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Authors: Tomson Highway

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The screams of children, of women, of men, the barking of dogs, the blare of loudspeakers crashed over the hunter, submerging him, drowning him. A sudden darkness knocked the breath clean of his lungs, the vision from his eyes. And in his blindness, all he could sense was a small white flame, as if perceived through a long, dark tunnel, fluttering and waving like a child’s hand, beckoning him. All he knew was that he
wanted to lie down and sleep forever, and only the waving flame was preventing him.

When Abraham Okimasis surfaced, he found hands reaching for him, other hands clutching at his arms, his shoulders, his back, manoeuvring him through a mass of human flesh. Cameras, microphones were aimed at him. Men with notepads and pencils, women with pens and large red moving mouths, prying, babbling in this language of the Englishman, hard, filled with sharp, jagged angles.

Then the caribou hunter felt himself levitating towards a platform. Wings must have been attached to his shoulders by guardian angels posing as minions of the festival, Abraham would reason some days later. And on the platform a man like a white balloon, so large, so pale, his voice thunderous and huge.

“Boom,” the voice went, “boom, boom.” Something about “Abraham Okimasis, forty-three years old, caribou hunter, fur trapper, fisherman, boom, boom.” Something about “Abraham Okimasis, musher, from the Eemanapiteepitat Indian reserve, northwestern Manitoba, boom.” Something having to do with “Abraham Okimasis, winner of the 1951 Millington Cup World Champion’ship Dog Derby, boom, boom.” Something about “Mr. Okimasis, first Indian to win this gruelling race in its twenty-eight-year history …” The syllables became one vast, roiling rumble.

Whereupon another darkness came over the Cree hunter. And in his blindness, all he could sense was the long, black tunnel, the small white flame so far, far away, flickering and
fluttering, waving and swaying — a child’s hand? a spirit? — beckoning, summoning.

A mile away, on a makeshift stage at one end of the high-ceilinged temple of ice hockey, seven fresh-faced, fair-haired women stood blinking under glaring lights. The youngest was eighteen, the eldest no more than twenty-three. Across the stage, a banner read: “The Fur Queen Beauty Pageant, Trappers’ Festival, 1951, Oopaskooyak, Manitoba.”

A panel of judges had sized up these seven finalists from every angle conceivable: height, width, weight, posture, deportment, quality of face, length of neck, circumference of leg, sway of hip, length of finger, quality of tooth, lip, nose, ear, eye, and eyebrow, down to the last dimple, mole, visible hair. The women had been prodded, poked, photographed, interviewed, felt, watched, paraded around the town for the entire three days of the Trappers’ Festival, for the delectation of audiences from as far afield as Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Labrador, and even Germany, it had been reported in the
Oopaskooyak Times
. These seven beauties had cut ribbons, sliced cakes, unveiled snow sculptures, made pronouncements, announcements, proclamations. They had given out prizes at the muskrat-skinning contest, the trap-setting contest, the beard-growing contest, the dreaded Weetigo look-alike contest, the bannock-baking and tea-boiling contests. They had coddled babies, kissed schoolchildren, shaken hands with the mayor and his wife, danced with lonely strangers whose sole desire it was to pass one fleeting minute of their lives in the
arms of a Fur Queen finalist. And now, the judges were about to reveal the most graceful, the most intelligent, the most desirable, the most beautiful. The Fur Queen.

All puffed out in timber-wolf-lined top hat and tuxedo, the mayor, who had graciously volunteered as chairman of the judges’ panel, stepped up to the microphone at centre stage, cleared his throat, thumped his chest, opened his mouth, and trumpeted the entrance into the arena of the brave and daring men who had risked life and limb to take part in the Millington Cup World Champion’ship Dog Derby. The crowd roared.

The chairman again cleared his throat, thumped his chest, opened his mouth, and boomed into the microphone.

“Results of the 1951 Fur Queen Beauty Pageant, for which the decision of the judges is final. Third runner-up, Miss Linda Hawkins, Silver Lake, Manitoba.” A young woman burst into a tearful smile and stepped up to the chairman to receive her cash award and a bouquet of yellow roses, had her upper body draped by the two other judges with a yellow satin sash, and was photographed a hundred times until all she could see was showers of stars. The crowd roared.

“Second runner-up, Miss Olivia Demchuk, Eematat, Manitoba,” boomed the chairman’s voice. And a second young woman burst into a tearful smile, stepped up to the chairman to receive her cash award and a bouquet of pink roses, had her upper body draped with a pink satin sash, and was photographed a hundred times until all she could see was showers of stars. The crowd roared louder.

“First runner-up, Miss Catherine Shaw, Smallwood Lake, Manitoba,” boomed the chairman’s voice. And a third young woman burst into a tearful smile, stepped up to the chairman to receive her cash award and a bouquet of crimson roses, had her upper body draped with a crimson satin sash, and was photographed a hundred times until she was blinded by the light. The crowd roared. And roared again.

Then the chairman of the judges’ panel cleared his throat, thumped his chest, opened his mouth, and boomed into the microphone: “And the Fur Queen for the year 1951 is …” One could hear the ticking of watches, the buzzing of incandescent lights, the hum of loudspeakers. “Miss Julie Pembrook, Wolverine River, Manitoba. Miss Julie Pembrook!” The young woman burst into a blissful smile, stepped up to the chairman to receive her cash award and a bouquet of white roses. The radiant Miss Pembrook was draped not only with a white satin sash but with a floor-length cape fashioned from the fur of arctic fox, white as day. She had her head crowned with a fox-fur tiara ornamented with a filigree of gold and silver beads, and was photographed a thousand times until all she could see was stars and showers of stars. And the crowd roared until the very ceiling of the building threatened to rise up and float off towards the planet Venus.

In the thick of this raucous, festive throng, Abraham Okimasis stood, Cree gentleman from Eemanapiteepitat, Manitoba, caribou hunter without equal, grand champion of the world, unable to move, barely remembering to breathe.
Because of the stars exploding in his own eyes, all he could see was bits and pieces of the scene before him interspersed with the vision of his lead dog Tiger-Tiger, panting out his puffs and clouds of vapour, striving for the finish line. And before the hunter could collect himself, a third darkness came upon him, the roaring in his ears gigantic. And at the far end of this new darkness appeared again the small white flame, flickering on the platform. Floating, whispering sibilance and hush, blooming into a presence, the white flame began to hum, a note so pure human ears could never have been meant to hear it. Then the presence began to take on shape — the caribou hunter could just discern a flowing cape seemingly made from fold after fold of white, luxuriant fur, swelling like the surface of a lake. The caribou hunter thought he saw a crown, made of the same white fur, hovering above this cape. And the crown sparkled and flashed with what could have been a constellation. Then Abraham Okimasis saw the sash, white, satin, draped across the upper body of a young woman so fair her skin looked chiselled out of arctic frost, her teeth pearls of ice, lips streaks of blood, eyes white flames in a pitch-black night, eyes that appeared to see nothing but the caribou hunter alone. And then the caribou hunter and the woman in white fur began floating towards each other, as if powerless to stay apart. And as the two moved closer, Abraham Okimasis could decipher the message printed across her sash, syllable by syllable, letter by letter: “The Fur Queen, 1951.”

Then he became aware — he must have been dreaming,
surely — that this creature of unearthly beauty, the Fur Queen, was wafting towards him with something in her arms, something round and made of silver, carrying the object at waist level, like a sacred vessel, a heart perhaps, a lung, a womb? The goddess stopped in front of him, her face not half a foot away, her eyes burning into his, her person sending off ripples of warm air redolent of pine needles and fertile muskeg and wild fireweed. He couldn’t look away, not even when he felt something falling gently, almost imperceptibly, into his hands.

When the queen turned for one fleeting second to smile at the screaming throngs below, Abraham looked down at his hands. There lay the large silver bowl, the Millington Cup, the coveted first prize of the World Champion’ship Dog Derby, and, in the bowl, a cheque in the amount of one thousand dollars.

He had won. He was the king of all the legions of dogmushers, the champion of the world! All realization, all sense, all time suddenly became entangled in some invisible glue. Abraham pulled his stunned gaze from the silver bowl to the Fur Queen’s brilliant smile, where it became imprisoned once again.

And then the Fur Queen’s lips began descending. Down they came, fluttering, like a leaf from an autumn birch, until they came to rest on Abraham’s left cheek. There.

After what seemed like years to Abraham Okimasis, she removed her lips from his cheek, expelling a jet of ice-cold vapour that mushroomed into a cloud. Her lips, her eyes, the
gold and silver beads of her tiara sparkled one last time and then were swallowed by the billowing mist.

The next thing Abraham knew, or so he would relate to his two youngest sons years later, the goddess floated up to a sky fast fading from pink-and-purple dusk to the great blackness of night, then became one with the northern sky, became a shifting, nebulous pulsation, the seven stars of the Great Bear ornamenting her crown. And when she extended one hand down towards the hunter on Earth, a silver wand appeared in it, as simple as magic. Now a fairy-tale godmother glimmering in the vastness of the universe, the Fur Queen waved the wand. Her white fur cape spread in a huge shimmering arc, becoming the aurora borealis. As its galaxies of stars and suns and moons and planets hummed their way across the sky and back, the Fur Queen smiled enigmatically, and from the seven stars on her tiara burst a human foetus, fully formed, opalescent, ghostly.

The Fur Queen disappeared, leaving her cape and crown, and the ghost child drifting in the womb of space, the wisps of winter cloud its amniotic fluid, turning and turning, with a speed as imperceptible yet certain as the rhythm of the spheres. And slowly, ever so slowly, the ghost baby tumbled, head over heels over head, down, down to Earth.

T
WO

T
he pinewood sled and eight grey huskies glided, free of gravity, among the northern Manitoba stars, or so Abraham Okimasis would relate to his two youngest sons years later. Occasionally, a stray beam from the frosty midwinter moon became entangled in the ornate surface of the World Champion’ship Dog Derby trophy, and needles of silver light shot out.

For by the time he had rested a day and a night in an Oopaskooyak hotel and then set off on his journey north — and home — the northwest wind had been replaced by a kinder, gentler wind from the south. Still, the caribou hunter knew only too well how suddenly these winter storms could pounce upon the northern traveller. The evenings were so unseasonably balmy that he drove on well past dusk, for he couldn’t wait to see his wife and children.

The six nights he spent bedded down by his campfire,
under a lean-to of spruce boughs, became one long night. The six days he spent crossing ice-covered lake after ice-covered lake, island upon island — the snow, soft and pure, covering their stands of spruce and pine and tamarack — these six days melded into one. In the grip of the moment when he crossed the finish line, the moment of the Fur Queen’s kiss, he wasn’t even aware that he had entered the southern end of Mistik Lake until he was well on his way across the first great bay. The snow was so white, the sun so warm, the spruce so aromatic, the north so silent; and the moon, drifting from passing cloud to passing cloud, seemed to howl, backed up by a chorus of distant wolves.

And all the while, among the stars and wisps of cloud, the silvery foetal child tumbled down, miles, light years above the caribou hunter’s dream-filled head.

At dusk on the sixth day, the hunter caught sight of the Chipoocheech Point headland and his heart swelled, as it always did when he knew Eemanapiteepitat would be coming into view within the next half hour. Chipoocheech Point was a mere five miles south of where his wife awaited him patiently. When he rounded the point and the toy-like buildings began to glimmer in the distance, his heart jumped and his mouth flew open to yodel in a falsetto clear and rich as the love cry of a loon —
“Weeks’chiloowew!” —
a yodel that always spurred his faithful team of huskies on to even more astonishing feats.

Before he could count to one hundred, Abraham Okimasis
was racing past the lopsided log cabin of Black-eyed Susan Magipom and her terrible husband, Happy Doll. Black-eyed Susan Magipom boldly thrust her spindly thorax out the door, gazing ardently at Abraham as though Happy Doll Magipom didn’t exist.

“Mush!”
the hunter yelled out to Tiger-Tiger,
“mush, mush!”

Before he could count to a hundred and ten, Abraham Okimasis was racing past the red-tiled roof of Choggylut McDermott and his wife, Two-Room; the lonely shack of Bad Robber Gazandlaree and his dog, Chuksees; the house of the widow Jackfish Head Lady, who once had a near-death encounter with the cannibal spirit Weetigo just off Tugigoom Island; the silver crucifix crowning the steeple of the church that had killed Father Cheepootat when its brick wall collapsed on him during confession; the dark-green rectory where Father Cheepootat’s successor, Father Eustache Bouchard, received the faithful, for everything from marriage counselling to haemorrhoid examinations, and passed out raisins to small children on Easter Sunday mornings. And then Abraham Okimasis, for the very first time in three weeks, saw the little pine-log cabin he had built for his wife, the lovely Mariesis Adelaide Okimasis, and their five surviving children.

BOOK: Kiss of the Fur Queen
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