Corporal Jamie Sorenson, fast asleep in his childhood bedroom, finds himself leaping to his feet, and for a half second he’s back in Kurdistan reaching for his weapon. The noise that woke him, an erratic clunk, clunk, clunk, is barely audible above the unending prairie wind.
No dawn yet but the July heat is already moving into the small room under the eaves. Outside the crow tribe is in full voice, loudly celebrating another day of drought.
He pulls on his jeans, boots and tee and careful not to wake his dad sleeping in the next bedroom, heads down to the back door. Under the yard light, the dust flows on the wind, a dark unending wave. Inside the stable, his horse, Cody, the last animal remaining on the farm, is kicking at the sides of its stall.
As he soothes the frightened creature, talks to it and calms it, he sees the problem. A dead rat, probably killed by Cody’s hoofs. He takes the shovel and lifts it out. It’s the skinniest rat he’s ever seen. Even in Iraq, the rats are bigger but then, it sometimes rains in Iraq. It hasn’t rained in this corner of Saskatchewan for three years.
He walks the horse outside into the light to make sure it wasn’t hurt in its frenzy. He smooths the wet flanks, checks the hoofs, rubs the velvet nose. Cody always hated rats. This isn’t the first he’s killed.
Jamie decides to saddle up and take a dawn ride around the farm. As he moves the animal through the dust, he does not look down at the thousands of rows of wheat plants, all small, stunted and dying. At the flat-line edge of the world, the sun appears slowly, wrapped in gold. Not one cloud accompanies it.
At the same time as Jamie is easing Cody along the familiar roads of the Sorenson farm, near-by, in the town of Whistle Creek, sixteen-year-old Dot Hexwan stands waiting as her granny unlocks the front door of her coffee house. Dot is carefully holding a pile of flat boxes containing scones, tarts and muffins for the morning coffee crowd.
Behind them, the perpetual wind tears along King Edward Street, lifting dust, paper cups and assorted garbage along with dry leaves from the dying trees.
“They say,” her granny says pushing open the heavy door, “if the wind ever stops in Saskatchewan, the people will fall over.”
It’s an old joke. Neither of them laugh.
The street lights disappear. Now the only light comes from across the road at the Keefer apartment above the Keefer Drug Store. The family’s having an early breakfast, Dot figures, to get the work underway before the heat. The business is closed and they’re packing up everything to move to Regina next week. Laura Keefer, the school librarian, is leaving with her parents and so the school library is closed until there’s enough money to hire a replacement.
As they prepare the coffee house for another money-losing day, her granny says, “Are you sure you want to be here, Dot? Is this worth missing school for?”
“I want to learn how to do it right,” Dot says. “Maybe when I grow up, I’ll need to know. You learned from your mother. But the meaning has changed from the olden times. On the net, I found lots of mock wedding parties. The University of Saskatchewan has them but they’re just concerts with rock bands. In the Dakotas, they have mock wedding anniversaries. Everyone dresses up in silly clothes and makes fun of the anniversary couple. It’s really a roast with all kinds of crazy toasts and stuff like that. Just an excuse for a big booze up, if you ask me. Nothing to do with the weather.”
“Just remnants of the old culture, squibs that mean nothing,” her granny says, pushing several tables together to make one long table in the middle of the room. “Sort of like Hallowe’en now, all about skeletons and zombies. And Christmas without a mention of the solstice. In a lot of places, the real thing is forgotten but not in the small towns around here. Our memories are long, back to the Great Depression and farther. We don’t talk about it often and never with strangers, mind you, but we old ladies remember very well, at least my generation does. And there always was a lot of booze involved, or so my mother said.”
“Speaking of old ladies,” Dot says, “here comes your gang.” She holds the door for the two sisters-in law, Sybil and Ardeth Capaluk, who are lugging large dusty cardboard boxes.
“Put them there.” Granny points to the long table. “We’ll unpack everything, see what survived since 1936 and what needs mending. Set everything out. Then we’ll wait. I’m hoping the Sorenson boy will show up early. He’s my pick. And the Keefer girl, Laura, who’s moving away next week. She’s such a pretty, tiny thing. She’ll be perfect.”
Dot notices that the corners of the boxes are crumpled with age. The three women set to work, removing blue tissue-paper bundles and spreading out the contents: a white satin skirt, a large blouse with lace cuffs, a long veil with a headdress of artificial poppies still bright red after half a century in the Capaluk attic.
“Your mom packed this stuff real good,” says her granny, lifting out a large pair of white high-heeled shoes with red cloth poppies pinned on them. And here’s your top hat, Dot. The tail coat has some moth damage but I can darn it up okay.”
Two hours later, the coffee is perking, the sign on the door says OPEN and Dot spies the Sorenson jeep pulling to the curb. The old farmer and his son, Jamie, get out. The first customers. Inside the three old women wait.
Jamie sees the clothes at once and understands immediately. “Oh no,” he says. “Not me. Forget it. No way.” He backs toward the door but his father gives him a push forward into the room.
“Why not?” says Ardeth Capaluk. “What else you doing till your leave is up and you go back to Iran or where ever?”
“It’s a crazy superstition,” Jamie says.
“Some say that,” Ardeth replies in the deep firm voice that once made her the feared principal of Willow Creek High School. “Maybe it is. Maybe we’re all just crazy old bats. It’ll give you a grand send-off party anyway. We’ve booked the Legion Saturday night. Dot’s in and we’re asking pretty Laura Keefer. It’ll be her send-off party too.”
Several regular customers push through the door. They realize at once what’s happening. “About time,” someone says. A loud excited buzz of conversation fills the room as Dot circles the outer tables with the coffee pot and her granny sells scones and muffins at the cash. In the middle of the floor, Jamie and Ardeth Capaluk stand eye to eye, engaged in an intense whispered conversation.
“Give it up, Jamie,” old Ada Desrosier yells. “It’s a done deal.”
Jamie glares around and shoves his way out the door. His dad shrugs, sits down, turns over his coffee cup and nods at Dot. Dot thinks she has never seen the coffee shop so peppy. The word has spread. More and more people push in and some circle the centre table to stare at the ancient wrinkled clothes.
The three women dress Jamie in the back room of the Legion. A couple of his friends are with him, beers in hand, trying not to laugh. He stands there is his tee and shorts as the women circle around.
“God, this blouse stinks,” he says. “What did you gals do?”
“We tried our best,” Ardeth Capaluk says. “The material’s too fragile to put in the dryer and we couldn’t hang anything outside in the dust. So we sprayed the clothes with some stuff called Febreze.” She stands on a stool to reach up with the lipstick.
“God almighty,” Jamie says.
When the piano sounds “Here Come the Bride,” Jamie teeters down the aisle on his dad’s arm carrying his bouquet of thistles. His veil trails behind him. The red ring of cloth poppies on his head slips over one eye as he moves toward the altar where Dot, in top hat, tails and a clerical collar waits, holding the Old Farmers’ Almanac for a Bible. Tiny, lovely Laura Keefer is there dressed as the groom in a too-big suit of her brother’s. She laughs out loud when she sees him and he feels the ridiculousness of acting out some ancient belief, the stupid idea that this silly game will end the drought, send down the rain.
He hears the people in the chairs laughing and cheering and the lewd comments of his buddies. He knows every person in this room and for the first time during his leave, he feels right at home. After all, this is his town. He grew up here and so did his parents and grandparents and so did Laura and the crazy old ladies at the coffee shop and all the sad stone-broke people in the audience who have endured so much heartbreak for three years.
They are standing now and clapping. “Bravo Jamie boy!” “Throw us a kiss, honey bunch!” He knows the bride is the star of the show. The groom and the minister are merely props. He is not sure how the cross-dressing stuff relates to the old beliefs, the half man, half woman idea that is supposed to change all their destinies. Try as he might he can’t feel any power in this ancient ceremony which arrived with the first settlers from eastern Europe, beliefs so old, that even then, no one knew when they started. But for this one evening, he knows that many of these people believe he, in his ridiculous female get-up, is the lodestar which carries the ancient magic, the ability to bring the rain.
If, he thinks, I am now a woman, I’ll dammed well be one. Let the old gods, if they exist, help me out, both now and when I get back to Kurdistan. For the first time he smiles. He attempts a curtsy on his tippy heels, sets one hand on a hip as he minces, preens, blows kisses and yells back at the hecklers, gives them the finger, does a little dance, gets tangled in the long veil, gets untangled by his father and finally, grabs Laura around the waist and does a few jive steps, one sock breast falling down to his waist as he swings her around.
The audience erupts in cheers.
“Dearly Beloved,” says Dot. She can’t help laughing. The noise in the room covers up her words. “Do you Bride, and you Groom, promise to work together in the good years and bad?”
Laura reaches out and grabs his hand. Even in her floppy suit, with no lipstick and her hair under a baseball cap, she looks terrific. “Do you accept the tornados, the dust storms, the winter snows and summer heat, the other worlds of plants and animals, and this prairie, more space than place, more sky than land?”
The audience quiets. Jamie and Laura look at each other. “We sure do,” they chorus.
“Okay,” says Dot. “By the powers invested in me by all the saints and sinners of Willow Creek and beyond, you two are hitched.”
Even past the cheers, he hears the sliding panel door of the bar open, the chairs being pushed back, the sounds of the local dance band setting up on the stage. He and Laura hold hands as they accept the many congratulations. He then swings the veil around his waist, shoves one end down the elastic band of his skirt and kicks off the high heels. He’s ready to lead out Laura in the first dance.
The party finally breaks up about three. He danced with everybody, even the old gals, the town witches as he thinks of them now, the ones who got him into this thing. He dances with Ms. Lawrence, his high school history teacher who tells him about the Alchemical Wedding, the union of opposites to create something new. He dances with some of the guys, slapping their hands away from his one remaining boob. Mostly he dances with Laura. They promise to see each other tomorrow night, keep in touch by email after they both move away. His dad, a one-drink drinker, left hours ago in the jeep. Laura leaves with her brother to walk the half block to the family apartment. He would have loved to kiss her good-bye but, no chance. Too many people around. In the back room, he changes back to jeans and tee and scrubs off the lipstick and black eye stuff. He stays on for a final drink with his old buddies, most of them staggeringly drunk, and waits for one of the designated drivers to take him home.
No one in the unit will believe this, he thinks as the car bumps along the back roads to the farm. He’ll be leaving next week, a short course on small arms at Base Shilo and then, probably, back with the Kurds.
The designated driver, Tom Fasina, who owns the school bus business, holds the car door wide so he can get himself out. “Good work, Jamie. You did great,” he says.
Jamie stands a little unsteadily on the lawn. God what a party. The front door light gives enough illumination to see something fall to the ground. It’s one of the red cloth poppies from that ridiculous veil thing. It must have got stuck in his hair. He picks it up, a good souvenir. The cloth is frayed at the edges and the petals are covered with dark spots. As he stares at it, another dark spot appears.