The summer we were twelve, nobody asked my best friend Tom and me to wear bike helmets, because it was 1989. If they asked where we were going, we just said, “Bike ride.”
They would just nod and go back to whatever it was they were doing. My dad would go back to the bar; my mom would go back to staring at the TV. Tom’s mom would go back to screaming at Tom’s older brother.
So we would ride fast in the sunshine. River Road had a few honest-to-goodness hills, a wonder in rural Manitoba. We used to kick our legs out wide and put our hands in the air and let our bikes rattle down, around the curves, knowing there might be cars coming but there never were.
We always went to the same place: our little kingdom. A green slope between the highway and the river, with a limestone fort squatting on it.
When we got to Lower Fort Garry, we’d park our bikes and walk in through the back gate. Nobody ever made us pay. Nobody swore or wailed at us. It was the one place we knew where we got to choose whether to talk to people. You walked up and talked to the pretend fur-trader or the pretend shopkeeper, or you didn’t. We would sit on the grass and listen to the crickets, or watch the lazy Red River until our eyes hurt from the sun glittering on it.
I think that’s why we heard what others did not hear, saw what others did not see. Something whispers in every silence and there is writing on every wall. One of my sisters said that to me, once, when we were chained together in a dungeon barely larger than a grave.
No—that is the wrong memory. That didn’t happen. Not to me.
I was a girl in 1989, in Manitoba, and my friend Tom and I would go to our fort. At times when there was hardly anyone else around, we would walk inside the square fort itself. We would sit on the barrels in the fur-storage room, stick our tongues out at the pelts that still had snarling faces attached, and try to make things out of trap wire. The pimply girls in their heavy nineteenth century dresses would give us ice cream sandwiches out of the staff freezer and one of them taught me how to smoke a Player’s cigarette.
The only one who never broke character was the blacksmith. If a visitor said something about TV or telephones he would pretend not to know what we were talking about. It was always 1850 for him. I never knew his name. The smithy was just outside the fort walls and I hated going in there because a fire was the last thing I wanted on a July afternoon. But Tom liked to go there to get nails for his collection. So I would lean against the shoeing apparatus just outside the door, and listen to the smith bang and hiss and twist.
“Now you be careful of this one, young sir,” the blacksmith said to him once when they were on their way out into the sunshine. I flipped my sunglasses up onto the top of my head so I could see them in the darkness. The smith had his thumb cocked at me.
Tom blushed and I rolled my eyes.
The blacksmith talked about the fire a lot: how hot it should be, what kind of wood, that sort of thing.
“This is no ordinary fire,” the blacksmith said, the last time we visited. “It began from a spark struck off the anvil of the first Scottish smith to work on this spot, in 1815, and has never gone out since.”
“Really,” I said, humouring him.
He nodded. “It’s a need-fire. It protects this place. So long as there is a smith to tend it.”
“Protects it from what?” Tom asked.
“The smith’s wife. She came here first, tried to claim this place and all the souls in it, but he followed her from across the ocean. As long as he has this fire and red iron in it, she’ll never have dominion here.”
“But she’s long dead,” I said. “She might even be dead in 1850. Do you mean her ghost or something?”
He shook his head. “As long as there’s a smith there’s a smith’s wife.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, what if the smith isn’t married?”
“It’s just a story, Daphne,” Tom said.
We had all the history plaques memorized and when it got too hot we would go into the museum and watch the twenty-minute heritage movie just so we could sit in the air conditioning. The fort was built in the 1830s by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled the fur trade in those days and was pretty much the government of Canada back then too.
There was a lot of history they didn’t tell us: like the fact that Governor Simpson had eleven children by seven women and insisted on having a personal bagpiper with him when he circumnavigated the globe in a birchbark canoe. Or that Louis Riel’s secretary Honore Jaxon, a wannabe Metis who was born a white Methodist, was locked up in Lower Fort Garry’s isolation chambers in the 1880s after the Red River Rebellion, when the place became an asylum.
They showed us maps and dramatizations and pretended like all these sad, weird white people were so brave for snowshoeing or paddling out into a wilderness where they weren’t wanted. Like they weren’t all running with dogs at their heels.
The summer we were fourteen, Tom and I got jobs. We didn’t go to the fort anymore.
I worked at the hot dog diner near the locks. I sold slices of soggy cherry pie that we were supposed to say was homemade if anyone asked, and ice cream out of big plastic tubs, and bait worms. I came home at night with my uniform smelling of hot dogs and pine cleaner. My fingernails were brown from cleaning the grill and my wrists were sticky because the fishermen liked to put nickels in the bottoms of their Coke glasses and watch me fish them out.
The spring when we were sixteen, Tom and I didn’t hang out much anymore but his locker was close to mine.
“How do you like waitressing, Daphne?” he asked one day when the hall was empty because we were both late for class.
I shrugged. “How do you like the gas station?”
“I hear they’re hiring for the summer at Lower Fort Garry.”
“For what job?”
“You know, dressing up and talking to the tourists. Acting or whatever.”
I had never thought of that as an ordinary job, as a job that I could do. But Tom was right. They hired us and even paid a few cents over minimum wage. We could hardly believe our luck.
Tom got hired as the assistant to the very blacksmith who used to make him nails. I filled in wherever they needed a girl. The first week, I baked bannock and bread in the oven at the back of the governor’s mansion. I hated the heat and the flies there, the buzzing always in my ears, and the sun glaring off the limestone. If I listened for a few minutes, the buzzing seemed to fall into a pattern.
Joanne, a woman in her forties, played Anne Maxwell Colvile, the governor’s wife, mistress of the Big House. Joanne was always tired because her kids were brats. One day I was listening to the flies and kind of humming along to myself, and Joanne had to ask me three times if I’d seen her parasol.
Then one of the girls who worked in a settler house got mono and I asked if I could move there. The settler houses and teepee were outside the fort, just down the white-stone path from the smithy. It was quieter and cooler there. I could pour beef-fat candles into tin moulds, in the shade of the farmhouse doorway, while visitors watched. I memorized how the line of the shade would move from the doorstep to the carrot patch over the course of my shift: my own personal sundial. I could almost hear a ticking in it. I’d watch the line and say to myself: One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four?
I made a little game of it. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four. Rattle the windows and knock on the door.
My clothes smelled of lard and lye and I learned the ways to make things.
My first day in the settler house, Tom wandered onto the path when there were no visitors around, and I wandered over to say hi. My skirt swished as I walked and I could see myself as he must see me: an image, a sunlit woman against a green and blue background. He smelled like fire.
We said things like “hello” and “how are you finding it here?” We talked differently to each other, in costume. Me in my leaf-green dress, with my hair all done up under a cap, and he in a loose white shirt and trousers that tied at his waist and a blue cloth tied around his dark hair. We were dressed up like a man and a woman and we talked that way, like we were in a play, even though I tried not to.
The blacksmith watched us from the doorway, with a poker in his hand.
The next day, he went away somewhere and they made Tom head blacksmith. Tom had been watching for years. He knew what to do.
The pretend-wife in the other farmhouse was an eighteen-year-old named Amberly. Her fake name was Mrs. Grant. She was nice but she couldn’t get the hang of things. I offered to show her about candles on a slow, grey afternoon.
“You have to pour it smoothly, like this,” I said, showing her. As I filled each tin tube, I said a little rhyme to keep my work in rhythm:
Mulleins and murrain
Candles and kine
Gone is the leman
Who once was mine
“What’s that?” Amberly asked.
“I don’t know. I must have read it somewhere.”
My hand started to shake but I managed not to spill the tallow. I kept saying the rhyme to myself, to keep myself grounded, even though it scared me. I hadn’t read it anywhere. I didn’t know what half those words even meant. But I knew that each word came with a mark on the flagstones where my shadow-dial ebbed and flowed. That crack was mulleins and that weed was murrain. The shadow taught me the words.
Amberly asked me to teach her the words and I did.
After that, Amberly came to me for advice on just about everything. She pinned her cap with two hidden safety pins just like mine. She broke up with her boyfriend when I told her to.
Soon I had rhymes for many things. The butter churning had a fast rhyme that I learned from sunlight on limestone. The bread kneading had a slow one that I learned from the buzzing of flies. When I planted the late carrots, I knelt down looking at the river beyond, the quick ripples of the waves.
I taught the other girls. Nobody had ever listened to me before. But somehow I seemed to remember, like the memory of a dream, that girls had once listened to me, had once taken my advice, had begged for my secrets. Those were not real memories; those were not these girls.
Once they had learned the words to any of my rhymes, once they had repeated the words to me, they would listen to whatever I said. They would follow my advice. Even Joanne, the pretend governor’s wife. I told her to loosen up about her daughter’s curfew and she did.
I liked the patterns in my mind; I told myself I just liked to make up things while I sat and thought. There was plenty of time for sitting and thinking, there, after all.
Tom got an assistant blacksmith, older than both of us. Gareth was a quiet man with a big beard. He looked the part. He looked like he ought to be carrying an axe or a tree trunk all the time just in case it was ever needed.
One quiet morning when it was still cool, just before we opened, Tom and Gareth came by the little willow stand where we demonstrated things for the kids. It was close by the smithy. I was getting things ready, putting out the sticks for fire-starting. The willow trees were bending as if they were doing a little dance for me, teaching me.
“What’s the coffee can for?” Gareth asked.
“Making charcloth. When you light a fire with a stick and a board, you need something to take the spark. So you burn the cloth, see?”
I held out a bundle of squares of off-white linen.
“But you don’t want the cloth to actually catch fire. So you put it in the coffee can, and nestle the can in just the right spot, and leave it there for hours. You have to make sure that there isn’t much air in the can, too, so you can’t be checking it all the time. Kind of like making rice.”
I used my bright steel Zippo to get a fire started, flipping the Zippo’s top on and off a few times, idly, just like I had seen the smokers at school do. Then I put the square of ivory-coloured linen in the coffee can, setting it just in the right place, with a little singsong:
Here is the hill and here is the dell
Here is heaven and here is hell.
“Here,” I said, holding out another coffee can. “You do one, Gareth. But you have to say the rhyme.”
He laughed a little, nervously.
“You don’t really have to say the rhyme,” Tom said. I liked the way his shoulders looked in that olden-days shirt but even thinking that made him seem like a stranger. I didn’t know what had happened to the skinny kid who used to park his police-auction bike out at the gate next to mine.
“You do so have to say it,” I argued. “Come on, Gareth. It won’t work otherwise.”
Gareth laughed again, because he was shy.
Mrs. Boggs the missionary, whose real name was Stacy, came by with my Coke from the machine.
“Is there anything else you’d like?” she asked.
I shook my head. Tom watched her. He put his hand to his forehead to keep the glare out of his eyes. We weren’t allowed to wear sunglasses and he didn’t get a straw hat because he was supposed to be in the smithy most of the time. He looked at Stacy in her lace yoke. He looked at me.
It just made sense that if I was doing the work to get the fire-kits ready that someone who didn’t have any set-up to do would bring me a Coke. It’s not like I was asking her to do all my homework for me or throw herself into the river or something. It wasn’t like that at all.
Amberly and I did a bannock tea for Canada Day in July. We set up the tables in one of the store rooms and put out china tea cups and little dishes of jam.
“Did you go on that date with the shopkeeper?” I asked. Sometimes we called each other by our pretend-jobs instead of our names, because we were so used to being in character.
She shook her head. “I got back together with Keith.”
“No,” I said. I put a butter dish down on the table. “I hate that guy. He’s no good for you. Dump him. Call him tonight and dump him.”
She shook her head, not looking up from the table. She kept putting little silver knives down, clink, clink, clink.
“Amberly,” I said. “Say you’ll do it.”
She shook her head. Clink, clink, clink.
I whispered, looking up at her, waiting for her to join in.
A hooded crow on a frosty night
Sold me a child with an eyeball bright
Husha, husha, sang I to him
Dance while you can ere your eyes grow dim
She kept her pink-stained lips together. She pulled something out of her apron pocket and rolled it around in her fingers. A black iron nail.
Soon everybody had one. Joanne kept hers on a loop around her waist, which looked ridiculous. Gareth had one on a chain under his shirt. All I could see was the chain and the shape of the nail but I knew what it was. Stupid heavy things to carry around.
I walked into the smithy on a July day, passing right under the horseshoe because I wasn’t superstitious.
“Why are you turning everyone against me?”
He was alone, as if he was waiting for me. He had a bar of iron in the fire.
“Nobody is against you. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You could have fooled me.”
“They aren’t yours, Daphne.”
“So whose are they? Yours? This was always my place. I found it first.”
I had. I remembered. We were rivals before we were lovers. Smiths have always thought it their business to hunt my sisters and me. He had wielded his accursed craft in that Scottish hamlet long before I turned up there, singed and hoarse from the flames, the screams of my dead sisters in my ears. I only wanted a quiet life, a safe place. I feared the iron but I loved him, and he said he would not harm me. He said God would forgive me.
When our baby was born blue, I said a little rhyme over him. Just one little song, a bluebell song for my bluebell boy. My husband snatched him away and put me in iron, weeping over me as if he were driven to it. I had cheated death before. I freed myself and I sought a quiet place.
Tom shook his head as if he was trying to get the memories out. “Would you like me to make you something?”
He pulled the bar out of the fire; it was red at the end. I took a step back, into the sunshine.
He dropped the bar on the ground with a clang and he grabbed my wrist with his gloved hand.
“You will not shackle me!” I yelled. I remembered the cage of black iron, how it had burned and bitten. I hung from that gibbet for far too long, exposed to all foulness, before I found the words to burst those broad black bands gilded with weather. It was a wonder I had survived, after a fashion.
I ran from him before the blacksmith could cage me again.
On the August long weekend, the staff held a bonfire.
I got there late but they had still not set it alight. There was still enough light to see by. Tom was telling people where to put the wood, where to set up the coolers and mosquito coils.
Everyone obeyed him.
“Hi, Amberly,” I said.
She looked away as though I had said something awful. He had turned them all against me.
My fortress by the river still whispered to me but it no longer needed to lend me words. I could not make them repeat the old rhymes after me, not with his iron binding them. But I could get into their heads.
I sang the first tune that came to my lips: “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order. Amberly giggled. The iron nails grew heavy; they twisted and bent; some of them went red.
Joanne was a woman of experience. She knew when to let go. She untied her nail from the bit of rope at her waist and threw the horrid thing into the wood pile.
The others threw theirs, then. They were free. I freed them.
Tom pleaded with them but I did not hear what he said. He moved his lips like an actor in a silent movie. One by one they came to stand at my side and stare at Tom, and sing. We all knew the words. In our dresses and trousers we sang, as if the song were an old song. I made it an old song. I pulled my Zippo out of my pocket and flicked it a few times. I walked toward the pile of wood.
Then Gareth approached, a silhouette against the last light of the sky. He was carrying a long poker before him, and on the far end of the poker was a flat piece of iron, like a paddle. And on that iron rested an ugly pile of coals. Coals from the need-fire.
I stopped singing. We all stopped.
I remembered the screams of my sisters, their hair curling crisp while their legs cooked, their coughing and weeping.
If they could not cage me they would burn me.
Open ground under a Manitoban sky at twilight has its own kind of silence, a silence loud like the hum of an airplane. I ran headlong in that silence, under that grey sky, feeling as though if I stopped running the world would keep moving anyway.
But I did stop, when I reached the back gate. No one came after me. No one made me pay. I disentangled my bike from the others. I had to hike my skirt up to my hips, because Daphne—I—did not ride a girls’ bike. I had no time to change. I had to get away, to safety. I had to get away from the fire.
I rode fast. When I came to the hills I did not lift my feet. I pushed until my pedals spun and whacked my bare shins.
This time, there was a car at the bottom.
Tom visited me in the hospital, in jeans and a T-shirt. It was one of those wild dark days that come to the prairies in August and the rain lashed wordlessly against the wide hospital window.
It seemed like nothing more than a campfire story. But Tom and I couldn’t look at each other. The silence between us was uncomfortable, filled with the gentle beeps of machines, the nattering of nurses in the hallway. A sterile silence with no memory in it. Nothing to listen to, except the unspoken words in our minds.
“Gareth is taking over,” he said. “I’m going back to the gas station.”
I nodded. “Will they get another girl to play Mrs. McTavish?”
He shrugged. It didn’t matter. I—she—would find someone: Amberly, Joanne, hell, maybe governor Colvile himself—Matthew—or Ben the shopkeeper. Maybe she didn’t even need to be a woman. Or maybe she’d find a way to get far from the need-fire, far from the smith.
I doubted it, somehow. I’d left her behind. When I got free she didn’t come with me. I wondered how the smith had found a way at last to cage her, to keep her there, with him.
My head ached. Tom frowned. He seemed to be thinking of the right words to say, and I was just hoping he wouldn’t say it. I was listening hard to the rain.
That’s how I remember us, when I remember us, now. I moved to Montreal and Tom moved to Vancouver. Opposite directions. As if to show each other we had no intention of ever seeing each other again.