Monday, August 31, 2015

The Pilgrimage

If at first you don't succeed, then try, try again. Or you can bake a lemon merigue pie and throw it at the wall. I am still in the try, try again phase but sometimes I just want to throw the pie.

I found out today that my last submission to the CBC Creative Nonfiction contest did not make the long list, but that's okay. Because I really loved the story, and the story was mine to tell. Now that it hasn't made the cut, it is also mine to share. Grab and coffee and have a read.

Note: This entry is a revised, expanded version of a previous piece.

The Pilgrimage

The summer of 1999 pulled me in many different directions, one of them being the birthplace of my Cree grandmother who passed away long ago when I was just a girl. She was born amongst the open stretching plains of Spirit River, Alberta, under all that sky. I don’t know why I felt compelled to go there or what I would do upon arrival. I just packed my truck and I drove.

I drove through alpine meadows in the rain, surrounded by the towering Rocky Mountains. I ventured along winding, deeply forested, single-lane highways on clear sunny days. I stopped to explore waterfalls and scenic trails, made chilli on my truck tailgate while parked in an old forest grove. I photographed vast fields stained yellow with canola flowers. And finally, I arrived in a dusty old town called Spirit River.

Land stretched flat and limitless in every direction, clouds perched in the blue sky like thousands of cotton balls laid out in infinite rows on a glass ceiling. I emerged from my truck as an unsteady stranger on a sea of land, with the line of the horizon as my only reference point for dividing earth from sky.

I had arrived at a small, ramshackle gas station and asked the gum-chewing cashier where I could find the reserve.

“There ain’t no reserve ‘round here no more”, the older woman said. “Those guys moved outta here a long time ago. Went to Fairview”.

"Oh", I said. I did not expect this at all and had never heard of Fairview. “Well, is there a place to stay nearby? A motel or campground, maybe?”

"Motels and campgrounds are all full at this point". She blew a gum bubble. Pop. "Though there is a bed and breakfast down the road that might have room. People there are real friendly". She smiled, cracking dry rawhide lips. I asked for directions there, and was told to take a right on the first road, drive to an intersection, take another right and then a left. Or something like that. I thanked her and contemplated just moving on to Fairview, but it seemed like such a long way to come, just to leave. I hopped back into the truck and followed her directions.

Within minutes I became lost. I thought I had taken all the correct turns but found myself on a flat dusty road to nowhere. I followed it optimistically for ten more minutes before surrendering.

Tired from the heat and grit of the road, the thought of camping in some farmer's field offered reprieve. I eventually backed the truck in next to the only patch of shrubby alders for miles, hoping it would shelter me from passing eyes. I slid out of the truck and lumbered over to an edge of grass that sharply gave way to freshly tilled soil. I was completely overwhelmed by sky – its vastness threatening to swallow me whole. I grabbed onto the grass like a lifeline with one hand to keep from floating away like a stray balloon; with the other hand, I dug my fingers into the loamy earth and watched as the sun began to sink into the land. A kaleidoscope of colours seared across the heavens. The occasional sparrow cut through the air while robins scuttled cautiously over naked earth. A dragonfly alighted on a green stalk beside me, rainbow wings flashing momentarily before its departure.

The weight of silence hung heavy and ripe as I clutched the grass. Old familiar ghosts began to rise and twist before me; spectres of things lost or broken that stain my pockets and claw at me in quiet times. I knew they would find me, they always do. Damp, dark whispers that drag me under to shadow places where loved ones have gone and never returned. What are you doing here? You are alone in the world. You are alone now. You will always be alone. But their words rang shallow and empty in this place, and they dissipated into dust. A cool serenity remained, and a sense that my ancestors were with me there, protecting me and pulling a curtain aside so I could see the beauty of the world clearly.

Then slowly the memories came.

“I have something for you. She would want you to have it” my father said. Twelve years had passed since I saw him last as a five year old girl. He placed an object into the palm of my hand. It was a small, chipped wooden box shaped like a treasure chest, containing three small items: a miniature tomahawk made from real wood and metal but half the size of my little finger, a small ceramic squirrel with a ragged fake fur tail, and a small picture of my grandmother. In the picture she is laughing. In all the pictures I have seen of her, she is always laughing.

My grandmother was a force of nature, as changeable as the weather. A tiny warrior barely five feet tall, with bright red lipstick, waist-length black hair, and a fiery temperament that instilled fear in potential adversaries. She liked her whiskey and could drink anyone under the table. She had spectres, too. They thundered inside her and sent people running for cover as she cursed every white man in Cree, including her husband. The whiskey was a river of anesthetic, muting voices of the deep when they became too loud. But there were also times of calm without the whiskey, when the world would become still and she would teach her children some of the old ways. Ways that were secret, no longer allowed. Not in their home.

When I was four years old, I met her for the first time in a highway restaurant while visiting my father in rural B.C. As my father exchanged greetings with my grandparents upon our arrival, I stood silently by his side, tightly clutching his hand while transfixed by this small, formidable queen. Long, black hair bound loosely on her head like a shadow crown, high cheekbones, piercing eyes. I slid cautiously into the booth across from her. We eyed one another carefully over the course of a few minutes. Nothing else existed. Time stretched before us like the Prairie sky. She took a long haul off of her cigarette; I chewed my straw. She appeared to contemplate something as she looked me over. “She’s the cat’s ass, Gary”, she said decidedly to my father. Having been familiar with the business end of a few cats in my time, I did not initially recognize this as anything resembling a compliment. But she eyed me with a flinty spark of pride which indicated that the cat’s ass was something special. I wore her approval like a badge of honour and vowed never again to kick the neighbor’s cat.

I never got the chance to know her. A few years after that encounter, during my father’s long absence from my life, she apparently died from a fall down the stairs. My father pressed for an investigation on suspicions that she had been pushed, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. In the eyes of the world, she was ‘just another drunk Indian’. But to me, she was a vast space inside that longed to be filled.

A patch of grass rustled at the edge of the farmer’s field, bending towards me as if stroked by an invisible hand.  A small animal, perhaps. I stood still and intent as a hawk, waiting. But no animal emerged from the hidden shelter of green; only a breeze that rose up to caress my cheek, blowing gentle tangles into my long brown hair.

I looked up at the sky as those few memories of my grandmother began to fade into dusk. Brilliant colours blazed their last display: purple, red, orange. I receded to my truck, crawled under the metal canopy, pulled up the tailgate, and climbed into my sleeping bag. I lay bound in my cocoon by the dim light of a fluttering candle, listening to the loud crackle and roar of thunder as a storm rolled in out of nowhere like a freight train. The wind rocked my truck back and forth, sheets of rain bulleted the windows, and forks of lightning struck fields near and far. I quickly fell asleep in the arms of the storm. The final lullaby.

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