Mark T Sullivan
The Purification Ceremony
Table of Contents
“There are few great thrillers. The Purification Ceremony is among them. Outstanding.” — The Los Angeles Times
“Superbly written. A remarkable book. Uniquely scarey.” — London Literary Review
“Brilliantly crafted and told. Not to be missed.” — The Chicago Tribune
THE PURIFICATION CEREMONY
by Mark T Sullivan
Published by Mark T Sullivan at Smashwords
Copyright 1997 & 2009 Mark T Sullivan
The Purification Ceremony is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
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THE PURIFICATION CEREMONY
by Mark T Sullivan
For Connor and Bridger
“We are murderers and cannot live without murdering. The whole of nature is based on murder…” — MARIE-LOUISE VON FRANZ
“In the end, the hunter really hunts himself” — HUICHOL INDIAN SAYING
Here lives my story.
My name is Diana Jackman, but I think of myself these days as Little Crow, which is what I was called as a child. I am a mother and an environmental software writer. I am also a hunter: a deer hunter, to be precise; a tracking deer hunter, to be more precise still. You might ask how, in this day and age, a woman comes to be a tracking deer hunter and I’d answer: my mother and father and great-uncle. You might ask why I did not track for nearly fifteen years and I’d give you the same answer. And you might ask how I got involved in the terrible events of that November and I’d tell you to sit down and listen.
The facts of what happened in the months before I arrived in British Columbia are thin, and I’ve been forced to rely on my imagination for much of what must have occurred before I entered into the course of the story.
But these few things I know: Pawlett had read the signs accurately. The approaching winter would be early and cruel. The webs of brown spiders hung broad and complicated from the eaves of his cabin. Geese arced south the Tuesday before Labor Day. And the ermines, the best hunters Pawlett knew, had become inordinately vicious in their autumn pursuits.
This last had evidently bothered Pawlett, for he had a strange encounter with an ermine mid-September near Frenchman’s Creek, and he was a superstitious man. That morning he grouse-hunted in an aspen regrowth above fresh logging slash. The birds were plentiful and he had shot several. He was on his way back to his cabin about eleven o’clock when he spotted the hare.
I see it plump from a summer feeding on green shoots, the rabbit’s fur just beginning the change toward winter white. It crouches at the root end of a blowdown aspen, nervous, its nose pulsing for scent. The gaunt woodsman scratches at the itch of the skin sore under his gray beard. He flicks off the safety on his battered 12-gauge pump and takes an easy step forward, preparing to shoot.
He freezes the gun midway to his shoulder. An ermine, twelve inches long, with a chocolate back and a snow belly, crawls out onto the log. Pawlett smiles. He is a trapper by trade. Come November, the ermine’s fur will turn the color of fresh cream. Ermine pelts, despite the efforts of animal rights activists, are still worth their weight in gold. He decides he’ll be back with traps in a few months.
Then the weasel does something that makes the old trapper shiver. It turns and stares at him condescendingly, as if it has been aware of his presence all along and doesn’t care. The ebony BB eyes roll with blood intent. The animal arches up on its tiptoes and pours toward him. Pawlett has never seen an ermine display such boldness in the presence of a human and he finds himself retreating.
The ermine smirks at Pawlett’s distress. When the trapper reaches the bend in the logging road, the animal turns its back on him and slinks into the root system above the hare. The rabbit is twice the weasel in weight, but without hesitation the predator drops onto the neck of its prey. The high-pitched cry of the hare as it leaps away, trying to shake its aggressor, is like the noises I used to hear in the night when one of my babies would suffer night terrors.
Pawlett waits five minutes after the cries have stopped, then creeps forward. When he rounds the root stem, he swallows. The entire throat of the hare has been torn out. For a moment Pawlett thinks the ermine has heard him coming and fled. Then the torso of the hare shakes, and from the throat itself, the ermine pokes its head out and hisses at him.
Pawlett did not return to the woods for nearly a month after the encounter. He believed in nature’s ability to presage the future with signs. He got it into his head that the hare’s death foretold his own demise; and he did not hunt, or fish, or grease his traps that October. He spent his time splitting kindling. He ate from berry preserves he’d put up in August. He swilled cocktails of Sterno diluted in branch water to mask the memory of the weasel.
One morning in mid-October, a man named Curly arrived outside Pawlett’s cabin in a brand-new, red four-wheel-drive Dodge pickup. Curly always came this time of year. He was chief of security for Metcalfe Timber, the company that owned or controlled logging rights on much of the vast terrain in which Pawlett eked out a living.
The way Curly tells it, Metcalfe Timber had camps throughout this part of British Columbia, hard by the border with Alberta, some of them in constant use, others on a sporadic basis. Because Pawlett was one of the few people who ever ventured into the deep wilderness after the first of November, Curly hired him to make regular checks on the various outbuildings and logging camps not currently occupied. In return, Curly gave Pawlett five hundred pounds of provisions and the right to trap on the land.
“Ain’t going out this season,” Pawlett said when Curly came through the door hauling a fifty-pound sack of flour and a box of .30-.30 rifle shells.
Curly said the interior of the cabin looked as it always did. Two rudely crafted stools stood next to a battered Formica kitchen table. A hand pump jutted from the sink piled high with dirty dishes. Traps hung from the walls. Under them, the shelves were stocked with golden liquids in pale bottles — Pawlett’s trapping tinctures of urine and God only knew what else. Abandoned birds’ nests in the rafters. A potbellied woodstove glowed red; its damper begged for repair. The door clung to the cupboard by one fractured hinge. Inside were mason jars stuffed with vegetables Pawlett grew in his summer garden and tins of trout and salmon he smoked in a shed outside. The wall above Pawlett’s bunk bed was decorated with a moth-eaten bear skin.
Curly said the man himself rarely bathed. His oily hair was plastered to his head. Scabs poked through his beard. Not to mention the sick stench of his clothes. Curly hated going to Pawlett’s cabin.
“Not going out this winter, eh?” Curly said.
“I had a bad vision last month,” Pawlett replied. “I stays here this winter, Curly, wait till it passes.”
Curly smiled. “Not here, old-timer. The company owns this cabin and we let you stay here by the goodness of our heart. We need someone making the route this winter. Doesn’t matter to me if it’s you or someone else. If it’s someone else, there’s no need for us to keep this dump in its present state. Now, do I bring in the rest of your stuff, or do I radio out to bring in a bulldozer and raze your rathole, eh?”
Pawlett screwed up his face and forced his eyes to focus on the lumberman. The set of his lips did not offer hope. “But everything I own is in here, Curly.”
“A damn shame,” Curly agreed.
Pawlett rubbed his throbbing temple and forced his brain to consider the options. After a few minutes he sighed.
“Okay, bring it all in. Maybe I read the sign wrong, eh?”
“I’ll bet you did,” Curly replied. He went back to the truck and brought in the rest of the things Pawlett had requested early in the summer: fifty pounds of dried milk, one hundred pounds of dried fruit, shotgun shells, six gallons of rye whiskey, a new wool mackinaw, a set of those modern alloy snowshoes, a pair of deerskin mitts, a new leatherman tool, and oil, gas and a starter motor and carburetor for his aging snowmobile.
Before letting Pawlett sign for the goods, Curly reviewed the terms of their contract. During the course of the winter, beginning at the end of October, Pawlett would check each of the buildings three times. In those buildings with a working radiophone, he was to call in to the main office and report on his progress.
When Pawlett asked if he should check in on the estate, Curly told him not until December at least; an outfitter had leased the property for a whitetail deer hunt in mid-November.
“Be good hunting, seeing how no one’s been in there the three years since the old man disappeared,” Pawlett observed.
“ ‘Cept you, of course.”
“I never shot no deer on the estate,” Pawlett protested.
“A law-abiding citizen, you’re telling me,” Curly said, almost laughing.
“Ya always said it was off-limits, Curly. I pay mind to what’s told me.”
“Be sure you do, eh?” Curly said. His lips set thin and hard again. “Someone’ll be in here mid-January to pick up your furs.”
* * *
Everything else I will tell you of Pawlett is based on what was left behind. But since I became an integral part of it all, I’m sure you’ll allow me my version.
November arrives mild with easy breezes, weather that helps Pawlett to put the weasel behind him. He sobers up. And three weeks after Curly’s visit, he’s fallen into the daily rhythm of scouting the perimeter of his hundred-mile trapline.
At the end of the first week of November, he decides to make the trek through Barris Basin and over Wolf Ridge onto the series of flats and peaks toward Metcalfe Logging Camp Four, which abuts the Metcalfe Estate. He shoulders his pack, annoyed that the lack of snow makes it impossible for him to use his snowmobile.
Near the end of the first day of hiking, during which he covers twelve of the twenty-five miles, the wind shifts from south to north, bringing with it blue clouds and the heaviness of increasing humidity.
Pawlett studies the sky and shivers. “Sure enough, we’re in for it now.”
Wildlife activity picks up in anticipation of the approaching storm. Scrub jays caw. They swoop through the tag alders of a swamp he skirts. He glimpses a moose crashing away at the far side of a clear-cut. A fat whitetail doe feeds on a flat near one of the lean-tos he maintains for his winter work. He shoots it.