By Jeff Carter
Moonless midnight winter in Canada’s north isn’t necessarily about darkness. There are pockets where the artificial light is reflected upwards and then down again, a kind of deeper twilight to which your eyes adjust.
For a week I’d been making the trek, from the mobile home that we rented, Dahlia, Geena and I, skirting main street, and then over the highway to an empty, snow-dusted field, the lights of the highway motel a few hundred yards ahead.
I don’t know how long they’d been following me, the three of them, Dahlia’s brother in the lead, the others trailing to either side. A party of young hunters, and I the prey; our exhalations rising as one and transformed, sharp diamonds lingering in our wake.
Running wasn’t an option, not being particularly fleet of foot, and so I simply saved my breath and broadened my stride by what I hoped was an imperceptible degree and maintained that pace, eyes forward as the distance narrowed, listening to the footsteps behind.
Dahlia’s brother – I don’t recall ever hearing his name – was smaller than I, compact, well proportioned, born to a land of muskeg and boreal forest, meandering watercourses and occasional low stony outcrops; all scarred by the extraction of fossil fuels; the ancient ways broken.
At the town bar there were two games that were played with a dollar bill. One was harmless enough, the object of which was to have the good fortune of having a winning combination of letters and numbers to form a poker hand.
I played it with an old man there, knowing full well the eventual outcome. I’d win a round. He’d win the next. Dollars exchanged hands and then the finale a final wager. From some inside pocket, a small square would be produced, carefully unfolded and smoothed, a straight flush, ace high, unbeatable.
Dahlia’s brother would play the other game. He’d take a dollar bill offered to him, wrap it tight around one forearm or the other, and with a lit cigarette burn a hole through the bill and, having accomplished this, keep the bill. No trick or subterfuge. Just lines of scars.
The girls I met sometime prior to leaving my position as sole reporter for a string of community weekly newspapers. Even a job as the night clerk paid more though it was a tedious position, seated in a small office during the wee hours.
“Indians,” I was told, were not allowed though on one occasion a couple came out of the cold, a ragged pair of indeterminant age – perhaps much younger than they looked. The man when I stepped up to him bent his head and a long line of spittle fell to the toe of my boot.
At the time I wondered at their appearance, not realizing the existence of a third reserve, just on the edge of town. The others were further away, the largest an hour to the west along a broad road where the arrival of John Munro, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, had been anticipated some weeks before.
It seemed the entire community was gathered in the gymnasium of the school. They waited ’till morning, I heard, but I left at in the wee hours. The minister never did arrive but a sizeable grant intended for development and to address societal ills of the people did, money that would later find its way to some offshore account.
There was an expression used in that place. It was even painted upon a tin shed wall on the way out of town: “Fck-a-round,” the emphasis being equally placed on a first two syllables.
The job at the motel was a mistake, the most excruciatingly boring position I’ve ever held. One night when I wandered away from my lonely post, influenced by a certain a hallucinogen Dahlia had procured, and returned to the trailer where a party was in full flight.
“What are you doing here. Get back to work!” she said.
The girls both held day jobs at the highway restaurant, Dahlia cooking and Geena serving but that’s not where we met. Some fellows in my acquaintance brought them by the trailer one day. I needed paying roommates and for them, it seemed, I represent perhaps the best opportunity.
* * * * *
“Besides, Pinkie, they were beautiful.”
(Pinkie is my dear friend, and like most women I’ve come to know, so much quicker on the uptake than I. )
“We had fun together, the three of us, playing drinking games at which, they would inevitably cheat. Once when taking a shower, they took my clothes. I retrieved them, naked. Dahlia remarked upon my dignity and the relative shortness of my legs compared to the rest of me, a conformation not all so different from hers.
“The first sign of trouble came in a few weeks. I returned home from work to find a Brothers Hildebrandt calendar portraying Hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien fame that I had hung the previous day torn into small pieces.”
“Conflicting mythologies, perhaps?” Pinkie suggests.
“Something like that. There was anger in that tearing. The people, by their own account, have a most spiritual nature. The depiction Hobbits was an afront, it seemed.
“The far greater afront, a most grave misjudgment, Pinkie, was my suggestion to Dahlia that her little brother not hang out around the trailer so much.”
* * * * *
Dahlia’s brother and his two friends scattered with the approach of a certain pickup known to them. In it were two fellows with certain reputation; something about gunplay along main street some years before.
I quit the motel job. Later I heard some well-heeled persons Edmonton-way, from the Four Bands perhaps, were turned away which led to a hullabaloo of sorts. I suspect real change would be years in coming.
To be continued... ◊