About the Author

Warren Cariou

Warren Cariou was born in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, into a family of mixed Métis and European heritage. He has written many articles about Canadian Aboriginal literature, especially on Métis culture and storytelling, and he has published two books: a collection of novellas, The Exalted Company of Roadside Martyrs (1999) and a memoir/cultural history, Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging (2002). He has also co-directed and co-produced two films about Aboriginal people in western Canada’s oil sands region: Overburden and Land of Oil and Water. Cariou has won and been nominated for numerous awards. His most acclaimed work to date, Lake of the Prairies, won the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction in 2004. His films have screened at many national and international film festivals, including Hot Docs, ImagineNative, and the San Francisco American Indian Film Festival. Cariou has also served as editor for several books, including an anthology of Aboriginal literature, W’daub Awae: Speaking True (2010), and he is the fiction co-editor of Prairie Fire. Cariou is a Canada Research Chair in Narrative, Community and Indigenous Cultures at the University of Manitoba, where he also directs the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture.

Books by this Author
Lake of the Prairies
Excerpt

1
The Story of You

Once Upon a Town

Where do I come from?
The potato patch.
God in Heaven.
A falling star.
The stork.
A moonlit night.
A hole in the legs.
You were named for the doctor who delivered you.
Where, really?
From here. You’re from right here. The town of Meadow Lake, the province of Saskatchewan, the country of Canada, the planet of Earth. Just down the street at the Meadow Lake Union Hospital you were born, and we lived in the Carter Apartments until you were one, and then we moved to the house, and you grew like quackgrass in the backyard.
And that’s the story of you.

We always have to take someone’s word for it, that mystery of origins. Maybe that’s why I believed I was not so much from a place as from a story–or rather a collection of stories, mutually contradictory and continually evolving in the mouths of my many relatives. This was fine with me. I loved all stories. Dad told us new ones every night at bedtime, and sometimes during the day too, if we badgered him long enough. And even without such prompting, Uncle Hank and Uncle Vic and Uncle Leo told stories on each other, and then Dad would step in to contradict them all and we wouldn’t know who to believe. Mom would stretch Dad’s name out to two syllables–“Ra-ay!”–whenever she thought the shenanigans had gone too far, and Dad would say “Hmp. What! It’s true!” in a tone that suggested the opposite. Dad and his brothers told their stories the way they played cards: as if there was a nickel at stake–and that mattered–and as if the others might very well be cheating. And the point, it seemed to me, was not to get at the truth but to trump their opponents with the most outrageous lie at the most opportune moment.

The household could break into these word-wars at the slightest provocation. One brother might say, “Does it seem cool in here to you?” and another would respond, “Naahhh. Not like those times at the farm when the water froze in the wash basin.”

And the battle was on.

“Not like when I had to tunnel through eight-foot snowdrifts to get from the house to the chicken coop.”

“Bullshit! It wasn’t cold then. Snow’s an insulator.”

“Damn near smothered us though, right along with the chickens. I remember they were all keeled over when I got the door open, and the first thing I thought was, that damn weasel’s back!”

“Weasel, indeed.”

You never did that tunnelling anyway. Uncle Corentin did–I remember him coming in with the shovel frozen to his mitts.”

“I froze my ears in bed once, on the farm. Forgot to wear my tuque.”

“Remember when the chickadees froze solid on the bobwire fence?”

“That was your noggin that froze solid.”

“They did. A dozen chickadees and a pigeon.”

“And a great big clump of bull shit!”

“They did! I plucked them off like apples and Mom baked them in a pie.”

“Ra-ay!”

We never knew how these jousts would end–with shouted accusations of bullshit, or laughter, or simmering silences that might well evolve into feuds. As a spectator sport, it was better than Stampede Wrestling, more suspenseful than The Edge of Night.

When it was just the five of us, the immediate family, the stories were not so much a competition as a reward for good behaviour, or at least a diversion from bad.

“Tell us a story, Dad,” we pleaded, several times a day.

“We’ll see,” he said. This was what he always said when we asked for anything. Once I asked if we could have an elephant to play with in our backyard sandbox and he
said, “We’ll see.” Most of the time we didn’t believe he was listening at all. But still we asked our questions, made our requests. It was part of the game, that we would try to coax him away from his newspaper or his book or his chesterfield snoozes. Usually when we had all but given up, he would turn to Glenn or me and say–as if the idea had just occurred to him–“Ready for a story, Buzz?”

He called both of us Buzz, short for Buzzard. Also Little Man. When Michelle was old enough to be something other than The Baby, she became Missy or Miss. And Glenn was Glenn D., and I was Warren G., which became Warren Jeremiah, even though my middle name was Gerald. Sometimes I wondered where these names had come from, but I didn’t ask. It seemed appropriate that, just as there were multiple versions of my uncles’ stories, there were multiple versions of me. Even Dad was Ray or Raymond or Mr. Cariou to other people, and on the diplomas in his office he was Raymondum Geraldum Cariouum. That was the funniest name of all. Mom was Melba or Mrs. Cariou, and to our English friends she was Melber. How could we be so many different things? It seemed that names
were the briefest, most cryptic kind of stories, and that it would take a lifetime to puzzle out their plots and settings and characters.

Sometimes Dad told us our stories in the living room, or the backyard, or in the car as we drove to Canwood or Leonard’s Ranch or the cabin, but the ones we counted on were the bedtime variety. Bedtime was in fact renamed storytime, in a fully successful attempt to quell our rebellions against the early hour (eight-thirty) of our appointed slumbers. For storytime we were willing to go to bed any time after supper.

Glenn and I shared a bedroom, and Dad would come in once we had said our prayers, or claimed to, and we would all climb into one tiny, quivering, plastic-sheeted bed. We lay on our backs, Glenn and I nestling under each of Dad’s arms, resting our heads on his shoulders. When Michelle was old enough she joined in too, the three of us Lilliputians on Dad’s Gulliverian body. We looked up at the stippled ceiling with its tiny winking sparkles that glimmered like distant stars. Streetlight came in through the window, seeping past the navy blue curtains. In winter the aquamarine of our outside Christmas lights illumined the frost patterns on the glass. Sometimes I would scrape my initials in that frost at night and would wake up the next morning to find the letters transmogrified by cold into curlicued rococo fonts like the ones at the beginnings of fairy tales.

“Okay. Where was I?” Dad would say, and we’d have to remind him, because each night’s story was somehow connected to the previous one and there could be no such thing as starting anew.

Sometimes he told us about where he was from, the town of Ituna in the southern part of Saskatchewan, where we had never been. He had grown up on a farm near Ituna with his mother and fourteen siblings. His dad had died when he was six or seven but he didn’t tell us about that. Instead he described the funny characters in the town and the trouble that he and his brothers got into. There was the story of Handlebar Harry, the Ituna barber who had fallen asleep in his barber’s chair one afternoon and awakened to find–eeyike!–one half of his handlebar moustache lying on the floor like a turd. (Dad always punctuated his tales with “eeyaws!” or “eeyikes!” at the many turning points of his plots.) There was the story of Jimmy Kobialchuk the bully, taunting Dad and Uncle Leo from the other side of a fence, watching them through a knothole in the wood. Uncle Leo put a rock in his slingshot and whap! shot Jimmy right through the knothole, gave him a black eye.

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Execution

Execution

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“Jesus,” said Krasnick. “I ­ain’t gonna shoot no horses!”

His ham-­red cheek pulled accusingly from the butt of his Bren gun, his eyes flashed wide with indignation. Ewart, his Number Two on the Bren, propped on one elbow, returned the look with disgust; the permanent sneer on his sharp-­pointed face became more pronounced. “Listen, you stupid bastard,” Ewart said in a voice of dispassion. “You’re gonna shoot where you’re told — get it?”

Sergeant Mitchell heard them and came sculling across the ground on massive forearms. The reserve section of Ten Platoon was spaced in firing position on a knob of Sicilian parkland, studded with tall, umbrella-­topped trees. Four hundred yards distant, on the same level but obscured by trees, was a connected group of stone buildings, identified on the map as Castello Donato; and this was the platoon’s first battle objective. At this moment their platoon commander, Lieu­tenant Adam, was leading the other two sections in a slow, silent advance up the slope which led to the iron gates of the castle. Every eye had been anxiously following his progress.

Corporal Fowler, the section commander, yielded place to Sergeant Mitchell gratefully. Mitchell sat, steadied his elbows on thick thighs, and peered through his binoculars. He had to squint to see beyond the sunlight dappling the grillwork on the ornamental iron gate; then all at once he sat rigid and stopped breathing. For this moment he even forgot to order the section’s weapons back on their target.

Here at last, in the afternoon of their first day at war, the enemy was visible; and that enemy consisted of soldiers arrayed in blue and gold, sabres belted at their side, and mounted on horses. Horses! Behind the horsemen, in a kind of courtyard, some baggy-­panted infantrymen milled about, but there was no mistaking these others: they were cavalry. And Infantry Section Leading, which Sergeant Mitchell knew by heart, said not one word about cavalry.

Years before Mitchell’s nose had been broken in two places, and when he scowled his nose became flattened to one corner of his mouth. At this moment his scowl made him appear ferocious.

Around him the riflemen of the section were up on their elbows, weapons neglected, mouths agape. But Mitchell was unaware of them. His glance was fixed on the line of advancing men. What the hell was going to happen, Mitchell wondered, when they bumped those cavalry? He watched the lean, stalking form of Lieutenant Adam.

Mitchell longed to be with him too; but he had to recognize his platoon commander’s good sense in leaving him back here to organize the covering fire. Lieutenant Adam was competent; during the assault landing last night that was the discovery each man had made about the other. Now, as he watched, Mitchell found himself thinking that in many ways the two of them were much alike — both were solidly built and tough, and recognized a job of work when it had to be done. He’s a good man, Mitchell told himself: we’re going to make a good team. His glance was appraising as Adam moved through the parkland.

Behind him Krasnick’s voice recalled him brusquely to the present moment. “Horses!” said Krasnick, choking on the word. “I ­can’t shoot horses!” Krasnick had been raised on a farm in Manitoba. He was considered stolid, almost to the point of stupidity, and he had never before been known to display so much emotion on any subject.

But at once Sergeant Mitchell was in sure control again. “Get your weapons back on the target!” he hissed savagely to the whole section. Then to Krasnick, as though explaining a point of conduct to a small boy: “Look, Krasnick, you ­don’t have to shoot the horses. Shoot the men — off the horses.”

“Oh.”

Krasnick thought about this and after a moment he seemed satisfied. A moustached giant of a man, sitting astride a white charger, appeared to be delivering an oration to his mounted troops. The muzzle of Krasnick’s Bren gun pointed back at the grillwork, steadied, and held firm on the centre of the giant’s chest.

Mitchell lay down, poked his own rifle forward, and at once his glance darted anxiously back to Adam. The advancing force was now in the last hundred yards but as yet they could neither see nor be seen from the iron gates of the castle. For an instant Mitchell closed his eyes and willed a message across the parkland to Lieutenant Adam. Just take it easy, he tried to tell him: We’ll look after those cavalry for you. Every­thing’s going to be all right. . . .

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