Tired and near dead, George Mueller’s head was caught in dreams as if he were still dreaming them. Other things he would not have considered real stood just before him too, but they all existed somehow clearer than his hunger or his exhaustion and not for any reason he could have made plain. He saw a wood cabin grow out of the muskeg but ignored the possibility until he had gotten a hand on the porch. He crawled up and went through the front door, stumbled a pace, and then, standing upright, met eyes with, of all things, a lady.
“What’s a lady doing out here?” he called, believing he was still shouting intothe stillnesses.
“This lady’s been trapped here three weeks,” she said.
He walked over and touched her hair. “Who’s been feeding her?”
“She’s got food. Sit and maybe she’ll fix you some.”
“I’d like to keep touching you.”
She walked toward the stove. The cabin, of a single room, housed a lonely straw bed in a corner, in the rest, scumbled heaps of junk—pickle jars, jam jars, empty vermilion tins, cottons, files, a cracked whiffletree, butcher knives, shaganappi,cans, books, bottles—like the place eventually swallowed its tenants and burped up the noncomestibles.
“What is this soup?”
“Pumpkin,” she said.
She brought the tin to him, and he squinted at the label. “It’s rusty,” he said.
“It grows down south. You really don’t know what a pumpkin is?”
He looked at her and at the label and again at her. “Well if it grows at all, it grows down south. What’s that accent, Dutch?”
“Yeah, well it’s lovely.”
While he ate, he told her how they had killed an Indian. He was mainly just making conversation, but then he started to cry and drool back his soup. “We shot him,” he said. “He woke up one morning and found his ether had turned to water. He said, “One of you take my ether, or am I just having that dream where my ether turns to water?’ and for the accusation, Reg shot him. Then Reg laid downside the Indian, on the rocks as he died. He overed him a smoke of his pipe and a huff of his ether. He told him, “It’s something of an irony, eh, here I am overing you your very own ether for which you been shot.’ The Indian shook and mumbled at the sun and was dead.”
“Where’s Reg now?”
“Reg died yesterday. He tripped over a mire and took twelve steps forward into a boulder. He twisted as he fell, staring back at me with those wide-open eyes. It seemed like we sort of shared a second there of disbelief, but he was dead, and I had to keep going.”
She made him up a pallet against the far wall, and he sat down over the blankets while he pulled his boots off. “What’s he gone for anyway?” he asked her.
“Who?” she said.
“Your man. I’m supposing you got one.”
“He’s a Mounted Police. They’ve gone off to find a few crooks who robbed the Dene’s post a couple weeks back. I suppose you’re one of those crooks.”
She was pretending to fuss around with pots when she said that. He took a white rag from his pocket, unbunched it, and held it by two corners, flapping it out twice like laundry. He folded it, took a bottle out of another pocket, and doused the rag with ether.
He said, inhaling, “I think that maaaaay . . . I think that may be the case. I think, lady, that’s probably the situation we have here.”
The sky was getting on dark, a periwinkle blue that, just before it died, lived again, returning with another twenty-two hours of perfect daylight.
He never made another advance—the next morning, feeling better, he washed the pots, took out the jakes, and, without being asked, turned round when she changed. At first she thought he was trying to gain her favors, but never trading them in, she suspected he was expending his love elsewhere. He kept silent mostly, stretched out over his pallet or out skinning a hare, always composing short, unintelligible verse to that ether. He said, “Good morning,” and “Good evening,” and “Suuuunny day-ay-ay. Sunny day today.” She wasn’t sure what he was doing here. Why hadn’t he moved on? She called him into the cabin on the fourth morning.
“What for?” he called back from outside. “Everything okay?”
He stepped inside. It was dark. Was she half naked? No—yes. In the dawn light humming through the drawn, orange curtains, he imagined the quiet, sniffly sounds of a sad, lonely woman being made love to inside of a pumpkin. He waded through spent rifle casings, jars, moldy furs. An old, Victorian, bone-handled phone was away in the junk. Stepping on it, it chirped. Kicking it aside, it rang.
“Well,” she said, hands on her bare hips, “aren’t you going to answer that?”
“Lady, you’re a vision.”
“He’s going to kill you now,” she said.
“Wait. What?” His sweat hadn’t even cooled. “Who is?”
“I mean, he’s probably going to kill the both of us, but he’s definitely going to kill you.”
“What, you don’t think I even stand a chance?”
“I don’t think you’re of sound mind.” She drifted off a moment into dark thoughts but then quickly retrieved herself.
“What were you just thinking?”
“Oh please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking sides.”
“You’re not taking sides?”
“John MacDonald never killed anyone.”
“That’s his name? John?”
“He’s for the most part a fine, polite fellow. A gentleman. Really very fragile. You really might have nothing to worry about. He hurt a guy only once that I ever heard about. The man had shot his dogs. John found him at a restaurant and tried blinding him with his thumbs. You’re not afraid, are you?”
“Afraid of what?”
She turned her head, and her expression made him think he’d missed the whole conversation.
“Not if you say I don’t need to be.”
“I’m saying you need to be. You don’t think I still love him?”
“Aren’t you telling me you do? What the hell are we talking about?”
“You know, Georgie. Sadness is true happiness.” She stood up, and he noticed she had some sort of fancy cursive writing on her right buttock. She walked toward the dresser. There was no mirror, just the empty frame where one had been, but she posed before it anyway, letting these small madnesses flank her.
“What that’s on your ass?” he asked.
“Happiness obstructs true happiness,” she went on. “We must all bring the hammer down on our happiness and be born again in blood. I don’t think you’ve made any such bold moves.”
“Hey! I asked you what was that on your ass.”
“What?” she replied impatiently. “I can’t see where you’re pointing.”
She didn’t stop what she was doing, show a cheek, move her head, nothing.
“You know what a tattoo is, Georgie?”
“Shut up, lady. What’s it say?”
She was tying her hair back, holding the bobby pin in her mouth. She waiteduntil it was out of her mouth. “Well it doesn’t say Georgie.”
Hearing him early the next morning, she went outside to see what he was up to. He was rolling a bale of iron wire around the perimeter, outfitting their home with a low-lying, hard-to-see fence. With string he attached empty food cans.
“What’s all this?” she asked.
“I’m booby trapping this rig, mama. Truth is I’d like to marry you.” She tried not to look surprised by the news. “What’s wrong? That doesn’t interest you?”
“I’m already getting married,” she said. “To John.”
“You don’t have to be.”
“This fence isn’t going to hurt anyone, is it? Not on my account do I want anyone hurt.”
“I’m not laying down bear traps or nothing. It’s just a little fence. Going to give us a little notice before he, this John, gets to the door.”
She walked back to the cabin, patting the early morning sunshine into her hair. Then she stopped and turned. “But then what’s going to happen? What are you going to do after that?”
“Well I don’t know,” he said, thinking it over. “Probably we’re going to hurt each other.”
Later, he disappeared. Usually she could spot him out there on the muskeg, this eternal rambling yard, waiting quietly to lay the drop on a bird or rodent. But today he had set out farther. The forest looked miles away, but these stunted, midget spruce stood, in fact, about seventy yards from the cabin. She looked upon them as enemies. There were plenty out there.
He came back around midnight with his rifle, but nothing to show for it. He smelled like ether, and she asked him where he’d been.
“Up at the public house.”
“Which public house?”
“Just up the mile.”
“There isn’t a public house within a week from here!”
“Well I was at one.”
He stood there on the threshold, tottering on his heels. “We just going to keep staring at each other like strangers, or are you going to let me in? I’ve brought good news.”
“It doesn’t look like it.” She let him through. She tried to close the door up behind him, but he stopped her.
“Just hold on there,” he said. “I’ve brought somebody along.”
She peered outside. “By God, Georgie, who?”
“Who? He’s standing right there between us, who.”
She readjusted her eyes, for his sake, but they were back to staring at each other like strangers.
“It’s Reg,” he said. “Reg is back.”
“Reg? Reg who?”
“Reg, my partner Reg. He’s back and we’re going to start maaaaaking . . . we’re going to start making money again.” Putting away the rag, he slowly prepared himself a pipe, drew a match unsuccessfully across a number of surfaces before he got a spark off his fly button. Then he held the flame out for Reg.
She blew it out.
“What in hell’s wrong with you?” she yelled.
“Boil us up a pot of coffee; we’ve got some talking to do.”
When she returned, they—he wasn’t talking business. The conversation, rather, had turned to her. “Well, you never respected women much anyhow, Reg,” he said. This was all being put to an empty chair. “You don’t have to look far. You can smell their secrets. They stink.”
“I don’t have any secrets. Stop it.”
“No, you don’t need to look far. Just need to know where to look.”
“Stop it!” she cried.
“Writes them in permanent right across her buttocks.”
“Alright, alright,” he said, “leave her alone, Reg. That’s enough out of you.”
“There isn’t anyone there! There isn’t anyone but you and me.”
“No, Reg. I won’t be a party to that. Absolutely not. We’re not married, but she’s still my girl. We’re not sharing this one, partner.”
She was wiping the tears from her eyes before they could go anywhere. “Share what?”
“Reg here was a Congregationalist minister. They jugged him ten years back for helping a young housemaid abort. They jailed him down in Fort Garry. The girl died a couple months after that.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
George stood up slowly and came to her. “You know,” he whispered in her ear, “he’s fixing to sleep the night with you.”
“Well tell him no!” she shouted, not sure how it mattered, but scared to death anyhow. “Tell him no, Georgie!”
“I don’t know if I can hold him off. To tell the truth, I owe him more than that.”
“No, Georgie. Hold him off!”
“Well if you promise to let her alone afterwards.”
“She’s my girl, remember that, partner. A skirt is a skirt and must be respected so.”
George took her arm in a firm hand.
“Honey, it’s just the one night,” he said.
“Georgie, please—George!” He forced her across the room and onto the bed.
“What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen to me!”
Nothing. Nothing would happen to her. It was hard only in the first few moments to think of the ghost of some murdering man there beside her. But for the rest of the night, it was only George who supposed it. He was sleeping down on the cold, dusty floor, the weaker man, sprawled out over the blankets. As she lay awake, she listened to the food cans tied out along the fence. They expressed— hollow and sad—the sorrow of the wind when the wind started blowing.
Over the course of the next week, he brought a number of ghosts home. People she had never known, invisible men and women she was obliged, once or twice, to prepare meals for. None of them were like Reg. None of them were out to bed her. They were, for the most part, benign, and when and if they weren’t, they were of no account, here and gone, distinguished only by a few muttered words by George. They even managed to add a little color to the evenings; company was a reason to get dressed every day. And she would don a dress and her mother’s Irish lace even when George had gone out, for sometimes he turned up, back with a dead fox or—if they weren’t lucky—lemmings, and go, “Oh, hello,” and it wouldn’t be to her.
“Who’s here?” she would say.
“What do you mean, “Who’s here?’ It’s Joe Louis.”
“Joe Louis? The boxer Joe Louis? But he isn’t even dead.”
“I know,” he said. “He’s standing right there beside you!” George caught his reflection in the dirty window and shuffled. “One, two, three!”
And Joe was down.
George smoked his pipe at nights on the porch—long after he had run out of tobacco—laughing and bantering with God knows who. They were old friends, neighbors, sometimes Eskimos, once or twice Chinese or the like. He said an old dog of his came through here just last morning barking, “George! George! George!” That had been unexpectedly emotional.
“You ever meet Mr. Hires here?” he asked her one afternoon.
“I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure,” she replied.
“I used to work for this captain, down on the north of Lake Winnipegosis,” said George. “It’s just him and you, and he doesn’t say a word all day. I don’t mind telling jokes—my old dad was a proper storyteller—but this captain just had nothing going. Now for Mr. Hires here, I worked on the Berens River, from Limestone Bay to Norway House. And, boy, didn’t he have things to say. He had some stories, boy.”
“Oh, I had some stories,” said George in a lower, dopier voice, playing the part of Mr. Hires.
“What sort of stories?” she asked.
“Well, I’m not sure you’ll want to hear the one I have to tell,” said George, chuckling. “He left his wife alone once in an old farmhouse down river, and when he comes back, he discovers a wolf on top of her, having his way.”
“A wolf?” she said. “Sir, is this true?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Hires, “and I don’t know why any of you find it funny.”
“What I’m talking about,” said George, “is how this wolf had assumed a position right on top of her, skirts right over her head—”
“Right well humping her, you know? You understand me, honey?”
“Yes, George, we understand you.”
“Just lettin’ him.”
“Yes,” she said, “we heard you.”
She had gone out with a basket to collect rocks on this great damp sponge, such was her boredom. She could spot George out there, too, lying dead still behind a lump of ground. When his rifle fired, the report traveled over and against her like a flood. The patch on which she thought she had seen him was rather just the color of the lichen in that patch, and he stood up now, cursing loudly, about twenty meters from that spot. She didn’t like these tricks. She wished whoever was playing them would quit.
She returned to the cabin. From inside came a faint muttering. As she opened the door, she took for granted that she had never actually heard a ghost speak before.
“Jillian Russell . . . well, she was something beautiful . . . only cost me a dime in the eighties . . . price of a haircut . . .” A man was sitting in the chair, a strong, old-looking man with a shotgun set across his lap. Her shock was delayed, and yet she wasn’t quite sure he was real. “But I gambled her off to Lou Gray in ’98 . . . lost my cherry-eyed Arabian, too. But a horse is a horse, and some whores is some whores.” She came closer and touched his balding head. He stopped talking, and rather than looking suddenly and unpleasantly interrupted, he just looked interrupted. “I want you, Miss, to go and stand in that washbasin there.” Waxed moustaches as a priority—thrown in among all those of survival—always struck her as profoundly psychotic in these men of the North. His eyebrows, too, might as well have been waxed, but they just danced all over his forehead.
“Who are you?”
“Go ahead and stand in that washbasin,” he repeated.
She went and stood. “What am I to do in it?”
George could be seen and heard distantly through the window, missing another shot. “And then there was Laura Campbell,” the old fellow went on. “I made thirty-one bucks and won her too . . . three hands. Had to beat Todd bareknuckled to convince him . . . never cheated a hand, honey. We called that beatup old place “the Dutchman.’ Ingram, that boozy, brawling chief of police, taken in flagrante delicto in a Colony Creek whorehouse. I could run my mouth off all night.”
“It sounds like it.”
“Sarah Keyes—there we go. That girl could swallow a snake!”
“Are you real?” she asked at last.
He looked over at her. There was either a pimple on his nose or a bot fly had found a burrowing.
“You know,” he said. “I recognize you.”
“I don’t know why you would.”
“I know every whore from here to Minneapolis, and I’m thinking we have crossed paths before.”
“I’m not a whore.”
“Emily!” he exclaimed. “Emily Farquhar, isn’t it? Or Frickles or Pickles or something like that. That’s your name, isn’t it? Tough girl, Emily. Used to punch the gentleman in the eye, right in the blissful moment—”
“I’m marrying a Mounted Police.”
“—and claim it was the demons of sin compelled her. Yeah, she mounted policemen too . . . they all do. The only whore I ever saw take a side was Sarah Keyes. She cut an o˜cer’s throat. We sat him at the bar after he’d done his bleeding and ordered an evening of drinks. When the barman asks us who’ll be paying, says Sarah, “That fella there—grinning ear to ear!’ You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.”
“George said you were a Congregationalist minister.”
“Yes, I’ve ministered. I even posed as a Jew for a day. You can’t fix a fight with these old Hungarians unless you cut the seat out of your trousers and clip it to your scalp.”
“George!” she shouted.
“Yes, I remember those pipes—on the outskirts of Epheus were the infamous Groves of Daphne—sing, Emily, sing!”
George’s boots hit the porch steps running.
Drunk? Was he drunk? No, it was that ether. No—or was he dying? Drops of blood were falling from his head like nickels. He felt like he’d traveled to the end of the day and back without a report as to what had gone wrong. What had it been? “Get up, George, get up!” It had been the goddamn telephone, that smoky bone Victorian number, fired right at his head. It rested harmless now on the floorboards of his mind, its dying ringer—ringing? No, that was a whistling.
“That you, Reg?”
The whistling stopped.
“That’s me, George.”
“How about that! Reg is back. You hear that, honey?”
“I hear that.”
“Tell me, how’s he look? How’s that head of his?”
“Better than yours,” she said.
“I can’t really see you, Reg. You’ll have to excuse me.” He tried looking up, that stupid askance look of the injured man with blood in his eyes. “What’s she doing? What do you have her doing, Reg?”
“I got her standing in a washbasin. It’s not the most respectable place for a lady to be left standing, I understand, but I needed a little organization in this matter, and having her in a washbasin makes me feel organized.”
George mumbled comprehension. “The loot’s all in the pack,” he said. “You can go on and take it; I don’t need any of it. You can take it and leave us alone.”
“You left me to die, George Mueller.”
“You were already dead.”
“I lied dumb and paralyzed while you cleaned my pockets.”
“I didn’t know you weren’t dead.”
“I was breathing.”
“It didn’t seem to be the case.”
“Amazing,” said Reg, looking back at her. “I swear. Emily Farquhar. Last time I saw her, she was squatted on a whiskey neck—”
“Leave her be!”
“You never have to look far,” said Reg. “Just have to know where to look.”
“I said leave her alone!”
“You spit right in my face, George! You thought I was dead, and you spit right in my face.”
“Yes, that I certainly did.”
Reg stood up, and his chair skirled across the floor, shutting the mosquitoes up for a hundred miles. He butted George with the end of his shotgun. George grabbed his head. Now a wolf was howling in his brain. He stood up, raving: “It’s like some fire has gotten inside and I can’t put it out!”
“Funny you should say,” said Reg. “I had me a Honey Lou, so named, just a couple months back. Taken from the bee-hind, a lady can sustain a conversation, and she wasn’t the most thoughtful girl, but she had a few interesting ideas. We got talking about Indians, and she said, “I wonder if an Indian knows what heartburn is. Maybe, you know, they think it’s fire in the chest.’ I was a little impressed with the notion, but a whore’s got plenty of time to think, doesn’t she? Doesn’t she, Emily? If you don’t have any modern medical persuasions, I suppose it’d have to be true. Heartburn’s fire. Maybe love’s water. Sadness dirt. I don’t know. Speaking the truth, it all feels like fire to me.”
George was leaning against the wall, moaning. She had run over to him and was now supporting him under the arm. He was expecting a sort of welcome, or good-bye, but she just said, “You two are both a son of a bitch.”
“I’m not a whore, George.”
“Why aren’t you calling me Georgie?”
“But a headache!” shouted Reg, obliging their ears. “What would some old ancient caveman have made of that—” George’s knees gave out just then, and he was back to a pile on the floor. Reg laughed. “Shit. Yeah. Gravity. There you go, partner. But I’m not sure that that existed all the way back then.”
George unlimbered himself once more, and gently pushing her aside and balancing himself unsteadily in the center of the room, he just stayed there a time. They were expecting him to fall over again, but then he made a sudden dash for the door and out of the cabin—“I’m sorry!” he wailed—and no one flinched.
The next sound was cans.
Reg looked around like he had lost a penny. He dusted a little lint off his cuff and sharpened his moustache.
“You remember that Meg Leadbone,” he said, “that squaw that carved her teeth out of whale tusk. She had that place in Churchill. Nightmare of a whorehouse.”
She was no longer standing in a tub but still looked confined to a tight space.
“You can’t be a gentleman in those surroundings. Oh, no. You can’t be much of a lady either. Not with that angry bay booming and blowing down your collar. But it’s like you’re really living, isn’t it, Emily? A little church light breaking the gray, everything so wide and windy, civilization just seems like a passing fancy.”
George, who had been grunting, gave a squeal.
“And we’re long since passed it, aren’t we, Emily?”
“I guess so.”
Full of such purpose, she looked like she should have been given something to do. Maybe something ought to be in her hands. Reg made a note of that. She was still a handsome woman—that hadn’t changed.
Beyond Reg you could see George out there, shipping and twisting against the low wire fence. Reg, crunching the moraine toward him, ceremoniously cracked and flicked closed the shotgun. At a point, George stopped struggling. He lay tangled, relaxed, though not exactly resigned. He was weeping and mumbling some words and looking up at the clouds—a light had gone on in some back alleyway of his mind where men and women waved from high windows. But they must have had him mistaken. He didn’t know this place.
The next sound was thunder.
Jay Irwin lives in Montreal, where he co-owns a pub. He holds an MFA from Queen’s University of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“The Muskeg” appears in our Spring 2012 issue.