The black Corrections Canada cube van jarred roughly as it left the causeway that allowed it to enter Sir Winston Churchill Island on Lake Lac La Biche and onto the logging road that would take it to its destination. Keith Strake cared little about the soreness his buttocks felt from the bumps and jars. He was one of the three inmates that sat on the rough plastic benches on the left side with two ‘escorts’ sitting at the right, while a Plexiglas panel separated the back passengers from the driver. He just stared down at the hiking boots that he had been assigned this morning , lost in thought as to what the fuck the parole board had been thinking when they put this strictly urban man into the boonies and somehow believing that it would ‘rehabilitate’ him enough to be let back into society? How was he supposed to act ‘proper’ if the only things around him were going to be a bunch of fucking trees? He wasn’t fucking Opie.
At forty, Keith was quite used to the barren and seemingly suspension-less transfer vehicles; of his adult life he had only spent a combined total of 6 of those on the outside – one of the down sides to gang life that weren’t in any of the enlistment brochures that he could recall. Not that he regretted joining the boys of “M-16” that ran Younge Street in Toronto; the shit kickings he received on the street were nothing compared to what his mother and whatever guy she would introduce as ‘uncle’ for a few days would give him before he took off just after his twelfth birthday. At 5 foot 6 and 180 pounds, he wasn’t that menacing but at least “M-16” thought that he was worth more than a punching bag.
“M-16” had discovered his talent for getting information from rival gang members…slowly …early on; the stray animals haunting the alleys had been his practice dummies. For Keith it was not the taking of the life that was fascinating; it was the reactions of the people or animals once they gave in to the notion that Keith was the sole controller of their fate. The screams, the tears, the wails, the angry curses, the defiance – these all energized Keith to an orgasmic climax. At the moment that his ejaculate began to soak through his underwear was the moment that his knife would slice deeply into his victim’s throat; so that they could not destroy that moment for him. Being part of a gang had afforded him the luxury of not having to risk the capture of his prey. Others would bring the person to Keith’s private room in the abandoned warehouse where the gang held their meetings. Flopping their victim down, they would then leave him to get the required information.
While Keith’s flair for torture was valued, it was lower on the privileged members list of who was expendable and who was not. When one of the sessions had been interrupted by a police raid, he kept to his story that there was no “M-16” or whatever conspiracy the police were trying to dredge up for more gang busting budget cash; he was just one sick mother fucker who got off on this kind of shit. He randomly grabbed people off the street; he didn’t know that his victim was a cop.
The Van jolted to a halt. The driver hopped out, unlocked the back door, and gestured silently for the three inmates to step out. Keith was a little nervous that the two guards acting as the trio’s escorts made no effort to follow them. He squinted at the noon day sun as it shined partially from out of the greyish clouded sky. They had parked in a small clearing in the middle of some pretty dense looking tree and bush. There was the heavily worn looking road that they had come in on, while opposite it looked like there was only a narrowly cut path leading into the green denseness. Keith had expected to see at least a large ominous looking fence, a guard shack and heavily armed men waiting for him. What he saw instead were three unarmed Native men standing just off to the side of the narrow walking path.
The driver gave a nod to the three men, calling out Keith’s name as well as the other two’s then got back into the van. All three Native men stood there until the van started, did a tight circle and began the journey back down the rough road. Keith, not knowing what to do, did what seemed the best course of action; he stood still and hoped that the notion of snipers hidden in the bush waiting to take out his sorry ass was just an irrational fear. The tallest of the trio of Native men broke the silence between the two groups.
“I am Lorne Lonebern, head facilitator here at the Swift Runner Treatment Centre. To my right is Justin Cardinal, to my left is Terrence Woodsart. For the next six weeks one of us will be your guide on your journey to rehabilitation.”
The two other men nodded at the mention of their names, then moved towards the inmates. The one called Justin Cardinal stood in front of Keith. They were almost the same in height and build but if push came to shove, Keith figured he could take him. Justin Cardinal’s dark brown eyes bore themselves into Keith’s green eyes with a probing intensity; Keith could almost swear that the man was mentally molesting him with that stare.
“It is time to start,” Justin said with a voice that had the authoritative tone that Keith had heard far too often from men who thought they knew better than he did. Keith decided that he would let the fuckin’ injun play big white man for a while – until he knew what the score was around this place. The man called Terrence was the first to take his inmate shadow down the trail, then Justin told Keith it was their turn. As they entered the wooded path, Keith almost tripped. He let out a string of curses, thinking that he had snagged his foot on a tree root but was perplexed to see that it was a blue block half buried in the ground that had almost been his attacker. Keith then noticed the blocks were six by six inches, how long, he didn’t know, but they stretched tightly together and disappeared into the bush on either side of the path as well.
Keith was about to ask what the blocks were when the inmate behind him said, “Salt licks? Why the fuck are there salt licks buried in the dirt? You fuckin’ dirty injuns setting yourselves up for some easy hunting?”
There was no answer or the expected beating that Keith would have expected if the dude had said that to a used tampon on the inside. Keith decided that it didn’t matter anyways, after all, he had heard that there were some pretty fucked up cultural shit practiced – what did he care? He was just here to avoid another long stint in the joint, not to join the fucking United Nations. The six men walked for what Keith estimated to be a couple of hours until they came to a clearing whose center was the size of a city bus. Etched into small triangles of cleared brush along the sides of the clearing were what Keith figured looked like those old campground two hole outhouses. The clearing looked divided; there was the path that the group had just come down and another directly opposite.
Lorne stepped into the very center of the clearing and loudly declared, “Welcome to your home for the next six weeks!” Keith and the other two let out long groans. “Each of you will be assigned one of the lean-to’s and that is where you will rest during the nights. There are no fires allowed and you will be responsible to hand dig your own latrines on a daily basis. There are no shovels so you will use sticks for this. Every two days a fresh supply of apparel will be brought to you by your facilitators and the dirty ones will be taken away to be laundered. Our days are from sun up to sun down; the rest of the time will be your own personal time. As time goes on, the one on one sessions with your facilitator will diminish until the final two weeks which at that point, you will be functioning independently during the day on the assigned tasks that are given to you. You are here not because the justice system has given up on you. You are here because whether you know it or not, someone has seen potential in you. It is up to you to either grasp that potential or waste it.”
The inmate who had made the comment about the salt licks spoke up, “What about grub? I don’t see no fridge or freezer, stove, nothing – we supposed to fuckin’ starve for six weeks?”
“Food will be brought to you daily – a mixture of dried fruit, dried meat and a heavy kind bread we call Bannock,” Lorne answered with an air of disinterest. “Because of the potential abuse of utensils as well as cooking implements this is the only solution that will both feed you nutritionally and keep your strength.” Great, a fucking tampon camp, tampon food… Keith’s mind snarled, what’s next? Is this fuck going to give them tampon names too?
“You by now have noticed there are two paths to this centre; the one we came from which leads to the logging road,” Lorne continued with his oration. “What you should be aware of is that while our centre is a self monitoring entity. Once you step onto that road, you then become wards of the federal government once more. The road is patrolled and there are armed outposts hidden along the outskirts of this traditional Cree land that we have no control over as to how they deal with trespassers onto Federal and provincial claimed territories.” The Native leader turned toward the other path.
“This path leads down to the waters of the lake that surrounds this island. As the road, the provincial and Federal governments have agents that patrol its waters.” Lorne lifted his head up to the sky for a moment, his nostrils flaring as he took a long deep breath.
“This place can be your haven or Hell, the choice is yours. Life is full of choices and along with those choices are consequences. Where you have been, the choices you made had clearly defined consequences for your actions. Where you are going is where you choose your actions and nature will decide the consequences. Take heed well, the Mother can be stern as well as nurturing; respect Her, but have utmost respect for yourself. From this point on, we are no longer a group, but individuals with a mortal guide – use these guides well for they can open or close doors that you did not know even existed.” With that the Native concluded his oration, motioning to the inmate he had paired up with over to one of the lean-to’s to the right of the path going towards the road. The other Native led the third of Keith’s party to the lean-to at the left side of the same path.
“Come with me, Keith Strake.” Justin Cardinal spoke with an acute crispness to his overly deep baritone. Keith followed the facilitator to the lean-to that was to the left of the path leading to the lake. On closer inspection, Keith stood by his impression of an oversized outhouse; the wood that it was crafted from were small dead trees that looked like a knife had been used just to slice off the branches so that the trunks would fit loosely together with packed mud to, sealing the bark of one tree trunk to the other. The door looked as if it had once been part of a dock that had simply washed away from its mooring because of waterlogged rot. When the door was opened, it revealed a floor that had been dug almost two feet into the ground, giving the five foot structure an actual inside height of seven feet, though as the two men stood inside, width and length wise it resembled more the dimensions of a cheap double bed.
Justin explained that later on the three residents of the other lean-tos would arrive with the camp’s bedding and night’s supplies. Until then, Justin suggested that they talk to get to know one another. Keith had other plans; they spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon squatting inside the lean-to silent. Keith had to hand it to the man, most others would have simply walked out after twenty minutes, but this guy didn’t even squeeze an ass cheek at being ignored. The facilitator didn’t even bat an eye when the ruckus of the others moving about outside carried their sounds inside the lean-to. He merely sat cross-legged across from Keith with a blank look on his face.
Justin did not move until the third facilitator, Terrence; Keith thought he remembered the name correctly; called for supply pick up. Justin motioned for Keith to follow him outside where there were five small piles. On one pile there were blankets. Keith was told to pick two. On the second pile, were pieces of dried meat sitting off the ground by a flat rock, the third pile had various berries and the fourth had chunks of whitish looking breads. Keith was instructed to put as much as he thought he would need in the middle of his blanket.
The fifth pile consisted of six bags of salt; three of which were larger than the other three. Keith was instructed to pick up one of the smaller bags of salt and take it back to his lean-to, set his space up to his liking and then return to the center of the clearing. Keith took his time with his meagre supplies, well longer than he should have, but felt he should show some sort of passive aggressive resistance to see what would push this Justin Cardinal’s buttons. Once Keith knew what the weaknesses of his facilitator were, he reasoned, it would enable him to turn the lost feeling he was experiencing of the situation into one where he called the shots though the facilitator would not be aware that he was being manipulated. By the time he moseyed back out, only Justin and a large black man were in the centre. Justin explained that the others had been taken on a tour of the lake shore, to learn about the ways for carrying water in objects that the lake had surrendered to the rocky water’s edge so as to keep themselves hydrated during the day and avoid taking dangerous blind night journeys for drinking water.
While Justin had been outlining on what the centre offered in its daily routine of teaching life skills, Keith had noticed that the black man, while being a very large specimen, was not a whole specimen of a man; his right arm was merely a stump crudely covered with strips of cloth. The man proceeded to go to the lean-to to the right of Keith’s, mouth the number of his steps, which were ten, then place a scuff mark in the dirt. He would then return to his lean to and walk the steps again, leaving a scuff mark. He did this four times, as if he was marking off north, east, west and south. The second thing that interested Keith was that man had taken his larger bag of salt and opened it up with his teeth.
The man then clumsily poured salt from the bag which he held in the crook of his good arm and using his large hand as a funnel, slowly walked from scuff mark to scuff mark. It was enough to fully divert Keith’s attention from the facilitators agenda; as he ran over and focused on what the black man was doing. Was this supposed to be one of those fucked up injun treatments? Keith knew how to get an answer. Ignoring the scowl from Justin, Keith walked up to just behind the black man and slid his boots through the almost completed circle of salt.
“Hey nigger, that ain’t no coke line,” Keith jeered, “That shit will fuck up your nose more than it is now.” The man turned around with such quickness, Keith was caught unprepared; just as he was equally unprepared for being forcefully pushed ten metres backward into the rough bark of a birch tree. Keith had thought the man would throw a punch but the force of the man’s elbow on his windpipe for much longer would shatter it.
“Marcel!” Justin snapped sharply as the black man towered menacingly over Keith. Their eyes locked for a moment, the formidable black man vanished as his head head drooped down and his shoulders sagged. Keith felt a wave of disgust as the man’s deep voice turned into a dull whine as he faced the facilitator.
“But Justin, you saw what he did…that just ain’t right.”
The facilitator folded his arms. There was sternness etched into his face as in a quiet voice he asked Marcel if his actions were conducive to creating an environment of understanding or an aggressive stance that invited closed defensiveness that was only one sided. Keith did not move from against the tree but took a sick delight in watching the mammoth of a man almost in tears, quivering in submissiveness towards the much smaller Justin.
“But,” Marcel whispered, then with his one hand pointing at Keith, “He disrespected my personal space.”
Personal space? Environment of understanding? Shit, Keith thought, it’s a fucking psycho-babble primal therapy shit thing around here. Maybe the highlight of the night is getting naked and howling at the fucking moon.
“Marcel, over reaction is the cornerstone to aggressiveness over the subtly of assertiveness,” Justin softly responded. “I would have hoped,” Justin continued nodding toward Marcel’s stump, “That after four weeks here that you would have learned the difference.” Justin then put his arm around Marcel’s shoulder and led him off a few metres out of earshot from Keith. Keith watched as the black man nodded, pointed at Keith, then at the ground where the spilt bag of salt lay. The two men finished their conversation and walked back to Keith. Marcel grumbled out an apology to Keith for his violent action towards him, sticking out his hand.
“Know your place…boy,” Keith spat, emphasizing ‘boy’ and ignoring the out stretched hand. Marcel’s neck muscles strained but the man simply put his hand down, walked over to the salt littered ground, then knelt. Keith watched as Marcel began gently moving the salted ground into thin long piles, gingerly picking the salt out of the mounds and placing them in the line that he had been working on.
“That’s just fucked up,” Keith said to Justin. There was hardness in facilitator’s eyes when he told Keith to follow him.
Keith was perplexed as Justin and he took their turn down at the lake’s shore. Justin said nothing about Keith’s altercation with the black man, just showed Keith the type of leaves to use for lining a hollowed out piece of drift wood in order to retain the most water while repeatedly telling Keith that even the most experienced woodsman would not dare to travel to the lake’s edge at night. They then took a walk about a kilometre down where Justin showed Keith the edge of the treatment centre’s territory. Once again Keith noticed that there was no fence but just the solid blue blocks. All the while Keith kept up with his own mental notes; the trees and brush were not easily traversed – there would be no quick escape and by the dark outline deeper in, Keith guessed were almost thumb sized brambles that could gouge out a large amount of flesh quickly if a guy made a wrong turn or took a misstep. He would have to definitely investigate the surrounding with a much greater intensity if he wanted to get out of here.
The sun had almost touched down on the tree line when Justin and Keith returned to the clearing that harbored the lean-to Keith was supposed to call home for six weeks. Justin patiently explained how to dig a small hole in the in the corner, covering it with leaves to use as a latrine rather than attempt to squat in the woods during the night – more than one man had his testicles bitten by a very irritated animal was the explanation given. The facilitator then asked if Keith had any questions. Keith shook his head though he had many of them, but he wasn’t prepared to show any ignorance of the situation to Justin. The bag of salt though, was something that Keith did want to ask about, but before he could break his own code of silence, Justin answered the unspoken question.
Justin picked up the bag of salt from the floor and motioned for Keith to follow him back outside. Justin counted six paces and opened the bag. Tipping it slightly, he allowed the salt to flow to the ground, letting it form a thin pile, then began walking in a circle around the lean-to. Keith didn’t move from the door of the lean-to but watched as the man finished the circle. Keith looked around to see that the other two people he had ridden with to this place and their facilitators were engaged in the same thing, while the three residents of the other shacks were doing it on their own. The black guy, Keith noticed, was still working on his own salt circle, along with making quick darts into the heavy trees then back to his circle again.
Justin walked on the inside of the salt circle, sprinkling once in a while more salt onto the line where it looked thin, then crumbled the bag and put it into his jacket pocket. He stood before Keith.
“During the day I am your guide on your journey of discovery into being a part of the human family. At night I take my leave of you, leaving you to internalize the teachings of the day. There are no guards pointing weapons at you, there is nothing that I will do to you for not taking the opportunity to think about what your future could be.” Justin spread his arms and with his finger pointed to the salt line on both sides.
“This circle represents your personal space,” Justin said grimly, “During the night you will not break from this circle. Here at Swift Runner, this circle represents your willingness to follow the rules of society. To stay within the circle represents your commitment to the process of learning to respect the world around you and not just look as the world as whatever you wish to make it. As your time goes on here, the circle will grow, just as your understanding that you are just one of the many instead of ‘The One’.”
Keith was flabbergasted. No guards to stop him from just leaving? This fuck expected him to be a good boy and respect some fucking salt circle? He stopped himself from making the comment that what, there wasn’t going to be a scalping? Keith heard a similar comment coming from one of the lean-tos to his right, but Justin’s stare was so intense he couldn’t break the eye contact to see which of his fellow riders had made it.
The facilitator looked up at the tree line and smiled. Keith heard the gurgling buzz of a boat coming towards the island from the path that led to the camp. Justin turned to Keith.
“With the setting of this day’s sun is the beginning of your new birth into the world, Keith Strake,” Justin said with a soft yet commanding voice. “I will leave you now to face your own demons and pray that you shall be strong enough to overcome the trials that you will face.”
Keith looked at the facilitator with a scowl. What kind of bullshit was that? Was he expected to write a paper on his feelings for this dickwad? Was he supposed to report tomorrow morning on how wrong the choices were that he made in his life and cry out for forgiveness? Keith watched as Justin stepped over the salt line, then double checked to make sure he had not scuffed any of the white granules accidentally. The two other facilitators joined Justin and they headed down the path that Keith had been told led to the edge of the lake.
Fifteen minutes passed by, then twenty minutes. The sun had almost fully set before Keith stopped looking at the path that Justin and the two other facilitators had taken towards the lake and the sound of a boat could no longer be heard. Keith noticed that while the three ‘experienced’ residents had already gone into their lean-tos, he and the two others he had arrived with remained outside. He imagined they were as freaked as he was about the no guard thing; there had to be a catch, it would just take time for Keith to figure out what that catch was. Keith decided that he would play this pussy camp self reflection thing for a couple of days –until he had this place’s angle figured out and a way to loop himself the fuck out of it.
The last bit of sun had almost faded behind the thick tree line when Keith noticed that the two other newbies had decided that they weren’t going to wait and see; they were going to make their run for it then. The two did not head down the path from the road or the path that led to the waters; they shot into the woods behind their shacks. Good, Keith thought, he would have at least one answer to some of the questions he had about this place: what did happen to guys that took it on the lam. He assumed in the morning that Justin would tell him that the two had been caught trying to escape and would be sent off to some maximum security prison to serve even more time. One night’s wait was worth knowing the real consequences.
Keith could still hear the loud curses and tree branch snaps of the two others as they tried to make their way through the thick brush and brambles that surrounded the camp while the sun fully set, leaving only the dull whiteness of the half moon to illuminate everything around him when the clouds did not obscure it. There came a scream, then another scream, then nothing.
Keith heard no shouts of chase, no shots of rifles; hell there wasn’t even the sound of tracking dogs after those two screams. Keith started to feel unnerved when he realized that there were no sounds – no birds, no wind, no nothing. Time to go inside, Keith’s mind told his feet. He started to turn when just outside the front of the salt circle, stood Justin. What the fuck? The lying fucking used tampon, Keith thought to himself, the fucker came back to check on him – so much for the issue of trust. Keith was about to vocalize his thought when the flesh on his arms felt as if it were rippling; something wasn’t right. Keith took a step towards his facilitator, a cloud that had been blocking the moon moved on to allow the light to shower the men with the intensity of a forty watt light bulb. Bile bubbled up Keith’s throat as he realized that whatever stood only a few feet away from him on the other side of the salt line was not Justin Cardinal.
It may have looked like the facilitator of the Swift Runner Treatment Centre in the clouded night but now Keith could see that the skin was not dark tan but grey as ash, the skin pulled taunt against the nude thing’s bones and pin pricks of red glowed slightly out of the depths of its eye sockets. Its lips were like ribbons of flesh; shredded by the creatures own serrated incisors that poked out with a whitish gleam from those loose pieces of flesh. The wind shifted and he could smell what stood just opposite of him; it reminded Keith of the alley where he would hide the carcasses of the animals he had slain to watch the maggots feed day after day. The creature circled Keith but never stepped over the salt line, keeping its flesh, if that was what it was, away from touching the white granules.
“Come on, boy,” the hollowed voice that mimicked Keith’s facilitator cajoled, “Come on and show this pussy of a used tampon how a real man plays.” It reared its head, breaking out with a howl loud enough to hurt Keith’s ears, making him drop to his knees and cover his ears.
From behind one of the newbie’s shacks came another pale replica of a facilitator – what was the name? Lorne Lonebern, Keith thought it was, dragging something behind it.
“Brother,” the creature croaked out, momentarily taking the Justin thing’s attention away from Keith, “Come share in some sweet meat.” Keith heard the cracking of bone and a rush of air that sounded as if the wind had whipped between a small space between two apartment buildings. Though he knew he shouldn’t, Keith stole a peek in the direction of the sounds. The thing had ripped off the prisoner’s right arm and tossed it to the Justin thing. It was then that Keith could see a darkish liquid gurgling from the prey’s throat – the man was not dead but alive and aware of everything. The whites of the man’s eyes appeared and disappeared without pattern; the eyes were rolling with every ache, every motion, but not yielding to the bliss of passing out. The creature must have just slashed into the throat deep enough to damage the voice box but without hitting the artery that would have released the man from his mortality.
The Justin thing picked up the arm and turned to look directly at the hoveling Keith, exaggerating every movement it made in biting deep into the biceps and tearing off large chunks, slurping them between the sliced lips. Keith could take no more; he violently threw himself backwards and through the door of his shack.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, bounced rapidly inside Keith’s mind as he curled himself up in the middle of his little shack. Whatever the fuck that was couldn’t cross the salt line, he was perfectly safe, it was just like the cell block: the taunts, while they could make you fuckin’ insanely pissed, they couldn’t hurt you. Obviously that thing could only come out at night; Keith would simply have to hold up for the evening and before that fucker Justin could come by he would make a run from this fucking hell. He could do this standing on his head; it was just a matter of tuning everything out.
Keith closed his eyes tight in hopes that the pressure would cut off his ear drums from the creature’s howling. This worked slightly but then a second sound interrupted Keith’s concentration – the sharp thuds of something hitting the tin roof above him. There was one; then two, three, four clanks. The howling Keith could handle; he knew what that was, but he knew that if he didn’t discover what the clanks were it would drive him to do something stupid – like making a run for it. He forced himself to stand and walk out the door.
Outside the Justin creature still paced, the pale moonlight reflecting off the thick anticipatory drool that hung from the thing’s mouth past its shoulder. A third creature had come while Keith had been in his shack. Just as the Lorne thing had done, it sat not far from the centre of the lean-to with the bodies of Keith’s fellow riders and ripped off large chunks of flesh, ingesting the pieces loudly in gluttonous glory.
A dull pain registered on Keith’s arm as he heard a dull thud; he looked down in time to see a dull red rock the size of a smokeless tobacco tin settle on the ground beside him. Keith looked from the rock to the direction where he figured it had come from.
Standing within his own circle of salt was the black man that Keith had a ‘discussion’ with earlier on. At the man’s feet was a small pile of rocks and stones. Marcel that was his name, Keith recalled. Marcel waved at Keith.
“Hey White Meat, you lean or regular ground?” Marcel yelled, looking to and fro from the creature to Keith then back to the creature. “He ain’t that particular anyhow!” He bent down, picked up a rock and threw it at Keith’s head, missing by a few feet.
“Hey asshole, guess you lost your fuckin’ throwing arm,” Keith shouted back. “Aren’t you afraid that you’re not nestling an environment of understanding, you sack of shit!”
Keith’s taunt earned a fury of ‘mother fucker’s’ from Marcel and a guttural growl from the thing. Keith did not think of it at the time, but the black man’s stump was bandaged up that afternoon. Keith knew he wasn’t that smart, but he quickly put two and two together to realize loss of the limb was a fairly fresh experience and he could assume with a fair amount of accuracy of how the man had lost it. Marcel picked up another rock.
Keith watched as it fell short of where he was standing, sending a spray of loose dirt onto his feet. He was about to call out a comment on joining the Toronto Blue Jays when the words caught themselves in the lump in his throat. The Justin thing looking hungrily at him but it was no longer scowling; it was smiling. Keith’s eyes locked with its. Both sets of eyes travelled to where the rock lay, then over to where the line of salt was. A thin layer of the kicked up dirt had settled over it on a section not much larger than Keith’s thumb.
Something in Keith’s mind shouted at him to get down and push the broken line whole again. He could hear the maniacal laughter of the black man. Keith couldn’t get any muscle in his body to move nor could he take his eyes off the small blackish line over the white. Keith heard the creature’s hollowed voice.
For the first in Keith’s life it was his turn to scream.