First Prize, Fiction (Over 18)
Meant For This World
Old Smokey Joe steps down onto the asphalt road that passes Shawnash’s house. He loops his achy right leg over the bicycle bar and looks up the gravel drive, past red sumac to her open front porch. This morning Shawnash is nowhere to be seen, but Smokey can hear her radio.
“The next voice you hear will be Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty, Allah, coming to you on Elk Radio FM, your hometown, All News Station in North Hastings.”
“Dear Children of Earth. The End of Days is this Saturday, September twenty-second, at 10 A.M., local time. Gather your loved ones and prepare for The Rapture, to join in eternal Glory with those who have already passed.”
Shawnash opens the screen door. She’s wearing that beaded, satin blouse her daughter sewed. The matching skirt brushes her moccasin tops. Shawnash’s braided hair is grey now. She’s getting on, but Smokey doesn’t see her like that.
“Smokey, you comin’ up to say hello or not?”
In her hand, there’s a glass of iced lemonade. She sits on the porch chesterfield and holds up the glass to show him. “Got a pitcher full in the fridge.”
Smokey smiles at her. Yes, he wants the lemonade but says, “I’m headed into town.”
“The plonk shop?”
“Yeah. Well, it’s Friday.”
Shawnash just shakes her head. “Why you even bother with that, old man?”
“Tradition?” Smokey says and eyes her again. “Maybe I could stop on the way back. Whatcha think?”
“Sure,” Shawnash says with a broad smile. “Afterwards, we can look at the truck.”
“Look, OK. But no promises, woman.”
“Say hello to Calvin for me.”
Smokey Joe pushes off with his left foot and pumps with the right. The bicycle’s front tire wobbles then straightens when he gets up a bit of speed. Smokey pedals up the slow hill to the United Church where he takes a right at the Gas Bar and Native Arts Emporium, then it’s half a dozen smoke shops to the big Thunderbird sign at the reserve limits. From the reserve sign, it’s only five miles into town, downhill all the way, there and back.
Smokey’s been hearing the same message for two days now. All the radios, TVs, newspapers, mobile phones, and internet sites say the same. The TV evangelists are sure pissed. The Pope, too. Got to be an alien invasion, a conspiracy, or something like that the preachers say, but all you got to do is listen, quiet-like, to hear the Big God’s Voice inside your very own head, no radio or internet required.
Smokey hears Him — but only if he wants to.
Three seasons of the year, Smokey rides the bike almost everywhere. Shawnash says the exercise is good for him. In winter, she drives if they can get her pickup started.
Some nights in bed, Shawnash worries Smokey has to work too hard to please her. That’s why she lost her husband, he had a wonky heart. Anyway, such times she climbs on top to let Smokey take it easy for a while. Smokey likes to see, to feel her up there. He likes it a lot.
When she’s well and truly pleased, Shawnash lies down on his chest. She whispers and nibbles his ear. Smokey smooths his hands over her back and hips. He tells her what a damned fine woman she is and how much he loves her. She must like that because she hardly ever rolls off. She goes to sleep where she is. After a time, she gets a little heavy so Smokey wraps his arms around her and eases them both onto their sides, still facing each other. They wake up like that nearly every morning.
Smokey has a nephew, his brother’s kid, who works at the bank in town. The name on the corner office is Calvin Smoke.
Friday is the day Smokey always rides in town to buy a short litre of rosé. Evenings he measures out a cup of pink at dinner time, but sometimes he forgets and has to choke down a small glass at lunch the next day. If he drinks at lunch, he usually has a sour stomach for the afternoon. All that, just to get through a bottle a week.
Calvin asked him once, “Uncle Smokey, why don’t you just quit?”
“Who’d believe in an Injun who don’t drink?”
Calvin grinned and straightened his silk tie.
When Smokey rolls down the hill into town, the Liquor Control is busy. The door is propped open but nobody’s on duty inside. Clerks musta taken off for tomorrow’s Rapture, Smokey thinks. Townspeople walk out with whatever they want. The shelves of good stuff are getting bare. Even so, Smokey finds a couple bottles of plonk in a cardboard box near the back. He leaves a double sawbuck on the checkout counter under a stapler, then goes down to York River to hide one bottle in the weeds. Is it gonna be here next week? Smokey wonders. Will anything be here?
At Bible Hall, folks are milling around in the parking lot watching an NFL-sized TV. They’re upset on account of news from Toronto. Word has it, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, anybody who wants, can just say sorry for all the crap they’ve done in life and start looking forward to tomorrow. Hardly seems fair, the townies say.
Smokey makes no comment and pedals up the street to Calvin’s bank. On Fridays, they go to lunch at the sandwich shop.
Calvin sits just inside the glass front doors wearing his best grey suit. Piles of mortgage folders are on the floor beside him.
“They’re alpha ordered,” Calvin tells the dozen or so customers rummaging through bankers boxes. “I’ll stamp ‘em paid-in-full when you find yours.”
He smiles. “Time to eat, Uncle Smokey?”
Calvin’s Marilee is a sweet woman. She invites Smokey to supper at their lake house most every Sunday. Marilee and Calvin have two young boys. At the restaurant, Calvin confides he might lose Marilee and the boys tomorrow. “They’re United Church and she’s all hopped up to go.”
Calvin sighs and asks Smokey. “Are you leavin’?”
“Ain’t decided yet,” Smokey says.
“I sure don’t want to lose her,” Calvin says of Marilee.
“I’ll miss Sunday nights if she goes,” Smokey agrees.
“Damn. I’ll miss her every night.”
“Yep. I remember what that’s like,” Smokey says.
“Remember? Ha! You and Shawnash got each other now.”
Calvin looks across the cafe’s empty tables for a waitress. “What’s Shawnash gonna do?”
“I don’t know, Calvin. I’m afraid to ask.”
A white man comes in the sandwich shop.
“Yes, Sir,” Calvin says as he scrapes back his chair and extends a hand. “How can I help you today?”
“I’m real sorry to bother you, what with this Rapture going on. I already tried the cop shop and fire hall. Ain’t nobody working today, ‘cept at the bank they told me about your Uncle here.”
“This is Smokey Joe, Mister . . .?”
“James. William James.”
“What’s wrong, Mr. James?” Smokey asks.
“I need a tracker. My family’s up here camping. Our little girl wandered off this morning. It’s been four, five hours. Seems like nobody will help us look.”
Calvin puts his uncle’s bicycle in the Escalade’s trunk. When they get back to the lake, Marilee is fixing to take the boys over to the United Church for the afternoon.
“What about the clinic?” Calvin asks his wife. “Don’t you have a shift this afternoon?”
Smokey knows to keep his mouth shut, to never get between a man and woman in love.
“Honey, don’t you see?” Marilee says, kneeling to help little Arthur tie his running shoes. “Tomorrow, all my patients are healed. Suffering, dying, it doesn’t matter.”
“Somehow this just . . .,” Calvin doesn’t know how to go on.
Marilee stands and kisses his cheek. “Think about it, dear. Everyone, all the Ages, will come alive again, to live in Glory forever. Death is defeated — cancer, stroke, heart disease, all of it!”
Her smile is as wide as Curved Lake. “Bye, sweetheart. See you tonight.”
Marilee and the boys head for the door, but she turns back. “I’ll call Shawnash and make supper if you two are gonna hunt for that little girl. But Calvin, you got to thaw out something.”
The boys skip down the porch steps to walk to church. Through the trees, they already hear the carillon recording as it plays from the steeple.
Calvin peers into the freezer. “Uncle Smokey, where’d Mr. James say they were camping?”
Bartlett Lake sparkles in afternoon light.
Uncle and nephew stand beside Mr. James to scan the beach. Mrs. James and two other youngsters sit forlorn beside a tent in the empty campground.
“Mary’s only five,” her father tells them.
“Was there a paddle boat, a water board, anything like that?” Calvin asks. A dented aluminium canoe is pulled well up on the sand.
“No,” Mr. James says.
A border of water lilies hugs the shore, glistening wavelets lie beyond. Smokey thinks if Mary went into the water, the James family won’t be seeing her again until tomorrow.
“Mr. James, maybe you should stay here,” Smokey says. “Wait to see if she comes back while we look.”
Calvin leans against the truck to pull on hip waders. Smokey laces up his hiking boots.
Calvin points along Bartlett’s southern edge. “I’ll look through the swamp and beaver meadows down there.”
Smokey is grateful he’s taken the harder job. Smokey takes a walking stick from the truck and heads east towards higher ground. It’s only a couple hundred paces through the bush until he finds a birch and poplar grove, an inviting playground for a five-year-old. Smokey searches for broken ferns, bent grass, any trace of a child’s passing.
Here the white trees are wider than a man’s shoulders. Instead of examining the ground, Smokey’s eyes drift ever higher to autumn leaves, yellowing against the clouds. This place is beautiful, Smokey thinks. I’ll bring Shawnash here someday. Then he remembers what’s coming and wonders if he ever will.
He walks north through the forest onto rising, boulder-strewn ground. He listens for complaining jays, for hectoring crows, to tell of an intruder not himself. Smokey stands quiet but hears only leaves in the wind.
He climbs until he finds a dusty logging road, blasted from the hillside. Here the exposed rock is as old as Turtle Island, as old as Creation. If little Mary came up here — why yes, a child’s running shoes have left a trail on the sandy berm.
Smokey follows the footprints. Glancing to his left, the sun is westering, sinking towards the lake. He stops. If he can see the lake, so could Mary. Why didn’t she go back down the hill to their camp? The tracks continue on, around a bend in the road. Smokey wonders if maybe she wasn’t trying to find her way back.
Past the bend, deer tracks appear in the dirt. At one spot, its hoof scraped over the print of Mary’s runner. Beyond that is a place where an elk climbed up onto the road. The elk prints follow the deer. Smokey walks a little faster. When a wolf, and then promptly a bear, join Mary’s procession, Smokey throws down his walking stick and begins to run.
The tracks lead into an overgrown farm lane that winds uphill through waist-high grass. Now Smokey’s breath comes in heaving gasps. He stumbles past a century-old farmhouse of rotting boards and collapsing roof. Near the top of the hill is an orchard.
Among the gnarled trees, Smokey sees an Anishnabee youth, wearing only a breech clout and moccasins. The boy’s hair is silver, like pale moonlight. As the youth approaches, he carries a sleeping child cradled in his arms. Smokey drops to his knees in pain and exhaustion. The young man kneels too, then lays the drowsy little girl between them. She is wrapped in a blanket sewn of rabbit skins.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Smokey,” the youth says.
“I’m sorry,” Smokey wheezes. His heart is pounding out of his chest.
“Mary got hungry, so we found some apples.”
Smokey nods in crushing pain.
“Then she fell asleep.”
Helpless, Smokey begins to pitch forward onto the grass.
“Live in health, Brother,” the young man says as he touches Smokey’s shoulder.
The pain is gone.
Smokey can breathe again and sighs in profound relief. “I’m sorry I took so long to find you.”
“It’s OK, Smokey. Everybody makes choices.”
Choices, Smokey thinks. I have to make a choice. Everyone does. “Could I ask? Please, would you tell me?”
“Wherever would I go? I belong here,” the youth says. “But if you don’t mind, what will you do?”
“I don’t want to leave. I want to be here with Shawnash for as long as she’ll have me.”
“Alright then,” the youngster says.
Smokey leans over to lift Mary. When he looks up, the youth is gone.
Smokey carries the dreaming child back along the logging trail. She is feather light. He feels like a new man.
Soon they reach the spot where her footprints joined the road. Smokey looks out towards Bartlett Lake. The western shore is painted in red, green and gold. Clouds prepare yet another heart-breaking sunset.
Smokey tramps down the hillside to the birch grove, then through and on to the lake. At the campground, Smokey sees Calvin emerging from the swamp. He, too, carries a sandy-haired, little girl, asleep in his arms. By the time they both reach the James’ family tent, only one child remains, skipping spritely between them. She runs into her parents’ arms.
Calvin and Smokey say nothing to each other. Both are in a great hurry. Calvin throws the hip waders into the truck and drives as fast as he dares, down empty highways.
As darkness gathers, the Escalade squeals to a stop. Smokey jumps out at Shawnash’s driveway. Then the truck sprays gravel as it hurtles down the road. There is still time for Calvin to have a heart to heart with Marilee.
Shawnash stands halfway down the porch steps, her hand resting on the rail.
“Well?” she asks. “Did you find the girl?”
Smokey nods. “A boy with shining hair brought her to me.”
“Oh, HIM!” Shawnash laughs. “He wandered by here a coupla hours ago.”
Smokey blinks at her and says, “I asked him what he’ll do tomorrow.”
Shawnash picks up the thread. “Well, he told me he’s staying.”
“That’s right, and then he asked what I’ll do,” Smokey says.
Shawnash tilts her head and smiles. “I said I’d stay as long as you want me, Smokey.”
Smokey and Shawnash step into an embrace that bends old bones.
Finally, Shawnash whispers, “Maybe the truck will start. Marilee says she’s baking chicken.”
Ken Leland is somewhat elderly, white-haired even. It is not as evident he was an immigrant to Canada some forty-five
years ago. His fiction, both long and short, is principally about Canadian history, First Nations, Black Loyalists and Quakers, but there is also a series of stories set in Indiana where he was born and raised. ‘Meant for this World,’ flowed effortlessly onto the computer screen, a most usual experience for the author, but this story is a gift to the people and the places who appear herein. Perhaps Leland’s website will be of interest: www.kenlelandauthor.com