Shoal Lake August 19, 1889
Big White Combine
God is At Home
Grass of the Apocalypse
Carlos Neil and Me
SHOAL LAKE AUGUST 19, 1889
Shirtless, Rainer Slate stumbled through the open front door of Batter’s Apothecary in Shoal Lake, fell face down onto the oiled wooden floor and passed out. Borden Batter paused at his mortar and pestle, peered over his round glasses and surveyed the prone lout.
“Glynnis!” he shouted. “Someone’s here to see you!”
Glynnis knew exactly who her visitor was by the tone in Batter’s voice. With sweat trickling into her eyes from a mid August heatwave and a swollen lip she’d bit minutes earlier throbbing angrily, Glynnis paused, listened and slumped her shoulders in resignation.
“Idiot,” she groaned to herself.
She felt only slight relief at getting away from the stubborn nut press that was supposed to extract oil from almonds for salves and unguents but fought her every turn. Glynnis split the heavy brocade curtain, peered into the store and saw her half-naked unconscious husband.
“Idiot,” she said stepping around him. She bent and turned him over; a small trickle of blood ran from his lip.
“Rainer. Rainer!” She shook the unconscious man, his big head lolled back and forth on his broad shoulders, tongue slavering his chin.
“Rainer!” she shouted. There was a flicker on Rainer’s face, a sliver of consciousness passed through him. She shook him again. Blood from his lip spattered on his bare chest.
Borden Batter stood over the sorry pair, pudgy hands on his hips protecting his kidneys from the sad tableau he saw below him.
“Rather like a large drunk puppy, wun’tcha say, Glynnis? I can smell the hooch from here. The Portuguese have a saying…”
She cut him off. “No more sayings Borden! You’re not helping. Rainer! Rainer!” Her voice become more frantic, her cut lip turned purple.
Rainer’s eyes flickered open ever so briefly then their brown richness disappeared again into stupor.
She let his head drop heavily on the floor. It landed hard with a loud thud.
The knock seemed to bring Rainer around.
“What’s burning?” he asked, sniffing the air, becoming more alert with each whiff. “Smells like wood smoke. You smell it too?” He was trying to get to his feet.
Glynnis and Borden both sniffed but smelled nothing, no smoke.
Rainer slumped back down onto his side. “The fire is making me warm and sleepy,” he said. He started to curl into a fetal position but Borden interceded.
“Oh no, you’re not passing out here again, ever!” Borden gave a quick boot to Rainer’s shoulder. This caused his body to unfurl enough that Glynnis could get him to his feet.
“Out the door. Come on, Glynnis. Let’s move him outside.”
“Yes, yes.” The disgust in her voice was undisguised.
Between the two of them, they managed to deposit unconscious Rainer with his back against the alley side of the livery stable two doors down. Before he turned back to his store, Borden Batter peered over his spectacles at Glynnis.
“You’ll never get out of here if you stay with him and he keeps up like this. As sure as there are pork chop bones at an Anglican picnic, you’ll be stuck in a shack with him and his gruesome family all your life. With how many babies? Oh, right, none. Because this one,” he pointed a haughty thumb at Rainer Slate, “can’t plant a seed.” Borden pursed his thin lips into a smile, which evolved into a leer as he walked past her.
“Don’t malinger. Store’s open,” he spat.
At that moment Glynnis couldn’t decide which of these two men she despised more.
“Ouch.” Coming to, Rainer suddenly grabbed the back of his head.
“That was five minutes ago. You’re just feeling it now? That’s how drunk you are? Idiot. Where’s your shirt?” Glynnis could barely look at her husband.
“Don’t get going on about that again. Nothing is…”
“If it’s not burning now, it will be.”
“You are just trying to spook me, Rainer Slate, you devil. You always have been good at that.” She ran her hand over his chest.
“I smell smoke. There is something else mixed with the smoky aroma, something subterranean, mysterious, even sinister. Something that tastes like it came out of a thousand-year-old bottle. Elegant mischief. I can’t actually name it. I am not able to name it.” He gently rubbed the back of his head. A small lump was forming. “Ouch.”
Glynnis was more than a little spooked now. Subterranean? Sinister? Elegant mischief? She had heard her husband speak mainly in monosyllables in the four years she had been married to him and the year she knew him before that. He was an uneducated lout, a description Borden Batter had applied, accurately, pathetically, to her hapless husband on every appropriate occasion.
“Why can’t you name it,” she asked, curious where this would go.
“Smelling the smoke is a memory. A memory from the future. A burning bush with berries hanging red and delicious, temptation’s fruit luring us back and forth, swinging like a pendulum.”
Slate suddenly stopped talking, his mouth agape. He looked at his wife. She saw a little fear in his eyes.
“Somebody is going to burn down Shoal Lake.”
He said it without thought or inflection, a voice from a subtle wise place within him.
“Somebody is going to burn down Shoal Lake.” His words echoed in the narrow alley.
“Damn that hurts.” He rubbed the growing lump on the back of his head and pulled his hand back to see if he was bleeding. There was a small red smear on his fingertips. “I’m bleeding. How did I get this?” he asked Glynnis.
“I don’t know,” hoping her disgusted tone would hide the lie. It didn’t.
“You must have gotten it when you fell in the store. Luck had it, there were no customers when you came in. Or dropped in.”
He knew she was still lying but chose to let it go. He laughed instead.
“I did drop in, didn’t I?” He smiled his unabashedly cute smile at her, which always melted Glynnis’ heart in an involuntary way she’d come to recognize as love.
Glynnis stared at her handsome half-naked man.
“I have such a headache,” Slate said wrapping his hands around his head as if it was a delicate glass bowl.
“Who’s going to burn down Shoal Lake?” she asked.
“I don’t know who but it’s because of politics, land, jealousy, greed, the usual reasons. I must lie down.”
Slate rolled onto his side and stretched out on the rutted dirt in the alley. He carefully placed his head to avoid contact with the swelling and closed his eyes.
Glynnis made no effort to keep her husband conscious. She let him go, let him sink to wherever he needed to be at that moment. She was spooked, truly, abundantly spooked. Who was this unconscious man at her feet who looked like her husband but talked like a professor? How can a fool be cured? What change had occurred in the past few minutes? What will happen next? These questions all suddenly, overwhelmingly, flooded into Glynnis’ mind.
She had to sit on her folded legs to accommodate the dizziness. She touched her husband’s trousers. They were damp and crumbly. She tasted the contents of a thousand-year-old bottle. Her vision became hazy, details dissolved in a fog of unrecognizable shapes. She heard a fond humming that made her feel nostalgic and happy. Some old songs all in a jumble, tumbling, crumbling then…she passed out.
It was the shrill voice of Borden Batter at his most furious. His hands gripped his sides so tightly his knuckles turned white.
“GLYNNIS! WAKE UP!”
Three weeks later, on September 10 1889, a stiff northwest wind propelled a fire from one end of North Railway Avenue to the other, wiping out eight businesses including two hotels, livery stable, general store and Batter’s Apothecary. The fire changed the shape and destiny of Shoal Lake, provoking businesses to open along Station Road, south of the tracks.
BIG WHITE COMBINE
Bruno Insinger is having The Dream again. He started having it before Christmas and here it was the middle of summer.
Though seeding was delayed by a cool spring, the rains came at an opportune time and Bruno’s 1600 acres of barley and oats germinated into a promising crop. When the crop was about six inches high, the heat started. That was six weeks ago. Not a drop of rain had fallen since and his stunted crops wilted in the fields. Every day was above 80 degrees. The crop wasn’t able to hold the earth in place to counter the erosion; even light winds lifted top soil into hazy blusters. A crop yield 10% of the average was what Bruno expected to get this year. It was a disheartening depressing prospect, a waste of time, energy and money.
In The Dream, Bruno is surveying his fields. For miles around the pale parched green of his stunted crop matches the dry grey earth. The highest point on Bruno’s farm is a rise. Though somewhat precarious, it is tillable and harvestable. He is looking toward the rise which is shrouded in an impenetrable white mist. Above the hill, clouds have formed, billowy and white; from behind them, the sun is sending glowing shafts of light toward the white mist. Gold tinged and subtly moving the heavenly shafts penetrate the mist. Slowly in deep spirals from the bottom of the rise, the mist begins to ascend into the sky. As it clears the top of the hill, a huge white combine appears. It stands enormous against the sky, glistening with clean bright light. The machine is blindingly white, so bright Bruno can only take brief glances at it, a glistering gem against a blue velvet cloth.
Accompanying the vision is the rat-a-tat-tat of tin drums, children’s toys beat with determination and clamorous intent; toy pianos tinkle, plastic clarinets wheeze, a tambourine finds no rhythm. The cacophony increases in volume when the big white combine fires up, perceptibly shaking on the summit. The noise becomes louder as The Dream goes on.
There is a sudden flurry of diagonal white motion; the combine is moving, traveling over Bruno’s acres, eating them up like a starved deafening goblin. A man Bruno doesn’t know steps up to him and writes something on a small slate board. No matter how hard he tries, Bruno can’t make out what the man wrote. That’s when The Dream ends.
The next day was hot and rainless. That evening Bruno sat on the porch swing. He was alone, something that rarely happened on the farm. The kids were vacationing with his relatives and his wife was visiting her sister a day’s drive away. The cold beer sure tasted good, ‘100% good.’ He thought of The Dream.
At first, it sounded like loud electrical static, a broken buzzing that seemed to come from around the side of the house. Bruno cocked his head. From the other direction, a crackle came that sounded close and dangerous, then another from across the lane. He thought he was about to be hit by lightning. An explosion on the cement porch steps made him realize it was hailstones.
He got up and looked behind the house toward the west. The sky was black with roiling clouds, pierced by near-continuous lightning. Suddenly the air was full of ice. It pounded off the roof of the porch, battering the flower and vegetable gardens into pulp, smashing the windshield of the half-ton, careening and shattering off everything. As Bruno watched, his yard, his lane, his fields all turned white. Hailstones, ranging in size from marbles to baseballs, fell for seven minutes over an eleven square mile area. Bruno’s farm was in the middle of that area. The temperature dropped seventeen degrees in ten minutes. In places, the hail was a foot deep. A day later, there were still pockets of hailstones in shady areas.
The following afternoon the hail insurance adjuster inspected the damage. When he was done Bruno asked, “Well, what’s the word? Big white combine?”
The adjuster wrote “100%” on a clipboard and showed it to Bruno.
“Big white combine,” said the adjuster.
Bruno was relieved. It was over.
For this year.
Sherry Hudnut is about to change her name. After today she’ll be Sherry Blunder aka Mrs. Buick Blunder.
In an hour she’ll marry Buick Blunder who drinks more than she likes, who never talks about his work (he always says he works in “security”), who keeps a trunk in the basement she is “never ever” to open (it is double padlocked just in case), whose penis tastes funny. She watches her doubt in the mirror.
Her mother tarnished Buick by hiring a PI to check out his background. She doesn’t like what she found. He has a past!
Tempest Hudnut stands outside the door to Sherry’s room holding a blue envelope. Inside is the PI’s report. It is her wedding present to her daughter.
Tempest taps lightly on the door.
October 16, 2002
A white haired man is sitting in a comfortable chair off in a quiet corner of the Winnipeg library. He has taken off his wet shoes. His sock feet rest flat on the floor, two paper towels from the men’s room spread under each.
Chin tucked into the open neck of his shirt, an atlas splayed at South America on his lap, he is sound asleep.
This morning it rained in Bolivia, too.
October 16, 2002
“For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
we’re still just able to bear.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
“The greater the depth of transcendence,
the greater the burden of inclusion.”
A languid drop of soup slips away from the bottom of Eleanor’s spoon making a slow splash in its thick warm homeland. A man’s hand reaches for the metal door handle. Eleanor’s eyes follow it.
“He is perfect.” She says the words to herself. Motion slows. Everything stops.
Immobile, she holds the spoon in midair an inch below her chin, her mouth open and ready, her eyes wide and hungry. She is in a tableau vivant, a still life posed in a Tim Horton’s diorama, holding her tightly in the moment.
The roar has come again. The roar replaces the ambience of her surroundings with an enjoyable floaty hum that grows in intensity, cementing Eleanor to her place in the set piece the world has become.
Eleanor studies him for the length of three slow breaths. His face is partially hidden by the doorframe. Another breath and the world resumes.
McKinnon reaches for the metal door handle of the Tim Horton’s. He thinks about his health choices everyday at noon and often chooses The Horts; people are calling it The Horts. As he pulls on the handle, his index finger twangs with pain, tenderness from slamming it between two heavy boxes in the van first thing that morning. He shoulders through the washroom door and disappears from Eleanor’s sight. Her spoon continues to her mouth, followed by a quick wipe with her paper napkin.
As the washroom door closes behind McKinnon, the roar stops. Like a radio snapping on, her friend Pansy’s words return loud and near. Eleanor smiles, seemingly fascinated by Pansy’s two-year-olds’ bowel movements. She is hearing none of it.
Eleanor surveys the eyes of her three lunch companions. None of them appears to have noticed her interlude; if they did, they’re being cool about it. The topic changes to gossip about one of the men at the office. She wonders if later she’ll be the topic of their gossip.
Eleanor’s eyes wait impatiently at the washroom door. In a minute, it will open and he will appear. Eleanor makes a comment about the soup to reinforce her presence at lunch with her office friends.
Gossip is more interesting than Eleanor’s eyes so no one notices them bloom with delight when he emerges from the washroom, rubbing his damp palms on his uniform pants. His uniform is blue. It suits him. He strides to the counter and stands third in line, his back to her. Eleanor says to herself, “Third in line.”
She has seen him once before as she stood at her second floor office window looking into the parking lot. He got out of a delivery van carrying a package for a store on the main level. She caught the barest glimpse of his face, more a quick charcoal sketch, fluid strokes suggesting hairline, eyebrows and mouth. It took her breath away.
A minute later, he returned to the van, pausing to look up at the sky above Eleanor’s window. He didn’t see her standing there, transfixed as she was by his simple act of wiping his sweaty forehead with his bare forearm, shielding his eyes from the sun.
“Keep still,” Eleanor said under her breath. He did.
She studied the tall lean man: his tanned handsome face, squinting eyes shaded by his arm, high definition lips twisted into another squint, half smile, half grimace, his mouth bright with teeth, the arch of his hairline, his broad blue shoulders. Eleanor transposed his image to the special gallery in her memory, a place populated by the most beautiful people she had ever seen.
Eleanor knew you seldom get the chance to re-encounter true beauty so it’s best to make the most of every encounter. Eleanor indelibly implanted her images of the deliveryman among her beautiful people. His arm finished the motion and he pulled open the sliding van door. A quick step and he disappeared from Eleanor’s sight.
She often summons her portraits of the deliveryman, first the fleeting caricature with its knowing smears of darkness, then the detailed version as he posed for her. There is wistfulness about his face, an incompleteness that yearns to evolve out of the shadows of his arm, the coil of his mouth, the dampness of his skin, just to be – plain and perfect in the world.
“Second in line.” Eleanor watches him rock slightly, impatiently as he stands behind two elderly women taking their time. She watches him turn to survey the room, checking for other deliverymen, checking out women. Their eyes never meet. As he scans the room, she catches glimpses of his face that set off brittle flares of desire in her heart.
McKinnon notices the women at the small table. They seem oblivious to him so he pauses only briefly in his glance, checking for recognition, finding none. Their conversation turns to a weekend shopping trip over the line as McKinnon steps to the counter to place his order.
She watches him fish his wallet out of the right rear pocket of his uniform trousers, digging with surety, the way men’s fingers do in familiar places. His wallet is slim, black leather. It is warm, Eleanor thinks. She smiles broadly at what Sue is saying or so it appears. Eleanor is dancing with the thought of his warm wallet.
The only other occasion Eleanor encountered one of her beautiful people for a second time, she married him. Elger, the magnificent man with the ugly name, first stepped into her awareness in the grandstand at the racetrack and a week later in line at the Safeway, taking her breath away both times. They started talking. They got married. They were doomed.
They had been married just over a year when Elger was involved in a fiery car crash. That was eighteen months ago. These days he sits in a wheelchair, staring out the living room window. Spinal damage took away all feeling below his waist. A bulky brace rubs against the burned areas of his neck and face. The narcotics keep him still and quiet. His once-firm sculpted body is a mangled, oozing mess in a chair, his classic visage made grotesque by fire, grafts and infection.
In her silent prayerful moments, Eleanor becomes aware she was the true instrument of Elger’s loss of beauty, she was the tool fate used to manipulate circumstances. He was on an errand for her, nothing complicated, just a few items at the grocery. He could have walked, she suggested it, he considered it, it was a beautiful day but he changed his mind. He even dropped his car keys and kicked them underneath the car so he had to get down on his belly and squirm his way under to reach them. Yet he still got in and drove away to his destiny. Nothing could have stopped him, Eleanor says to herself every day, still feeling unabsolved. Jill is going on about a new coat she saw at Fairfax. It is blue.
Will he get his lunch to go or is he a sit-down-kind-of guy? The question bounces lightly in her mind as Eleanor waits for him to turn. He turns holding a tray. A sit-down-kind-of guy!
There it is, his beautiful face, calm but discerning, selecting the best seat among the welded metal maze of colourful tables. With the shadows lifted and the caricature detailed, she sees his face is exceptional, unrelentingly handsome. There is a small halt in her breathing.
“Keep still,” she thinks.
She waits for everything to stop, for the pause to pose him perfectly for her momentary cause, her beatification, her hungry ogle. She anticipates the roar. It doesn’t happen. He keeps moving and sits.
McKinnon decides on a two-seater against a far window, on the other side of The Horts from Eleanor’s table. Once he sits, she cannot easily see him from her seat without gawking. Everyone would notice immediately. Outwardly, it appears as if Eleanor is enthralled in the near-whispered story Sue’s telling about her neighbours’ fights. Inside she is a storm of indecision, furiously confused. Should she get up, go over to him and introduce herself?
“Hello, my name is Eleanor. I’ve been mentally stalking you and I have a personal policy that if I see a beautiful person twice I have to marry them and cast horrible doom upon them.”
Nevertheless, she can’t just let him leave without…
Salami, whole wheat bread, milk and romaine.
The list of groceries Eleanor sent Elger to get for lunch, the errand he was on when he crashed. Suddenly she loses her appetite.
Eleanor takes a slow deep breath.
She turns her full attention to the trick for cooking whole chickens in a crockpot that Pansy is explaining.
Eleanor never even notices when McKinnon leaves.
GOD IS AT HOME
“God is at home.
We are in the far country.”
- Meister Eckhart
Here in the far country we are inundated. The plague of pestilence.
Like stuttering, clattering machines they scramble and skutter up from the grass before our bootsteps, or what’s left of the grass and our boots. They eat and eat, brittle winged forces of continuous digestion.
They eat the whitewash off the walls, the hides off our cattle, thatch from sodden roofs, every tuft of horsehair between the chinks in the logs and winter is coming. The sky has been blackened with them for days now as they pass. We can only sit in the shadow of their passing and watch the sun flicker through their thick clouds.
Some people call them Mormon crickets.
October 16, 2002
Prince Philip presents gold certificates to achievers assembled in clusters.
“What did you achieve?” the woman standing next to me asks. She smells of expensive perfume and gin. Her wild green eyes are suspicious of my turban.
“I delivered food to starving Ugandan children. And you?”
She stares at me. Her nostrils flare wide, her mouth opens to speak but she says nothing. Huffily she turns away as I notice a tiny patch of bright green leaves sprout in the hair on her left temple.
“What did you achieve?” she quizzes the short man on metal crutches on her other side.
“I started a public awareness campaign that led to the provincial government recognizing the special needs of disabled employees. And you?”
Turning away, a look of disgust traces across her lips as a short green stem pokes out of the collar of her green dress.
She demonstrates her distaste for the other achievers in her cluster by exuding a slightly rotted vegetable smell. I take a step away from her, as do others.
When the Prince hands her the gold certificate she is visibly shaken and he has to grasp her arm to steady her. At his touch, she recovers instantly, becoming gracious and humble.
“What did you achieve?” the old prince asks.
“I’m the missing link between the plant and animal kingdoms,” she says.
“How nice for you, dear.” The Prince smiles and moves on.
A tiny red rose blossoms behind her ear.
On a high hill in southern Saskatchewan next to a stone buffalo effigy, I met Carlos Castaneda. He was alone and naked except for a guitar. He sat cross-legged on the dry dun grass and strummed, trying to remember the words to some old Neil Diamond song.
The sun was in his eyes. He clenched them shut against the heat, the fury, the bullshit!
He asked if he could have my car. I told him it was rented.
“Rented!” he exclaimed. “Everything is rented!” with a wave of his hand to express inclusion. “We’re all rented!”
I gave him the car.
When he started it, that old Neil Diamond song was playing on the radio.
“I am…I said, to no one there,” sang Neil.
Carlos left me two bags of groceries and drove away.
“Everything is a circle,” said the buffalo effigy.
GRASS OF THE APOCALYPSE
“…down from the mountains and up from the valleys will come men as bitter and implacable as the grass of the apocalypse.”- Jean Giono
Now, the nameless…
The mountain men are broad, strong and enduring, fleet on the steep and the flat. In their contemplative practice, they encourage encounters with inorganic beings in imaginal places. Agape Descending, The One into the Many.
The valley men are lean, fast and cantankerous, always hungry even after a large meal. They are in possession of the moment through practice and discipline. They have constant access to the Witness. Eros Ascending, The Many into the One.
September 29, 2002