She wears frayed jeans and her brother’s cotton shirt. Wiry and jut-hipped, she wanders north along that rough track, whipping at bushy weeds with a willow stick. To her right lies bush and swamp and muskeg, then taller bush fraught with bear sign. To her left, the road clings to the root of a high clay bank sloping into treed mountain. Twelve years old and she is leaving behind in the sluggish morning hours a sink full of unwashed dishes, bacon grease on the stove.
Her parents are ordinary people: neither old nor young, neither dumb nor smart. The father bucks timber for a living and stays out late drinking cheap draft at the hotel. The mother stays home to cook and clean for the father and the girl and the brother two years younger, who is going into grade five come fall. The girl does not think of them as she hacks the heads off burly thistle, fleshy nettle, wild oats and pale, thin dandelions gone all to seed. She thinks only of stretching out a space between herself and the dishes while overhead the sky spins a pale sundog out of the empty heat. She goes on, wielding her green stick.
The girl walks until she can no longer hear the torpid whir of Sunday mowers, neighbours shouting over wire fences, smaller children playing in the ditch. Here, past the edge of town, she halts barefoot in the dust, her toes begrimed with the muck of a puddle she’s waded for the cool lick on her skin. A grouse drums in the deadfall, a chipmunk jitters up the crackling bark of a broken pine.
Through the idle haze of her senses comes a heavy, scraping sound, gathering force. She tucks her hair, blond and straw-straight, behind one ear and squints into the trees. A kaleidoscope of leaves plays shadow tricks on her eyes. She looks hard up the road where it bends out of sight, then back in the direction of town where it bends the other way. Boys’ voices are coming, dragging something with them.
When her brother rounds the bend with Dieter and Wilkins and the albino, the girl lowers her stick and rubs one caked foot against the back of the opposite pant leg. Her brother’s friends are her friends, for they have grown up together in the way that children from these places grow up bound for lack of choice. She could be suntanning in the Penner girls’ yard, reading magazines and talking about boys, but she prefers being with boys, doing the things they do instead of talk. Right now they are pulling a wooden boat by its stern. Its bow drags heavily, plowing a deep furrow in the road.
‘Mom wants you home, Cora,’ declares Big Al. That’s what the others call her brother. Big Al. Their scruffy pet, their lucky mascot, their playful kid.
Cora shoves her hands in her back pockets. ‘So? What else is new?’ She stands close to Big Al, herself a head taller, and looks down into the familiar swirl of his buzz-cut, the pug nose with its muddy freckles, his open, unblemished face, squarely hopeful. He sports an oversized green t-shirt and brown cords that Cora knows by dust smear he’s picked off his bedroom floor and will continue to do so until their mother confiscates them for laundry. She’s of the same habit, fishing plaid shirts from under Big Al’s bed in preference to the scratchy blouses her mother carefully irons and hangs in her closet.
‘Where’d you find that boat?’ she demands of Dieter.
Dieter tilts his head and smirks. ‘Ask me no secrets, I’ll tell you no lies.’ Dieter’s eyes are blue and frank and canny, and he knows everything. He knows that the slide of ’64 that blocks this old road buried a case of dynamite. They’ve never been over that slide and its treacherous, hidden heart. Dieter’s from a good Mennonite family and keeps their tenets: no swearing, no drugs, no dancing. He’s not tall for sixteen, but his build makes up the difference – he carries his shirt in one hand despite blackflies. Cora loves his muscle-bound chest, his hulking shoulders and python arms, but she loves more the scalloped scar that lassos his nose and rakes his cheek and plunders the corner of his upper lip, skin bunched in lucent beads, coarsely sewed and coarsely healed.
‘The boat belongs to his dad,’ says Wilkins, and Dieter punches him swiftly in the shoulder. Wilkins stoops, laughing and groaning, massaging his pain. Fourteen and proud of Dieter in the way that they are all proud and honored to walk beside this etched face, this tanned and savage torso, through the neighborhood and the town; especially Wilkins, whose own worked flesh is pulled thin as sinew over his elongated bones despite lonely hours of punishing bench presses.
Paul is the albino. Not a true one, in the text-book sense, but his eyes are red-rimmed and moonstone in an oval face. Hair all of white, skin the color of the spider’s pale belly. Same age as Wilkins, but smaller, fine-boned as Cora. Paul’s pretty sister was struck with an incurable disease in the spring, and they all feel sorry for him. His neat hands play an invisible flute, fingers dancing beside a blowing mouth as he waits for the group to move.
‘Let’s go,’ orders Dieter. He and Wilkins lay hands on the stern. Big Al and Paul position themselves along the gunwales.
Dieter looks at Cora. ‘Coming?’
‘Where’re we going?’
‘For a boat ride, stupid.’
‘But there’s no water.’
He places his hands on her shoulders, turns her to face the flooded bush.
‘That water don’t look deep enough for a boat.’
‘It gets deeper ahead. We’re taking the boat around the mudslide.’
‘Around the slide? What for?’
‘See what’s on the other side. Come on, if you’re coming.’
The boat resumes its scraping journey up the road, leaving its long, wavy track in the dirt like the tail of some swaggering beast. Cora falls in behind.
The boys are too busy with the boat to pay her any attention. She lags and pouts, swats idly at flower heads with her stick. Trees hem her in all around, their trunks thin and hungry. There has been rain enough and thaw to flood the lowland. Cora picks her way with care amid a migration of thimble-sized frogs that hop like pixies from the upslope side of the road to the watery side, for what purpose she does not know or wonder. They are part of this road upon which she herself makes as small a mark. She slashes Z in the clay at her feet, imagines flames leaping from it. She steps through the flames to slash another on the clay bank: Z over and over, for she is Zorro with a lightning stroke. Moss and earth fly from her blade. The mountain bleeds at her touch.
The frog migration has thinned, but she still sees them. She catches one and runs to Dieter. ‘Want to see the cutest thing? Hold out your hand.’
Dieter signals the boys and they set the boat down. They gather around as he extends his hand. Cora puts the miniature carefully on his palm. The frog sits with fluttering sides as they marvel over its comic little grimace and delicate toes. Without warning, it launches skyward in a flying leap, lands near the boat, and disappears under the hull. They run after it, dropping to their knees to grope in the curved dark.
‘I think I see it,’ says Wilkins, who is lying flat on his stomach. Paul stretches out with him.
Big Al crawls between them, pants sagging, the bottoms shoved into black gumboots. ‘Yeah, I see it! There it is!’
Dieter places a hand on the gunwale to kneel; the boat tips with his weight.
‘Don’t!’ shouts Big Al, and Dieter nails him with an affronted glance. Big Al deflects the look to his sister.
They skid the boat aside to reveal the squashed creature, its organs shoved out its mouth. Cora pokes at the mess and mourns the tiny, precious death.
They are poling the boat through the flooded forest in the swamp’s greasy light, like the survivors of some calamity that has changed the face of the world. They float between trees rising stunned and bleak in the stalled air. Cora touches the somber trunks as they drift past. She trails her fingers in the cold water, grazes the feathery tips of drowned horsetail reeds. Big Al and Paul man the bow; Dieter and Wilkins, the stern. Their poles lift and plunge, a sucking sound in the muck. Cora, on the middle bench, clutches her willow stick, its frayed tip resting against her bare foot. She releases it to the water, watches it rise and fall in the boat’s wake.
‘When will we see the road?’ she whispers.
‘Patience,’ says Dieter. He tells them a story about this place, how a Carrier Indian chief, long dead, told Dieter’s father that before the white man came, the forest was thick with fat trees and berry bushes so lush you couldn’t hack your way through. Fire took it away in a day; only the Carrier knew what had once been here. And the Chilcotin, who ventured up from the south to massacre the Carrier at Chinlac, a haunted spot not far from here. For three hundred years no vegetation has grown in that grieving soil.
Wilkins grips Dieter’s arm, his eyes riveted starboard. Dieter hisses a terse command, and the pole bearers in the bow arrest their strokes. Cora follows their gaze and catches her breath. Not 50 feet from the boat, on a hump of dry earth, is a massive, silent shape. She’s never seen a bear – just prints in mud and sometimes scat. She hardly believes they exist. But her mother has told her don’t run, don’t show fear.
If the black bear sees them, it does not appear to care. It snuffs at the ground and digs with weighty paws. Cora checks her brother. Big Al looks at her, his expression amazed. Paul catches her eye. His body is tense and tremorous, his lips smile.
‘Is it going to do anything?’ whispers Cora. Her skin prickles, though she does not feel afraid. They are five strong. The boys have sturdy poles. Dieter is with them.
The bear lifts its head. To Cora, it looks tame – an old stray dog scrounging food. She could chase it off with a pebble.
Dieter gives the order. ‘Push to port.’
As the poles slice water, the bear nudges its long nose high in their direction. Then, as if pulled up by the nose, it half rises on its hind legs, twists its bulk, and falls away running, its motion soundless as shadow, swallowed by trees and twilight.
‘That wasn’t much,’ says Cora.
Dieter gives her a scornful look. ‘That bear could tear your face off with one swipe.’ His scar shines red against its bloodless cheek.
Cora remains in the boat, fearing what her bare toes might touch in the dark water. The boys slip and slide the boat up the muddy bank to the road as she clings to her bench. Paul, shivering in his wet jeans, holds her hand as she disembarks. Big Al and Wilkins stand in the road surveying the territory, dripping wet, their faces mud-spattered, their clothes grimed in mire. Dieter rubs his t-shirt over his stomach as if he’s polishing a car.
‘Are we on the other side?’ asks Cora. Dieter nods. The road looks the same to her, only more overgrown. It is very still. There are no frogs. They leave the boat and start walking.
Dieter and Wilkins karate fight to pass the time, Wilkins absorbing the brunt of it. His nose is prominent, his cheeks bony, his teeth crooked, his jaw mulish; still, he moves with an easy hinge to the joints and takes abuse in stride. Big Al gets in a kick or a chop where he can. Cora throws rocks at the boys’ feet to be in the game. Sometimes she chops her brother and he howls like a hellcat and pays her back double. She feels bruises rising: she feels powerful and alive. Paul comes behind playing his spectral flute. He skirts the fringe, quiet as snowdrift.
Soon the road starts to ascend, climbing into the mountain. Around the last bend, it opens into a wide, level clearing ringed by fern. At the far end is a colossal cliff of grey basalt, antediluvian and scrawled with microbial bloom. The ground is littered with pocked, grey stone. Cora picks one up, weighs it in her palm, feels it light and porous and charged. Each rough hole is lined with crystalline teeth of pure silica.
‘Volcanic,’ says Dieter. ‘This place is old.’
‘How old?’ Cora asks, feeling the stone in her hand.
‘So old…’ he says, tilting his head to regard her in his knowing way, ‘the Carrier made blood sacrifices here.’
‘Oh, shut up,’ says Cora. She laughs louder than she has to, tosses the stone down.
‘I’m serious! They threw virgins off this cliff to appease the gods!’
Wilkins slugs Dieter in the shoulder. ‘You bull-shitter. That was the Aztecs.’
Dieter spins and hooks his arm around Wilkins’ head, bowing the lesser spine to submission. With his free hand he draws up Wilkins’ t-shirt to expose the shocking torso: white as paste and corrugated with rib. Wilkins clutches at the thread-bare, sweat-soaked and stinking rag – his sweat, his stink – but Dieter gives a final jerk and Wilkins staggers back, arms whipping like mower blades, chest stoved and naked in the pitiless light. He steadies himself, raises his eyes to Dieter’s, then pushes higher, to the flagpole steel of Dieter’s arm, and higher, to the shirt held triumphant and aloft against the sun’s indifferent stare. Wilkins’ fists harden and he holds them away from his body in a pose coiled and stagey as a gunslinger of old. Cora grips her brother’s arm.
Wilkins leaps at Dieter with a flail of hands, dragging him down. Dieter twists to gain position, crashing down on Wilkins with his full weight. Wilkins bucks and strains, his face blushing like a cherry beet, veins standing out blue on his neck. At last he slackens and Dieter lets him up.
Big Al brushes the sharp gravel out of Wilkins’ back, comforting, praising. ‘Balls, man. You got balls.’
Dieter tosses the shirt, and Wilkins pulls it on, then lunges at Paul, making feinting jabs with his fists. Paul ducks his head and lifts his flute. He turns away from Wilkins, who whirls and throws his arm around Big Al instead, bringing him to the ground in one motion.
‘Give!’ yells Big Al, legs thrashing.
Wilkins brushes himself off. ‘That was too easy.’
Dieter and Wilkins knock fists and grin, a sign that trouble has passed and the group is intact. More than intact.
Dieter turns his attention to the cliff and begins to scale the rock. The boys follow. Cora tries, but the rock is sharp on her feet. Small stones rattle onto her head. She shields her gaze and looks for her brother, who is searching for a hold about three feet from the base of the cliff.
‘Be careful,’ she warns. ‘Mom’ll kill me if you get hurt.’
‘Hardy-har to you, too, you little asshole.’ She knows she will get it for this, and yells louder. ‘Did you hear me, butt-munch?’ When Big Al stops to look at her, she gets ready to lead him on a wild chase, but he turns away and scrambles after Dieter.
Cora swipes at loose rock until she has a bare patch of clay, then she lies down on her back to wait and watch. Overhead, the sky is still blue and hot and impossibly far. She squints her eyes and sweeps them across the face of the sun. Still ringed with halo.
The boys have congregated on a ledge not ten feet up where they confer in frustrated tones. Dieter presses his hands and back against one wall of a narrow fissure, walking his feet up the other wall. His runners slip and he has to get his feet under his body fast to save himself from coming down hard.
‘Give it up, Dieter,’ says Wilkins. ‘You can’t do it.’
Dieter throws him a look. ‘You can’t either.’
‘I’m not even going to try.’
Big Al is scanning the precarious path down the cliff. ‘How are we supposed to get down?’
Dieter steps to the edge.
Cora waves at his sillouette. ‘Are you coming down yet?’
He pushes his bangs to one side and contemplates her, then tilts his head and works his hands inside the pockets of his jeans and rocks back and forth on his feet. ‘I want you to promise me something first.’ His biceps bob like apples under his skin.
‘That you won’t move a muscle.’
Cora twists in alarm, craning her neck in every direction. But the cliff, the clearing, the trees, rocks and ferns remain inanimate and aloof. She looks at Dieter, who smiles down on her as he spreads his legs and tries his weight on his knees like he’s about to do lifts.
‘Why can’t I move, Dieter?’
‘Lie still,’ he bids her. And then he is plunging from the sky.
She sees the feet rushing in and by instinct closes her eyes. There is the frog, broken and dead. She opens her eyes in panic and sees the feet part only in time to land on either side of her rib cage. She hears the whump of Dieter’s landing, feels the ground shudder.
‘Don’t do that!’ she yells. Dieter steps off her and laughs. She clambers to her feet and glares.
‘Nice one!’ Wilkins applauds from the ledge.
‘Try it!’ Dieter calls to him. Cora has time for one quick step before he catches her by the wrist.
‘Let go.’ She plants her feet, but Dieter tosses her easily over his shoulder and deposits her on her back at the base of the cliff, pinning her arms over her head. She swivels from the hips, trying to get her feet under her to maneuvre against Dieter’s grip. ‘You’re hurting me!’
‘Lay still, then, or he’ll land on you.’
‘Ready?’ yells Wilkins. Cora straightens her body and tries to hold still. Wilkins leaps, pressing his feet together as Dieter did, a spear aimed for her belly. At the last second, he spreads his feet to crash down on either side of her. He leaps off and yells, ‘Paul!’ Paul is already in position. His mouth smiles obtusely, lips stretched to a plastic sheen like pink bubblegum.
Cora twists on the ground, trying to pull her wrists out of Dieter’s grip. ‘Grab her feet,’ he tells Wilkins. Wilkins throws his chest across her legs and gets a solid purchase on her ankles. She lies rigid and stretched, a rabbit hide in a tanning frame. I’ll tan yer hide, her father liked to say when she got smart with him.
Paul leans forward and peers over the cliff, then he lifts his silent flute and retreats from Dieter’s stare, edging behind Big Al on the ledge.
‘Big Al, you’re up!’ yells Dieter, and relief washes over Cora. Now it will end. Her brother will make Dieter let her go. Big Al looks down on her, his eyes glazed with adrenaline fires, and she locks on, letting her eyes plead to his. He breaks free, rushing toward her with missile velocity.
He doesn’t have the coordination to pull it off. He will land on top of her stomach or her chest; her heart will ooze out her mouth. Or by some miracle he will get his feet untangled to set them on the ground, but his ankles will snap like straws. She believes she can hear the wind in his clothes. Then comes the double thump and he is safe.
‘Big Al, grab her hands,’ Dieter commands. ‘I’m going again.’
Cora struggles with all her remaining strength, and one hand slips free. Wilkins seizes it and binds her wrists tight in the knot of his fists. ‘Just relax,’ he tells her.
Dieter is already coming. He lands with a harsh grunt, feet straddled. ‘Holy buckets, that’s fun!’ He and Wilkins switch, and Wilkins climbs the cliff.
They do not speak now. Cora is aware of the clatter of small stones rattling down the cliff, the panting breath of labor. She smells the musky sweat, the tinny breath, the iron odor of clay torn all around. She feels the fingers hold her fast. She fixates on the infinite blue above them, the dizzy circle of the sundog as the boys spell off in eternal rotation, deliberate as shift work.
Then, with no word spoken, it’s over. Cora sits up and rubs rocks out of her hair. The boys gather in front of her, their eyes on her, silent and alert.
‘Look out, Dieter, she’s got her death rays on you,’ laughs Wilkins, his voice pitched high and nervous.
Dieter throws his shoulders back and jeers, his scar glistening like a string of ocean pearls caught over the head of a titan. Cora remembers the ease with which he slung her onto those shoulders. She turns her gaze on Wilkins.
Cora once kicked Wilkins in the groin out of curiosity, and he dropped to his knees and turned sick, but never retaliated. That was a while ago. She wouldn’t try it now. She sees her smallness reflected in his bald and hungry eyes.
Sitting beside Wilkins, chubby legs crossed Indian-fashion, is Big Al. He looks back at her, his ruddy face struck with wonder, chin like the block before whittling. She won’t kill her own brother. She won’t.
She looks at Paul, arrested in half-crouch, his cheeks flushed a delicate pink. Before she is aware of moving, she is straddling the albino, clubbing his pale head with her fists. Her hands bounce off his skull like rubber hammers. She hits but cannot smash. Paul squirms in the grip of her thighs, laughing and unscathed. Cora pitches to the ground and buries her face, her arms curled about her head like petals closing over a stamen. Her back heaves with ragged, shaming breaths.
‘You’re not gonna run home crying, are ya?’ asks Big Al. The sundog swallows its tail, the afternoon turns chill.
The mother stands at the stove, stirring, and her wooden spoon clatters to the floor when her daughter bursts sobbing through the door. She scrutinizes Cora with a practiced eye. No blood, no gore. She draws her daughter to her breast and pets her hair with a soothing rhythm. ‘Tell me all about it,’ she says, her voice heavy with some private concern of her own.
Cora’s words are muffled against the thick apron bib.
‘What? I can’t hear you,’ says the mother, and pushes Cora away to uncover her mouth.
Cora can only sputter, ‘Those boys!’
It is enough to make the mother, stooping to retrieve her spoon, pause. She turns her head to look at Cora. ‘What did they do to you?’
The event unfolds in a series of jolting hiccups. ‘They were holding me down and –’
The mother rises, eyes guarded and wary.
‘And jumping toward me –’
She stiffly waits.
‘With their feet!’
This is the part where the mother will march out the door and find the boys and punish them. Instead, her body sags. She picks up her spoon and sets it in the sink with a little laugh. ‘Oh,’ she says, and shakes her head. She folds Cora in her arms. Her hand resumes its petting rhythm. ‘I thought something terrible…’
Cora shoves out of the embrace and tries again, her words tumbling with desperation as if feeling and fact together might shape the story she does not know how to tell. ‘But they were holding me down and climbing up and jumping over me…’ Her voice tapers to a brooding silence as she stares at the floor, struggling to isolate words that will pronounce this day different from endless other days of wrestling games that push them always to a kind of edge before they snap back with bonds renewed. She stands before her mother, crying and ashamed.
In the painted kitchen with its hooked rugs and daisy clock, the mother dabs the daughter’s incomprehensible tears with an apron skirt, comforting in the best way she knows. ‘They were only playing,’ she croons. ‘Don’t be a silly baby. You’ve got to be tougher if you’re going to play with boys, Cora, although I don’t know why you want to play with them all the time – there’s plenty for you to do in the house. Those dishes have been waiting all day. And come to think of it, why aren’t you playing with the Penner girls? I’ve never seen such a one as you for the boys.’ She pauses in her fussing and looks into her daughter’s face. ‘You frightened me, you know,’ she says, stroking back the damp, hot hair. ‘I really thought something terrible…’
Cora combs her hair in front of the bathroom mirror. Through the open window she can hear the shouts of the boys as they gather for the night games. Kick the can. Treasure hunt. Truth or dare. She has dishes to do yet, but later she’ll put on some shoes and run out the back door, and if they’re not in her yard they’ll be at Dieter’s or Wilkins’ place, or under the light at the corner where their streets meet. She’ll follow the sound of boys’ laughter, and when she finds them, she’ll join in the games like any other night.
Soon she’ll be done with games. In a few years, she’ll be sneaking out the back door to run to parties. By then, Dieter will be working far away in the tar sands, making good money. Dieter’d kept Wilkins on a straight path all his life, but with Dieter gone, Wilkins will follow on an older brother’s crooked heels, first to jail and then to obscurity. Paul will be in an institution, his sweet sister in the ground. Big Al will be trapping in the bush with his father, taking school by correspondence, the parents divorced.
In a few years, on a night like this one with the summer dew settling the dust on the road after a day of heat, Cora will be at a party where a girl about two years younger – a pretty little girl with budding breasts and hips just starting to curve – is sitting close to the young men of the town, trying to get herself noticed, when suddenly they do notice, and they’ll ask that girl why she’s hanging around anyway, a young thing like her – what does she want? And one of them will suggest that she must be a very dirty little girl to want to hang around men, and another will suggest that if she’s that dirty, they should give her a bath. And when she tries to run, they’ll grab her and peel off her clothes right there in the kitchen, and haul her to the bathroom kicking and screaming, big eyes rolling. When Cora goes in later to use the toilet and check her makeup, she imagines she can detect under the plasmal trace of the young men’s cologne the scintilla of their excitement, brutal and heady. The girl will be there still – dressed now – standing in the corner with her hands over her face, her wet hair dripping on the wet tiles, and Cora will use the toilet and wash her hands at the sink and check herself in the mirror. She’ll dab a little powder, a little blush, and she’ll see the girl in the mirror the whole time, standing behind her. Cora will put her makeup back in her bag and dig out her comb and she’ll turn again to face the mirror. She’ll pause with her hand in mid-air and she’ll look at the little girl and she’ll want to say something – some word of blame or even comfort – although nothing she can say will make it different. Slowly she combs her hair.