This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki to be published by ARP Books in Fall 2016. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the websites of five great magazines. To see the schedule with links to previous/upcoming chapters and find out more, please click HERE.
26. Hal—Monday, April 21
It was a minute-and-a-half of sophistry, intimation, and implication. The perfect news bit, a scoop even. At first, everyone congratulated Hal, shook his hand. Even Mitch: Great stuff, he sniffed. But then the protest started and the police announced an investigation. The Boss had pulled Hal into her office. You better be right about this, she said calmly, looking him straight in the eye.
Right, wrong, does it really matter? How many people even saw his “exclusive”? Hundreds. Maybe a few thousand. More? Not more. In the big city the dumbest human interest puppy dog saved from a burning balcony segment reaches half a million. Hal’s sick of regional planning committee bullshit. He’s sick of old ladies and the soccer mom mayor and the pathetic pseudo-punks loitering on the back of the third level of the mall pretending they’re some kind of gangland crime-wave. That was awesome, Sarah breathed. She looked at him, wide-eyed—admiration? Pity?
Meanwhile, Scott’s not answering his cell.
Scott said there was nothing in the hole. He kept repeating it—I didn’t see. I didn’t see it. Finally, Hal stopped arguing with him. Just after sunrise, Scott left for work pale and dishevelled in a way Hal had never imagined was possible. Hal, left alone, slumped on the second-hand couch, replayed it all over and over again: swaying trees, a weird moon, the sound of the river. And then? Maybe Scott was right? No. Fuck that. There was—
Bones, at least. Hal’s sure he saw.
And the rest of it? Glowing ghost figment, right out of Rose’s playbook, Hal thinks. Trick of the light or—
Hal checks the knot in his tie, surveys the scene. Twenty or so protestors are taking a lunch break. They squat and sprawl on the lawn across the street, scratch their heads, pull at their beards, look around nervously. For three days now, he’s been watching them, waiting for them to do something interesting. They scratch themselves; they cup soft fruits in their hands and eat like apes. Hal turns to the cloistered house, home to the now infamous June Littlewell. Dark and quiet, the house also squats in the faint spring sunshine. The windows are covered, curtains tightly pulled, no sign of life behind them. Everyone’s waiting and nothing’s happening. At least nothing that Hal can put on TV. He rubs the blond scruff on his chin. He’s been shaving with an electric razor in the back of the news van. He’s barely been home since the protest started. Scott gave him the razor for his birthday, top of the line complete with digital sensor. Hal likes using it, likes the sense of being on the frontlines, too busy for even a proper shave. This is the big time boy-o. This is what you wanted.
But things aren’t going as planned. The hippie protestors are skewing the equation, because in Hal’s mind he had it all added up. It was: evil developers plus government cover-up plus half-crazed housewife patsy equals community outrage and acclaim for muckraking junior reporter.
But now the boss is on his ass. She’s heard from her boss. The corporate higher-ups who barely fund community cable in exchange for the exclusive government-mandated right to make millions selling imported pap to the masses don’t like annoying elected officials, no matter how far down the totem pole. Cable community programming is supposed to be about new malls, weather-related school closures, the oldest lady in Wississauga toothlessly mashing through a piece of birthday cake while the mayor looks on, smiling. The mayor’s not smiling. She’s expressed her unhappiness in a series of terse “no comments.” The Walletville regional planning commission has sent an official letter denying any wrongdoing or complicity and suggesting as yet undetermined legal action, should the issue fail to be properly and promptly rectified. Whatever that means. Hal knows what that means. It means no one returns his calls, no one wants to comment. He’s cut off, banned from his own story. And what a story it was. Hal worked on it feverishly, slyly combining innuendo and pseudo-fact, images of powerful 18-wheelers spewing smoke, the river flowing past banks of fluttering flowers, a shallow gravesite, a bucolic backyard, all set to portentous pronouncements.
The piece danced. It suggested. It promised. It made no accusations and provided no evidence. It was perfect. It burned the house down.
Hal surveys the scene again. Every day the protest grows by a straggler or two. When he first heard about it he gave it a few hours at most. But the patchwork band seems to be settling in. Nothing else to do, Hal thinks. They’ve put up some old canvas tents. Apparently Proudfeather’s actually living in the house, has the permission and sympathy of an absentee neighbour rumoured to be everything from an eco-terrorist doing time in the States to a retired middle-school principal recently divorced and gone to seed. Hal watches the red-haired protest leader bounce around, pausing here and there to encourage her scraggly band. She calls herself Susan Proudfeather. Who’s she kidding? She’s as white as the rest of us. Proudfeather puts an arm around one of her brood, pats another on the shoulder, flashes another a big thumbs-up grin. With the exception of a two-minute interview when the protestors first arrived, she’s been dodging Hal all week, though she’s found the time to create a website exhorting people from all over the country, the continent, and the world to join the protest online at Powwowforpeaceandredemption.com. Hal feels an irrational anger toward her, a bile rising from his stomach into his mouth. He wants to spit. Tastes it. He can’t spit; he can’t get angry. Standing there in front of the cable community news van wearing his blue sports jacket and red-yellow stripped tie, he’s a target; people are keeping an eye on him as much as he’s keeping an eye on them. Hal crosses his arms, suppresses a shiver. On top of everything else, Mitch and Sarah were right about the weather: it’s getting cold again.
The protestors have a drum fire going. They’re gathered around it, having their lunch. Hal has no appetite, not that they’re offering. Some kind of bean-looking concoction boiled up on an outdoor propane range and spooned into throwaway plastic bowls. So much for the environment, Hal thinks. Proud-whatever-the-hell-her-name-is doesn’t eat, just prances around talking to people, working her small audience. She’s loving this. She isn’t from around here. He doubts any of them are. Hal checks the cracked screen of his iPhone. It’s going on 2. After lunch, she’s finally committed to giving him the one-on-one interview she’s been promising all week. The last thing Hal wants to do is give an obvious flake more attention, but he can’t spin his follow-up without her, and if he doesn’t start spinning, he’s going to lose the story and probably his job. She’s a nut-bar of the first order, with her army boots, buckskin trousers and single black raven feather flapping out of her curly carrot hair. She’s no more than a clown, a caricature. That’s what gives her power, Hal figures. She’s got nothing to lose, doesn’t care how she comes across, and ends up seeming somehow authentic in her fakery. As a result, she makes them all look stupid, makes Wississauga look like the kind of place where hicks hide in their shacks, hoarding Indian skulls and clear-cutting ancient riverside forests. This was supposed to be about the little guy, evil companies and complicit governments conspiring to suppress the truth. But Susan Proudfeather and her freaking Powwow.com are making it about something else entirely, something intangible and impossible to report—race, Indians, history; it’s lose-lose, nothing sticks, nobody wants to hear about it, and Hal’s getting screwed for even bringing it up in the first place.
Never mind that there aren’t any Indians at the protest. In fact, there is no official Native presence in Wississauga or the entire Walletville region. Hal looked it up. The last band or tribe or whatever was moved up river in the 1930s. Way up river, to a reservation three-and-a-half hours North. All that was a long time ago. There’s a completely different story to tell now, a story about a sleepy bedroom community becoming a hotbed of possibility, skyrocketing property values versus economic efficiencies, the present versus the future. The bones were just a gimmick, a way to get attention. But Hal miscalculated: the past is pulling them all in, some kind of ethereal quicksand, everywhere and nowhere. The protestors wave their banners and chant their slogans and for some reason it’s Hal’s fault. Now the city planners and politicos aren’t talking to him, the police are investigating, the lawyers are litigating, the Littlewells are in hiding, and Hal’s got nothing to work with, fuck all, zero, dick—not even dick. Scott’s officially avoiding him. Hal doesn’t blame him. It was a bad night, a bad idea. Jesus, maybe that old bat was right after all. The whole thing starting to seem—
She’s ready for you.
Black-haired kid, maybe five years Hal’s junior, his neck draped with a keffiyeh, his skinny body entombed in a ragged lumberjack coat unzipped over a store-aged Levis jean jacket. His tone is contemptuous, dismissive. He turns around and starts walking back across the street without waiting for any kind of reply. The first time Hal asked for an interview this same kid said: We don’t deal with the corporate media. The corporate media? They’ve got to be kidding. In fact, Proudfeather did, indeed, talk to the news—the frigging national news—their camera practically kissing her ass. That night, Hal, sitting all alone on his suddenly expansive couch, forced himself to watch as Proudfeather and her followers beat on a bunch of oversized beaded tambourines and the camera panned from the earnest protestors to town officials smiling guilty reassurances.
Abruptly, Hal grabs his digi-cam and follows the kid over to the protest epicentre. Two bored members of Wississauga’s finest track his progress from the front seat of their squad car. The kid gives him a cursory nod and leads him around the house through the open gate and into the backyard.
It’s weirdly tranquil behind the house. Fenced-in backyards face each other. Susan Proudfeather sits alone, cross-legged on the yellow-green grass. Proudfeather seems to be meditating or something. She’s got her eyes closed. A black bird flies overhead, heading for the river across the street and down below. Not exactly sure what to do, Hal stands there, fingering the record button on his camera. Finally, he steps closer and points his camera at the seated woman.
I’m here with Susan Proudfeather, he announces, leader of the Lower Grove Street protest. His voice comes out surprisingly loud in the hush of the backyard. Miss Proudfeather, first of all, thank you for taking the time this afternoon to speak with Wississauga Cable Community News.
It’s my pleasure, Susan Proudfeather says gently, opening her eyes as if she’d been waiting all along for the interview to commence. Her voice is husky and muted. She stares up and into the camera as she carefully picks her words. I just want your viewers to know that I’m not the leader, or anything like that. The group has elected me their spokeswoman. But we’re a non-hierarchical entity, a community coming together to fight injustice, celebrate the earth, and bring attention to the ongoing legacy of the Wississaugan people.
But as spokesperson, Hal says evenly, I think people would be interested in hearing about your own personal background and philosophy. Your name, for instance, is very unusual. Can you tell us about it?
Susan Proudfeather slowly rises from the lotus position to stand facing him. Proudfeather is an ancient name. It was given to me by the Squamish peoples in a traditional naming ceremony. This happened last year, when I turned thirty. Dancing arm in arm with the first peoples, I realized how far I’d come from the sanctity of nature, from being able to commune with the spirit of the earth mother. The Indigenous peoples have been here for thousands of years. We’ve just arrived. We need to respect and learn from their ways. I reject my white name, my settler name, and I now recognize that I am a guest on this land.
Hal takes a step back, makes sure the camera gets the entire getup, from boots to beads to feather.
So is that why you became involved with protests for Native rights?
This isn’t just a protest, Hal. Proudfeather smiles at him reassuringly. This is a celebration, a gathering celebrating the earth and the legacy and enduring spirit of the Indigenous peoples. Of course, we have to protest, but we also have to celebrate and learn together.
But would you say you’ve primarily been an…activist, over the last years?
Susan Proudfeather smiles gently into the camera. You know Hal, she says softly. We’re just visitors here. We’re just passing through. These giant elms and maples threatened for execution are the sacred tribal lands of the Wississaugan people. And they are slated to be paved over. We all have to speak out against what’s happening here. We’re all pulled to this place because of its beauty and its power.
There aren’t, actually, any Native people currently taking part in the protest, are there?
The Wississaugan people have been driven off their land, and now this colonial government wants to remove all traces of their culture, their way of life, by uprooting their ancestors and paving over their holiest ceremonial lands.
Are there any actual members of the Wississauga nation with you today?
They support our protest. They hear our prayers and know we are allies in their struggle for justice.
But they’re not actually here?
For years the Indigenous people have been betrayed. The white man has stolen their lands, committed acts of genocide, desecrated their ancient spiritual sites, but now the tide is turning, and the truth is being heard. We believe this is just the beginning. Soon hundreds of people will come here, to this site, and join our movement for truth and redemption.
Hundreds of people? There are only about twenty right now.
Every day the protest grows. People are being drawn to the power of the ancient spirits, to the sanctity of the old growth forest that has existed beside the mighty Wississauga River from time immemorial. They feel the presence here. Susan puts a hand on her heart as she speaks. Hal zooms in.
What do you mean, the presence?
You just feel it. Everyone can feel it. The whole community knows that an injustice is in progress and that we all have to come together to stop it.
What do you mean you can feel their presence?
The Indigenous people believe that the spirits of their ancestors continue to live on in sacred grounds, providing guidance and assistance to the next generations. It is possible to feel their presence. That’s why it’s so important not to disturb these sacred graves. We demand the bones be repatriated to the Wississauga nation and that all plans for construction of a new road be immediately halted.
Have you actually seen any of these…spirits?
Can’t you feel it, Hal? I’ve been down to the sacred sites. The presence there is so powerful. Hal, I think you should join me there. Come with me. You’ll feel it. I know you will. The car is ready, announces Proudfeather’s young subordinate.
Hal startles, the camera jerks. He’d been in a kind of reverie with Proudfeather. On automatic pilot. He was doing the interview, asking the questions, but now he isn’t even sure what they talked about. The sun makes a brief appearance through a thin layer of spring cloud. Hal shivers.
Coming with us, Hal? Proudfeather smiles enigmatically.