During the snowstorm the white sky flattens to infinity.
The night descends and the sky shrinks to nothing.
It was late in the year for the ferry to be running. It had been delayed by the unseasonably rough weather, which would only get worse as winter set in. The passengers had boarded at the Port of Tobermory, where Georgian Bay meets the greater part of Lake Huron. The town was very busy for a place so small: there were 5 pawn shops exchanging goods between those who had brought too little, those who had brought too much, and those who had brought the wrong things to this godforsaken outpost of English civilization.
Though Gavin McKinnon was born only 50 miles from Tobermory in Kinnoch on the Georgian Bay side of the Bruce Peninsula, he had never been to Tobermory because until recently it had been too difficult and dangerous to get to. The roads were terrible and the land was unsettled, save the new Cape Croker Indian reservation, which itself was mostly wild. Tobermory was thriving because it was an excellent staging point for travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Northern Ontario and ultimately Manitoba, where the Government was giving away land for free.
As soon as they boarded, most of the passengers went inside to drink and escape the cold wind. Gavin was neither interested in drinking nor able to stop himself from taking in the view, so he remained on the deck. He looked due east and saw nothing but Georgian Bay, a bleak expanse of water that was but one part of a vast inland sea. He remembered how his Aunt Margaret used to say that Grey County was the land of the Old Testament God: demanding respect, evoking awe and grudgingly giving sustenance.
There was only one other passenger on deck, a man dressed like the younger brother of a Toronto banker. He wore what was once a very nice, though ill-fitting, dark blue worsted wool suit and a finely cut lamb’s wool jacket. The suit was a tattered hand-me-down. Gavin didn’t judge harshly. He had rarely owned new clothes.
Gavin moved beside the other passenger. For a moment they stood beside each other in silence leaning on the oak rail, looking eastward toward Georgian Bay. To the north, from horizon to horizon, an embankment of dark clouds had gathered. It was pushing warm, misty air southward. As they watched the mist grew thicker. Tobermory was on their right, to the south. The boat moved slowly through a small chain of islets toward open water.
After a decent moment, Gavin addressed his companion, even though he continued to face the Bay. “Those clouds on the horizon are moving our way. If the storm is as mean as it looks, we are in serious trouble. I hope that you can swim.”
The other man looked at Gavin somberly as he spoke. “At this time of year you die of the cold before you drown.”
Gavin replied, “I know it. I lost two cousins on Lake Superior in October 1893.”
The native replied, “You must be in a hurry to be traveling this late in the year. I trust you’re not rushing off to your cousins’ fate.”
“I am in a hurry. I hope to get a land grant in Manitoba. I want to get there before the land runs out.”
“The land will always be there.”
Gavin laughed, “I mean the free land.”
The Indian smiled a flat, bleak smile as he replied, “Everything has a cost.”
The Indian continued. “How will you spend the winter?”
“I intend to walk to the Bruce Mines via Wikwamikong. I’ll work in the mines until spring, make it to Kenora by June and Winnipeg by early August.”
“You won’t be getting much work in the mines. I strongly suggest that you spend the winter on Manitoulin Island.” He nodded toward the Island and the storm.
“There’s only logging work there and I neither like to drink nor to get rough.”
“There’s other work in logging aside from cutting down trees. The loggers need supplies and services. Think about it. You may not have any choice if that storm is as bad as it looks. Let me give you my card. If you stay in South Baymouth I can find you work.” Joshua withdrew a slight silver container from the inside breast pocket of his suit, turned his back to the north wind, opened it and withdrew a card.
Gavin was astonished. The last thing he expected was an offer of employment from this man who looked like a vagrant, who he hadn’t even been properly introduced to. “Thank you. I will seriously consider your advice. Thank you.” After this brief moment of intimacy they both withdrew into themselves and looked meditatively back towards the Bruce Peninsula. After a pause Gavin continued their conversation. “I’ve heard that all of those trees will be cut down in just a few years, just like in Huron County. British money, American management and Canadian labour. The achievement is tremendous.”
The Indian replied, “It reminds me of the myth of Prometheus.”
“Bringing light to the world?”
“No. Challenging the Gods.”
“You are very provocative, Sir. I am pleased to meet you. I am Gavin McKinnon, from Lion’s Head., just north of Owen Sound. What is your name?”
“In Toronto they call me Joshua Stanton. On the Island I’m known as Otter.”
“So you are an aboriginal?”
“Yes. I am a member of the Anishinabek nation. I was born in Wikwamikong but grew up in Detroit and Orangeville.”
“Is your brother a banker?” It was a perverse question. He knew no Ontario bank would hire an aboriginal.
Joshua looked self-consciously at his clothes. “My step-brother is.”
“Can I ask what is your purpose in traveling so late in the season?”
“Oh, that’s no secret. I’m here for the Pow Wow.
[Periodically the People of the Three Fires –the Potowatami, the Ojibwa and the Odawa Indians –meet at Manitoulin Island for a Pow Wow. Manitoulin Island is the home of Gitchi Manitou.”]
“I fear you’re a few months late for that.”
“I am very late. But there will still be great magic lingering on Manitoulin. I feel that Gitchi Manitou is benevolent this year. If you can talk about the benevolence of God.”
Gavin bristled slightly and replied, “In Sunday school I always speak of the benevolence of God.”
The native replied, “In Sunday school you speak of the benevolence of the New Testament God. You said yourself that this is an Old Testament land.”
“Touché again, my friend.” Gavin’s laughter stopped abruptly when he noticed how serious Joshua remained as he looked north toward the storm.
Joshua spoke after a pause. “Perhaps my theology is totally wrong. Could it be that people allow evil to thrive when they abandon God? Perhaps God and his agents want to be benevolent but too often give up in despair.”
“That explains God. But what about Satan?” A sliver of moon floated over the horizon, casting its pale light through the mist. The moonlight limned the rough, round face of Joshua who was also-known-as Otter.
Otter answered. “There’s no shortage of devils, Mr. McKinnon. That’s the problem. Abandon God and you’re not protected.” He paused and again looked toward the storm. “Tonight is a bad night to be out.”
“Why?” Gavin asked, though the answer seemed obvious as he looked down through the fog at the boat’s chill wake.
“Because there is so little light and a storm is upon us from the north. The Windigo loves the shadows and the cold.”
Gavin was taken off guard by Otter’s plain-spoken response. He had heard the myths of the cannibal monster that inhabited the northern forests, but had never met someone who believed them.
A cruel wind began to freeze the mist as the ship met the storm. Joshua started to shiver uncontrollably. His wool jacket was far too thin for this weather.
A native hawker approached Gavin. “A blanket for your friend, Sir. Only 5 cents.”
Gavin’s condescending smile was flashed benevolently. “That is a ridiculously cheap price for this blanket, Madame. It’s easily worth 10, maybe even 15 cents.” He laughed at himself. What would my Scottish friends back home think, seeing me try to raise this woman’s rates?
“You give the blanket back to me when we reach South Baymouth, Sir.”
5 cents to rent a blanket. Very expensive, he thought. But Joshua’s conversation is certainly a rare treat. He is certainly someone who deserves God’s mercy.
“Here is your money madam. I will meet you at the exit and return the blanket to you when we land.” Gavin found it easy to pay her price.
“Here you go Otter.” The native woman winked then tenderly wrapped a colourful woolen blanket around the Huron’s body. Then she pressed her breasts against him in a forward fashion. “We’re drinking and playing cards inside if you want to join us.”
Otter fondly squeezed her then chastely kissed her forehead. “We’ll see.”
She slapped his bum then turned away. Otter turned to face Gavin.
“You are very kind, Mr. McKinnon. Thank you.”
“A pleasure. It appears as if you are popular here, Otter.”
“I’m not that popular, though the folks around here know me. Some people insist that I am good person fallen on bad times. But most people dislike me…” He shrugged.
The conversation paused again. They looked over the Great Lake in silence as the cold, brittle fog that had followed them for the past few minutes was finally blown away by the on-coming storm. Everything looked much smaller on the maps. Georgian Bay stretched beyond the horizon and yet was a fraction of the size of the rest of Lake Huron. Manitoulin Island was a huge iron and granite finger pointing northwest over the horizon to Sault Ste Marie, where the Niagara escarpment crossed the border into America. To the north, the broad sky flattened to infinity as it became white with snow.
The landing at South Baymouth was uneventful, though the waves near shore were choppy. As promised Gavin returned the blanket to the native hawker when they landed. She thanked him and then when she thought he wasn’t looking gave the blanket to Otter. This act of kindness made Gavin think, Three times this man had highlighted a weakness of mine and I only met him today. They bade farewell at the dock and made plans to meet the following Sunday after mass at the Episcopal Church.
Gavin was greeted at the entrance to Fleming’s pharmacy by his companion from the Chi-Cheemaun
“Gavin, I didn’t expect to see you until Sunday, if at all. Though I hoped that you weren’t so foolish as to try to travel during the blizzard.”
“You were right my friend. There is no point in traveling at this time of year. Now that there is 2 feet of snow on the ground I doubt that I could make it to Wikwamikong, much less the Mines. At least not by myself. I had hoped to talk to you about employment.”
“Joshua, let the man in.”
Joshua nodded backwards to the source of the interruption. “That’s Fleming. I work for him as a bookkeeper and clerk.”
“If what I hear about him is true then you must be very accurate. At Church they say that he can scrutinize the gears off a clock.”
Joshua’s smile was far easier than it was on the ferry. “It’s good to see you. I think that I can help you…”
“Let the good man in Joshua.” A tall, stooped man with blond hair and watery blue eyes appeared at the door that separated the house from the store.
“Hello Mr. Fleming. We haven’t been introduced though you may have seen me at evensong yesterday.”
“Well, I .. uh ..”
Joshua easily interrupted Gavin’s stuttering. “Mr. Fleming, I can vouch for Mr. McKinnon. We had a very interesting conversation about the nature of God’s creation when taking the ferry from Tobermory.”
“I have similar thoughts when I take the Chi-Cheemaun. I am amazed that men can have eyes and not be humble. Come into my parlor Mr. McKinnon.”
They walked through a beautifully appointed dining room into a parlor that could have been in one of the finest homes in Toronto or Detroit. The thought of moving a walnut cabinet up here, along with bone china and crystal, was astonishing.
“Have a seat.”
Gavin noticed that Fleming’s movements were very precise as he quickly turned and sat down. He immediately spoke as he sat down. “I don’t know why you are here, but I do have work for you if you want it. “I pay $12 per month, with board. You don’t drink do you?”
“I usually ask that first, but I assumed from your manner. You can’t be too careful so I had to ask.”
“What should I start on?”
“I would like you to assist Joshua in itemizing the store’s inventory. Then I would like you to run supplies to the Sandy Lake logging camp. To get there I suggest that you travel from Providence Bay to Misery Bay – along the south coast.”
“So I start by going from Providence to Misery. Not unlike Adam.”
They laughed at each other’s jokes.
Fleming continued. “After Misery Bay you must go inland to Silver Water and then to the Sandy Lake camp. From there you will drop your sledges off in Meldrum Bay, rest, turn around and come back. It’s a lot easier coming back.”
“I’m not coming back. Why doesn’t Joshua just pay me out of profits when we get to Sandy Lake? It’ll be spring then, he can surely get back by himself.”
Fleming frowned, then smiled. His smile hardened again into a frown. “Your suggestion is fine. I trust Otter. You should too. He may once have fallen, but now he is redeemed. He is a good man.”
Gavin and Otter departed on a cold, clear December morning during the second moon of winter, exactly one month after they met. The snow on the road to Providence was packed and had few obstructions, so their sledges were easy to drag despite the difficult terrain.
The trek from Providence to Misery Bay was bleak. The dull daylight varied through shades of rust to iron grey. The wind began to blow from the south and though it was warmer than the north wind, it blew strongly. The water blown off the Lake chilled them to their bones. On the third day out, the Lake splashed them so heavily that they had to take refuge in a limestone cave. After hours of effort they finally built a fire.
While they warmed themselves they had little to do but talk. Gavin began. “My friend, sometimes you speak like a native. Sometimes you speak like a Catholic.”
“You mean sometimes I am Otter and sometimes I am Joshua?”
Gavin smiled. “That’s one way of putting it. Yes. Who are you? What do you believe?”
Otter paused for a moment to stoke the fire, as if preparing for, or avoiding, his response. “I believe that when we are born we have an innate understanding of good. That’s the piece of God in all of us. But throughout our lives we make choices that take us onto or away from God’s path. Evil may tempt us, but we have that piece of good within us, so it’s always a choice to be bad; we always know better.”
Otter stoked the fire again, and then continued. “I was bad with money, but my wife was good with it. So I would give her my paychecks – I was a teacher – and she’d give me an allowance. Our rent was always paid on time and our beautiful daughter was always well provided for.”
“One day, quite by accident, I stumbled upon our family’s savings. $200. For a teacher, which is what I was, it was one entire year’s wages. I couldn’t stop thinking about that money. I thought of it every day. Five summers ago, on the last day of school, I went out drinking with some teachers who were my friends and I mentioned the money. I let myself be convinced by them to steal it. We called it borrowing. I took the money and we went to Sault Ste. Marie.” He waved northwest. “We drank for the entire month of July. Gavin, you can unwind an entire life in one month.”
“Joshua, I’ve seen it happen in one minute.”
The native’s expression was too rueful to be a smile. “Faster. I destroyed my life in the instant it took to make one decision, though it took 40 days for my escapade to end. In the first week of August the money ran out. Suddenly I was friendless and broke. I worked my way back home arriving in the last week of August. The big dipper dominated the night sky and Mars was close enough to Earth to make Georgian Bay red. When I came home my wife met me at the front gate with a large knife in her right hand. She just stood there, shaking ever so slightly, and looking at me. She looked at me for an entire minute, her grip tightening then loosening on the knife. After about a minute she realized that she needed to breathe and loudly exhaled. She only relaxed slightly, but it was enough, the difference between murderous rage and a broken spirit. She walked into the house and came back 5 minutes later with my daughter and one trunk that had wheels. She was ready to go. She had been waiting for me. About 50 steps from the house one of the wheels on her trunk came off. She kicked the trunk a couple of times, opened it, took out a couple of sweaters and then kept going. I just stood there watching this pathetic scene, thinking that it would have been better if she had killed me. She and my daughter left with nothing.”
Otter stopped as Gavin continued to trudge forward in the snow. The Ojibwa had apparently lost his ability to keep moving. Gavin wasn’t surprised. Otter’s story was shameful. But he could not find it in himself to give up on any soul, least of all one so clearly in search of forgiveness. Gavin turned to the native and challenged him. “Why don’t you kill yourself?”
“I can’t do that!”
“If you are not going to kill yourself, you must keep moving.”
Misery Bay didn’t exist as a town so much as a lone mission school and outhouses that acted in wintertime as way stations for loggers on the way to the interior. It was situated in the middle of a stand of birches. A screen of spruce had also been planted to protect against the brutal north wind. Looking south from the mission towards Detroit he saw nothing but Lake. The area near shore was covered in angles of ice; further out the deathly cold water roiled.
They arrived on the solstice and asked leave to stay until St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, the feast of the first Christian martyr. On Christmas Eve snow started to fall. The ensuing blizzard was both gentle and relentless. On Christmas morning the children were excited and woke up early. On the table Mary, who ran the orphanage, had laid out presents, which she gave to each child in turn, starting with the youngest and ending with the eldest. They were the modest presents of a pioneer household: crafts made from local materials; simple things like mittens, multi-colored scarves and ornate boxes whittled out of oak and decorated with pine-cones and acorns.
When everyone had received a present, including the two guests, Mary had the children kneel together and say a prayer of thanks. Then she leaned forward to them conspiratorially and asked, “Do you know what today is?”
The children giggled at her easy question and then shouted back “It’s God’s birthday.”
“Actually it’s the birthday of the Christ child.”
“But God the father and God the son are joined in the Trinity, so Jesus’s birthday should also be God’s birthday.”
“You are quite right, my little squash.” Mary affectionately scrambled the precocious Huron’s dark hair, which made the girl both scowl and smile. “We’ll make a nun of you yet.”
“Are you a nun?” Gavin cut in to the conversation. Otter sat quietly by the fire and watched.
“No. I am not yet married. But there aren’t too many men out here so I guess you could say God’s my date.”
“I honestly didn’t expect to find a mission here.”
“Gavin, though you think that missions are for China and Africa there are also heathens to convert in Christian Canada. I am trying to spread the word of the Lord to the Ojibwa and the Cree. In many ways it is easy work because so many of their myths are like ours.”
“It’s beautiful to see someone doing the Lord’s work, Miss Kilcoyne. Would you consider taking your work somewhere else, perhaps to Manitoba?”
She laughed wickedly. “All the young men ask that question. No one ever wants to stay. Would you stay? I now you won’t, because you couldn’t even wait out the winter. You’re on your way to Manitoba right now.” She placed his hands in hers and pulled him forward so that she could whisper in his ear – “I’ll tell you this and I would never let the children hear”, she looked to ensure none were about, “it’s very dangerous out here. We’re on the other side of the line between civilization and wilderness. If that fire goes out and we can’t restart it we’ll die. My family thinks I’m crazy for staying here, but I don’t think that I can leave. At least not while there are children to care for.”
He felt her warmth and wanted to pull her closer. She suddenly stood up and addressed the children. “Remember the song that I was teaching you. Let’s sing it for our guests.”
The well-disciplined children arranged themselves in a choir formation in front of the fire. They were beautiful children with large, dark brown eyes and straight black hair. Though their clothes were worn thin they were clean and colourful. They tentatively, then more firmly, started to sing:
“Twas in the moon of winter time when all the birds had fled.
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead.
Before their light the stars grew dim, and wandering hunters heard the hymn:
While the children sang Otter and Gavin drew their blankets tighter around themselves. Despite the hot fire, the cabin was draughty and the air was frigid.
your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.”
The beautiful voices of the Huron children settled around them like snow.
Gavin thought that he would have no trouble sleeping once the children had been put to bed. But he couldn’t sleep so he rose and prepared to go outside for a walk. He exited the mission building with no incident. Once outside, he was surprised to see that he was not alone: Mary Kilcoyne was standing by herself right at the point where the cabin light ended, staring into the darkness. She ignored his approach and continued what she was doing, which was singing the English version of the Huron carol the children had sung earlier:
rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we’d gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.
Tidings of comfort and joy
The mission yard was both peaceful and sinister in the flickering light of the cabin fire. It took no effort to imagine the agents of Satan lingering in the cedars and the pines. There was comfort here too, but it ended at the point where the light was swallowed by the cold night.
The next day, the feast of St Stephen, Otter and Gavin began to walk inland along the spine of the Niagara escarpment.
“Otter, you said you were a teacher?”
“I am still employed as a teacher, but I go through the motions. I have lost my skill.”
“What do you mean?”
“I did nothing for a year after my wife left me but eat vegetables from our garden. I didn’t tend them but they grew anyway. After some time, I got more energy. I started fishing every once in a while. One day I hooked a giant catfish, bigger than I have ever seen. I struggled with it for an entire morning. Do you know how long a time 3 hours is if you are fishing? Most times it takes seconds to land – or lose – a fish. But Catfish was playing with me. It was angry play.”
Gavin was puzzled by Otter’s personification of the fish.
“Do you know anything about totems, Mr. McKinnon?”
“I have read a bit about the myths and legends of Canada’s aboriginal people.”
“You know that every clan has a totem?”
“The totem of my clan, the Waussee, is the catfish. We are teachers. After that struggle with Catfish, my totem, I lost my ability to teach. That was punishment for my destroying my family.”
Recalling their conversation on the ferry Gavin asked, “Did you forsake Catfish or did Catfish forsake you?”
“I think it’s more complicated. I left him no choice.”
“You speak as if you have no hope, my friend. But you know the difference between good and evil. I am certain that you can be redeemed.”
Otter sighed. “Perhaps, though I don’t think so: the reason why I despair is because I feel that it is too late. I cannot undo what I have done. Now I have no choice but to wait for death to vanquish my spirit.”
“Your spirit will be condemned only if you abandon God. There is no reason to do that.”
This time the rueful expression on Joshua’s face could be called a smile, but the conversation nevertheless ended. They trudged through the snow in silence.
The walk up the escarpment was brutal but invigorating. By the time they reached the top they had stripped down to light jackets. When they crossed the crest of the escarpment the north wind blasted them and they had to bundle up again. At times the wind was so strong that they could not move forward. The next two days involved walking from gulley to gulley. In the gullies and creeks you could shelter yourself from the wind and, if you were lucky and the air currents were favorable, you could light a fire.
It started to snow. The world became progressively whiter, and the air became muted and heavy The air was still chilled as it entered their lungs, but breathing was not painful.
They encountered their first logging camp two days north of Misery Bay, in a town called Silver Water. They heard the camp 3 hours before they entered it. The final approach was harrowing as they walked directly into a line of trees that were in the process of being felled.
The town of Silver Water was no more nor less than a lumber camp, though it was different from the camp at Misery Bay and those along the Bruce Peninsula: most lumber camps in this section of the world were made up of young Scottish and Irish men. The crew that lived here was a community of French Canadians, métis, and their native wives. The squaws sat perilously close to the camp with their papooses, patient, covered in many layers of filthy, though colorful, blankets.
The crew paid for their supplies in cash and furs; there was no trouble.
They proceeded north to Sandy Lake. On the second day they heard voices in the distance. Several hours later they encountered an Irish crew at the intersection of two roads. They were very rough and angry looking.
A scrawny, wicked looking man who was impossibly thin, dressed in patched denim and stank of sweat and booze, and a blaze of roughly cut red hair on the top of his head made the introduction, “Where are you from?”
Gavin replied, “I was born in Belfast but grew up in Lion’s Head. My mother is Irish, my father is Scottish. I’ve lived in Bruce County since I was six.”
“You’re not logging here are you?”
“No. We work for Fleming. In South Baymouth. We’re bringing supplies to Sandy Lake. Then we’re going to Meldrum Bay to rest and get supplies.”
“Fleming’s a cheap bastard, so I hope he paid you up front.” The wicked looking youth laughed then continued to speak. “We’re also headed to Sandy Lake. We’re working at the camp there. What do you have to sell?”
“A few medical supplies. Some bandages. And a cold remedy.”
“Dr. Jakes, perchance?” The Irishman smiled wickedly.
“As it happens, yes.”
The Irishmen smiled and patted each other on their backs. Their gaunt leader spoke for the group without even bothering to address them. “We’ll take it all, even the bandages. I’ve got the money to pay for it right here.”
Just like that their mission was completed
The next day they walked north with the Irish crew, not exactly together, but on the same path. Much to Gavin’s dismay the Irish drank the Dr. Jakes bitter remedy as if it was booze, which of course it mostly was. When this dawned on Gavin he became very angry.
“Otter, did you know that Dr. Jakes is liquor?”
An unimaginable thought struck him, “What about Fleming, does he know?”
Otter shook his head. “He doesn’t ask too many questions about his most profitable product.” Gavin fumed as they walked slowly through the snow, following the path left by the loud, drunken crew.
The Irish crew were much faster than them, so eventually disappeared and the woods became quiet again. Their path was easier than it had been for a month. Their loads were light and the path through the forest was clear. The mostly frozen Silver River was on their left. It was stunningly beautiful in the daylight: sunshine reflected merrily on its surface. The ice and water mixed together in so many different. Ice covered logs floated languidly south, most of the time not moving at all. On each log, if you looked carefully, you could see some form of brand or logging company mark.
In the corners of the river clumps of leaves had frozen together in eddies.
Late in the afternoon they reached Slow Eddy. The presence of loggers could be found in the garbage piles and the embers of recently extinguished fires.
Yet no one was here. They set up their camp in the pale light of the late afternoon sun. Their campsite was sheltered so before setting up a fire and eating, they sat down together on a fallen tree and looked south west along the river surface. Through breaks in trees they could see the cold red ball of the sun sink into the west.
“What is that?”
Gavin pointed to a plaid covered mound amongst the tangle of logs at the south end of the eddy. Otter rose quickly and moved closer to the water. Gavin followed. As they moved closer to the river they intersected a path down to the water. The path was fresh with the marks of lumberjack boots.
The corpse had been pulverized by the logs and then frozen. Gavin had heard many stories of people clearing log-jams and then falling to their deaths. The corpse’s buddies were probably stuck on the other side of the river and could do nothing to help him as he died. Now his body had floated here.
The corpse was close to shore so without much effort they pulled it out of the water and lay it on the flattened reads at the water’s edge.
“Its too late tonight to do anything about this poor soul.”
“It’s Etienne. From the camp.” Gavin moved closer to confirm Otter’s observation.
“There. A bullet hole.” Otter knelt down beside the body to inspect it in greater detail.
“Let’s be careful tonight.”
“Yes. It’s getting too late. Let’s make a fire.”
“A large fire.”
“Yes. We can attend to the corpse in the morning. May he rest in peace.” They both made the sign of the cross as he uttered this brief prayer and then heaved the corpse into the bush, away from the heat of their campfire.
Otter and Gavin trudged up the river’s embankment back to their camp, lit a fire and sat down to eat.
After dinner they put almost an entire tree’s worth of wood into a fire. The fire was so strong that Gavin was able to sleep in front of it, outdoors, despite the bitter cold. Just before dawn the fire began to die and the winter set in with a vengeance, waking him up. Under the light of the full moon Gavin saw a shadow cross the river right where he had picked up Etienne’s broken body. The river froze underneath the shadow as it moved. Though the monster had no eyes, it turned towards him and scanned his soul. Its gaze was so cold that Gavin felt as if a piece of it had been frozen into his brain. The Windigo did not linger, but headed northwest following the path of the Irish crew.
As the monster rustled away through the cedars Otter walked up behind Gavin, casting a shadow over his shoulder. “Come Gavin. Let us bury Etienne and get moving.”
“Joshua, Etienne was a Christian. He deserves a Christian burial, in a Churchyard: it is the greatest gift that we can give him. He cannot get in to the kingdom of heaven if he is not buried in consecrated soil.”
“Gavin, we should not kill ourselves for the sake of this man’s soul.”
Gavin snapped back, “Look around here. This is our fault. Etienne’s dead because we got the Irish crew drunk on bogus cough medicine. Bringing his corpse to the Church in Meldrum Bay is least we could do.” Gavin recoiled somewhat at the vehemence of his words and continued with a calmer tone of voice. “Besides, Otter, we should be prepared to suffer for the salvation of any soul. Sandy Lake is only 20 miles away. Meldrum Bay is just a little further. Etienne is as stiff as a sleigh board. Who knows, Otter? Perhaps you will redeem yourself through this adventure.”
Otter said nothing, but did help strap the corpse to an empty wooden trellis and they sullenly began the miserable journey northwest to Sandy Lake. Though they followed in the tracks of the Irish crew each step took them further into the bush and further away from the protection of civilization. The path quickly dissolved into a deer trail, often becoming completely impassable. He began to doubt that Sandy Lake, or any town at all, could actually exist in this cold and desolate land.
It took them an entire day to traverse one small cedar swamp. At the end of this day they found themselves in what in summertime would be a circular meadow, surrounded on all sides by silent cedar trees. They entered the circle and made an amphitheater in the snow. In the center Otter quickly built a fire.
Gavin slouched below the lip of their tiny snow amphitheater so that his whole body was sheltered from the wind. The fire burned hotly, but crazily. Otter sat cross-legged. He took of his hat; this caused his long, black hair to blow in what the natives called the evil wind.
Gavin addressed his companion. “I have heard stories about the bush but did not expect to see women as young and vulnerable as Molly and Mary working out here in the company of violent, drunken young men.”
“O’Connor’s crew is a site better than Boyd’s.”
“They are all heavy drinkers.”
“Boyd’s crew are murderers when they are drunk.”
“Or when they’re sober.”
“They are never sober.”
“Though I try not to judge, I still feel that Mary’s virtue is worth more than either the Québéçois or Irish logging teams.”
“All these souls can be saved? Mary can help. You know that.”
Gavin responded by rote; he had said this so many times. “I do not believe that the souls of her companions can be saved as long as they are addicted to liquor.”
“Perhaps they will quit.”
“I think you are right. But Mary is less virtuous than you think.”
“How is that?”
“Do you believe in free will?”
“I believe that God gave us free will and an innate knowledge of good so that we can choose to follow His path.”
“Do women have souls?”
“Of course. Where are you heading with this, Sir? Are you implying that Mary is less than virtuous?”
“I am implying nothing.”
“If you are implying nothing, then what do you know about Mary?”
Out of nowhere and from every direction, a warm wind suddenly started to blow. The fire burned haphazardly and a fine mist of snow began blew off the crowns of the giant cedars that surrounded them.
Suddenly Gavin understood. “You compromised her virtue, didn’t you?” It wasn’t really a question because Gavin <i>knew</i>.
“Mary would tell you that she seduced me. Ask her, Gavin”
“Joshua, should have been stronger.”
“I needed no second invitation to warm her on a cold, lonely Christmas Eve.” Otter’s face was impassive and his tone of voice was firm.
“You slept with her!” Other people may treat morality as something theoretical but Gavin certainly did not.
“My friend, I’m pleased to report that her virginity is still intact.”
Gavin looked long and hard at Otter. It seemed to him that for the first time he was seeing the true face of this evil Huron. To have been so carnal with one so young and vulnerable and <i>good</i>. But what could he do? He needed Otter’s help to bury Etienne. He would give Etienne a Christian burial and then give Otter his due.
Otter backed away slowly down the hill to where Sandy Lake should be. Gavin followed him, his eyes burning with hatred.
Unlike the other towns on their route, Sandy Lake did have a number of permanent structures, a school, a tavern, a general store, and a boarding house. At the center of town, at the falls where the Silver River drains Sandy Lake there was even a mill. Though there were signs everywhere that the Irish crew had passed through there was no sign of them now.
Gavin finally found the Irish crew behind the school house in a bloody heap. Their deaths had been cruel – gunshot wounds, knife wounds. One man had been cut several times with an axe. A couple of members of the Québéçois crew lay respectively outside the main area of slaughter: their team may have won this ambush but they had not.
Gavin wondered what could do this.
“The Windigo.” Joshua crossed himself and backed away.
He looked at Etienne’s soulless body then back towards the corpses of the murderous Irish crew. He didn’t give the crew a second glance and proceeded due west out of town straight into boreal forest and swamp along the Meldrum Bay road.
The bush was far more passable in winter-time than in the summer. The cedar swamps, completely impassable in the summer, were relatively easy to navigate if you stuck to the parts that were frozen. In pockets throughout the swamps, on the higher land, were ancient stands of white pine. In the stands, the ground was clear of plants making it easy to walk using snowshoes. On the ground the air was still, though sometimes the giant trees shivered, unsettling their mantle of snow and luminescent needles.
When they did not converse together, Gavin would talk with himself, or perhaps with some unseen other, Otter had difficulty telling because at these times Gavin would mutter and swear.
“Gavin, I have a question for you. Why do you want to bury Etienne? You’ve told me yourself you’re not Catholic. Why do you want him to be buried on consecrated ground?”
Gavin replied with a question, “Why do you want to leave him behind?”
“Gavin, I am helping you bury him.”
“But you advised me to bury him in unconsecrated ground.”
“I told you that we shouldn’t try to bury Etienne because I didn’t want us to die trying. Your life is precious. Your soul is even more precious.”
“Why are you helping me now? Why haven’t you simply run away?”
“I think that all my choices lead to my death. I’m continuing with him”, Otter nodded towards the corpse wrapped in stiff woolen blankets, “to help save you.”
Gavin tried to understand Otter’s inscrutable remark but could not. As they continued west the north wind grew stronger and the gun-metal sky darkened to black.
“Otter, do you think that the Windigo is here? I keep hearing strange noises and think that we are being followed.”
Otter replied “If the monster is hunting us, we won’t hear it.”
Gavin persisted. “Perhaps I am hearing other animals responding to the presence of the monster. The animals know that something strange is here. Don’t they?”
Otter knew that the Windigo was very close to them and catching up. The monster moved in the form of a persistent breeze that blew a channel of air before it; pulling dead leaves from birch trees; knocking blocks of snow off the cedars; driven forward by its insatiable hunger.
After walking for half a day they reached an area that had already been logged by Americans who had shipped the timber out north-west to the Sault. The lumber road closely followed the curves of the land. The forest on either side was young and scrubby, all but impassable until the deer ate trails through it in the summer. The road, however, was very good. Enough traffic passed from Sandy Lake to Meldrum Bay that the snow was packed. Their progress was very fast.
The Windigo enveloped them a short distance from Meldrum Bay.
While being pursued the air around them blew. Now that they were caught the air around them became still. Otter reached in to his soul, trying to find that place where God is, and prepared to die.
The demon was very cunning: it showed Gavin images of Otter sleeping with Mary; it reminded him that he had sold liquor as medicine to the Irish crew and had caused Etienne’s death. The images enraged Gavin. It was this rage that allowed the monster finally to take control.
Gavin stopped walking. “Otter, I’m seeing things. I’m seeing things that make me very angry. “
Otter replied in a flat but insistent voice. “Gavin, what you are seeing is a vision from the Windigo. It is trying to trick you so that it can control you. Don’t give in. Please be strong. The fate of your soul depends on this.”
“Joshua” Gavin stopped trudging through the snow, dropped the reins to the sled and turned to face Otter. “Joshua, I feel compelled to defend the honor of the woman you have defiled. Mary.” Gavin slurred his words as if drunk.
Otter looked ahead of himself and saw a break in the trees. Meldrum Bay was only a 100 chains away. He could see people there who could help him. But it was too late. The monster had found a path into Gavin’s mind. Possessed by the demon Gavin would catch him and kill him. It would be easy: he would not fight back because he had no reason to live and deserved to die.
The monster was disoriented in Gavin’s body. While it consolidated control, Otter kept walking toward the edge of the forest. Never once turning his back to Gavin, Otter angled around him and began to walk sideways to the beach. Gavin shook slightly but persistently as the monster spoke with his voice. “Otter, we’ve talked a lot about the New Testament God and the Old Testament God. I believe in both. The God of forgiveness and the God of punishment. I believe that you’ve had enough forgiveness. It is time for you to be punished.”
Gavin’s judgment was delivered in a flat tone, more a homiily than a prelude to murder. But there was murder in his eyes as he stopped and methodically withdrew an axe and a gutting knife from his pack.
A large black fish swam close to shore, oblivious of the ice. Dark eyes and whiskers poked up through the rim of the water. Catfish watched as Otter stepped backward out of the forest onto the pebbly beach, dragging the trellis with Etienne’s stiff body along with him.
When Otter reached to the beach he stopped. “Gavin! I am not going to fight you. If you’re going to kill me, kill me quickly. It is all a shame.”
Ice had begun to form on edges of Gavin’s coat and his skin had turned blue. “Why is it a shame, Otter?? Is it a shame that you want to die? Is it a shame that you deserve to die because of the evil things that you have done?”
“Gavin, you are the one who believes that God’s ability to forgive is infinite.”
Gavin lurched toward Otter like Frankenstein’s monster. Catfish stirred and fluidly tracked his movements. Gavin stepped out of the shadows of the forest and raised his hands over his heads as he prepared to strike. For the second time in his life Otter was saved by a breath. Gavin inhaled and as he exhaled the sun poked out from behind a cloud, the air around him shimmered and the Windigo withdrew into the cold shadows of the forest. Gavin stood on the cusp between shadow and sunlight shaking. The axe and knife fell from his hands into the snow. He was now free of the monster’s spell.
Catfish knew that the drama was over and dove into the frozen water of Lake Huron and was gone.
The town of Meldrum Bay was a dock, some sheds and a sailor’s church all fully functional, despite the season.
Together they dragged the trellis noisily along the pebbly beach toward the westernmost point of the island, where a tiny wooden church obdurately squatted. The dozen people who were about followed their progress with their eyes, waiting to intervene until they were asked.
“Otter, it is time to give our friend Etienne a Christian burial.”
“Indeed.” Otter was relaxed and smiling. Smiling. “Gavin, have you ever buried a body? I didn’t think so. Let me show you how to do it.” Within moments they were at the entrance to the rectory making burial arrangements with the priest. Though Otter saw nothing because he was engaged in conversation, Gavin was certain that he saw Catfish poke his head out of the water, at the tip of the dock on the far side of the Church, one last time before swimming away.
Gavin followed Catfish’s wake northwest across the Lake. In the light of the setting sun you could just see the United States of America, if you squinted. Beyond that lay Manitoba where the Government was giving away land for free.