The sea itself feared to swallow a race bold enough to unknot her watery roots… where the giant seaweed moors the horizon to the setting sun.
Antonine Maillet, Pélagie la Charette
Marie-Andrée Le Blanc has never heard of the god Aeolus, nor the Aeolian harp whose name he inspired, but oh does she know the repertoire of the wind. Every lament, every chorus the needles of the spruce sing. The faint whistles of the blackpoll warbler enter like breath wakening a flute, the owl hoots in a different register and louder. The pluck, pluck, plucking of a single string when a loose wire slaps against tin. Often these night sounds anoint her sleep. Tonight, they compete with a howling from inside her that overwhelms the respiration of the four children spread out on the same bed and the sighs of the infant huddled against her. Does it mean the presence of the Holy Spirit is strong? She tries to make herself believe it, but her faith has suffered. Though she does not know there is a God of the wind, only the wind might respond to her prayers.
It is an old story, but isn’t there always a twist, a new version? Marie-Andrée has never heard of Iphigenia, not Rumpelstiltskin either, nor any of the other tales in which a mother is asked to sacrifice her first born. To her it is unthinkable. What Samuel Ridley has demanded of her? Jamais, jamais. Outrage and despair stretch her insides beyond taut. And there lies the lovely Aurélie herself, sleeping as innocently as she skips over the hills above Havre-Aubert. Where he saw her. Him, raw-faced Samuel Ridley, on whom their lives depend.
If Étienne were here, if he returns from the sealing grounds with his life, all his limbs, some fresh meat and a hide or two for repairing their makeshift sabots. But Étienne? He is like the shifting ice floes. Marie-Andrée pictures his shaggy head wagging from side to side, the corners of his mouth turning down, his shoulders lifting and falling. He does what is necessary. But this? And he may not return. There is that.
She releases a breast for the baby to suckle lest he wake the other four. Better for them to sleep. More warmth to share. Quieter. Easier not to answer the same questions. Is Papa bringing the meat today?
If she lies there with them, they will all stay snug until daylight searches cracks in the habitation and stripes their coverlets with gold. On fine mornings this time of year the first ray to enter always finds Aurélie, and her hair sparks as if kindling a fire to comfort her mother, baby Jean-Jacques, brother Hubert. The younger sisters, Marie-Therese, Marie-Jeanne. If Marie-Andrée continues to lie with her children the day will grow older before they know they are hungry. Her eyes close, but instead of the darkness that will seduce sleep, her mind fills with tableaus.
Samuel Ridley on a horse dappled grey as so often is the sky above these islands strung out here in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The mane brushed smooth, the tail. The white of its huge terrified eye when the children reached to touch it. Entranced. A horse, maman! No common thing, a horse on les Îles de la Madeleine, you know. The boat ploughing over the Gulf from the mainland of Québec, how the creature must have whinnied, reared and tried to escape the cables that held it fast. Marie-Andrée is no stranger to the terrors of ship travel. She had joined her lot with a man from Acadie, and in those years after the British wrested the Acadians from their settlements because they would not swear allegiance to the British crown, no home lasted long. First the terrible passage from the Gaspé Peninsula to the French-held island of Miquelon, with baby Aurélie. Hubert and soon after him Marie-Rose born in Miquelon before the English wrested control from the French and sent the Acadians to France, the La Rochelle grand-mère spoke of, far across an ocean vast as the night heavens only angels could sail. Another child born in France, Marie-Therese in St. Malo, then back to Miquelon, then, finally, on to les Îles de la Madeleine, to Havre-Aubert. Over twenty families now. The promise of shelter, security. One day a priest will come, they will build a church. But all is dependent on the grace of the Ridley’s, who were granted these islands by the King’s lackeys in British North America. They parcel out the land, take the proceeds from the walrus hunt in the fall, the seal hunt in the spring. The cod, the mackerel. Their grace or no grace. Is it any wonder Marie-Andrée fears for her daughter?
These Acadians, they are used to it, but Marie-Andrée’s family rooted in New France three generations ago. She knows where she belongs and she resents the man from the city of Boston who controls their lives. There is no chance she will turn Aurélie over to Samuel Ridley. He will have to walk on Marie-Andrée’s dead body first, hers and the bodies of all her children. Yet if Étienne does not return… The question is open.
Jean-Jacques fusses. Into the tiny pink helix of his ear Marie-Andrée whisper-sings the song her grandmother sang to her, and that she sings to the children when they walk out for berries. That easier time in summer when they wait at the top of the hill for the sun to make a golden bed on the ocean before sliding into it. Yet the song is sad. Someone leaving, maybe never returning. À la claire fontaine, jamais je ne t’oublerai. I will never forget you. Étienne, mon dieu. How could she manage without him?
If he does not come home today she will put Aurélie in charge of the children and walk to the shore to look for him. It is unlikely he will be at the beach where they dry the fish, ‘the grave,’ they call it, though only fish bones are buried there, but there will be others standing, smoking, watching the movement of the ice. Being closer to the unique, often violent, symphonies the gusts compose so near the sea, the crash of ice pan against ice pan, against the flat stones, against the red stone cliffs that crumble into a garnet tide, they will know where the sealers are working. Then she thinks again. If Aurélie stays alone, will Samuel Ridley gallop up on his dappled horse and scoop her away?
Tomorrow, Marie-Andrée promises her baby. We will wait one more day.
Those Acadians with whom she fixed her lot? They were thrown out of Acadie, and yes, parts of la belle province, too. Québec. A small group of families and a leader fled their British pursuers, came upriver, jet haired, with the Mi’kmaq blood in them, that haunted fire in their eyes. Ragged, clearly starving. Benery LeBlanc and his sons at the door of the Caron habitation, extended a hand with fingers black from digging into the soil to find roots or something to nourish themselves until they could dyke and plant as they did everywhere they had been chased. What to think? Acadians yes, but they had started in France. In that way they are our people, her father reasoned. The Caron family could not turn them away.
Marie-Andrée, help me. Your father wants to feed those starving ones. Look at them. I have potatoes, I have bread.
These memories lull Marie-Andrée back to sleep. She wakes to what she fears is the rattle of hooves. No, only hail. This spring! The teeth of the north wind biting through expectations of relief. Tomorrow she will bundle Jean-Jacques onto the cradle board, she will trudge up the slope and down to the grave for news of the sealers. She will push against the wind and if it changes direction she will bow her head in thanks for it speeding her along the path. But now the object of her worry is stirring, curls tumbling, arm reaching up, stretching.
Shh, shh. Don’t rouse the others. Let them sleep, Aurélie. Today we will wait again. Tomorrow I am going to find your father.
Aurélie wakes like a flower opening. Pillowy cheeks curve to the corners of brown eyes bequeathed by her father. That same raven-haired Étienne winter-skinny when he came with his father and his younger brother, Émile, to ask for help, to beg. Marie-Andrée, nearly sixteen, stared at the taller of the two boys standing beside their father at the door of the cabin. Just her age. Flinty and silent, those eyes dark as snowmelt. Then berries ripened and hands met as they grabbed for them. One browner, larger. His covering hers. Him covering her.
You marry your lot to theirs, you will never have a home.
You know how it is with parents. Marie-Andrée would have her way. She saw only the narrow face of the boy she loved.
Marie-Andrée has lived her family’s predictions. Remembers them like she remembers the decades of the rosary, the five mysteries, the Apostle’s creed, the Our Father’s, the Hail Mary’s, the glory be’s. Gaspé to Miquelon to La Rochelle to Saint-Malo then Miquelon again and finally here to les Îles de la Madeleine. For months, even years, after landing in each new place their knees would automatically dip and bend and they would weave from side to side as if drunk on ship memory.
Helpless? No, never that. There is always something to do. One fretful day goes by and then it is the next. Marie-Andrée keeps the promise she made to herself.
Blown pine needles sting her face, strands of fair hair escape the coarse shawl wrapped over her head. But here at the top of a hill, ah, the beauty. There are moments she forgets the Ridleys. There are times when she rejoices in the sounds of gannets and gulls and the ever changing consonance of the wind as it veers from north to west, westerlies the commonest this time of year but those persistent northerlies slicing in as if Aeolus himself is reminding the scattered humans trying to makes these islands their home that forgiveness is temporary.
Of course, the wind also came into the picture when King Agamemnon summoned his wife Clytemnestra to Aulis. He tricked her into making the journey on the pretext that he planned to wed their daughter Iphigenia to the great Achilles. In reality − if myths are real, and why would they not be as real as any other story? − Agamemnon was trying to appease the goddess Artemis after having wronged her and, to punish him, she put a stop to the gales that would speed the Greeks to Troy. Clytemnestra would never have agreed to bring Iphigenia to Aulis had she known that her own husband planned to kill their daughter. She would have felt the same fury as that driving Marie-Andrée across the uneven earth that leads down to the sea. King Agamemnon tricked his wife. Ridley is not as clever, not as devious, and if he has a kingdom at stake, it’s a poor one here in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cod, seals in the spring and in the fall, the sea cows, those great animals Étienne has described to Marie-Andrée, bigger than a man, smaller than a whale, cumbersome on shore which is why les Madelinots can hunt them when they are beached, shoot them or spear them, take their hides and the ivory tusks that can and have speared many a hunter, though not her nimble Étienne.
Now the fog has blown off Marie-Andrée can see for herself that ice floes still choke the near shore. There will be a band that is firm, then broken pieces, then slushy pans further out. A deadly game, how far out to go, where to step. One more, one more. A contest between man and weather. From this vantage point the hunters and the seals are dark shapes and scratches on the white, but beyond them stands a ship whose masts reach to the sky.
She can tell Jean-Jacques is sleeping because she hears no coos or cries nor feels his little feet hammering on her back. She is the only person out, the only person in the world. She and her baby and it is up to her to supply the drive and make the decision. If she is tempted to sit and let the sun warm her face, the decision could be made for her. Yet she lingers here for this fragment of peace. They could have stayed in Miquelon, but only as long as the French held it, and that was never certain. A pawn of the English and French, the island changed hands every few years. Miquelon, no, La Rochelle, no. From the start she had not liked that French port from which so many Québecois had sailed. The voices in different languages rising in shouts from the docks. What were they saying? Little Aurélie had not stopped whimpering and her fever raged. Dysentery also suffered by her mother, no doubt caused by the poor water they’d been given to drink on the ship, the poor food they were fed.
It’s true, Marie-Andrée has always been preoccupied with keeping her eldest daughter alive. Of course, her other children too, as would any mother. The rest of them sturdier, though. Jean-Jacques so adaptable, even now his sleep undisturbed by his mother’s anguish. Aurélie the one almost falling from the rail of the ship, almost dying from dysentery in that French port. For a moment Marie-Andrée resents her daughter, yet in the same moment she realises that concern for Aurélie keeps her survival instinct honed, not only to ensure Aurélie’s future but the entire family’s.
Ah hah! Another idea. The ring. Pure gold, but no use to Marie-Andrée here on les Îles where there are no occasions to display it. Would Ridley accept the ring as compensation for losing Aurélie and finally leave them alone? Not even Étienne knows that she has it, a secret and one she dares not risk revealing by wearing it on her finger where it would only mock the purple scar stripes from burns, the index finger that broke and never healed properly, the dirt she seems never to wash away though she immerses her hands in lye soap to scrub their clothes. Gold. How much would it bring? A plot of land, a daughter? Peace?
Jean-Jacques has wakened. Above the whistling air, the bird calls and her feet crunching against the earth still frozen in the higher sections, she hears the baby cooing from his place on the cradleboard. Her walking amuses him and helps her to think.
For however many years no one knows, the ring lay in a sailor’s trunk that Étienne hauled up from one of the frequent shipwrecks along the coast. Wood from the foundered vessels forms the walls of many a Madelinot’s habitation. The wood to salvage, sometimes useful clothes, if a person had the need and the gumption to strip the skeletons in their bunks. The LeBlanc family’s second summer here, Marie-Andrée and the children − minus Jean-Jacques, who was yet to be conceived − waited on shore while Étienne and Hubert tugged the chest up to the beach and wrenched it open. There were the usual things, the shirts, the stockings, sticks of tobacco, a handsome silver flask of something that might once have been rum but had been tainted by sea water, a waterlogged bible, a penknife, an ink bottle, needles and thread, a quadrant, a pair of brass-framed compasses, trade beads the children immediately clamoured for. The maps barely legible but still identifiable as maps. In the pocket of a brine-heavy wool coat with brass buttons, that Marie-Andrée promised to rescue and repair for Étienne, she found the small box. Why did she not tell her husband? An instinct? He would not use it to gamble as a few men did to pass the time in the coldest months, though the booty won and lost amounted to nothing, but of all the treasures they found in that sea chest, the ring seemed destined for her.
Still, what would a golden ring mean to someone like Samuel Ridley on his dappled horse, speaking a language strange to her, probably not understanding that she was offering him something that could not compare to the value of her daughter, true, but was valuable all the same. Would a rich man even prize something so precious, so perfect? Not a bit tarnished by whatever journey it had taken over water, from whatever port the doomed captain sailed. Étienne thought France because he understood the language from the little ink not diluted on the pages of the ship’s log. He could read, thanks to Marie-Andrée. Her mother had taught her what she learned from her own mother. The Ursuline nuns who sheltered the filles du roi, so called daughters of the king who were shipped from France to New France to marry the men who settled the raw country first, and bear the children who would people it. Grand-mère was one and had learned from the Ursulines that literate girls would be useful to their future husbands. They should know how to read and also manage sums for there would be accounts to keep, letters to write. Beyond religion, the Ursulines had a practical side. Étienne learned quickly although he did not study as much Marie-Andrée would have liked. Not on his own. He liked it best when she curled close to him with the catechism and the alphabet book on their laps and he could feel the warmth of her body as she made him repeat the letters and begin writing simple words, snow, fish, fire, man, woman, heart. La neige, le poisson, le feu, l’homme, la femme, le coeur. In the winter, in the small habitation near Havre-Aubert, she teaches the children. House, sky, earth, sun, boat. La maison, le ciel, la terre, le soleil, le bateau.
Now her skirt whips around her legs, the sharp breeze comes from a different direction, at her back now, as she prayed, instead of pushing at her face. A southerly that will speed warmth and thawing, the first wild flowers, the promise of berries. The migrating geese.
Jean-Jacques, ma poupée! It is a sign for continuing.
Except the warmth, might it also mean the early melting of the ice, and if the sealers are far out, will they be able to get back to shore? To Marie-Andrée, the wind is a lover you can’t trust, vexing and thrilling all at once, its very capriciousness a sometimes-fatal lure. Blasphemous thought! Not a lover, for she has known only one lover, but the unpredictable will of God. Still, she has become more intimate with the wind that blows her life this way and that than with the God of the church.
At the edge of the grave stand the sleigh-boats the men use to get out to the ice and collect the dead seals, then haul them back to where they are flayed and their fat rendered for oil. A team has begun this job and the stench of fat and blood overwhelms the tang of the icy sea. Clouds of steam from the vats wrestle with black smoke. Not all the sealers have returned. The urgent breeze Marie-Andrée felt at her back has driven several of those farthest out still further into the Gulf, as she feared. The bonfires that line the shore will be kept burning through the night to guide them back.
Étienne? She calls as she steps from group to group. Shoulders shrug, black eyes glow with sympathy. Blue eyes too, but here is Étienne’s brother Émile. He is streaming with blood, even his red toque is streaked with it. He may frighten the baby and so Marie-Andrée stands at a distance and shouts to him. Your brother? My Étienne?
He went too far. I tell him, the wind is shifting, the south wind is not good for us at this time. I don’t know if he hears me but he knows the same I know.
Marie-Andrée’s eyelids fall.
But he has a chance, I think. You see that ship at anchor waiting for the ice to go? If he can get to the ship, they will take him on. We have to wait, to pray.
Wait for news? Not here. Aurélie can look after the others but can she look after herself? If that yellow-toothed man on his dappled horse with its mane brushed smooth gallops up to their door and promises simple Aurélie the world, or lifts her onto his horse, will she − can she − resist? If the ship cannot get closer, will it sail away? Will her husband be aboard or lost on a floe waiting for death, thinking of them all and praying? Too many questions pummel Marie-Andrée’s heart.
Send news, or bring it yourself.
Of course, says Émile.
The seal meat is weighed and a portion given to each sealer for his family, though the bulk of it is owed to the Ridleys, as is most of the oil. Seeing his sister-in-law’s distress, however, Émile hacks off a portion for his brother’s family, not too much to carry for Marie-Andrée has the child and more than one hill to climb.
The Ridley’s? Of course they want everything. It’s how it goes in these days, and the days before, and the way it will always be between rulers and subjects, rich and poor. This is not news. No matter how much they already have, the rich want everything. The land, the forests, the seals, the walrus. They want the cod and they want the prettiest settlers. This Ridley, Samuel, whose father fought for the British against the French in Quebec and the Acadians at Louisbourg, was given these islands and all that inhabit them as a reward for loyalty. He thinks he has a right.
Marie-Andrée’s thoughts propel her. She is anything but docile, which the priests say is a requirement for the Holy Spirit to enter, yet she is possessed by something. She sweeps up the hill and down and up another incline where she stops and looks back out to sea. Jean-Jacques begins to cry. Every spring, ships from France sail upriver to Québec. If Étienne found shelter beneath the many sails of the vessel lying out from les Îles, might Aurélie as well? The children staring up, looking for their mother, see only a turbulence of air, a swirling that flattens the shrubs and pastes the low plants to the ground. Marie-Andrée makes up her mind before descending to the nest where smoke rising from the chimney tells her the children are all right.
Aurélie does not understand why her mother insists on cutting her hair. It is necessary, Marie-Andrée says, and Aurélie is not the argumentative type. Marie-Andrée will not explain the plan until almost time to put it into action because her daughter, while the loveliest of creatures, is slow to catch on. She must pass as a young man who needs help to travel up river lest he die before he has reached adulthood. She coaches Aurélie in silence. In how to breathe as if she has a fever. In groaning, but quietly. She wraps cloths soaked in seal fat around the child’s neck to show her how it will be. She administers a small cup of boiled root that lightly sedates her so that she does not talk, does not open her eyes. She will be bandaged around the head, clothed in whatever rough men’s clothes her mother can put together. Marie-Andrée will ask Émile to get Aurélie out to the ship and explain the problem. The deal will be sweetened by the contribution of a gold ring. Aurélie can rest with the family in Kamouraska, where she will be safely beyond Samuel Ridley’s reach.
This is the plan, if Étienne does not come, but how long should she wait? It is a matter of gambling on when the ice will unlock and allow the ship to continue through the Gulf and upriver. If Étienne does not come before the ice unlocks, she must assume he is lost, or that he has been taken onboard, that he will find his way home somehow. It is a matter of betting that the captain of the outlying vessel will accept her child, falsely sick, not a boy at all but the sort of girl that has contributed to the legend of women being bad luck on ships, for if her beauty were to be exposed, there would surely be competition for her favours. Marie-Andre’s has heard the desperate breaths of men and women, travelled on ships often enough to know the opportunities their dark corners offer.
She can no longer sleep. Thoughts blacker than night itself tunnel through her mind.
Without waking the children, she slips from the bed and puts another log on the fire. Pockets of sap crackle but it is a sound they are used to, like they are used to the thundering rain in the summer, the wintertime gusts, the screeches, the blusters, the thunk of axe on green wood, on dry wood, the rasp of the file as it sharpens the blade. Thinking of all the sounds she knows lulls Marie-Andrée almost to sleep in the chair where heat from the renewed fire sears one side of her body. But then comes the sound she most fears. The thudding horse hooves, that hated voice speaking those foreign words. They say his father sent Samuel from New England to this outpost because he failed everywhere else. They say he drinks whiskey and when he drinks he is capable of anything. Then silence again. The wind must have been reminding her of that horse as if telling her she must wait no longer.
When day has truly broken she climbs to the highest curve of the hills that nestle their cabin and looks out to sea. Today a patch of blue teases the white mists that skate over the wide view. In the spaces between wisps she observes that little has changed, except for the ship in the distance. Has it moved? Fog means warmer water meeting colder water.
Émile has promised to come with news if there is any news and there is no sign of Émile. Like wringing a cloth free of water, she feels herself twist, so that she is lighter than air. She is so tired, so drowsy-headed she gives in to the spirit that lifts her off the ground. This has happened before. She can torque herself into a gust like she did the time when Étienne followed Émile and their father east along the shore of the St. Lawrence River. No! She hugged her arms around herself, her head flew back. She screamed it, No! The force of her longing lifted her up and she landed where he stood looking back for the source of that terrible No.
I will go with you, she said. It doesn’t matter what my family says. I will go with you. Wait for me! And so, she cast her lot with these ever-wandering Acadians until, a dozen years later, she has found herself here.
While desire again lifts her to her toes, and, if she lets it, will waft her across the complicated surface that hides the creatures of the deep, succumbing to that temptation might prevent her from retaking the form of a woman, a mother. She might then be condemned to fluttering uselessly around these shores, having violated some divine law she senses but cannot articulate. What would happen to the children then?
Instead she hurries down the path that leads her to the cabin where the older help with chores and the younger build toy houses out of twigs, or follow their brother and sisters to the marsh in hopes of seeing frogs. Already they have heard geese.
A miracle has to happen today, or she must be the miracle herself.
Hubert have you finished the wood? Marie-Therese, you can help me sort the potatoes. These are black, these go out. But some can be saved.
Her treasure lies at the very bottom of the small chest that contains everything she brought from home. The bible from her mother, the charm from her grandmother. The alphabet book the nuns gave her. The linen shroud in which she will be buried. Inside the shroud, which she carefully unfolds, the ring she discovered in the shipwrecked sailor’s coat pocket. She slips it on her scarred and dirty finger and it fits as if Étienne had commissioned it especially for his bride.
The three spirals inside. What do they mean? These circles that do not close within the large circle that is the band? A secret meaning, no doubt, something between the giver and his intended recipient, wherever she may be.
Come here, daughter. We must practise our trick.
Her heart sinks with the thought that Aurélie may not be able to maintain the ruse. Marie-Andrée will give her the boiled root to keep her sleepy, but a dose that lasts long enough to see her upriver, at least partway upriver: might it also kill her?
Sleet like razors. Sky meets the hill tops. The children huddle in bed together and Marie-Andrée has time to think. Émile cannot refuse, though the transport will endanger him as well. She visualises the steps. Getting Aurélie to the shore, finding Émile. Telling him what to say to the captain. Aurélie is light as a fern. It will be no trouble for him to hoist her over his shoulders and climb to the deck of the ship. Marie-Andrée holds the ring in her hand for the last time, kisses it for luck and says an avé, then wraps it in a piece of good cloth, a corner of wool from their wedding blanket. She sews a pouch, attaches a cord to loop around Aurélie’s neck.
There is much to do. Prepare Aurélie, prepare the baby, who will ride in the cradleboard. Prepare Hubert to take care of his sisters. Assure him that she will be back before the three of them wake. She banks the fire. As the watery evening light begins to leach from the sky, mother, baby boy and daughter set out, up the hill path, down the next, up the highest where the view is obscured by the near darkness, but not so much that Marie-Andrée cannot see the masts of the ship still pointed up to the sky. Aurélie begins to sing the song they so often sing when they walk, À la Claire Fontaine.
Shh, ma chèrie. We must pass quiet as the night that’s coming. I will give you something to drink, to rest, and your uncle will take you to the ship and the ship will take you up the river to your grandmother in Kamouraska. Remember that and you will be safe. When you wake up on the ship, you will not speak, you will only moan. Do you hear me, chèrie? This is important, so important. You must not speak. Show me how you will moan.
Aurélie whimpers and grunts. It is convincing. Marie-Andrée tells herself it will work.
They do not sing aloud, but the song plays silently in the heads of the mother and daughter, il y’a longtemps que je t’aime, jamais je ne t’oublerai − I have loved you a long time, I will never forget you − as they step along the path and down to the grave where the fat rendering fires emit a murky light. Now she knows where to find Émile, she does so easily, and he does not appear surprised to see them, though he wishes he had some news, any news, of his brother.
You must pull her in the dory out to where you will need to row to reach the ship. You must explain the problem, that this young boy − you can call her your son, because they must not know that she is a girl − that he will die if he does not reach Québec. Please, Émile. You know Samuel Ridley. He is evil, he will steal what is not given to him. He will use her. It will not be a proper marriage. I have fastened a treasure around her neck. A golden ring. Offer that to the captain, if you need.
This rough-faced man, with his black beard, with his blood encrusted clothes, his red toque pulled low, he pushes his lips forward as he thinks.
She is asking much. She is asking him to risk his life along with Aurélie’s, and risk his livelihood by defying his employer. Marie-Andrée’s eyes are smudges in her pale face; Aurélie, in her boy’s clothes, with the bandage around her head and the foul-smelling compress around her neck, she could be anybody. The baby knows his sister, though, and laughs when she tickles him.
It would be better if she didn’t ask, but now she has asked. What can he say? Must they be chased from another home? What can he do? Though it seems a risky plan, he has done worse. He and his brother Étienne have escaped from English soldiers, they have hidden in the woods and nearly frozen to death, which is what he thinks must have happened to his brother now, for there has been no sign in three days, and no man can spend three days on the ice without freezing to death. After the seals have been counted and accounts settled, the community will mourn. Unless, unless a lucky breeze nudged him all the way to the ship. There is the hope.
With the air moving easily as a sleeping child’s breath, Émile, without further discussion, has walked up the beach to fetch his dory. Marie-Andrée gives the draught of boiled root to Aurélie, more than the test dose, for in the first instance the girl was cradled by her mother at home, and now she will be held only by the staves of a wooden boat. No tears before it is finished. Soon torrents will gush down her cheeks and it will fall to her three remaining children to circle their arms around her and the baby and weep together for the absence of their older sister and their papa.
For Aurélie all this is a kind of game. The costume, the late-night walk. She does not, cannot, anticipate the time that will pass before she again sees les Îles. Nor can Marie-Andrée, or even let her thoughts travel further than the ship bobbing out there on water that is never still, but is thankfully sleeping quietly this evening in the lullaby the wind croons. She thanks Émile, she thanks the Blessed Mother and her divine son, as she was taught to do, although they are less present than the god whose name she does not know. She kisses Aurélie twice on both cheeks and helps her into the dory.
Émile covers his niece with a blanket and a raw seal hide, then nods to Marie-Andrée before swinging his lantern up and pulling the small boat onto the ice at the edge of the Gulf. With chafed hands making a steeple over her nose, Marie-Andrée stands watching until all she can see is the white blade of the moon cleaving the black diamond sea.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.