prairie girl

by dm gillis

Hearts were this way, she was aware. She tried to ignore the familiar polished stone. The one in her gut. The one that accompanied such ferocious understanding.

The freighters sat like continents on the bay. She watched the angels fly above them. It was Christmas Eve, and she knew those angels would soon sing. Their somber blue and amber eyes, pretending to understand nothing of the human world, suddenly knowing beyond all safe and reasonable measure.

That night she would sleep in the park, and wait for them. There was a frosty patch near the lake, just off the trail and hidden by trees. She had candles. She would recite poems. Jesus was a Capricorn, if anything was true. He’d enjoy a little bit of poetry. There’d be colours in the night. They said there wasn’t, but she knew there were. They would fall like an eiderdown to comfort her. Then the cold would be someone else’s problem. The park was a fine place to sleep.

Hearts were this way, she knew it. She knew because there was a Christmas Eve decades ago, when she was only seventeen years old. The night the voices finally came to guide her away. They’d been promising to do it for so long. But that was the night they finally embraced her, and made her their own.

It was on a white rolling prairie, studded with the lights of warm wheat farmers’ homes. The soil underneath them quiet like something waiting to jump. Coercing with a shock, when the time was right, the winter wheat to grow into an infinite spring-green ocean.

But that was still months away from the events she remembered now. When she’d sought shelter along the side of a snowbound highway, beneath the aurora borealis surging in the clear black Saskatchewan sky.

Her father had drunk too much that Christmas Eve. And though he was a man of few words, he had wiped the kitchen clean of her and her mother with eloquent swings of his fists. That’s why she was on the highway, her arms wrapped tightly round herself. She had escaped with no gloves or coat, and it was terribly cold.

She’d been walking for miles when she came to the top of a low hill. There in the distance, a quarter mile away, was the glare of a single stationary headlight. Oddly positioned and silent in the stillness. It shouldn’t have been there at all. Radio reports throughout the day had said the highway was impassible.

“Catastrophe,” whispered a familiar voice. Familiar, but unnamed. Naming the voices would come later.

She closed her eyes tightly and put her hands over her ears. She shook her head. She didn’t want to hear.

“Be careful,” said another voice. “There’ll be ghosts.”

She bent into the wind and walked on. Then she began to run, sliding on the ice under the snow.

When she arrived, she saw that the headlight belonged to a pickup truck, its frontend crushed against a telephone pole. The headlight’s twin had been smashed to pieces.

There were two bodies, laying on snow darkened by blood, where they’d landed after going through the windshield. A man and woman. Their unmoving eyes staring up at the northern lights, as patches of frost crystallised across their faces.

She slowly stepped closer.

There was a scattering of things surrounding the bodies that must have come through the windshield with them. Sunglasses, fast food containers and empty cigarette packages. And strangely, a baby’s bottle. She picked it up and then dropped it again, as though it had squirmed in her hand. The milk was beginning to freeze.

“A baby,” a voice said.

“No!” she said, shaking her head.

She looked around, everywhere. There was no baby on the snow.

“The angels have her already,” said another voice.

“No,” said yet another. “It’s with the ghosts. The ghost are all round us. Just listen.”

She tried to ignore them. The voices were irrelevant, weren’t they? The doctors had said so. But they’d also said that she was too young for a thing they called psychosis. She was just high-strung. She had spit out their pills. She didn’t believe in them. The doctors were liars, pompous and passionately blind to what was magical.

Snow seemed to fall now from invisible clouds. She was momentarily aware of meteors crisscrossing above.

And then she heard a soft noise. A cross between a squawk and a sigh, a baby sound. It came from in the dark cab of the truck.

For a moment she was unable to move, and was blinded by the headlight. If there was still a baby in the cab of the truck, she had to rescue it.

“It’s a ghost.”

“No,” she said, and strained to look through the broken windshield. And there was a baby, strapped into an infant’s car seat, held in place with a seat belt.

The baby looked back at her with soft brilliant eyes. Six months old, she guessed.

Carefully, she reached in and unfastened the buckles, mindful not to let the baby fall. Then, careful of the broken glass and tangled steel, she removed the child from the cab of the truck.

A boy, she assumed from the shades of blue in which he was wrapped. A happy boy, in spite of it all. He smiled at her, exposing the beginnings of his first tiny teeth.

“The angels don’t have him,” she said. “Neither do the ghosts.”

“He should be crying,” a voice said. “He should be cold and miserable. His parents are dead.”

“He doesn’t know,” she said.

“He knows something,” said another voice. “There is wisdom in that face.”

“No, he can’t.”

“Yes, and look.”

She did look and saw something disturbing. A halo? It couldn’t be. Mustn’t be. But it was. And his demeanor so calm in the radiance now surrounding him.

“Impossible,” said a voice. “It’s a baby from out of a truck. His parents were just a couple of farmers.”

“I’m not so sure.” she said.

There were whispers all around her, then. Whispers changing into song. Warming her frozen body. Removing all worry and confusion.

She looked up and saw ghosts and angels for the first time. Spirits of prairie Indians and farmers. Homesteaders and drifters. She suddenly knew whole histories, poverty and dusty depression roads. Victories over weather and land.

The ghosts weren’t frightening, and the angels not the bland cherubs stolen from Baroque ceilings. They were tangents and arcs. Galaxies and star clusters. Their voices exquisite, driving the orbits of planets. Filling hollows in space with matter and gravity.

She looked down at the boy in astonishment, and he reached up with a chubby hand to touch a tear on her face. And in that second all wisdom was hers, as she stood next to a ruined pickup truck with a single live headlight.

Who was this boy?

No one would believe it ever happened, though. They wouldn’t call it a miracle. They’d call it a delusion. They’d put her in a quiet room and leave her there. She couldn’t share it. She would always keep it secret.

Now a voice said, “She’s ours.”

* * * * * *

The police and ambulance arrived shortly after the snowplow, and she sat in the back of a cruiser, waiting to be driven home. The boy was in the ambulance. A policewoman told her that she was very brave.

The next day, Christmas, she rose early, packed a bag and took the money out of her jewelry box. Her father snored on the threadbare couch. Her mother was with a neighbour. It was approximately 4:45 a.m., when she left the house. Hearts were this way — it was only a mild revelation. She knew now that understanding was the only thing that mattered. Sunday school piety was a deceit.

There was a Greyhound station in town, five miles away. Buses went almost everywhere. Christmas glowed like a halo in the sky, on the snowy prairie and over the wrecked pickup truck, as she passed it by on her way.

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