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Maintaining a bedside vigil for her comatose uncle, Annie Bird remembers a painful search for her missing model sister; while her uncle Will, a legendary Cree bush pilot, ruminates on a tragic betrayal that cost him his family. By the author of Three Day Road.
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Joseph Boyden is a mixed-blood Canadian writer. After extensive travel, he studied at the University of New Orleans, where he is currently writer-in-residence. His first novel, Three Day Road, published in eleven languages, was selected for the Today Show Book Club and was a finalist for the Governor GeneralÂ’s Award for Fiction.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ALSO BY JOSEPH BOYDEN
Three Day Road
Born with a Tooth
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination
or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Boyden, Joseph, 1966-Through
a black spruce : a novel / Joseph Boyden.
1. Cree Indians—Fiction. 2. Coma—Patients—Fiction 3. Ontario—Fiction. I. Title.
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Table of Contents
Also by Joseph Boyden
Chapter 1 - GILL NETS
Chapter 2 - DUMB
Chapter 3 - FOR YOU
Chapter 4 - LEARNING TO TALK
Chapter 5 - TALKING GUN
Chapter 6 - JUST A WEEK
Chapter 7 - FLIGHT
Chapter 8 - CITY GIRLS
Chapter 9 - SPRING BEAR
Chapter 10 - BLUE TARP TEEPEE
Chapter 11 - SNIFFING AROUND
Chapter 12 - MY PROTECTOR
Chapter 13 - I’D LEAVE THIS PLACE, TOO
Chapter 14 - FROZEN SUZANNE
Chapter 15 - NOTHING GOODCAN COME FROM THAT
Chapter 16 - BUTTERFOOT
Chapter 17 - THE SPIDER IN THE ROOM
Chapter 18 - IS THERE NOTHINGI CAN HAVE?
Chapter 19 - FLY AGAIN
Chapter 20 - I CAN SEE YOU
Chapter 21 - A FEW FEET BELOW THE EARTH
Chapter 22 - PARTY GIRLS INTERNATIONAL
Chapter 23 - OLD AND SMART
Chapter 24 - SQUEEZED
Chapter 25 - CALLING GEESE
Chapter 26 - POSTCARDS
Chapter 27 - THERE YOU ARE
Chapter 28 - PICK UP, MUM
Chapter 29 - GHOST RIVER
Chapter 30 - SORRY, GIRL
Chapter 31 - BITCH WIND
Chapter 32 - SNARE
Chapter 33 - NOT FAR THROUGH THE TREES
Chapter 34 - NO MORE THAN WE NEED
Chapter 35 - A GIFT
Chapter 36 - NO MORE POETRY, OKAY?
Chapter 37 - I THINK I’LL KILL YOU NOW, OKAY?
Chapter 38 - CURING THE HEAD
Chapter 39 - I THINK YOU UNDERSTAND
WILLIAM AND PAMELA
When there was no Pepsi left for my rye whisky, nieces, there was always ginger ale. No ginger ale? Then I had river water. River water’s light like something between those two. And brown Moose River water’s cold. Cold like living between two colours. Like living in this town.When the whisky was Crown Royal, then brown Moose River water was a fine, fine mix.
You know I was a bush pilot. The best. But the best have to crash. And I’ve crashed a plane, me. Three times. I need to explain this all to you. I was a young man when I crashed the first time.The world was wide open. I was scared of nothing. Just before Helen and I had our oldest boy. The first time I crashed I was drunk, but that wasn’t the reason I crashed. I used to fly a bush plane better with a few drinks in me. I actually believe my eyesight improved with whisky goggles on. But sight had nothing to do with my first crash. Wait. It had everything to do with it. Snowstorm. Zero visibility. As snow blinded my takeoff from the slick runway, I got the go-ahead with a warning from the Moosonee flight tower: harder snow coming.
An hour later and I’d made it a hundred miles north of Moose River on my way to pick up trappers not wanting but needing to come in from their lines. A rush to find them with night coming. I had a feeling where they’d be. Me, I was a natural in a plane. But in snow? One minute I’m humming along, the next, my fuel line’s gummed and I’m skidding and banging against a frozen creek.The crazy thing? Had I come in a few feet to the left or right, blind like I did, I would have wrapped my plane around black spruce lining the banks. Head a mush on the steering. Broken legs burning on a red-hot motor.The grandparents sometimes watch out. Chi meegwetch, omoshomimawak!
My plane wasn’t too damaged, but this was a crash nonetheless. And I emerged from the first true brush with it. The long darkness. No need to speak its name out loud.
Soon as I forced the door open, the snow, it stopped falling. Like that. Like in a movie. And when the cloud cover left on a winter afternoon a hundred plus miles north of Moosonee in January, the cold came, presented itself in such a forceful way that I had two choices.
The first was to assume that the cold was a living thing that chased me and wanted to suck the life from me. I could get angry at it, desperate for some sense of fairness in the world, and then begin to panic.
Or my second option was to make up my mind that the cold, that nature, was just an unfortunate clash of weather systems. If I made my mind up this second way, that the physical world no longer held vengeance and evil just beyond the black shadow of spruce, then I’d try and make do with what I had. And when I realized what an idiot I was for ending up here all alone without the proper gear—just a jean jacket with a sweater under it and running shoes on my feet—I’d get angry, desperate for some sense of fairness in the world, and begin to panic.
Me, I preferred the first option, that Mother Nature was one angry slut. She’d try and kill you first chance she got.You’d screwed with her for so long that she was happy to eliminate you. But more than that, the first option allowed me to get angry right away, to blame some other force for all my troubles. The panic came much quicker this way, but it was going to come anyways, right?
And so me, I climbed out of my cockpit and onto the wing on that frigid afternoon in my jean jacket and running shoes, walked along the wing, fearful of the bush and the cold and a shitty death all around me. I decided to make my way to the bank to collect some firewood and jumped onto the frozen creek.
I sank to my chest in that snow, and immediately realized I was a drunken fool. The shock of fast-flowing ice water made my breath seize, tugging at my legs, pulling at my unlaced running shoes so that the last thing my feet felt was those shoes tumbling away with the current.
By the time I flopped back onto the wing, my stomach to my feet had so little feeling that I had to pull my way back to the cockpit with wet fingers, tearing the skin from them when they froze to the aluminum. My breath came in hitches. When I tried my radio, and my wife finally picked it up, she couldn’t understand me. She thought I was a kid fooling around on his father’s CB and hung up on me.
Like I said, panic came quick. I could waste more time and the last of my energy calling back, hoping to get Helen to understand it was me and that I needed help now, but how to tell her exactly where I was? They might be able to find me tomorrow in daylight, but not now with the night closing in. And so I did what I knew I had to do. I crawled out of the cockpit again, onto my other wing, and threw myself off it, hoping not to find more water under the snow.
I hit hard ice this time, and it knocked the little breath left out of me. My jeans and jacket were already frozen worse than a straitjacket, and the shivers came so bad my teeth felt like they were about to shatter. I knew my Zippo was in my coat pocket but probably wet to uselessness.
Push bad thoughts away. One thing at a time. First things first. I crawled quick as I could, trying to stand and walk, and I frankensteined my way to the trees and began snapping dry twigs from a dead spruce.
After I made a pile, I reached into my chest pocket, breaking the ice from the material that felt hard as iron now. My fingers had lost all feel. I reached for my cigarettes, struggled to pull one from my pack, and clinked open the lighter. I’d decided that if the lighter worked, I’d enjoy a cigarette as I started a fire. If the lighter didn’t work, I’d freeze to death and searchers would find me with an unlit smoke in my mouth, looking cool as the Marlboro Man. On the fifteenth thumb roll I got the lighter going. I was saved for the first time. I reached for my flask in my ass pocket and struggled to open it. Within five minutes I had a fire going. Within fifteen I’d siphoned fuel from my tank and had one of the greatest fires of my life burning, so hot I had to stand away from it, slowly rotating my body like a sausage.
The darkness of a James Bay night in January is something you two girls know well. Annie, you’re old enough to remember your grandfather. Suzanne, I don’t know. I hope so.Your moshum, he liked nothing more than taking you girls out, bundled up like mummies, to look at the stars and especially the northern lights that flickered over the bay. He’d tell you two that they danced just for you, showed you how to rub your fists together to make them burn brighter. Do you remember?
My first crash ended good. My old friend Chief Joe flew out to me the next morning, found me by the smoky fire I’d kept burning all night. We got my plane unstuck and had a couple of good drinks and he gave me a spare pair of boots. Then Joe went to find those trappers and I got my gas lines unfrozen and flew home to Helen.
Joe quit flying soon after that. He was ready for something else. Me, I kept going. I had no other choice. A wife who wanted children, the idea of a family to feed coming to us like a good sunrise on the horizon. I made my choices. I was young still, young enough to believe you can put out your gill net and pull in options like fish.
The snow’s deep here, nieces. I’m tired, but I have to keep walking. I’m so tired, but I’ve got to get up or I’ll freeze to death. Talking to you, it keeps me warm.
They keep him on the top floor, the critical one. I can smell the raw scent of him. It lingers just under the soap of the birdbath his nurse Eva gave him earlier. I’m close to his ear, close enough to see a few grey hairs sprouting from it. “Can you hear me?” I’m gone eight months, then home for a day, only to have this happen. “Eva tells me to talk to you. I feel stupid, but I’ll try for a few minutes before Mum comes back. She can’t catch me, though.” She’d take it as a sign of me weakening, of finally becoming a good Catholic girl like she’s always wanted.
I stand up, see white outside the window, a long view of the river and three feet of snow, the spruce like a wrought iron fence in black rows against the white. So cold out today. The sky is blue and high. No clouds to hold any heat.
Dr. Lam wanted to fly him down to Kingston but was concerned he wouldn’t make the journey. He’ll die down there. I watch as snowmobiles cut along the river, following the trail from Moosonee.Their exhaust hangs white in the air. February. The deadest month. The machine that helps him breathe sounds like the even breath of some mechanical sleeping child. A machine hooked up to his arm beeps every second or so. I think it is the machine that tells the staff that his heart still beats.
I hear the pad of footsteps entering the room and I turn, expecting my mother, black hair eight months ago mostly white now so that when I first saw her nothing made sense. But it’s Eva, so large in her blue scrubs, all chubby brown face. I always thought nurses wore white uniforms and silly-looking hats. But in this hospital they dress like mechanics. I guess that’s what they are.
Eva checks his vitals and jots them down on his clipboard. She turns him on his side and places pillows behind to prop him up. She told me it is to prevent bedsores. A month now he’s been here and all they can tell me is he remains in a stable but deeply catatonic state. The chances are slim that he’ll ever wake again. The injuries to his head were massive, and he shouldn’t be alive right now. But is he really alive, lying there? I want to ask Eva as she rubs his legs.
“Come help me, Annie,” she says. “Do the same to his arms. Keep the circulation going. It’s vital.”
“Ever weird,” I say, standing on the other side of the bed, holding his arm in my hands, kneading it.
“Touching him. My whole life I can’t ever remember touching him at all.”
“Get over it.” Eva breathes heavily as she works. She huffs and puffs. I’ve known her all my life and she’s always been fat. Bigger than fat. She is my apple-faced, beluga-sized best friend. “Have you been talking to him?” she asks.
I shrug. “That’s even more weird,” I say. “It’s like talking to a dead person.”
“You better apologize, you,” Eva says. “You will upset him with talk like that.”
When Eva moves on to the next room I sit back down and stare into his face. He looks half the size as when I left last year.The doctors had to shave his long black hair shot with grey. And he looks older now than his fifty-five years. He has so many faded scars on his head, white zigzags against salt-and-pepper fuzz. I can picture him waking up and grinning, his two missing front teeth making him look like a little boy. Mum says he lost all the weight when he went out in the bush on his traplines last summer and autumn. I knew something was very wrong when she sai...
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