The Fiction

The Archaeologists, Chapter 23

Rose—Friday, April 18th.

Published On-Line, August 19, 2016

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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 Web sites of five magazines. View the schedule with links to previous/upcoming chapters, and find out more about the book.

Rose dunks a slice of white bread, the tea’s stain a slow spread. She gums the spongy copper dough. The television murmurs a traffic update. Rose listens to the fate of intersections. The highways, discussed on television in a series of codename monikers—404, QEW, DVP—simply serve as indisputable evidence of steady decades of expansion that stand in contrast to Rose’s slow shrinking presence; dwarfing vast wastelands of concrete entirely occupied by alien tank-like vehicles, SUVs they call them on the TV.

Rose dunks a cookie.

Oatmeal raisin, Rose is pretty sure. She’s not sure. She doesn’t taste as much as she used to. Her tongue is rusted dry, no longer at full capability, like a country that hasn’t fought a war in decades, its tanks and planes left to slowly decay.

Rose’s Morton fought in World War II, god rest his soul. How alone she felt when he left, how afraid she was and how determined she was not to show it. He did what he had to do. And Rose did likewise, though letters couldn’t keep her warm at night and it was cold that winter, that unbearably long winter of months and years when Morton fought the Japs in a Pacific that Rose imagined teeming with clever oriental pratfalls her Morton was smart enough to avoid, of course. Built of solid Scottish stock, he came back to her in one piece so he could work at Great Lakes Starch and provide his family with a good enough living and die early of a heart attack at 63, leaving Rose alone again, her children having long since scattered.

Her children. They rarely visit now. And when they do, they’re distracted, rude, anxious to be off again. How did her offspring get so weak willed and ill mannered? They let themselves go, Rose thinks. Her Morton was a wiry man with a bristly moustache, soft spoken and polite in that brusque way of his. He always behaved like a gentleman even under the influence of one or two, which Rose disapproved of but permitted, men being men, after all. But those lumpy children, where do they come from? With their impatient sighs and their constant interruptions—beepers and buzzers set to ring every time Rose opens her mouth to say any little thing. Always fidgeting and moaning and making all kinds of promises to do this or that before rushing off. Promises. A promise not kept is a lie, as far as Rose is concerned.

Local news comes on. Rose swallows wet cookie, cocks her head toward the television. It’s her reporter, young Hal Talbot. He looks tired, Rose thinks. He’s talking faster than usual. Rose’s hearing isn’t what it used to be. She struggles to string words together out of the rush of sentences.

Wississauga’s living legacy, Hal says on screen before cutting to Rose smothered in blush and lipstick, wispy hair brushed to one side, barely covering her spotted scalp. Bones, she croaks portentously. Indian bones. Rose pauses to purse her pruned lips. She blinks defiantly at the camera. No good will come . . . Cursed . . . Bones.

And Hal in front of a placid suburban home. Here in the heart of old Wississauga, an incredible discovery. Even as the city plans a future based on a massive new road behind houses just like this one, the buried past is being discovered. Has the area’s true history been unearthed? And will it haunt our community’s future?

Hal Talbot, kid reporter, fumbling with a gate. June appears, startled, white faced except her cheeks, a blotched blushing red. The incriminating blue tarp sits stark behind her. Hal introduces himself and June blocks the way, blocks the camera’s view of the backyard.

Cut back to Rose: Bad luck, the old lady intones. No good can come of this.

It would be a very significant find, proclaims local archaeologist Professor Sven Nordstrom.

Is there an ancient Native burial site in the backyard of this Wississauga household on the edge of the proposed site of the new parkway? This is Hal Talbot reporting live for Wississauga Cable Community News.

The TV goes to commercial: The Middle Mall: Where Wississauga IS Shopping! Indian bones. Cursed of course. Well she warned them. Nice girl, weak willed, hysterical, but still Rose tried to help her. She hasn’t seen her since. The young reporter missed his visit too. She’s alone again. Isn’t that just typical? Put the bones back where you found them and have done with it. Cursed, everybody knows that. Rose shudders. She’s chilled. They’re skimping on the heat. It was warm but now it’s cold. A spring freeze, the worst kind of weather. Kill the blossoms on the fruit trees. Now we’ll all pay the price, Rose thinks. The thrum of passing traffic blowing like a wind through the window. Rose pulls her sweater tighter. She sits huddled in her frayed cardigan. In her day, the trees kept the wind from sweeping willy-nilly and freezing all the old people right to death. In her day. Rose closes her eyes. Shivers again, trembling into slumber.

She dreams of walking down great big Hurontarion. The traffic is stopped, everyone sits in their cars, frozen. She’s not young, exactly, but spry, walking fast. She goes into the Wallet Valley General Store. They used to send a boy on a bicycle to deliver free of charge and give you credit to boot, not that Rose ever needed much credit, just a bit to tide the family over at the end of the month, and not every month either. She’s always been frugal, paid her debts, tipped the boy a nickel, did what was right no matter what. Rose goes into the store. She remembers it as one big room lined with barrels of dried goods and sacks of flour and tea. But now the store looms, expands, twists and turns. Shelves cover the walls, reaching high up beyond what Rose can see. Walls of narrow aisles lined with flashing computer screens, flickering televisions, blaring stereos.

Rose keeps walking. The shelves teeter and lean in precariously. They’re going to fall, Rose thinks. She’s relieved when she turns a corner into furnishings. She emerges into a long row of mattresses. A salesman appears, that young man, reporter Hal Talbot. Try a mattress, he says. Lie back! Relax! Put your feet up! Just as if you were sleeping at home! Don’t worry about your dirty shoes! It’s the floor model!

Rose lies down. There’s something under her. Something clammy, breathing on her neck. She wants to get up, but suddenly she’s exhausted. She struggles against wet hands over her mouth. She’s dying. She’ll die soon.

How d’ya like it? Hal the salesman asks cheerfully. Soft enough for you? A breeze sweeps colourful brochures out of his hands. Rose feels the pamphlets cover her face as she struggles to break free.

Sorry about that, Hal the salesman says, stooping to clean up.

In the mall. What breeze?

Rose jolts from her half slumber. Pain in her hips, her knees, her swollen ankles, her brittle knuckles. Cold air seeping in, spreading the tuneless rumble of rush hour traffic and the grey atonal odour of exhaust. Look at that. The window is wide open. Someone must have come in while she was sleeping and opened it. Why would they do that? Rose won’t have it. She won’t have open windows, the draft going through her, right into her.

Rose grips the armrests with skeletal fingers and takes aim at the walker positioned so that it’s no more than a single arthritic stumble away. Her muscles, still aching from her last failed foray, creak into rusty gear. Rose pants through her wet mouth.

Something falls in the kitchenette, a pot or a cup, smashing bits scattering.

Oh!

Rose misses the handles of the walker.

Cupboards bang against each other.

Knickknacks fly off the corner credenza.

Rose falls forward.

A girl in pink holding a yellow bouquet slams into the wall.

Ah!

Rose hits the carpet with a slow motion thud. The girl’s blonde head, decapitated, rolls against her cheek.

She comes to. Rose hears sighs, murmurs. Burglars? One of those horrible home invasions she hears about on the television? She lies still, listening, as the sounds move around her small rooms. Gradually she detects a rhythm, a hum almost like a chant, the almost song going louder and quieter as it swirls around her. And it’s cold, Rose realizes. She tries to raise her head from the floor, but she doesn’t have the strength. Not burglars, she knows. The primeval freeze moves through her, comes to rest in her rattling chest. This is something else. An uninvited guest. Evil wedging its way in. Rose feels frigid, impotent anger, her rage constricted by weakness and infirmity. They all want something. Something from Rose. She’s just an old lady. What can she do for them? She just wants to be left alone to rest. But they come, they keep coming. They open the door. They bring it with them.

Then footsteps behind her. The swish of cold evening air, like a knife cutting. Rose draws a deep breath and tries to yell. Nothing comes out but a rasping exhale of spit and raisin oatmeal pap. The window slams shut and locks.

This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in fall, 2016.