As soon as the word was out that Lucy was looking for a lift to Whitehorse the offer came in.
The cello teacher was in Dawson City. Once a month he drove up on a Saturday and back to Whitehorse on the Sunday.
The offer didn’t come from Daniel, the cello teacher, but from Bessy, one of his students.
She said, “Daniel’ll take you to Whitehorse. Lucy, I’m so sorry about your mother.”
She added that the unwritten rule of the North is that you have to give a lift to anyone needing a ride. That’s why Lucy was surprised when Daniel didn’t call her to confirm. So she walked the two kilometres to Dawson, knapsack on her back, to find him.
Lucy’s mother was in hospital in the Maritimes. The call came Friday night – a stroke. By Saturday the prognosis was not good. Lucy booked a flight out of Whitehorse.
Now she had to get down there before the plane left on Monday, and Air North doesn’t fly from Dawson on Saturday or Sunday during the winter.
Even though it was only November, above the 64th parallel it’s already winter. Ice was forming along the banks of the Yukon River, snow was on the ground to stay.
Lucy had a vehicle, but it was a pansy van she bought in Vancouver. Now it was at the mechanic’s where a block heater was being installed – whenever that came in.
She contemplated driving the van to Whitehorse, leaving it at a friend’s. But when she returned from the East, she wouldn’t be able to start the van at -35. So she needed a ride with the only car that seemed to be making the 600 kilometre trip.
Daniel drew himself up to that full height that says “back off” in the animal kingdom.
“You sure you want a ride with me,” he said – not asking.
Her first thought was that he didn’t know the rules – maybe, like her, he was a newcomer to the North.
She offered to share the cost of gas. He shook his head.
“I went off that road four times yesterday. Worst ice I’ve ever seen. Usually takes me five hours – yesterday it took eight.”
Lucy explained her mother’s predicament, in hospital and the possibility that she wouldn’t survive the stroke.
But Daniel said, “Sorry.”
He was prepared to undertake the trip, but he wouldn’t jeopardize someone else’s life. He threatened to stop along the way, take a motel room if the road got real bad. She’d heard rumours about that motel, that they never change the sheets.
It was an awkward moment. Lucy needed to get to Whitehorse for her flight the next day, and if it meant an overnight at the motel, she’d do that.
She met his stare and held her ground.
Finally he said, “Last lesson finishes at four.”
The highway gleamed like glass; the driving was slow, even though he had four-wheel drive. He drove right down the middle of the road.
Lucy honestly didn’t mind. In the summer she drove a lot of Yukon roads like that, she said. “Never had a head-on collision yet.”
That got a laugh.
By the time they passed the turnoff to the Dempster Highway, 40 kms outside Dawson, they were trading haunting stories about bad road trips. A Highways truck passed, spraying sand. She talked about her mother, but not too much.
When she offered again, to share the gas, he shrugged it off – “Music students in Dawson pay my expenses.”
Their truck climbed to the top of Tintina Trench. The view was spectacular – a dusting of snow on the trees, millions of trees covering mountains, ridge after ridge, folded one behind the other, glowing in the evening sun.
Then, as the truck descended, the road was miraculously clear. Snow and ice had disappeared. It had rained overnight.
Daniel talked about his work. He didn’t volunteer it – Lucy knew that the best way for them to get onto friendly terms would be to get him to talk about something he cared about.
In the school in Carmacks, he’d started in a new music program. With a teacher there, they managed to get six violins into the school. Every week he drove two hours to Carmacks, encouraging the kids to play “with” the violins, and to give lessons to the serious students. The change he saw in those kids was amazing. All he really wanted was for every school in the territory to have violins.
For a while they didn’t talk. Lucy reflected on her job at the nursing station. She took the position in the North because the money was good and she could pay down her student loan. She weighed babies and gave flu shots, but did nothing beyond the minimum requirements of the job.
Looking at Daniel now, she wondered if she could ever be as generous as this music teacher.
“Rabbit!” he said, and swerved to the side of the road.
Lucy looked back. She was hopeful – there hadn’t been a thud. Daniel jumped out and folded his seat forward. From under a blanket he took out a long, narrow cloth case. Lucy watched his practiced hands smoothly unzip the long bag and pull out a twenty-two. He left the door open and raced down the road with the grace of a dancer.
Lucy wondered, “What’s the passenger supposed to do when the driver goes hunting?”
She watched Daniel stalk the rabbit into the woods. She got out and stood beside the truck. The report sounded like a pop gun. Daniel came back holding the dead rabbit by its hind legs.
He held it out to her, saying, “There’s another one.”
Lucy reached out and took the rabbit. Daniel raced off down the road.
The fur was soft in her fingers. The legs she held weren’t bloody – it was shot in the head. The rabbit had its white winter coat on, now spotted with red. Alive one minute, dead in an instant. Such a fine divide between these two states of being – assuming that there is “being” in death. The doctor said that her mother was “between worlds”. Lucy ached to stroke the crinkly, tissue-paper skin on the back of her mother’s hand.
Before long, Daniel came loping back. He didn’t get the second one.
He set about cleaning and skinning the rabbit. Lucy helped by holding the head so he could cut it off.
Later, when she sat beside her mother, listening to her deep coma breathing, Lucy thought about the rabbit. Daniel’s wife would make rabbit stew. The fur would go to mittens or a hat. The guts, left by the road, would feed a fox or a raven.
Humans don’t serve much purpose after death. Lucy decided that when she got back to Dawson, she’d find some place to volunteer, someone to love, something to get passionate about. She would make more use of her one and only, sacred life.