I am Aspen Smoke. I am finished.
So begins my flash fiction yarn that explains death using found footage of wilderness and wolves.
Click the pic to watch the 4:39 video, to hear the story, to know.
The old saw goes, “The only things you can count on in life are death and taxes.” At some point these two parallel inevitabilites must intersect.
Apparently we aren’t truly dead, bureaucratically dead, until we experience tax death. This week Canada Revenue Agency sent me a letter saying that Linda is now tax dead (my terminology). That means that every level of government is satisfied that she owes them no further taxes. Hey Baby, off the hook! You win!
This got me thinking about all the different ways we can be and need to be dead in this culture. Physically, when the body stops and certain disposal processes start, you end up six feet under in a tight one-room apartment with no doorbell, or your anonymous ashes dust away somewhere appropriate or inappropriate, depending on how clear you were about this with your family. That seems easy and familiar. Being the 21st century, there are numerous new ways you can dispose of your precious remains ranging from being shot into space to being liquified and flushed to being buried inside a large dead animal instead of a coffin. Seriously!
Mentally, if you are very lucky, some of your ideas and/or creations linger on after you die. This can happen through children, media exposure, art, notoriety, genius, setting an example and so on. Soul persists past physical and mental death yet it is the one aspect of ourselves we are most uncomfortable with and least educated about.
An oft-used crossword puzzle clue is Last words? with the answer obit. Your obituary proclaims and asserts your death by recounting Part One of your story, or, most likely, your story as interpreted by family members or friends under duress, each of whom would write a very different obituary depending on how close they were to you. Sometimes agencies or companies you deal with after a death will request a copy of the obituary.
Here’s a great idea! Write your own obituary! I did. Tell your own story. It saves time and confusion and illustrates your understanding of what your loved ones are going through after your death. It’s an expression of love. For more information on writing your own obituary, read my post called Obituary Euphemisms.
Part Two of your story is your last will and testament or what happens to your worldly stuff now that you are dead. This is an important part of your story because it directly states your wishes and enables an orderly and fair dispersion of your estate. Keep it simple and honest. Some people see their will as one last opportunity to be small and extract revenge. Try not to be that person. Be large and grateful instead. If you are over 18 years old, you should have a will. Like writing your own obituary, creating a will is your opportunity to have your life story end exactly the way you want. As luck would have it, I have written about wills.
What other parts of your story remain to be told? Bureaucratic death must be satisfied. Almost immediately after a death, the province issues a thwack of death certificates because every company and level of government you deal with is going to ask for one. You are now dead to the province. Insurance death was, in Linda’s case, quick and efficient, though often it is not. Her estate was not complicated and she had a clear and concise will. Linda’s tax death, other than, what my Mom would call, a schmozzle with H & R Block (an eye-roller for a later post), was smooth and sympathetically administered by Canada Revenue Agency. This means that Linda is, officially and in every other way, as dead as she possibly can be.
In a shaman’s world, in my world, Linda lives on, in my heart, as a spirit, as a helper, infinitely. She guides me every day; we communicate in a pure and direct manner using shamanic techniques and a special agate. We exchange a love that transcends death by accepting what death is – natural, neutral, necessary. Linda is never far away.
To a shaman who accesses non-ordinary reality, the old saw now goes: The only things in life you can count on are no death and no taxes.
Part 2 of 3
This article about Hayfield along with a store picture was supplied to the Souris and Glenwood Municipality history book, published in 2006.
I may be the last person alive who ever lived in Hayfield, Manitoba.
My parents (Bruce and Helen Dickie) and I moved from Margaret, Manitoba in 1952 when they purchased the Red and White store in Hayfield. I was three years old. Dad bought grain in Margaret for Pool Elevators after he returned from the war and wanted a new experience.
Hayfield provides my earliest firm memories. The country general store my parents bought was a huge two-story rectangular building with shed-roof wings, slat siding and Red and White Store emblazoned across the front. We bought the buildings, not the name, from Mrs. Canning after Mr. Canning passed away. Thereafter it became Dickie’s General Store though the white with red trim remained. As you came over the rise traveling west on Hayfield Road, the store, blazing white in the bright sun, stood against a rolling landscape of crop and fallow making it impossible to miss.
Front view of Dickie’s General Store in Hayfield. Note the handpump-style gas bowser. The child in the picture is me.
The store, which faced east, had a flat roof and façade with a central entrance and sidelights bracketed by two large multi-paned display windows. The sidelights sported large Coca-Cola decals. On the façade a pair of narrow rectangular windows opened into the second floor. The wing on the south housed vehicles, the one on the north a storage area with its own entrance. A windbreak of trees to the north and west of the store helped protect it from inclement weather.
Don’t mistake Hayfield for a town or even a village. It was mostly just a store. Besides my parents and me, just two others resided in Hayfield: the hired man, Lawrence Murphy who rented a room from us and an older man named Dave Rogers who lived in the only remaining house in Hayfield. More cats and dogs than people lived in Hayfield.
On the main floor, our store sold groceries, dry goods, house wares and a few farm supplies. A soft drink cooler – the kind with a tank of cold moving water holding drinks like Kik Cola, Wynola, cream soda and a myriad of Stubby flavours – stood next to the front door. Customers came in from the summer heat, opened the large lid of the cooler and either poured over the vast variety of drinks or reached right for their brand, likely Cokes all clustered together. I accumulated a huge bottle cap collection from the sticky catch bin of the cooler.
At the rear of the store, a post office offered the services of the Royal Mail. Mom was the postmistress and Dad delivered the mail to the local farms. In winter, he drove a horse and cutter, in summer he used a half-ton. The post office was the only place off limits to me, federal property and all – there and Lawrence Murphy’s room upstairs in the corner, personal property and all.
Oiled wooden planks, likely original to the place, covered the floor of the store. I recall the slightly chemical smell of the crumbly green stuff we put on the floor before we swept it. In front of the store in the parking lot was an Esso gas bowser, the kind with the glass tank overhead into which you hand-pumped with a handle the required number of gallons then gravity pulled it into the tank.
We lived at the back and above the store. Behind the store were our kitchen, family room and mudroom. A crude summer room led off the kitchen. Our bedrooms were upstairs, my parents in the front corner, Lawrence’s in the opposite back corner, mine along side Mom and Dad’s. These bedrooms all opened into a huge living room with linoleum floor and four wood frame windows across the south side We never had much in the way of furniture up there (our financial situation was modest at best) so I rode my tricycle around and around in the bright airy empty room.
In one upstairs corner down a short hallway, a dusty storage room housed an enchanting assortment of things from the store’s past. A moveable type printing press, in pieces but with the type open and available to my little fingers sat next to store displays for products that hadn’t been made in decades and a few personal effects of families who lived there before us. I’m not sure why but my parents completely ignored this room and its contents. It became my secret place.
The mysterious and intriguing thing that turned the storage room into a secret place was not left behind by a person. On the sill of a west window, I found the perfectly preserved skeleton of a mouse, bleached white by the sun. It provided my first exposure to death encountered suddenly in an unexpected place. I remember how the sheer brightness of the tiny bones reached out and grasped my attention, how I would stand and stare at the glowing white structure, arranged like jewelry on the grey wooden ledge, the sun pointing slanty fingers through the slowly moving dust. My young imagination strained to picture those frail dry bones supporting a tiny body in a soft fur coat, tail sweeping back and forth, warm life pulsing inside. Over the years, I watched these fragile bones turn to a soft white powder.
This promotional item from Dickie’s General Store is a small first aid kit in a plastic box containing an antiseptic solution, cotton absorbent, a spool of tape and basic first aid instructions.
By the time we arrived in Hayfield, only a short section of the raised grade across the prairie remained to remind you that railway tracks once ran through here. At some point Hayfield had at least one elevator but all that remained of it was a metal grain bin set deep into the ground, its shiny slanted metal sides gaping and open to the sky, a great danger to anything that fell into it. It usually held enough water in the bottom of the hopper to drown a child, a constant worry to my parents. I recall Mom’s frequent warnings not to go near the hopper. It was the most dangerous thing I ever encountered in Hayfield.
North of the wooden store, two small sheds and a barn, all with gable ends, sat next to a corral. The last building in the row, a big wooden hall, provided me with endless hours of amusement. (This was formerly the Hayfield church.) The hall consisted of a large room with rectangular windows along both sides and an open raised stage at one end. Used for storing lumber, the place was full of planks in piles. I found some old drums left behind by a band that made music there at some previous time. The skins were broken but I can recall standing on the stage all alone banging on the drums with a stick singing at the top of my lungs to my captive audience of old planks.
Being an only child in a rural setting without nearby children, I became a self-amusing kid, my performances to old lumber an example. I roamed the area with our black lab, Jet. Mom could always tell my whereabouts because she’d see Jet’s black tail above the tall grass or crop and know her son was safe.
left: Bruce and Reid at front door of Dickie’s General Store in Hayfield, 1955 below: Mom in front of store 1955
Cats abounded in Hayfield. I recall one rainy day racing back and forth from barn to house excitedly reporting every new kitten our cat Freckles produced. A few barn cats tried to keep the mouse population under control.
Southwest of the store, a dilapidated wooden fence encircled a space for an ice rink in winter, another hint of Hayfield’s past. Unused by the time we arrived, Dad would cover a small section of the rink with water, clean off a smooth patch with a rusty old ice scraper and let me skate. I learned to skate on this bumpy ice by pushing a small kitchen chair ahead of me.
In summer, wild windstorms swept in from the northwest or, more scarily, from the east. Dust devils as big as funnel clouds came swirling across the black summer fallow, lifting cones of dry dust into the heat. The wind would pop out a pane of old glass in the upper floor of the store, sweep through the place looking for egress, punch out a window in the back room downstairs and continue its desperate journey across the prairie. I have jumbled, frightening recollections of the wind and thunder pounding outside while we frantically held pillows to the windows on the storm side of the house. On more than one occasion, the weather became our enemy, vulnerable as we were out there.
Dickie’s General Store would be the last store in the old building. Newly mobile, people found Brandon nearby, alluring and centralized. Our country store was obsolete. In the fall of 1957, we held an auction sale liquidating the stock. Dad found a job running a Texaco consignee business delivering bulk gas and fuel oil to service stations, farms and homes in and around Shoal Lake, Manitoba out on Highway 16. He moved there first and we followed a month or two later. I don’t know the arrangement but Lawrence Murphy stayed on as caretaker of the Hayfield buildings. He may have run the post office for a few more years after we left. Later Lawrence lived in Souris.
The store and all the remaining buildings in Hayfield came to a sad but useful end in the 1990s when firefighters in training from Brandon and Souris used them for practice. They set the buildings on fire then put them out, set them on fire then put them out, and so on until they were gone. It brought a tear to Dad’s eye when I told him the details of Hayfield’s demise but we agreed the cause was worthy and a fitting finale.
Helen Dickie passed away in 1993, Bruce in 2001. They lie side-by-side in Shoal Lake Cemetery. I make a living as a freelance writer, working out of Winnipeg although since my wife Linda passed away, I am trying to retire. My areas of interest include urban and rural architecture, history, heritage issues, music and spirituality.
My years in Hayfield, ages three to eight, were formative in my life and in the world. Humanity emerged out of the darkness of a great war into a time of sunny optimism when hope invaded our hearts and souls. The future glowed with promise and prosperity. Somehow, that sense of optimism filtered through to our little family and gave us the strength we needed to move and survive in a new town.
Though I consider Shoal Lake my hometown, Hayfield, Hebron School and the Brandon Hills left indelible impressions. That was where the mysteries of life and death revealed themselves to me in obvious and subtle ways, where I learned lessons that are still useful and relevant to me every day. Hayfield is gone but I expect its lessons will last a lifetime.
A bluff of trees in a cow pasture and the grade of the lane suggest Hayfield but its only a suggestion against the big prairie sky.
“Death makes angels of us all and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as raven’s claws.” Doors lead singer and Old Soul Jim Morrison got his wings on this day in 1971. He was 27. Jim left us these thoughts to ponder today: “I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that seems to have no meaning.” and “Film spectators are quiet vampires.” and “I believe in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown.” and “People fear death even more than pain. It’s strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death. At the point of death, the pain is over. Yeah, I guess it is a friend.” and “The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death.” and “When you make your peace with authority, you become authority.” and “I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps “Oh look at that!” Then- whoosh, and I’m gone…and they’ll never see anything like it ever again… and they won’t be able to forget me – ever.” That seems to be going to plan so far, Jim. What’s with deathday?
“For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
“The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream. It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream.” – Martin Heidegger
Linda and I have pointed the rental car west on the thin ribbon of possibility called the Trans-Canada Highway. It is a clear spring morning, the sky an exhilarated blue. East of Portage la Prairie, suddenly arising into the pristine day, we see a curling twist of black smoke, ominous but beautiful. It rises quickly into the air a few miles ahead of us. We watch it thicken and grow, wondering what its source could be.
Two bridges span the Assiniboine River here, one for each traffic direction, separated by several hundred feet. On the eastbound bridge is the source of the dark plume. As we arrive we see a semi trailer truck, just the cab, ablaze on the bridge.
Flaming fuel drips off the bridge sending small barges of fire floating downstream on the surface of the river. Some of the liquid fire falls onto the riverbank, setting the grass to smoldering. The truck cab is completely engulfed in flame by the time we pull over and park. It seems to be the only vehicle involved in the fire.
Several other vehicles have stopped on the westbound bridge. We all get out of our cars to stand in helpless awe and watch the fire. Though there is no sign of the driver, we all know there is a human being inside the flames. A walk through hell in a gasoline suit! Someone calls 911 on their cellphone.
Tires explode sending flames shooting out over the surface of the river like unwholesome fireworks. The flames die in the water, leaving greasy slicks. More cars pull over to join our grim witnessing. The black smoke is so thick it casts a shadow over us. The air grows rancid with the smell of burning fuel, rubber and metal.
A loud crack comes from inside the column of orange and red flames tinged with petrol blue. In the air is the hiss of fire greeting water and the chatter of fire in dry grass. Someone begins to sob quietly.
Strangers standing together on a bridge, we will take with us this disturbing vision, the smoky remembrance and the emotional baggage of our chance encounter with the fiery fate of another stranger.
A few helpless minutes later, we are on the road again. Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars from Portage head past us to the accident scene. The following day we check the newspapers to see what happened on that two-lane concrete span over a prairie river.
The driver of the truck cab, having left his haul at its destination, was heading home to his young wife for the weekend. As he pulled over to pass a slower moving hough at the entry to the bridge, one of his low side fuel tanks caught the hough and sent the truck spinning around, bursting into flames when it hit the sturdy cement railing along the bridge. The truck driver had no chance of escape and died in the inferno. The driver of the hough, due to his placement on the bridge, was obliged to drive through the wall of flames, escaping shaken but uninjured.
The black smoke churning into the blue dome, fire falling from the concrete bridge flaring red in green grass, desperate flames spinning in the eddyfied murk of the Assiniboine, the sound of robins and blackbirds from the bushes in the ditch – it is only because we are so close to Grace that this Beauty is bearable.