Yellow Knife Excerpt
By Russ Victorian
YELLOW KNIFE RIVER
A bead of sweat wiggled down Theresa’s cheek. She swiped it away with the back of her hand, then huffed out a breath. Two weeks, she mused. A long time to be stuck on that old farm.
She imagined her friends hanging out and laughing it up. The images this brought to mind didn’t seem to include her. Not this year. Her only companionship these last few weeks of summer would be little brother Darrin. She pointed a finger down her throat, though no one saw it, and let her head drop against the back window. Yellow-singed corn rows ripped past her eyes. She worried that Darrin might not be the worst of it.
But then, an image of her grandma emerged. Yes, she thought, Grandma would help her through this. And for a second, she felt resigned to her stay on the farm. Her thoughts were quickly shattered by a horrible noise coming from the lone speaker in the front dash of the station wagon.
The radio hissed static and shot out a number of zeep, zoop, and zips as her dad searched the AM channels. She prayed it wouldn’t stop on a baseball game. Suddenly a voice blasted out of the speaker. “As many as one hundred thousand people are thought to be dead in the Red River delta . . .”
Her dad quickly turned the radio knob until it clicked off. Whew, she thought, then sat up straight in her seat. Were they getting close?
He pointed up a long driveway to a blue house held to the ground by the branches of two large oak trees. “I remember an anniversary party at that place. Got sick on grape pop.” He laughed. “My brother said I couldn’t drink it all . . .”
Theresa smiled as she half listened to her dad. The story tickled at her stomach. Not that there was anything funny about getting sick on grape pop; but the blue house—he mentioned it every time. That meant they were indeed close.
She grabbed her dad’s seat and with an awkward twist, pulled and stretched her seatbelt to get a better view out the windshield. In the distance, the big woods came into view. “I think I see the old school!” she said, with a sudden burst of excitement that surprised even her. She couldn’t actually see the school, but she knew it was in the little woods on the left side of the road.
Ten-year-old Darrin was about to release his seat belt so he, too, could see, but the barely audible sound of his fingers on the clasp was enough to get a head turn and a stern look from his dad, which meant ‘keep it on.'
“I can’t see,” Darrin whined as he dropped the clasp and then went completely limp.
Nobody answered immediately. Finally, Mom soothed his anxieties by assuring him that they would be in the yard in just minutes.
Theresa scanned the road ahead for the county road that curved to the right and headed towards Kiersdorn, a small and shrinking riverside community barely two miles down. There was no road to the left; they’d already passed it miles back. They continued straight, which led to a small driveway.
They closed in on their destination fast. The open blue skies of the hay and corn-spotted countryside were displaced by the thick auburn and emerald blend of the valley. The blotchy oil-painted scene of tree branches, leaves and the occasional pine needles soon encompassed the entire span of Theresa’s peripheral vision.
Somewhere within that valley, a flow of vibrant and fleeting water remained forever fair and golden in its reflection. Perhaps the color came from the yellow leaves of the River Birch that fell flightless into its turbulence each autumn, or perhaps it was from the gold teased to be hidden within the crevices of its rocky bed.
Although both descriptions fit the naming of the river well, at least one local elder could spin quite a yarn about a young Indian warrior who had gone astray in the valley.
Theresa remembered the day well. She road shotgun. Mom stayed behind with Darrin, and it made Theresa feel important to be in the front seat next to her dad. Just a day trip to Grandma’s to help winterize things.
Her dad avoided the main highway and chatted dreamily about the countryside he had left years ago and obviously still missed. Suddenly, he tapped on the brakes, and it shook her out of a dream state. A small country store occupied one of the four corners of the otherwise desolate rural intersection. Its siding showed more wood grain than color. Theresa squinted at the foot-high lettering so sun-faded that she could hardly pick out the word ‘STORE’. She looked at her dad. He did that often on these types of trips—stopped at places for no particular reason, other than to see if they had a fresh apple on hand. That part could get a little boring, though he usually made it worthwhile by getting her something, too.
Dad made his way up the steps and under the covered entrance, but he didn’t go inside. Instead, he took a seat on a rickety bench directly across from an old man.
The old fellow straddled a wood stool carved to look like a horse saddle. He sat tight enough to the store wall to lean his upper back against it. The dust sat thick on the shoulders of the old guy’s coat embroidered in a heavy yarn of black with thick orange and yellow stripes winding through. It had been wrapped tight around his shoulders and with the collar up, like it had been put on in the coolest part of morning and not adjusted since. He had not moved upon their approach. From a distance, Theresa thought he was one of those wood-carved manikins—like the full-size Indian she saw in the corner of the gift shop on their trip up north. It wasn’t until she stood at the bottom step that she caught his eye blink. Did Dad know this guy?
Theresa climbed the steps past several woven cane baskets filled with yellow and green gourds. She looked over and saw her father talking, but the pop machine was much more interesting. The bottle caps pointed at her through the little glass door and called out: grape, root beer, cola; grape in purple writing of course, and root beer in brown. Her dad tapped a quarter on the wooden bench. She glanced in his direction. That meant good news and bad news. The good news, she was getting a bottle of pop. The bad, they were going to be there for a while.
She retrieved the coin and whispered as not to interrupt. “Thanks.”
But her dad surprised her and told her to hurry back.
She returned and sat on the bench beside him and leaned her shoulder against his arm. Then she took a swig of her cola.
Her dad introduced the old timer, a self-proclaimed local historian who usually recalled each event with a peculiar twist. They talked, and in mid-conversation, Dad suddenly looked her way with a serious grin—the look and the grin didn’t fit well together. He told her she had better put her boots on. It was followed by a laugh and a nod toward the old man she now knew as Teller.
Theresa stared at her dad’s face for other clues as he continued his exchange with Teller. Was he serious? She had been daydreaming and not paying attention to any of the conversation, as usual when she was around adults. But this time she had obviously missed something. She hadn’t brought her boots along. She didn’t realize they were required. She worried about it for a good five minutes before she got up the courage to pull on her dad’s coat sleeve and ask for clarification. Then she understood, but it came with yet another laugh and this one at her expense. She was seven. She didn’t know what that meant—‘better put your boots on.’ She certainly wouldn’t forget now. Her anxiety and the fascinating story connected to the experience made that sunny fall day remain very clear in her memory.
She leaned forward and watched the old man. He pulled a small pipe from his chest pocket and lit the tobacco. Then he brushed his long gray hair behind his shoulder with one hand. His hair reminded Theresa of the mane on the ponies she had ridden in circles at the grocery store on customer appreciation day. She tried to pay attention to the flurry of words that left his mouth, but the curling smoke at his lips captured her attention. It circled in a genie-out-of-a-bottle fashion. She stared, waiting for a genie’s face to appear in the cloud.
With Dad’s encouragement, he shared how the Yellow Knife River got its name. Later, Theresa realized that her dad wanted her to hear the story before old Teller wasn’t around anymore. It might have been their only opportunity based on how old he looked.
To Teller, there was only one true story. And unlike the thick lines that rippled across his face like whitecaps in a storm and the one-hundred or so sparsely populated whiskers that roughed up his face, Theresa remembered how in contrast the flow of his voice sounded warm, smooth and reminded her of hot chocolate. Who wouldn't believe every word he said.
The old man grabbed his cowboy hat from the plank flooring, patted the dust off with one hand and wiggled it onto his head, paying particular attention to tilt it at a slight southerly angle. Then his lips began to pour.
“The settlers had brought disease to the Indians. It doesn’t matter anymore who or how, but it showed up one day. It was a long time ago, I believe in the year Wild Bill Hickok was born. Soon Indians were dying left and right from the small pox, up to a dozen a day, faster than they could carry them out.”
The old fellow shook his head as if he could almost remember the day himself. “Finally the Indians figured it out. Then they left.
“They followed the river north in a column formation that circled around bends and swamps. Most made the trip with nothing more than moccasins on their feet and a few meager belongings on their back. The horses’ litters contained the sick and the old. A few wagons started the trip, but they had no idea how to fix a wheel once it broke. So the rickety three-wheeled frames became permanent fixtures on the edge of the prairie until they eventually rotted into the ground.
For weeks the tribe traveled, doing whatever they had to do to escape death.
“There were too many mouths to feed for the food they brought, though the clan had dwindled to barely a hundred. So they had to send out hunting parties. One young warrior got separated from his group. He desperately wanted to do an honorable deed for the tribe, and it drove him deep into the big woods.
“He hunted for a while but soon his pace matched the nervous pounding in his chest. Then he ran. The woods had surrounded him and clouded his senses like an evil spirit. It was the first time he’d ever felt lost. He couldn’t understand why the spirits treated him that way. He could only think about getting out. He saw a clearing in the tops of the trees and headed for it—a river. He climbed a large boulder that leaned over the rushing waters and sat upon it, closer to exhaustion than he might have imagined. He tried to focus and consider each direction rationally. His mind continued to thicken and darken like mud. He laid back until his head rested on the rock, and he listened to the splash of water on the rocks below. It helped calm him. A warm ray of sun shined through and blanketed him, comforting him even more.”
To coincide with the story, the old man lowered his chin until the battered brown and beige striped feather on his hat pointed straight up. It was as if he had fallen asleep. But the still moment shattered like a pane of glass when a crow atop the one electric pole in the parking lot let out a piercing series of caws. Teller jumped up to the point where his rump almost left the seat. The exaggeration caused Theresa to laugh. Then Teller got back on the story.
“When the young warrior’s eyes opened, he wondered how long he’d been asleep. The angle of the sun in the sky hinted it had not been too long. The young warrior stood up and stretched the knot of fear from his stomach. He knew he was still lost, but a vision had been placed in his mind while he rested. The solution to finding his way was clear.
“The vision led him to start a roaring fire, and he encouraged it outwardly and let it whip into the swelling wind. The yellow flames grew as tall as the oaks, but no wider than the antlers on a mature buck deer. The flames cut like a knife through the thick woods before him and created a trail which would be easy to follow. But before he stepped out on the trail, the young warrior patted the ashes on the ground with his fingertips and touched at the burned edges of the brush in disbelief. There was no smoke. There was no heat. He quickly followed the flames until he came upon a clearing. Then the ball of fire went out with a big poof.
“The warrior stepped from the forest and laid eyes upon a herd of bison feeding in a lush green meadow. He had no idea where his people were, but his eyes pinned on one lone bison. The white mammal stood by itself and gazed at the horizon as if it were in a trance. The young warrior decided to travel in the direction of the bison’s watch, and there he found his people.
“He told the elders of his predicament, about the meadow where the bison fed and how the yellow flame led him out of the woods. They were encouraged by his vision and asked him to lead them to this spot. They named the river below the rock, Yellow Knife, after the young warrior’s experience, and they stayed at the encampment near the river for many years before once again they were forced to move.
“And that is a whole other story.” Teller tipped his hat, signaling the end.
Theresa looked through the dust trail behind their car as they left the country store and saw the old man still sitting there, staring at the empty intersection, his cowboy hat back in its place on the floor beside him. Who knew when the next visitor might stop by?
Theresa had doubled her years since that day. And here she was, on the way to Grandma’s again.
GRANDMA—GATEKEEPER OF THE VALLEY
The ’66 Chevy station wagon bounced and teetered like a boat on rough water as it left the tar road. The smell of gravel dust immediately filled the air.
Theresa leaned forward in her seat again. “I can see the bell tower, and there’s Grandma’s driveway. We’re here!”
“We’re here?” Darrin wiggled in his seat still trying to push himself up from his seatbelt enough to see.
Theresa observed what she could of the abandoned country school, as her father reminded everyone once again that he had attended class at the small school years ago. He mentioned how he and his siblings had to climb over five, sometimes six-foot snow drifts to get there in the winter.
“The older kids took turns walking in early to start the coal furnace in the basement so the classroom would be warm when the rest of us got there. You always knew whose turn it had been by the black smears on their corduroy pants.”
But now, the brush and trees grew so thick around the weathered country school; they screened the entire view of it from the road. If not for the bell tower peeking out from the tree tops, one might not even know it was there.
Her dad’s story about the stolen bell was her favorite due to the mystery involved. Theresa didn’t have to urge him much to tell how the bell disappeared shortly after the school was abandoned.
“No one knows for sure,” he jumped in. “To my knowledge, the bell was there the whole first week after school closed that summer, but when we left Sunday morning for church, it was gone. Sometime during the night, a couple of hoodlums broke into the school. It would have taken several of the hooligans to climb their way up to the bell tower, and pack that big bell all the way down. Some say they just let her drop to the ground.”
Theresa winced at the thought of some greasy haired, grungy t-shirt-wearing villains sneaking around so close to Grandma’s. She could picture in her mind the crooks breaking and climbing in one of the big windows in the back, completely invisible from the road.
The old relic of a building didn’t seem too scary in the daylight, from a distance, she thought. But there was something about getting up close to it that challenged the steadiness of her courage. And it had that moldy basement stench. Theresa instinctively sucked in a deep breath, intending to hold it as they passed even if it was seventy yards away. But when the air sucked into her throat, it stuck there like a bubble from chewing gum. She struggled to breathe for a second, then started to cough and sputter.
Theresa’s mom looked into the back seat. “Are you all right back there?”
Theresa quickly diverted her eyes from the old schoolhouse to Grandma Torreine’s driveway. “I’m fine. Just choking to death,” she replied with sarcastic humor.
“Well, can you make it to Grandma’s?” Her mom kept on. “Then you can get a drink of water.”
“I’m fine now, mother.”
Red Pines towered overhead and lined each side of the driveway entrance for a good fifty feet, making it impossible to miss. A narrow gravel path snuck through the middle and brought them into the main yard. An orange blanket of pine needles lay beneath the pines and helped to make the driveway appear somewhat mystical. Theresa compared it to passing through a magical arch—a gateway to a different world. And who better to guard the gate than her grandmother.
She caught one of her dad’s glances to the back seat. He always did that right before he started another story, like he was checking to see if he had everyone’s attention.
“My grandmother,” he said with an emphasis on ‘My,’ “ordered those pine trees through a mail-order catalog and look at them now.” The awe in his voice pushed the bushy green long needle pine trees even higher into the sky. “She had my Uncle Eli plant those trees back in—”
“Why did she want him to plant trees?” Darrin butted in.
“To keep Eli from straying back to the old place in the woods. They didn’t always live here,” their dad explained, pointing up the driveway. “They built this place later on. But Eli didn’t like the new house. And he especially didn’t like the sound of this farming stuff his father talked about. He wanted to roam the woods. He wanted to hunt and fish, not feed animals in a barn. Heck, he was about your age at the time, Darrin. So, Grandma would think of anything she could to keep him around the yard.”
“So, did he?” Theresa already knew the answer.
“You know, he never really left that old place in the woods, and that has got to be over sixty years ago.”
Once up the driveway, Theresa found everything looked as she remembered. The small, two-story white house sat to the right of the driveway. The sheds, built one upon the other over the years, created a boundary line off to the left.
The silo loomed in the southern sky. She always felt bad for it, so lonely there with nothing near but fields of grass and corn.
Theresa remembered staring at it from Grandma’s porch one evening, probably before she was even school age. Her mom sat in a chair and visited with the others while Theresa did her best to disappear into her mom’s lap. She thought she saw the silo move. So she kept a close eye on it. She didn’t see it move again, but somehow the large silvery top suddenly pointed straight at the moon. She grew curious and shuffled around until her mouth neared her mom’s ear. She didn’t want anyone else to hear. So, she whispered. As she spoke, her own warm breath reflected off her mom’s smooth face and blew back into hers. The smell smothered her with a fragrance of honeysuckle and vanilla—her mom’s favorite perfume.
She asked her mom if it might be a spaceship. It seemed funny now, but at the time, she remembered being quite serious.
“It is what you want it to be,” her mom had replied.
The station wagon was only halfway into the yard, when Grandma Torreine heard them and stepped out onto the open porch. She was still wiping her hands on the white apron around her waist as they pulled in front of the house. Grandma waved, and everyone in the car immediately waved back in unison.
Grandma’s house dog, Dusty, with his short legs and stout composition, moved with a curious gait at Grandma’s feet and shared in the excitement with a series of low woofs. Of course, that was enough to stir the German shepherd, Sassy, who lay under the shed keeping cool. She, too, came out, stretched her long legs, a side at a time, and let out a yawning howl.
“I want to take a picture of Grandma.” Theresa reached down and dug in the backpack at her feet for the new camera she had just received on her fourteenth birthday.
Theresa was first out of the car, and motioned everyone with one hand to stay back.
“Grandma, I want to take a quick picture of you, do you mind?”
Grandma released a small laugh that popped out like a question mark. She nodded an okay, then quickly ran her hands down the sides of her dress and tugged on her apron to smooth the creases. Then she looked up with her best “if you must” smile.
Her short-sleeved dress hung just below the knee. The simple blue cotton fabric looked hand picked to match the color in the thick wood columns that held up the overhanging porch roof. Grandma leaned slightly against the center column with her right hand, and gazed into the distance rather than look directly at the camera.
As Theresa took the snapshot, her dad teased his mother, asking where she’d bought such a pretty dress, knowing full well she had made it. She had made or helped make every stitch of clothing she’d ever worn since she was seven years old.
Both kids gave Grandma a quick hug. Theresa noticed she could now look over the top of Grandma’s head, but didn’t say anything. What did it matter? Theresa led Darrin out of the way so her father and mother could come up on the porch, too.
Father stepped up to grandmother. She reached out and cradled his hands in hers. She looked over his entire face before looking into his eyes.
Theresa sensed it was special for Grandma to have her children come see her. Her motherly motions were similar each time, and Theresa imagined her dad had received an identical treatment only a few weeks before when he came to inquire if she and Darrin could stay—something he wanted to ask in person rather than through a letter. Calling on the phone might have been an option, but Grandma didn’t have a phone.
“You take care on this trip. And don’t you worry about the kids,” she finally said, looking over at Mother with a nod to include her, too. “But first you’re going to come in for a little lunch.”
There was no choice in the matter, and Dad knew it. And considering the smell of fried chicken wafting through the screen door, who was going to argue? There was no matching Grandma’s chicken. Although simply made—battered with flour, salted and peppered, then fried in lard—the smell and taste it absorbed from the country air made it into a dish beyond this world.
Before heading into the kitchen, Grandma reached over and gave Darrin’s cheeks a little pinch, and said in a curious tone, “What did you do with this one, William, stop feeding him? It just may take the whole two weeks to whip him back into shape.”
Everyone looked at Darrin and then at Grandma in astonishment. Darrin looked back at all of them; a small smile crept upon his face.
Then Grandma let loose a broad grin.
Its warmth immediately brought Darrin to life. So much so his next comment came out more as a yell. “I’ve been starving myself all the way here, Grandma, just so I’d be ready to eat some of your good homemade cookies.” Then he turned and bound past everyone and through the screen door, with Dusty tripping on his heels trying to beat him in.
It wasn’t a big house. The kitchen and dining area pinched in one undersized room, which also served as a laundry room on Saturdays. A white enamel-coated cook stove sat just left of the door as you entered. The big stove could be heated with wood or coal on one side, but Grandma used the propane side to cook lunch today. A small table with a red checkered cover cloth sat by the only window—facing south—and could be extended by a single leaf, which Dad helped Grandma put in for the meal. Theresa passed a bright white refrigerator on her way into the living room.
Besides a small pantry, the living area made up the only other downstairs room. A large fuel oil heater centered on the inside wall pushed the other furniture off to the far walls in a U-shape around it. Theresa avoided the stove when she walked through the room as if there was some bad memory attached to it.
But her eyes were drawn back to the large stovepipe that rose out of the black stove. The pipe started out smooth, but then heavy wrinkles circled it at its one bend, and bam, the whole works disappeared into a wall of bricks. Even the tan brick chimney was odd. It sprouted from halfway up the living room wall and then went through the ceiling. It did the same in the kitchen. The chimney at Theresa’s house came up through the basement floor.
Theresa imagined a slew of black birds swooping down the chimney. They easily found their way through the large pipe and into the stove until it was so full it burst. The wings of a thousand birds batted around the room and—Theresa shook her head. Enough thinking about such nonsense. No wonder the stove had unnerved her all these years.
Theresa headed for the pantry door. Another fridge, a much older one evident by its rounded edges and a noticeable discoloration from years of accumulating soot, sat in the corner near the door. An almost completed Popsicle-stick building had caught her eye. Upon a smooth and dark stained wood platform, it stood out like a piece of art in a museum. This work in progress reminded her of the old school. A small baggy of Popsicle sticks and a bottle of wood glue laid next to it. She’d ask Grandma about that later.
Theresa drew back the green plastic curtain on the window and peeked outside. The woods on the northwest side tucked in close to the house, protecting it and its small, cozy interior. Suddenly, she felt warm and relaxed. She recognized the sensation that settled upon her like a massage that started at her temples and worked its way down to her feet. She really was going to enjoy this stay. But the feeling quickly vanished.
Within the normally peaceful house, the nonstop barking of a dog and the yelling of a little brother interrupted Theresa’s reverie. She swung around to find Darrin sitting on his knees on the couch, teasing Dusty. “Darrin, knock it off, you’re going to drive everyone nuts,” Theresa scolded. Then she sat down on the other end of the couch and attempted to hear the conversation in the kitchen. She couldn’t believe her dad hadn’t said anything to Darrin about the noise.
She looked back at Darrin. “And get your shoes off the couch.” Man, her parents hadn’t even left yet and he was already driving her crazy.
Luckily, Grandma announced that lunch was ready.
Everyone sat down, except Grandma, who paced from stove to fridge worrying over what she might have forgotten to put on the table. Twice she went to the fridge, first for miniature pickles. Then she decided the small plate of deviled eggs she’d made for supper could easily compliment this meal as well.
Finally, Dad requested she sit down and join them.
A platter of crisp-battered chicken sat at the center of the table. Its aroma controlled the hunger that had grown immensely in the small room. But that wasn’t all. Theresa licked her lips at the sight of whipped potatoes smothered in melted butter. And then Grandma uncovered a plate filled with corn on the cob.
Theresa reached out quickly with her hands in an unrestrained, almost primitive like manner, to get at the food. She watched her hands as if out of body and almost thought they were someone else’s, Darrin’s? It was something he would do. Embarrassed, she immediately withdrew them and clasped them in her lap. She knew prayer came first. What had come over her?
After the meal, Theresa followed everyone else out onto the porch. It was cooler out there than in the kitchen where the food had been prepared, and a comfort to stretch the stuffiness she now endured. The chitchat continued, but Theresa noticed her parents slowly inching towards the car. It was time for them to leave. They had a flight to catch.
Theresa stood with Grandma and Darrin and watched from the foot of the porch steps as her parents drove off. She waved as long as Grandma did, until the station wagon completely disappeared from sight.
More from Russ Victorian available for E-book readers on:
The 87,000-word manuscript, Yellow Knife, is an adult/YA fantasy/mystery about an urban teen, Theresa, who struggles to find the bright side of her grandmother's unembellished style of country living. Stories of family gold rouse her interest and soon she is on a mission to find it - to help her grandmother out of the 1940s and into indoor plumbing. All the clues lead to her Great Uncle Eli who seems to be hiding the answers and possibly the gold at the family's original dwelling, a miner's cabin deep in the woods. For two weeks, Theresa endures the imaginative fears associated with the dark forest as she stumbles around the river valley with her younger brother looking for buried treasure. In the end, Theresa learns things about her grandmother and the valley that will change her life forever.
A short extract of the story is available for viewing by clicking here. Or by clicking on Yellow Knife Excerpt on the menu board above.