I was brought into the world on a day of black misery. My mother, desperate and drained of strength, was nothing but skin and bones. Her body had become a frozen desert. She died in her struggle to give me life. Hunger was my first companion, and it has never left me since. It is always there, in my belly, relentlessly plaguing and torturing me within.
My grandmother, old Kokum, the village midwife, attended my mother during the birth. Apparently I was no bigger than a young hare. Overwhelmed with pity, Kokum took me in, fed me despite the ravages of the famine, and protected me. She often tells me about my mother. She says she was a brave woman who sacrificed her own life to give me mine. I should thank her every day for that precious gift. My mother’s name was Shikuan, from the word meaning “spring,” a word filled with hope. We often sit and think for a while by the foot of the larch tree where she’s buried.
There have been no births since my own. Kokum is desperate. Just like the she-wolves during times of scarcity, the women have stopped having children. They’re so weak they lose the babies a few months into the pregnancy. Faces drawn, breasts flat, bones sticking out, bodies all shriveled up, they look like spruce trees still standing after a forest fire.
All the game, once so plentiful, has suddenly deserted our land. We don’t know why everything is desolate now. The beavers have stopped building dams on the streams and ponds. Their lodges are empty. The caribou have abandoned the silent taiga; partridges no longer drum in the marshes and swamps. Even the Canada geese, once so numerous and entertaining in spring and autumn, are leaving us in droves. Once they were our friends and we hunted them respectfully. But now they travel only at night. We spot them sometimes at twilight and race after them, but they fly too high in the sky. They remain out of reach. We hear them honking; some people say they’re calling us. Our hearts beat a little faster as we watch, with sadness, the geese sailing off toward the south, wings beating hard. It’s as if they’re fleeing from us. The tightly gathered flock blends in with the horizon, like gray clouds blown by the autumn wind.
I, Wapush the Hare
My father was born in winter, right in the middle of a blizzard. He was named Mispun, which means “snow” in our language. He died shortly after I was born. The day he died there was a storm on the big lake. Despite the bad weather my father had gone fishing. He risked his life to bring us food. His canoe capsized. He was exhausted and too weak to swim, and disappeared beneath the waves.
Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to water. I have enormous respect for it. I love the feeling of plunging my face into my cupped hands and tasting its coolness. I enter into a different universe, and my whole body quivers with satisfaction.
In the morning, I get up and enjoy the enormous emptiness of dawn before the others awaken. A large red sun rises over the still-dark mountains as the magpies play among the dense pines at the water’s edge. They are early risers. A blackbird sings. I love this brave, wise bird. It too is one of the first to wake in the morning. I walk in the night-cooled water, my bare feet sinking up to my ankles in the fine, cold sand of the lakebed. At first, when I dip one foot in, I shiver all over. But I soon get used to it. The water envelops me. I love how the cold feels on my feet and legs. Holding my breath, I immerse myself slowly up to my waist. I gaze at my face, reflected in the silvered surface.
Three fingers of my right hand lightly graze my cleft lip. It looks like an old wound on a tree trunk. I explore the pebbly depths of my palate with the tip of my tongue. My index finger probes the furrow running through it. I twist slightly to one side to see the reflection of my back. A round black hump stands out on the water. I’ve never seen my whole body all at once. But I think of this bulge as a dark mountain that I carry on my back, between my shoulders.
In the forest, there’s a spruce tree that looks like me. A large gray growth has developed on its body. The tree is deformed just like me, but that doesn’t lessen her pride and the birds love nesting in her branches. Contorted though she may be, this tree has a beautiful crown covered in green moss, giving her a silvery mane. The cones, still green, smell good. Everyone knows the tree and respects her. I like going to visit her, particularly when I’m feeling sad. I lay my hands gently on her round, coarse hump. People say that it brings luck. I’d like it if my own hump brought luck to anyone who wanted to touch it.
This tree’s appearance moves me deeply. It suggests a hard childhood like my own: she has known thirst and known cold, has wanted for heat and for sunlight. I address her as I might speak to my mother. I tell her how beautiful she is, that I love her, and she smiles back at me. She is much older than me. She is very wise.
I bring my face close to the surface to get a better view of my long hair falling past my shoulders. I pull my hair up and feel my long ears.
They call me Wapush the Hare. I’m proud of this name, because despite my hump I can run very fast. I’m also a tremendous jumper. In fact, nobody runs faster than I do, and nobody can match my skill at leaping over things, whether it’s a rock, a fallen tree, a deep ravine or a swollen river. I have long, flexible legs, long arms that keep me balanced, and I have more stamina than anybody else.
I started running when I was small, without even realizing it. My whole being felt an overwhelming need to run, to go faster and faster, further and further. Gamboling in the forest, dodging trees, seeing them fly past me on both sides, jumping ever higher and ever further: it became my favorite game.
I like exploring unfamiliar places. I’d like to be able to climb mountains, break away into the sky, spring among the stars and bounce as far as the moon. When I run, I feel as light and powerful as an eagle. I have a gift for where to put my foot at just the right moment; I push myself forward to run faster still.
I’ve noticed too that when I see an obstacle, my muscles quiver and my blood pulses in my veins. When the wind carries me on its long wings, my mouth opens, my lips form a round o and I shout to multiply my strength and focus my energy. With one breath, I let out three powerful cries: “Oh!” “Oh!” “Oh!”
They emerge from deep inside my gut and boom in the air like thunderclaps. When I come to a stop, I see that I’ve covered a good distance. I’m sweating, my heart is hammering in my chest, my ears are ringing, but I feel incredible, because life is more present than ever inside me. In my deepest self I am convinced that I can be faster than the wind. I will prove it one day.
The Mysterious Man from the North
A tiny island has appeared out in the water during the night. Could it have fallen from the sky like a shooting star? Or did it perhaps emerge from the depths of the lake? It’s not impossible. One thing is certain: I had never noticed it before, despite the fact that I’m always gazing at the big lake. It would take a good two days to row there. Oh! The little black point, no bigger than a speck of ash on the wind, has moved. Now it’s leaping. It bounces on the water and skims over the foam of the waves like an agile cormorant.
It moves quickly. It could be a late Canada goose trying to catch up with its flock. In a flash it went from being as tiny as a no-see-um, round as a hummingbird’s eye to oval, like a sandpiper’s egg. It grows and grows, lengthens out and seems to be coming straight at me.
I remain motionless in the freezing water as it approaches. Doubt disappears from my mind. It’s a canoe I can see in the distance! A birchbark canoe come down from the sky. It looks like the ones the hunters use, but this one is much more impressive: it’s a giant canoe, and it looks as though it has wings! A lone man is propelling it with great paddle strokes.
Our chief, old Shiship, limps toward him. “Kwe kwe, welcome stranger!” In spite of our tremendous despair, Shiship tries to sound friendly. He lays his bony hand on the visitor’s arm and adds, “You’ve come a long way, and the journey must have been long and dangerous. Come under the shaputuan. What little food we have we’ll share with you. Rest for as long as you need to, and then afterward you can tell us who you are, where you come from and what brings you here to us. We want to hear all about your travels.”
This is how we always welcome visitors. Even seated in his canoe, the strange traveler towers over Shiship. He stands up and lifts one leg over the gunwale. His feet, as wide as caribou hooves, sink into the hot sand. Shiship leads the way with dignity. In a single line, we follow him to the great tent that stands in the center of our village. Men rush to the hearth to stoke the embers, arranging a cone of large dry logs on the fire. Women carry water from the stream in bark bowls. The wood cracks and sputters in the hearth. The flames grow higher, shining on prominent cheekbones, lighting tiny fires in black eyes. As the women make cedar tea, a sweet resiny smell quickly fills the air in the shaputuan.
Sitting on a carpet of pine branches cut the day before, we form a tight circle around our chief and our visitor. I didn’t want to attract attention, so I wove between people’s legs and knelt down right at the back. From here I can see and hear everything, but nobody takes any notice of me. Against the tent wall, I am invisible, as silent as an owl scanning the darkness, hidden in the branches of a spruce. The giant’s profile stands out above all the heads and shoulders. The chief’s wife serves him a bowl of fish broth and a cup of steaming tea. The stranger eats with his eyes half closed, taking the time to savor every bite. Then he slakes his thirst with a long draught of tea that we hear cascading down his throat. He places the dish in front of him and licks his lips, satisfied.
Sparks jump from the fire. We have all become phantoms in the darkness. We wait for our guest to speak. He must have noticed how thin we are, the pitiful state in which we live.
Mishta Napeo’s Departure
During the seasons that followed, the Great Man taught us to show gratitude to our ancestors, to the stars, nature, and animals, for their great generosity. He told us again and again that there exists only one heart, that of Mother Earth, and one pulse, that of the universe. This heartbeat is our own. It’s also the beat of his drum, our people’s sacred drum.
He showed us who we were, where we came from: “We are Innu, humans born of the earth and the sacred breath of the Great Creator. We are responsible for making sure that all Creation lives in harmony and respect. The earth is generous; if we share equally what she gives us, we will all have plenty.” His words are simple, yet filled with love and truth. I listen to him, my eyes round and my ears wide open. I am the most dedicated of all his students. Nothing escapes me. Through him, I hear all the music of the universe. His great round drum changes the world. Mishta Napeo believes that each one of us has a song deep in our hearts, and he bursts out with “Ya, ya, ya!”
The sounds follow each other like day and night, winter and summer, life and death. One evening we’re all listening to him when the singer suddenly breaks off to tell us, “I’m going to sing and dance the whole night long, just like I did the day I arrived here. Then at daybreak I will leave you and set off for the spirit world, the world of my ancestors.”
We are taken aback, but nobody says anything about him announcing his death like this. It is up to him.
“I’m not really leaving you,” he continues. “My spirit will always be here in the wind, the water, the trees, the plants, the sunbeams, and everywhere my drum has sounded. I will always be here for anyone who would like to talk with me. I will live in the hearts of those who welcome me in. Go to sleep. Tomorrow you will cry over me all day. At sunset, you will make a casket from the bark of my canoe, you will lay my body in it, and you will carry me to the top of the mountain. You will give me food and drink so that I may journey in peace.”
At dawn, Mishta Napeo puts on his beautiful winter clothes. He hands his drum to me, saying, “It’s yours. You are a young man now. It’s your turn to make it sing. You must do so with love, always.”
The great man looks at me for a long time, then adds, “You will find me once more, my friend Wapush, at the end of the world.”
From À la recherche du bout du monde, © by Michel Noël. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by JC Sutcliffe. All rights reserved.