About this book
A Memoir, A Fiction, A Fantasy, A Thought Experiment
Harold R. Johnson
I open my eyes in the darkness, laying on my side, half my vision is of the earth and shadows; the other is of the sky, treetops, and stars. I should write Clifford’s story. The thought emerges fully formed . . . The thought dissipates. I close my eyes and the earth and the sky disappear. The warmth of my sleeping bag wraps around me and sleep pulls me under into that half-world where reality and fantasy mingle in a place where coherent thoughts disintegrate.
When Harold Johnson returns to his childhood home in a northern Saskatchewan Indigenous community for his brother Clifford’s funeral, the first thing his eyes fall on is a chair. It stands on three legs, the fourth broken off and missing. So begins a journey through the past, a retrieval of recollections that have too long sat dormant. Moving from the old family home to the log cabin, the garden, and finally settling deep in the forest surrounding the property, his mind circles back, shifting in time and space, weaving in and out of memories of his silent, powerful Swedish father; his formidable Cree mother, an expert trapper and a source of great strength; and his brother Clifford, a precocious young boy who is drawn to the mysterious workings of the universe.
As the night unfolds, memories of Clifford surface in Harold’s mind’s eye: teaching his younger brother how to tie his shoelaces; jousting on a bicycle without rubber wheels; building a motorcycle. Memory, fiction, and fantasy collide, and Clifford comes to life as the scientist he was meant to be, culminating in his discovery of the Grand Unified Theory.
Exquisitely crafted, funny, visionary, and wholly moving, Clifford is an extraordinary work for the way it defies strict category and embraces myriad forms of storytelling. To read it is to be immersed in a home, a family, a community, the wider world, the entire cosmos.
Clifford showed me how the knights in the old days jousted.
“See this.” It was a post he’d dug into the ground a little taller than my five-year-old self, with a board nailed to the top at right angles. One nail — because nails were precious and not to be wasted ¾ and a bit of plywood on one end. The other end of the board, an eight-foot two-by-four, that he didn’t trim off, either because he didn’t want to spend time sawing it, or because he would get in trouble for wasting wood, was left jutting out on the other side of the post. “That piece of plywood is the shield. Now I’m going to come down the hill on that bicycle. That's my horse. And this” — a pole about six feet long — “is my lance.”
“You watch.” He took me by the shoulders and stood me off to the side. “Now you’re going to see how it was done.”
He came off that bit of hill on that bicycle that didn’t have any tires, just bare metal rims that rattled as he picked up speed. The hill, because the bicycle didn’t have any petals and he needed the assistance of gravity. One end of his lance tucked up under his arm, the other end — “You have to hit the shield right dead centre. That’s the way they did it”— out in front of the bicycle that had a fair bit of hurry as he came past me.
And he did it.
I was the witness.
The lance did hit the shield right dead centre. A solid hit.
The shield spun away, pivoted on the single nail driven into the top of the post, and the other end of the board spun around, exactly like he planned it, exactly like he told me it was going to work. Except I don’t think he expected the long end of the two-by-four to come around so quickly and catch him on the back of the head.
I pick up the hoop. That’s all it is, a piece of plastic tubing, big enough to fit over a five- — maybe I was six or seven — year-old boy.
Clifford’s bubble maker.