My uncle was one of those men who woke up before dawn day after day, downed a few biscuits and his scalding tea, and headed out to work in their fields. Short and stocky, he had a weathered face that always wore a worried expression. His huge hands, dotted with spots from hours spent in the sun, showed the signs of a life of hard labor.
My aunt wound her already gray hair into a bun on top of her head, which she felt gave her a distinguished look. Frail, her emaciated features betraying her fatigue, she was pious and accepting of the sacrifices to be made since “God gave us this land to take care of,” she said.
Farm life is akin to a calling. Farmers believe their land protects them from the wilderness. In reality, it turns them into slaves. Children work the land like adults. I milked the cows every morning before school and on my return at day’s end. I liked looking after the cows. I talked to them as I pulled on their teats. We understood one another, the cows and I. In the summer, I took them out to the field. It bordered a small river, and to the north, beyond the hills, was the lake.
On Sundays, we went to church in Saint-Prime. At that time, it was nothing but a plain building made of wooden planks with windows on either side and a silver bell where we froze in winter and suffocated in summer. We had no elegant outfits to wear like some did, but our clothes were clean. Out of respect for the house of God.
I earned good marks in school, and my aunt would have liked to see me become a teacher. But she and my uncle didn’t have the means to send me to teacher training school. In any case, I couldn’t imagine being cooped up inside, standing in front of a row of young people placed under my responsibility. At the same time, I couldn’t see myself marrying the son of a Saint-Prime farmer either and raising a big family on a rocky plot of land. I preferred not to think about the future.
Slowly the village grew. New settlers arrived, drawn by the offer of free land that nevertheless had to be cleared. The parishioners talked of replacing the small church with a more imposing stone building topped by a vertiginous steeple that could be seen from afar. The mayor spoke of progress.
Everyone had that word on their lips. In reality, not much happened. More villagers only meant more men hitched to their ploughs and more women at their stovetops.
Sometimes in the evening, once I’d finished my chores, I’d watch the sun set behind the forest. What lay beyond the trees? Who lived on the other side of the great lake? Was that world any different from my own? Or was it just a succession of villages as dreary as ours was? When I returned home, my aunt would scold me.
“Why so late, Almanda? It’s dangerous out at night. You could come across savages.”
“Ma tante, really. There’s no one around. Nothing to steal. Nothing to fear.”
It was on one of those evenings as I milked the cows in the muted light of the setting sun that I saw him for the first time. It was early summer and a warm breeze swept through the tall grasses. A canoe appeared, silently gliding down Rivière à la Chasse. A bare-chested man with coppery skin paddled at a leisurely pace, letting the current carry him along. He didn’t look much older than me, and from my vantage point I could see five wild geese laid out in his birchbark canoe. Our eyes met. He didn’t smile. I wasn’t afraid. The hunter disappeared round a bend, behind a hill.
Who was that young man? The geese must have drawn him this far in their flight since we had never seen any Indians here before. I finished the milking and took the path home through the fields. The wind dispersed the blackflies, which were many at that time of year. I was careful not to spill any milk. We needed it badly now that rain had pushed back the sowing season. My uncle and aunt were worried. Our life hung from such a thin thread.
The next day, the canoe reappeared at around the same time, once again full of geese fanned out on the bottom. The boy with almond eyes stared at me. I waved, and he acknowledged me with a nod. Sitting upright in his frail boat, he paddled easily, compelling in his silence. With my palms glued to a cow’s teat, I watched him drift away.
When I rose at dawn the next day, the image of the mysterious hunter and his noble glide over the water still preoccupied me. Did he follow prey every day? Did he change grounds or, like farmers, did he always cultivate the same area? The questions troubled me all day long as I helped my aunt make bread, prepare the meals, mend clothing.
After supper, armed with my pail, I headed for the pasture, secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of the young man who seemed so unlike anyone I had ever known, and who I imagined as a kind of wanderer letting the wind show him the way. I was young, of course. With no one around me but people who were prisoners of their land, I had suddenly come across someone who was free. So it was possible.
That summer evening, as I stepped into the pasture, he sat waiting for me on the fence with the patience of someone who cares nothing for time’s passing. The wind ruffled his hair, calling attention to his shy expression—that of a child. We were both children. He watched as I drew near. I spoke first.
He answered with a nod, his gaze intent. Did he even know how to smile?
“What’s your name?”
He hesitated for a second. “Thomas Siméon.”
He had a gentle, lilting voice.
“I’m Almanda Fortier.”
Once again, he nodded. The solidity and strength emanating from him contrasted with his reserved manner. As though two people lived inside him at once.
“Did you come by canoe?”
He groped for words. “The wind . . .”
“Did you walk from Pointe-Bleue?”
“Hey, that’s quite a long way!”
It was over ten kilometers to Pointe-Bleue. I couldn’t imagine walking all that distance. But when the wind blows as it did that day, no one dares venture out on the water. He had had to walk in order to see me. That impressed me.
We talked and, with a great deal of effort, managed to make ourselves understood. His natural kindness pleased me from the start. Thomas told me that he’d canoed up Rivière à la Chasse the other day to follow the geese.
“Do you like goose?”
I’d never had it before. “My uncle doesn’t hunt. He farms the land. Is it good?”
He seemed confused for a moment.
“Does it taste like chicken?”
He shrugged, then added, “Never had chicken.”
We burst into laughter.
“Do you live in Pointe-Bleue?”
“Yes and no.”
He tilted his head, trying to figure out how to express himself in my language.
“Pointe-Bleue is where we spend the summer. And sell furs to the Hudson Bay store. Where I live is over there.”
He pointed to the northeast.
“You live on the lake?” I laughed, and he bristled. I was afraid I’d vexed him. “That was a bad joke. Sorry.”
Beneath his shyness, there was an intensity that troubled me.
“Where we live,” he continued, “is on the other side of Pekuakami.”
Pekuakami. I had never heard Lac Saint-Jean referred to that way. I liked the name immediately.
“On the other side is Rivière Péribonka and, above it, a lake with the same name. And impassable waterfalls, Passes-Dangereuses. That’s my home.”
With his halting words, Thomas conjured up a world foreign to me. And the thought of that impetuous river rushing through the heart of the forest fascinated me.
That night over dinner, I asked my uncle what lay on the other side of Lac Saint-Jean.
“Nothing. There’s nothing there. Just woods and flies.”
“Do you know Rivière Péribonka?”
“Never seen it, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a big one. There aren’t any settlers up there. It’s deep in the back country.”
“And Passes-Dangereuses? Do you know that name?”
My uncle thought for a second, stroking his gray beard. “No. Never heard of ’em.”
I went to bed that night with my head full of images of the forest straddling mountains on into infinity, and it was as though, in the distance, I could hear the roar of those menacing falls.
The next day, Thomas paddled over and pulled his canoe onto shore. Carrying a goose in his right hand, he climbed the hill slowly, confidently. With him, nothing was ever hurried.
“Here, nishk. You’ll tell me if you like it.”
My heart swelled. I had never before been given a present.
“Thank you, Thomas. That’s so nice of you. You didn’t have to.”
He smiled. “Nishk is late this year. The winter was long.”
I scanned his features, his oval face with its high cheekbones, his eyelids so narrow they gave him an intense gaze. His full lower lip lent his mouth a certain sensuality. He was taller than me, with broad, sturdy shoulders, very thick black hair, smooth dark skin.
“You? Have you hunted?”
“No. I don’t know if I could kill an animal.”
“You like meat?”
“Of course. I know. It makes no sense.”
“I never kill for pleasure. Always to eat.”
He lifted up the bird and smoothed its ruffled feathers.
“Nishk gave his life. You must only take what you need.”
The wisdom expressed in those simple words revealed Thomas’s goodness and generosity.
When I arrived home carrying the large goose, my aunt stared wide-eyed. “What’s that, Manda?”
“Where did you catch it, my girl?”
“I caught it in my hands as it flew. Like this.”
I pretended to jump, my arms raised to the heavens. My aunt shot me a stern glance.
“Someone gave it to me.”
She planted her fists on her hips.
“An Indian gave it to me. He’s canoed by the pasture a couple of times on his way home from hunting.”
“An Indian gave you a goose?”
Her voice went up.
“Well, yes, ma tante, he’s nice. He had lots. It’ll be a change from biscuits for us.”
She took the bird, carried it into the kitchen and immediately started plucking it.
“You’re right, Manda. Your uncle will be happy. Goose is good.”
We often didn’t have meat, especially in the summer, when it had to be salted and stored in barrels to keep. Thomas’s gift came at a good time. It sent a celebratory fragrance through our smoky cabin. Neither my aunt nor my uncle asked anything more about him.
Over the following days, Thomas dropped by the pasture every evening. Mostly by canoe, sometimes on foot if the conditions forced him to. He spoke of his territory, and I told him about life in the village and about school, which he had never been to. He tried to teach me a few words of his language, but I wasn’t a good student, which made him laugh.
His French didn’t get much better than my Innu-aimun, but he was patient as he described his world to me. The trips as a family to their hunting grounds on Rivière Péribonka, the winter camp set up in the heart of the forest, their life trapping and travelling to the flat open country of the North to hunt caribou. And all the work required to preserve and store the animals’ meat and hides. There were also evenings round the campfire, during which the elders told stories to amuse and educate the children. Finally, with spring melt, their return to the lake to reunite with those who, like them, had spent long months in the woods.
In Saint-Prime, most people thought of Indians as inferior beings. Yet Thomas’s tales described a life that showed a different relationship to the earth, an existence graced with wide-open horizons, and the more he spoke, the more I longed for its fresh air.
“I’d like to see Rivière Péribonka and its mountains, Thomas.”
“You wouldn’t be afraid?”
“Yes, a little . . . But still . . .”
“I’d like you to come, Almanda. By canoe,” he said, pointing ahead of him, “to my home.”
I looked into the eyes of the person asking me to follow him to the ends of the earth. There I saw the river, the long lake, and in between, me and this broad-shouldered young man with his confident air.
From Kukum. Originally published 2019 by Éditions Libre Expression, Montréal, Canada. © 2019 by Michel Jean (Agence littéraire Patrick Leimgruber). English translation copyright © 2023 by Susan Ouriou. First published in English in 2023 by House of Anansi Press Inc. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.