How to Get People to Return Books

“I promise, I promise. I’ll return it as soon as I’m finished.”

How many times have you heard that just before you reluctantly loaned a friend a book? You just know that you will never see that book again.

Well, here is the answer. It’s an ancient mediaeval curse you can paste into the front of your books.

Said to have been a curse written in the 1200’s or so this is actually a fake written in 1902. But, there are many authentic curses that can be found

The trouble is — it is a fake.

On the website: www.timeshighereducation.com  Colin Higgins has this to say in part about the curse.

“It is an amusing hoax dating from 1909. Edmund Pearson, joker, librarian and true-crime writer, claimed it was part of a rediscovered Old Librarian’s Almanack originally published in 1773.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t mediaeval book curses, and quite powerful ones at that, just that this beauty is not authentic.

Here is one from the year 1172 to guard a bible, followed by the original latin.

If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.

Written in 1172. "If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen."

 

Somalia – It’s About Drugs And Guns

An excerpt from The Disaster Tourist by Rick Grant (in production)

Thursday Sept 24/92  Wilson Airport, Nairobi

Wilson is said to be the second busiest airport in Africa after Johannesburg.  It’s busy because of the profits to be made from the dying in the north, and profits in supplying the drug Khat to the living in the north.

It’s a small airport, the sort of place you’d find in any town of less than a hundred thousand anywhere else but the tarmac parking areas are crammed with Cessna 402’s, 185’s, Caravans, Twin Otters, DC-3’s, A Beech 18 and even an old C-119 Boxcar.  When the wing heights allow they’re parked with wings overlapping. The scream of turbines and the rattling roar of pistons engines goes on continually from dawn to the quick setting of the Nairobi sun.  The line-ups for the active runway would be more expected at Chicago or Toronto than mid-Africa.  The waiting room of what was a small country airport is crammed with relief workers, drug traders, and Somali relatives waiting for those who have the hard currency to buy a flight out.

There are planes owned and operated by most of the relief agencies.  Some like the Red Cross stand out across the heat shimmer of the distance, the Red Cross symbol standing fiery against the white of the fuselage.  The letters UNICEF splashes down the length of a twin engine loading supplies. The UNHCR and other United Nations organizations has their planes, all painted dead white.

A great part of the United Nations’ air force is made up of former Soviet aircraft. This Antonov 32 was under charter to the UN in Somalia in 1992

A great part of the United Nations’ air force is made up of former Soviet aircraft. This Antonov 32 was under charter to the UN in Somalia in 1992

Other agencies charter as they need it for the flights to Wajir, Bardera, Mogadishu, Baidoa, and a dozen more places noted for the depth of their tragedies.

The charter operators make a killing here.  It costs about five thousand dollars to put an eight seat light twin into Mogadishu, a bare three hour flight.  Some of the cost is the danger, but a lot is demand driven.  There’s so much demand and so much money to be made that planes registered in the United States and Britain are here. They’re forbidden to operate on Kenyan routes but that doesn’t matter because the big money is in the land of death to the north. And they pay local officials huge amounts in bribes, and in cash at that.

The lottery winning amounts of the relief operations is nothing compared to the profits in the khat trade. Khat is a plant which produces a chemical which acts like amphetamine.  Users strip the leaves from the stalks and chew them in a large wad inside the cheek. Those who use it become inattentive, reckless, and highly nervous.  A taxi driver on khat is dangerous, a technical on khat is murderous.

Khat isn’t illegal so there’s no barrier other than transport.

It’s not used in Kenya.

It’s devoured in Somalia.

The planes from Wilson fly into Ethiopia where the crew cram the cabins with the best type known as myraa and fly it into Somalia.  There it’s traded for American dollars.  If there are people with the money they’re also crammed into the cabins now smelling strongly of fresh khat and flown to Kenya.

About one hundred thousand US dollars in profits flows into Wilson each day.

From there at first light the endless sky parade of khat planes takes off for Somalia. At any normal airport anywhere else in the world aircraft are cleared to taxi and take-off on a first come first served basis. But not at Wilson during the Somali crisis.

“You pay your money and you get to go.” The World’s Shortest King Air Pilot told me. “If you don’t pay, and none of the relief organizations will pay the bribes, then you wait and wait and wait some more until finally a bored controller lets you go.”

The Khat, people smuggling, arms dealing, aircraft race each other to Mogadishu West, a soft red dust airstrip 50 kilometres outside Mogadishu. It’s known as K50Moga and boasts the best security of any airport outside Israel.

K50moga is lined with heavily armed technicals belonging to the drug dealers and clan leaders. Each technical is equipped with at least one heavy 50 calibre machine gun mounted on a tripod welded to the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser, the most highly prized vehicle for use as a high speed mobile gun carrier.

With so much weaponry manned by highly agitated teenagers chewing on khat, things are always a slippery hair away from general slaughter. A person would have to be beyond clinically insane to start anything at the airstrip.

For several hours each morning the airstrip if enveloped in a billowing cloud of dust as aircraft after aircraft land, dump their cargo and load their money. There is no air traffic control and planes will touch down with dozens of feet behind newly arrived planes while others dart into the landing traffic and blast full throttle off the ground.

Somalia was littered with this ancient and barely functioning trucks. They were the only things available to the relief agencies because the gangsters had all the new vehicles

The road leading from K50moga to the highway in name only is lined with ancient British Bedford and Italian trucks, decades old. There are newer ones but they are carefully hidden from opposition clan members who would steal them.

Somalia was littered with these ancient and barely functioning trucks. They were the only things available to the relief agencies because the gangsters had all the new vehicles.

This is a daily scene and has to be. Khat does not last longer than a day or so before losing its effectiveness so there is no way to stockpile or control the supply and it has to be flown and delivered each day.

In the meantime the relief planes loaded with food, medicine, health professionals and relief workers head on to the main international airport in Mogadishu or one of the other cities in the country. And at every one of the landing spots there will be heavily armed Somalis waiting for their landing fees.

Today we are leaving Wilson Nairobi for the southern city of Bardera in southern Somalia.

It is a nasty violent place reeking with the stench of overripe decomposing bodies. The death toll is like something out of the European Plague Years. But, it is relatively calm compared to the hallucinogenic hell of Mogadishu and I am glad we are not going there.

Our well aged twin engine Rockwell Aero Commander is clean and I hope that is a sign of decent maintenance.

The Aero Commander has internal combustion engines like most cars do instead of the much more reliable and much faster turbine engines used by other relief groups. It will take us much longer to get to Bardera than I would care for.

Mount Kenya rises so slowly out of the clouds as we climb north from Nairobi that at first it looks only like a lumpier than normal cloud, but gradually its swelling erection pokes into the washed blue and it emerges from the cloaking clouds with its three peaks gleaming cream with snow.

It’s the second highest mountain in Africa. The highest is on Kenya’s southern border, the fabled Kilimanjaro.

On a later flight I will see it standing softly against the horizon.  It and Mount Kenya are so tall that either can be seen on just about any flight near Nairobi.

Kilimanjaro looks nothing like the wonderful symmetrical pictures taken from across the Serengeti plain. Instead, it’s a lopsided double breast of a mountain.

Just about any day of the year there are many many tourists trudging away years of inactivity, cigarettes and booze on a three-day trek to the top.  I wondered whether there are the frozen dried bodies of tourists on the eastern slope alongside Hemingway’s dried out snow leopards.

It’s a two-hour flight to Bardera over gradually opening scrub, the everlasting acacia thorn.  The Acacia Tree must be the oldest tree in the world.  Only something ancient before the times of evil could ever have survived in the dusty hell of northern Kenya and southern Somalia.

It is all long sharp thorns and unbreakable twigs and branches. It was designed in an evolutionary war to survive anything. But oddly, giraffes and camels can feast nicely on it without hurting themselves.

The strip at Bardera is dirt, now getting badly rutted from the impact and runout of military Hercules flying in from Nairobi with tonnes of food.

The so-called short rains are starting.  If they start to come regularly the strip and the roads in this region will become impassable.

The landing approach is a slow steep left turn, first along the river, and then back toward the town.  The strip is wide, long enough, and wet brown in the middle. A wet spot is seeping from the center through the ruts.  It doesn’t look that bad but underneath there is no strength to the ground.  It turns to a mush of sand and dust on impact.

Nice gentle touchdown, no bounce, but then suddenly the sickening sink of the left main wheel as it catches in a Hercules rut. A swerve, then a violent kick of rudder and  we are straight. Sheets of sandy mud shoot along the sides of the little plane turning the passenger windows opaque.

“I thought we were going to buy it,” the pilot says with heat in his voice, “Somebody is going to get killed if they don’t fix this.”

That shocked me. As a pilot I have never heard, not once, any pilot ever admit out loud that they had been frightened. To do so in front of my colleagues who were not pilots and had no understanding was beyond belief.

The heat in the cabin rises. We scramble out of the low-slung cabin through the single door and come under the eyes and muzzles of a jeep full of technicals sporting loaded automatic weapons.

The strip is the only way in for food.  No food convoy could make it over from the Kenyan border without being looted within miles of crossing.  The same applies for any trucks trying to move into the southeast from Mogadishu.

Without the strip there can’t be any seeds and tools relief program either.  It’s a British attempt to fly in enough seeds and enough hoes, mattocks and whatever to give the farmers a chance of putting in a crop for the coming season.  Some still live on their land but there are many in places like Bardera that are condemned to the sub existence of the feeding centers and the camps unless they can be reequipped.

They’ve lost everything in the civil war and then the chaos of the clan wars, the outright genocide and murderous campaigns by warlords to establish their own fiefdoms.

While getting enough food has always been a problem throughout Somalia, war and clan violence has brought never ending famine.

Without war, there is almost never a chance for famine.

With a few weeks of food supplies, seed grain and the tools then the people can leave the camps and return to their land. And with their land the chance that they will be able to support not only their families but also turn out enough of a surplus to feed a few others.  It’s the only real chance of easing the swarming crush of the refugee camps and it can only work if there is peace.

Farmers cannot work their land if there is fighting.  All they can do is head off into the bush in the hope of saving themselves.

“There’s no problem getting people to fix the ruts,” says the Australian team leader to the still shaken pilot, “but they don’t have anything to fix them with.  When this place was taken by Aideed’s forces in June the retreating Barre forces looted everything.”

“They didn’t leave a shovel, a hoe, or any hand tool behind.”

Without hand tools a farmer is under a sentence of death for he cannot plant and if he can’t plant then the only thing to do is start a foodless and waterless trek through the Somali desert to towns such as Bardera and Baidoa where the aid agencies have been able to get food in.

“Without hand tools there’s no way to fix the strip.  It’d be half an hour’s work with a small grader, days with shovels and hoes, but it could be done.”

The self-styled general Aideed, the architect of Somali hell is here in town and we will meet him in what I am convinced is complete and utter waste of time. It also feels deeply mind dirty like contemplating a meeting with Hitler to talk about Jews. I have been in a state of disgust about this meeting since it was proposed, but I must go.

There Is Writing The Book and There is Selling the Book

Shark Flight, the sequel to Cobra Flight is still in production and I am starting to think of marketing it.

With the demise of newspaper book reviewers along with newspapers themselves, and the fracturing of the media landscape, a writer has to take a much more direct role in the selling side of things.

A lot of writers really have a hard time with this. Many feel that production is somehow beneath them, something that a “trades” person should be doing, not a head in the heavens author.The paperback edition of Cobra Flight as a 3d image

That’s not how I see things at all.

The work of planning out the marketing campaign for a novel is part of the creation process as far as I am concerned. By trying to find things in the design of a book cover, an advertisement, or a video book trailer I am forced to keep the shape and events of my novel in the forefront. This is always to the good because it keeps the novel grounded in the story experience of the reader, and the listener of course because Shark Flight, like Cobra Flight, will also be an audiobook.

By examining what might appeal to a reader through the marketing campaign I am constantly reviewing and strengthening the book through the writing process.

So, in this spirit of marketing experimentation here is an early concept of what an advertisement on Amazon will look like.

I stress, that Shark Flight is not in fact available for sale yet. This advertisement is a mock-up.

 

 

 

Note Taking for Writers

There are some pretty specific techniques and practices you can pick up from the world of serious journalism, in particular, newspaper, magazine, and broadcast journalism, that will elevate your analytic and writing skills far above the average.

One of the most important is note-taking.

These note-taking techniques will work for any kind of writing you do, be it Fiction, Journalism, Non-Fiction, Plays, Daily Journals, whatever.

I am a product of the journalistic world, and I still use its tools and practices in my non-fiction and fiction worlds which have nothing to do with daily journalism.

They are founded on attitude, consistency, and simplicity.

They require little if any work on your part. But, they will, absolutely, improve everything in your writing life.

The first thing you have got to grasp is that you will forget some, part of, or all of a thought or observation you have unless you get it down in physical form.

Memory is as fleeting as summer lightning. It is all too common to forget the very fact that you had thought of something in the first place. You have no hope of hanging onto more than a few fragments of an idea if all you rely on is memory.

And be aware that the mind is far too quick to make up details, recreate false statements, and utterly mess up anything that has been in your head in an incomplete manner for more than a few minutes. There is a reason why police offices, lawyers, journalists, doctors, and many other detail oriented professionals get issued a notebook before anything else.

The second thing is that no note-taking system can be too simple. And the simplest is pen and paper.

If you need to stop what you are doing to open an app, or fish your phone out of your pocket and enter its security code, or stop to find your special pen, or fire up a voice recorder, your thought is in danger of disappearance. At best, your thought is subject to corruption as your mind tries to fill in details it does not have.

The third thing is, as much as possible try to use one system only.

Don’t use Evernote, One Note, Google Keep, Zoot, or any others indiscriminately and simultaneously. You will lose notes.

Here is my system. Others will have better and perhaps worse, but that’s okay as long as you pick something and stick to it, making no changes to it without long and hard thought.

One of the writers I greatly admire is James Rebanks (A Shepherd’s Life) who says he and his fellow shepherds in England’s Lake district are pathologically opposed to new ways of doing things. “If you have done something on your farm for generations the same way, and it works, then that is a good reason not to change.”

Now generally, I am not a follower of that philosophy. I am the type who is always the first kid on the block with the latest technology, the latest software, the latest gadget. But, when it comes to writing, and more specifically the recording of those ideas and other elements that go into writing, I am a purist.

So, pick something and use it without modification until you are unequivocally sure that a change will help.

I carry a softcover notebook of about 60 pages that fits into a hip pocket. It is with me all day, everyday. With it I also have a telescoping pen that also sits in the hip pocket. The Space Pen is the right size but there are others. You could also have a cut down pencil if that is your preference. But the point is that the notebook and the pen are always together and always on your person.

The Procedure

  • Date and time your thought.
  • Write it in one simple sentence, or a decent sentence fragment.
  • Only when those two things have been done, and it doesn’t matter how fragmentary your recorded note is, do you then tag on any context, color, or subsidiary thoughts.
  • Don’t worry about handwriting, in fact it is good practice not to even look at the paper while you are jotting. When you open your notebook, don’t try to find the next available page or section of page, just open it at random, give it a quick glance to make sure that you have a clear space to write, and then charge ahead. You can indeed write without looking at what you are doing.
  • You must always try to make sure that nothing gets between the still bubbling thought in your brain and the words on the paper.

The next step, and it can be done quite some time after the actual note taking, is to make a Table of Contents entry.

I number all the pages in my notebook. When the note is done I flip to the first page and on its own line I put down the random page number where I dumped the note. Then, I give it some sort of title so I can refer to it later. A primitive TOC will make finding and using your note a lot easier. Having to flip through dozens of pages looking for something or other is no a good use of your time.

It is really important to get these notes into a more formal record keeping system before they turn into cryptic messages from an alien underworld. So, as soon as you can it is best to put them into your favourite computerized data system, be it Evernote, Zoot, One Note or whatever. It really doesn’t matter what you use as long as you only use one. If you scatter notes across recording systems you will lose them.

For longer notes, or perhaps even full scenes in a book manuscript, you can use a portable voice recorder and then import them as text files using one of the Dragon Naturally Speaking editions that supports transcription, not all do.

Using a voice recorder is superb for describing a location you might want to use in a story, or to get down as much complicated detail that you think you will need.

A variation on that technique is to hit the video button on your phone and visually record your surroundings as you describe the scene.

A different system might be necessary when working right at your computer. It may be best to pop open your database program and type out a note, but be wary that you don’t get shunted down a rabbit hole. I keep my little notebook right next to my mouse, or I reach for the voice recorder.

Remember this at peril of losing your thought; your note taking system has to be one-step simple.

A lot of people have asked me about the idea of learning shorthand for note taking. My answer is, don’t bother.

I learned shorthand as a young reporter and use it still, but it is of limited use to the fiction writer. There are rather simple techniques outlined on the web and in instruction books for what is called Speed Writing and you could look into them if you are interested.

The main thing is, have a way of getting that thought out of your head as quickly as possible, with the least technical effort so you don’t run into this common scenario:

Find app,

Open it,

Menu, select Make New Note   

At which point you forget what the hell your were going to say.

Why Good Praise is Never Enough for Writers

I thought I was the only writer in the world that felt this way and it secretly shamed me. Until today when I discovered that Neil Gaiman, of all people, thinks the same way.

 

Neil Gaiman is the author of such books as American Gods, Neverwhere, co-author with Terry Pratchett of Good Omens and many other works,

A Winter Drive Deep In the Northwest Territories

There are moon dogs out.

The world is asleep under the stars and what diamond hard stars they are too. As I drive back into the city from a day in Fort Rae they seem to outshine the headlights.

The road back from Rae is a hundred miles of twisting and turning gravel that leaps up and down through low hills choked with spruce, aspen, tamarack and a few fir. In the dark it becomes a terribly hostile place made more intense by the absence of traffic. An accident here or a breakdown would mean a night in the minus twenty weather hoping, praying for a traveller. It’s because of that, that there is a survival kit in the back seat and an arctic sleeping bag. We don’t take chances in this country. There is nothing between Rae and Yellowknife except a few wolves.

As I drive east toward midnight the stars glint hard through the windshield. I turn down the instrument panel lights and let the stars beat through the headlights. There’s Orion directly in front of me and just to the left the Big Dipper is making its slow wheel about the sky, tied always to the north star and I can’t help thinking about Manitou and Black Bear playing cards on the other side, past the sky. It’s funny how a child’s story takes on real life in this country. Perhaps he really does exist.

The road is frozen gravel so there’s no need to worry about sliding but where it goes through a curve the traffic has carved just one track. When it turns to the right the lane stays where it is supposed to but on a left turn the bare gravel is far to the left and that means any vehicle coming the other way would be met head on. It’s a game of chance and anxiety. Whether to stay on the hard pack snow and let any traffic slip past or stay on the gravel and keep the speed up on the gravel.  Every curve is a guess. I pass one truck heading west from Yellowknife and see its headlights bounced off the trees well in advance so I relax. I know that I’ll have the warning to get back to my side of the road. The trees are coated in hoar frost and the headlights turn them into silver cutouts plastered against the stars. There’s magic here.

Halfway back now and there’s an odd light directly ahead.  It seems like the glow of a city but I’m too far from Yellowknife for that and the air is too clear to allow any city to light up the air anyway. You can be a mile from Yellowknife and not know it because the city lights aren’t reflected the way they are in the south.

The glow is troubling. There’s a hardness to it that doesn’t seem right. Thoughts of flying saucers are easy here, it’s so lonely. If I was an explorer from Alpha Centauri sent to earth to spy on the human race what better way to gather data than to drop down on a lonely highway in the arctic and pick up the one vehicle for fifty miles in either direction.

There’s nothing on the radio, too far out. The heater is noisy and I turn it off to concentrate on the light. It’s growing too quickly for it to be stationary and it must be moving.  Then darkness, as I slip down through a dark valley guarded by rock walls and up a long curve of the hill. No light. Then light.

The moon for God’s sake. It sits in the trees as it rises above the horizon. It’s huge. it seems to fill the width of the road and looms above the windshield of the car. The light is being refracted through the atmosphere I tell myself and the moon is being magnified but that doesn’t take anything away from the spectacle. Its light blasts down the highway at me and in a straight stretch I punch off the headlights. Hardly any difference. The moon has turned the highway to a twilight sliver. We rush on together, the car and me and the moon. The stars shine on still so bright I can see them when I look away from the moon. We’re a team the moon and me and we drive on and on under its light until the road curves into darkness and the headlights must come on because I never want to use the survival kit. Darkness envelopes the car and the loneliness is back but then the curve is finished and once more the moon is back.

Midnight is passing. I forget how far I have driven. I have no idea where Yellowknife might be and that troubles me. Must always know where you are in this country. The old habits built up in this very region from that silly little seaplane base down the road from the motel are coming back.

Know where you are all the time, goes the rule, then you will know where you are lost.

You get killed when you get lost in an unknown place.

Strange rule but it works. There’s a telephone in the car.  Now that I am closer to Yellowknife I could use it if the car breaks down. But that wouldn’t help me much. What am I going to say? “Hello, uh I need a truck to pull me out of a snowbank.  What’s that? Where am I? Uh, somewhere between Rae and Yellowknife. Just start driving and I’ll be on the road.”  Christ it could take the rest of my life to find me.

The moon has dogs. They’ve come up either side of the mother. Pale little children riding coat-tail as if they were afraid of getting lost. What does this mean? I think to myself.  Is this good luck, or bad, do they herald good weather or a snarling blizzard? God the weather knowledge I have lost over the years. Must relearn it.

A glint of light between the left dog and the moon. It’s the airport beacon sweeping away to the arctic sky. What nostalgia that brings back. It sweeps over me. The nights and nights I plowed my way back through some skag down the MacKenzie river overloaded with gear and fuel trying to land a 185 at the base, never really sure where the airport was and then suddenly seeing that white slash of light sweep across the sky and I knew I was home and the floats would be touching Back Bay in twenty minutes. Dangerous life and I don’t miss it but you always remember the good things about the past, never the bad, and that beacon is one of the good. The beacon is good to me too. I start to reenter the world. I start to see the moon and her dogs for what they are. The stars retreat to being stars and not silent watchers over the wilderness. The magic is leaking away and the car slips closer to Yellowknife.

I see some lights beaming from the top of the territorial government office tower and then the YK Tower and then the highrises. The airport and its snow wrapped bush planes waiting for break-up and the endless summer days goes past on the right and then I’m back. The city swallows me up and the north goes away.  There’s sadness as I take the car back. I am giving up the treasure of a sensation and a life few would ever experience. I live within myself content and with the secret knowledge that the moon and her two children put on that show just for me. Somewhere I hear Black Bear’s grumbling chuckle and I love the world.

Baked Chicken for Breakfast in Albania

 

As I was working today on the draft for The Disaster Tourist — How Journalists and Relief Workers Survive and Thrive in War Zones I came across a photo I had taken in Kukes Northern Albania during the Kosovo War when tens of thousands of refugees flooded into Albania.

I was working as a spokesperson for CARE Canada and the team had rented this house not far from the border. The family that owned it was more than happy to move out and live in an underground shelter in exchange for hard currency, and they provided the meals.

Well, getting food in War Zones and Disaster Areas can be a problem and in Kukes, unless you had a lot of money you had to make do with what you could get your hands on.

In this case, it was chickens. Our landlords had a lot of chickens in their back garden and that is what the team ate. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day after day, for about a month, we ate baked chicken.

We could get other food but that would have meant buying off the black market, which was probably stolen relief food so that was out of the question. But we got lots of offers including many from a local hoodlum who was trying to move up in the ranks from sometime hitman to crime boss.

But beer was cheap and plentiful so all was good with life.

 

An Arctic Monster Dies

Here’s a free short story for you. It’s only about 25 hundred words so you can read it here easily enough, but feel free to print it off or send it to your favorite ereader.

 

Guy Marceau was having trouble with his dog team.  For the fifth time in an hour Guy called to the lead dog and halted the sled.  He cursed under his breath and fought his way through the drifting snow to the third lead dog, tangled in its bridle.

They were savage, half wild dogs made worse by Guy’s frequent use of the whip.  He slashed at the hopelessly struggling sled dog and screamed a torrent of French and Indian swear words at the trapped animal.

“Tabernac,” he said into the bitter wind sweeping across the wide frozen MacKenzie River.  “These goddamn dogs had better smarten up or they don’t get fed tonight.”  They were restless, far worse than normal, when they’d lunge for a hand if they weren’t whipped down constantly.

The dogs had their heads turned into the wind and they were barking wildly.  Guy could see nothing against the blowing snow.

“What the hell’s the matter with them?”  Guy muttered and turned to scan the wide river.

The answer called thinly and weirdly over the MacKenzie, the cries of another dog team, driven hard from the south.

He looked down at the excited dogs, “Bien eh?  We’ll have company for supper tonight, dat’s good.”

The other sled was not yet visible but Guy knew they could only be coming from Fort Liard and probably en route to a trapping line or Fort Norman on the shores of Great Bear Lake to the north.  Guy wondered who might be driving them.  Whoever it was there was a good chance he would know the man.  There were very few white-men north of Edmonton and in the five years Marceau had spent in the far north he had come to know the few men living in the scattered settlements or running trap lines. He had come a long way since the defeat of the NorthWest Mounted Police at Duck Lake in 1885.

The other team was now visible on the other side of the river.  Guy carefully unslung the Sharps from the sled and cleared the action.  Although the code of hospitality in the north said that men meeting on the trail must meet in friendship and share the fire, Guy knew that a little caution was always needed.

The Sharps wouldn’t leave his hands until he knew the other as friend.  The metal was so cold against his leathered hands it felt like fire.  He tightened his grip as the other sled swung across the ice towards Guy.  The man raised his hand in salute and Guy unconsciously replied.

The stranger stopped his team several feet from Guy.  The dogs still strained their harnesses to get to one another but the barking and lunging was easier to put up with than the work it would take to unsnarl two teams and the harnesses if they ever got at each other.

  The man was tall, more than six feet, he towered over the Metis.  An Eskimo parka from the shores of the Arctic Ocean didn’t hide the shoulders built during long days of sledding.

From a buffalo fur cap metal flashed in the light.  The badge made Guy lower his rifle.

Marceau had never seen the policeman before but had heard from others that this was the new Mountie sent north from Edmonton to maintain order between Forts, Norman, Providence and Liard, a beat of several hundred miles requiring months to cover.

“Bonjour m’sieu. I am Guy Marceau. Are you coming from Fort Liard?”

“Bonjour,” the man replied nodding to Guy’s question. “It’s good to meet someone else on this godforsaken river.  I almost made camp an hour ago but decided to push on instead, that was lucky wasn’t it.” The Mountie grinned.

“Good to have someone to share the fire.”  Guy said it cheerfully, but he felt this Mountie was no friend.  He’d seen him before although the where eluded him.

“I’m Constable McNern, Northwest Mounted, from Liard,” he jerked his thumb to the south as if there could be any doubt where Liard was, the only place on the river for days of traveling any direction.

The name brought the memory back for Guy.  It went back those five years to Duck Lake when Marceau, under another name, and another cause, was Riel’s adjutant general.

Marceau had led the Indians and other Metis on the massacre.  They killed the wounded and all who surrendered.  A few escaped and told the tale to others.  McNern among the few who had got away.

The Mounties had a permanent interest in tracking down Marceau.  The constable would be sure to recognize him once he started looking past the beard and name.

It was though McNern was reading Guy’s thoughts.  “Don’t I know you m’sieu?  I’m sure we have met somewhere.”

The cold vanished from Guy’s body with the tension. He stared at the man.  The moment seemed to hang solid, then it eased when the constable shrugged away the effort to remember. McNern turned slightly to his sled.  “We should head in to the trees there and make camp.”

Guy breathed out and nodded, “Oui, the sun is going quickly.”

It didn’t matter at all about the sun. They could have traveled on under the light from the moon and the stars the way most winter travel was done in the Arctic but it seemed as good a time as any to make camp.  They would be up hours before the dawn and running north along the river anyway and the sun would find them twenty miles and more further down river.

Guy followed behind the Mountie’s sled toward the shore, giving thanks to the cruel arctic winters that forced a man to grow a thick beard to hide his face from the razor winds.

The two of them shared the fire and the rations in silence for long cold minutes, but the need for human contact between the two men started conversation.  They talked of the weather and the amazing series of cloudless days and clear nights that had lasted since Xmas.  They talked of the fur season and how a man could get rich if he could just stay out in the bush long enough without freezing or starving to death.  They sat around the fire with their sleds turned on side to stop the runners freezing to the snow and to act as wind-breaks for their backs.

The wind was as permanent as the cold and the loneliness.

Both knew they were the only humans for a hundred miles on the frozen river and they felt it.  Guy talked of a few women, most of them other Metis, but a few Indians as well, and he talked of his mother in Trois Rivieres.  He hadn’t seen her for almost twenty years, not since the day he killed his first man and left Quebec for safety in the west.  And of course he didn’t tell McNern about the brawl that started his love for killing.

It was McNern who did most of the talking.  The cap badge winking and flashing in the firelight and managing to catch GuyΓÇÖs eyes full on from time to time as though it was trying to burn a hole in his head. At times it flared in size and seemed to take on a life of its own.

McNern was still new to the far north and hadn’t learned all that is needed to keep loneliness away.  His wife and child were still in Edmonton and he wouldn’t see them for another two years until his tour was over.  He felt the separation badly.  For the first time in a very long life of misadventure and depravity Marceau felt a stirring of conscience.  It would pass.  He would make it pass. It had to for his safety.

* * *

The three hundred foot high sand bluffs of the east bank hid the first hints of the dawn as he built up the fire.  The sun was making its skittering climb across the horizon but it would take its time and daylight was a good three hours away.  The dogs ate frozen whitefish and left no waste.  It was their only meal of the day.  Guy soaked dried meat in tea before trying to gnaw it.

The team drove north quickly.

Guy traveled alone and fast.

He was happy.

It was a good day. The wind was blowing to the west and sweeping the light snow from the river ice.  The dogs had just enough snow dust under their paws to stop from slipping and they pulled and ran like possessed beasts.

When Garneau at last swung in to the bank for an early camp in the mid afternoon the sun was slipping back down from the sky. It was the best day’s run ever, more than double any other and he didn’t feel guilty about stopping earlier than normal.  He was tired from lack of sleep and slept hard within minutes of making camp.

He didn’t hear the dogs at first.

Their moaning took awhile to penetrate the twisted dreams charging through his sleep.  At first he thought the dogs were only hungry because he hadn’t bothered to feed them after the long run.  He struggled out of the sleeping furs and stumbled along the bank to the snowdrift where the dogs had burrowed to sleep and to keep warm.  Only as the sleep cleared from his brain did he recognize their moaning was terror, and it puzzled him because the dogs were only a scattering of generations from wolf stock and rarely showed fear of any kind.

The noise set the hairs on the back of his head on end.  His unease made him more savage than usual and he kicked harder than necessary to drive the dogs from their burrows.

He kicked them all but King, the lead dog, and the second lead.

The moon showed the two dogs at the bottoms of their holes, throats cut and the blood turning the snow black.

No animal, Guy knew, could have done the damage. No person either. The snow only showed the wind blurred prints of dogs.

Guy shuddered. The frozen trees looming above the riverbank menaced.  The creak of snow and ice on the branches were footsteps in the silence.  Against his back the wind pushed and rushed against him daring him to turn around.

The horrible dread grew. No power in the world could have made him turn. His mind filled the river bank behind him with all the evil malignant wilderness spirits his blood half believed in.

His mind screamed at him not to turn for that would unleash the fiendish horror of the wood spirits.  Safety was in not turning to look.

He stood frozen with terror, his knees vibrating with tension, his eyes not seeing and all the time the cold eating at his bare fingers and uncovered ears.  The savage pain of freezing skin finally triggered muscles.  In panic he harnessed the remaining dogs, never looking up the riverbank and never lifting his eyes to the tops of the trees. The furs and the food he left behind.

The dogs screamed from the lash and screamed more as he pushed down the river.  Malignancy bounced and leaped after him and he wouldn’t turn even in mid river.  The chase would go on to the end.

The sharp crack of the whip was constant with the keening of the runners on ice and the howling of the dogs.  He heard none because everything was directed behind him to hear the approach of demons.

One by one the dogs dropped with exhaustion as day turned into arctic night.  Kicks couldn’t get them up and the sled stops became longer and longer until he too started to drop. A small treeless peninsula became camp.

Without furs he slept badly and all night his ears were tuned for the slightest whimper of a dog, or, the creak of a spruce bough. Each time there was sound, a snow-muffled dog cough, a crack of ice in riverbank tree or the rapid hiss of ice bouncing across the snow crust the adrenaline shot through his body.

Three times he nerved himself to rise and creep along the peninsula to the trees in search of wood for the fire.  Each time that he returned into the brightness of the moonlight he was bathed in sweat and his eyes glazed.  The dark was peopled with things that hated man, and he was man.

Long before first light the terror became too much.  He shook the frozen harnesses from the snow and headed for the dogs, determined he was going to flee this wilderness for the safety and warmth of Fort Norman.

He uncovered the dogs, first one, then a second, then in a frenzy all.

The blood was black against the snow.

Without food, gun, knife, extra clothing, he staggered out into the middle of the Mackenzie and started for safety, seventy miles away through the cruelest climate on earth.

All day he ran, walked, ran some more, stumbled and shambled and ran but he didn’t stop.

Through the brief sunlight, into the starlight, then the moon, and back into the sun.  He never looked behind.

His breath came in hurting shuddering gasps.  His fingers were black from the poison of dead flesh, killed by the cold.  He hadn’t felt his toes for twenty miles. White patches grew over his cheeks and forehead. Blood flecked his lips. He could go no further. He dropped unconscious to the ice.

He lay insensible, his body heat leaking away into the six feet of river ice below.  His limbs began to freeze and by all the laws he should never have awakened again.  But a different cold seized his heart and squeezed.

Ice claws gripped him around the throat. Ice hands.  Guy opened his eyes and looked through the pain that blurred everything red.

Dimly, then sharply as the horror gripped him, Guy Marceau saw the face leaning over him.

It had been mangled out of all recognition by wolves feeding on the corpse Marceau had buried in the snow.  Tatters of flesh stuck out from the bone, stiff with freezing.  The slashed throat gaped deep.

Guy had cut through to the vertebrae.  Black frozen blood smeared across the ripped and mangled face, half hiding the left eye, splashed across the front of the beaver fur hat.

Guy’s eyes rolled up as he died and stopped forever on the sun-glinted badge metal with its engraved command that had lived on past the death of its owner, Maintiens le Droit, Maintain the right, or maintain the law, its power unleashed by the foulness of Guy Marceau’s crime.

It flashed with the fires of hell as it sent him down to them.

-0-

From Out of My Long Forgotten Past – A Tone Poem

Recently a friend sent me a copy of something I had written for a competition in either the late eighties or early nineties. It won an Honourable Mention in its category, a designation that I can recall filled me with deep disappointment because I always expect better than I can deliver. Considering that this was a Canada wide competition, a competition that has launched many writing careers, it certainly was churlish of me to object to not winning a first prize.

The story, or essay, was later read on all of the CBC AM Radio networks, including on the international short wave service. As such, I should have received a fair bit of money for its broadcast but I had entered the contest under a false name because I was working at the CBC, and the rules forbade any participation.

I do wish I could recall the false name I used.

Anyway, enjoy the next 700 words, but I can’t answer any questions about the Llamas because I have no idea where I got that title.

 

 

NOTES OF A TRIP TO SEE THE LLAMAS

Creston, British Columbia, Tivoli Theatre. Empty spittle plastered ticket office.

International Harvester school buses move with the sudden runnels of desultory traffic through the dying town. Clutter of business signs, Creston Cafe, Pro Hardware, Sears catalogue office, all housed in false fronts joined one to another as though imitating the walls of granite surrounding the town, hemming it from the progress and wealth it hungered for and has all but given up on.

The mountains are the only thing that distinguish this town from the thousands of others like it cluttering the map speckles of ink dots and faint names between the cities. Were it not for the mountains Creston would not be. Night and mountainside eight hundred feet up, rain, fog, sign saying one lane for two kilometres. And then a fall of more clogging fog as the car slows and slides into the sluice under the ice slides.

Creeping along in second gear. Avalanche, Do Not Stop, says the sign. Cannot go fast either. Inching along over the road.

To the right a rounded triangle of concrete curb, then; “Uh. Can you move to the left please.” From the passenger on my right who has been silent since the car started to creep. I move left a bit closer to the rock wall. There’s no need for me to be here but I humour the passenger. Not a place for an argument.

Car at the other end of the narrow lane and moving toward us. Nasty feeling of not knowing where the back end of the car is as we back into the pull out. Flash of friendly headlights on the way by as a thank you and we are left alone again on the mountainside.

Steep winding road to a summit far away from the world. Lost in trees cloaked in pillows of freshly fallen snow. Tenseness of left hand turns and curves on gravel at night with nicotine bluing the glass and the wipers smearing.

Road goes away and the car moves on faith.

Ferry. White and green gloss paint.

In the belly the car nose to bumper with the others and the trucks hulking in the centre. Up the steep metal ribbed stairs to the gloss paint and the smell of cooking oil from the snack bar run by a fourteen year old girl and an older woman behind the bulkhead putting the orders together.

Man sitting at the counter describing to a stranger the death of his son in Montreal over the holidays. Shot accidentally or on purpose by a man cleaning his gun in his house. There’s a doubt and a mystery and a crying in his suffering yet calm talk.

Mad rush to the cars below decks as the ferry suddenly docks. There had not been the slightest suggestion we had been anywhere near the shore. How the crew knew I didn’t know. And then the rumble of the trucks and the flight down the twisting dark road.

Highway puddled with water getting set to freeze in broad car traps of slipperiness.

A red flaming snake of taillights slithers through the never straight road and the night for the east. Poor bastard in the lead is pushed by the tail. Some can’t take it and drop from the ritual of leading to the side of the road to wait the darkness before creeping on by themselves.

Night creeps over Arrow Lake deep in the Selkirk clefts. 

Prince George and a dull washed out mall.

Coffee shop suddenly full of old people. Nowhere to go and nothing to do.They roost and chatter and pass the hour. Just as bats have atime to leave the cave and gulls a time for the shore, the old are ruled by the tides of human need and spirit and will move again with the passing of their tide. What other tides might there be? All of the interior wet and damp and coated with the black constant sheen of rain.

Energy levels drop.

No point to anything because each day will be the same as the next and of the last.