This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki to be published by ARP Books in Fall 2016. 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. Read the first installment here. Next week's installment will be up at Taddle Creek, Friday, September 19. See the full schedule here.
They pile into the rusted Ford station wagon belching smoke and burning oil. Jared drives and Susan sits beside him, deliberately not speaking. She wants Hal to feel it. She wants him to feel the way the air and the sky get brighter, more intense, the closer you are to the river valley. There’s something about the young reporter. Despite his typical J-school pseudo-objectivity—in service, of course, of bludgeoning away at any idea not endorsed by the capitalist industrial complex—she senses something in him. A hesitation. Or more than that. A desire, Susan thinks.
They drive along Hurontarion past the Middle Mall, past the Hero Burger, the Starbucks, the Walmart, and the gas station. They pull off into one of the back roads, end up on a delivery alley behind the Save-A-Centre. It looks like a dead end.
So, uh, where are we going exactly? Hal says. His voice is higher than when he’s talking on TV. Susan doesn’t turn around. She touches a finger to her lips, a signal to Jared to keep silent. She likes the idea of Hal nervously pointing his camera through the dirty windshield, wondering what’s coming next. Uh—are we—going the right way?
Right before the dead end, the car makes a fast turn into the scraggly bushes. It’s like they’re driving into a marshy wood, but they come out onto a narrow track. The car jerks along, then finally lurches to a sudden stop in a little clearing overhung with pressing brush. The small space is littered with beer cans and chip bags and Big Mac containers.
Desecrated, Susan announces, lithely springing from the front seat. Go ahead, Susan says, waving her arms theatrically. Film it. Show everyone the way these Indigenous lands are being treated.
Hal gives her a look, like he wants to say something. But instead he hoists the camera to his shoulder. Susan considers him, taking in the way the reporter’s whole body is hunched into itself. What are you worried about, Hal Talbot? What are you hiding from? She’s sure of it now. The reporter does feel it; something about to reveal itself, something he dreads and desperately wants to see.
Hal Talbot films the filthy clearing. It’s getting on 3:30. Mixed sun and cloud, temperature dropping quickly. Susan sees her breath in the air.
Is it really your belief, Hal finally says, pointing his camera at her, that the spirits of Native people…continue to…occupy this area?
People have been drawn here for thousands of years, pulled by the spirit of their ancient ancestors.
Yes, but what I think our viewers would like to know is—
Susan impatiently turns away from him. Wait here, she mouths at Jared. She parts a tangle of tawny vines hanging off a desiccated bush and reveals a rough path down a steep incline splattered with shopping strip detritus. Without saying a word, Susan steps through, her feet pressing a ketchup-smeared white napkin into leaves and humus. Her boots tromp the moist ground, leave heavy impressions on the muddy partial path. The clouds part for an instant, the sun catching clotted grey earth and broken scattered glass. She hears Hal hesitate, and then the slap of loafers in mud as he reluctantly follows.
Susan marches with her head up, her long legs stepping smartly. She knows Hal has to hurry to keep up, his occasional slip and muttered swear a constant reminder that he’s struggling to match her pace. But she doesn’t break her gait or look back. Out west, Shane led her on regular treks, and her body still remembers the imprint of those walks, the ambulatory physicality that, Susan knows, people like Hal aren’t used to anymore, no matter how much time they spend on treadmills and ellipticals.
Gradually, it goes darker. The cliff grows higher over them. Now the trees are taller, wider, thicker. The wind far above blows hard enough to shiver bony branches. Hal pants ragged breaths. Not yet, Susan thinks. She’s waiting for him to realize, to come to sudden awareness that the constant thrum he thought was Hurontarion traffic is actually the river. The great Wississauga River. Has he ever seen it before? She somehow doubts it. Up above, they picture it as a trickle, its path impeded by old socks, discarded lawn chairs, and toilet paper lily pads. But down below, it’s different. The river pulls at you, makes you want to see it, makes you want to stand on its bank and lean in and let the cool flowing water rush through your fingers.
Then it happens:
The river, Hal says out loud.
Susan stops. You can feel it, can’t you? She smiles back at Hal. Abruptly, she starts moving again, even faster now, her heart jarring against her chest.
They stop where the river, bending, leans into the cliff side, flows past the gorge and feeds the handful of giant trees that crest the cliff and reach toward the houses above. Do you see that house up there? Susan says. Hal hits record and Susan waits while he films her with her big pale palm on the biggest of the trees, the one defaced by the crude steps nailed into its trunk. She repeats herself then, complete with a slow-motion pointing gesture. Do you see that house? It’s
the house belonging to June Littlewell. She pauses dramatically to make sure that sinks in. That’s the house where the ancient remains have been found. And right here, right beneath, is where the city is planning to build its road. They want to cut down not just the forest, but the trees. This tree, which has been alive for hundreds of years. Susan pats the trunk affectionately. This is a tree of life. All around us are the remains of the Wississauga people. Is it not enough that the Indigenous peoples have been driven off their land? Must we also destroy their sacred sites? We invite you to join us in the days to come. Join our prayer vigil, our powwow for peace, add your voice to ours, and together we can speak as one and be heard.
Susan keeps her hand on the tree, caresses the trunk. Hal zooms in. She feels the power of her words, the way they’re pulling at Hal. He’s the portal. Let the light in, she thinks. All it takes is one magical moment. Put it on TV. And they’ll see. She watches as he shuffles around. He’s lost now, out of his element, pointing his camera at the river flowing past with an urgency he could never have imagined; at the great trees so much bigger than they look from up above; at Susan, implacable, patient, willing to wait for as long as it takes. What is he seeing? What is he thinking as the chill seeps in and the sweat dries on his skin? What if I’m right, Hal Talbot? What if this really is a sacred place? Up above them, a black bird circles, circles, caws. Raven? Crow? Hal, hiding behind the camera. What to point at? Nothing to see, Hal Talbot. You just have to…feel.
Hey! Hal exclaims. His excited call echoes up the cliffside and over. Someone’s living here or something!
Susan drops her hand from the tree. She opens her mouth to speak, but Hal’s already stepping around the tree, camera cocked. He films a small fire pit and a threadbare army rucksack slumped against a big rock.
Quiet, Susan hisses. She makes a sign toward the bushes. The wind blows and the scraggly range of bush rustles. Hal aims the camera at the crisscrossing web of grey-brown branches dotted with budding leaves.
A girl pops out of the thicket, doubled over. She stumbles awkwardly as she straightens. She’s wearing a zipped-up bright red parka, the jacket dotted with bits of bark and branch.
Oh! she says. She takes a step back even as Susan moves eagerly forward. Sorry. I…thought you were…She stands there, watching them with brown baleful eyes.
Who did you think we were? Susan asks gently, her voice imbued with meaning, as in: You see, Hal, the way people are drawn here.
The girl looks from Susan to the camera and back again. Are you guys making a movie or something?
Kinda, Hal says. Shouldn’t you be in school?
The girl stares at them fiercely.
Do you come here sometimes? Susan asks understandingly. The girl licks her lips, her eyes darting from them to the fire and the slumping rucksack.
Maybe, she says.
Who do you meet here? Hal asks.
Nobody, the girl says quietly.
I used to come down here when I was a kid, Susan says, to Hal, to herself. And then, louder: What’s your name?
Charlie, the girl whispers uncertainly.
Charlie, Susan says, trying to conjure up an inviting smile. Would you like to sit down with us? We were just going to…
I’ve gotta go home, she says. She turns and quickly burrows back into the bramble bush.
Hal catches her retreat in the viewfinder, the back of her legs, a flash of white and blue combat-patterned khaki.
Wait! Susan calls weakly. The forest goes quiet. The river pushes past, buoying up an empty milk jug.
Well that was weird, Hal says.
Susan tries to smile. Something drew her here, she hears herself intone. Something brought her to this place just as we’ve all been drawn to this spot for thousands of years.
She’s probably meeting some boyfriend or something. His camera, pointed down at the ground, is no longer recording. I need to get back, Hal says.
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.