I woke up underneath a small window and sloped roof in a house on Old Road in Huntly, Scotland. I had been gone from Edmonton for two months, immersing myself into this daily reality of bird songs instead of car alarms. It was not yet summer in Edmonton, but the north of Scotland was experiencing a balmy heat wave. Memories of summer live beneath your skin, and mine were coming alive again—and not due simply to atypical Scottish weather. My skin shivered as news broke out all over my online feeds that the town of Slave Lake was burning down.
To explain to an outsider that Slake Lake was on fire conjured up certain contradictions, if not biblical implications. Slave Lake remained a mystery to me as a first generation Canadian growing up in Edmonton. My family did not own any cabins, nor did we ever go to one, but for many Slave Lake was where their families disappeared to every other weekend in the summer.
There was always someone with a house on a lake, be it Greater or Lesser Slave Lake. There were those who spent their childhood summers there, and who returned as adults to realize they’d had happy childhoods after all.
The translation of information and language was rarely kind in my youth, and the lake’s etymology would be no different. I recalled lunchroom conversations where, as a child, it was explained that the lakes were named after Slavic explorers. I have come to learn in more recent years that “slavey” was a derogatory Cree term for their enemies, the Dené people, who had inhabited the region.
Brenda Draney was the only person I knew who was actually from Slave Lake, though she lived in Edmonton. Her mother still lived there, and she had started making a series of paintings about the town.
What do you salvage from a fire? I have asked myself this question during and after fire drills. I woke up one winter night in Edmonton to see my neighbour’s house blazing in the night. Someone was furiously pounding on my front door and I saw the fire trucks before I heard them. I didn’t grab anything. I looked at my cat, who was annoyed for being stirred. I threw on some clothes and talked to one of the firemen. My neighbours were hysterical, but no one was hurt. This time.
Having already started painting the erasure of memories—focusing on fragments, like the colour of someone’s shirt, or dress instead of their face; their hands, unable to grasp the entirety of the situation beyond singular moments—Brenda began collecting stories from Slave Lake. In a fire, nothing is urgent because everything is precious.
Hanging without a wind, like laundry or photographs clinging to a drying line, each fragment is a moment brought back to life. From lake to fire to plunging back into watercolours, what we have forgotten is all that is left behind.