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.
16. June—Tuesday,April 15
Morning again. June bustles herself around the kitchen, feeling the resistance of her heavy limbs. She’d been awake all night picturing it, picturing herself doing it. In the morning, she knew, she’d be going out there. In the meantime, she had lain next to her snoring husband. Hearing Norm step out of the shower, June drops two pieces of multigrain into the toaster with impatient efficiency. She is, she knows, moving farther and farther off the map. This isn’t who poor old Norm married. Norm wants something else for her, she knows. A job, a gym membership, the cocooned heat of possibility deep in her belly. She wants those things, had them before, felt them in inevitable predictable orbit around her. But somehow they drifted off course, her orbit listing past ever-more uncertain constellations. Maybe that’s the problem, she thinks. There’s something else now. Some other thing pulling her off course. She’s in uncharted territory now, her only guide a nonagenarian who believes in spirits and curses.
Rose hadn’t even blinked when June had told her. She’d taken the idea of some kind of—haunting—as perfectly plausible, even likely. What had she said? Cursed, you know. No, June hadn’t known. Now June is starting to know. She’s starting to know that working in the backyard is similar to the feeling she gets being with Rose. Being. That’s a word for it. Only it’s hard to get into words. There’s a sense of…floating. Like she doesn’t have to do anything. She can just—be. But it’s not being like a surfing the web at your desk job being. Or stopping at the Pizza Pies Mamma Mia Express Takeout for a spelt crust Mediterranean special and a large garden salad kind of being. It’s not killing time waiting for the day to end and Norm to come home being. It’s like she’s… connected, to something, something outside her, something— deeper.
Finally, Norm ambles down the polished mahogany stairs. She watches, her fingers twisting her hair as he eats his toast and flips through the paper, occasionally issuing forth a harrumph of disapproval. June glances at the front page, an article about a provincial commission established to explore what the headline says is the epidemic of missing native women. Another related headline describes a body found on the weekend: a 25-year-old native woman in Winnipeg stabbed in the back and thrown into the Assiniboine river, which runs right through the centre of the city. Her body, apparently, was later found bobbing on the banks of what that the paper describes as frigid waters. Norm’s on sports, he’s an NBA fan for some reason. Several of his favourite teams are on the playoff bubble. He checks the scores of last night’s games and shakes his head sorrowfully. They’re not going to make it, he mutters, stuffing the last bite of toast into his mouth and chewing laboriously. June snatches his plate from him and jams it in the dishwasher. Duly prompted, Norm grumbles to the front foyer and puts on his coat. June follows him and receives her peck on the cheek redolent of shaving cream and aftershave. He notices her then, as if for the first time, and asks how she’s feeling, how she slept. She adjusts the collar of his shirt and warns him not to be late to work.
It is nice of him. To ask after her.
Bye honey, Norm say almost quizzically, giving her a second peck at her cheek as if trying to chip off a bit of paint and reveal the true colour lingering underneath. June, in her robe, smiling passively, fire smouldering in her chest, locks the door behind him.
Now he’s gone.
June moves decisively to the sliding door to the backyard. Warm, ripe air drifts into the living room. Warm day, June thinks, first of the season. She lets the breeze play on her face and expand into her lungs. Last night she’d imagined it differently, pictured throwing off her robe and plunging out into the dirt like some kind of super archaeology woman. Under the robe, she’s 166
in an old pair of sweats and a long sleeve flannel shirt. Under that, her body: breasts slightly slumping, stomach pouching, thighs just thickening. She’s never been beautiful. But boys—men—always paid attention to her. Not gorgeous or glamorous, but pretty enough. That creepy professor. She’s getting older. Is that why she let Norm?—she let him and then he fell asleep. He slept like a baby. She doesn’t feel older. She’s the same person she’s always been. Isn’t she? Norm drives off, the automatic garage door closing with a groan of chains. June drops her robe, leaves it lying on the floor in a slump.
And finally, she strides into the backyard. She’s covered the hole—the site, she thinks importantly—with a large blue tarp she found in the garage. She yanks the tarp off, liking the sound of snapping plastic. She negotiates the steep slide down into the pit with confident ease. The cold at the bottom embraces her. It’s not that she’s getting used to it. It’s that she’s getting used to anticipating the way the cold will be dispelled, driven off by the heat of her body as she works her way deeper into its crevices. June crouches down and digs her fingers into a suspiciously lumpy protrusion of clay. The earth is loamy and resistant after the cold night. June winces as the dirt presses against ragged fingertips and jams under her nails. But she keeps going. She pushes in deeper, her fingers probing for gradations, fringes, boundaries that delineate the bones—his bones—recalcitrant and unwilling, but somehow insistent, as if they’ve been waiting all these hundreds of years to be unearthed. The bones of a betrayed warrior, she imagines. Or a medicine man, a tribal healer beset by enemies—devils in friendly disguise. He was murdered, she theorizes. Must have been. Why else would the bones be pulling at her, insisting that they be noticed, dug up, assigned truth and meaning? And yet, the bones are stubborn, elusive, part of a man too proud to admit what he has been reduced to.
It happened right here, June thinks, not for the first time. Maybe five or maybe even ten thousand years ago. Murdered, bashed in the head with a boulder or cut down from behind by some rudimentary early-version hatchet.
Norm would just make fun of her. He’d say, It isn’t a movie, honey. You can’t just dig them up and bury them again with the right prayers or whatever mumbo jumbo. She can hear him saying that phrase: mumbo jumbo. Anyway, she already knows that. She feels it. She’s not planning on—well, okay, she doesn’t exactly know what she’s planning on. It’ll come. It’s like a puzzle. One piece at a time.
But how will she explain it to Norm? Come the weekend, he’ll likely want to wander out back and take a peek at what she’s been so industriously doing in the backyard. What will she tell him? What will he see? Somehow, she has to make him understand. This isn’t—it’s not some kind of ghost story. This isn’t made up. This is—
After she was fired, let go, downsized, whatever they wanted to call it, this old Billy Bragg song from a CD her sister used to play wouldn’t get out of her head. To be honest, at the time neither she nor her sister had a clue what the song was about or ever made any effort to find out. It wasn’t even the kind of music they usually listened to. Her sister, soon to graduate high school, had been going through a moody phase and had fallen in with a different crowd. A boy had lent her the disc. For June it was just background, but in the cab after being summarily dismissed, one line kept rewinding over and over again in her mind. They stitched her back together, but left her heart in pieces on the floor. The morning after the firing, the song still firmly in place in her cortex, June had downloaded the track from iTunes and started playing it, over and over again, permanent repeat. Norm found the song perplexing and kind of funny. He Googled the lyrics. He held his nose and pretended to sing in an English accent—Wone dawkk Niggght—June ignored him. She moped around her apartment with that single song looping in her head while she took half-hour showers, surfed the web for cookie recipes she would never bake and scrolled through season after season of Hawaii Five-O, the remake. God was it really as dramatic as all that? People lost their jobs all the time. Or couldn’t get a job in the first place. She’d stopped answering the phone, reading her texts. Her parents were harassing her with offers to bring over supper, their worry overwhelming, overflowing. Her friends issued compulsory assurances then disappeared back to partners and careers, aggressively pursuing predetermined goals that she’d always been covetous of even when she’d seemed to be more or less on the same path. Even when things were going exactly as expected, June could never quite shake the feeling she was just pretending. But her friends, they all seemed so sure of themselves. So into it.
Never mind that. She has a new life now, a new job. Yeah, I’m on the clock right now. Rebounded nicely, haven’t I? Back on my feet, at the bottom of the pit, gravedigger, you see, noble occupation, well, grave robber to be more precise, perhaps a bit less noble, but still an occupation with a hallowed tradition.
By then, Norm was coming over after work almost every day. He’d take her for walks. They’d go to the park or to the lake to watch the sunset. They didn’t necessarily talk all that much. They held hands. After a while they started going back to her place to make love. In the end, it was Norm who saved her, who brought her back to the land of the living, convinced her to stop listening to that what he called in his worst British accent the depressing song by the English bloke. It was Norm, only Norm, who sat with her, held her hand, cracked his cheesy jokes, waited patiently for her to re-emerge.
She’ll tell him. Try and explain it to him.
What can she tell him? The truth is a feeling, a cold buried fossil come to life. The bones want something. June doesn’t know what they want.
She scrapes, the soil clinging to the webbing between her fingers. She breaks up clay clumps, feels the ground loosen and give. As she works she imagines him: alone, walking, the first to ever plant his feet in this lush soil. The cliff protecting the river, a slice of sheltered forest teeming with game, with berries and wild mushrooms, how perfect it must have seemed. It wasn’t like that squirmy Nordstrom said. He wasn’t some kind of savage. He was a leader, June thinks. Leading a group of tired, hungry, desperate wanderers away from frigid northlands of giant glacier slabs. Through luck, through divine intervention, through the same kind of sheer persistent stubborn will that has June at the bottom of a hole in her backyard, he leads his tribe to this fertile land. At least it was, then, she thinks. Thousands of years ago. He pauses, smells the air. Stops, his journey over—he’s found it: a home.
It’s crazy. A fantasy. Christ, June, you’re really starting to—
But Nordstrom—and Rose—
They saw it too. She can’t hide it, it shimmers over her, a glow. She’s found something…something amazing.
C’mon June. Get a job. Get a life. She has a life. I let Norm—in me—I could be—
He’s come to her. He’s chosen her. He wants her to—
Morning, then afternoon. The sun shifts, rolls over, the big house casting a stranger’s shadow. June brushes with her knuckles, mines the damp cool earth with bare hands. She feels at home in the pit she dug. She feels safe.
It’s a beautiful house. Everything redone just the way she wanted it.
But he got here first. He stood in Norm’s prized backyard and saw the forest gully and heard the river raging.
Once, June went with Norm to see the river. They went by car, a fifteen-minute drive northwest, wide flat curve, the picnic grass dotted with goose shit and squawking gulls. The river 170
was a disappointment. It smelled funny. There were signs everywhere warning people not to swim, not to feed the birds, not to fish. They stood and watched a Chinese man in hip wader boots stepping out in to the middle with a rod. They’ll eat anything, June remembers thinking. Then admonishing herself: racist. She remembers pitying the old guy and wanting Norm to take her away, to take her to the mall for lunch at the Cheesecake Club.
There. June has tunnelled under. She can feel it loosening now. With a final gentle tug, she pulls it out of the ground. A round, greyish object, hard to the touch. She gently brushes at it. Soft slopes, smooth yet striated. Bone. A thrill like a chill runs through her. Hard to imagine that one day she’ll just be—this. She traces her hand down a worn yellowed curve. Hipbone, she thinks. She feels her own hip pressing out against the swell of her flesh, confined in dirty sweats that are just a bit too tight.
She thinks back to the anatomy books she examined. Diagrams and closeups. Photocopies she made at the library. And the books in Norm’s study, placeholder leftovers from his dental school days. Diagrams. Illustrations. Illustrated diagrams. Bones. The foundation. What everything is built on, wrapped around. Norm’s bones would be white, June thinks. They would gleam like his teeth in the light of the bathroom, mouth open to floss. In the pit, the air is still and deep, true like well water or the taste of a fresh picked fruit. She puts the hipbone carefully on the ground and kneels over the next lump just barely protruding, already trying to picture it, trying to imagine how they might all fit together. How many bones in the body? She forgets. She’ll check the books. She feels ridiculous consulting Norm’s dentistry school texts. This isn’t some anonymous car accident cadaver donated to a bunch of geeky grad students, a young Norm and his classmates playing show and tell. You’ll figure it out, she assures herself, plunging her hands back into the cold hard dirt and grimacing as the hard granules of earth grate her fingertips. 171
Her back and legs ache. She has to be careful where she squats now. It’s getting crowded down here, she thinks. All those lumps and protrusions. If she wants to assemble—him—she’ll need more space. And to do that, she’ll have to tell Norm. No, he’d—she needs to keep him out of this. How can she? She has to tell him something. What? Lies.
More lies. Yesterday she told him she was keeping the tarp over the hole to prevent the fertilizer from being exposed to the open air, to the wind and the rain. He looked out into the backyard dubiously, but didn’t question her further.
Norm would want to call the police, the museum, the university. Nordstrom and his cronies. She won’t let that happen. So she’s telling bigger and bigger lies. How could he not notice? June’s a bad wife. She can’t even make him a decent dinner. She should make more of an effort. I should—
She let him shoot in her. Jesus Christ. What if I’m—?
She’s hot now. She pulls her sweatshirt away from her body, fans the thick cotton, feels the cool, sunken, earthy air on her stomach. Morning has given way to day and June is sweating, damp under her clothes. June straightens to a stand. She stretches. This is the part of the day when the light manages to grace even her pit of forsaken sloping swamp. June leans her face back to catch the sun. Her limbs feel cold and long and ancient. Afternoon warmth on her cheeks. She closes her eyes.
Hello! Anybody home?
Someone coming in, fumbling with the backyard gate.
Hello! Hello? Anybody home?
June clambers out of the dig. She runs to the piled tarp. Hurriedly, she drags the plastic sheet over the hole. Earth slips in, spattering to the bottom.
June makes the gate just in time to block a young man letting himself into the backyard. He wears khakis and a blue oxford button-down. He carries a reporter’s pad. He sports a nondescript head of sandy hair and is smiling profusely.
Hello there Miss! Are you June Littlewell?
She wants to say no.
Great. Great. Mrs. Excuse me. Do you mind if I ask you—I’m Hal Talbot. From Wississauga Cable Community News? I just wanted to ask you—
His sharp eyes on the tarp.
Why don’t we—let’s talk inside, June says.
In the living room June slams the sliding door closed and stands in front of it. Now, she says. You’re from…Who did you say you were? Not waiting for an answer, she ushers her visitor into the kitchen.
Hal Talbot from the Wississauga Cable Community News.
One of the bulbs illuminating the gleaming marble countertop island buzzes loudly.
Oh! June startles.
The light suddenly flickers to dark.
Just a burnt out bulb, Hal Talbot says.
June stares at the smooth gleaming chin of the stranger in her kitchen. What?
Your bulb. It burnt out.
Oh. Right. June glances up at the now grey-glassed bulb.
You should consider going long life. CFL. They’re more expensive but they last longer and use less energy. Better for the environment. My colleague did a story on them.
You did a…story?
Yes ma’am. I’m a reporter? For the cable community news.
Right. Yes. Of course. We…get that.
Everyone gets it ma’am. It’s on basic cable.
Yes. Of course.
June looks at her hands. They’re stained with dirt. She turns to the sink and begins washing her hands. I’m making coffee, she blurts, would you like some? Why would she offer him coffee? What does he want? Hal Talbot, reporter. The spacious kitchen feels crowded. She’s being watched. The back of her neck. The grooves of her spine. Lumbar, thoracic, cervical, sacral. She knows the words. You see, I know the words. Finally, she turns off the water and faces her visitor.
Are you alright ma’am?
I’m fine. Just a bit…
Yes. I’m…I’m just a bit…So, that’s why, June laughs nervously, I’m making coffee. Please Mr.…
Thank you ma’am.
Call me June. June feels a fake grin stretching her cheeks. Who calls anyone ma’am anymore?
Coffee drips, streams, sputters.
Live Town, June says. That’s the show that’s always on. She has dim memories of passing it as she climbed up and down the programming ladder. Seems like so long ago. When she spent her nights watching TV while Norm flipped through the paper. Some hokey local talk show always on that channel, fake smiling volunteers pretending that they’re real hosts and their guests are real celebrities, not just a bunch of wannabes mugging for the camera while whipping up a bunch of their purportedly famous Wississauga buckwheat pancakes, all you can eat Mondays at Dora’s, the home of the buckwheat.
That’s our flagship talk show, ma’am. I’m in the news department myself.
Oh. There’s news?
We do a daily community news show at 7 am. It repeats at 12, 2, 5, and 11.
We go off the air at 12 am.
June brings coffee. Milk? Sugar?
Stirring. Spoon against ceramic. It reminds her of a by-now familiar sound. Tea. Tea with—
This is about Rose, isn’t it? You’re that reporter!
Hal Talbot smiles. She’s quite something, our Rose.
Our Rose? June thinks.
She’s a treasure, Talbot continues.
The oldest woman in Wississauga, Talbot proclaims.
She’s old alright. June reddens. The kitchen smells of lemon fresh cleaner. Rose’s room, dark and cramped, crammed with dust-ridden mementoes, under siege by the malls and roads. Why would Rose send him here? She doesn’t want to be on TV. Hal Talbot looking at her. Watching her.
Rose, you see, ma’am, she—
Will you stop with the ma’am? June tosses her hair. Tries to smile. I’m not that old am I?
Call me June.
Will do… June.
How’s your coffee?
Hal Talbot takes a gulp and swallows. His lips seem very pale, unnaturally pinched. Very good, thank you.
So…June thrums her fingers on the table.
Hal Talbot smiles broadly, speaks with predatory politeness. Have you been gardening, there, Mrs.…June?
June follows his gaze to her red, ravaged fingers.
Oh. well. She curls them into fists. I’ve just been, doing some—I’m getting ready to…fertilize.
They sip their coffee. June’s fingers curve around the cup handle, grated nails pressing into the soft part of her palm. 176
The reporter grins pinkly.
Mr. Talbot, I’m sorry, but if you could tell me how I can help you…I don’t mean to be…but you see…I have to be—going out—soon—
When did she get to be such a terrible liar?
Well, June. Sorry to delay you. I just dropped by to follow up on something. You see, Rose was telling us about the river and how it used to be when she was growing up. And she mentioned something…interesting.
Oh. What would that be? She feels her spine crawling. Eyes on her, eyes moving through her.
Well, June, she was telling us about what a help you’ve been to her.
No. No. I just…
She was talking about, as I mentioned, the river and how it used to be. And she happened to mention that the area your neighbourhood is in was once a real hub for Native activity.
Was it? June’s murmuring now. She’s fascinated by the bloodless red of Talbot’s lips, the white flashes of his teeth, very clean, perfect even. Has he been to see Norm?
And, in fact, Rose mentioned that you, yourself, had encountered, recently, some evidence of Native presence?
What? June wills herself to laugh. To look confused, incredulous.
In the form of…
What? Me? No. Ha! Rose! She must have been—
June stops talking. He saw the tarp. My hands. What does he want?
Did you find something in your backyard ma’am?
Something? No! I—
Are you aware, June, of the riverfront parkway development?
That road they want to build?
The road they’re planning on building, yes.
Jesus. Does he ever stop smiling? June wants to shut her eyes. Crawl back into her hole. The site. The bones. Her skin crawling.
You see, June, a finding in the vicinity of the development. That would be particularly significant, June. Very significant. To the community.
The people of Wississauga. They have a right to know, June. Before it all gets paved over.
Oh. June goes for her coffee. Calming ritual. Rose drinks tea. The sweat on her body is cold now, a trapped chill under her bulky dirty clothing.
What’s under the tarp, June?
That tarp in the backyard. What’s it covering, June?
It’s a fertilizer…ditch. A new technique.
Rose gets, confused. She tells stories and sometimes she gets…confused.
She’s concerned about you June.
Why should she be worried about me?
That’s a good question.
Stirring her coffee. Spoon dinging the side.
Do you really think she’s confused, June? She seems very lucid. Surprisingly lucid. Our viewers always enjoy her recollections because of their vividness.
She is very old, Mr. Talbot.
Yes she is, June.
How can I help you, Mr. Talbot?
Our viewers are avid gardeners. Always interested in new techniques. Perhaps I could take a look. You could give us some pointers.
I don’t think so. I have an—appointment.
Getting your hair done?
I think you should go now.
Some other time, then?
I’m not really…much for…being on TV.
Ah. More of a private person?
She gets up. Her legs feel surprisingly strong under her. She could kick him, hurt him. Thank you for coming, Mr. Talbot. Her voice goes loud in the kitchen, fills the achingly empty house. I wish I could have helped you. Boldly, not caring anymore, June extends her hand. It hangs in the gleaming emptiness of the kitchen, rough foreign stained paw from some lost era. Not the hand of a Wississauga housewife: white, prim, soft.
Talbot shakes gingerly. Thanks for the coffee, ma’am.
I’ll show you out the front.