Winter Road

A short story by Erin Frances Fisher

I’d just come off a shift bolting roof screens at Diavik Mine when Trista rang.
    “Dad highsided the Huscvarna at the ice races and his back is messed,” she said. “Couple of pins and fused vertebrae. He’s okay, but he’s in a wheelchair for now and can’t manage himself. And Jack,” she raised her voice when I tried to interject, “you’re not going to believe this—Mom has dementia. Early-onset. Dad’s been hiding it.”
    “Why would he do that?” I sat on my bunk with the phone.
    “Why does he do anything,” she said.
    I couldn’t get my head around it. Fourteen hours of hydraulics and circulated air in the mine shaft—I wanted sleep. “Didn’t the neighbours notice?”
    “Notice—probably. But Dad was there. He hides shit from us, not them.” She sounded tired, and I wondered how long she’d been at the parents place. “Fucking Dad,” she went on. “Old man gets his first CPP cheque last month and he still thinks he can tear around like a teenager. Says he lost traction on the rear wheel over-steering into a turn, then the studs caught the ice and the torque flipped him headfirst over the handlebars. Bike came after him, ripped right through his parka. Good thing he held his hands up or he’d have stitches down his face not his forearms. Plus the damage to his back.”
    I stretched out on my dorm bunk and waited for her to continue. She sounded like she was waiting, too. I didn’t know what to say. I had a hard time picturing Dad in such bad shape, and Mom?—my mind started to wander, to lope inward to its own hinterlands. The parents still lived where I grew up, a tiny cluster of trailers at the edge of the Beaufort Sea. No roads in or out except in winter, when you drove the frozen Mackenzie River. I remember Mom’s twelve husky-cross runners tugging the titanium sled over the packed snow at the dog races, or to the traplines. Dad revving his skidoo or motocross down the Run-What-You-Have ice track the town plowed on the frozen ocean. Dump fires in summer and the watery croak of the ravens—
    “I can’t do this alone.” Trista broke the silence. “I can’t deal with the two of them and his dogs by myself.”
    “Hers.” The dogs were Mom’s. She raced all over the North.
    “You haven’t seen how bad she is. No one’s been running them—I honestly don’t think they could even if they were forced. They look sick.”
    “Alright,” I said. “I’m coming.”
    I leaned back on my bunk and listened to the snow hit the window. It had been years, a real chunk of time, since I’d been to the parents’ place. I pushed myself to think about next morning’s shift—the blast of the heated air in the mineshafts and the chug of the waterpumps. But I was only trying to think about work, and memories cracked open like the Mackenzie break late spring—one frozen sheet of ice, then boom, fragments running down open water.

Diavik human resources desk, I told the girl I needed time off.
    “Gotta plug some pups,” I joked. I mean, I was serious, the dogs might have to be shot, but I wanted to keep the conversation light and away from the parents. Not a chance.
    She knew all about my family issues, she told me. My sister had called her, and went on and on in detail about the accident.
    “So I can have the time off,” I said.
    “You can have the time off.”
    I asked the girl to give me the number of the airport.
    “No worries,” she said. “I’ve already bought you a ticket.”
    It seemed strange—the ticket, I mean, and that Trista had spilled personal details. But she was overwhelmed, so, maybe. The girl and I continued our back-and-forth with her talking like she knew me—knew my family—and me scrutinizing her but unable to place her. Was she from the hometown? There were a lot of people at the mine from the Territories. But she looked city-based: her fluffy bleached hair and sharp nose, the pierced eyebrow she was going to regret if she ever went outside in the cold, and the edge of a blue tattoo—a vine or maybe a snake or the arm of an octopus—creeping around her neck from under her collared shirt.
    No, I couldn’t place her, and I had to give up. Which made me wonder if she had me right, or if there had maybe been another accident with another family, and I ended up thanking her for arranging the ticket instead of asking her if we did, in fact, know each other.
    The doubt hung around, bothering me while I packed my bag, and I was distracted throughout the drive to Yellowknife with the supply rig. Had I known her, the girl? I held my hands to the heater in the cab of the semi. The driver blasted country music and we chatted about who’s from where. I relaxed a little, then got sad. I had to force myself not to chuckle. So I couldn’t remember a face. What must it be like for Mom?    

The drive was routine, basically a white-out of snow and cloud for 373 kilometers. When the road’s thawed, which is most of the year, the company flies its crew to the excavation site from Yellowknife across the tundra—green in spring, red, pink and purple near the end of summer, a real fiery autumn. Big stretch of crowberry and bearberry heath, moss, and lichen, splashed with lakes that throw the sky back at you. Blue creeks and waterways run everywhere, since there’s nothing to stop them in that flat, treeless, place. And then Diavik itself: that open pit mine—an outlandish, chalky hole corkscrewed in the center of Lac de Gras. That first time I saw it, it blew my mind—that the water doesn’t fill the pit is a feat of engineering. Astonishing.
    The semi driver dropped me in Yellowknife. I had time before I had to be at the airport, and a drink would hit the spot. The bar was crowded with one of the young mining crews—I guess it was payday.
    “Drinks are on me,” I said. Why not. The kids were fresh off their first three-weeks and, following their solo shifts, stank with the relief of company. In that fresh crowd, felt I owned the city—the dirty snow, the graveled strip, the saloon, the stuffed muskox that eyed us from the loft above the bar.  I carried a couple pitchers to the table.
    “How’d you end up at the mine,” someone asked.
    “No idea,” I said. “Been too long.”
    “How long?” They topped my pint.
    “What, maybe fifteen years?”
    There was a pause, and then, in the manner of the stupid, a kid asked, “How old are you anyway, man?”
     A few years into my forties. That’s nothing. I paid for the pitchers. I’d barely started.
    Fuck them.
    They drank. I sat and brooded. They didn’t know squat. Like, what about the time I decided to snowshoe the lake that surrounded the mine? The air was cold and blue around the horizon, pink and orange twilight overhead, and so pretty I didn’t watch where I was going. It was forty below and remote as shit; what was there to run into?
    I ran into a caribou, what was left of it, caught by the legs in the ice. Wolves had stripped the flesh from its back and rump, and I had a clear view of the spine and ribcage, since, by some miracle of balance, the animal had frozen standing.
    It carried this huge rack on top of its gnawed face. Caribou antlers spread out at the tips like they’ve been pressed with a spoon—big scoops of bone flatten into a palm, edged with any number of points. This pair held palms at the top, mid and brow—a spectacular set, each splayed palm twice the size of my hand. They gestured like a magician, those palms, arched and spell-casting. The breadth of the rack gave me a headache, how an animal could walk around with a pair like that.
    I scanned the area for wolves. Nothing but prints in the blueish snow, the mine barely visible behind me and the caribou. The rest of the barren ground herd had gone south, but it’s hard to migrate caught to the knee in the lake.
    “You want another?” The waitress cleared the empty pitchers and gauged the mood of the mine crew around the table.
    “Keep it coming,” I said. I turned to the crowd. “In case anyone thinks Diavik is the ass-end of civilization, it isn’t.”
    “Keep it together dude,” someone said.
    But it isn’t the ass-end. Same way the parents’ place isn’t the ass-end of nowhere. Not quite. Wintertime, Diavik’s ice road extends beyond the mine. Keep trucking north from the hole in Lac de Gras and in thirty-eight kilometers you’ll hit Misery. I’m serious, Misery Lake. Misery Camp—a satellite of Ekati Diamond Mine. Check the maps. And two-hundred and twenty kilometers further, yet another mine spirals into Jericho lake clawing even more diamonds from kimberlite. Beyond that there’s the islands and a few kids who’ve never seen trees and who won’t believe the sun rises year round, because, to be honest, the sun doesn’t always do that.
    Outrageous, sure, maybe even fable-esque, but not shit, not ass-end.
I caught a taxi to the airport. The flight was delayed, and I had nothing to do. I played with my cell and decided to call an ex-common law, but hung up when I heard her voice. That girl, she’d had a kid when I moved in with her, and he used to come in the bathroom when I was showering and pee. No big deal, I’m no prude, but it was all stops and starts with the kid’s urine stream. I asked him what was up and the kid showed me. He’d pinch his foreskin closed and pee into it until it ballooned, and then let the piss splash into the toilet bowl. That’s how weird the family was.
    My ex called back thirty seconds after I pocketed my phone and said, like old times, “What the fuck gives you the right to hang up on me, mother fucker?”
    “You sure you got the right guy?” I asked.
     “Call display, prick,” she said. “What do you want?”
    “I wasn’t thinking straight,” I said. I told her Mom had Alzheimer’s and I wanted to reminisce. She didn’t say no, so I went on. “That pee trick. Where’d Joey learn that?” I’d always wondered, since I, myself, am circumcised.
    “How the hell should I know? Kids pick things up.”
    “I guess that’s why the bathroom stank.”
    She hung up on me this time, and I barely set down the phone when it rang again. It was my parents’ number. I didn’t pick up. It would be Trista wanting to know why I wasn’t in the air yet.

After I boarded the flight, I realized I had nothing to read but the safety guide—orange and grey cartoons of women and men inflating lifejackets on a flaming plane, expressions absurdly calm. Before Diavik, I worked Search & Rescue out of the military base near the hometown, and there was nothing calm about it. Bits of those memories still stalk me when I can’t sleep.
    I tucked the pamphlet in the seat pocket in front of me and peered out the window into the dark. Search & Rescue era, I’d worked with Cindy—five feet tall, small chin, black hair she wound in two buns above her ears that gave her face a kittenish shape. She’d volunteered at a fire department way south—Watson Lake, practically British Columbia—at the squat end of the Yukon. That led her to High Arctic Rescue Training at the military base outside my hometown, which led her to me. Cindy was the reason I’d signed up for Wilderness Travel, ATV Safety, Predator Defence with Firearms Handling—all the field courses that led to my Search & Rescue job. I was barely twenty. I adored that girl, and that adoration made me endure Helicopter Training, jumping hover exits to the chopper pad even though heights give me the shits.
    The first summer, when we were both in Basic Firearms, the deerflies were a bitch, slashing and sucking blood. She was worried about tularemia, anthrax, eye worm, et cetera, and it was hot—the sun hadn’t set since late May, wobbling around the horizon like a helium balloon low on spunk. I suggested the ice hut.
    “Cool our toes,” I said.
    “Your urges,” she said.
    The ice hut, dug into the permafrost way back in the sixties, was the hometown’s cold storage. We climbed down the rungs into the dirt. It did not go well.
    Some lazy dweeb had plucked geese in the corridor. Feathers and bits of blood were frozen into the gravel and on the walls. My family’s locker was okay, sparkly ice crystals coated the roof, but it was more like being in a deep-freeze than it was romantic, and when Cindy opened a cardboard box, she found—I shit you not—the heads of four dogs. One gray, two husky, one gold.
    She fell on her haunches and shivered. Despite the deerflies and mosquitos, we were both in shorts and shirts. I lit a smoke, then remembered Cindy wanted me to quit (lung cancer—she knew about the asbestos workers from Cassiar and said it was unholy hell.) I put the cigarette out in the yellow dog’s eye.
    Why? Sometimes I’m an idiot. More often than not.
    When she calmed down we pushed a canoe into the Beaufort and dropped a line. I explained about the routine dog culls, that we couldn’t have strays packing up. I said strays, but I meant sled or bear dogs that had slipped the chain and soured. Wild, feral animals plagued with mange and starvation—nothing friendly or rehabilitatable about them.
    And once I started talking about them, I remembered where the heads came from. The first dog had turned up quietly—stretched in a green patch of dwarf birch by the Traders’ Co late summer, its matted coat thick with flies. Town shot the nose off the second on the gravel strip outside the food bank. Third I couldn’t recall. But the fourth was a frothy-mouthed bitch the town ran down on skidoos and blew to pieces. The heads were stored to the ice hut, to be sent south for rabies testing. There were kids to think of.
    “But why would they keep the heads?” Cindy said.
    I let the fishing line spin out. Who knew? I guess the they forgot about them. I forgot. I wouldn’t have brought her down there if I’d remembered.
    Baby blue sky and clear ocean, the yellow canoe, the speckled red lure, Cindy’s shiny twists of hair. My eyes followed the weight and jigging spoon down, way down—I could see depth that hadn’t been there a moment ago—and then the glint of red fell too far into the black.

Maybe it’s because I’m pulling memories from so long ago, but these days it seems they carry more than I can spell out with words. It’s a mind trip, heading to the parents—a dip into the past. That Diavik crew poked fun of my age, but at their age they don’t get that there’s more to memory every year. Embarrassments and fuck ups—all that shit I used to wish I’d forgotten more of. Now, not so much. And with Mom, well—
    Hold up those those weird, nagging moments, and you see there’s more too them than before—that it’s a miracle they even exist. Rose-coloured shit, sure. But honestly, once you start reeling in the past, it’s impressive. Like, okay yeah—wow.

My flight landed in Inuvik in the early afternoon and I bought a cheap Ford to drive the ice road North.
    Mid-winter the Mackenzie was three-feet thick and black and the vehicles I passed were plows or water trucks sealing faults. Not much snow, but what powder there was had been scraped clear of the ice and piled along the sides of the frozen river. The pickup’s headlights lit the fog, and then the sky caught a lick of sun and glowed rosy to the south. Ravens perched on fishing boats dry-docked along the banks. A couple foxes scoured for hares and roadkill with the lanky, airy gait I remembered alongside the dogsled trails. The radio played 80’s classics, interspersing the songs with chatter about an NHL charity game in Whitehorse, and then an update on the berm construction Tuk to Inuvik—an all-season highway over the permafrost. I’d seen it in Inuvik behind the dump: stockpiled geotextile rolls and silvery culverts.
    Of all the modern marvels.
    The all-season road had been talked about for decades, opposed by the South because of the price, and in the North we had mixed feelings. Win some, lose some—the new road would be a bit of both.
    Back when I was in the hometown, and right through into Search & Rescue years, you flew in or waited for the tides to stack sheets of ice along the shoreline—gritty, bubbled layers that grabbed fast to the land. Water one day, ice the next, and vice versa. You had to watch yourself.
    Even if you did, you weren’t guaranteed to be okay. Take Merv Harris. Merv was a local hunter and recluse who drowned when a sheet of ice surfaced suddenly and toppled his skiff. We, the S&A team, had no luck locating Merv in the seven minutes he might have had a chance, and then fucked up finding his body as well. We handed the search to the local military base and its divers. Gave me shivers watching them in their orange drysuits and flippers and cables like umbilical cords.
    Someone said, “I guess we better deal with Merv’s house.” They were right—the oil and electric and anything he might have running needed to be checked. He didn’t have family since his wife, Maggie Harris, died of cancer years before.
    So four of us, Cindy, me, and two others I’ve forgotten, checked Merv’s oil and ran his taps, and then stood around until it’d dawned on everyone that with Merv gone we had to deal with his dogs—the five, maybe six, mean sled and bear dogs chained to their houses out back. Brown eyebrows and curled tails, and half of them with at least one crazy blue eye or ripped ear. What were we to do? Cruel to let them starve.
    “I bet Merv’s got booze,” Cindy suggested, and postponed the issue. Town was supposed to be dry, so finding Merv’s stash—six cases of Alaskan IPA—was enough to relax us. Maybe even cheer us. I cracked a can and sat on the single bed. Cindy crossed her legs on the caribou skin rug in front of fox hides boarded and drying by the woodstove. One of the other S&R fiddled with a ring in a bowl set on a shelf beside a cardboard box.
    After a few IPAs each, someone said it was a shame Merv had never spread Maggie’s ashes.
    “What ashes,” was the general response.
    Cindy picked up the cardboard box. Eight inches square, a row of numbers and then a name in sharpie—Maggie Harris.
    How we ended up on skidoos, and then back at the floe with that cardboard box full of Merv’s cremated wife—I don’t see the logic either. But we did. Cindy handed me the box, and because it was Cindy who asked, I opened the box and quickly flipped it over.
    It turned out Maggie’s ashes were sealed within a plastic bag inside of the box. At first we tossed ice chunks and ropes at her, but she floated too far from shore to reach, and all we could do was watch. In early spring, the Beaufort held scattered chunks of ice—white above the black water, teal where submerged. The water-heavy slabs had broken from the main floe and pocked the surface far as we could see, rotting in the warming weather.
    Maggie’s ashes clung to the inside of the plastic bag and the bubble of air took her further out than Merv had ended up.
    None of us could look at each other.
    “Oh, hell,” Cindy said. “We still have to shoot the dogs.”
The frozen Mackenzie hit the Beaufort and I drove the last leg of the winter road over the ocean. And then I was there. The hometown. The sign marking the weight capacity of the ice was stippled with bullet holes, and a couple mangy strays tugged at a muskrat hide, so it was exactly like I remembered it. All the buildings on stilts above the permafrost, all the stilts buried in snow. Trailers coated in long spines of frost. Aluminum utilitdors, silver and pink in the twilight, snaked electric and plumbing and phone between houses. Insulated with foam and yellow fiberglass, those tubes are full of voles, and come summer the couple tattered cats that’ve survived the foxes will spend sunny days on top of the warm metal intent on tiny clicks from inside the pipes.
    I parked outside the Trader’s Co—the town’s one shop—and didn’t go in. I threw my bag over my shoulder and trudged through the snow over the skidoo trails up the hill to the parents’ house, where I stopped. They must’ve tossed caribou antlers on the roof every single year they lived there, and the trailer looked fortified for the apocalypse. Dad’s busted motocross sat in the shed beside the skidoo. A satellite dish—that was new—pointed due South. The gun locker looked secured—as kids, Trista and I had them taken away for popping ptarmigans. One shell from a 12-gauge and the fat birds exploded in gratifying puffs of white. Thinking back on the stupid shit we pulled, it’s a gift neither of us kicked it.
    And in the yard, Mom’s dogs. Fifteen to twenty husky-cross chained to square frame doghouses. Tan and black, curled tails, pale eyed, most curled and asleep on straw and snow. A torn ear, a raised head. Walking closer I saw most had yellow crust in the eyes. Shit stains down the legs.      
    I stood for a while. If I had Cindy’s number I’d have called her to talk about Maggie Harris floating off in plastic, or the dog heads when she and I tried to fuck in the ice hut. She’d probably hang up on me like my ex had, but I really only wanted to make sure they remembered the stories. I mean, if we can laugh over it, we should be okay, right?
    I watched the dogs squint through puss and chew at sores.
    Until then—until I saw the condition of the dogs—I’d kept telling myself the situation wasn’t as bad as Trista claimed. Same as Dad had done with Mom’s illness, probably. Probably what kept him from calling for help—he couldn’t get past the sadness.
    I can forgive him that.
    From the look of the animals, I guessed I would suffer a bit of heartbreak inside the house.

I climbed up the frozen stairs and banged on the parent’s door. Trista opened it and we hugged. I handed her the bottle of Malbec I snagged in Inuvik.
    “Wait here.” She set the bottle aside, zipped into a parka and joined me on the steps. “I gotta fill you in on the damage before you see them.”  
    “Jesus,” I said. “That bad.”
    I didn’t want to interrupt her, but looking over at Mom’s skinny pack I suddenly remembered the other stray from the ice hut: a grey bitch, milky at the teats, wandering slowly from the eastern lake area. The dog’s stiff gait, her relentless stumble along the rocky shore.  “Okay,” Trista squeezed my arm.
    I grabbed the doorknob.
    It’s been thirty years since I was a kid, but I remember this one winter when snow came late. Dad and I were out with the local Mountie’s two boys, baiting foot traps with stink salmon. I scratched together the scattered, powdery snow—almost a frost—at the river’s outlet to hide the traps. We’d thumped a couple snared foxes earlier that morning and had the animals—one rogue cherry-coated male, one white vixen—lashed to the skidoo trailer. The light bounced a warm, horizontal orange over the ice and we had our hoods pushed back. The RCMP boys’ toques bold yellow against the wolverine trim in the flattened daylight; the sun scraped around the south horizon and set fire to colour, every red enriched and backed by blue shadow. Dad and I planted marker logs near the traps and loaded the bucket of stink salmon on the skidoo’s trailer. Below—honest to god, I remember this as clear as the ice under us—we realized we could see the silty rocks of the riverbed and good-sized sheefish swimming in the brackish water. Course we broke out the auger and then took maybe thirteen fish total. Each time we dropped the lure we hooked and pulled a flopping, tinny fish onto the ice.  
    Later we barbecued and ate. The white, flaky meat sweeter than halibut. Mom was a long shadow on the horizon, running her titanium sled, six dogs off the gangline. Trista followed on the four-dog behind—there’s no sound when you run, nothing but the breath of the dogs and the hiss of the sled over the snow. While my father cooked, I hung the two foxes from the shed by their rear legs and wrapped their noses in paper towel and duct tape. Cut a slit around each ankle and peeled the skins from the carcasses like a sock.
    Opening that door—
    No, the fish is what I want to leave you with. We kept reeling one after another, saying, as their tails flashed in the sun and pounded the ice, “Would you look at that.”

Erin Frances Fisher is a writer and musician in Victoria, BC. Her stories have appeared in Granta, The Malahat Review, PRISM international, Riddle Fence, and Little Fiction. She is the 2014 RBC Writer’s Trust Bronwen Wallace Emerging Writers recipient. Erin teaches piano at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and is a sessional writing instructor at the University of Victoria.

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