Authors: Richard Wagamese
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General
ALSO BY RICHARD WAGAMESE
The Terrible Summer
A Quality of Light
The Next Sure Thing
One Native Life
One Story, One Song
Copyright © 2014 Richard Wagamese
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Wagamese, Richard, author
Medicine walk / Richard Wagamese.
ISBN 978-0-7710-8918-3 (bound).–ISBN 978-0-7710-8920-6 (html)
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters in this book and persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Lines from the poem “A Sort of Song” are taken from
by William Carlos Williams, Dover Thrift Editions, 1997. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Cover image: © Paul D. Andrews/Flickr/Getty Images
Cover design: CS Richardson
McClelland & Stewart,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited,
a Penguin Random House Company
One Toronto Street
For my sons
Joshua Richard Wagamese
and Jason Schaffer
Let the snake wait under
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait
– through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones
—William Carlos Williams, “A Sort of a Song”
HE WALKED THE OLD MARE OUT OF THE PEN
and led her to the gate that opened out into the field. There was a frost from the night before, and they left tracks behind them. He looped the rope around the middle rail of the fence and turned to walk back to the barn for the blanket and saddle. The tracks looked like inkblots in the seeping melt, and he stood for a moment and tried to imagine the scenes they held. He wasn’t much of a dreamer though he liked to play at it now and then. But he could only see the limp grass and mud of the field and he shook his head at the folly and crossed the pen and strode through the open black maw of the barn door.
The old man was there milking the cow and he turned his head when he heard him and squirted a stream of milk from the teat.
“Get ya some breakfast,” he said.
“Ate already,” the kid said.
“Better straight from the tit.”
“There’s better tits.”
The old man cackled and went back to the milking. The kid stood a while and watched and when the old man started to whistle he knew there’d be no more talk so he walked to the tack room. There was the smell of leather, liniment, the dry dust air of feed, and the low stink of mould and manure.
He heaved a deep breath of it into him then yanked the saddle off the rack and threw it up on his shoulder and grabbed the blanket from the hook by the door. He turned into the corridor and the old man was there with the milk bucket in his hand.
“Got any loot?”
“Some,” the kid said. “Enough.”
“Ain’t never enough,” the old man said and set the bucket down in the straw.
The kid stood there looking over the old man’s shoulder at the mare picking about through the frost at the grass near the fence post. The old man fumbled out his billfold and squinted to see in the semi-dark. He rustled loose a sheaf of bills and held them out to the kid, who shuffled his feet in the straw. The old man shook the paper and eventually the kid reached out and took the money.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Get you some of that diner food when you hit town. Better’n the slop I deal up.”
“She’s some good slop though,” the kid said.
“It’s fair. Me, I was raised on oatmeal and lard sandwiches. Least we got bacon and I still do a good enough bannock.”
“That rabbit was some good last night,” the kid said and tucked the bills in the chest pocket of his mackinaw.
“It’ll keep ya on the trail a while. He’s gonna be sick. You know that, don’tcha?” The old man fixed him with a stern look and pressed the billfold back into the bib of his overalls.
“I seen him sick before.”
“Not like this.”
“I can deal with it.”
“Gonna have to. Don’t expect it to be pretty.”
“Never is. Still, he’s my dad.”
The old man shook his head and bent to retrieve the bucket and when he stood again he looked the kid square. “Call him what you like. Just be careful. He lies when he’s sick.”
“Lies when he ain’t.”
The old man nodded. “Me, I wouldn’t go. I’d stick with what I got whether he called for me or not.”
“What I got ain’t no hell.”
The old man looked around at the fusty barn and pursed his lips and squinted. “She’s ripe, she’s ramshackle, but she’s ours. She’s yours when I’m done. That’s more’n he ever give.”
“He’s my father.”
The old man nodded and turned and began to stump away up the corridor. He had to switch hands on the pail every few steps, and when he got to the sliding door at the other end he set it down and hauled on the timbers with both hands. The light slapped the kid hard and he raised a hand to shade his eyes. The old man stood framed in the blaze of morning. “That mare ain’t much for cold. You gotta ride her light a while. Then kick her up. She’ll go,” he said.
“Is he dying?”
“Can’t know,” the old man said. “Didn’t sound good but then, me, I figure he’s been busy dying a long time now.”
He turned in the hard yellow light and was gone. The kid stood there a moment, watching, and then he turned and walked back through to the pen and nickered at the horse. It raised its head and shivered, and the kid saddled her quickly and mounted and they walked off slowly across the field.
The bush started thin where the grass surrendered at the edge of the field. There were lodgepole pines and firs where the land was flatter, but when it arched up in a swell that grew to mountain there were ponderosa pines, birch, aspen, and larch. The kid rode easily, smoking and guiding the horse with his knees. They edged around blackberry thickets and stepped gingerly over stumps and stones and the sore-looking red of fallen pines. It was late fall. The dark green of fir leaned to a sullen greyness, and the sudden bursts of colour from the last clinging leaves struck him like the flare of lightning bugs in a darkened field. The horse nickered, enjoying the walk, and for a while the kid rode with his eyes closed trying to hear creature movement farther back in the tangle of bush.
He was big for his age, raw-boned and angular, and he had a serious look that seemed culled from sullenness, and he was quiet, so that some called him moody, pensive, and deep. He was none of those. Instead, he’d grown comfortable with aloneness and he bore an economy with words that was blunt, direct, more a man’s talk than a kid’s. So that people found his silence odd and they avoided him, the obdurate Indian look of him unnerving even for a sixteen-year-old. The old man had taught him the value of work early and he was content to labour, finding his satisfaction in farm work and his joy in horses and the untrammelled open of the high country. He’d left school as soon as he was legal. He had no mind for books and out here where he spent the bulk of his free time there was no need for elevated ideas or theories or talk and if he was taciturn he was content in it, hearing symphonies in wind across a ridge and arias in the screech of hawks and eagles, the huff of grizzlies and the pierce of a wolf call against the unblinking eye of the moon. He was Indian. The old man
said it was his way and he’d always taken that for truth. His life had become horseback in solitude, lean-tos cut from spruce, fires in the night, mountain air that tasted sweet and pure as spring water, and trails too dim to see that he learned to follow high to places only cougars, marmots, and eagles knew. The old man had taught him most of what he knew but he was old and too cramped up for saddles now and the kid had come to the land alone for the better part of four years. Days, weeks sometimes. Alone. He’d never known lonely. If he put his head to it at all he couldn’t work a definition for the word. It sat in him undefined and unnecessary like algebra; land and moon and water summing up the only equation that lent scope to his world, and he rode through it fleshed out and comfortable with the feel of the land around him like the refrain of an old hymn. It was what he knew. It was what he needed.
The horse stepped up and he let her have her head and she trotted through the trees toward the creek that cut a southwest swath along the belly of a ravine. She was a mountain horse. It was why he’d picked her from the other three they kept. Surefooted, dependable, not prone to spook. When they got to the creek she walked in and bent her head to drink and he sat and rolled a smoke and looked for deer sign. The sun was creeping over the lip of the mountain and it would soon be full morning in the hollow. It was a day’s ride to the mill town at Parson’s Gap and he figured to cut some time by going directly over the next ridge. There was a deer trail that snaked around it and he’d follow that and let the horse pick her pace. He’d ridden her there a dozen times and she knew the smell of cougar and bear so he was content to let her walk while he sat and smoked and watched the land.
When she’d taken her fill he backed her out of the creek and turned her north to the trailhead. She followed the trail easily, the memory of warm livery, oats and fresh straw, and the sour apples the kid brought her before bedding down beside her for the night urging her forward, and the kid sat in the pitch and sway and roll of her, smoking and singing in a rough, low voice, wondering about his father and the reason he’d been called.
THE TOWN SAT IN THE VEE OF A RIVER VALLEY
. There was a steep flank of mountain on either side where the water rushed through and the mill sat a mile or so beyond, gathering the force of the flume. He could see the grey-white spume from the stacks before he crested the final ridge and when he topped it the town lay spread out along the edges of the river like a bruise. The horse snorted and shook her head at the sulphur smell. The kid blinked his eyes at it and kneed the horse forward to the downward trail. The trees were stunted and there were no varmints or scavengers except for crows and ravens that squawked at them as they passed. It was sad country and the kid had never liked coming here. The mill town kids were crude and laughed at him on the old horse and called him names when he passed. Sometimes they pitched stones at him. But he would just pull his hat brim down low over his eyes and hunch his shoulders against the plink of
stones and the guttural scrabble of their voices. The last half-mile he had to follow the highway and the horse grew agitated at the rush of vehicles with drivers who hadn’t the sense to slow or give a wider space when they passed. Some even honked. Horses on the road were seldom seen here and they were a curiosity. People stood on the steps of their houses and stared and he was aware of how he looked: the worn dungarees and boots, the faded mackinaw, the wide-brimmed hat and the old saddle, weather-beaten, the flank skirt cracked and scraped and scarred a hard brown like the body of an insect. He kept his face neutral. He rocked with the rhythm of the horse and let his shoulders roll some, both hands resting on the horn, the press of his knees calming the horse when she skittered at the cars or the screeching metallic sounds of town life.