Chapter One: The Rodeo
Of course, it begins with the mutton busting. Children taking their first steps in the dirt. And the sheep—herd animals cut out, selected and pit against a thing with incisors, running scared under the lights, for show.
And of course Elaine is there, clinging to the wool with chubby fingers, praying to someone, she doesn’t know who, her ma or her da, that she will manage to hold on until one of them signs from the stands. Left hand, palm up. With right hand, sharply hitting the open palm at right angle. [Stop!]
Elm and Maple can’t sign, or they’d watch the clock for her. After all, they’ve scaled the cattle fencing to join her in the ring, standing hand in hand. These two, in her line of sight, always.
Little good that does from the back of a sheep.
Imaginary friends, she’s learning, can only carry her so far.
The crowd stands to get a better look. Elaine’s parents are overdressed but smiling, cheering though their daughter can’t hear them. Other parents cling to the fences, anticipating their own child’s run with fate, fingers crossed, hoping the kid in the ring with the long brown hair will eat dirt. With fifty bucks up for grabs, these normal, kind people with hearts and open-book lives turn mean.
One second, two, Elaine is flying, suspended, when the sheep kicks and she leaves the ground—
She eats it. In under three seconds, she lands on her back in the rodeo dust, helmet cradling her neck awkwardly, sheep’s wool caught under her nails. She inhales hard but can’t get air. Tries again, her throat hollowing under pressure. Elm and Maple circle close.
For the first time this day, panic inhabits Elaine’s cells. The faces looking down at her don’t breathe, don’t need to. Maybe they’re holding it back so she can feel what it’s like to live in their bodies. Her form so close to theirs, yet she doesn’t understand them, not at all, while she breathes.
She claws at the ground. Tries for air. Nothing. Fingers pulsing, compacted dirt under her nails. She rolls over so she can’t see them watching her, and her chest expands, pushing water into her eyes, an exchange of life-giving elements.
It appears as if she’s crying. But she isn’t. Cowgirls don’t. Her da tells her that one often. And if the neighbour boy, Elaine’s best friend, Hollis, hadn’t when his ma died, then a little fall, it’s nothing.
Now she’s breathing again. She wipes her nose with her hand, smearing her upper lip, her cheek with rodeo dust. It was a bad plan. Her blonde mother, a stationary object, seeking Elaine on the back of a living thing.
Elaine exhales. She rolls over again, throws her arms above her head—a rodeo dirt angel, the lights warm on her skin in a way that only she knows light can be warm. The sun is yellow-warm. But lights are warm as the sun.
Elm and Maple smile down at her, hands clasped.
Lying there, stretched out, the pulsing light against her forehead, her cheeks, Elaine can’t tell if these smiling shades are pleased that she took the fall.
The rodeo clock broadcasts red numbers for all to see. Even though three seconds is average, unimpressive, even though the Andersons’ daughter’s new, pink, pearly-button shirt is torn, her body in this moment is in almost every way like other children’s, tucked against normal as she lies on the ground. They cheer when men in jeans and cowboy hats strut over to her to clear her away. They cheer when she fights the men, kicks, until they place her down on her own two feet.
“Six and full of sheeeet,” the announcer says. “Watch out, boys. She bites. But y’all like the spirited fillies, don’t y’all? Yeah, you do, cowboy. I can tell.”
Elaine’s parents laugh. Even her father, a politician with aspirations of influence, can dirty his hands with a dirty joke when he’s rubbing shoulders with the local colour. When they go to the polls next round, the people who spotted him at the Saturday night rodeo and dance won’t remember that he was overdressed. They’ll remember that he was one of them, next to them, his daughter covered in dirt the same as their kids.
With three seconds on the clock, Elaine Anderson won’t place for a cash prize. But it’s best the money goes to the voters. The best investment in his future that he can make tonight is his daughter playing with zest, his daughter losing.
Next to Bill Anderson stands Hollis Senior. He’s drinking his fifth beer of the night, staring across a ring of well-beaten dirt. Before Hollis Senior broke his back, this was his dance floor. Quick legs under a lady-killer smile. Those days, when everything fit into place and he always gathered enough to scrape on by.
Hollis Senior can’t tell if it’s pride for his kid, since it’s clear his kid’s got the knack for it, or if he’s proud of himself for passing it down through the genes. This, the one good thing he could give. His own father handed down a hundred acres of the best land Canada has to offer, beautiful land, the pride of the family name, and, when Hollis Senior graduated from high school, a new Ford. All he can offer his own seed for certain is debt. Debt and the dance-floor moves, the lady-killer smile. Already, this young, his boy has the moves and the smile. The debt will arrive later.
A second kid survives to eight seconds, so Hollis Senior spits in the dirt, a big dark glob of it.
Hollis’s turn is next to last. Like Elaine, he’s six years old. In his chaps and black hat, he looks like one of the men reflected back in a carnival mirror. His da would say he looks like his da. This reflection fits strangely now, but it’s his future. The glass will bend until he’s tall and strong like the men he’s named for, but the hat will always fit right.
Hollis’s sheep is cream-faced and beautiful. He kisses it on the top of its head as he’s lowered into the chute. He thinks that he has waited for this—forever, in the eyes of a child. The men running the mutton busting strip him of his hat and hang it over a fence post.
Here, life is a postcard, frayed at the edges from wear.
Someone in the stands snaps a picture. The negative will return to Hollis when he’s older. The photo will be the first hint telling him that it all comes around again. Loss, love, debt, standing atop the podium, kneeling in the dirt. In old age, he will shrink a few inches, as men do, the glass bending under the weight of his years, his rough moments, his broken bones, and his tell-this-with-hard-drink-in-hand stories.
But in this moment, his moment, the crowd has lost its enthusiasm, the way crowds do when the risk of blood and bodily injury lessens. Helmets create a sense of false security, and safety can only carry a crowd so far. This one is ready for a bloodied cowboy, for a bull to gouge into flesh. Or at least for the bull to try, goddamn it.
They paid legal tender for their brush with violence. Cold, hard cash, hard-won, and they want their promised change. Few people are at attention as Hollis begins his ride. Sheep, they’ve learned, aren’t dangerous beasts. Helmets, they’ve learned, ruin the fun. And checking the weight of the drinks in their hands—yes, it’s time for a fresh can. Beer, at least, always gives as good as it promises.
Still chewing and spitting, Hollis Senior watches. Elaine too. Standing side by side, the man on the first rung of the cattle fence, Elaine higher up.
Another postcard moment.
One, two, three—Elaine mouths the words, limiting her breath the way she’s been taught by the speech therapist, waiting for Hollis to fall as she did. She doesn’t hear the buzzer go off when eight seconds pass, nor the crowd rise up when they see the sheep turning, running, attempting to dislodge its passenger. Hollis is full of the strength of fear that drives men to do the incredible, the unimaginable in light of physics and other natural laws. The beast will not win this one.
Elaine follows the movement of Hollis and the sheep melded together. Hollis Senior watches, one hand thumping her on the back. A little hard, but he’s only happy. For the rest of the night, the announcer praises Hollis, no dirty jokes for this wonder boy, but Elaine doesn’t hear any of it. When she learns that Hollis’s ride clocked in at twenty-two seconds, a record breaker if the rodeo associations kept records for this event, she makes a point to tell him he could’ve done better, if he had only tried.
Her voice is an unusual register in his ears, both rare and awkward, and for that he takes her seriously. She’s the one pushing him, not his da. But it’s easy to think otherwise.
The two families own tracks of good land, running against each other and then up into the foothills and then, at least for the Andersons, up to the base of the mountains. The Anderson farm does well with their cattle, bred for endurance in places where bears, wolves, cougars, and hungry coyotes live, and Bill Anderson is making a name for himself in politics.
Hollis Senior is struggling to stay above board. Struggling, but still he fights.
For now, Bill Anderson is local. He argues with city council over tourism initiatives, over the new Frank Slide memorial. The day a mountain crushed a town. Hell, Hollis Senior can’t imagine why anyone would want to remember it.
But one day soon, Bill Anderson will shape national policy. Hollis Senior would put money down. Money he doesn’t have, but it’d pay out. There’s a look, a desire, and Hollis Senior’s neighbour has proven it with the cattle, with his land. He’ll rise to the top and bring the money home. Prime Minister. It’s possible with that look.
They’ve joked about the kids hitching up when they’re old enough. Not too early. Nineteen or twenty. After the wedding, they’d blend the land. Hollis Senior doesn’t much care that the Anderson girl is deaf as all get up, or that she’s mixed with that Native blood, or that she’s adopted, because she’s sweet. That sweet kid is heir to the Anderson fortune, and her da is going all the way, making money with his organic cattle venture, and the rumours around Pincher Creek say he’s running for a seat in Ottawa next time the country goes to the polls. It’s happening already.
He’ll earn the seat too. By a wide margin.
He’s Alberta through and through, straight to the heart. The public can see, he glows with it. His wife beautiful, his daughter dressed in a healthy red, in the jingle dress he bought for her to wear in the family pictures. But she’s a good Christian, his daughter. The whole family, damn good Christians. Bill Anderson’s morals are Alberta’s morals. And every one of the voters, they want what Bill Anderson owns. They want the bed he sleeps in, its frame hewn from local logs, and every one of those three hundred prime acres. There’s a hunger for land like that. Every rig worker dreams of his track of land, of his own mineral rights.
All this in the hands of that little girl upon the death of the man who saved her.
But Hollis and Elaine, that’ll never happen. Never ever. Other loves, and other things, come for them. Even on this day, other things are on the road, driving to meet them.
After the mutton busting wraps up, Elaine will be given a trophy crowned with a bronzed sheep for her three seconds. Later, she will give it to Hollis, since she believes he deserves at least two. Even later, when they are grown, she will tell Hollis in her stilted voice that he deserved all the trophies that day, though by that time Hollis will be long over his elation.
He too wants the bulls to make an appearance. He wants to draw a good one. He wants to win the day, to save his land with his rodeo winnings. And to become more than he is. The boy has dreams.
Elaine’s father has dreams too. Both men see their impacts on their homes, but as yet it’s fuzzy, like the heat rising off the blacktop. That’s the way of the future, unclear until arrival.
As he lives it, this day becomes a part of Hollis like any other vital organ. Filled with oxygen, with blood, the rodeo wins him over. It’s nothing on his da, but Hollis earns his place on the circuit on his own, with that first ride, those twenty-two seconds. The first thing he’s taken under his own name—twenty-two seconds and two trophies crowned with sheep gathering dust on the mantle.
An audacious beginning, this.
Eddie watches the kids from the stands. He watches them, released one by one from the chute, wearing a blue or a red helmet. Blue for the men, red for the little girls. The struggle playing out in front of the crowd, it’s funny. No one else seems to get that this is the comic break. The announcer is entertainment, but here’s the comedy show. The kids hold on, thinking their very life is at stake. But the ground’s soft out there. Eddie knows.
He’s fallen more than a hundred thousand times, he reckons. A hundred thousand and one if you count his poor showing last night, when he pulled a nasty bull and lost his money betting on himself. Dumb move. Even his bookie called it dumb.
But the man always takes Eddie’s money. Always will. In life, this is a constant. One of those burning stars topping the sky.
Wallet close to empty, he should be moving on, packing the gear in the truck and getting down the road for the next show. It’s high season, and the perfect bull waits. He needs a win, or he’ll have to sign on for some temp work branding cattle or clearing stacks of pallets from behind a ma and pa store. Bitch work. Something to avoid with all his might.
But last night one of his buddies pointed at a little girl, slapping a knee.
“She talks funny, you know. She’s retarded or something. Go take a gander.” His buddy laughed, like this was the best joke he’d heard in a while, a slow kid at a rodeo.
His buddy pointed up in the stands, and Eddie saw a pink shirt with pearly buttons, a little girl eating ice cream, staring in his direction, as if she knew him. He made excuses—out of money, out of luck, a lady waiting for him at the motel—and cleared the grounds.
In the backseat of his truck, old and blue, was his beaded jacket, the one he loves. A glance at the jacket, and Eddie convinced himself he was drunker than he thought, if he was catching sight of the Whitewater woman after all these years. Her eyes boring into him from the body of a girl child.
He had left her in northern Manitoba, years back. So many that he’d forgotten how, for a while, she was a fixture in his life. Cleaned his clothes and cooked his dinner and tended to his body. Those years, good ones, for a while, ’til they soured.
But Eddie has returned, this Saturday, to take a second look at his ghost. This time, he wears the jacket, his talisman against hauntings.
He won’t realize for a few days more that the reason he sees the Whitewater woman in a half-breed is that she’s his seed. It’ll take sobering up. It’ll take fear. Whenever that grips at him, Eddie knows that decisions are needed and soon, before something nasty chases him down. He’s a man who clears out before trouble can take him in for questioning, and he understands his animal instincts. Like a wolf, he smells its approach, listens, runs to higher ground.
This life, it pleases him. Town to town, you win some you lose some, and if you lose, someone’s still going to buy you a drink. There are women who prefer to take the one who didn’t win the buckle to her bed. They know they can’t compete with rodeo except on nights like these.
This is a good life. His best life. How a kid could wreck it, especially a retarded one, Eddie doesn’t know. But he doesn’t care to find out either. No man wants to step in horseshit, no matter how much he likes the horse. And this one, Eddie’s never been keen on her. She was a screamer, could not be calmed except by skin to skin. And she was female, and not his heir—a minor failure, but she was broken too, one of the early betrayals. The Whitewater woman should have told him at the first beer that her family had a stain. The baby could scream, but couldn’t hear anyone yelling at her to shut it.
Eddie smiles. He can save his best life because the one who could ruin it, she won’t hear him coming for her when he does. It’s enough to break out into a chuckle, this.
This novel is called The Intersection[s] because it weaves together four stories of Indigenous women and girls, living their lives against the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Human Rights Crisis happening now in colonial Canada. In the opening, we meet Elaine, who is referred to as “mixed with that Native blood” and “a half-breed” by white men. She was adopted as an infant by the Andersons, a blonde couple with tremendous amounts of land and aspirations to the highest seat of government. We should hear echoes of Justin Trudeau’s “gentle” colonialism. Elaine’s father is happy to have her dress up in a jingle dress for photo ops, but no one in the family mentions which nation Elaine’s biological mother belonged to, or what happened to her.
No one is talking about the missing women and girls in this novel other than the Indigenous women and girls themselves. No one is willing to suggest that these are anything but simple crimes—as former Prime Minister Stephen Harper said after the death of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine Sagkeeng First Nation in 2014: “I think we should not view this as sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.”
Sometimes I worry that this book is too violent. Sometimes I worry that depicting violence against Indigenous women and girls begets more violence against Indigenous women and girls, no matter how much agency I write for them into this book. Sometimes I believe that my original instinct, to tell a story that mainstream Canada could not look away from, one that would force them to act, to change, to become better, is the wrong instinct. Sometimes I regret writing this novel altogether, the pain of living in these bodies, the depression that followed the completion of the novel. Sometimes I think of the day a publisher will offer me a contract, when I will have to say, No, maarsi, no, these stories are not for you.
But sometimes I think that instinct is wrong too, and these stories need to be told. Violence is crafty that way: we talk about it, and it hurts; we don’t talk, and it replicates itself; we talk too much, use the wrong words, and we birth new violence.
Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes that writing and teaching are political acts. Border Markers, her collection of linked flash-fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press.
Embark, Issue 5, July 2018