In the beginning the dust coalesced and there was earth and the earth separated and there was a continent and the geese found the continent good. Her body remembers following the dusty herds, reading the dung, casting the bones. Ice advanced and retreated, people came in waves. And then a railroad was surveyed so things could move faster and this started a land rush and her town was knocked up in a hurry and men brought their families west and north to log and farm.
And this girl, she’s got her bag packed now, some clothes and a dime-store watch, and she has no idea what to remember next. What is camp? What is crew? What is flunky? Everything in motion – flight swifter than the clouds changing patterns, upheavals and subductions, the tectonic plate she rides, the inexorable stretch of the universe, this one great exhale she lives inside.
And who were they anyway, her parents, who would send her off to work with men in a railroad camp? They’re trying to be kind, she knows, not knowing how to be strong. She’d bullied them, lied to them, laughed at all she could get away with behind their backs. So they put it to her like this: the government’s pushing a railroad track into the north and your uncle the cook can get you a job as his flunky on the project. You can fly in a bush plane. There are no roads. You’ll make money, you’ll get your shit together. They show her maps, the planned route. Fly north with the spring geese over endless trees to a long lake aligned with the magnetite in the bedrock. On the far northern tip of that lake is camp.
What monsters there?
The end of steel was a track through trackless wilderness, and she was a girl working on those tracks. Before the steel, though, before everything that followed, she was just a girl of thirteen, ignorant and lazy. She slept till noon, did poorly at school, sent the boys randy to their sheets with the new way she arched her back, hip bones raw as saw blades. These were all she owned, more than she’d owned the year previous. Her name was Mona.
When she got herself to stand up out of bed, she’d shuffle to the kitchen and pour herself a coffee and ask her mother, how do you do it? How do you stay with Dad? All he does is drink. She’d stand, this girl Mona, half-leaning on the counter, and pick at the chipped arborite, half-afraid of the question, half-hoping for some kind of story that would explain why she was ever born and what her own future might hold. Her mother told her the same thing every time. He wouldn’t know what to do without me.
Then Mona would have herself off to school and stare at rays and distributive principles, past participles, sheep’s eyeballs leaking formaldehyde across the bakelite tray, dates of old wars and the names of dead prime ministers and terms like reciprocity and dominion, then she’d play a half-hearted game of floor hockey and not stare at naked bodies in the shower room, and then she’d go home and sleep some more.
One evening, she sat with her parents watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, those girls in the audience screaming for the mop-topped boys, lightening rods galvanizing all the unspeakable want in their young hearts. And her father said isn’t that stupid and her mother said they should all be locked up.
Later, she went out to the garage and found her dad monkeying with an outboard motor, had it all torn apart, the bolts and screws strewn about, and she asked him why do you stay with Mom? All she ever does is bitch about your drinking and how little money you bring home. And he looked at Mona with a sort of petulant surprise. Then went back to monkeying with the parts, bathing them each by each in gasoline to get the grime off so he could see their shape and what they were. Aw, fuck’er all to hell, he said, holding a rusted screw to the light. She’s stripped. Then he looked at his young daughter and he must have seen that she was waiting for some kind of answer. He took a drink from the mickey in his pocket and stood swaying a little in front of her, staring at the floor as if the answer might be read there, and finally he said it. She wouldn’t know what to do without me. And in this way her parents told her nothing about their world and hers.
So Mona took to laying her head on the heat vent under her bed at night to get what news she could. The price of bread’s gone up. The sawmill boss is a bloody ass. Then her father’s drunken confessions, the tragic tone in her mother’s response so keenly edged by the knifing hurt inside her that it cut him too, her father – and Mona, the hapless witness listening through the vent, marked as well, as the witness in the shadows is always marked, deeply and invisibly.
On the day of her first menses when she went to the bathroom and saw with alarm and then understanding that smear of colour on the tissue, she said to herself, okay, now I’m a woman. Her mother had shown her vaguely what to do in the event and Mona put on the rigging with the clumsy reverence of an acolyte, thinking all the time: so this is what it’s like. Messy and painful and hush-hush. Then she went to her room and made her bed, dusted the dresser with the flat of her hand, threw her comic books in the garbage. That was a year ago and tonight she misses those comic books.
He arrives at the end of steel with a tattered suitcase bought at a pawnshop, the suitcase full of fan magazines and some clothes and a man’s toiletry kit that his mother had bought him after he told her he got this job. For looking your best in the wide world, she’d said with her tentative smile. This place could be described as wide with its expanse of wilderness, and it was a part of the world, or it would be when the rail was finished and great long trains moved men and materials over it. So this is where he will make his start.
Tall for his age with a skeletal frame and small eyes, a nose fine-boned and strangely elegant on a simple face. His manner uncertain, boyish and haunted. He wears a blue turtleneck that hangs from his shoulders like it’s still on the hanger, and his corduroy pants rub together at the knees so that a soft grating sound accompanies him on his tour through the cook shack – an old box car really, set off from the main track on a side rail – to the room Smitty says is where he will sleep. A hole in the wall – bed, closet. The room of a junior man on ship.
He sets his new kit on the closet shelf and hangs up his clothes. The magazines he leaves in his suitcase shoved under the bed so no one will see. In this place, he will sport only mustard-coloured shirts like Captain Kirk, or the blue of officers. Never red, the mark of expendable crewmen whose only role is to get killed off. In reality, shirt colour isn’t critical – he knows that, he’s not stupid – but when he wears the colours of a Star Fleet officer, he believes that he carries himself with a little snap, and others seem to treat him with more deference. He will watch the men of power around here: Smitty, and that big wig Willy when he arrives. He’ll watch and he’ll learn, he’ll accomplish his tasks with speed and alacrity. Men will take notice and he will rise in the organization. He’s only a junior now, but he’ll be the up and comer, the one to watch. He imagines Willy turning to Smitty and asking, what’s that one’s name? That go-getter in the corner peeling spuds. Can we find him some work to match his abilities?
The cook shack is too warm and it smells not different than his mother’s kitchen down in town and when Smitty tells him don’t be lazy – I want you out here making toast at 4:00 am – the boy thinks, he’s teaching me, he’s treating me like his own son. Although he’s never known a father, not that he can remember. Smitty sets him to work spooning mosquitoes out of the pickle jar and disappears into the room called the pantry. The boy listens intently to the noises Smitty makes on the other side of the wall, not sure what’s going on in there, but the sounds – scrapings and clatters, low mutters, a vague hum – are the sounds of caretaking and industry, the soothing sounds his mother always made about their house, and he feels safe and comforted as a baby held close to a familiar heartbeat. I can do this, he thinks. I can do this as well as anyone. He’s sixteen and he’s quit school, and his mother told him he thinks he’s a man now, he’d better start acting like one. He surprised her, impressed her even, when he got a job the next day. Walked into Manpower, told the lady, I’ll take it, whatever you got. He was on a Twin Otter pointed north that very week. His mother had cried, said she didn’t want him going so far so soon, but he said a man’s got to follow the work, and she looked proudly on him.
Smitty wears his cookshack whites: the cotton pants, a chef’s jacket cut at the neck like a priest’s, the white apron that could be refolded four ways so he can get away without washing it that number of days. The boy will have one just like it when Smitty can get another ordered in. That other boy, the one who got mad and quit, must have taken the spare apron with him, says Smitty.
When the crew slouches tiredly in for dinner, the boy eyeballs each man discreetly with a measure of calculation, but he can’t make out much in the way of individual details yet, not that he could call to mind later. Nothing here that looks like trouble, though, and he feels his shoulders relax. Smitty yells over their noise: this here’s Bruce, our new flunky. The men look him over with bored gazes and heave their haunches down on long benches and look to their meals. Smitty keeps the boy busy filling milk jugs and stacking thin slices of Wonderbread high on the plates. Filler, he murmurs under his breath, a confidential wink, handing him the bagged loaf, teaching him.
The men converse in comfortable rhythm, a choir familiar with each other’s notes and harmonies. Bruce strikes a careful pace washing dishes: fast enough to impress Smitty, but not so fast that the men call him ass-kisser. Smitty checks his work, makes him sweep behind the stove and wipe around the taps. Everything clean and put away. And when the kitchen’s done and the men have disappeared somewhere, Smitty takes him to a little room he calls the lunch room, tells him, here’s where the crew makes their sandwiches. So every morning early you come in here and you make sure there’s plenty of lunchmeat and bread and pickles. I’ll show you a trick, he says. Keep it close to the vest. If we stay under budget, the bean counters will stay out of our hair and we can smuggle a little extra out of camp. Take your Mom some t-bone steak when you go home for a visit – does she like t-bone? So when you see one side of a slice of lunchmeat moldy, you turn it over. The men don’t look, they just slap it on the bread. What if the other side’s moldy? Well, then you throw it away, of course.
Mona lays in her bed under the covers with her clothes on and listens for a car to idle at the stop sign, and when she hears it she steps nimbly to the window and over the sill, and she has only to vault the rickety fence and climb into the warmth of the car’s interior, the overripe incense of strawberry air freshener, the plush seat covers folding her in, and he – she won’t even think his name anymore in case she accidentally tells it – he might hand her his drink or his smoke or a pill or a powder, and they float over the streets of the town looking remotely at it from inside this lovely ship.
He takes her to a party at the basketball player’s house. Everyone there is ten years older, but she lights a cigarette from his pack most casually and sips the drink he gives her without making a face, and she’s doing alright, no one’s bothering her or looking at her, and he’s acting like she’s precious, getting her another drink and pulling her close on the sofa. The blacklight makes everyone’s teeth white when they laugh and it makes his tee-shirt so white in the dark, so luminous. He says come on down here now and leads her by the hand down the hall and into a bedroom and he closes the door and kisses her and they lay on the bed and kiss and kiss. Music is playing and there’s indistinct laughter while he takes off her clothes and then his own under the blankets and he pulls her close and he’s warm and she settles into him and tells him about her day at school, how some girls said she was trying to wiggle her bum when she walked and she didn’t know how to keep it from wiggling so she just stood still or if she had to walk she did it stiff as a robot until those same girls told her she was walking like she had a pickle up her ass. He laughs at that and it makes her feel like it had happened for the sole purpose of telling him about it, and she feels like she could confess everything in the dark, and his kisses on her neck aren’t making her feel shy. They feel nice, a puppy licking her hand.
And when he pulls himself on top of her and wedges his cock between her thighs she stiffens mid-sentence and says no, a tentative answer to a tentative question. And when the question becomes more deliberate, he seems not himself anymore but possessed with this pushing, so she says no a little louder and then no no no and she tries to squirm away but he holds her and says as he pushes into her, shut up, they’ll think I’m raping you. And then there’s the pain and the blood. And she feels, believes, he’s pushed her into womanhood, just like that: messy and painful and hush-hush. And she’s ashamed of her childish panic and she lets him do it every time after that – figures, I’ve already lost it, and besides, this is what women do. She feels warm in his arms and he listens to her schoolgirl prattle and she feels nothing physical and doesn’t know she’s supposed to – can’t relate the arousal she’s felt alone, that surprising and pleasurable feeling she’d always had and which had begun to take on such insistence and potential that recently she’d followed it to its exquisite conclusion and knew that life would never be the same again for the world had opened like a fragrant flower, anointing everything she saw and heard and tasted and felt and wanted – she couldn’t relate that to what they’re doing together, and he does nothing to help her or teach her, and they don’t talk about that subject, no way.
And then she is pregnant. Unstoppable, but her mother would show her what to do and it would be painful and messy and not talked about much and she would go through the motions in as womanly a way as she could guess. She scrutinizes the catalogues, reading every bit of the printed descriptions on cribs and strollers, comparing features, circling first the cheapest, then the prettiest, then crossing out with a big X and recircling the cheapest, thinking of her mother’s complaining about money and how little they had and how hard it was just to keep a meal on the table.
Mona sees the hurt, the bafflement in her father’s eyes, though he says nothing. Her mother
tries to blame him, the one who made her this way, but Mona insists it was not his fault. She had wanted to lay down with him, to feel his human warmth, the safety in it, the seeming accord. Skin on skin, thrilling and good. She could have lived a year on one kiss. That the man seemed to need more was a surprise to her, a concern, but if it meant that he would keep lying near her in the dark she would do it, although he wouldn’t stay near her: he disappeared when he heard she was expecting. Some failure here she has yet to understand. She hopes it’s a girl, the baby, because she doesn’t know a thing about boys.
At first Bruce hovers in a state of high agitation as the crew uses the molded meat along with the fresh, and Smitty was right – they never look. They just slap it on the bread. He’s tortured in those early days with the knowledge of the tainted food he was, by virtue of his sneaking and silence, forcing the men to eat. He’s as good as shoving it down their throats. But when he asks Smitty in a worried way if they wouldn’t get sick, Smitty says, what do think penicillin’s made of? And in truth they seem none the worse for it, and so Bruce goes on about his business. Every slice of green ham saves another bean and every bean buys another steak to bring home to his mother.
When Smitty takes him outside to show him where the garbage goes, he tells Bruce there’s a bear comes around here filling up his belly for the winter sleep, a garbage bear getting used to easy pickings so don’t get too close. There are bears and there are bears. And this one’s been chased out of his own wild territory and he’s got a mad-on. So stay the hell away and whatever you do, don’t feed him because he might seem bumbling and goofy but he’s not for sale at the price of no goddam pic-a-nic basket, get my drift? He’ll tear a man gullet to sphincter in one swipe and you’ll still be alive when he starts to eat you. And Bruce’s own sphincter curls in its nest and hides from this news.
Later, in his room, the moths crawling over his windowpane seem friendly and companionable to him. So soft, their tiny furred bodies soft as girls’ cheeks and fawn-coloured like when the sun gets hot on a girl’s skin in the hot part of summer when her freckles come out on her nose and she looks so pretty his chest bangs like a bad engine when she looks at him. Her, or any of her friends.
He lays out his clothes for the early wake-up when he knows by now after four days he’ll be too bleary eyed to choose: the blue plaid his mother said his father used to like to wear around the house – a button-up shirt with a button-down collar – and his dark blue jeans and the spanking white apron that had arrived on a supply plane that afternoon. Captain Smitty is a lot of things and prompt is one of them. Bruce pinches the frayed fold of his father’s shirt collar to sharpen the crease and he wishes he had an iron to do the job better. He lays the shirt carefully on top of the apron and jeans, smooths the front flat with his palm.
He’d seen the bear, or thought he had – a blur in the trees when he jogged the trail to the lake after he’d done his lunch dishes and Smitty was laying down for a nap before it was time to make pies. The blur was a dark shape that drew his attention by motion rather than sound as it melted into the bush fifty feet to his left. He wouldn’t think of feeding a bear, even if Smitty hadn’t warned him. His father had hunted bear. Bear was food; its hide could be traded or sold for rent money. So he imagined. He might hunt bear one day when he got around to it. His father had left the gun and it was back home under his bed where his mother wouldn’t see it and beg him to sell it.
That was his first time down to the lake. He’d been busy reordering shelves in the pantry, cans with cans, stacked alphabetically; packages with packages in ascending height for easy access. It had taken him all the afternoon of his second day. Not that Smitty had asked him to, but a thing like that, an extra, showed initiative. Smitty had made him put it back the way it was. That took him all the afternoon of his third day.
There was an old log house on the pebbled beach, smoke chugging out a big stone chimney. Two kids in cotton dresses, black-haired and barefoot, came out the front door and saw him and ran back inside. It was too cold for bare feet. A thin snow overnight had left its rags in the shades and hollows. They should have shoes, and coats. A face appeared at one window, but it was distorted by the glass and he couldn’t tell what kind of face it was. He continued down the trail and across the beach, pebbles grating under his runners. A wooden dock jutted over the water and he walked to the end of it and peered down and there he was, a face on the icy water gazing back at himself, pleasing and sharp until a breath of a breeze moved over the lake and made it fluid again, and his image wavered, and then it made him slightly sick. He looked through it and past it and he could see small fish foraging among the pebbles and silt. He had to look hard to see them. They were only fry, almost transparent, and they took on the dull, dun colour of the lake bottom. Strange, this inverse world where water is breath to a fish, where air would drown it. What would it be like to be some other thing in some other world, a fish or an alien? Better to be the deep-sea diver or the spaceman and keep his own human shape even if he had to wear all that apparatus to stay alive.
When he returned from the lake, Smitty was in the kitchen rolling dough. A good cook, no denying it. Can I help, said Bruce, and he went and got his apron out of his room and put it on and he stood ready, a young man beside an older one, rolling out his bit of dough, trying to keep his edges from cracking, trying to learn how.
Mona eases herself down on the sagging mattress and pulls up her nightgown, bunches it under her chest and rakes with spread fingers the taut, hilled belly like she’s harrowing a field. Rakes with a slow and deliberate concentration as she has done every night since she got this way, expecting to feel some human contour. But there is only the muscular, smooth husk of the ballooning uterus, rotund and without feature as any third-prize pumpkin at the fall fair.
She lets her eyes wander here and there about the room, aware of this touch on her belly, the eyes seeing what they see. A filmy window curtain undulates over the heat vent, diffusing and dispersing the lights of night: blue vaporous rays from mercury streetlamps, the blue cold electric transmissions from November’s ripening moon. A bloodless blue that seeps over her bare walls with their old geography of cracks and stains, her shabby dresser with its scuffed, dulled varnish, her lino floor cracked and scuffed too, her clothes sloughed in a heap like some shed and forgotten skin. A blue that creeps up her bed-skirt, her flannel nightgown hem. It touches her skin, intimate, blue-glowing, electrified as the charged and phosphor glow from an ancient TV.
Through the ductwork channels of the house comes a hum of voices, a remote soundtrack that seeps through the vent beneath her bed: low conversation of her parents mingled with the TV. A really big show for you tonight, a really big show. Snatches of their talk flow forth from the vent. The price of bread’s gone up again, the sawmill boss is still an ass. But what can you expect? It seems to Mona that their vented, humming voices are coming to her through the wires from a distant studio, canned and scripted and so comforting because nothing real ends as it should, but more like the let-down of that first blood.
She feels, in this atmosphere of diode light and wired sound, that she’s an actress in a sad Sunday movie. When the show’s over and the director yells CUT, she can take off the ungainly costume of the poor knocked-up girl and go back to her real life, a life more plausible, more in keeping for a girl her age, more like the lives of the girls on the after-school specials.
On the dresser sprawls an overdue library book open to its flat centrefold display of prenatal humanoids curled in their pink chambers like pressed rosebuds or aliens or little meditating monks with unblemished faces, skin transparent as tadpoles. Mona rakes her belly, feeling the roundness, the stretch of her skin, her self growing out of her own girlness, breasts swelling, hips splayed wide. I’m a woman now, she thinks, if I wasn’t before. Her fingers run their night harrows.
The patterns of evening shift again and Mona hears her name. She presses her ear to the mattress, but the voices come through muffled and indistinct. With the latent grace of youth and her condition she rolls out of bed and propels herself under it among clotted dustballs and unmissed socks, and places her head upon the metal slats of the vent. She cages her breath to hear every word of what her parents are saying out there in the lamp-lit living room.
But this night, with its promise of a really big show, its portentous blue light, broadcasts no new secrets or possibilities for redemption. The conversation has ended and there is only the mechanical sound of the TV.
Mona gets back into bed, pulls the covers over her woman’s body and watches the curtain waver and go limp as the furnace shuts off. Her parents keep it cool in the house, even in winter. They tell her, wear socks to bed. On the coldest nights, she wears her knitted hat. It’s not that cold now; no frost thickens the windowpane this evening. She could slide it open with ease. If she were to open the window right now, anyone could come in. Anyone.
A car approaches along the street that runs by her yard. Yellow light scans her walls. Searchlights, thinks Mona, or those beams that sweep the sky in movies. Her heart makes its feral pounce against her ribs and she gets herself out of bed and to the curtain, but too slow. The car has already passed, and she catches only a wink of red taillights vanishing between the snowbanks.
Her guidance teacher has started the class on this unit where they have to take care of an egg like it’s a real baby. Her mother feels personally pointed at, as if the teacher has designed the egg unit to humiliate their family. But the older girls did it last year; every girl did it in grade ten. Mona had watched them with their eggs wrapped in lace handkerchiefs with little sleeping eyes drawn on their bland faces. The girls named their eggs and made them talk baby-talk and joked about forgetting them on the bus or dropping them and miraculously not cracking them open. When Mona’s class started the unit, it generated an interest in her growing condition. A sideshow fascination, a morbid curiosity arousing such questions as: are you going to keep it? And, aren’t you afraid of all that pain you’re going to have when the baby comes out?
There’s a place she goes to test her courage, a trail off her street that runs down into a dry ditch and up the other side and into the trees, a forest so dense that neither sound nor light nor stirring airs could penetrate. A malicious path that throws its roots up to trip her, scratches her legs with prickles, whips her face with willow branches. When she comes to the end of it, she’s beaten up, bruised, and welted. The air presses in on her, the black spruce shake their heads. Go back, go back, you were never wanted. And then her heart fails and she feels small and lost. And she presses on through a worse gauntlet where there’s no trail, only spaces that she has to squeeze through by compressing her very atoms until she comes at last to that place cold and damp where trees die of rot, stark and bony in the muck. A grey light fixes the scene with the unreality of an old picture and a fecund odour assails her. In this place nothing grows and birds do not come. The muck is grey and holds some stagnant water, and she takes up a stick and writes her name in the muck, and the name sinks and the muck finds its level and closes over, and her name is erased from the earth. And she exalts in the silence. It makes her feel reverent and alert, emptied of noise. And when she comes away she is pensive and quiet, no more questions.
She got an Incomplete on the egg unit: she dropped her egg and it cracked, and she did not wish to replace it.
Bruce winds himself up for another go. Make toast and keep the milk jugs full on the long table. Open jam jars and set big plates of toast at either end flanked with jam – marmalade and strawberry are popular. The men are mostly quiet and groggy this early, not like at supper.
Yesterday was bad. He’d put the bread in the freezer instead of the cupboard and it was frozen this morning but Smitty said it was okay, he could still make toast with it. He had to put frozen bread out for the sandwich table, though, and he made sure to be out of the way when the men came in to make their sandwiches.
The men could eat six eggs each and when Smitty makes Bruce an omelette after the men are gone, he has to tell Smitty that he wouldn’t mind a smaller one but this is hard to do as Smitty seems hurt and tells Bruce he can make his own eggs if the omelettes aren’t good enough for him, but they are good, just too big. So Bruce says he’s sorry he can’t stomach it and he takes it out to the trash can. But there’s the bear – he’s got the trash spread out and he’s licking at some jam on a crust. Bruce is about to toss the omelette for him, but Smitty’s behind him and says, what did I tell you about feeding that bloody bear? I should put a bullet in his head. Bruce sees again a father’s care for a son – he’s looking out for me, keeping me from harm – and he yells at the bear until his voice grows hoarse and the bear runs into the trees. Bruce scrapes the omelette into the garbage can and then he puts the garbage can in the lock-up shed.
Back in the kitchen, he clears and washes the dishes, sweeps and mops. Then, while Smitty doctors his food inventory, he takes a shower.
The supply train should come through today. Maybe Willy will be on it. The men always talk about Willy. Willy knows everything. Whenever they ask something about the province, the railway, its history, he knows. Some of the crew say he was a history prof, some say not likely.
Willy might be the one to bring the mailbag up to the kitchen cookshack. There might be a letter from his mother. He wrote her to let her know he’d arrived safely and she’d written back three times. She sent her recipe for meatloaf, bless her silly heart. As if her son could be in charge of a main course already. The men would probably throw meatloaf on the floor. They liked their roast chicken and pork tenderloin, the better cuts of beef. Smitty knows how to keep these men happy – keep their mouths full of good food and their stomachs warm and content. Lack of women, isolation from town pleasures, the cold and unwelcoming beds with their thin, hard mattresses and scratchy camp blankets… these can piss a man off. Food is their comfort, and Smitty lays them a table they look forward to all day.
Yesterday’s pie had turned out good though. At least Smitty said it wasn’t bad and the crew had eaten it without comment, even the crust. Bruce had never thought, expected, to be making a pie in his lifetime. It was not something he’d aspired to. But here there were no mothers to take care of the mouth’s cravings, and where the men might have called baking woman’s work in the town, in camp any man who made a good pie was worth the salt.
Bruce steps out of the shower and dries himself with brusque swipes of the rough towel. He can go one more day without a shave – the stubble is soft and light – and what does it matter anyhow? No one looks at him. He’s become as familiar and uneventful as a housefly and as long as he stays out of the crew’s faces he attracts no angry swats, but neither will he attract glory. It’s all different then he’d hoped.
He puts on his mustard pullover knowing for a fact now it does not command authority or respect or even notice, for to the crew he’s become part of the background of the kitchen, an ant crawling over a boot, and Bruce even feels sometimes he has the power to make himself invisible. He walks among them but is not of them. Yet, it is still the mustard shirt of the captain, if only to his own inner universe. There in the vast unknown spaces of his mind he rules minions, takes decisive actions, makes hair-raising escapes, charms ladies gentle and wild.
He cleans the bathroom in a trance, takes out the garbage oblivious to the vernal mutter of trembling aspen, to the bear watching, the heavy sky. Later, he will come to understand that he is a boy in a story not of his writing. But for now he clings to his shreds of self-determination.
At supper, the men are anything but quiet: they’re full of bombastic talk, though Bruce has learned to move without being noticed. Still, sometimes he raises his eyes at the wrong moment and then the teasing starts. They ask about his experience with girls and that leads to ribbing and conjecture. And he endures the crude jokes and wild hypotheses about his stallionesque feats in the streets and halls of his town. He endures the questions and the mockeries, the frank gazes, consoling himself with Christmas approaching soon and he’d made enough to buy his mother a fur coat, and when he flies out on the Twin Otter he’ll have a suitcase full of T-bone for her freezer. Better than his old man ever did.
And when the men get up to retire, he does the dishes fast and stocks the lunch counter, and he goes to his room and pulls out the magazines, and there’s one picture he can always use – Vina from part two of The Menagerie where she turned into an Orion slave girl with her green skin and her unusually red lips – and he touches himself and finishes quickly and then dreams about her face, being married to such a creature, a woman. Being allowed to caress her, to have her beside him in his sleep, to wake with her green arm across his chest, her green legs tangled with his, her voluptuous, writhing body all green and clad in silver gauze. He would unwrap her with the irresistible curiosity of an onlooker at an accident scene, that imperative need to know all that can happen to us, what all exists and must be made ready for.
When it was over, Mona wouldn’t remember the way the sun shone that morning through frost crystals suspended in mid-air like the dotted netting women wear over their faces at funerals. She wouldn’t remember her walk to the store for milk and cigarettes – an errand for her mother. The pitted sidewalks, the ice-glazed pavement. French’s Department Store mannequins staring past her as though they could see beyond the curve of the world. She wouldn’t remember the zipper on her Indian sweater jangling loose against her thigh because she couldn’t get it to close over her swollen body. Or navigating the men who’d walked ten miles from the reserve to stand outside the post office and share hooch from a crumpled bag. Or the woman at the top of the post office steps scrutinizing a death notice taped to the government door, how the woman ran down the steps to accost another woman in her morbid haste. You knew Corky Miller, didn’t you?
She wouldn’t remember walking behind the young man leading his old blind father arm in arm all the way to the Coop grocery store, the father bundled in a blanket and thick wool pants, the son with no jacket on and only polyester slacks that might have come from a church rummage sale. Worn out running shoes. The younger man did not shiver or try to get the old man to hurry. His long black hair was caught at the neck with a leather string and braided down his back. The braid’s side to side motion mesmerized Mona, but she wouldn’t remember that either, or the way their steps were dirge-slow and choreographed, so used to each other, the young man and the older man, they didn’t need words between them. So it seemed to Mona, though that memory was gone from her along with the image of the heavy man who greeted them with a beaming face and shook their hands outside the Coop, who turned to Mona and shook her hand, too, as she passed, saying, I’m just so happy.
She had no recollection later of the two Mennonite girls, younger than Mona, who stood by the door palely thin and gangly in their long, flowered dresses, their feet clumsy in black galoshes, their virginal hair bunned and netted. Or the wares they displayed: four kittens in a basket, necks gaily beribboned, one grey puffball face so cute that Mona would have taken it if she hadn’t brought home such a kitten two years ago that was the bane of her mother’s existence: fouling the flower beds and shredding upholstery.
Long after squeezing past them in the bread aisle, Mona would not recall an old woman, frail and grey, with her old cowboy husband and his thin, ropey legs, how the woman clutched at the arm of an older, frailer woman and said, I want you to pray for my father.
Or at the checkout paying for the bread and cigarettes, cigarettes which two decades later would not have been sold to her because she was not of legal age, and she wouldn’t remember the last covetous look at the grey kitten before she was out on the sidewalk and hurrying past the post office with its jeering, drunken gang, past the staring mannequins, past a group of long-haired kids smoking and calling hey, Mona, come here. Wild Man cut his pound. You want some? Or how she answered can’t, pregnant.
Past the library on the edge of town with its bewildering books, no dust jackets or pictures to tell her what each was about, whether it was worth reading.
Gone forever was the feeling of dread that came over her when four horses bore down on her at a half-trot along the sidewalk, four girls aloft, girls her age who usually didn’t talk to her, rough country girls – rodeo queens who competed for blue firsts at barrel-racing and calf-tying every summer. Their horses big and arch-necked and chaffing at their bits, snorting and tossing, crowding the sidewalk, foam at their mouths, the proud stepping hooves chipping splinters of ice that caught the light like flint sparking off a striker. Three quarter-horses, game and shaggy beasts, their winter coats thickly furred; and one grey – some foreign breed, the bones too delicate for this country, the head too finely shaped, the eyes too intelligent, too anxious.
The horses pulled up short, dancing and impatient while the girls spoke to her. Where ya going? Wanna ride?
And as in a dream there was the girl on the foreign horse removing one foot from its stirrup and offering her hand, and Mona used to be a good rider – she and her friend Colette used to walk out on the highway to old man Fawcett’s stables where they curried the horses for free rides and they learned to ride like the Indians in movies who could jump on a horse and become a new muscle on the horse’s own muscled back. They got so good that by twelve years of age they were leading tourists out on the trail, and once they took two older loud-talking show-offs wearing lipstick and brassieres and bragging about their dates. They took them out around the bend with the low branch at a dead gallop and managed to get one of them knocked off, but one was better than nothing and those girls didn’t show off anymore.
Mona couldn’t do it the usual way now – she’s got her bag of bread and cigarettes. She’s got this new weight and shape under her coat. She couldn’t mount and double the way she was used to, couldn’t put her foot in the stirrup and take the offered hand and, with her other hand on the cantle, hoist herself up behind the saddle. But another girl urges her horse forward and takes the bag and the girl on the foreign horse manoeuvres beside the library steps, and Mona ascends the steps, feeling clumsy and new at this.
And now she’s able to ease herself on behind the saddle, and she grips the rim of the saddle with both hands, only the other girl comes up beside her and hands her the bag with bread in it so Mona has to hold it off to one side crooked in her woollen sleeve because there’s nowhere else to put it: her belly is pressed snug against the girl in front of her and it feels like the bag wants to slip. She grips the cantle with her free hand and the girls kick their horses forward.
Does she remember the girls asking her where she lives? The directions? The kicking of the horses? The slip? The fall?
So much leaks away like this, seeping into that negative space, dark and formless matter. Only the positive space remains: memory etched with a series of stills imprinted as on celluloid that, when she runs through them, make a sort of flip-card animation that tells the story. She remembers pain, dull, then sharper, then so intense it blasts her into another reality where pain has fluid form that rises and ebbs. And she is adrift on that pain and it takes all her attention to ride it, to stay on top, not sink. And then, because it is too big and too fluid and she has no place to rest, she grows tired and does sink and does drown. The human part of her drowns, but the flesh lives on and things are being done to it without regard for its incognizant whimpers and moans because everyone has a job in that slaughterhouse – the nurses, the doctor – and her part is to suffer.
Her mother’s role, and this comes later, is to sit bolt upright in the presence of the welfare woman, face fixed with that coolly polite smile reserved for authority, which seems to say, yes, I am aware of how the situation looks to you, and I sympathize with your limited understanding of all this, so I will allow you your reasonable assumptions and will agree pleasantly with all you say because I see no benefit in complicating your worldview and your job. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. When you’re done with us, we’ll go home and do what we have always done, what you would do too if you’d been born to our lives instead of yours.
Her father’s role is to stand beside his wife, as duty requires, not too close, letting the space explain on his behalf that he’d not had much to do with any of it, this women’s business.
Later still, the mother will sit for a long time at their kitchen table with a piece of blank paper in front of her, smoking. At last she will stub out her cigarette and write a letter to her brother.
His first night back in camp after Christmas, Bruce dreams of walking on a dirt cliff and the frangible earth crumbles beneath his feet and he’s falling down a hidden pit that has no bottom, falling through space, his body floating calm and resigned but his mind flails for any way to stop the fall or reverse time and make his steps more careful. Then he wakes and put on his mustard shirt, his softly grating cords, and goes about his now familiar chores, carrying in his gut the hollow sense of his inconsequence. And when he sees the crew off, he’s too wrapped up in his misery to worry over bacterial ham tucked between slices of Wonderbread.
After the dishes are done, he makes everything tidy, the floor swept, and he showers and redresses and sets to work making huckleberry pies while Smitty plans the month’s meals. The dough is soft as flesh and yields to Bruce’s touch. He lifts it without breaking it and places it tenderly in the dish. Smitty looks over his shoulder and says, that’s good, my boy, and when you’ve finished that I’m going to show you how to make cinnamon buns. And with this small and incidental praise, Bruce can feel those cinnamon buns rise warm and wafting in his hungry soul.
He’s cheered too by motion all around him, hustle and bustle of back to work, trains roaring by the cook shack, wheels in constant rotation. The supply train rumbles in and drops off the week’s groceries and a mail bag and when it pulls out of camp the engineer gives a long pull on his whistle and the sound rolls out in all directions, up and down mountains and across lakes named and unnamed and over great forests never named and on into eternity, making sound where there was only silence.
Smitty dumps the mail on the cleared table and sorts. He slides a thick letter to Bruce – from his mother already – and stares at the face of another small envelope with quiet interest, turning it over to read the return address. While Bruce puts his letter in his back pocket for later, Smitty comes to the counter and pulls a clean knife from the block and slits his envelope neatly, replacing the knife. He leans against the counter and reads. Bruce watches him, waiting to see if Smitty will want to confide in him about what it says, but Smitty glances up and catches Bruce looking at him and holds his gaze but in a contemplative way, as if he’s forgotten Bruce’s presence and is looking through Bruce’s head at the blank wall behind him. After a moment, he refocuses and turns quickly away, tucking the letter deep in his apron pocket.
The next morning as Bruce stands by while the crew make their lunches, Smitty bustles in, all in motion, wedging himself in amongst the milling crew, his fingers busy at the plattered meats, turning them over as if to arrange the already neat rows of ham and turkey loaf when he suddenly holds one slice up to the light and points and hollers, what the hell is this? And he flips all the slices over and some of them are furred green and the horrified crew curse and throw their half-assembled lunches in the garbage can. They look at Bruce with murder in their eyes and demand to know if he’s trying to kill them or what and Bruce quails before them and they turn to Smitty for leadership and Smitty turns to Bruce as the crew push toward him and says to Bruce: when the supply train heads down in the morning, you’ll hit the rails. Leave an address on the counter and I’ll forward your cheque. Then he addresses the crew. Men, he says, you go on. I’ll bring you all a hot lunch in the speeder. As the crew leaves the lunchroom, one of the men gives Bruce a bump with his shoulder and says in a low voice, this isn’t over, asshole.
When they’re gone, Bruce turns to Smitty. But you told me to! You told me to! Smitty shakes his head slowly and turns his back. Fierce tears slide down Bruce’s cheeks before he can stop them and he spins and flees out the door, heedless of the morning chill on his neck and his shoes sliding in mud at the bottom of the steps. He stumbles blindly across the tracks and down the trail, his breath chugging from his chest in ragged heaves, spruce branches clutching at his clothes, his corded pants heckling and dogging his every stride with rustled whispers as he runs. A wind is coming up from the south and he sees the trees in motion all around him and clouds moving very fast across the sun, colliding, piling up together in great stacks and the light is cut off by the time he reaches the water. He runs breathless to the end of the dock and looks down into lake water black as a scrying mirror. He peers in. Nothing, nothing.
Later, after lights out, his bedroom door opens with a stiff squeal. Four men come like apparitions in the night, their heads anonymous in pillowcase hoods with eyes cut out, their bodies cloaked in white sheets, company issue. One man bears the knife, another the pillow, and others jars and bottles. Bruce sits up in bed. His eyes strain in the dark, his heart punches rib. He feels his vomit rise but there’s no time for the body’s pressing needs as the ghosts set upon him and he screams without shame and tries to kick as they drag him out of bed and hold him writhing on the floor. He’s scratched and bruised as wordless and grunting they wrestle his shirt over his head and strip off his shorts. The incandescent yard light glares in yellow planes off sheets and hoods with gaunt black hollow holes where human eyes should be. An old southern institution borrowed and bent to the purpose of their private and communal law. Animated sheets with clasping fingers that gouge his skin and he strains against them until he’s used up and he goes limp in their hands, and when he senses the cool stickiness on his stomach he can’t even flinch though his mind whirls with lurid pictures, religious rites half-imagined. Things take hold before you can stop them and his body resigns but his spirit recoils and the cold drips are all over him, trickling down his ribs and his thighs, over his face and in his hair, and he smells not the faint goaty musk he expected but the intense sweetness of flowers. He understands then that it is not that which he thought and feared, and he’s confused but there’s no time to ponder because the cloaked men are bending over him, smearing the ooze with brisk slaps and if this was the worst then at least it will not be too painful and tomorrow he will be gone from them, he will tell no one and he will be intact. Still he’s not sure if they will turn him over and his bowel constricts but the anonymous hands, intent on their smearing, avoid touching him there and he thinks it’s okay – I’ll shower and get back in bed after. He’s cold and weary of it and wants it to be over, so he lays pliant and submissive under the hands. It’s beginning to feel ridiculous and he starts to say so when he sees in the yellow light what they are going to do next and his body jerks in mortal panic at the pillow held above him and the flash of a blade reflected in the light that pours through the window in yellow slanting planes, and he sees his future as if from above – his face buried under the pillow while the knife eviscerates, gullet to sphincter. He tries to scream again but the scream dissipates out of his mouth and swirls upward like the great mute wings of a demon crow. His innards spasm and he bucks against fate, his final bid. The sheeted figures throw themselves upon his thrashing limbs while the knife arcs down and he strains to track it in the lurid dark but the blade has exploded in a thousand swirling particles falling softly around him and for a moment he thinks death is painless after all and even slightly beautiful: only a moment of terror and then surprise at this swirling whiteness, surprise that the pain has not come or is forgotten already and there is only the strange new idea of feathers falling falling through shafts of light, taking on a yellow tint as they fall softly on him and the absurdity of it makes him giggle. The sound is strange to his ears, not his voice at all, but strangled and disembodied and he wishes the boy on the floor would shut up. One of the hoods leans over him and he can see the flash of eye as the head comes closer, close close to his ear, and he feels inside his ear the delicate tickle of breathed air as it enters him. He catches the burble of laughter in his own throat and holds it down so he can hear the voice whispering. You’ve been visited, it is whispering, by the angels of retribution. Fuck with us again you’re dead meat. And the angels rise and float out of the room and he lays honeyed and feathered, breathing softly in the dark.
Dianne Swennes Smith graduated from the University of Victoria Writing Program and went on to receive her MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a teaching-writing fellow. Her writing has appeared in Turbine, The Fiddlehead, the Asham Award Anthology, andReconstruction. A short story is forthcoming in the fall issue of Room Magazine. While in a PhD program at University of East Anglia, Diana participated in the 2012 Lithuania Summer Literary Seminar as a Graywolf Press Prize runner up for her novel excerpt from The End of Steel. The full manuscript was awarded a Michener-Copernicus Prize in 2014.