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.
Lying in bed.
June can’t sleep. Norm slumbers, a heavy arm thrown over her. June doesn’t squirm away. Let him. Let him hold her. He keeps telling her, promising her, that everything’s going to be fine, everything will be okay. Will everything be okay? Sure, June thinks dreamily—
the bones are
there weren’t any
Outside the mock Wississaugans dance in feathers and jeans around their steel drum fire. The chanting is rhythmic, calming. It reminds June of the days she spent in the backyard, at the bottom. The beat in her head, totem soundtrack to a dream. For a moment, June wishes she were with them. Dancing. Chanting. Believing. But it all seems so long ago now.
Norm? June says, pressing into his heat. Are you asleep?
What if they—find something?
Tomorrow? When they search the backyard? What if they—? Chris says they think I’m . . . June can’t finish the sentence. What do they think she is? A liar? A mental case? A grave robber? All of the above, really.
It’s okay, baby, he mutters. It’s all gonna . . .
Go back to sleep.
June closes her eyes. It’s all gonna blow over. She believes it, too. Feels it, a wind sweeping up from the great lake blowing the spring reek from the river valley up up and away. Already it feels like a dream she had—a diminishing dizzy night sweat vision.
His legs are pink and hairy. He loves to floss and has a tendency to rearrange the shoes on her shoe rack, organizing them in categories: casual, business, cocktail.
What are you . . . hoping for?
What am I . . . hoping for?
June holds her breath. Waits. She can wait. That’s what she’s been doing, isn’t it? You know, she whispers. A boy? Or a . . . girl?
Norm turns to face her.
June, are you saying you’re . . . ?
It’s early yet. I mean, we should . . . do a test and—but I think I might be . . .
They come in the morning. Inspector McLintock haltingly, formally, introduces everyone in turn. There’s Chris, of course, and a lawyer from the provincial department of something-something-somewhere. The official court-ordered delegation is trailed by two pasty looking ladies in white lab coats, each one flanked by a young male police officer carrying an oversized black case.
For the evidence, June thinks. Norm shifts protectively closer to her. June’s gaze roves from one face to another. Christine had told her that the official group might include a Native elder to oversee proper handling of any remains that might be found. June felt weirdly drawn to the prospect of meeting him—an Indian—a Native. She pictured someone impassively handsome despite his obviously advanced age, a man who, with his tousled shock of white hair and weathered face set off by a faded red button-down open at the throat, wouldn’t look out of place at the Wississauga Country Club buffet. The group moves past her into the living room and through the sliding doors into the back. There is no elder. There’s nobody to demonstrate her tolerance to with a simple sympathetic nod: sorry to say that there’s nothing here for you, nothing to find, or see, or bury or . . . whatever. But she’s sorry anyway. For what? I didn’t—
Norm and Chris trail along, leaving June alone in the foyer. June doesn’t follow them. Instead she moves into the front room. She peeks through the bay window. A squad of police are rousting the powwowers. The request for an injunction Christine submitted must have been approved. June watches the head cop blurt commands through a megaphone. Disperse. If you do not disperse . . .
Red-haired lady—Proudfeather—and several of her ardent cohorts are not dispersing. They seem to be chaining themselves to a recently constructed teepee. Even through the window and under the harsh bleat of the megaphone, June can just catch the waft of their chanting: Give back the bones . . . Give back the bones . . . The plaintive bleat of their voices makes June feel a sense of—not guilt, exactly, more like remorse, a complicity in acts nevertheless beyond her control. Surrounding the ardent few chained to their teepee are the rest of the protestors, who lie on the front lawn and wait their turn to be dragged to the idling paddy wagon, their bodies limply resisting, scrawny white limbs drooping as they’re lifted. June can’t but feel sorry for them; they seem so . . . pointless.
She stands there, watching, hands folded over her stomach. Though separated by the curtained window from her fellow friendly neighbourhood gawkers—octogenarians, couriers, pest management professionals, and ethnic nanny ladies with their twin and triplet monster strollers—she feels one with them, alone in the crowd, just another gawker. The police use bolt cutters to free I’m-Very-Disturbed, who tosses her ringed red hair like a wild animal as they cuff her and stuff her in a squad car. June slides her palms under her sweatshirt and over the naked swell of her still-flat belly. The police drive off, the onlookers proceed with their day, and suddenly June is staring at an empty scuffed patch of across-the-street lawn.
June climbs the stairs. She stops at the second floor landing. She considers getting back to the project of cleaning out the spare room—the baby’s room—a room she previously had to force herself to go into, but now frequently finds herself just standing in, looking around moonily, pretending to herself that she’s contemplating soothing colour combinations though she knows she’s really just—
Instead, June finds herself slipping into Norm’s study. She grabs the drapes to pull them aside, but doesn’t. June’s hand on the curtain. Fingers clutching fabric. Phalanges, metacarpals, carpals. There are bones everywhere, hard foundations under every flimsy surface. Where is he? Where did he go? June feels the numbness she’s been harbouring over the last few days leaking out of her, replaced by a great sinking misery. She thinks she might cry, but pushes the feeling back, a swallowed lump. Defiantly, she rips open the curtain.
The science ladies are on the grass beside the pit. They appear to be sifting dirt. They’ve spread a white tarp. June squints, sees that they’ve lined up bits and pieces on the white plastic. Small grey objects resembling fragments of rock. Christine and the government lawyer crane their necks like greyhounds eagerly awaiting an opportunity to chase the rabbit. They stand as near as the young cops will let them while Inspector McLintock aggressively snaps photos. June blinks as if blinded by the strobe of the flash. Sunny morning. There isn’t a flash. Still the scene seems over-lit, psychedelic. June imagines that if the Wississauga elder were here he’d be ignoring the ridiculous proceedings altogether. He’d be kneeling near the hole, his eyes closed and his lips moving silently. He’d gently wave something above his head—wad of burning green sweetgrass, smoke rising up to the sky in languid curls, thick haze blowing in June’s face, her eyes tearing, vision clouding—
Doesn’t realize she’s—where she’s going until—
Miss! You can’t! Miss!
June shoves someone—a policeman—aside as she hurtles out into the backyard. She pauses, blinking through sunlight at the startled group.
Then she runs for the pit. The crumbling edge. Earth spilling. June stumbles, lets herself fall.
At the bottom: the familiar loud hush, earth in measured tectonic shifts, in waves and tides, in slow silent perpetual decay. Dank moist dark dirt baffling—defying—time. June scoops handfuls. She digs with her fingers, her nails snapping.
I’m sorry, she whispers.
He wanted—he deserved—
Young cops jumping in after her. Lady scientists hurriedly encasing objects in plastic baggies.
Norm: Don’t hurt her. She’s pregnant! She’s pregnant!
And that old man, his eyes closed, his face, his world, tired. Words through weathered wrinkled lips, whispered incantations between him and the wind, a spreading warm breeze that carries the scent of rot renewal up from the running river.
This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in fall, 2016.