“Book sense didn’t save your mother”, I hear my father’s angry words ringing in my ears every time I revisit that space. They were daggers to my heart and so they were meant to be, I could never forgive him for those words any more than I could be like him. As his bitterness grew, though, so would mine towards him. So it was that if my academics were to continue it would have to be without his knowledge or consent. In fact, almost everything I did was without his approval, not that I needed or even wanted his approval; I would become my own person in spite of him.
It seems to be my nature to question everything and it is in this that I find Descartes to be of likened being; not that he nor I presume ourselves to be of greater minds than others, but it appears that if my life is to be my own then I should follow my own good sense and reason. This is why I pursued a lifestyle unapproved by so many around me, still the dream is mine and not theirs. And now you may ask how one so lowly of social stature would come to have knowledge of the greatest thinker of our time, I say to you it comes from that noble science of language and more precisely books. They are still a rare commodity in this land, treasured by some, despised by others.
My mother, who came to this colony as part of the King’s attempt to raise the female population to ensure the survival of New France, is responsible for my love of books. Not through any words or actions that will attest to this, for she departed this world when I was too young to understand, but rather, and I can admit this now, by way of influence. I attempted to know and love her by reading the literature she left behind on an unguarded shelf in my parent’s room, a testimony to her once privileged heritage.
The snow fell hard the year of my mother’s passing, or so I have been told for I was merely four years along and much too young to remember anything but the pain. A fever took her like it did so many in the colony that season. I do recall her eyes, though, soft and green in colour with a warmth made all the more visible by her charming smile. Her voice, too, was soft and it made me wonder how and why she ever married my father, they were so different.
As a little boy, before I could even read, I would slip into their room, place a book on my lap and pretend she was reading to me. It was a way I could keep her close, I missed her attention and affection so. I would imagine the words jumping off the pages, dancing like a magpie on the muddied streets of Montreal and my play world became more real. Ships laden with gold or spices docked at my door just the same as the kings of France and Spain; the clouds over my head were the same as theirs. The wind that gave motion to the sails also swept past my window. The few drawings I found filled my tiny thoughts with a sense of importance and whole stories were told in a single image. I wished for the opportunity to put truisms to the funny scratches on the pages by learning to read and looked forward to the time I would be of school age.
Then one cold winter day, while in a reverie brought on by the symmetry of a Jean Racine poem, my father burst into the room and tore the book from my hands in a fit of rage that only the malade du vin could expose. It was a malady familiar to him (and I) and I learned over the years how to make myself very small at those times. As surely as he consumed alcohol, alcohol consumed him. He was furious that I had taken an interest in such a useless form of distraction and in his anger, clumsily threw the books out the window and into the frozen snow.
“Book sense didn’t save your mother”, he screamed, the words still echoing in my mind.
Horrified, I raced to my bed and cried. Later, after he fell asleep, I crept outside to retrieve the binders from their icy grave. One by one I dried them and stored them in a wooden box lay hid by a chestnut tree past the bean patch. The tree became my fort, my place of comfort and solitude.
A once indentured servant who had gained his freedom by farming the land of a wealthy seigneur not long after my birth, my father carried his animosity like a soldier’s medal of valour often cursing the earth and sky for every hardship in his life. He was of average height with large, strong hands, no doubt the result of the physical work he engaged in, and his shoulders were as broad as a cattle yoke. Our farm lay in the district of Longueil along the south shore of le Flueve Saint-Laurent a short distance from the stone fort.
It was the spring of 1717 when my life changed dramatically. I walked aimlessly along Rue Saint Paul next to the river when I spotted a sign posted near the docks; it called for short, strong men to become the captains of their own destiny while making lots of money. I wasn’t lured by the power of riches, although it certainly struck a chord with this poor man/boy, but it was the thrill of adventure and of travel that excited me. You see, the call was for fur traders, les voyageurs. If miracles can be found in words then the writing on that bulletin board would surely save my life and be the miracle to inspire it.
In just a few short weeks I embarked with my nine compatriots down the St. Laurent in fully loaded canoes of blankets, rifles, gunpowder, knives and of course whiskey. With a paddle in our hands and a song on our tongues we headed for the west and the territory of the Algonkin and beyond.
“Alouette, gentille alouette. Alouette, je te plumerai”. We sang as we paddled, we sang loud and proud.
Along the route, at various places, I noticed wooden crosses near the shoreline and wondered why they had been placed there. I reasoned that missionaries had used them as guides to the interior or perhaps to show the heathens the way to god and salvation. My mother had been a devout Christian but my father had no use for the Church and I was left standing somewhere in the middle. Before long, while on a portage around a set of rapids followed by a waterfall, I questioned Louis, the most senior man in the company and who we just called “le Roi”, about the purpose of the crosses. It was shortly after I saw him stop, fall to his knees and mumble a prayer as we passed a group of six crosses in a row.
“We lost six men there ten years ago; one was my brother Emile.” His voice trailed perceptively before he continued. “They were dragged by the strong current until their canoe burst apart on the rocks and they all drowned.”
Nothing more was said about it but I found myself mimicking him with the sign of the cross each time we saw another marker. Respect for the dead was not beyond my sensibilities. That night as I lay by the fire I said a silent prayer for my mother and cried just a little bit; not enough for anyone to notice. When in the company of men one does not show the fearful young boy inside.
By weeks end we came to the point where the Mattawa empties into lac Nipissing or what the natives call the “big water” and from there it was two more days to the French River and more portages. Most of us, myself included, could not swim so to be caught in deep or turbulent waters was surely to perish. The French River empties into Lake Huron where a hundred tiny islands meet and one could easily get lost here. We soon found ourselves heading west again to a large island, Isle de Ste. Marie, and our first contact with the natives, the Ojibwe. Most had been driven out by the Iroquois over fifty years ago but by this time some had returned establishing small villages along the northern coast. It was a welcome sight to see the strange looking teepees with fires burning and brought a certain comfort to weary travellers.
We were greeted by a party of twenty or so consisting of several lightly-armed warriors along with women and children all welcoming us with hoots and yelps. A far cry from les sauvages my father and his friends portrayed them to be. Jean-Francois went ahead and spoke to them in their own language, a funny-sounding tongue with throaty syllables and hand gestures that seemed as much a part of the language as the words. The rest of us unloaded the canoe and began unpacking one of the bundles which we spread out onto the grass near the water’s edge. I watched the animated discussion for a time amazed that anyone could make sense of the noises but I thought back to my time of learning to read and how foreign the symbols on the pages seemed then. How had he come to have such knowledge I wondered and how could I be ever so blessed.
The braves did not wear tunics or shirts as I had seen in Montreal but draped buffalo skins around their bodies and the women wore one-piece buckskins from neck to knee. Soon they approached one by one selecting an item from the laid-out goods we had carried from Montreal and the old country until everything was gone and we were left standing watching grown men and women marvelling at their new-found treasures like children at Christmas. Before long Jean-Francois instructed us to collect piles of beaver skins set aside by the natives and load them into the canoe.
Daylight was fading as the sky, which was a soft blue when we arrived, turned into a sullen grey shroud overhead so we made camp with the natives and gathered around a growing fire. Young squaws handed us bits of pemmican and some sort of a maize soup that was rather tasteless but filled the belly with a warm glow. Jean-Francois continued to speak with a man who appeared to be the chief and their conversation was interspersed with random laughter and gestures of unknown origin.
As I sat with my legs crossed a tall brave who appeared scarlet in the glow of the firelight approached and sat down beside me. His face, like all the other braves, was painted and his eyes sparkled like dew on the morning grass. He muttered one word that he repeated with the motioning of his hands going back and forth from my toque to his knife. I thought he may be threatening me so I backed away, one never knows the true heart of a stranger until they are not.
“Meshkwadoon”, he said, “Meshkwadoon”, pointing over and over.
Finally, Jean-Francois came to my aid and said, “He wants to trade.” In that moment I had learned my first native word; meshkwadoon, trade. The exchange was made and we both shared a smile. Later, I discovered that his name, which was too hard to pronounce in his language, could be translated as ‘Hawk that comes out of the thunder’ but I just called him ‘Gekek’, Hawk. As the night wore on we talked, as much as hand gestures and a few translated words can be called talk, and I found he, too, was far from home and that his tribe lived farther northeast along the Nipissing but that his bride had come from this tribe and good relations meant inter-tribal marriages.
Morning came all too soon and we were onto the dark waters again stroking hard against the current of the straits. The southern route led to Fort Michilimackinac and into Lake Michigan but we continued north and west into Lac Superieur, or as the Ojibwe call it ‘Gichigami’ or ‘the big waters’, to le Grande Portage and then overland to Lac La Croix and the land of the Cree.
In the weeks that passed I learned more about myself and the people who inhabited this land than in the previous 16 years of my life; no amount of schooling could equal that. The mystery and majesty of these noble people stood out and I was struck by the dignity and respect we were afforded by these ‘backward’ peoples (those at home talked like this, the Lachine Massacre still fresh in their minds) and their generosity; they were always eager to share their home, their customs and food with us. And patient in their communications, repeating over and over until they were understood, they never wavered.
At Lac La Croix throngs of people milled about and the sounds of commerce could be heard from a great distance; ornately decorated chiefs eyed the glory of a civilized society with honest bewilderment and excitement. On our first night there I witnessed a great ceremony through a Fire Dance and felt the rhythm of the drums run through me like the river that runs through my veins. A love for this life, for this land and for these people was building in my heart without my notice.
With a fully loaded canoe and a head full of stories we headed back to Montreal but the old ways were behind us now, things would never be the same. My life would be forever altered by my experience in the west and that first winter ‘home’ would seem the longest of all before it. Relationships had changed, my relationship with mon pere had changed, there was a certain pride he showed me upon my return; peut etre it was respect, I think, yes, he never said as much but I sometimes caught him looking at me. It was like I was reborn and he could see me for the first time.
My perspective had changed and there was a new purpose to my life that could not, would not be shaken by anyone. The river, like the cycles of time, had brought me to that place of understanding. You know, a man can die in prison or by the gallows’ noose, a man can die in battle or from the fever’s curse but to pass away in freedom, in grasses still untouched is to live and die with peace in the heart and an untamed joy on the tongue. I am alive in my dream.