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. To see the schedule with links to previous/upcoming chapters and find out more, please click HERE.
But I saw…
Doctor Solomon clasps his hands together as if in solidarity and prayer.
The mind plays tricks, June. We have to accept that. Your mind is tricking you. Showing you things that aren’t there. Accepting that is part of your healing.
June looks at the photograph on the wall over the Doctor’s head. They’re in his office. Apparently she’ll be seeing him three times a week now, part of some kind of agreement worked out between Norm, Christine, and whoever else cared to witness her scene, as they are collectively calling it, in the backyard. And Norm’s hired her a chaperone, the housekeeper, he’s calling her, a Filipino lady named Mary-Beth. She’s in her late twenties, just a few years younger than June, and according to Norm her job is to keep June from getting tired out. Mary-Beth’s to do the cooking and cleaning. But June knows that her main role is to keep an eye on her.
Do you need anything miss? Mary-Beth keeps asking. No thank you, Mary-Beth.
What does she need? Under Mary-Beth, the house has reverted to its normal state of cloaked quiet. He’s gone, June knows. If he was ever—
He was. She’s not supposed to say it. But he was, no matter what else happened.
Now that she’s barely leaving the house, June is actually missing the protestors. She found their constant chanting somehow calming. They reminded her of—
In college her roommate used to play a tape of ocean waves hitting the surf. June would close her eyes, lie back in her bed and contemplate the waves. June lets her eyes close and her head drop. Just for a minute. June feels herself detaching; she drifts away from herself, from her past and future, from what she did and didn’t do.
June? Ah, June?
She startles. Doctor Solomon sits in his leather chair, pondering June’s spaced-out hunch. So June, he says, a hint of a smile peering through his bushy brown-flecked-with-grey beard. When they searched the backyard, how did that make you feel?
Doctor Solomon’s voice is low, a cross between the famous mellow baritone of James Earl Jones and, June imagines, the Hebrew magic of some ancient rabbinical coven. He’s a skinny Jew who grew up in the city, wears tan slacks and polo shirts. June doesn’t know many Jewish people, has always imagined them as mysterious, attuned to spiritual forces only they can communicate with. June prefers to close her eyes when she talks with Doctor Solomon. Which Doctor Solomon says isn’t such a hot idea. He says she needs to focus, needs to stay in touch with the real world.
They didn’t have any right to—but we couldn’t stop them. They had a search warrant. Chris said it was better to—
Yes, but how did you feel about the search?
The doctor pushes horn-rimmed glasses up his nose. I…I felt bad for poor Norm. He doesn’t need all this.
Yes. Go on. Doctor Solomon runs a hand through close-cropped greying hair, a gesture of patient impatience, a character actor performing constancy of wisdom.
It’s like…it’s crazy. Like maybe I really did…I mean they’re taking it so seriously, when all I did was…
Was what? Dig a hole.
Is that all you did, June?
I—well, no…I mean, no. Obviously I…June sighs. I, uh, enabled my depressive sense of alienation, which lead to, uh, delusions that fostered further, uh, isolation and depression. She shrugs. Those are the Doctor’s words. June looks at him for approval.
He stares back at her: And?
June looks down at her knees. What she needs is a cup of good strong coffee. There’s no coffee in the house anymore. Bad for the baby. Norm’s doing the shopping now, loading up the cart with natural sundries—herbal teas that promise easy pregnancies and above average toddlers with bright eyes and pleasant dispositions.
And…anyway, June finally mutters under the Doctor’s gaze. They didn’t find anything. Of course they didn’t find anything, the Doctor assents comfortingly.
Norm’s been taking time off work, June says. He gets nervous if I go outside. He said maybe we should move. But I said I think we should—stay.
The Doctor nods approvingly. He’s a specialist in depressives.
That’s what I am, June thinks. That’s what he said I am. It’s better to stay, right? Why do you say that?
It’s an…opportunity to face my…my…June’s stomach gurgles organically, herbally, uncertainly.
You’re right June. You need to confront the source of your feelings of unhappiness and low self worth. June, I want you to focus on the real. I want you to ask yourself why you were digging the pit, what story you were trying to tell yourself and the people around you. I want you to keep focused, June. Stay focused on the person you were in that time, and how you are different, how you are becoming different now. Will you do that, June?
June nods blearily. Doctor Solomon, she senses, is not convinced.
June, I want you to get better. But to do that, you need to help yourself. You need to
accept that your perception of events is just that, June: a perception. You had a belief. You invested in that belief. You felt like that belief would make everything else matter, would infuse your nascent depression with meaning. You constructed a belief, June. You had to believe in it— even if it wasn’t true.
The picture over the doctor’s head: three brown women in brightly coloured wraps strolling along a lush tropical river balancing loads of provisions on their heads.
But, June protests, it wasn’t just a…I mean, I saw them. You believed you saw bones. You believed what you saw. But—
There were no charges. Isn’t that correct June?
And that’s because they didn’t find any bones, did they June? But they found—
The forensic unit concluded that what they found in backyard were just bits of old stone, not bones at all. Isn’t that the truth, June?
But the stone was…the report said it wasn’t just…stone. It was fragments of some kind of ancient pottery. There was even a pattern.
June. Is what I’m saying true? You did see the report. There were no bones. Do you accept what you read in the report?
Yes. I saw the report. Norm and Chris showed it to me.
And you believe what the report says? Think carefully now. Are there any doubts about the report?
Yes? Or no?
The women smile, their bundled burdens balanced so perfectly and precariously.
Doctor Solomon gets to his feet. I’ll see you again on Wednesday and we’ll continue this discussion.
Doctor? Can I just ask you—before you go—
That’s one thing she likes about Doctor Solomon. He sticks to his timetable, but with the languid fluidity of a tropical citizen; he doesn’t give the impression of always hurrying off.
When did you move here? To Wississauga?
Oh, let’s see now…Let me see…I lived in the city when I started my practice, and moved out here about—the Doctor chuckles his appreciation of time’s speed—well almost fifteen years ago now.
But why move here? I mean, aren’t there more…more of your…patients—in the city?
Oh, You’d be surprised, June. Doctor Solomon smiles convincingly. You’d be surprised how many there are around these parts. The Doctor stands, looks down at June. You take it easy now, and get plenty of rest.
They move into the small waiting room area, Mary-Beth jumping up perkily, ready to drive her home.
In the elevator, June leans against the mirrored wall and closes her eyes. A brief burst of chanting—aye ya ya ya ya—surfs through her mind, and then the doors are opened into the lobby and Mary-Beth is leading her out.
Mary-Beth drives attentively. June lowers the passenger window open, lets spring air blow her bangs off her forehead. She needs a haircut. She needs to start taking care of herself. All of this, it must be bad for the—
The Doctor says she needs to accept what happened. She needs to come to terms with her actions.
But June doesn’t accept. She doesn’t believe that believing is all the Doctor says it is, the flick-of-a-switch it’s-all-in-your-head solution to explain how you can go from being nearly handcuffed and hauled off to jail and then you’re just—What? Exonerated? Free? You can go now, June. You don’t need to worry anymore, June. But it’s hard to believe—there’s that word again—that what she saw and felt and knew was just some kind of…delusion. The old Indian, the elder, silently mouthing prayers. She saw his face: stoic, but behind his eyes a still deep pool of knowing. He knew; he believed. Okay he wasn’t there. Not really. She made him up. June can accept that. They carried her into the house. Doctor Solomon appeared out of nowhere, gave her
a shot to calm her down. June remembers thinking about the baby, not wanting the shot, trying to pull away. It’s okay, Norm said, holding her hand. She fell asleep.
Is belief really so powerful? Can it really make the world change and change again? The whole world?
Her world, at least. Sunny breeze on her face. It feels good. Turn here, Mary-Beth.
Make a right here.
But Miss? I take—home. Is no good way, turn.
It’s okay Mary-Beth. I just want to…drop in on a—friend. An old friend.
Mary-Beth bites her lower lip. Doctor Norman says to take you to home, Miss.
He’s not a doctor Mary-Beth. Yes Miss. But he says—
He’s a dentist, Mary-Beth. And we will go straight home. I promise. Right after. There, yes, turn here.
You won’t be long?
No Mary-Beth. I promise. I won’t be long. Gnawing her lower lip, Mary-Beth makes the turn.
Now a left onto the Parkway, June says encouragingly. Then you’re going to make a left turn at the second light there. You see that little road there, Mary-Beth? The one in between the two malls?
That’s where we’re going.
Just a quick visit, Mary-Beth.
June ascends to her assigned floor, breathes deeply, walks quickly down the hall hoping the ladies at the nurses’ station playing cards won’t notice her, won’t ask her where she’s been.
She’s gone to the hospital, one of the nurses calls after her. What? June turns around to face them.
Your friend. Rose. She’s in the hospital.
They stare at her malevolently. When?
Where have you been anyway? The old folks have been asking about you.
Is Rose okay? They shrug.
Now home miss, Mary-Beth says hopefully, putting the car in gear and preparing to pilot through the thickening shopping traffic.
No, Mary-Beth. One more stop. We have to go to the hospital. Miss, why? Miss are you sick? I will call—
June deftly snatches the cell from Mary-Beth’s lap.
Mary-Beth, I’m not sick. It’s my friend. She’s sick. In the hospital. We have to go there. We won’t call anyone.
Miss. No! It’s not good for you, you can get sick at the hospital, so much sick—it’s bad for you and the baby, Miss. We go home. Doctor Norman—he says, I take you home.
Mary-Beth, I have to go. Just for a quick visit. No Miss, please! Let me—call.
Mary-Beth reaches for the cell. The car swerves. June dangles the cell out of the passenger window.
Mary-Beth, she says calmly. Take me to the hospital or else I’ll drop the phone out the window and you’ll be fired.
Belief is having a purpose. It’s doing something and knowing you are doing it for a reason. Because you believe. June doesn’t know how or why she believed what she believed. It seems so…ridiculous. Ancient Native explorers, first man to stumble into the lush abundance of the Wallet River valley. And he lead them: and it was good. A proud, strong man glowing like the summer sun, infused by the power of the tribe, of his doomed vision for the future—today, tomorrow. So who killed him? Who snuck behind him, crashed in his skull? And what belief did they have, what story did they tell themselves before and after doing what they did? Is everything just…stories?
No. Not everything.
A man standing on a ridge overlooking a river gully. A man surveying a territory resplendent with life’s eternal possibility, a human being so free and unencumbered, a first man with all the possibilities of becoming still ahead of him—in this June believes. She’s seen it. Nothing can change that. Even if it’s crazy.
She turns, takes the elevator, turns. Mary-Beth trails behind her, scowling. June enters ward 9B. The ward smells like Rose’s room—Meals on Wheels, flesh gone slack. June expected something more antiseptic, something clean and astringent. But the smell is old and dirty.
Behind the nurses’ station three ladies loll with a familiar air of disaffected nonchalance. May I help you? comes the predictable, eventual, opening.
Yes, I’m here to see Rose McCallion.
McCallion…McCallion. The nurse checks a list. Oh. Right. She’s in the ICU. You can only stay fifteen minutes. Are you family? You have to be family.
I’m her niece, June says.
The nurse points to an adjacent room laid bare by a long window. Through the window: huddled forms encumbered by sheets, snaked by tubes.
Please wait here, Mary-Beth, June says crisply before walking into the room, her boot heels clicking. This is where it ends, she thinks. Even for Rose. Dread is a sinking pit of imagined bones, the taste down there, the air in your lungs. June thinks of the elder praying in her backyard: a crumpled wizened warrior permanently clinging to a world that doesn’t want him. He wasn’t really there.
Rose is alone. Lying inert on the big hospital bed she looks more like a dried frog than a human being. Her machines are myriad, cables and connectors leading to and fro in cyborg-like array. June drags the curtain closed around the bed. At least give her some privacy. Jesus. She’s a hundred years old. Give her some dignity. The curtain does nothing to close out the coughs, groans, and mutters emitting from the other seven beds in the ICU. Stepping toward the head of Rose’s hospital bed, June hears the murmurs of anxious bedside relatives, barely uttered words she can’t quite make out.
Rose? she says quietly, mimicking the hushed cadence of the swirled sounds all around them. Can you hear me, Rose?
The old lady doesn’t stir.
What’s wrong with her? June can’t tell. Rose? June leans right over face to face. Is she—? Should she call the nurse? Rose?
The old lady’s eyes flip open. They widen and dart. Rose blinks.
It’s okay, June half whispers. You’re in the hospital. She squeezes then quickly releases the old lady’s hand. It’s like holding tissue paper. IV into a decrepit, hollowed-out blue vein. It’s June, Rose. June from—
Rose’s eyes narrow.
How are you feeling, Rose?
Stupid question. She can see it in the old lady’s face. How is it, dying? How is it wasting away all alone in a room full of sick strangers?
Well it’s what people say, isn’t it? At least she’s here. June takes a deep breath and flips down onto the uncomfortable orange chair wedged in beside Rose’s various machines and the side of the bed. What else can I say? Mary-Beth is probably freaking out. What if she calls
Norm? June’s put him through enough. She’ll just stay a few more minutes. Poor Rose, all alone.
It’s sad and all. But really, how else could it have ended?
Then, Rose’s lips start moving, the crusts of spit in the corners of her mouth cracking. Rose, June says. Don’t try to talk. You need to rest. It’s alright Rose.
Rose shudders, seems to be struggling to speak. Of course it isn’t alright. Rose is dying. Anyone can see that. The old lady is dying all alone, with no family, with nobody to be with her. But that’s not June’s fault. She has her own responsibilities. A husband. A—June folds her hands over her belly.
It’s…Rose suddenly croaks, her hawk eyes sharpening to focus.
Yes? Rose? I’m here. It’s what? June leans in. She can feel Rose’s ragged exhalation on her ear, her cheek. After this, I’ll go.
Not my fault. Of course it’s not my fault.
I don’t understand, June says reluctantly. What’s not my fault? Rose blinks, tosses her shrunken head.
He came…Rose whispers, brown bubbles popping in the dark gap between her lips. Who came?
Rose? Who came?
Your…Rose closes her eyes. Machines beep in staccato imitation. Who came Rose?
The old woman’s eyes flutter open again, cloudy blue staring straight through. June can’t
look away, as much as she wants to.
What is it Rose? Who came? She hears her own voice, a panicked breaking whisper.
What we believe, what we don’t believe. June forces herself to arrange her face and smile comfortingly down at Rose.
I’m sorry, Rose. But I really have to go.
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.