Nebula (#1) Is Proud To Present



Excerpt from Childforever by Ian McCulloch


Author's Introduction

     My great grandmother paddled down the Missinaibi river when
she was sixteen. She was part of a migration of Moose Factory
Crees but no one in the family remembers why they had decided to
move south. I've heard only fragments of that journey. Passing an
island where an insane woman had been left to die. Hiding in the
woods when they saw the train coming. Trying to eat a banana with
the skin on because the person who handed it to her said it was
like an apple.
     I was told too that they still made offerings of tobacco to
the river each day before starting out, though they didn't
remember what else was to be said or done. It had become a
perfunctory ritual. A kind of superstition. A clumsy offering
watered down by Christian influence.
     Over the next few generations mixed marriages, Indian
schools, the church and small towns all took their toll. When I
came to know my great grandmother she had forgotten much of her
first language and had passed none of it on to her children. She
would tell me words when I asked. I would write them out
phonetically on slips of paper and carry them around in my
pockets. I remember she spent a lot of time watching Evangelical
preachers on television. 
     My mother had to give up her status when she married my
father. If I didn't say anything about my heritage you would
probably never guess it. It is as though, when those canoes
started south, a few generations ago, something was left behind
on the shore. Something that was meant for me.
     In my first novel, Childforever, an excerpt of which you are
about to read, I wanted to write about this sense of loss. Of the
confusion in feeling pride in being part of a culture and yet
almost completely cut off from it. I changed this somewhat in the
main character by making it so that he is unaware of his mixed
blood. He is adopted by a white family and doesn't find out about
it until the death of his adoptive father. I wanted to amplify
the sense of broken heritage and the culture shock he experiences
on a reserve during his search. This would lead to a confused
kind of "vision quest" as he struggles with his true identity.
Paralleling this are stories of Coyote.


     The first time I saw her it was outside The Red Clay Cafe. A
simple building with an angular painted facade and roofed front
deck trimmed in red. It was low and rectangular and made of
nondescript cinder blocks. A wooden sign out front bore the name
in crimson hand-painted letters. I had pulled in behind the wheel
of my compact, ruined car and opened the door into the cloud of
thick dust that had pursued me for thirty miles or so. Rough,
curving miles that twisted through seemingly endless bush. 
     It was a kind of road I had never been on before. A road
that appeared to have found its own way in. Slithering through
the thick stands of bush, shouldering its way around sudden rock
cuts and slipping past chaotic swamps where black, bony trees
were fighting to maintain their balance. It would drop away
suddenly or leap up in a spine-numbing row of abrupt bulges then,
turn back on itself in long viscous curves rutted with washboard.
Huge logging trucks would materialize out of nowhere, rumbling
down the long hills towards me, their immense, cumbersome loads
of limbless trees rocking menacingly as they roared past, the
cloud of dust behind them rolling up like gritty surf and
smothering my wheezing car. The road, for a few seconds, merely a
stony rumour rattling under the wheels as my tormented red heap
fishtailed and bounced and chattered its complaints all the way
     It was a lost, forlorn road, thick with jeopardy and loose
stones. Every so often there would be the rusting carcass of a 
battered old car overturned in the ditch or half hidden where it
had cut a swath up into the trees. I had just about given up on
arriving anywhere alive again when I saw the weathered sign
saying; RED CLAY CAFE 5 km.. A little further on their was a
underneath, Red Clay Indian Band.
     I stepped out of the car and stood helpless for a moment,
blind and choking on the road dust that swirled around me and
clotted in my throat. I waved my hand trying to clear the air in
front of my face then stumbled ahead a few feet praying I
wouldn't run into anything or be run over myself. When I looked
up there were about eight sets of eyes watching me. Young kids
were perched all over the low porch in front of the cafe. I
nodded to them and they looked right through me, passing a
cigarette among themselves, blowing smoke rings and standing
tough. A middle-aged woman shuffled out of the place. She was
stout and dark-skinned and bulging through her tattered clothes.
She teetered off the step while the young boys laughed and
imitated her unsteady progress. She stopped only a few feet from
me and bent over suddenly, hands on her knees as she hacked and
gagged and spit into the dirt. A thick strand of saliva hung from
her lip a second or two and she tried unsuccessfully to coax it
to fall with her tongue before she wiped it away with her sleeve.
She straightened up and stumbled off across the parking lot
without ever giving any indication of having noticed me standing
there. Feeling foolish and a little nauseated, I walked past the
bubble of sputum left by the ragged woman and avoiding the eyes
of the boys gathered on the porch, entered the cafe.
     I'm not sure what makes a cafe a cafe but this place
certainly wasn't what came to mind. It was actualy more
convenience store than restaurant. There were three or four
tables with folding chairs scattered around and a counter with
short metal stools in front of it but, most of the inside space
was taken up by rows of shelves holding everything from toilet
paper to breakfast cereal. Two old men sat together at one of the
small tables drinking coffee and smoking roll-your-owns. A young
woman stood behind the counter under a white back-lit sign, with
the ubiquitous Coca-Cola logo dead center, that served for a
     "You want somethin'."
     She didn't smile. I hadn't really expected she would. I was
dirty and dust-covered and a total stranger. I smiled at her.
     "Hi. My name is Sawnet. William Sawnet. I'm looking for my
     "You lost your mommy?" The voice came from behind me
followed by much laughing. Even the old men were chuckling. I
glanced over my shoulder and saw that the young boys had followed
me inside off the front porch. I turned back to the girl behind
the counter my face flushed with heat. It had been a foolish
thing to say. Trying to lay out my entire mission in a few words
and hoping she could solve my problems with a few of her own. I
looked into her eyes, trying to think of what to say next and
pleading for patience. She must have seen something there because
she looked past me and spoke a few harsh words I didn't
understand to shoo the giggling boys back outside. She met my
gaze again.
     "You need some help?"
     I sat down on one of the small stools. "Yes, please. I'm
looking for someone. Actually I'm looking for someone who might
have known someone." It was the first step. The first real step
on this journey and it frightened me. Five days ago, leaving my
parents' home, I had been excited. It had seemed like an
adventure then, as if the answers to my questions were just
around the next corner. The idea of writing a book about it had
given it some distance. The concept of it as merely a project, a
simple money-making venture had allowed for a cavalier attitude.
Now the possibility of real answers frightened me.
     "I'm looking for the Whiteduck family."
      She looked at me suspiciously, "I thought you said
somethin' about your mother?"
     "My mother's name was Elsie Whiteduck."
     The girl behind the counter looked at me again. Looked into
my eyes and my so-fair skin and then away out the dusty window
and down the long dirt road I had just come up.   
     "Sorry," she said, "I don't know no Whiteducks."
     The door slammed and a couple of young men were standing in
the store. They walked up and stood behind me staring up at the
sparse, bright menu. 
     "What'ch you got for soup today?" one asked and the girl
stepped to the side and out of conversation with me.
     I swivelled the stool around grimacing at its high metal
     One of the young men put his hands up over his ears.
"Cheezus..." he said. It sounded strange. Brutal somehow and in
someway more of a curse then I'd ever thought it could be. It was
as though there was another syllable twisting there inside the
word like a hooked worm. I looked at him. His long black hair was
tied back with a blue headband that looked to be torn from a t-
shirt and he wore cheap drugstore sunglasses, the lens scratched
and marked with fingerprints. He met my gaze with a wry smile.
     "Sorry," I said.
     He looked at his friend then back at me, shrugging. He was
wearing a striped sleeveless shirt and I saw the muscles in his
shoulders ripple under his shadowed skin. 
     "Don't apologize man. It was just the fuckin' chair."
      His companion guffawed and shook the mop of hair on top of
his head. I got to my feet and stepped between the two young men.
My light skin flushed again as I brushed past them. When I looked
back they were contemplating the menu. Maybe it was a fool's
errand trying to track down someone I had never really known.
Trying to reclaim something so lost to me.
     "Hey you."
     One of the old men was calling out to me one finger raised
beckoning. I smiled and walked over to the table.
     "Hi," I extended my hand. "I'm Wil..."
     "Better roll your windows up. Rainin' like hell out there."
     I turned towards the screen door as the old man pointed and
sure enough a thick curtain of rain could be seen moving up the
road. The wide dirt ribbon was darkening to a deep brown as it
came and the sky had turned black and mean overhead. I hurried
out through the spring-loaded door and leapt from the porch. I
was about halfway across the gravel parking lot when the downpour
hit, drenching me. I struggled at the handle then, cursing,
slipped in behind the wheel and began to work frantically to
crank up the window. I had to push out against the glass to get
it to roll up properly. Lightning flashed across the windshield
and I reached over the seat to find my jacket. Thunder rolled
deep and long above the little settlement and the air trembled. I
struggled to get the jacket on in the cramped car, then began to
rub at the fogged windshield with the palm of my hand.
     I had picked this place at random. Mona had remembered the
name Elsie Whiteduck and something about her being from up north.
So I had driven to Edmonton, bought a map, and headed up north. I
studied the reserves and colonies marked on the map. Red
Clay seemed north enough, remote enough, a good place to find
Indians. Red Clay. Red Man. White duck. What the hell, it was as
good a place to start as any.
     I didn't bother with official channels. I wasn't ready for
that, I knew they didn't have the kind of information I wanted.
There would be time enough for bureaucracies later but, right
then, I wasn't interested in the official version. Lying in my
old bed in my old room I had tried to assess what I knew about
Indians. I knew Tonto and the noble savage. I knew the stories
about lazy drunks and I knew there were places called
reservations where supposedly their every need was provided for,
but it was all hearsay. I really didn't know much at all.
     In my fantasies I would be guided by some secret element in
my own blood. A genetic connection would start clicking away
under my skin and I would know where to go. There would be
visions and signs. I would walk in and only have to mention the
name of my unknown mother. Whiteduck, they would say. We're
Whiteducks. You must be Elsie's boy. Hug, hug. Kiss, kiss.
Prodigal son. The fatted calf. Dancing around a huge bonfire. The
secret ritual of initiation. The triumphant return to My People.
The blood brother ceremony all over again.
     It was the horse that first caught my attention. Huge and
white, shimmering in the wet side mirror as it pounded up the
gravel road tossing its head and blowing steam as the cloudburst
cooled the early summer air. I stared into the mirror for a few
seconds watching the vision grow and my jaw went slack. I had
dreamed this horse only a few nights before, parked in a picnic
area overnight and sleeping in the car.
     In the dream I was a captive. I stood beside a white
stallion surrounded by savage comic book Indians armed with bows
and arrows, their faces painted and their mouths set hard. My
perspective kept changing in the dream, circling above as though
I were a bird or simultaneously watching from a helicopter.
Still, I could see details. The horse's huge eyes, the white
shirt I wore, the gleaming metal tips of the arrows aimed at my
chest. We seemed to be in a peculiar maze of hedges and small
bushes. There was no speaking. No sound at all, at first. Then I
could hear the breathing of the horse. Low and steady in the
beginning, like a man sleeping in a quiet room. It began to
build. A little faster, a little more forceful. Everyone stood
frozen, listening to its rhythmic pulse. Faster. The hot breath
blowing against my face. Whispering in my ear. Faster. Steady and
powerful. Hot and urgent against my neck. Like an engine
building. Winding up. Compelling. Run it said to me. Run now
while the wind is in my chest. There was only the flint eyes and
the drumming of the horse's heart and then I made my lunge,
grabbing the pale tossing mane and swinging myself up. Arrows cut
the air around me, one sinking into my leg, the horse kicking out
then gathering the ground under its hooves and exploding up and
over the hedge. We jumped barrier after barrier, dodging and
weaving through the low brush, razor-edged metal like insects in
the air around us. Fierce, painted warriors were everywhere in
the blurred landscape and it was a hopeless heroic vision unlike
any other dream I had ever had. 
     Suddenly, the stallion missed a jump and we were tumbling to
the earth, sprawling in the dust, both of us wounded and
breathless. I saw myself stand up and brace against one of the
green leafy barricades, watching as the dark braves surrounded
me, their bows drawn. When the taut strings snapped with release
and the cruel shafts flew, I woke up. Woke in the strange
darkness of the car cramped and sweating with terror my hand
clutching at my leg. I clawed at the door and pulled myself out
of the car grunting and limping around. My foot was asleep, the
painful electric tingling shooting up through my shin. I kicked
at the air, groaning and grimacing and at the same time, amused
over the absurd romantic vision of the dream and puzzled by its
overwrought hostility and pain.
     Now that same horse, maybe not quite so self-consciously
regal or white, galloped past my car. A young woman was riding it
bareback, clinging to the reins and crouched low over the
muscular back. She was soaked through, the brown skin of her arms
glistening and her white t-shirt clinging. I could see the dark
circles of her nipples and the way her wet jeans had tightened
around her thighs. I ached staring at her naked feet dangling
down, brown and elegant and splashed with mud. She reined the
horse in hard and as it stopped and half turned, I saw a boy
hurtle from the deck in front of the store, his arms extended
like wings, and run with shoulders hunched against the rain. She
sat gripping the bridle with one hand as the horse danced in
place underneath her and she reached out her free arm. It seemed
to happen in slow motion. The boy stretching to seize her slender
wrist as she pulled back with the momentum of his leap, his small
body vaulting up through the silver curtain of rain onto the
horse's back behind her. The animal stamping the wet earth as it
turned twice and sat back on its haunches, frozen a moment,
stalled energy rippling under its skin. 
     I stared at them. The boy, the woman, and the horse
teetering on the brink of that charged second. Focussing on the
details, the boy's hands clenched together over the woman's
breasts, her long wet hair as she shook it back out of her face,
the flared nostrils of the wild-eyed horse. Then the animal
exploded forward and they passed right in front of my car,
leaping over a low concrete divider and racing off down the road
under the pouring rain.
     It was like waking from the dream all over again. I looked
around twisting back and forth in the seat, my mouth wide open.
The boys on the porch were huddled together, oblivious. One held
out a disposable lighter and another had his hands cupped around
a cigarette. They hadn't even noticed. I looked around. There was
no one else. Only the puddled, muddy lot, the long treacherous
road and the dark raging sky. No one else saw or cared.
     A vision had ridden bare-back into this rutted dirt-packed
parking lot and plucked a young boy from the earth. A brown,
supple vision, slick and shiny as birth, had galloped past my
wreck of an automobile on a slightly dingy horse. I felt as
though she had pulled the eyes out of my head on long elastic
bands and then let them snap back against my brain. I was in love
with her for that. Before I knew her name. Before I had ever
heard her speak, I loved the sweet blue bolt of excitement she
left bouncing around my skull.
     I sat for a while playing that reverie over and over in my
head. I wanted her face etched into my retina somehow. I wanted
to be able to see her on that horse any time I felt like it. It
was already too blurry. Suddenly, I saw another face coming
towards me through the rain-soaked windshield. I jumped on the
brakes even though the engine wasn't running.
     The face floated sideways a few inches away from the
windshield then righted itself and drifted around to the side
window. I watched a hand come up and tap on the glass but I
pretended to be adjusting the radio. I had only really caught a
glimpse before looking away but still I hoped he might
dematerialize if I ignored him long enough. 
     The man's hair was shoulder-length and incredibly unkempt.
It clustered together in black spiky crests that protruded
everywhere, as if his head had started to explode and then come
to a sudden stop. The rain was having only a minimal effect. The
strands were so matted and filthy that most of the moisture
simply ran off. A long piece of orange surveyor's ribbon was tied
around his head and was apparently purely decorative. Below that
bright fluorescent strip was one blood-shot eye and one dead one.
The lightless orb lolled in a milky cloud with the iris nothing
more than a dark shadow behind a veil. His face was pitted and
marked here and there with patches of thin stubble and dirt. His
lips were dry and cracked. He tapped again much harder. I looked
up and smiled as though just noticing him and rolled the window
     "Hey, you got a smoke?" His breath was harsh and chemical. 
     "Sure," I said, managing an even bigger smile and reaching
for the pack of cigarettes on the dash. I handed him the half-
empty package. "Keep it," I offered nonchalantly. "I've got a
carton in the back." His head turned slowly in a shaky and
somewhat tender manner as though there was the danger it might
drop off at any second. He had to lean in slightly so that his
good eye could take in the jumbled mess my belongings had become
over the past week. His hair was like a badly spoiled meringue
topping in my face. He was soaked from the rain though he didn't
seem to notice and water dripped from the tight clumps of wet
hair onto my leg. I leaned over towards the passenger side and 
started playing with the radio again. With some effort he pulled
himself back out of the car window and focussed his good eye on
     "Thanks, I'd do the same for any whiteman." He laughed. I
laughed harder. I wanted to tell him I wasn't really a whiteman
but I decided he probably wouldn't believe me anyway.
     He pointed to himself, his finger tapping against his chest.
"I used to be pretty important on this place you know. Used to be
a Special Constable." I nodded my head and tried to look
impressed. I wanted the cloudburst to start up again and drive
him away. I wanted someone he knew to come by and call to him. I
wanted lightning to strike and fry him to a black crisp. 
     "Hey, show me your license."
     I started to reach for my wallet and this doubled him over
with laughter. He weaved back and forth all bent and spastic, one
hand anchoring him to the car door. I looked at his dirty
fingernails and smiled through my disgust. His laughing decayed
into a fit of coughing until he was hacking deeply and spitting
out a thick wet froth on the muddy ground. Finally in the midst
of his paroxysm his hand let go of the car. I turned the
ignition, slapped the gearshift to drive, and spraying mud,
wheeled out onto the slippery road.
     I had made it as far as the dead horse before I realized I
had turned the wrong way and was heading deeper into the reserve.
The horse was actually long passed being dead. It was nothing but
white and yellow bone stretched out in the short wet grass. It
lay on its side in the ditch like part of a diorama in a museum,
totally undisturbed and not a fragment missing. The long neck
extended, each perfect vertebrae in its proper place, the elegant
fleshless head like an arrow pointing to the green sign that
announced arrival onto the reserve proper. I stopped to carefully
read its message. "WELCOME TO THE RED CLAY BAND RESERVE". There
were five huge bullet holes in the centre of the sign. Odd,
ominous bits of punctuation full of the threatening grey sky but,
I decided to drive on anyway and have a look around.
     The wide gravel road actually swung past the little
settlement of houses that was the village of Red Clay. I could
see it meandering on between dark tangled mysteries on either
side. Heading north into the lumber and oil fields and lands of
rich labour. I turned right and drove onto a narrower twisting
     The first thing that came to my attention by was a fenced-in
compound on the left. It was a six foot high solid looking chain-
link affair with about half-a-dozen tidy little mobile homes
clustered inside. They were all nicely painted with plants
hanging outside and little asphalt sidewalks joining them
together and leading out through the padlocked gate. I didn't
know it then but this chaste enclave was the preserve of the
transitory teaching staff sent by the government. On the right a
little further on and at the crest of a small hill was the
yellow, concrete block school house.
     There were even narrower, rougher roads leading off from the
main one towards an assortment of houses and muddy lanes. The
roads seemed to run in loops. The main loop joined back to the
main road. Off of it were smaller loops. Off of these ran even
shorter loops that skirted two or three houses then arced back to
the secondary arch. Few roads were dead ends and the design
seemed to be centred around not having to back up. I drove around
a few times following different circular paths, looking at the
rail fences and miserable dogs and various living arrangements. 
     I would pass a bungalow with bright aluminum siding and
sheets hanging in the picture window for curtains and adjacent to
it would be a log cabin with square shuttered windows and a
dilapidated outhouse. The next one down would be a tar-papered
shack with sheets of plastic stapled over the windows to keep out
the wind. Behind one or two I could see animal skins stretched to
     It went on in that haphazard manner. There wasn't the sense
of order and planning I was used to, having grown up mostly in
the precise sameness of Armed Service subdivisions. Better known
as PMQs in typical military fashion. Private Married Quarters
where all efforts are directed towards uniformity and equality,
dependant upon rank of course.
     Here in most places it seemed that people had used whatever
was available for shelter. Except for the occasional modern
bungalow most of the places were more like cottages or cabins.
Some were little more than hovels built out of scraps of plywood
and mud. A few had rough rail fences around them and some even
had enough property to keep a horse or two. 
     I had just begun to believe the place was deserted when I
saw an old man walking on the road ahead of me. He was strolling
in the middle of the right lane carrying two rabbits in one hand
and a small shotgun in the other. I pulled to the left to ease by
him but as I approached he began to angle into the centre of the
road. I honked the horn as politely as is possible but he didn't
seem to notice. I edged over even more towards the left ditch and
he seemed to be holding to his course in the middle of the muddy
lane. Just as I was about to pass him he cut right in front of
the car as if it had been his plan all along. I hit the horn and
cranked the wheel to dodge past as he half turned throwing up his
hands. One dingy, bloodied rabbit was sent spinning high into the
air, end over end like an acrobat. I managed to avoid running him
down but my outside wheels slipped over the edge of the road and
I slid helplessly down the muddy bank, my foot senselessly
jamming the brake to the floor. As I came to rest at the bottom
of the steep ditch the dead rabbit landed with a thump on the
     I was fuming as I got out of the car, trying to contain my
anger, "Jesus! Didn't you hear me coming?"
     The old man just stood there, his baggy brown pants tucked
into the yellow rim of his black rubber boots. His red plaid bush
jacket was held together with a safety pin and he wore a
bedraggled beige sweater underneath. The other rabbit dangled
from his hand, blood dripping slowly from its mouth. "Eh?" he
     I spoke slowly, hissing through my teeth, "Didn't you hear
the horn?"
     He raised his arms out to the sides and shrugged. I took
notice of the dead rabbit with its bloody obliterated head and
the old shotgun with its long black barrel. I remembered the sign
at the outskirts with the huge holes blasted through it. I calmed
down. The old man pointed at me with the barrel of the gun. He
had it gripped in his left hand at about the middle, nowhere near
the trigger but still, it was a gesture that made me nervous. I
started to inch back towards the open car door. 
     "I didn't know you were a stranger," he said sputtering a
bit with his own anger. "I thought it was just some damn kids
tryin' to scare me. We don't get no damn tourists out here.
Everybody on this place knows where old Henry lives. They know I
cross the goddamn road here all the goddamn time and they don't
try to squash me with their goddamn cars." His anger had grown
throughout his explanation and he kept making jabbing motions
towards me with the barrel of the gun. I held my hands up in
surrender. It was an argument for which I had no counter. I was
in a place where I probably didn't belong and I wasn't sure of
the rules. 
     "Look I'm sorry. I was just upset because I was afraid I
might have hurt you. That's all."
     The anger faded from his face immediately. His arms dropped
back  down to his sides and he cradled the gun  so that it fell
over his arm with the butt hooked into his armpit and the
business end pointed at the ground. He nodded towards the car.
     "Can I get my rabbit back?"
     I just smiled, "You alright?"
     "Hey fine. Scared me pretty good." He smiled back.
We both looked at my car with its forlorn hood ornament. I picked
up the dead animal by its long hind feet and struggled up the
bank to hand it back to the old man.
     I tried to drive out of the ditch but it was hopeless. The
tires were just spinning on the wet clayish soil and I only slid
farther down the bank. The old man stood watching holding his
rabbits, the little rifle cradled in his arms.
I got out and locked the door. The old man turned and started to
leave and I had to shout to get him to stop.
     "Do you have a phone?" I asked.
     He nodded and jerked his head to the side, "Yeah sure. Come
     When Rabbit saw Coyote he knew it was already too late. He
sat very still. Very calm. Coyote trotted up and stood right over
him.  "Waiting for me," he said in a cocky manner.
"No," said Rabbit. "For my father. He told me to wait here till
he signalled it was safe over in the clover field."
Coyote was curious. "Couldn't you go on your own?"
     "No," Rabbit chuckled. "I'm too young. Too small yet, eh."
     "Too small?" Coyote said in surprise.
     "Yes, too small. Don't tease. We are big in our tribe of
rabbits. Like your tribe must be."
     "I'm not..." Coyote stopped himself. He licked his lips over
the young rabbits naivete. "Is your father close by? I would like
to meet him and offer some gifts."
     Rabbit jumped up and down a bit. "That would be fine. I'll
take you to him."
     "No, no," said Coyote. "I have to prepare myself. I'll wait
here." Rabbit nodded and raced off. "Anxious youngster", thought
Coyote as he crouched down to hide in the grass. He snickered
over his cunning. He waited a long time and when he left his
growling stomach reminded him that sometimes things are exactly
what they seem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ian McCulloch is a noted Canadian poet. His most recent collection is Parables and Rain (Penumbra Press, 1993) Other books include The Moon of Hunger and The Efficiency of Killers. He lives in North Bay, Ontario.

ChildForever, the novel that it was our pleasure to publish this excerpt from, has subsequently been published by Mercury Press -- to rave reviews.  Check out your local, quality bookstore!