Copyright © 2011 by Christina Carson and published here with her permission
I had been cleaning up my supper dishes when Little Bit walked in the cabin as quiet as a cloud, plopping into a chair at the kitchen table to let me know she was there. I turned, leaning against the counter and took stock of this thirteen year old, already world-weary some would say. She was a pale child, her milky skin washed out further by ash-blonde hair and ice-blue eyes. Dandelion fluff came to mind when I looked at her, white and airy, until it touched the ground, that is. Then it, like her, grabbed hold with such tenacity it took a six-inch spade to loosen it. She was staring at the floor, those same blue eyes now red and swollen. She must have cried the whole five-mile walk to my place, I thought. At 10:00 P.M., it was late for her to be out.
I said nothing as I sat down in the chair next to her and reached my arms toward her. A normally reticent child, she lurched across the gap between us and balled up in my lap. I tucked her in against me and laid my head atop hers, her hair smelling of wood smoke and cold air. “My sweet Little Bit,” I crooned and rocked her as much as my straight-backed chair allowed. We sat that way for some time. She offered no explanation, so I didn’t ask. Instead, without loosening my hold, I suggested softly, “Why don’t you go upstairs and have a hot bath. Find some clean clothes in Sammy’s room; they should fit you. Then I’ll make you some supper.” Only then did I push her back enough that I could see her face. Her eyes still cast down; she wiped her nose on her sleeve as she sniffed. A huge sigh escaped her. I sensed she didn’t want to leave my lap, even as she slid off my knee, so I slipped my arm around her. We walked up the narrow staircase together gently banging into one another’s hips like schoolgirls. I kissed the top of her head as she angled off toward the washroom. “I’ll be waiting on you downstairs, no hurry, eh.”
I called her Little Bit for she seemed but a wisp of a child; her given name being Sarah Mackle. We’d been close friends for three years now, though I had known her all her life. Of late, she’d been coming to see me often. She hadn’t said much, but enough to suggest trouble at home; something I could too easily recognize. Being a curious child, she snooped around ideas like a sleuth unraveling mysteries. We had had many interesting conversations. More recently, however, she kept coming back to one overriding question, “People say, ‘Tell the truth.’ So I do and the next thing I know I’m in all kinds of trouble. Why don’t people say what they mean? Isn’t that lying, Nannie? Is that all people do – lie?”
Nannie was her name for me since I was the closest example she had of a grandmother, or at least her idea of one. There weren’t many choices for friendships where we lived. Five families made up the community scattered across ten square miles between the Smoky and the Simonette Rivers. And that area lay in the western bush of Alberta, a vast stretch of forest reaching west to the Pacific and north to the Arctic. My nearest neighbors, the Mackle family, lived five miles away. Sarah’s mum, Lili, had a ten-year gap between her first four kids and Sarah. That hadn’t helped the family to be sure. Lili and I were close in age and had been tight friends, as she and Matt arrived soon after Peter and me. We four formed the beginning of the tiny wilderness community, such as it was. Sammy used to call it the town of “Nowhere” and she had a point, for where we lived didn’t have a name, just a direction – eighty-some miles north of Hinton on the Forestry Trunk Road. We each worked for the government in some capacity and held leases on which we’d built homesteads. Located on crown land, we couldn’t own our parcel, but the ninety-nine year lease seemed lengthy enough for even the hardiest among us. Samantha was Pete’s and my child. Sammy left for university at eighteen, but never returned, not for holidays, summer break or even when she’d graduated. Denial kept me going for those four years. I wrote and talked with her occasionally on the phone, but come graduation, I received no invitation. Then she was gone – no reason, no forwarding address – gone.
I thought I had done a good job as a mother up to the time Pete died. I stumbled along for the next several years, in the stilted gait of one who’d never walked alone. He’d been the only man I knew or ever wanted, and I couldn’t find a model for life that made sense without him. Sammy was ten then. She worshiped her father and that twist of fate ended her childhood. She became somber and suspicious of life. Clearly, I’d not succeeded in creating a new family of two. But how I’d failed was the question that came out of nowhere, as Little Bit sat crying in my arms. Something in what she had said about lying went straight to my heart, and it made my bones rattle, as my old Cree friend, Mary Cardinal, was wont to say. I hadn’t felt this unsettled in a long time.
I shook my head to clear it, and realized I’d been leaning against the kitchen counter, staring blankly into space these last few minutes. I returned to starting supper. It was well past suppertime, but I sensed Little Bit hadn’t eaten. I had let the stove die back to coals as I liked sleeping with my nose a bit cold. Alberta summer days offered an ideal mix of warmth and sunshine, a pay off for enduring winter. Our golden months of summer seemed a ploy to keep everyone from packing and going elsewhere. The cool summer nights, however, proved a reminder of just how far north you were. So I threw some crumpled newspaper into the firebox of the stove and a few sticks of kindling. I pointedly avoided the thoughts of but a few moments before. Unnerving as they were, the tiniest interest in them brought them back on me like furies. In several seconds, I heard the familiar roar of a flame busting into life, and I walked back over to the stove to add some bigger wood. We didn’t have electricity when first we arrived. Even after the government brought it in, in the early 1970s, I’d kept my old McClary, for I loved cooking on a woodstove. Its heat gave such comfort to an icy winter’s night. And being country custom to feed anyone who stopped by, the stove’s mass of iron persuaded guests in this isolated land to visit, while it slowly heated. I decided on eggs, bacon and toast for Sarah, and I made fresh coffee for me. I knew the aroma of all that would coax her back downstairs where we might talk for a while, perhaps soothing her fears. I heard the stairs creak as I set the table and I called up to her, “Good timing, gal, there’s a bite for you here.”
She hung at the bottom of the stairs, peeking round the post. I turned and smiled at her and invited her over to the table with a sideways nod of my head. She skipped down off the last stair with her bare feet smacking the wood floor and walked the short distance to the table with her head still down. A quiet child by nature, she was often mistaken for meek. But the truth was, there wasn’t anyone I’d rather accompany me in the bush, such was her ability to stand tall. So it proved hard to imagine the pain that drove her to my place, for I’d never seen her so crumpled. I had to wonder what on earth was going on with her mum. I hadn’t visited with Lili for a while. She seemed always to have an excuse these last few months each time I called. Yet her daughter had been over regularly during that same period. It was odd. I looked over at Little Bit and said quietly, “You can stay here as long as you like, darlin’; this is your home too, far as I’m concerned.”
A huge sigh escaped her, and as she relaxed, she seemed even tinier as if on the edge of disappearing. I smiled at her and reached across the table to pat her hand. The faintest smile passed over her face, and with that, she relaxed more deeply. She ate hungrily suggesting her last meal had been a while ago. As she finished her toast, she said, “I like Sammy. It will be fun to sleep in her bed. How come she never comes home anymore?”
Her innocent question pierced me like a knife, and my breath caught in my throat. In that moment we changed places. Little Bit became the carefree child, excited and curious while I returned to those rending years of loss and confusion. I could feel her staring at me, but I was unable to meet her gaze. I felt her tension mounting and willed myself back, but not before her face registered her frustration with finding herself on yet another patch of forbidden earth where adults make the rules. I steadied myself and met her stare, a look so intense that I knew she was not about to give in. She waited on me to find strength at least equivalent to her own, her eyes demanding a response. To the question I’d left unanswered for years, I haltingly replied, “I don’t know why she doesn’t come home.”
My answer proved sufficient, her need being only to be taken seriously. Bouncing back with an assurance I too wanted to believe, she said, “You’ll figure it out, Nannie. I know you will.”
For Little Bit, that moment was complete and she moved on. I, however, trembled inside myself feeling the demon I’d long ago buried now clawing its way to the surface. Conversations I never wanted to revisit filled my head as I heard myself yelling at Sammy, “What have I done that makes me look like the enemy? Why did you feel you couldn’t tell me the truth? How did I earn the right only to your lies?” My stomach knotted up; I didn’t want the rest of my coffee. I pushed myself up from the table and not wanting to dampen Little Bit’s newfound security, I smiled as warmly as I could. Thinking back to Little Bit’s comments of a few moments before, I suggested, “Why don’t you go up and snuggle into Sammy’s bed now, and see if she’ll meet you in your dreams.” Little Bit gave me a withering stare. “Heh, you’re too young to be such a cynic. I’ll take you over to Mary Cardinal’s one of these days. She’ll tell you about dreams. There’s a dream catcher over you bed. Let it catch you a good one.” Her skepticism softened a bit, but she didn’t let me off the hook until I told her she could go with me the next day to check the weather station at Bear Crossing.
With that she bounded off the chair and came around the table to give me a hug. I hung onto her for a second and said, “I’ll let your mum know where you are. And I’ll let her know you can stay here if you like.” She gave me another big squeeze and ran up the stairs to her new room.
I decided to keep the stove going a bit longer, as I was much too unsettled to sleep now. One big room formed the downstairs of our A-frame cabin except for a partial bath. The stove divided the kitchen from the living room, so both spaces could share its warmth. Rather than wood paneling or sheet rock to finish the walls, we used books, floor to ceiling built-in shelves, filled with them. We located the cabin on a ridge, with the glass wall that formed the “A,” facing west. Each night that giant “A” captured the endless summer’s twilight. Though it was past 10:00, the colors of the evening sunset still washed the sky in faint pastels of peach and mauve. I curled up in the old leather recliner Pete and I had often shared. His scent had vanished long ago from it, but not the memories it held. Still trying to pick up the threads of my earlier thought, my mind felt like my enemy. As tired as I was, I couldn’t imagine any good coming from considering them further tonight. So I let the remnants of the sunset hold me in their beauty, quieting me.
Instead, my thoughts drifted to Pete. We had arrived in this place in the late 1960s when the Department of Forestry employed him as a Forest Ranger. We accepted their long-term lease and chose some land a quarter mile off the Forestry Trunk Road on which to build our cabin. In the 1960’s, the Trunk Road was the only north-south route in west-central Alberta. However, few others than logging truck drivers, forest rangers, and the occasional adventure seeker from the States or Europe used it. Not many others wanted the experience of its 200 miles of choking dust or slimy mud through the middle of nowhere. The nearest settlement now is Grande Cache, about fifty miles southwest. Several years after we came, the government created it, out of nothing, to be a coal-mining town. Today that area sports a new black top road, the alternative to the Trunk Road for those traveling north and south. But when we first arrived, the original Grande Cache was a clearing in the bush on the old Trunk Road. It consisted of a trading post where we picked up our mail, a corral for the annual native rodeo, and a few shabby cabins. The only other human inhabitants of the region were Cree Indians, living their traditional way of life, camping in winter and roaming free from central to northwestern Alberta the rest of the year.
My husband, as a child in Germany, had read books about the wilderness of western Canada, stories that fueled his fascination with frontiers. At eighteen, his desire to experience such wild places pushed him to cross the Atlantic and a continent, coming to Edmonton, the gateway to the forests of the west and north. On arriving in Alberta, he applied for university and worked summers for the Department of Forestry manning fire towers. Bit by bit he zeroed in on where he wanted to live. In his third year of university, he drew a big red circle on a map and told me, as we lay under the stars on campus one night, we’d live there someday. That was the first time he’d ever spoken of including me in his plans, and though I said nothing, my heart roared inside me at this first suggestion of his love. He was reticent, idle talk not his custom. I used to kid him about being native, so silent was his nature. Rather than unsettling me, however, his stillness was like an invitation, a small pocket of steadiness in a world I’d always found too undependable. I was thirty-four when he died. I lost him in a manner indicative of the world in which we’d chosen to live. While completing a survey along the Simonette River, he topped a low ridge. Unknown to him, a Grizzly stood feasting on a day-old kill on the other side. When he didn’t come home that evening, I knew deep within me he wouldn’t be. I spent that night in this recliner numb to the core. The search party went out at daybreak and found his body torn and mauled. The emptiness inside me made it difficult to stand upright, but I had our daughter Samantha to care for, and for her I found a pocket of resilience that saw us both through. I stayed on after he was killed, as I couldn’t see any reason not to.
I had home schooled Sammy because the nearest school was in Hinton over 85 miles away. The provincial government provided the materials, and it guaranteed matriculation to those who finished the program. In only two hours each day we’d finish the lessons, freeing Sammy to come with us as we worked in the bush. The greatest part of her education came during those hours as Pete made his rounds. He was doing much surveying of animal and plant populations back then. Occasionally we’d camp overnight, sharing the wonders of the natural world around campfires under an unimaginable canopy of stars. She was like a wood nymph, so comfortable was she in the vast wilderness that surrounded us. Pete and I had married this wild place when we married each other. Walking together on its dark, mossy trails was as much like making love as lying abed in our cabin. So seeing our daughter find her playmates among its wildlife, forests, and streams, touched my heart. She seemed a replica of me at that age. I wore it like a badge, as if it meant I had done something special to create this wondrous child. What happened, I wondered? Why won’t that child even talk to me now?
“Whose fault is it that my daughter, my beautiful golden-haired daughter, wants no part of me in her life?” I asked aloud. I had not entertained these thoughts for years; the pain they brought still as potent as ever. Somehow I had managed to convince myself I was doing right by burying them – the best choice under the circumstances. Now I wondered how I could have agreed with that. I truly didn’t know.
The sunset had finally faded to the semi-darkness that passes for a summer night this far north, and the stove had gone cold. I uncurled myself from the recliner, and let my dog, Timber, in off the step where he’d been keeping an eye on things. He was a bouvier and his breed made him a great guardian. Having him sleep by my bed was akin to having the Archangel Michael looking out for me. He and I made our way in the dark up the stairs. As I passed Little Bit’s room, I looked in on her. Timber followed me in, surprised to see someone in that bed. He looked at her, looked up at me, and wagged his stub of a tail acting as if Sam were back. Looking at this new child in that bed, I said a quiet prayer that I might be adequate to the task this time. With that I walked to my bedroom and lay down in yet another place still feeling empty of Pete, though sixteen years had now passed. The last sound I heard was the crash of Timber, named that because, instead of lying down like a normal dog, he’d keel over and hit the floor like a felled tree.
Morning dawned around 3:00 A.M. I joined it at 6:00. The cool, pine-scented morning air washed over me. The chirping of the robins broke the morning silence, and soon the grating squawks of magpies and ravens would fill the air as the endless summer sun rose higher. The sun didn’t sleep hard or deep during the summer, merely napping for a couple of hours between midnight and three. However, come September it would settle itself down low on the horizon soon. Then it became but a blip across the southern sky as great stretches of darkness replaced the light. Summer in Alberta was as ideal as summer gets, a peace offering for the dark, piercing cold of winter, which causes endless work to live with and often to survive.
Timber could always tell when I was awake, but we had a rule; he couldn’t bother me as long as I kept my eyes closed. That didn’t stop him, however, from laying his big shaggy head on the edge of the bed, and focusing on me until I could feel his stare. “Okay, okay, Timmy, I’m getting up,” I said as I jumped out the opposite side of the bed, to avoid him knocking me down with his hundred pound greeting. He came tearing round the bottom of the bed, his stubby tail wagging so hard it wagged his whole body. I once heard it said that if there were only small children and animals on this planet, it would have remained the Garden of Eden. I was inclined to agree. The way I figured, if I lived my life even half as spontaneously and unconditionally as Timber did, people would be carving my likeness in stone.
As I walked toward the washroom, I peeked in on Little Bit who was still sound asleep. I thought Timmy’s bouncing about might wake her but not so. When I returned to my bedroom, I pulled on my jeans and t-shirt and padded down the stairs. I made some coffee in the electric pot, and took a cup outside. My morning ritual was to sit on the back step and melt into the world around me, filling myself with its scent, sounds and sights while losing my outsider status. When my cup was empty, I walked back inside before going to the barn to do the few chores I had each morning. It concerned me that I had not heard from Lili, Little Bit’s mum. Her thirteen-year-old daughter hadn’t come home last night, yet she hadn’t called. Maybe she had assumed she’d come to my place, but what mother would take that risk. We lived in wild country. As I dialed the Mackle’s number, I felt a sense of uneasiness. Lili answered the phone. “Heh, Lil, it’s Anne. I just called to let you know that Sarah is over here, so you wouldn’t worry.” There was a long gap before she spoke.
“You must think I’m dirt for a mother. Not calling and all. We had a blow out Saturday…and she ran out. I just can’t talk to her, Anne. I just can’t…” Her voice trailed off in a half sob. “I wanted some peace, just a night of peace. God, I don’t know what to do? I really don’t…?”
“Look, Lili, you don’t have to apologize to me. It got crazy with Sam and me too. I still shudder at the thought of what I said and did….” I stopped in midsentence, as the shame I felt so deeply about what went on between Sammy and me washed over me for the thousandth time. “Lili, here’s a possibility. Let Sarah live over here for as long as she wants. I welcome her company, and perhaps that way we can both keep her from running away permanently… like Sam. What’s that sound like to you?” It took a few moments for her to reply. I could hear her jagged breathing and sniffling.
“Thanks. Thanks, Anne. Tell her she can take her horse. They’re inseparable. She wanted to leave, but I wouldn’t let her take her horse. I thought that would stop her. But when I got home from town Saturday … she, she …she was gone.”
I realized after ten seconds of silence Lili wasn’t going to offer anything more. I’d never heard her so incoherent. I was most curious about the comment that Little Bit had left on Saturday for she hadn’t shown up at my place until Sunday evening. Rather than pursue the conversation, I just said, “I’ll bring her by Tuesday and pick up the horse.” I wished there was something I could say, something that would ease her pain. When your child comes into this world, you can’t imagine anything but loving them. It takes you by surprise that first time you curse them in your thoughts. You make excuses for yourself, anything to disguise the truth of what you’ve just done. And you might believe it, if it weren’t for the next time.
“I’ll go into town Tuesday morning,” Lili continued, “so you can come over without me here, in case Sarah wants some of her belongings.”
“Fine. We’ll be over then. And I’ll keep you posted, Lili. This can work.”
When I heard the click of disconnection, I hung up the phone and turned to go back outside to do morning chores. Far too many memories started flooding back. Not that I hadn’t gone over the incidents between Sam and me repeatedly, but only as replays, I now realized, not attempts to understand. Little Bit’s appearance seemed a sign, a harbinger of the need to face what happened years ago, but god how I could feel the deep panic that arose with it. I didn’t know if I could change anything through understanding, but not knowing appeared increasingly intolerable.
I smiled hearing the soft knicker of Spook greeting me as I crossed the barnyard. The big, gray quarter horse cross was the rest of my family. I kept him in the log barn each night or on the occasional trip to town, so bears or a migrating cougar could not get to him. As I opened the barn door, the rich scent of horse and leather greeted me. Spook stamped his foot with impatience. I rubbed his muzzle and then opened his stall to let him outside. Timber met him at the door where Spook stopped, before going out, to bend down and ruffle the hair on Timber’s head with his nose. They were great buddies and shot out the barn together to race around the small pasture. I mucked out the barn, spread clean bedding, and checked to see there was plenty of water in the trough. Then I walked over to the other small log building to water and feed the few chickens I kept. Eggs were such an easy meal for one. My garden, in the clearing out behind the barn, supplied many of my other culinary needs. I’d ask Little Bit to let the chickens out later in the morning, when they finished laying for the day. The trip to Bear Crossing was my easiest meteorological survey, the work I’d done since Pete’s death. So we could leave after lunch. Forestry had hired me on after Pete died. Since I was staying in the area and knew it like my backyard, there were jobs I could do to that left the ranger more time to do the ones needing his specific training. It worked for me, as I didn’t need much money, and it provided something purposeful that kept me going after Pete’s death. To have the government pay me to roam the bush was a good deal for me, so I took it.
I returned to the pasture fence to be with my family for a while, before going over to the woodpile to split winter’s wood. That job was endless. The forestry department kindly supplied me with log lengths that I could split, but it took many cords of wood to get through an Alberta winter. I had a small tank of propane for hot water and as a back up for the propane heater in the living room, but wood was my major fuel. As well, I enjoyed chopping wood. It was a focused task that always cleared my mind. Once I got my swing, the rhythm relaxed me, giving me the simple pleasure of just being where I was. Years earlier, I’d learned that skill is skill, whether playing my flute or chopping wood. Anything that absorbed me to the point of forgetting myself was deeply satisfying. It didn’t matter whether it resulted in creating a melody or a woodpile.
I heard the screen door bang shut and turned to see Little Bit coming across the yard. She waved a hello, just before Timber almost knocked her down, as he raced across the yard and planted two feet in the middle of her chest. I had trained him not to jump up, but he missed Samantha and was excited to have Little Bit in her place. He was strong and rough in play, and he’d bowl you over if you weren’t ready for him. Raised tending and playing with animals, Little Bit was natural with their ways. She bent over, clapped her hands, and invited him back on his next lap of the yard, cradling his big, shaggy head in her hands.
“Heh, sleepyhead. You ready for breakfast?” She smiled a yes and came over to help carry an armload of wood into the cabin. “I called your mum when I got up,” I said as we walked across the barnyard. I could see a shadow immediately wash across her face. She looked up at me, her eyes a question. I leaned over and kissed her forehead. “It’s okay. She’s fine with your staying here. In fact, she said to come by and get your horse. I told her we’d do that Tuesday.”
Silence followed, as she thought about what I’d said. Then finished with whatever conclusion she’d drawn, she said, “Thanks, Nannie.”
Back in the cabin, I lit the stove and put on a second pot of coffee. I decided to make some pancake batter, and I put some bacon in the frying pan to cook. The stove was stone-cold, so I used the bacon as a thermometer, the sound of its sizzle alerting me to how hot the stove was. Little Bit was roaming the stacks of our personal library as I made breakfast. Pete and I had always been avid readers, and since books were tough to come by when we first moved out there, we brought our own. Science books occupied several shelves, since science was our field of study, followed by classics, poetry, philosophy and general fiction. The balance was nonfiction in areas that interested us: biography, wildlife, music, native lore and some how-to books. She had never seen books in a home before, only at the school library, and that was a small collection. She loved to read, and she loved someone to read to her. She was an introspective child, and the readings often sparked questions I would not have expected from a child her age. She also liked movies, so I’d purchased a TV in the last couple of years. I had no satellite dish, so we couldn’t used it like a television, but it was great for viewing the occasional movie we rented by mail. It was a good diversion in the winter, during long nights that started with a 4:30 P.M. sunset. “Have you found anything of interest,” I called over to her? By then the bacon was sizzling loudly. She came back to the table with Siddhartha and smiled as she held it up to show me. “Ah, that’s a good one. We’ll start that tonight after the radio play. CBC radio is broadcasting Mowat’s book, Never Cry Wolf. You ever read that?” She shook her head no. “Well I’ll fill you in on our way to Bear Crossing.”
More silent than ever, Little Bit displayed the common effects of verbal battering. I knew; for I had sought that solace myself when Sam and I battled. I transferred the bacon from pan to plate, setting it on the warming shelf. I spooned off fat for Timber and then poured pancake batter into the frying pan. As if something flicked on a video in my mind, there stood Sam and I arguing. In the flickering scenes of what looked like a movie, two seeming adolescents fought to win; only I was the adult in the mix – at least in age. It so unnerved me that I almost burned the first round of pancakes. Little Bit’s alerting me to the smoke circling my head, brought me back. I carried the pancakes to the table and dished them out.
“Well they must be okay; they didn’t clink when they hit the plates,” she assessed.
“Oh aren’t you the funny bird!” It’s good for your digestion – charcoal, you know.”
She smiled for the first time in ages, an impish, sweet smile that caught me off guard. I winked back and decided right then to let her be, to let her speak when she chose. Besides, I was afraid, distrustful of myself in such conversations. What if I treated Little Bit the same way as Sam? I felt like a drunk who hadn’t yet agreed to step one. But seeing myself attacking my daughter with no memory of it until now, was no less a blackout than an alcoholic’s. If we wanted to lie to ourselves, we obviously had means. I sat staring at a cold pancake, trying not to think at all. I looked over a Little Bit who was dragging her last piece around her plate, sopping up every drop of the maple syrup. I have to do better. I have to, I thought. Little Bit sensing my stare, looked up askance. Hoping she couldn’t see through my thinning veneer of trustworthiness, I smiled and joked about how I wouldn’t have to wash her plate if she kept going.
Little Bit ate another round of pancakes, brown this time instead of black, and I damped the stove down and opened the kitchen door to vent off the heat. I stacked the dishes and washed them up, while Little Bit cleaned off the table and swept the floor. She took the cold bacon fat out to Timber. When she returned, she settled down with Siddhartha, and I checked my pack to insure we had what we needed. I never went into the bush without basic survival gear. I’d known too many people who’d died for want of matches or something to keep out the wet or cold. I carried: bark for fire starter, waterproof matches, basic medical supplies, a compass, flashlight, a mirror to flash signals with, trail mix, a space blanket, bug spray, water, and my 20-gauge pump loaded with slugs. Even on this short hike to Bear Crossing, I took no chances. I’d seen it snow in July with just the slightest elevation, trails wash out, or wild animals alarmed or threatened by my presence. My acceptance of how it was, kept me attentive to necessary details. I loved the bush, but it made no exceptions for the disrespectful or the ignorant. If you lived according to its laws, your chances for survival, though never guaranteed, were much better.
Around 11:00 A.M., I asked Little Bit to go let the chickens out and collect the eggs. I made some sandwiches to take with us, and packed some apples. Then, I went out to lock up Spook. When Little Bit returned, she washed the eggs and put them in the fridge. We collected our gear and loaded up. Timber was circling the pickup to insure we wouldn’t leave him behind. I dropped the tailgate, and he jumped aboard. We were going south on the Trunk Road to where the Berland River crossed the new road and head in there. The trail followed high ground, making it an easy hike into the weather station. I figured we’d be back by four. Before leaving, I called into the Forestry station to let them know, as I always did. I could count on them to come looking for me, if I wasn’t back by four.
The road was dusty, as we hadn’t had rain in two weeks. It wasn’t a bother, with no one else on the road, as it blew out behind you. When two vehicles encountered each other, however, knowing parties quickly rolled up their windows, restricting the entry of the fine brown silt that engulfed everything in one giant cloud. It was so voluminous and fine that it rose high into the air looking like trails of smoke to those flying overhead. Why they called these thoroughfares, gravel roads, had always been a mystery to me. There were too few stones to hold the dirt in place, yet always plenty to crack headlights and windshields. We hadn’t a long drive ahead of us, only 40 miles on the gravel road and another twenty on pavement, thus the likelihood of meeting anyone was low. I enjoyed such isolation, and the resulting silence and solitude soothed me like a blessing.
I wanted to know Little Bit better, so I asked, “Since I’d schooled Sammy at home, I don’t know anything about boarding out to go to school. What’s it like living in town all winter?” Hinton was not a roaring metropolis, but it was another way of life.
“Even with what was there: T.V., dances, a hockey rink, and other kids?” I asked.
“I thought it would be fun, more exciting than where I lived, but there is something about it, something I feel there that I don’t feel at home, something I don’t like.”
She sighed and twisted her face a bit as if that would help her get in touch with the words she needed.
“It feels empty, Nannie, like there is no point to anything. It reminds me of echoes in a river canyon – the sound is gone but the noise is still there. It makes me feel uneasy, and I never feel that way in the bush. Sure, I’ve been scared in the bush, but there’s a reason for that. It makes sense. But feeling uneasy all the time doesn’t. And I don’t like it.” She shrugged her shoulders suggesting that was the best she could do.
I nodded knowingly, as I glanced sideways at her. We both smiled as if sharing an inner circle secret. She was reflective for such a young person, and thus interesting company.
Little Bit changed the subject. “Okay, fill me in on the radio play.” The bush, the traveling, the beauty of the day were releasing her, and with a child’s openness she greeted it without reservation.
“It’s about some scientist employed by the government to do a survey about wolves in the northern bush of Manitoba. Almost immediately, he’s alerted to the challenges that lay ahead, for just as the seaplane lifts off the lake where it dropped him, he notices his government-issue collapsible canoe is missing one section.” I heard her giggle.
“In tonight’s episode, he will finally reach his base camp, and find a wolf den in the area. In truth they find him, as they seem to sense he needs some help. He notes them marking their territory, and decides to do the same around what he considers his turf. He marvels at their ability to do so in one pass, while he has to stop and brew several pots of tea to complete his boundary. It’s a good tale. You’ll enjoy it!”
We spent the rest of the trip in silence, a common state for those living where we did. Outsiders, as we called them, often found the silence of our world boring as if it implied nothing was happening. They would continually insist on bringing the noise of conversation to it. Those calling the wilderness their home, knew differently. They honored the silence, recognizing its wordless, soundless voice as a feeling within them, which connected them to its deep center. Beyond the birdcalls, the trees creaking, the wind whistling, and the creeks babbling that center hovers, and when you enter it, you’re no longer certain whether you’re in it or it’s in you. That was what Little Bit was trying to put into words earlier. That center is safe and real. No lies live there.
We drove for another thirty-five minutes, when I saw the river crossing ahead. We turned off at the small primitive campground adjacent to the river. There was only a fire pit, some firewood, and a picnic table. We parked in view of the road – the rule when going into the bush. It was habit with those living in isolated places to take stock of their world, noticing what was amiss. Broken fences, stray stock, or a car too long in one place were red flags. In that way, we looked out for one another.
Since Little Bit and I were eager to get on the trail, we had eaten our lunch on the drive. Like booty to a bounty hunter, a trailhead suggests adventure and reward. To enter the forest, share its scents and sounds, feel its steadiness, and marvel at its beauty were treasures for the taking. As I stood there looking down the trail, I realized my many years of roaming the bush had not tarnished the allure. The only difference now was being accompanied. I didn’t need to brief Little Bit on proper behavior in the bush, well-seasoned as she was, but I did insist on one rule. As we entered the forest, I stopped and turned to her, putting my hands on her shoulders. Staring at her I said, “There’s one promise I require, darlin’. If I tell you to get, to make for safety, do not hesitate for any reason. As fast as you can, you get to a safe place. If you can follow our back trail, then go for help. I will never demand that of you lightly, but if I do, I will mean it. I am not afraid to die in the bush, and it would never be your fault, but neither is it to be your fate. You’ve much more of life to live. Will you give me your word?”
She looked at me for a long time and measured the words I’d said. I realized something about her in that moment that I’d suspected but never proved. Rather than offer glib agreement, she bypassed her intellect; I could see it in her eyes. She was sensing what she felt in her gut, and when she answered, “You can trust me,” her intuitive response left neither of us in doubt.
The trail to Bear Crossing ambled alongside the Berland River. When we started out, we found Timber standing in the river getting a drink. There was always a danger taking in him with me into the bush, for his presence could as easily provoke a wild animal attack, as repel one. The one quality his breed had running in its veins, however, was the unquestioned commitment to its master. He signed his life over to me the day I got him. That was the deal. Not to take him along was to violate my side of the agreement, for he lived to keep me safe. Thus, wherever I went, there was Timber.
The Berland wasn’t a big river, thirty or forty feet across in wide places but it flowed with the force of something large and wild. Its waters were icy cold, even in the summer, and clear to its rocky bottom. Deep places might be chest high, but the current was strong enough that I couldn’t cross in those places. Trout and Grayling abounded in the pure, glacial water, and I too drank from it just like my dog. The forest was more open here, a mix of deciduous trees and pine with some light brush. As always, I watched for one sign chiefly, any suggestion of bear. I told Little Bit to keep an eye out as well for tracks, scat, claw marks, or digging. The higher land of this trek, kept the trail more open and less dangerous. The head-high brush of the muskeg areas were the treacherous routes. In them, you could run into a bear, visibility was so poor, and surprising a bear could be as lethal as it surprising you.
I never saw the bush as a violent or brutal place, for it has no motives. Each creature responds only to natural or instinctual needs. Even inveterate urban dwellers display awareness of that fact, neither hating the deer that jumps in front of their cars, nor the lightning that strikes their houses. People are the problem; they are the only ones capable of motives and lies. And their propensity for both makes life complicated and cruel; each memory I’d recalled about Sammy and me making that all too obvious.
Little Bit thrived in the bush. She displayed a presence here that rarely appeared elsewhere – powerful and certain. She walked with the ease of a child, yet the command of a young woman. The transformation was most startling. She was alert, respectful, and obviously among friends. The hour it took to get to Bear Crossing passed by like a moment. She helped me take the readings my job required, curious about their use and purpose. Apart from her questions about the why of what we were doing, neither of us spoke. By 3:45, we were back at the campsite, and I called in to alert the warden.
I enjoyed the afternoon, but was quite unprepared for how much this time spent with Little Bit would tug on the thin thread of loneliness that had knotted up in my heart when Sammy left. I was only beginning to realize the number of doors I closed and locked in response to the pain. I thought I was braver than that. It was disheartening to see yet another lie in my life. I remained quiet on through the evening, the haunting deceptions from my past spooking me like eerie sounds in the wilds.
The next day dawned gray, and looked like rain, which was not a common happening in the semi-arid climate of Alberta. I welcomed the even deeper quietness that came with gray days, and the way the tiny increase in humidity allowed one’s skin to feel suppler. Week after week of dehydration, made you feel like a tanned hide – dry, cracking skin stretched over a frame. Rain was a relief in many ways. Little Bit had gone out to do the chores while I made breakfast. After eating, we were going over to her place to get her horse and belongings. She came through the door with an armload of wood and Timber at her side. She dumped the wood in the wood box, and stopped to wrap her arm around that great woolly beast of a dog. She was beginning to look as if she finally felt safe.
“What would you prefer, taking the pick-up and trailer or riding double on Spook? It depends on how much stuff you want to bring back.”
She plunked down at the table and thought for a moment. “I don’t have much I need. I could fit it in both our saddlebags, with the rest rolled up in my bedroll. Do you think Sammy would mind if I wore some of her stuff?”
“Is she ever coming back, Nannie?”
“What happened?” She said this with the guileless curiosity of a child.
“You know how you and your mum have been having hard times lately?”
“Lately,” she replied, her eyes rolling high and to the side.
I smiled and continued, “Well, Sammy and I went through something similar, and I handled it poorly. I hurt her the way you feel your mum’s hurt you, and a kid’s only going to take so much of that before they go off packing.”
“How come you and I get along so well then?”
I didn’t know if she asked that question out of a growing sense of unease or just plain curiosity, but I wasn’t ever again going to disrespect a child with a lie. So I replied, “I’m not sure I know the answer yet, Little Bit. Sometimes we’re most careless with those closest to us, as if nothing we could do would break that bond of blood. What you learn too late is that bond can break like any other.”
She smiled at my candor, and the softness of her face spoke to no fear or confusion from my response. Maybe the truth is what sets us free, and I was sure going to know before my life was through.
“We’ll let’s go saddle up Spook. Did you come here down the cutline or by the road?”
“Down the cutline; it’s fine.”
“Good. That will keep us out of the dust on the Trunk Road. Do you have a duster? It sure looks like rain.”
“Yeah, I got a good one. I’ll wear it back.”
Timber was right on my heels, as I walked to the barn. It was like he spoke English, for I never made plans verbally that he didn’t cotton on to. It was a short ride and not far from the road, but still I took my pack and slipped my shotgun in its saddle holder.
“Little Bit how ’bout you wearing this pack on your back or you’ll be smothering in it on my back. Just to alert you, Spook’s not used to carrying double so hang on tight, as he might hump up a bit.” Little Bit appeared unafraid of anything that had to do with horses, and all I heard was a short giggle in response.
“I always wanted to be in the rodeo,” she said still laughing.
“Don’t you go thumping him in the ribs, you imp, or we’ll both be walking to your place.”
I threw my leg over Spook and took him to the fence so Little Bit could mount. No sooner did her bum settle in behind the saddle, and Spook started bouncing around on all fours, with his back humped and ready to let fly with his heels.
“Heh,” I said to Spook in a no-nonsense voice, as I pulled his head high to keep his hind feet on the ground. “That’s enough.” Spook was having none of it, however. The moment my attention turned to getting Little Bit settled, Spook took the bit in his teeth, dropped his head, and bucked like a rodeo bronc. We both hit the dirt side by side, and as we got up brushing ourselves off, I said to Little Bit, “I think we can forget about the rodeo, darlin’, we didn’t even make 2 seconds!” Little Bit laughed the hardiest I’d heard her yet.
“Well I guess Spook won round one?” she said as she headed back toward the fence.
“Are you ready for round two?” I queried her, “Because this ain’t gonna fly.”
“Sure. Besides, I had this soft pack to land on.”
I flashed her a withering glance to acknowledge her sarcasm as I recalled the flashlight, extra ammunition and canteen that were in the pack.
Spook was standing over by the barn, more than aware of his error, from the look of his stance. I walked over and had a short heart-to-heart with him and mounted up for the second time that morning. This time I was more alert. “When you slide on this time, gal, do so lightly and then grab hold tightly on me, and I’ll do a better job from there.” Little Bit felt like a feather as she settled in, and I reminded Spook, vocally, about what would happen if he tried that again. He had a few “last words,” as he bounced a wee bit, but then he settled down, and we headed for the trail. Timber ran in circles, energized by the antics the three of us had provided. His enthusiasm with life was contagious, and I was more than happy to let him infect me with it.
We headed west to intercept the cutline. I rarely traveled that route, preferring the forest to this widened man-made gash cut through it. Poorly maintained, the cutline stood strewn with scrub and old slash piles line crews had forgotten to burn. The rod-straight lodgepole pines and clumps of poplar and alder stood to either side, motionless in the gray light and stillness of the morning. Even the birds weren’t cawing or chirping, leaving only the heavy hum of insects. The day had an eerie feel to it, and I watched Spook to see what he sensed. Spook spoke with his ears, their position pointing out where his attention lay, and when his ears suddenly swiveled to the left, pointing straight up and wide, I knew our quiet morning ride was about to end. Uneasily, he twisted around in a tight-knotted circle, tensing his body and voicing his alarm in short, anxious snorts. I straightened in the saddle, ready. “Hang on,” came out of my mouth like a command to Little Bit. At the moment I felt her lock her arms around me, a crack that sounded like a gunshot shattered the silence. The terrible sound of trees snapping and bush crashing followed, as something headed our way. Whatever it was, it was big. I just didn’t know what it was or why it was coming so hard-and-fast. I screamed at Timber, “Come!” as Spook half reared and spun around again. As if we were one, Little Bit followed the curve of my body as I leaned forward, kicked Spook, and gave him his head. The quarter horse in him shot forward and cleared us off the spot that only seconds later two Bull Moose crashed onto as they cleared the bush. My heart was pounding in my chest. I pulled Spook up short and turned to look, catching sight of them just before they crashed back into the bush on the other side of the cutline. My body shuttered involuntarily. Their size and power would have made us all look like victims of a hit-and-run. I doubt we would have survived.
Immediately, I swung Spook back around, and kicked him into action once again. Whatever creature threatened those moose wasn’t far behind. I called Timber to follow, and after pausing to scent the culprit, he lit out with us. We galloped down the trail toward Little Bit’s homestead, and I was glad we were both as light as we were for Spook didn’t have a problem with the extra weight. The cutline being overgrown and messy with brush piles made Spook have to dodge and even jump one pile. Little Bit made sure to stay right with me as we raced on flat and low.
With a mile behind us, I slowed Spook to give him a rest. His sides heaved from the exertion, and he still acted anxious, stamping his hoof and bucking slightly out of pent-up tension. Spook didn’t need words to tell me what was running the moose to ground. Everything about him said: bear. And as if they were a pantomime team, Timber’s raised hackles confirmed it. Since I had clocked black bear loping beside my truck on a forestry road at an easy thirty-five miles an hour, I knew our distance didn’t give us much headway. As soon as Spook slowed his breathing, I kicked him on and put more distance between us and the bear. I was glad finally to see the clearing ahead of us that marked the edge of the Mackle’s place. Feeling I now had a minute to take stock, I slowed Spook to a walk and turned in the saddle to check Little Bit for the first time since all hell had broken loose. She looked no worse for wear. In fact, she sat tall, red-cheeked with excitement. “You’re good, my dear,” I said after looking her up and down, and stopping to stare into her eyes.
She beamed, but then she caught sight of her homestead and her stare drifted to some far-off place and froze there. As if talking to herself, she made the strangest comment in a faraway voice, “Animals aren’t scary. People are.” I left that statement alone, not entirely in agreement. Something wasn’t right about a bear chasing healthy moose. By then we were in her yard, however, and I let that thought go. Reining Spook to a halt, Little Bit slid down his flank to the ground.
I leaned over and touched the top of her head. “I’m going to cool Spook out a bit and then water him before we go back, so no need to rush, darlin’. No one’s here so just do what you need to do.” She nodded without looking up, and walked off toward the house.
I dismounted and loosened Spook’s saddle. Then I went around to his head and took his soft lower lip in my two hands, laying my cheek on his velvety nose. “You’ve got heart, my friend. Thanks.” He pulled away, impatient with my mushiness and than cleared his nostrils all over my shirt. I shook my head. “No one will ever accuse you of being a romantic, Spook, my friend.” I pulled the saddle off him and began to walk him in a circle to cool him down slowly. I called Timber over to me and gave him his due. Squatting down, I rubbed his ears, and whispered to him, “You’re the best, my boy. You’re the world to me.” Like Spook, he also had a limit on moments of affection, and swiftly jumped up, bouncing off me, and nearly knocking me down. “You know I dated a boy like you once, Timber….” By then, he was over by the water tank getting a drink.
A half an hour passed before Little Bit appeared. I was over at the barn brushing Spook out and getting ready to re-saddle him, when I saw her rounding the house with one large black and one small white plastic bag. “My goodness dear, you don’t even have a matched set of luggage, but waterproof, which is looking more and more like a smart idea.” The skies had been growing increasingly dark while she’d been in the house. She smiled, but only with her mouth. Something had once again stolen her lightheartedness. I had brushed off her chestnut gelding, Slingshot so he’d be ready to saddle when she came out. I didn’t want to take the chance of running into anyone at her place. Slingshot was a good-looking animal, beautifully muscled and with a finer head than most quarter horses. I once asked her about his name, and she said that he was the fastest quar