This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki to be published by ARP Books this month. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the websites of five great magazines.
To see the schedule with links to previous/upcoming chapters and find out more, please click HERE
June sits on a padded chair in the backyard listening to the rumbling machines. The sound is a feeling, distant and peaceful, like the gentle tremble of a car as you drift off to sleep in the back seat. It’s not far, of course. Right in front of her. The river-gully forest falling. Norm is livid. He keeps threatening to put the house up for sale. While we still can, he says portentously. June doesn’t see it that way. The sky isn’t falling with their property values. The baby beats inside her. June feels it: intersecting inevitabilities of past and future, nowhere to go, no space to occupy that isn’t already taken over. Where else would they go? Soon it’ll be like it always was. People forget, June thinks. What Norm believed, what she believed, what the people believed when they knew the land the way the doctor scanning an ultrasound knows the tiny forming organs of an unborn child.
June no longer goes to see Doctor Solomon. Mary-Beth lurks inside, watches her carefully but no longer follows her from room to room, place to place. She’s allowed to be alone again. Like before, she thinks. Only: she can just make out the faint cries of men the down below. They are small figurines, toy men playing lumberjack, playing construction.
June scans the backyard. The hole is filled in and covered over. Grass has been planted and over the last few months June has watched thin, fragile stalks turn thick and aggressive, pushing out of the rich brown earth. June waters every second day. A fly lazily circles June’s head then buzzes off toward the gorge. It’s almost August already, she thinks sleepily, though it’s one of the first truly warm days she can remember. Summer now. Soon they’ll turn inward, live in air-conditioning behind locked doors. June luxuriates in the exhausted near silence of the afternoon heat. Her T-shirt rides up her midriff. A pair of short shorts. The air, not yet humid and stolid, caresses her thighs. June blinks, holds her face up to the sun. The backyard gets more sun now that the trees that once grew up and out of the gully are slowly being thinned. Those trees are hundreds of years old, Norm rants. June consoles him with a hug. You tried honey, she says.
June’s focussing on the present. Rose is dead and the spot where her small cottage once stood is about to become a cellular phone superstore. In the present there’s the sun on her face and sweat trickling gently down her arms and newly gaunt hips. She’s been waking up nauseous. Despite the urgings of Mary-Beth and Norm, she isn’t eating much. Most foods repel her. Her stomach, if anything, seems flatter than it’s been since she was a teenager. But my boobs…In a few hours, she’ll be comparing mutations with the group of expectant mothers she meets at the mall Second Cup twice a week. June will have decaf. She found a meet-up for the group online, did a search, new moms Wississauga. In the meantime, June has calls to return. Her mother, who wants to know how she’s doing, exactly, precisely—Any weight gain, honey? Her mother keeps threatening to visit for a week, a month, a year. So let her. June’s always gotten along with her mother, though they’d never really been close. But now, June feels, it’s going to be different.
And Chris called. They’ve stayed in touch. They don’t talk about what happened. Chris is dating an executive she met at a corporate fundraiser. He buys her expensive gifts. It isn’t going well. She calls often, ostensibly to see how June is doing, though the conversations quickly veer to the inevitably much more interesting subject of Chris and her life. Dear god, she says, I’m like one of those girls in Sex in the City. Ugh, don’t let me be the nasty one. June will call her back. Reassure her. She isn’t the nasty one.
The sun feels so good on her face. She feels, overall, better outside. She sighs. Breathes. Her body taking over, imposing its own rhythm. The near imperceptible shake of the ground as the men below her go about their business.
The gate screeches, rusty hinges protesting.
Susan Proudfeather strides boldly into the backyard. Oh! June jumps up, knocking the lawn chair backwards. Proudfeather freezes. They stare at each other.
Her father, giving her a curt hug and a handful of hundreds. To help you get back on your feet, he’d muttered. She’d let him down. That’s the way he saw it. They’d barely talked since he’d come home and learned of everything that had happened while he’d been off exploring ancient ruins.
So…her father had said, disengaging, looking at anything but Susan. Taxi will be here in just a minute.
That’s what hurt the most. He’d called her a cab.
Dad, she’d said, holding the money, not sure what to do with it. She didn’t want it. But she needed it. You don’t have to…I didn’t mean to…she trailed off. She’d seen that look before—on her mother’s face. Blank and closed down.
In the taxi, the left turn signal, ding ding ding ding, waiting to swing out onto Hurontarion. Ding ding ding ding. The driver, edging forward, forward, waiting for that elusive break in traffic.
Excuse me, Susan says. I…I’ve forgotten something. Can you please turn around?
The toll, already north of twenty bucks.
Sure, Miss, no problem.
What are you doing Susan?
This is a bad idea, Susan.
She hadn’t been back since she’d gotten out of jail. Part of the bail agreement. She’d spent her last two thousand dollars on bail and legal fees for her and Jared. The cab turns right then left and they accelerate gently onto Lower Grove.
This is a VERY bad idea, Susan.
Actually, can you just—stop here please?
The cab glides to a halt. When she moves to open the door, she realizes she’s still holding the money her dad gave her in a tight fist. Goddamn money. Getting out, she jams the bills into a pocket. She stands, leaning against the hot door of the taxi, staring at the big house. Is this what you want to see? she asks herself. The house, like all the others, looks only vaguely occupied. As if, Susan imagines, it’s occasionally used as a set for a television series about a happy family ripped apart by tragedy. Cancer, car accident, dropout daughter on drugs. The shades are pulled and the windows are closed. Don’t even think about, she hears herself mutter. Is that who you are now? A mutterer? It’s impossible to tell if anyone is home. No one will be home. She’s probably out shopping or something.
Susan. No. Don’t even—
Can you wait here please? The driver looks at her, bemused and disinterested.
The meter ticks upwards.
And just like that she’s opening the gate and slipping into the backyard.
Proudfeather wears jeans and a faded aquamarine T-shirt advocating the saving of whales. Only her black combat boots remind June of the crazy person who chained herself to a makeshift teepee, who pounded relentlessly on a drum and led the chanting that spread across the neighbourhood in waves of hypnotic reverberation. I’m-Very-Disturbed, June thinks inanely.
Oh! Sorry! I—Susan blurts, clearly surprised to see June—to see anyone—in the backyard. She abruptly turns to go.
No, wait, June calls. Hold on.
I thought you weren’t allowed to be here.
I’m…not. Susan Proudfeather turns and stares defiantly at June.
June tries to glare back, but feels her expression softening. It doesn’t matter. It’s all in the past. Even yesterday feels like a long time ago. Babies are made, forests are cut down, lives are altered in the space between seconds, minutes, hours. It’s the present that unfolds, that actually happens.
I’m on my way out of town, Susan says, her own tone softer now. And I just wanted to—anyway…I’ll go.
June shrugs uncomfortably, looks away, look down at her emerald patch of new grass.
So that’s where…?
June reverts back to Susan, half-surprised to see her still standing there, now also staring at the growing square shining in the sun.
Is it okay if I—?
Without waiting for an answer, Susan strides into the centre. She stands there, not moving. The river gurgles distantly. There’s the beep-beep-beep of a truck backing up. The muted shouts of men at work. The squawk of birds, the close-up buzz of a dragonfly.
Abruptly Susan falls to her knees. This is where he was, Susan says.
June feels the sweat on her.
Susan puts her ear to the dirt. She stays that way, prostrate. June watches, resisting her urge to jump up and go inside, lock the door behind her. Stay. Stay and watch. Whatever happens, whatever happened, June has to accept it. She wants to somehow convey that to the woman, Susan Proudfeather, her pale face gone so pinched and sad. It’s too late. There’s a before and an after. Things happen. Life goes on. We forget because if we don’t, we go crazy. You can’t keep going back to it, looking for the truth, moment by moment, frame by frame, like a detective searching security camera footage for clues.
After a time, Susan gets to her feet. I’m going now. You’ll never see me again. She looks at June, apparently waiting for a response.
With her pale blue eyes and white scrawny limbs June imagines Susan as something from another planet. But she’s my age, June thinks, almost incredulous. Before, she’d thought of Susan as much younger, a recent graduate, a girl who didn’t know any better. But now, face-to-face, June sees that’s not the case at all. There’s an aura of time-worn experience around Susan, a kind of toughened willingness. When the protests first started, June had hated her, made jokes about her, wished her gone, even dead. But after a while, she found the presence of Proudfeather and her merry band weirdly…soothing. And now, June is suddenly confronted with a new feeling: possessiveness toward the woman in her backyard. She knows, June thinks. She knows he was…
Where? June says, her voice coming out urgent. Where are you going?
I’m going to Toronto. Susan scrunches up her pale pink mouth as if she’s tasted something sour.
What will you do there? June tenses for resistance to this line of inquiry—what business is it of yours?
But Susan answers eagerly, almost hungrily. I need to get a job. I’m broke. My friend works at a shelter for women leaving abusive relationships. She says there’s an opening there, admin, mostly, and fundraising. Susan says the last word like it’s a question. Fundraising? She scrapes at the new grass under her feet with the fat heel of her boot.
June winces at the emerging divot. Where will you stay? she says quickly.
My friend is going to let me crash at her place.
A car horn blares—one loud, prolonged bleat.
Oh! June yells, jerking back, almost tripping over herself.
My cab, Susan says apologetically. Then, yelling: Yeah, yeah, I’m coming!
Shit, June says, righting herself and delivering an embarrassed smile. That scared me.
Are you okay? Susan scrutinizes June with new interest. Why should June care where she’s going? Who she’s going to stay with?
June self-consciously brushes damp hair from her forehead while Susan looks her up and down.
You’re pregnant, Susan finally says.
How did you—?
I…I can see things like that. In people.
But I’m only eight weeks…
Susan turns to the river gulley. She surveys the missing trees, the movements below. They didn’t waste any time, did they?
June steps over to Susan’s vantage point. They stand side by side watching the goings on laid bare by the breaks in the cover where trees used to be.
Pregnant…Susan says ambiguously. So I guess you won, right?
Won? What did I win?
Susan laughs mockingly, sadly. You know. She waves her arm, her motion encompassing everything: the house, the backyard, the slowly emerging four-lane parkway beside the sluggish river. But mostly, the gesture seems to be referring to June herself—thirty-something homemaker living in one of Wississauga’s toniest neighbourhoods awaiting the birth of baby #1 and the return home of doting dentist daddy-to-be.
It isn’t my fault, June blurts defensively.
But there were bones.
June looks down. Susan’s boot heel still pawing the soft grass and softer earth underneath.
Yes, she says.
Where did they go?
I don’t know.
You don’t know?
They were here. Then they were…gone.
That’s what happened? Simple as that, huh?
June shoves her hands in the pockets of her shorts.
Susan rolls her eyes.
I think you should leave now, June says softly, as if it’s a suggestion.
I’ll leave. I’m leaving. So why don’t you tell me the truth?
Susan seems to consider this.
I did. June wants to shout in the face of this maddening woman. I fucking did!
Who do you think took the bones?
How would I know?
Don’t you get it? It’s a cover-up. It’s all about…she points to the work below, her long skeletal finger quivering. And you, bringing a child into this world, after…after you let them—
After I let them what? June makes fists in her pockets. But she speaks calmly. You can’t change things. You tried. And look what happened.
You know what? That’s what they always say. But it’s not true. You can change things.
Susan’s cold, visceral stare reminds June of Rose. The way she seemed to be able to cut right through her.
I changed you, didn’t I?
You should probably go now, June suggests again, softly, desperately. She tugs down on her short tee. I’m sorry you went to jail, she says. But it wasn’t my fault.
Susan Proudfeather’s mouth twists. She’s going to say something horrible, June thinks. But instead, Susan pivots in her heavy boots and is gone.
June breathes, feels her body go limp as the dread drains out of her. She listens for the sound of the cab driving away. Then, slowly, carefully, she crouches down to inspect the damage. »
Hal Niedzviecki is a writer of fiction and nonfiction exploring post-millennial life. This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in Fall 2016. To find out more, go HERE.Back to top