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The first time I met Claire it was New Year’s Eve, on a cold and blowy Saskatchewan winter night. I was five years old and my mother and father were going out to a party and asked Claire, who lived behind our house with her parents, Dorothy and Lewis, to babysit me for the evening.
I liked Claire as soon as I met her. She was tall and slim and elegant looking, and covered in white snow, the day she came to babysit me. She shook the snow from her toque and stomped her rubber boots on the mat. Her cheeks were flushed with the look of the outdoors. She brushed crystals of snow from her eyelashes, with a dainty flick of her hand.
A few months before my father had lost his job, and we’d left and headed west. Not long after, we stopped en route, landing in a rented house where we lived for a year, across the street from a biker gang, just north of Fort Qu’Appelle on the eastern shore of the Quill Lakes, in Wadena, Saskatchewan.
My mother told me Wadena is a native word that means a little round hill, but it didn’t have any hills that I could see. It was flat land, covered with snow and ice in the winter, hip-deep mud flowing through the gulley’s in spring, dusty roads in summer. There was no running water and a huge water tank, painted white, flagged the lane that led to the front doorstep of our house. On one side was an open field; on the other was a farm you couldn’t see for the trees, and in behind was where Claire lived. And all that stood between my five-year-old legs and Old Lewis’ giant bull that guarded the gate was a short wooden fence.
To cheer me up, a few days before Christmas a Simpson’s Sears truck pulled up in front of the house. Two deliverymen carried in a brand-new RCA Victor stereo cabinet and set it down against one of the bare walls in the living room. On that New Year’s Eve, I sat, mesmerised, as Claire walked gracefully into the living room all dressed up, wearing her new string of pearls, and put on the album my father gave my mother for Christmas. Claire held out her hands to me and we danced to “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” and “Blue Christmas.”
Up until that night things had always been pretty quiet across the street, over at the biker’s house, but seeing as it was New Year’s Eve, I guess everyone was getting pretty drunk over there, and it kept getting louder and louder as the night went on. My mother still hadn’t hung curtains on most of the windows. We kept going over to the bay window in the front room and peering out, but it was too dark to see much, other than lights glowing through the curtains on the house across the street.
The bikers were usually pretty friendly to both of my parents, and to me too, for that matter, saying hello in their gruff voices, nodding in our direction with their helmeted heads, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, whenever we went by. Hawk was the only one who was friendly to Dorothy and Old Lewis though, and that was on account of what everybody already knew – that he was sweet on Claire. The rest of the bikers didn’t like Old Lewis, we found out later from Hawk, because he’d been out hunting for Quill Lake geese a couple of weeks before Christmas and he trespassed through the laneway, in behind their property. He’d done it before too, and been warned, so I guess that New Year’s they decided to come over and teach Old Lewis a lesson.
Our house was in front of Old Lewis and Dorothy’s place and you had to go up a short road to get there. Old Lewis kept a locked gate at the entrance to the road and he’d put up a fence all around his property so if you were on foot you had to climb over it from our yard.
The first sign of trouble came when I was in the bathroom. There was a clear glass window and when I sat down on the toilet I looked up and saw a biker with his face pressed up against it. His eyes were looking straight at me. His hot breath steamed against the cold glass. I screamed as I jumped off the toilet seat, pulling up my pyjama bottoms, and Claire came running in to see what happened.
Neither of us knew what to do. Claire checked the bolts on the front and back door and we huddled together on the living room couch. The men from across the street surrounded our house as they went through toward Old Lewis’ place. Without any curtains we were like prey to the outside world, and it felt as though we were being circled and stalked in a hunt. Somewhere off in the distance, one of them started yelping and chanting, and the others joined in, a few at a time. We were both petrified, still wrapped around each other on the couch, not moving or doing anything. We heard thrashing sounds, and lots of whooping and yelling. After a while their voices subsided, and we moved toward the windows. They had torn the fence down all around Old Lewis’ house; it lay on top of the snow. We saw the backs of their heads, faces pressed up against all the windows at Dorothy and Lewis’ place. The bikers stayed there for a while. Then, as suddenly as they’d appeared, the faces started moving away from Old Lewis’ windows. We saw them as they ran past our windows again, heads of long hair flowing behind in the wind. The bikers, I guess, having had their revenge, went back home to carry on their New Year’s festivities. Claire phoned my parents. They rushed home from their party, and the ordeal was over. But, somehow, after that night I was bonded to Claire, and always wanted only her my babysitter.
Most babysitters I’d had before never seemed to enjoy it that much; they just watched television and gave me my snack and put me to bed at the appointed hour. But Claire was childlike almost, and seemed to enjoy sitting on the rug on the living room floor with me, playing “Snakes and Ladders” or “Go Fish.” And she talked to me and told me things.
One afternoon, in early spring, my parents were out grocery shopping and I was sitting cross-legged beside Claire on the old brown couch in the living room. She was reading to me from Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories. Partway through, Claire’s voice started to get shaky. I could tell she was trying not to cry and didn’t want me to see, like I used to get sometimes when my mother wouldn’t let me leave the table until I’d eaten everything on my plate. Something about the story she was reading to me, a story about a father and a daughter, seemed to upset her.
“What’s the matter, Claire?” I asked. I touched her hand and looked up into her eyes. That seemed to make her want to cry even more and she broke down sobbing then, covering her face with her hands. I wasn’t sure what to do next.
“Won’t you tell me why you’re crying, Claire?” I said, taking her hand.
After a few minutes Claire pulled out a handkerchief from her purse and blew her nose. “Well, if you promise not to say anything to anyone, I’ll tell you a secret. But first you have to swear on the Holy Bible so I’ll know for sure that you won’t tell a single solitary soul.”
I ran and got my mother’s white Gideon Bible from where it sat, on the coffee table, next to her La-Z-Boy chair. The two of us stacked our hands, in solidarity, one on top of the other, on the cover of the Bible. Then, huddled on the couch, we sat silently and I looked up at Claire in anticipation, waiting for her to impart her secret. It was so quiet the hum of the refrigerator buzzed in my ear and the clicking of the clock on the kitchen wall seemed to be getting closer.
Claire stood in front of me and slowly pulled her sweater up to her neck and held it there with her hands over her head. I had to suppress a giggle as I stared straight into her small breasts that filled the cups of her white brassiere. Then, she turned around and showed me her back, covered in welts from belt straps, crusted in splotches of dry blood. I winced and sat in hunched silence looking at her, not knowing what to say.
Claire leaned in close to my face and whispered. She told me Old Lewis – she called him that – beat her up with a belt with nails on it, and that he’d done it lots of times before, too.
Up until then I had never heard of anything bad happening to anyone, and I didn’t know whether or not to believe Claire.
“How come Old Lewis beat you up?” I asked. “Did you do something bad?”
“No. Of course not,” said Claire. “He just wants to scare me, so I won’t say anything to anybody. So I won’t say anything…anything about…about…what he’s really like. I’m too afraid to tell anyone anyway, not even my closest friend, Hawk. Old Lewis would kill me if he found out. He said he would kill me if I told anyone. But nobody would believe you. Nobody would believe a little kid.”
“Old Lewis sure sounds mean – our father would never do anything like that,” I said.
“Well,” said Claire, “that’s because Old Lewis is not my real father. My real father was Einos Anders. He died when I was just a baby.” Claire hesitated for a few moments before continuing. “He got run over by his tractor when he left it running and then got out to close the gate. The gear slipped. Killed him instantly, my mother said.” Claire sat for what seemed the longest time after that, lost in thought and not saying a word. I held my breath.
Claire said that now that she had told me everything, we had to prove we were both sworn to secrecy. She said if Old Lewis knew he really would kill her, and to seal our bonded secret we had to make a pact. “Then,” she said, “we’ll be blood sisters for life.”
Claire told me to go and get a pin from my mother’s sewing basket. But I wasn’t having fun anymore. I didn’t want to get the pin. My lower lip quivered and I was about to protest but something about the look on Claire’s face told me there was no point in crying. That I was going to have to do this no matter what.
When I came back to the living room, Claire took the pin out of my hand and quickly pricked the end of her middle finger on her right hand. She held a Kleenex underneath to keep blood from dripping onto the carpet. Claire looked at me and I hid my hands behind my back. My heart raced. She ordered me to hold up a finger, so I did. I closed my eyes and waited for the sting. A quick prick and blood trickled out. It happened quickly but hurt more than I thought it would. I bit my lip to keep the tears from coming, anxious to be part of this intimate moment. Claire held up her finger and pressed it hard onto the end of mine. We both swore we would never tell. Our blood pact was sealed.
“Now,” said Claire, “as blood sisters we must go into the woods and bury one thing that each of us treasure.”
It was late Sunday afternoon on Easter weekend, a week to the day after my sixth birthday, and the sun was still shining in Wadena, Saskatchewan. A whiff of unearthed soil and damp leaves seeped into my nostrils as I crouched beneath a white birch tree on my hands and knees, digging a hole in the ground. Everything was completely silent. Not even the hint of a soft spring breeze sifted through the branches. I heard the crunch of footsteps on half-thawed leaves and momentarily froze, afraid to look, but when I turned around, I saw it was only Claire.
I watched as Claire took the pearl necklace that she had worn on New Year’s Eve from her coat pocket. The string was broken now, where the clasp had been, and she let the necklace drop with a soft plop into the bottom of the hole. I started to ask Claire what had happened to her necklace – she told me she had saved her babysitting money for over a year to buy those pearls. But her shoulders were shaking and her mouth was clenched, so I didn’t say a word.
Claire looked over at me. It had all sounded like such a fun adventure at the time that I don’t remember feeling apprehensive about giving up the silver dollar from my stocking at Christmas, and somehow, I just assumed I would be able to get it back.
The soil was wet and mucky as I plunged my hands farther into the earth to deepen the hole. I dropped my precious dollar in, then hesitated before refilling the cavity with dirt.
“Go ahead, Lori, bury it,” she said. “You must completely bury it.”
After that Claire told me to cover everything over. I heaped a pile of leaves on top and looked around for something to wipe my hands on. Instinctively they veered toward my wool coat, but I stopped midair. It would give away our secret if I were to go home with mud on my clothes. I slid my hands back and forth over the wet leaves until my palms were almost clean.
Claire set a large stone in the centre, a monument to our secret, and we walked back, hand in hand, toward the house. I kept turning and looking behind to try and see where it was, where the spot was. But the mound on top had already gone from sight, and now I wanted it back.
A few days after that I got curious to see whether I could witness Claire’s step-father in the act, for somehow, I still wasn’t quite sure how, if such a thing was going on, he could get away with it, and, if it was going on, I somehow felt compelled to save her. I sat, huddled on the front steps, plotting conspiratorially about what Claire had told me.
I cupped my hand around my mouth and with moist breath said quietly into my Beverley doll’s ear. “Let’s go peek in the windows and see if we can catch Old Lewis in the act! Let’s find out if it’s really true. I don’t see how come he doesn’t get caught if it’s really true. And if it is,” I said. “we have to save Claire!”
Even at a young age, I somehow intuitively understood that I was responsible for this information that had been entrusted to me.
I started spying on Claire’s house, getting braver and braver until I would go right up and stand and peer in the windows. I went back several times and everything seemed to always be quiet over there until one day, in early summer, I heard Claire crying softly from a distance as I walked toward the house. I kneeled low in the grass and made my way up to Claire’s bedroom window and heard her.
Her mother was standing on one side of the room and her step-father stood behind Claire, in an undershirt, with the top button to his pants undone and his arm held threateningly over her with the belt in his hand. The nails Claire had told me about looked more like studs. The belt was thick and leathery, like something used to tame a wild animal. Claire cowered below him, her shoulders stooped as she crossed her arms over her breasts. The right shoulder of her floral shift seemed to have been ripped, and her brassiere strap was pulled down and dangled loosely on her upper arm. Old Lewis was telling her mother to make Claire stop crying and stop making noise or he’d hit her again. Her mother remained standing where she was, stoically, seemingly impassive, not saying a word. As if Claire had taken her step-father’s pleas to her mother upon herself, realising she was defenceless, she quieted herself to ward off further attack. Her mother looked relieved at not having to get involved in the altercation. After Claire had quieted down, I watched for a minute, things seemed to subside, and, with legs shaking, I ran back toward my house.
As I ran past, the flash of my white sweater, or something, caught the eye of the huge bull moseying on Old Lewis’ property, and he gave chase. He was way behind me as I ran, but when I looked behind, at the last second, he’d caught up to me, just as I managed to straddle over the fence in time, the bull looking meaner than Old Lewis.
I think Old Lewis must have heard all the commotion or seen me at the window or found out Claire had said something to me, because after that she wasn’t allowed to babysit me anymore. But still, I felt compelled to hold Claire’s secret – after all, we had sworn over our fondest treasures – so I didn’t say anything to anyone. After actually witnessing it, somehow it all seemed too real and too horrible to talk about out loud anyway.
I didn’t see Claire for quite a while after that. Then one day, in early September, when it was still really hot out, I was inside, having supper. Someone knocked on the front door, and my father stood to answer. I heard a policeman saying Claire had disappeared and asking if anyone had seen her. Wadena is a small town so everybody was talking about it. I overheard my mother say the principal from the high school had reported Claire missing after she hadn’t shown up for her classes.
The police and several neighbours continued to search for Claire through the woods around our house, in behind Dorothy and Old Lewis’ place, and over in the laneway at the back of the bikers’ place. Police officers questioned everybody, including my parents and the bikers, and especially Hawk, since he was the last one to see her. But nobody questioned me. Right from the beginning everyone suspected Old Lewis and even her mother, Dorothy, because they hadn’t called the school or the police to say she had gone missing.
I overheard Hawk talking to my father and he said he had seen Claire the day before she disappeared.
“I went to her house,” he said. “I went up there to see if Old Lewis would loan me his sickle. When I arrived, I could tell that Old Lewis – well, he’d been drinking all afternoon. He didn’t even get up from his chair in front of the TV when I arrived. ‘C’mon in! he hollered through the screen door. Grab yourself a beer outta the fridge. Ed Sullivan’s coming on!’
“Well, I felt I had to be neighbourly,” Hawk said, “so I went into the kitchen and there was Claire, cooking dinner, potatoes boiling away on the stove. She said hi and opened the fridge door up for me. And I’m telling youse, without a word of a lie, every shelf in that fridge was filled with beer. I swear, you could of eaten everything else in there in one sitting!” Hawk said.
“Anyway, I grabbed myself a bottle and went in and set down on a chair next to Old Lewis. Something didn’t smell too good in there, and bluebottle flies were buzzing and hovering around the television. The heat was kind of getting to him too, Old Lewis said. He’d taken off his shirt and was sitting in his white Jockey undershirt, with his shorts and belt undone, trying to cool off. Dorothy was kind of huddled off in the corner, afraid to make a move like, and Old Lewis, he just sat in his chair, cool as a cucumber. He was guzzling back a Black Label. ‘What in bloomin’ hell is going on around here?’ Old Lewis yelled into the kitchen after Claire. ‘Shit, I’m sitting here trying to watch Ed Sullivan. And all day long these goddamn flies are everywhere.’
“Claire peeked around the kitchen door then, with the fly swatter,” Hawk said, “and the whole time, Old Lewis just kept yelling at her, louder and louder. ‘In this stinking heat the toilet out back just attracts them flies like bees to nectar. Goddamn it, Claire, I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell you to shut the damn door. They been buzzing around my head all bloody afternoon and I been busier’n a two-dicked dog, bashing at ’em one by one. And just when I thought I got rid of ’em all and sat down to watch TV, God damned if you didn’t let more a them in, and two or three landed right square in the middle of the bloody TV screen. Well, I just had it by now.’
“And then Old Lewis up and pulled his hunting rifle out from under his bed and shot up the flies, right square in the middle of the television screen. A puff of smoke lingered in the heat above the TV set,” Hawk said. “And then, I guess realising what he’d done – blowing the television set to smithereens – Old Lewis took it out on Claire. He yells out wanting to know where Claire’s at. He jumps out of the chair and whips off his loose belt and takes off after her with his shorts drooping down, quite a sight, as he was thrashing at the back of Claire’s calves, right out of his head. Claire was so scared she didn’t know what to do,” Hawk said. I whipped the belt out of Old Lewis’ hands and was about to tackle him. “That’s when Claire ran out the back door and up the hill behind the house and I haven’t seen her since.”
After overhearing what Hawk said, I felt scared. I wondered then whether I should tell Claire’s secret. But I was afraid I would get into trouble for not telling sooner, so I kept quiet.
After several days of searching, a policeman went out with a K-9 sniffer dog and found Claire hiding in the old deserted outhouse in the bush at the back of Dorothy and Old Lewis’ place. She had run away from home and been living there for a week, surviving on food she had stashed away there, bit by bit, sleeping on a blanket on the floor right next to the smelly old toilet hole.
I still have the article with Claire’s picture on the front page of the Wadena News. It was a snapshot of a policeman taking Claire by the arm, gently guiding her out the door. My mother had read the story out to my father and the paper said her legs were weak from being crouched in the outhouse for so long and she was a bit wobbly and had to be held up as the police took her home. In the photograph, her blonde hair looked shiny with grease and stuck to the sides of her head a bit, but even so, it hung in a tidy bob that gave the illusion of pedigree. Her dress and cardigan sweater, usually always neat and clean, were filthy and looked shabby. But she still looked pretty as she posed in front of the outhouse door for the local newspaper reporter, more like she might be modelling a summer dress for the Sears catalogue than being rescued by the police. With one arm held slightly back, balancing her brown leather handbag, the other arm straight down at her side, shoulder back, one leg bent at the knee, she stood in front of the door, frozen in a pose. Only her eyes that, even in black and white, you could see were glazed and panicked, gave a clue of what may lie behind the door in front of which she was standing.
At the time, I felt left out and was hurt and disappointed that Claire hadn’t taken me with her, hadn’t included me in the adventure. But now I can see what courage she had had to run away and how desperate she must have been to hide in the outhouse alone, for a whole week.
Shortly after that a big dark car, like a limousine, with letters painted on the side, pulled up in front of Claire’s house, and a very official-looking man and woman, both in uniforms, got out and waited, not stepping inside the front door. Claire came out all dressed up, wearing her hat, like she was going to church, with her white-gloved hands clutching a little brown suitcase she was holding in front of her.
“Where’s Claire going?!” I asked my mother. “Whose car is that?”
“Well, sweetie, they’ve found Claire a nice foster home to go to,” my mother said. “It’s Children’s Aid, come to get her.”
“But why does Claire have to be the one to go away?” I asked. “It’s not fair. Old Lewis is the bad one. Old Lewis is the one who should be sent away, not Claire!”
I rushed out to the back yard and picked a bouquet of dandelions with white puffy tops for Claire to blow on and make a wish for good luck. I ran up the driveway to give them to her, but just as I reached her, she was ushered into the black car. She seemed peaceful and calm, her small gloved hands still clutching her bag, climbing into the back seat and not looking back, not even to wave to me, as I watched her drive away down the long, winding dirt path toward the road.
From a distance, Dorothy skulked behind the window in the front door with her arms crossed and a dark expression on her face. She didn’t run after the car to try and stop it as she stood and watched Claire being taken away, or even cry out. Her weary face seemed to belie a wash of relief.
In my mind’s eye, in the background, the string of pearls half dangled from Claire’s neck, with the rest of the pearls scattered around her feet, like a pool of milky teardrops. Old Lewis was telling Claire’s mother to make Claire stop crying and stop making noise, or he’d hit her again. And what struck me then and still does, even to this day, is that her mother did nothing to help her.
Old Lewis stood next to Dorothy until the car disappeared around the turn at the end of the road, and then he slammed the door shut on the rest of the world.
Awhile later I started thinking about my silver dollar, and I wanted it back. I went off to try and find the spot where we had buried it. I followed the trail, away from the house and into the woods, past the big birch tree at the corner – our blood sisters marker – and across the wooden boards thrown down on a puddle, now dried from the summer heat. I searched and searched and dug under familiar looking logs, but could not find the right spot.
A few months afterwards, in late fall, just after the start of the school year, my parents packed up the house, out of the blue, almost a year to the day after we’d stopped off on the doorstep in Wadena, and we moved away to Canora, Saskatchewan. On the last day, standing in my bedroom, I can still remember looking through my empty dresser drawers after everything had been packed, trying to find my silver dollar from my Christmas stocking, somehow hoping I hadn’t really buried it. I looked back at our house as we pulled out of the driveway for good, and realised I had lost my silver dollar forever.