A word of introduction: “What a River Remembers of its Course” is a story from NC Senior Editor Gerard Beirne’s brand new story collection In a Time of Drought and Hunger just out with Oberon Press in Ottawa. Gerry and his wife Eilish, when they first came to live in Canada from Ireland, moved to Norway House in northern Manitoba. The stories in this book stem from that experience, the north, the alienation of the people (native and poor whites) from the land, the poverty, and the isolation. Oberon is a great old Canadian Press. They have published two books of mine and continue to publish the annual Best Canadian Stories volume, which I used to edit. “What a River Remembers of its Course” is the story of a river and a dam and a native protest occupation told from the perspective of a white man who came north to build the dam and married a native woman who later died, the dam, the protest and the marriage forging a mesh of relations, guilt, and responsibility, the peculiar fraught moral climate of the colonial north.
eo could tell you about the dam being a run-of-river structure. He could explain how the water flow is used immediately instead of forming a forebay upstream. He could talk about the spillway adjacent to the powerhouse, the five thirteen metre square steel gates, each over one metre thick with heaters fitted inside their hollow interiors to prevent freezing and condensation. Each gate, he might add proudly, weighed over one hundred tonnes. He could tell you those things over a mug of tea at his kitchen table or he could tell you them while standing on the granite shield fishing for pickerel or while out in the forest hunting late winter moose. What he couldn’t explain was the group of over one hundred protesters who had marched almost twenty kilometres from their small remote community, the same one Loretta had been from, to the dam to occupy it.
He heard the commotion first as he left the powerhouse on his afternoon break. The protesters were marching in a long procession through the gates, singing and beating drums, holding up homemade banners. One man at the front carried the tribal flag and two others a large cardboard sign that Leo later found out was an over-sized eviction notice. He recognised the Chief and some of the other people from the community. Although not at the front, it was hard to miss Mervin, a relative of Loretta’s. He was six and a half feet tall and wore his long black shoulder-length hair in a ponytail.
Leo went back inside to advise the other workers – the operators, distributers, dispatchers, supervisors, technicians, and maintenance staff. They came out after him to watch as the plant manager and several security officers went forward to speak with the protesters. The Chief handed over the eviction notice and ordered the staff to leave immediately. The RCMP were called while the manager tried to negotiate, but by mid-afternoon only key personnel remained. The other staff had left under police escort. The housing complex was locked and the tribal flag raised above it. Leo, a maintenance supervisor, was one of the few permitted to stay.
“It’s going to be a peaceful protest,” Mervin told him when he went over to speak with him that first evening. “But we are digging in for a long occupation.” A teepee was being erected on the grass beside the powerhouse where he and Mervin stood. A few young men were building a fire off to the side. A sacred fire, Mervin explained. A lone drum struggled to be heard against the water surging through the spillway.
“Is there no other way to resolve this?” Leo asked.
“We have tried doing it their way. We have sat around their tables and signed their pieces of paper but still no benefits have flowed to us. They violate our Treaty rights and hide behind lawsuits. They have polluted our waters, destroyed our land, disrupted our way of life, left us only despair. It is time for us to take charge, assert our rights.”
Leo understood this. Loretta had suffered the same indignities. When she fell from the boat and slipped beneath the murky water, did not every indignity since the beginning of creation attach itself to her body and weigh her down?
“You do what you have to do,” he said and walked back to the office.
Despite the enormity of the structure, there was only so much regulation of the water levels of the lake the dam could control. No amount of concrete and steel could fully compensate for wind and precipitation. Ongoing erosion heavily impacted the shoreline. During high winds, Leo had heard of there being as much as an eight foot difference between the north and south basins, and due to its shallow depth the water was impeded from circulating back to the windward side of the lake, piling up instead on the leeward side. Furthermore, the north end of the lake was experiencing post-glacial rebound from the huge weight of the ice-sheets that had existed there thousands of years before. The land gradually rising back upwards, the lake slowly tilting from the north and moving southward.
It had been necessary to excavate the spillway and powerhouse channels through solid granite bedrock. A year later the first concrete was poured. Leo remembered it vividly. He was barely nineteen. That was almost forty years ago. Forty years that had flowed past like the water through the dam. Years that had been diverted, regulated even. Years that had been stored up and then let go. It had taken six of those years to get all of the generating units up and running. Leo was twenty-five by then. Loretta was twenty-three. She was thirty-six when she toppled from the boat and was swept downriver into the log-boom that prevented debris from entering the intake gates. The found her body trapped between the mounds of piled up logs looking for all the world as though she was clinging on for dear life.
Loretta started work as a cook in the camp about three years after Leo arrived. Her family were wary of the dam, the effects it might have upon them, but they were given assurances by the government and the company, and, besides, you take whatever work you get, Loretta told him. “My grandfather worked for the Hudson Bay Company.” She shrugged. “It provided food for his family, my father.”
For almost a year, Leo sat at his table in the camp and watched her while he ate the food that she had prepared, and for almost a year she sometimes watched him back. Tables of men, young and old, chewing and swallowing, talking loudly, swearing and laughing, belching. Their coarse talk and their rough hands swollen from manual labour. Leo’s skinny frame filling out with muscle and flesh. His mild manners peppered with grains of crudity.
“She likes you,” Glenn said. He was almost ten years older than Leo. His wife lived down south with their two young children. Glenn drove an excavator. The work was dangerous, but he didn’t think about that. He couldn’t afford to, he would have answered if he was asked.
They were finishing off their breakfast. Grits and gravy. Leo felt himself blush. “She’d be a good catch,” Glenn said. He washed his food down with a mouthful of coffee, picked at a back tooth. “All the food you can eat.”
“I’m not interested,” Leo lied.
Glenn looked him right in the eye. “Course you’re not.” He nodded, pushed his plate into the centre of the table “Why would you be?” He stood up, burped. “You’re a young man. You’ve got the whole world in your grasp, isn’t that so?”
Leo wasn’t sure how to respond, but Glenn stood there as though waiting for a response.
“I mean, she is nice,” Leo said, “but…”
“That’s right,” Glenn said. “But….” He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “The whole fucking world.” He sighed heavily, looked past Leo now.
“I’m not saying…” Leo said.
“What I’m saying is that I’ve got children half your age.” He abruptly gathered up his cup, his plate and cutlery. “Now if you don’t mind, there is some earth out there I’ve got to go dig great big holes into.”
Leo sat there after he left. Loretta was somewhere out of sight. He had no real idea how he had ended up where he was, in the middle of nowhere, shut off from the world by trees and inhospitable land. How was it that people were living here? Glenn was right. He would talk to Loretta, suggest that they take a walk together after they were both done their day’s work. A walk amongst the trees or by the banks of the formidable river. That was what people did, was it not?
Leo liked to find older cutovers, areas that still had some woody browse but offered cover and protection, small pocket cutovers that were a little further off the beaten track. The thick stuff at the back down impassible winter roads. At that time of year, moose tended to group up. He often found several together in search of food. Leo would survey the trampled snow, the damaged brush, and maybe then the outline of a bull moose a few hundred yards away, the two feet of antlers looping out from each side of its head, the heart stopping moment, the adrenalin pumping through the veins. The bull might still be in the back of the cut, Leo getting glimpses of it through the trees trying to draw it out with bull grunts and then it disappearing inside the bush line.
After the rut tapers off in late October, the moose hole-up. There are some who think they are drained by the rut, but Leo believed they were simply transitioning into their wintering areas. In any case, there is a lull. When Loretta was alive, Leo and she would fill that lull by making love. At least, that is how Leo remembers it. But Leo knows his memory is not dependable anymore. What, he wonders, does a river remember of its course? If Loretta had lived, there would have been children by now. They would be grown. But instead Loretta had stood up to cast her line and she had lost her footing somehow, and Leo was distracted lowering the block of metal he used as an anchor.
Leo would stop and talk with Mervin every few days. The Chief was trying to come to some agreement with the company and the Province. Mervin would tell him what he knew about the progress being made, if any, and Leo would let him know the mood of the workers, but mostly they talked about the fishing and the hunting, the way things had changed since the construction of the dam. The good and the bad. They would talk about the geese migration, and they would talk about people they knew in common. People from Mervin and Loretta’s community. They did not talk about Loretta, at least not at first, but as the protest, the occupation, went on over weeks, Leo knew that Loretta’s name which had been far upriver was drifting nearer and nearer.
Mervin was related in some way to Loretta. Leo never really knew how. She had endless relations none of which he understood clearly.
“Surely it is the same for you,” Loretta had said one time, but Leo could not say it was.
“I know most of my cousins, but after that…” He held his hands up in uncertainty. “We are spread far and wide. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario.”
“We live next door.” Loretta smiled. “I do have a distant cousin who moved to North Dakota. Someday we will go and visit him.”
Leo thought of this while speaking to Mervin. He had never been to North Dakota, and he did not think he ever would go now.
It was the fifth week of the occupation when Loretta’s name swept in upon the shore. Tensions were getting high. A truck, with parts and equipment, had tried to pass through the blockade without permission. The driver had been pulled from his cab. Punches had been thrown. Leo had gone forward to try and help calm things down. Mervin, all six and a half feet of him, was already standing between the driver and the group of angry protestors by the time Leo got there. It took forty five minutes of negotiations for the parts and equipment to be unloaded and the driver to get back in his truck and drive away.
Leo walked over to Mervin to thank him for his intervention, but Mervin was angry, infuriated by what had just occurred. “He need not think,” he said referring to the driver, “that he can trespass on our land whenever he feels fit to.” His voice was raised, his eyes glowering at Leo. And then he pointed his finger at him. “You know which side Loretta would be standing on if she was here. You know.”
Although Leo had for a long time been expecting this, he was nevertheless caught by surprise. Not just by the mention of Loretta’s name but the overwhelming rush of his own inner turmoil, the dam gate release of emotion. He stood there on the gravel road with the river in the background and the vast concrete walls that held it back and the endless forest of trees overshadowing all and Mervin fuming in front of him pointing his finger and Loretta, and Loretta, being washed up as if for the very first time. Leo felt his knees weaken and his legs begin to shake. And in the cascade, other accidents and other corpses. Tom Farrell who had been crushed when the large concrete wall section being swung into place had swung wide, and Michael Simmons, barely eighteen, who slipped from the scaffolding on the spillway, and Ed Williams who was struck by a steel crossbar while removing a roof from a Quonset that had housed concrete, and all the others who suffered tragic misfortunes and succumbed to their deaths at once.
There have been long periods of time over the years when Leo did not think of Loretta, weeks on end, maybe months if he was being truthful, and then something would bring her back to mind. When he first realised this he felt guilty, as though he had somehow let her down, even more so by how he had let her down by turning away to lower the anchor. But the thing was, and he knew this now, that Loretta was always in his mind even if not in a conscious way. There was no thought he had or action he made that Loretta did not influence. The general course of his life she had gouged out in front of him, and he was just following along.
Mervin was wrong. Leo did not know what side Loretta would be standing on. He could not determine the course of her life as clearly as he could his. Hers had taken an irreversible diversion after all.
When Leo and Loretta were first married, they moved back to Loretta’s community and lived there with her brother and his wife and three children. It was not ideal but, as Loretta said, it was a start. They could not afford their own house just yet, and this after all was Loretta’s home. She had lived there all of her life. Being white, not everyone welcomed Leo’s relationship to Loretta. Her grandparents on her mother’s side both disapproved. Her grandmother on her father’s side also disapproved, but her grandfather did not. Her mother said she understood, but Loretta thought that she probably did not. Her father said it was none of his business. “He is a hard worker. That’s good enough for me.” Leo was a hard worker. He helped his in-laws with cutting wood, hauling it, stacking it. He rode his skidoo and his ATV on their behalves. He worked on the engines of their vehicles. In time he was accepted.
Each day he and Loretta drove the nineteen kilometres to work. They talked about their plans for their own home together, about banalities, work details, and they sat in silence too and thought about those things that people think about in their lives that they scarcely remember later.
After the dam was built and the short-term construction jobs dried up, Leo moved into maintenance and Loretta was put in charge of keeping the lodgings for the workers clean. She was one of the few from her community still employed there. “We push brooms and fill plates,” she said.
They eventually got their own house about halfway between Loretta’s community and the dam. A small house not far from the river with a dirt road access. They got a boat, and they fished the river and nearby lakes. And if the accident had not occurred…
“We are not asking that the dams be removed,” Mervin said. Leo had stopped by the fire to talk with him before leaving for the day. One of the protesters would open up the blockade later, permit him to drive through. “We only ask that they apologize for the wrongs and make amends. Our people are frustrated, angry, but equally determined. This is not easy for anyone. Being away from family. The nights are cold and long.”
“Why not stay in the lodgings? You have them under lock and key.”
Mervin shook his head. “We have stayed in too many of the white man’s lodgings. No more.”
“Do you want me to leave and not return?” Leo asked. “Maybe I am now ready to do that.”
“We are not asking to go back to the way it was before. What is here is not going away.”
A young woman and a small boy approached the fire. She did not look like Loretta, but still he was reminded of her. Mervin shrugged. “There were many of our people who worked on the dam during its construction. You do what you have to do to survive.”
Unlike Mervin, the woman was too young to remember what the land had looked like before the flooding, and yet here she was. Leo put his hand in his jacket pocket and cradled the car keys. Could it be said, he wondered, that Loretta had survived?
It was time to go. He would walk to his car now and drive back to the house that he and she had built together.
When Leo and Loretta got their house by the river, they thought then that this was it, that they had reached a place in their lives where they were finally located, a place they would never wish to leave. The water flowed past their front door unobstructed, and it seemed to them that their life together was unobstructed also. They fished the waters and trapped along the water’s edges. Leo took his gun and hunted in the forest and in the skies. They drove the dirt roads and the snow-covered roads to and from their work at the dam, leaving in the early light of dawn and returning in the fading light of dusk. Loretta skidded off the road one time and ended up buried deep in the snow. She had to climb out through her side-window and walk the three miles remaining back to their home. She cried when Leo pulled her in towards him and put his large arms around her. There was no damage done to her or the vehicle, and if there was a hidden fault within their relationship, the shock of the accident and Leo’s comforting of her later surely repaired it. But despite all of this, when Loretta drowned, Leo would often think that they only had gotten their due. It was not necessarily something he had been aware of as he worked to build and maintain the dam, but deep down within him he had always known that there would be a price to pay. Even when he had travelled north for the first time, he had known he was not of the place, that in some way he was an impediment upon it. Initially in his relationship with Loretta he had thought this too, that he was an impediment to her. “I am not truly welcome by your family,” he said after first meeting them. “At best I am tolerated.” “We are who we are,” she reminded him. “That’s all there is to it.” And later, “there were white people in my family before.” When she drowned, he knew there were many of her relatives and friends who blamed him entirely, and he could not fault them for that.
Loretta and he had stood at their door and watched the river hurry past them. They had tried to stand their ground.
The skeleton crew of workers could hear the steady beat of the drumming as they went about their work. Leo tried to avoid the conversations that denounced the protest. Like everyone else, he wanted it to end as quickly as possible, for his life to return to wherever it had been before this interruption, but unlike his co-workers he wanted it to end in such a way that everyone was content with its outcome, that both sides could be accommodated, the gaps between them bridged. They spoke callously before him as though Loretta had never existed or as if uncaring that they might give offence. He felt certain that the beat of the drums that they heard were of a different rhythm to ones that sounded in his ears.
Loretta had heard plenty of abusive talk when she was working there too. There was no manner of insult she had not endured.
“We are an evolving species,” she told Leo on one occasion. “In our case, our skin has grown thicker over the centuries. They can say what they like about me or my people. It is they who grow weaker, become defenceless. Ultimately it is they who will die out.”
“Does that include me?” he had asked.
He remembered how she had looked at him with a mixture of surprise and disappointment. “You and I may not be the same, but we are not that different.”
That is what he wanted to tell his co-workers, we are not that different. There is nothing that the protesters are asking for that we would not expect. They have no anger that we too would not feel, that we would not wish to express.
Leo’s parents died two years apart, down South, twenty-three years after the construction of the dam. He had seen them maybe three or four times a year at most after moving up North. They were only a few hundred miles away but worlds’ apart. He had a sister married in a neighbouring town to his home town who had visited their parents almost weekly, a brother who still lived and worked at home. When Leo and Loretta got married none of his family travelled up for the wedding. Instead they waited to celebrate almost two months later when Leo and Loretta came to them. His father in particular was proud of him for the work he had done on the dam, his brother in his own way too, his mother pleased because his father was proud. His sister had no feelings about it in one way or another. You take work wherever you get it.
What is more, they did not travel up for the funeral either. They sent their condolences by phone. Leo although saddened understood this. There was a forest, a granite shield, expansive lakes, heaving rivers, a harsh climate separating them. White-water rapids, portages too arduous to undertake. A people who did not resemble them with a language they could not understand.
He had dialled their telephone number and waited for someone to answer. He wished it could be his brother or preferably his sister. Instead his father had picked up the phone. At least not his mother.
“Loretta is gone,” was what Leo said.
At first there was silence, and then his father replied, “Gone where?”
And still the white-water rapids were impassible and the portages too difficult.
The forest was thick and dense and unmapped. The lakes and rivers unnavigable. The words strange and incomprehensible.
Leo’s one wish was that she had died upstream of the dam, that her body had never been recovered.
“I could have lived with that,” he told Mervin on the last day of the protest, after the Province and the Chief finally came to an agreement.
Mervin nodded as though he understood.
Here is what no one else knew. Two weeks after Loretta drowned, Leo drove out to the dam in the middle of the night. He parked his car facing the spillway and let the beams from his headlights light it up. He sat in the driver’s seat and looked at the scene made visible by his lights as though he were at some huge outdoor theatre. He looked at the massive rectangular concrete and steel supports the spillway gates were hydraulically hoisted up and down upon to regulate the water’s flow, and he watched the rapid white-water that poured through them. Further up, unseen beneath the surface, water streamed through the intake and around the turbines underneath the generating station before emerging from the draft tubes to calmly reform as a river once more. Was it possible, he wondered, that a single human life could be diverted from its course, divided into parts, withheld and released, expending its energy to empower someone else’s world and then be brought back together again as a whole to carry on as if nothing had altered at all?
He stepped out of his car leaving the driver’s door open and walked towards the lower road that ran along the spillway. The lights from the station gave just enough visibility to carefully make his way. The shield, the spruce and brush to one side, the upper main road across the dam on the other. He heard a rustling in the brush and stopped, wondering if it might be a bear. He waited in the near-dark but hearing nothing more walked cautiously on. He passed along the back of the spillway, its towering support walls and gates rising to his left. The noise of the swiftly flowing water sounded oddly like radio static at high volume. He walked past and down behind the generating station, leaned over the protective railing and stared into the gushing water. If her body had broken free of the wood held back by the boom, it would have been swept mercilessly through the intake and around the turbine to be shredded in the furiously spinning blades before being discharged. Was it possible that a single human life could be diverted from its course, divided into parts and brought back together again? What no one else knew is that as he leaned over the railing he thought to find out the answer to that. Back up on the gravel and dirt, his car’s engine was still running, the driver’s door was wide open, and the lights splayed their beams uselessly.
Glenn, the one who had first encouraged him to talk to Loretta, was another casualty of the dam when he was just weeks away from retirement. He was hauling dirt to stablise the shores when the slope he was driving on gave out and his truck fell into the river with a million cubic yards of dirt. His Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox floated to the surface eventually, but his body was never found. At his memorial, Glenn’s son brought the recovered Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox in proxy of the body. There were others who had died from blasting, falling rocks, electrocution, heavy equipment accidents, and drowning of course. Exhaustion, pneumonia, heart trouble. Most of the deaths got a line or two in local papers if that.
Loretta’s got little more. She may never have existed as far as the outer world was concerned, Leo thought. “She’d be a good catch,” Glenn had said except Leo had let her fall through his fingers.
After she died, he threw himself into his work, taking on extra shifts, overtime. Often he stayed overnight at the lodgings. The house was empty without her. He would go back to her community to visit the grave occasionally but rarely visited with her family. He had done more harm to them than the government ever had. He had flooded them with grief.
Instead Leo made a memorial to her down from the house on the shore of the river and laid a few of her belongings there in place of her body.
In the dull evening light, a group of around twenty people either sat on folding chairs or stood around the fire in pants, winter jackets, toques, hoodies, and gloves. Men, women and children. Young and old. One elderly man stacked tall logs against one another over the flames as if he was about to burn the frame of a small teepee. Meanwhile people entered and left the white canvas teepee over by the powerhouse. Despite the cold, the overcast sky, there was loud talk and laughter. Leo could tell that something was in the air. He went over to speak to Mervin.
“We have signed a memorandum of agreement,” Mervin said. “We are negotiating a settlement. But there is a lot to be discussed yet. The locks will not come off until the agreement is finalised and an official apology is delivered. But at least we are on a path forward now.”
“Good.” Leo like most was eager for the occupation to end.
That night as he had stood at the edge of the dam contemplating joining Loretta in the water, Leo looked back to the strand of trees where he had heard the rustling earlier. An animal had emerged from the trees and was standing in the near dark as a large shadowy outline on the granite shield. As Leo watched, it turned its head and its massive antlers, and green reflective eyes made themselves visible. Leo stared at the bull moose and saw himself within it – a lonely creature waiting on the call of a female that might not come. The moose stood observing Leo for a few moments then backed up, turned and disappeared again into the dark.
“We are not asking to go back to the way it was before,” Mervin had said. Leo knew he was right, there was no going back. The moose that had sensed Leo’s presence and returned to the darkness was no longer the same one that had stepped out of it in the first instance. The river could not reverse its course and flow back the way it had come. The young man, a boy really, who had gone north in the first place could at best stand there momentarily before stepping forward precariously into the uncertain future.
Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1999. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. What a River Remembers of its Course is from his recent collection of short-stories, In a Time of Drought and Hunger. He has published three novels including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His short story Sightings of Bono was adapted for film featuring Bono (U2).