“Was maachst du hier?” was female, “Hie du!” young, “Herhaus!” and strangely German. His back was to her, his right hand reflexively slipping inside his shirt and resting on the hilt of his knife as something hard prodded him. But then he came fully awake. It was not yet dawn, but with the whiteness of the still falling snow it was difficult to tell.
A young woman stood over him in the entrance to the clinic, appearing three times her probable girth for the thick animal-hide parka about her. A brown woolen toque exposed only part of her small pretty face. Her firmness of expression showed a sense of proprietary, a clear indignation that anyone should appropriate her turf. She wore thick fingerless suede mittens, so that her right hand gestures with the ski pole were as stiff as an Eskimo’s. In her left mitt the other pole and two long skinny skis bristled like spears. It was the first time he’d seen such equipment. He smiled up at her.
Her face and voice softened, “Oh! I’m sorry. I shust thought you were one of those drunken lay-a-bouts from Arrowland, eh?” She leaned the thin wooden skis and poles up inside the porch and used her mitt to scour the globs of snow from their length. At the base of the ski poles miniature Frisbees had scissor cut-outs like spiked toy flying saucers, while the blade-like points beneath them were like little metal scythes. Her small black ski-boots had specially designed toe- Tongues, he noted, with holes that probably inserted into the metal bindings of the skis. “Not that they’re all drunkards,” she hastened to qualify herself, “It’s shust that Mr. Russel wouldn’t allow any of his men, eh, to... well, to sleep out in the open.” Her English speaking voice now had the softest trace of a German accent, but followed the Canadian habit of lilting and making sentences end as though asking a question. Her eyes were hazel and their lashes were still frosted with the cold. She stepped beside him and brushed the snow off herself. “You must be freezing!? Why are you in here? Why aren’t you in the hotel?”
“Hotel? Didn’t see it.”
“Shust down the street,” she vaguely waved through the window. “So, let me guess. You arrived on the red-eye express, eh? Are you to be one of the Klimack men, or are you headed out for the Anaconda outfit?”
“Anaconda Iron and Ore, I think. Keith Russel’s my contact.”
“Yes. He would be. The whole town is booming with all of this new construct-shun going on. Well, come on inside. Bring your pack. Let’s get you warm.” She stepped past him and slipped off a mitten by biting the end of it in her teeth. They were small and white and even. Her hand, the short nails unpainted, was thin-wristed but sinewy. Strong. Then she extracted a set of keys from her parka and opened the door.
The clinic was functional, utilitarian, sparse, and smelled sterile.
“You can warm up by the register in the waiting room,” she announced before going in, bending to her boots and then taking them off. She handed them to him. “Take your runners off, please. I’ll shust go put the coffee on. And take these to the register too. I like them toasty when I ski back to Cordingly.”
“Cordingly? Is there a ski hill here?”
“Ha!” Her laugh was short and sharp, as though he should know better, “Not at all! At least, not a commercial one. But some of the steep hills on cross-country skis are challenging enough, let me tell you. No. I’m at Cordingly Lake. It’s about four miles from here. I have one of the Liman cabins there.”
“Anne Liman. She’s this great old lady who still goes out in snowshoes on her trap lines. Owns Cordingly. Rents her cabins. Well, you wash up. I’ve got work to do.” She padded out in her thick woolen socks.
While she busied herself in the other rooms he washed and changed in the ‘gents’ room. And within twenty minutes she was back, carrying a tray with two steaming mugs, a sugar bowl, and a small milk container. She now wore a white nurse’s uniform. It was calf-length and hung loosely about her, as though being a size too large for her wiry frame.
He took the tray and read her nametag: ‘Nan Laurens. R.N. / B. Sc.’
“I know B.Sc. is Bachelor of Science, Sister. But R.N.?”
“Registered Nurse. We don’t call nurses, ‘sister’, here. Shust ‘nurse’. Or, ‘hey you’,” she laughed. “Well now, you can see who I am. You are?”
“Adam Broadford. Pleased to meet you.”
She nodded. Her hair was cropped short, page boy style. They sipped their coffee. She looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, her figure slight and her body coltish, but she handled herself with the forthrightness of a mature woman. She wore no makeup that he could discern, and her skin was weather-bronzed. He kept quiet, waiting for her to ask him where he’d come from.
“Well,” she commenced, and drained her mug, “I have things to do. You may use my phone,” she indicated with a jerk of her head. “It’s six-thirty, but Keith, Mister Russel, will need to come and get you before work starts anyway. Everything comes alive at seven a.m.. So shust go ahead. Use it.”
And within a few minutes, ‘shust’ as she said it would, the whole town came alive. Adam watched from the clinic’s windows as cars and trucks and pick-ups, their exhausts’ pluming white smoke, slowly slipped and slid along the scoured tire-ruts of the thickly white-caked roads. Various sizes of men, hunched against the cold, came out from the hotel and picked their way through the snow drifts to their snow-piled vehicles. Some bent at the grills and then unplugged long extension-cords that snaked up like thin black mambas from burrowing under the snow; it was as though the electric cars were being charged overnight? Then, once the vehicle was started, they climbed out again, left it running, and with a long-handled brush commenced sweeping the piled up snow off the windshields and the bonnets. Or ‘hoods’, Adam corrected himself. Across from the clinic other vehicles slowly arrived, parked, and the men coming out of them just left the engines running, pluming thickly white from exhaust pipes. Yet more men, their quick breaths like cartoon puffs of wool in front of their mouths, joined those going up the steps and entering the Greasy Spoon. Further along, even the Hudson’s Bay store was apparently open for business.
“Nan?” Adam called, putting down the phone. “Thanks! Keith said to get some breakfast and to wait for him across the way.” But there was no response.
He searched for her, and then from a widow saw her coming across the road from the Hudson’s Bay, a brown paper bag in hand. Running like a white-frocked snow angel, she wore nothing other than her white uniform and a pair of suede mukluks.
“Hi,” she volunteered as she dashed in and stood over the radiator heater, rubbing her hands, “I shust needed some more coffee and while you were here to hold the fort I shust ran across.”
“No gloves? No coat?” he marveled. “You’ll freeze to death.”
“Today?” she shook her head. “This is nothing. It’s snowing. It’s warm. Wait until it’s really cold.” She removed her mukluks. “You will need to buy a coat. Is that thin shacket all you have?”
“Yes. And this jersey.”
“Well. The Bay has everything you’ll need. Everything. Now, excuse me, I must work. See you later, maybe.” And she walked away.
He picked up his pack and headed out into the cold. ‘And if this ‘isn’t’ cold, as she shust tried to tell me,’ he shuddered. ‘Shust what have I let myself in for?’
The heavily clothed men inside the Greasy Spoon had that distinct sense of knowing one another that, as usual, had Adam feeling at once very alien. He stepped inside to an almost instant hush as various heads turned to take him in. In his sports jacket, with his running shoes, no toque, no gloves, and his thin trousers, he felt conspicuous, almost ridiculous. His battered old pannier-pack at his side felt like a foreign thing. He swallowed. The men stared, curious, but not aggressively. There were about eight tables seating four or five men each in an L shaped arrangement around a bar counter behind which a matronly woman now paused to eye him too. She suddenly smiled across at him. “Been expecting you, eh! You must be Adam?”
“Hey there,” she called over to the crowded corner. “Dave! Here’s our new man, Adam. He’s the guy Keith told us about, remember? The one who was a stowaway on the ship, who knocked everyone off the grease pole.”
“Looks too friggen frozen to harm a flea!” a voice teased, “You sure you got enough backbone in there to fight at all, fella?”
Adam smiled into the expectant eyes of the crowd, “Hell no,” he tried, “You mean Keith didn’t tell you? Only way I could get across the pole at all was to get everyone to hold onto me and drag me across. Truth!”
Men instantly creased the corners of their eyes at him. The man called Dave stood up. “Yep. That’s our new man all right. Adam, is it? Come set yourself over here. Say hello to Beth.” She waved. “Say hello to the boys.”
There was a brief silence, then some of the more outgoing of the men came forward and shook his hand and introduced themselves with names like Tom and Harry and Jim and Eric, who limped in a plaster-casted leg, and Jason and Jacque and Rod and Guy, “pronounced Guh-eee, you hear!” Almost all, except for Eric, were older than himself. Many were bigger, stronger looking men.
Soon he was seated over at Dave’s corner table. A plate of eggs and toast and bacon and sausages materialized, along with coffee. Despite being a vegetarian he ate gratefully as the others finished their meals. He noticed that he sat upright, formally, with his palms over the handles of his cutlery while the others hunched down, fisted their forks and stabbed down at food. The men also cut up their entire plateful, put down their knives, transferred their forks to their right hand and, mouth now quite close to the plate, commenced a fast-paced and fork-fisted shoveling. Except for a tall, skinny man; he wore an air of dignified elegance.
During the meal Dave introduced the men around the table as Naresh and Li, and Cho, and then, “I’m Jon,” the skinny fellow grinned, his accent most English, “without an ‘h’, if you please”. Next was an Ivan, who most interestingly wore a cowboy hat, of all things, and then came a Ted, and finally, the big old Indian, No-Tongue.
The privilege of meeting such a diverse bunch did not escape Adam, but he could not bring himself to give voice to it. He was glad of the opportunity to shake their hands, even though he felt awkward at reaching across the table to do so. Never in Africa would men of such different ethnic origins have been allowed to eat together, much less to be introduced on equal terms. Naresh, a handsome man in his thirties of East Indian descent, was the Project Surveyor. Li and Cho, brothers from China, were in their forties. They had come from British Columbia, on the West Coast, because they were ‘powder monkeys’. “Blast Supervisors, like me, once,” Dave informed him, holding up his mangled left hand. The forthright gesture, and the sight of Dave’s stumped hand, with only its scarred thumb and third finger remaining, spoke volumes. Dave was a congenial, big man. “I’m the foreman,” he introduced himself. Jon, the lanky Englishman, was, “Fourteen years here, serving as bush pilot. Although it really should be ‘lake pilot’, shouldn’t it?” he explained dryly.
“Let me guess,” Adam grinned, “You fly a ‘lake plane’, not a ‘sea plane!’”
“Touchè.” Jon quickly winked, a sense of camaraderie developing.
Ivan, strange in his cowboy hat, was a thickset man, of Ukrainian origin, who’d come from Alberta, “beef country, out West”. He was a back-hoe operator. He had steady, appraising but kindly eyes as he paused in his methodical forking. Ted, a solid looking man in his fifties, was a big Dutchman, in charge of Transportation. “Really the ‘Chief Mechanic and Grease Monkey,” he explained with a big grin. He’d been in Canada “Thirty years now.”
But the one who fascinated Adam the most was the reserved and somewhat aloof looking Indian, No-Tongue. Yet he wore clothes no different from the rest of them. At about fifty, or maybe even sixty, the quiet man gravely nodded and stared Adam down. He’d been in Canada “...for-ev-er,” he answered, using monosyllables.
Dave, a touch patronizingly, added, “Our friend here, No-Tongue, is our Algonquin hunter and trapper. Aren’t you, my friend?” No-Tongue ignored them. Dave turned to Adam, “He just happened to come back with Jon last night. Need more bullets, No-Tongue?”
The man gave the slightest of nods.
Jon asked. “And you, Adam, first time in Canada, we presume?”
“The neophyte! Measured in hours,” Adam smiled.
“No!” No-Tongue suddenly shouted. His beaked nose and sharp chin hawked down imperiously as he rose. His talon-like yellow-nailed finger pointed directly at Adam’s chest, “This is a spirit that has been here long, long before.” And then, quiet as a panther, he padded out. For a moment all was silent, and then the gradual clink of finishing breakfast continued.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” muttered Jon.
“Ha!” Adam laughed. But the men around him did not.
“Most I’ve heard No-Tongue say in a long while,” Dave commented, lighting a pipe, then went on, “Well, Keith said for you to wait here for him here, eh? But we gotta go. See you later Adam.”
With Dave’s rising men everywhere hastened to gulp down coffee and stood up and wolfed down toast slices and made for the door.
Within three or four minutes the Café was cleared.
And then in strode Keith.