Excerpt from Childforever by Ian McCulloch
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 out. 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 second sign; RED CLAY CREE INDIAN RESERVATION, and 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 menu. "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 mother..." "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 screech. 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 down. "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 me. "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 road. 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 dry. 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 hood. 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 said. 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 on." 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.