Authors: Richard Wagamese
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Indians of North America, #Friendship, #Westerns, #Literary, #Cultural Heritage
Acclaim for Richard Wagamese’s
“With no preconceptions about how a bull or bear thinks or acts, whatever Wagamese has to tell the reader seems new and exciting. Revelation and invention are welcome sensations.”
The Globe and Mail
“Wagamese is one of Canada’s outstanding First Nations writers, a reputation that is reinforced by
…. A born storyteller who captures your attention from the first page.”
The Sun Times
“A worthy testament to the healing power of family and tradition.”
“With an opening passage reminiscent of William Faulkner, Wagamese grabs the reader (cowboy lit lover and indifferent reader alike) and envelops them effortlessly in the emotions and atmosphere of unfamiliar territory: the mind of a big testosterone-laden rodeo bull. Very few writers could anthropomorphize such a brutish animal with the weight, beauty, and eloquence exhibited here…. The cowboy culture that pervades the book is compelling in its own right, but is merely a vehicle for the more philosophical pursuit of self-knowledge and acceptance that his central characters embark upon…. A novel that will delight cowboy literature fans, readers looking for a gorgeous turn of phrase, those interested in Native culture, or anyone simply after an engaging and satisfying story.”
A Quality of Light
There’s a young Indian cowboy I met in the summer of 2003. His name is Maynard McRae Jr. and he’s a bull rider. He was also studying for medical school when I met him and I hope that he made it because the world needs more doctors with the grit and gumption and heart of rodeo folk. I spent a couple days with Maynard and his family and they became the impetus for this story. They live in the Upper Nicola Valley in the heart of British Columbia and they showed me what loyalty, courage, faith, love and unqualified support can engender in a young man, in a home, in a community. This book would not have happened without their story and their inspiration. Thank you, extraordinarily, Maynard McRae Jr. and your family.
To Blanca Schorcht and Vaughn Begg, Ann and Carole Merritt-Hiley, Libby Yandon, Spencer Powell, Alison Powell, Ross McEachern, Lydia Cheng, thank you for gracing me with your friendship. To Dolce 67 in Burnaby for the best Americano coffee in the world, the Boston Red Sox for the love of the game, Bruce Springsteen for the poetry that inspires me and the Richards, Ford and Russo, for setting the bar so high and filling me with the desire to reach it.
A very special thank you to Dr. Lyn MacBeath for the time, guidance, encouragement and friendship that has enabled me to overcome and carry on.
To my agent, John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists, Maya Mavjee, Nick Massey-Garrison, Martha Leonard and all the folks at Doubleday, Ben Sevier at St. Martin’s Press, a hearty thank you for overseeing this book from beginning to end.
Most importantly, to Debra Powell (Woollams), I could not have done this without you. Thank you for all that you have taught me and all that you exemplify, by comparison my life is shoddy mimicry and I can ever only hope to shamble gratefully along in your footsteps. This book is for you.
Sometimes we arrived back separately
but still seemed inside the borders
we crossed by accident
and went there if we think it real
but we do not think it real
There is one memory
of you smiling in the darkness
and the smile has shaped the air
around your face
someone you met in a dream
has dreamed you waking.
he Old Ones say that fate has a smell, a feel, a presence, a tactile heft in the air. Animals know it. It’s what brings hunter and prey together. They recognize the ancient call and there’s a quickening in the blood that drives the senses into edginess, readiness: the wild spawned in the scent. It’s why a wolf pack will halt their dash across a white tumble of snow to look at a man. Stand there in the sudden timeless quiet and gaze at him, solemn amber eyes dilating, the threat leaned forward before whirling as one dark body to disappear into the trees. They do that to return him to the wild, to make all things even once again: to restore proper knowledge. The Old Ones say animals bless a man with those moments by returning him to the senses he surrendered when he claimed language, knowledge and invention as power.
The great bull sensed it and it shivered. The loose skin draped across its bulk belied the tough muscle and sinew that gave locomotive strength to its movement in the chute. The
smell was in the air. The ancient smell. It gave a new and different air to the harsh light and dust of the arena. This was old, this scent, causing something to stir in its Indian and Spanish blood that it had never encountered before. Not death, not threat, not challenge because the bull had faced those many times. No, this was more than that. This was more a bidding than an urge, a call forward, an invitation to spectacle, a beckoning to an edge the bull had never approached before. The bull shifted its eighteen hundred pounds and there wasn’t much room to spare on either side of its ribs. It didn’t like the feel of the wood, the closeness, the thin prick of rough-sawn board along its sides. The rage of others was dribbled into the board against its nose, and the bull shivered again and stamped its heavy cloven feet into the dirt of the arena floor. The noise of the crowd beyond the chutes rose and fell awkwardly against the babble of the cowboys tugging and rubbing and plying leather in preparation amidst the jingle of metal, the snap and rub and crinkle of hard rope and the clomp of booted feet and the whinny and nicker of horses unsettled by the turn of the air, the high, sharp slice of the ancient order that called to them now too. A moment was coming, a confrontation. The bull bellowed once and banged the sides of the chute.
Man feet scraped on the boards at its side, the side facing away from the open ocean of the infield: the man side. Out there, in the packed brown dirt rectangle pressed together by high wooden fencing, was his world, the one the bull controlled, the one they entered with the smell of fear high in the air. The men talked, their voices strained, tight in their throats, and the bull felt the abrasive itch of rope start around its shoulders. Just as the dull clank of cowbell rang beside him the bull caught the flare of action between the boards of the chute as another bull and rider exploded into the arena. The noise of
the crowd swelled incredibly and there came the bashing and buckling sounds of leather, rope, bell, skin and bone crashing against each other amplified by roiling clouds of dirt that held it, gave it the shape and tone and snap of electrified energy. It didn’t last long. A long, drawn-out sigh accompanied the rider suddenly slammed into the dirt, the sound rising again as bright-costumed men raced about attracting the bull’s anger, diverting it away from the rider who scrambled to his feet, eyes ablaze with a strange mix of indignation and fear, and leaped for the security of the fencing. The great bull bellowed to its cousin in the infield and shook the sides of the chute in celebration of another display of power. The men around it spoke bravely to each other but the bull felt the anxiety creeping just beneath their words. It enjoyed that and it bellowed again.
The movement around the chute increased. Men in front of it were pulling rope against the gate that would soon fling open and send the bull careening into the light and heat and dirt of the battle. The men over top of its back moved silently, deliberately now, and the bull stamped and rolled back and forth, side to side, front to back in the chute forcing them to agitation, their words harsher to each other. The rope about its shoulders was secured and the clank belt set in place. The heavy clink and rattle of the bell angered the bull. It dangled beneath it heavy as another testicle but irksome, foreign, and as its weight settled the bull smelled the ancient smell again and rolled its eyes in their sockets to look upward at the men, rolling its head while it did so and giving the topmost boards a solid thwack and shiver.
It watched the young man climb the fence. Saw the set of his face, determined, calm and strong beneath the fear and felt the firm slap of his gloved hand on its neck as he leaned over, feet straddled on each side of the chute. The man bore the
smell too. The bull shifted in the chute, made a small bit of room to accommodate the legs of this man who smelled so richly of that ancient call. It felt the dull rounded rowel of spur against its flank as the man slid into place and it shivered, the loose skin unsettling the man, feeling him grip with his thighs searching for hold, finding it and relaxing again. The bull snorted and half rose on its hind feet, twisting its head side to side and trumpeting the acceptance of this challenge and hearing the buzz of the crowd rise in time with its huge head over the top of the chute. The men spoke quicker, shorter words snapped at each other, and the bull felt the waxed rope being pulled tighter and tighter about its girth.
This was the call. This was the ancient order of things, the primal encounter, the scent of the coming together, bone to bone, blood to blood and will to will. The bull understood this. It knew that the man straddling its back answered the same urge. The scent was high in the air now. Fate. Destiny. Life itself, keen as the wolves’ call in its blood. The great bull bawled its challenge again and felt the air contract as the crowd drew breath, sensed the man tighten his grip, felt the pull and yank and strain of rope and the ripple of gloved fingers in the small hollow behind its shoulders. It reared again in the chute. Wild. Raging. The call driving it back into primordial time.
He planted his feet on the third rail of the chute and allowed himself one quick look at the arena. It never failed to amaze him. People of all sorts gathered together to witness a part of his life that he had never quite learned to equate with spectacle. Joe Willie had always ridden as a matter of fact. From the time he could remember he had been straddling something, from his father’s bouncing thigh in the living room to the pony
at three, the sheep at mutton busting at four, the horses at six, the steers at eight and finally, the bulls at ten. Sticking and staying had come to him as naturally as walking and riding, lunging out of the chute on a bareback horse, a saddle bronc or a bull like the champion Brahma cross beneath him now was merely the definition of a life, a cowboy life bred in his Ojibway-Sioux bones as surely as this rodeo grew out of the old Wild West shows his great-grandfather had whooped and hollered and ridden in alongside old Buffalo Bill himself.
Joe Willie shrugged. Too busy for those thoughts now, too busy to entertain anything but the feel of this great bull, the ribs of it through the loose skin against his calves and thighs telegraphing twists and jumps and kicks in a microsecond, reacting to it, sticking and staying. He needed to think ahead to that first mad plunge out of the chute. The dervish beneath him whipping him forward eight seconds in time to definition, truth, life itself.
The bull was called See Four after the powerful military explosive and the number of seconds a rider would likely see on its back before its energy detonated completely and he was blown skyward to crash and eat arena dirt. Up to now that name had held true. See Four was a living legend. Unridable, they said. Bred of bloodstock that had proven to be champion rodeo stock as well, See Four was the draw a cowboy didn’t want in any short go or preliminary round. He was a money killer. Eighteen hundred pounds, nearly six feet high at the shoulder, with a hump from his Brahma roots swelling into a neck and head wider than a horse’s haunches. Only the space behind the shoulders allowed a rider any chance at all. Only there was there purchase, the slim chance to exist there a tumultuous eight seconds. Behind that slight margin the bull owned everything. To slip beyond it a cowboy could only hope
to be thrown clear enough to escape the fury of the hooves and horns when he landed. Behind it was cataclysm.
Joe Willie measured it from above. He rubbed the tough leather glove on his left hand against the inside of his thighs, allowing a little of the rosin to stick there. The bull had reared suddenly, causing him to lose his concentration, and he’d stepped up and off to reclaim his focus. Now, he could feel the world narrowing in scope. He heaved a deep breath, heard the sound of the crowd shrinking, diminishing, the yells of the cowboys pulling backwards out of the air until only a thick, heavy, muffled silence remained where the creak of leather, the huff of the breath of the bull, his own tattered breath and the thudded stamp of hoof on ground existed to be heard. Then he slid downward onto the brindled back of See Four. Everything was slow motion now, from the clenching of his hand under the bull rope to the steady hauling in of tension on the same rope from his father’s hands. His eyes unblinking, he saw nothing but the squashed, elongated U of the bull’s horns. Peripherally the slo-mo preparations of his friends and supporters keyed him up, excited him, edged him closer to the moment. He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder and allowed himself a brief second to look and caught his steely-eyed nod.
“Suicide wrap,” he said.
“Gotta be,” he said, gritting his teeth.
His father nodded grimly, then began looping the bull rope between the fingers of Joe Willie’s gloved hand. The wrap made it easier to hold the rope but also made it three times harder to free the hand during or after the ride. Joe Willie watched as his father tended to the latch. This ride was everything. This ride was the ride to the top of the world.
The rodeo announcer’s voice seeped through.
“Coming out of chute number three, a young cowboy who can take over the number-one ranking for the title of All-Round Cowboy with a successful ride. He’s already a champion in the saddle bronc and the bareback riding and he’s matched up here with the undefeated, unridden legend, See Four. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, as tough as they come, a true cowboy, Joe Willie Wolfchild!”
He heaved a deep, rib-expanding breath and let it go slowly. Beneath him the bull shuddered once then settled into a curious quiet. They sat there connected by the bull rope and one gloved hand, waiting. There was a smell in the air. Joe Willie shook his head once quickly to clear it, shivered his legs against the bull’s sides, raised his right arm slowly to clear the top rail of the chute and nodded solemnly to the rope man at the front of the chute.
And the world exploded.
The great bull was true to his name. He detonated. The rage in him was complete and perfect and whole and when the gate flew open he felt it blast apart into a shrapnel of motion. There was no reason to it at first, just an explosion out of the chute, just a relinquishing of boundaries, just a launch into a space he understood the order of. Implicitly. His eyes rolled back and upward and he caught the flare of the lights as he raised his shoulders and then drove them downward with a powerful kick of his back hooves. The man’s weight stayed where it was supposed to. He felt it settle into the pocket of flesh behind the bone of his shoulder and he felt the twin kick of spurs against the bottom of his neck. When he landed after the first kick out of the chute the bull began to reason.
He felt the hand against his back. He felt the man’s bulk pinned to that point and the greater part of his weight leaned
toward it. Left. The bull understood the direction intuitively and knew that the man would struggle to maintain his position, the rest of his body, toward the hand. He twisted violently the opposite way.
See Four spun, once, twice, three times, four times in a delirious circle, kicking, bucking, head and shoulder rolling away from the strength of the hand on his back. Just at the height of the spin’s energy he halted it, kicked twice, arched his back and bucked before spinning back to the hand side. The clank of the bell spiked into the centre of his head, frenzied him, enraged him further, and he knew when the man was gone the sound would disappear. So he spun. He spun and kicked and bucked against the bright whirl of the lights, the roar of the people far away across the ocean of dirt and the splash of colour of the other men bounding and leaping around his mad tear. He rolled his great head at them, bawled loudly and thrashed his horns from side to side while kicking and throwing his rear the opposite direction.
That’s when he felt it. The slip, the loss of contact. The feel of air between the slamming buttocks of the man and his spine. He began to work the air. He ignored the man and focused his rage on that pocket of air, trying to increase it, stretch it, enlarge it, use it to separate the man from the rope around his shoulders. He drove all four hooves clear of the ground in a wild, hurtling leap that drew screams from those faraway people and a deep grunt from the man on his back. When his hooves slammed back into the earth he spun again and as he did, he kicked out, leaned away from the glove and felt the air pop open and he knew he’d won.