, he strides across the muskeg, sliding the edge of one snowshoe over the other, grazing an ankle on every step; he fingers the beads and repeats her name. Diana. Unsure if it’s her name or the beads that warms his fingers.
The storm drives him, choses his direction for him. Maybe he is headed back home or maybe toward Moosonee. Maybe he’s walking east toward James Bay, maybe inland to the west. Maybe in circles. He needs to move to stay warm. The opening of his parka hood reveals only the blur of blowing snow, and he has neither the strength nor the confidence to contradict it. It’s Saturday; the blizzard howls all day, somewhere burying the Ski-doo, burying the fire with the burned bologna sandwich, the trail, and his discarded boots. It covers Dougal’s aimless tracks as fast as he makes them.
At dusk, the storm quiets. The temperature drops again. The clouds part. Mars burns in the west. He turns south toward Diana, wishing he had something to drink, anything at all to eat.
Sometime in the billion star night, Dougal sees the silhouette of trees along the horizon. Weak and wet with sweat, one step, then another, the trees gradually loom larger. The promise of shelter keeps him moving until, finally, he escapes the wind, finally he reaches the warmth of the spruce and cedar, the scrub willow and poplar. He stops. He slips out of his bindings without bothering to untie the knots. He slumps down by a large tree, hugs himself and closes his eyes. In only seconds, he sleeps.
He dreams of Diana, their first and final argument. He dreams of his mother, sitting by his bed when he was just a boy, telling him stories about the way things were long, long ago, the hardship of life on the trapline, the hunger, the way people were cheated by the traders. He dreams about his father laughing at a foolish, inept, lost and hungry son. The laughter growing softer, turns into the song of wind through spruce boughs as he slowly comes awake. But his father’s hands still cover his face, suffocating him.
He reaches up to pull the hands away. The hands are cold and wet. Ice fingers.
Dougal opens his eyes. Grey. Shadows. Shapes, but nothing clear. He tries to rub his eyes and finds his whole face covered with ice. Jesus. Coated with a shell of ice. He removes his gauntlets and pounds with the heels of his bare hands. The crack is loud. Splinters fall against his neck, melting, running down along his chest and tinkling harmless on the outside of his parka.
He sits up letting his heart rate slow. He stretches. Just his breath. Just frozen breath. Nothing as serious as his hunger or the dreams. His mouth hurts. He needs to eat. It’s Sunday. Just his frozen breath, he thinks.
It’s Sunday. The Otter Creek Hudson’s Bay is closed on Sundays—for everyone but Gregor Stewart’s family. Dougal’s father rolls his r’s while saying, “Fetch the key, lad, but do na ferrget to wrrite doon everything y’ take.” Not that it is a problem to write things down. Being the manager means heavy-duty discounts. Food is dear in Otter Creek. Air freight costs more than the food making everything two or three times more expensive than in the south. Milk, canned goods, potatoes, flour cost the most; when the price of fur is low, his mother’s kin survive on lighter fare: marshmallows and crisps and pasta.
His mother rubs basil and savoury into the seared, twelve-pound standing rib prime beef roast. “We are out of carrots.” Dougal likes them with the roast, simmered in the juice with new potatoes getting crisp along their jackets. “Dougal, loves the carrots, Gregor?”
“Aye, so get the key,” his father says.
“I will write it. I will get more onions and a loaf of bread.”
“A frozen pie—for our dessert,” Dougal whispers, his throat sand, his head on fire when he moves it.
Dreaming of the way things have been or might yet be will only make it worse. He concentrates. The voices of his mother and her brothers warn him of the dangers. Go slow. Trust nature. Keep away from pasts or futures. Don’t panic. Focus on the things you need to do to stay alive. Water. Food. Warmth. Help. For the first time in months, Diana doesn’t make the list.
Lying by the tree, Dougal scoops handfuls of snow onto a cotton undershirt from his pack, then rolls it up, slips it underneath his coat, sets it on his stomach, on his bare skin, and waits for it to melt enough for him to suck the moisture out. There are matches in his pack. Later he will make a fire. He has no pot in which to heat the snow, but at least he can wet the tee without losing body heat.
Will he be missed? Will they start a search? Only his mother knew where he was going. She won’t expect him back; she won’t expect to hear from him for weeks or even months. She’d never call the cops anyway, even if she worried; she doesn’t trust them. She doesn’t know Diana’s name. If she tells his father, if his father even asks… And how would coddling a prodigal son profit his father? He’d say I need to learn my lesson. No one in Moosonee expects him either.
Dougal rifles through his rucksack taking inventory. Six matches. A dozen 8-track cartridges. A granola bar left over from a summer camping trip. The rest is clothing—lightweight shirts and pants to wear indoors in Moosonee. He left the flashlight lying on the engine hood. No axe. No kettle. No matter. Travel light, travel fast.
While digging in the snow to make his fire pit, he finds some nourishment: Labrador tea and low-bush cranberry. The tea is everywhere; the berries are scarce and he wastes precious energy collecting a small handful. They’re frozen and tart and make him even more thirsty when he melts them in his mouth and chews them slowly. The fuzzy orange-and-brown tea is rich in vitamin C. The leaves are bitter, but he forces himself to chew and suck them. If he only had a pot. If he had some sugar and some milk…
Close to noon, a brilliant sun glistening on the new snow, he throws the last of the wood he’s gathered onto the fire and repacks the bag. He leaves the 8-tracks, some light clothing, and his PF Flyers beside the flames, rolls two soaked tees and places them in an inside pocket of the parka, then sets out into the trees, headed south hoping he isn’t so far east or west of Moosonee he’ll miss it.
He is weak and light-headed, but the sun cheers him. He is entertained by whiskey jacks, the curious grey jays hoping he has food. If he did, he might coax one onto his finger. He has done that. Never before with the thought of catching it and cooking it or eating it raw, feathers and all. Concentrate on heading south, he tells himself. Just that. He expects at any moment to come to the edge of the trees and once again face the wind and cold of the muskeg.
Strangely, the edge doesn’t come, but he’s glad to be in the bush even though it means moving around trees and patches of willow or struggling over steep drifts, focussing on the shadows to keep his course straight. The shadows lengthen. It’s getting late. He thinks he’ll make camp when he finally hits the edge, avoid having to sleep out on the flats or have another storm come up and push him off course again.
Finally, as the sun begins to set, the trees thin; he can see more light ahead. It must be muskeg. Good timing. And there. A small depression in the snow as he struggles through another stand of willow.
Someone has made a fire that now lies cold.
Someone has abandoned a stack of 8-track cartridges and a pair of running shoes beside charred sticks that seem to laugh at him.
Sarah’s moosehide moccasins barely whisper as she moves from the kitchen into her son’s bedroom where she studies the colourful spines of the books on the shelf above his bed. Dougal always was a smart one. Perhaps Gregor was also smart when he forbade anyone to speak her language in his house. Maybe it helped Dougal excel in school. Reluctantly, she admits it probably also made it easier for her to understand the ways of the whites, the almost ruthless logic of money, of profit, of the Here-Before-Christ HBC way of changing everything. It is not her way, but she is only the country wife. She would not even be here in the comfort of the Factor’s Residence if Gregor’s real wife, Mrs. Isabelle Stewart had not succumbed to the fever, if she’d not died childless. If not for the large marble monument in the Company graveyard behind the store, Sarah and Dougal would still be living at her parents’ shack where Gregor used to visit with a pint of whiskey each for her mother and father. Years ago. She is still only the country wife, but now she sleeps in his house; now she is warm; now there is always food on the table.
Now her son has grown into a man, seeking his own way in the world, trying to find a life separate from his father. She wishes he could find that here in Otter Creek, but she knows how hard it would be for both of them—father and bastard son.
She runs her hand over the thick five point Bay blanket on her son’s bed, pressing the wrinkles flat when, without warning, a story comes into her head, a story she used to tell Dougal when he was young—the story of witiko. A story of long ago when the price of fur was high, and the traders insisted people spend the whole winter on the trapline so when the HBC ship came into the Bay in summer it could be loaded with bales of beaver and fox and moose. But then the moose had vanished and the people were reduced to snaring hares, and then even the hares were scarce. And the people were sometimes too weak to walk the trails and harvest the few remaining furs from their traps. It was a sad story. Too sad for a child to hear—how sometimes the weak did not survive. How sometimes terrible, unspeakable choices had to be made. Sometimes a human being became a witiko because it was the only way to survive.
Instead, she told her Dougal about his great-great-great-grandmother who turned herself into a raven when the witiko came and took her children. The witiko was hungry and wanted to eat them, but the raven outsmarted him. She built a large fire and when the witiko went to warm his fingers, she pushed him into the fire. And then her children were safe. She bites her lip, remembering her mother’s caution not to say the witiko’s name aloud, not to even think it. Silly. Still, Dougal loved the story and asked her to tell it often, especially at times when things were hard with his father.
Now he is safe. It may be hard for him with the woman in Moosonee, but Sarah trusts that he will find his way in the wide world south of Otter Creek. He’s a good kid. A smart kid.
Tuesday morning, it’s both ice and snow that Dougal chips away from his face like a baby chick freeing itself from its shell. He wakes with the dark thought that no one will search for him; he will have to save himself. Today there will be a scheduled plane between Moosonee and Otter Creek. If he lights a signal fire, maybe the pilot, either going north or going south, would notice it. If he hasn’t strayed too far east or west off their flight path. If he misses today’s plane there’ll be another one on Thursday. If he were still strong enough to gather wood for a fire on Thursday. If he were even strong enough today. If a pilot were to think anything at all was odd about a campfire in the bush.
He lies beneath the tree watching the snowfall cover up his useless tapes and running shoes. Wondering: can he travel a straight path through the trees today without the benefit of sun and shadow? Wondering: does the snow means the sched will be cancelled today? Wondering: was it really only a dream he ate the last of the frozen granola bar last night, his gums sore, his stomach in knots? Wondering: how can he stop imagining the smell of roasting goose? The golden brown of butter-basted breast, the skin, crisp and greasy. Mashed turnip, warm and soothing on his throat. Nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger in a wide slice of pumpkin pie, smells he cannot name, but can’t forget. Eyes open, he sits alert. He tells himself it can’t be real. But it is real when he closes his eyes. It is. It takes all his energy to force them open again. All his energy to let go of the dream, to stand and retie his snowshoes. There will be no plane today with all this snow. He has to move.
Tuesday, he walks slowly, stopping every few yards to check his track and make sure he isn’t curving to the right as he did yesterday. He’s careful but slow. It’s necessary. In every few yards, he must go around a tree, skirt a fallen log, wade through a stand of red willow. There are no straight lines in the bush. He is always turning left to compensate for having turned right or vice versa. It occupies him.
Later, when the snow has tapered, turning to check his path, he sees a darkness moving behind the drifts. He sees a glimpse of something disappear behind a tree. He listens to the wind, but hears only wind. He looks at his trail, thinking how obvious it looks, how visible he is. How he must leave a scent. The noise his snowshoes make. It occurs to him: now he is the food other creatures dream about.
That night, he hears the wolves sing. Maybe he dreams them. His stomach, an empty paper sack, twisting and untwisting. He’s found no berries since Monday.
In the morning, he isn’t sure what day it is. He remembers breaking the ice off his face. He remembers the sun. Or was it snow or was it both? He remembers falling and lying in the snow for a long time. He doesn’t know for how long.
He remembers Diana sitting next to him, holding his head in her lap, feeding him, with a tiny silver spoon, mouthfuls of chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. No, ice cream with bits of chocolate cake floating… No. No one finds him and feeds him.
He remembers the softness of her skin. How his hand trembles when he places it on her thigh. How it proves she belongs to him alone.
He remembers sitting at her kitchen table with a plate of her lasagne, layers of meat and cheese and spinach. Dougal laughs when she lifts a forkful into her open mouth, a tomato smear on her cheek. He laughs at the bits of meat and pasta close to her mouth where he kisses them away.
Dougal laughs at the dark shapes moving around him.
Is it Friday? It is the day he dreams the airplane. He is resting. His head is in Diana’s lap again. She is feeding him small pieces of well-done steak cut in paper-thin strips. She tells him, “No. Just tiny bits, until you get your strength back. Take your time. I know you want to eat them all at once. Just one more. My poor little boy. Poor little boy. How did this happen to you?”
I am not a boy.
That’s when he dreams the airplane coming from the north, a small dot in the sky. He dreams its steady drone louder and louder. In the dream he runs out from under the trees waving his arms, shouting, lighting a signal fire, shooting off flares, talking to the pilot on a radio he’s built from tamarack branches. Can’t you see my tracks, he says to the pilot. Over. I’m here. Over.
When he wakes, he thinks he’s become blind. His world is black. There’s no light at all. He panics. He breaks his shell of ice and discovers it’s still night, it’s snowing hard again. He thinks he’s awake and sits up. He tries to think clearly. How long has he been asleep? How long has it been snowing? The new layer of snow is deep, deep enough to have covered his tracks completely.
Tracks no longer matter. Direction isn’t important. Space is still space. Space is still unending, still too large to comprehend, too far to find an edge, too surreal to doubt the unexpected.
But all too soon time stops being time. If it’s been a week or a day or a month, Dougal can’t be certain. When time stops plodding in a straight line, when packing the Ski-doo to make the trip is no longer a pinprick on his memory, when Dougal invites the singing wolves to say grace at his parents’ Christmas feast, when time curves through space like a pumpkin pie tossed off the train from Moosonee, then Dougal sees the witiko.
Dougal knows it doesn’t matter whether the meeting takes place in the past or the present or the future, whether it is in a dream or a waking-dream or real life, whether he says its name aloud or in his mind. Meeting witiko is all that matters. It changes everything forever.
Unless… He wonders if it is too late to turn himself into a whiskey jack and fly up into the tree tops where he can hide until the witiko gets tired and looks for other prey. He laughs. It’s too late now. His mother never told him the secret of shape shifting or bending time or changing fates. He remembers the only way to kill a witiko is with fire, a fire he no longer has the strength to build. Without an argument or bloodshed, the boy who would’ve been a man unties his snowshoes and lies down in the snow, wondering how it will feel to become a witiko himself.
No one mourns this transformation on the frozen tundra. The wolves don’t sing at the boy’s funeral or the new witiko’s birth. The new witiko rolls his r’s and laughs. Flexes his new-found strength. He dips into the river of time and sees himself as the person that brought it all on himself, disappointed his parents, failed at school and love, and worst of all destroyed Diana. It is the end of things. He understands how his great-great-great-grandmother’s people must have felt, how it feels to fail, how it feels to be stripped of everything. He has become the monster of the muskeg, the snivelling bastard son of Gregor Stewart, the giant no one can push around.
His progress is slow wading through the deep snow. But a witiko is unstoppable, immortal, all-powerful. The empty shell of Dougal’s body was confused and tired and weak, but the witiko’s path is now direct. Now there’s nothing to obstruct him, nothing he can’t step over or simply pass through. No worries about getting lost. Nothing stops a witiko.
Day becomes night becomes day flickering and dancing like the aurora, drifting across the space between himself and Moosonee like the floating wings of a jay.
He can smell the smoke from the woodstoves of the town when he spies an abandoned trapper’s shack and stops. Moosonee is close. She’s close.
He explores the cabin with his nose like an animal before pushing the door open. The broken padlock hangs useless on its hasp. The place smells of fuel. Discarded plastic bags and vomit tell a tale of sniffing gas and youngsters. The cupboard doors hang open, empty, teasing.
Witiko slumps onto a wooden chair and breathes the scent of people.
He knows this is where it ends. He knows he can’t change back into a boy.
A glint of sunlight. He looks up. A small hand mirror lies on the table. He touches it. They did coke as well as gas it seems.
Witiko fingers it. He sees his image.
His hair hangs in mats. Black, bleeding lips swell out like a False Face mask. The caves that house his eyes are deep; the eyes themselves are embers of an abandoned fire. Chalky skin is pulled taut over cheekbones. The little triangle of hair under his lower lip has become a clump of matted horsetail. He turns the mirror and slams it down on the table, breaking it, scattering shards of glass.
The sudden movement sends his gauntlets slipping off the edge of the table, falling against his tattered snowpants and tumbling to the plywood floor. A string of beads clatters onto the wood. Witiko picks it up and holds it to the light. He dangles it gently between his frozen thumb and forefinger. The striped seeds roll lightly across his palm and wrist and hang in the air.
Necklace looks at witiko. Necklace winks. Necklace begs him, please. What would it hurt to wear me? What harm could I do to such a strong witiko? Please.
Tears sting the sores on his cheeks. Delirious, he lifts the necklace over the tangles of his hair. It is so light he can’t feel its weight around his neck, but he does feel something—the struggle inside of himself. A faint wish he could go back to being a young man with a job and a lover and an uncertain future. A dull throbbing awareness he can’t go back; he’s failed; he’ll never stop being a witiko. Not unless… Only one thing can stop a witiko. Only one way back from how he hurt Diana, how he crushed what they’d had.
One hand touching the necklace, Dougal reaches down and tips the bright orange gas can onto its side, watches the amber fluid gurgle out onto the floor, forming a puddle that spreads around his chair, soaking his mukluks. Necklace smiles.
He searches in his pack for the last of the matches.
It’s freezing: minus fifty once again this early in the morning; it’s been like this along the James Bay Coast the last ten days. Diana paces up and down the concrete platform waiting for a conductor to come, unlock the car doors, and let the dozen-or-so passengers board. The groaning locomotive belches warm air that condenses into steam outside the ONR Station in Moosonee. A “mixed train,” they call it: a few passenger cars, a dozen or more boxcars and tankers, a half-dozen flatcars, some of them loaded with autos and pickup trucks, headed back south where, a few hundred miles away across the frozen muskeg, there are highways and logging roads on which their drivers will take them to more hospitable destinations.
The stack of boxes on the platform contains all that’s left of Diana’s brief adventure as a teacher. Right now her main concern is avoiding freezing to death before the door to the baggage car finally slides open and she can hoist them herself up to the waiting handler who, she hopes, will not find a way to lose them between here and Cochrane where she intends to rent a van or truck. She hunches her shoulders trying to get deeper into her coat. She stamps her feet to scare away the numbness. A man carrying a mail sack almost knocks her over, hurrying to the car, pounding on the door until it finally screeches open. He hands the bag up and exchanges a few words in Cree and a laugh with the man inside. It would be nice to be a letter with an address, sufficient postage, a destination. If wishes were fishes, Diana thinks, she’d be one of those letters; anyone of them would do.
“Miss Hamm? Diana Hamm?” A man in uniform has come up behind her, the squeak of his polished black boots on the packed snow hidden by the grinding thrum of the locomotive.
“That’s me.” Her stomach churns. The Mountie. Here. For her. Surely if the RCMP had questions about her affair with Dougal Stewart, they could have asked them sometime in the last two weeks while she was packing and cleaning her apartment. Surely they didn’t have to wait until she was just minutes from making her getaway, leaving the North and all its disappointments behind her for good.
“Would you please come sit in the van for just a minute, ma’am? Give you a chance to warm up. I need to have a quick word with you.”
The mention of “warm” appeals to her. As long as the “quick word” doesn’t involve a summons to appear somewhere or a pair of handcuffs, “warm” would be wonderful. “I need to load these boxes, officer.”
“You’ve got time. I called ahead. They won’t leave until we’re finished.”
It all sounds very official and now she’s really scared. She follows the constable meekly without saying anything. She tells herself she has the right to remain silent or at least she thinks she ought to have that right. He hasn’t informed her of her of anything yet. She supposes she should be grateful their “conversation” will at least be private.
He opens the passenger door for her and holds it while she slides onto the icy seat. The motor is running and the heater is on, but most of the flat windshield is still obscured by frost.
After he walks around the patrol vehicle and climbs in next to her, he says, “This is somewhat awkward. I stopped by your school and had a chat with your principal a half hour ago. He said you no longer work there. He thought you might be leaving today. I’m sorry to hear you lost your job.”
“I’m not sure it was much of a loss, but I imagine you got an ear-full from Brad. Look, if there’s some problem that would prevent me from getting on that train…”
“No, ma’am, I don’t think so. This isn’t strictly police business. Maybe doing someone a personal favour would be more accurate. Of course, I’m not at liberty to identify that person. That person being a minor.” He takes a brown manila envelope from a pocket on the inside of his heavy wool police coat.
“I’m not feeling very comfortable about this, officer.”
“I’m afraid I’m not either. Let me just tell you the parts that I can. Yesterday on rounds I happened upon a young individual that was in a lot of distress. The person is in care now and, like a I said, a minor. Late last night the person was able to make it clear it was important that you receive this. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. You aren’t under any obligation to accept it, of course. I said I’d try.” He extends it toward her.
She doesn’t move. “The person ‘in care?’ He’s okay?”
He hesitates. “I can’t say much. It sounds like you might know who we’re talking about.”
“I think I do.”
“There isn’t any crime or any investigation at this point. All I can say without breaching confidentiality is, yes, it seems like the person will be okay.”
“Good,” she mumbles as she takes it. It has some thickness, but it is so light there might be nothing at all inside. “Am I supposed to open it? Now?”
“My job is finished. Not really a job; just a favour. You’re on your own, unless you’d like a hand with those boxes.”
Slipping the envelope into her cloth handbag, she smiles at the officer, and says “Thanks, but I can manage.”
“Then, have a good trip, ma’am,” he says as she climbs down from the van.
Minutes later, as she lifts the boxes onto the lip of the baggage car, the conductor shuffles down the platform, swinging a ring of keys from his moosehide mitts. “All aboard, ma’am. Soon as you finish here.”
Two hours later, just after the train has crawled over the long, high bridge at Moose River Crossing with its breathtaking view of the river and a sky so blue it hurt her eyes, Diana remembers the envelope and pulls it from her bag. There is nothing written inside or out to indicate the what or why or how, not even his signature. She studies the contents on the seat beside her, reluctant to touch it. A necklace. No note. No explanation. Just a cheap seed necklace. Dull. No clasp. It looks handmade. What was he thinking? It’s just like everything else she’s experienced since September—one long freaking mystery after another. A metaphor, she thinks, a question mark with nothing there that’s even close to explaining what the question is. How perfect is that, she thinks, and closes her eyes and lets the train rock her to sleep.
Lets the dream of her tomorrows begin.
About the Author
Brian Reynolds was a teacher in two James Bay aboriginal communities off and on during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. He spent a number of years as a landscape artist and actually sold some drawings. He wrote some short fiction, some of which was published online or in print, one of which was nominated for the McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. He self-published his first long work, Mouse (Shakespir) in 2015. These days he runs and gardens and listens to the radio. He’d enjoy hearing from you at .