Stone Back

April 27, 2011 Comments Off on Stone Back

The man’s quiet back absorbs the sunlight, a stone among stones, close to the foaming waters.

On a rocky overhang several dozen meters downstream, captivated by the radiance of that back, Sylviane squints, also motionless. Only her fingers move, unconsciously, slowly, lightly, turning a smooth pebble over and over. Ashinî, pebble. Ashinî, murmurs the young woman, repeating the word, trying to assimilate the smooth, sibilant language of the northern forest. For an instant, she considers throwing the pebble to attract the attention of the man below. Pien is so close to the waterfall, he would not hear her voice if she called to him. But then, neither will he hear the pebble fall. Driven by hypnotic pleasure, her fingers continue to read in the grain of the stone the turbulent memory of the water grinding and caressing, overwhelming and calming, before flying into spray and disappearing.

Polished by floods, enormous blocks of bronzed granite shine in the blue day. Ice and sand dig their bed, ever smoother and with an amorous hardness, following the cycles of their violent liaison. A natural violence, thinks Sylviane, like the violence you must summon to end the suffering of a wounded beast with great unrestrained blows, trying to predict the wild movements and swerves that the animal’s death throes will impart to its body.

Sylviane had killed before. Used a large rock to destroy a kitten struck by a car. Brained the trout Nishapet caught, after unhooking them. Nothing very impressive, actually. Nothing that might gain her a little credibility with her traditional hunter-gatherer friends, nothing that might make her interesting in the eyes of Pien. Pien whose luminous shoulders remain out of reach, whose head is hidden in the play of the evergreen shadows.

Starting up the portage after pulling her canoe up onto the bank downstream, she had had a hunch that she would find Pien on these fabulous rocks they used to call the bear’s teeth, Uipita mashku. He is resting, meditating; he has already portaged his boat and his bundles above the falls. He carries everything in white canvas bags that his aunt Nishapet puts together for him, carries them the old-fashioned way, with a bark strap across his forehead. That is how Sylviane always pictures him. Without logos, without a GPS, without high-tech outdoor gadgets like the ones she carries in her backpack but never really uses. Pien…do you believe in your dreams? Around what fire echo your songs of healing and good hunting? Are you the man who consults with Khichikouai, the creator-spirit of the day?

But he has to turn toward her soon. If he doesn’t, it’s because it pleases him not to. Has to be. He must sense that he is being watched. He must know that she is there. The idea of playing his game makes her smile. She will wait. She is in no hurry.


Very early that morning, she had fastened her brand-new canoe to the roof of her car. Nishapet was already up and about next door. Near the little house in the sand, the old woman was arranging the worn-out blankets and scraps of cloth that covered the conical structure of the smokehouse.

“Stay with me, Sylviane, I’m smoking salmon!”

“No, not today. It’s going to be beautiful; I’m taking my canoe out.”

“All by yourself? Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Why don’t you go with Pien?”

“Yeah, right!”

Pien the loner has never invited Sylviane along. When he runs into her, mostly at his aunt Nishapet’s house, he just teases her. She is too white, she comes from the city, what does she know? Piqued, Sylviane retorts, “That doesn’t mean anything!” She has read books; nothing attracts her more than stories of survival in the great outdoors… She has been camping, she knows (theoretically) how to set a snare for hares, she can start a fire with less than three matches, she spent a whole summer with Scouts when she was eight… He laughs, beautiful Pien. He laughs behind his dark glasses; he laughs, starts his Chevy Avalanche and takes off. “I’m gonna go work on my ATV! Niaut!” Or his snowmobile. Or his motorboat. Depending on the season.

Loading the boat—although it’s light—is not as simple as she had imagined. The canoe slides to one side, and in her rush to catch it, Sylviane stubs her toe on a big half-buried rock. The shock goes straight to her bones, closer to fear than pain.

“Be careful out there!” Laughing, Nishapet offers her unfailing comfort: “Come to dinner tonight. I’ll make blueberry bannock.”

“I adore you, Nishapet.”

Don’t worry, Sylviane kept saying to herself, everything is wonderful! She would canoe for a few hours, return without a hitch at the end of the day, and her friend would spoil her with salmon and maybe a piece of Canada goose or beaver. What a delicacy! To eat wild game, preached Sylviane to her nonnative colleagues who turned up their noses at this privilege, is to absorb life itself! You can feel the animal’s life within you, its power, its energy! It never even saw a fence—it lived freely. When you eat a caribou you can taste its freedom! They made fun of her, but her enthusiasm never faded. She would visit the elders, anxious to learn from them, and while waiting to find a mentor for the nomadic life, Sylviane would imagine herself subsisting like the ancestors, wielding the curved knife, curing caribou hide, working leather with porcupine quills, weaving snowshoes, gathering wintergreen and medicinal plants, chanting prayers to Tshishe Manitu, tracking the movements of animals on a blackened shoulder blade, maybe even hearing the spirits of the trembling tent… But Nishapet told her over and over (although her voice was rich with secrets), “You’re dreaming for nothing. That’s the past.”

Nishapet was born several years before the creation of the reservation. Established in the 1950s, more or less on the dunes near where the great river joins the gulf, this reservation was one of the last to be created. Sylviane had seen old pictures: at the time, there was a little vegetation around the brand-new prefab housing units. But since then, the greenery had disappeared. The little houses with their denuded foundations had been sown willy-nilly on this desert exposed to the seaward winds, far from the edge of the beloved trees that had given the Innu comfortable, living shelter since time immemorial.

When Sylviane moved into her cramped housing unit near the clinic, she was reminded painfully of the comments of anthropologist Rémi Savard: the reservations are generally limited parcels of land, owned by the Crown and at the disposal of Indian communities. Conceived in the mid-1800s as veritable biodegradable clinics, they were not supposed to last longer than was necessary for the sociocultural “deprogramming” of their native beneficiaries. To round out its plan of assimilation, the government had also instituted boarding schools for the natives.

Nishapet had been there for that agonizing migration to the boarding schools. The children of her generation had been torn from their families every fall. In this season, normally so full of excitement, they used to leave the coast to spend the winter inland. But with the advent of mandatory school, returning to hunting territory became synonymous with abandoning your children. The adults went sadly away up the river, and soon they did not go back up at all.

For ten years, Nishapet did not see her parents except during the summer. She unlearned her language; the children were forbidden to speak it at school. She got used to thick walls and hard floors. Now an adult, although she had had a natural gift for traditional arts and occupations, and in spite of a certain amount of knowledge gleaned from her elders, nothing could have convinced Nishapet to leave her little bungalow by the river to go seek dreams in the depths of the territory. The woods scared her.

Alone on the great river, Sylviane felt that same fear, but the power of the call made her bold, fascinated as she was both by the territory and by the man who inhabited it. She had seen Pien’s truck parked on the side of the road, not far from the boat ramp. She didn’t dream of trying to catch up to him, but imagining him propelling his canoe up the same river made her happy.

Paddling alone was no cakewalk. Perched on his eyrie on the crest of a big spruce, an osprey encouraged her. In the twists and turns of the little side stream she had taken, sheltered form the prevailing winds, the current offered less resistance to her zigzagging progress. Clumsy but determined, Sylviane steered with all her might, proud of her audacity. If her family could see her now! Her brother would make fun of her, and her mother would worry herself sick over such an escapade. They didn’t understand what attracted her so in this country. For them, the North was a hostile world.

Sylviane savored the silence. This silence did not necessarily correspond to solitude, for sometimes she tasted this novel state of being with Nishapet. The two women spoke little, their conversation often limited to the practical aspects of daily life. At other times, while their hands were occupied with innumerable tasks, they would listen together to the rustlings, the crackings, the tiny crunchings that betray the presence of the air, its movement, its doubling back, its ruffles, its languors.


Limbs heavy with the effort of canoeing, filled with the goodness of the unusual end-of-summer sun, Sylviane relaxes her concentration on Pien among the rocks. She stretches out on the warm granite. She feels so different from the citified young woman she used to be, her mind constantly engaged in developing some project, interested in public affairs, film, fashion.

During the months that preceded the chain of circumstances leading her to her new life, her consciousness had suddenly opened up. It seemed to her that she could feel the earth vibrate. She began to sense breathing, under her feet at first, then a pulse that, traveling through thicknesses of asphalt and concrete, reached the pit of her stomach with subtle echoes: yawns, shivers, stretches, sighs. Regular visits to parks became essential, as much as eating or sleeping; no detour was too great to be able to touch the trees, inhale the scent of the soil and listen to the pebbles clack together. Once she had crossed the Sanguenay, Sylviane quickly forgot Montreal. She had left a Quebec that she was less and less sure of to enter the world of the Innu in Ntesinan, the land that had borne their signs for thousands of years, where the soul of the ancestors rises from the bogs to mingle with the wind and the breath of caribou.

A blackbird lands close by. Pipitshieu! She pronounces the Innu name delightedly; it sounds to her like bird-language. Nishapet told her the origin of the American blackbird; young Aiashîss’ mother was pushed into the fire by her husband during a quarrel. Her chest was badly burned. To relieve her suffering, Aiashîss used his power to turn her into a bird. Nishapet’s grandfather had told atanukan, those stories that they say come from supernatural beings and that must be passed down only during certain rituals. The old man had been dead for twenty years and no one had picked up the drum after him, but Nishapet would sometimes take a deep breath and make those stories dance in the minds of enchanted children.

The air is full of resinous odors and Sylviane dreams of a carpet of pine boughs, like the ones her friends can make on a tent floor. The sun desires her whole body, and she responds. She takes off her nylon pants with their six pockets (useless because all empty—she doesn’t like the feel of things bouncing around), rolls her ultralight UV-protection shirt into a ball, pulls off her microfiber underwear. The parts of her body seem suddenly to have come to life; she discovers her belly, no longer as a seductive space between a short top and low-waisted pants, but as a mysterious center of perception sprouting a thousand tiny roots seeking a spring. Her skin sticks to that of the mother rock, that stone that looks almost bloody. Sylviane is always astonished by the whiteness of her skin, a legacy from her grandmother, her mother told her, and maybe even from her great-grandmother, the one who lived in the mists of Brittany among the fairies and the magical stones who go to drink from the river at night.

The stone is so smooth, Sylviane falls asleep. She is dancing with her grandmother around a menhir. Nishapet joins them. The megalith spirals upward, and the space it leaves behind fills with water and precious stones. Arms full of flowers, bark, and branches, the two old women were chanting and rolling their heads from side to side. The water continues to climb, floods out of the cavity, clasps Sylviane’s ankles. Night falls. Her companions are harder to see now in the gloom. They have traded the plants for immense bundles of white sheets that they pull toward themselves but that keep slipping back.

Uitshinan! Help us!” Grandmother rips up the sails of a schooner, Nishapet tears the fabric of a shaputuan; the cloth is piling up in the icy water. “Uitshinan! Help us! Look how cracked our hands are. Help us wash the shrouds of our dead…” They have become those famous washerwomen of the night, from the story Grandmother used to tell fearfully, in a whisper! They are setting their trap. Woe to he who wrings his laundry the wrong way: he will have washed his own shroud and will die instantly! Instantly!

Sylviane wakes up, confused, shivering. It is so dark—is there a storm brewing or is it already the end of the day? Has she slept so long? A vague anxiety clenches her chest; she will have to go home in the dark. She dresses herself quickly and hurries back to her canoe, glancing at the place where Pien had been lying… He is still there, unmoving. The strangeness of the scene is slow to register in Sylviane’s worried mind. She descends the portage trail, fast, but careful not to trip on the roots. At the edge of the water, she sees with horror that her canoe has drifted away. She can make out its dim form very far downstream, immobilized on the rocky outcrops. And a tiny spot of orange, her backpack—the matches, the energy bars, her warm sweater. She has no idea what to do. Holding back her panic, she climbs back up the path. Pien? The light has changed on the pink granite. Sylviane’s fear is confirmed. The stone back had never been that of a man.

The pîpîtshieu calls as it flies away. Sylviane’s chest is burning. Tonight there will be neither man nor fire. The river envelops her with its breath, a glacial drizzle. In the morning, maybe, if everything goes well on the bear’s teeth, she will hear Pien coming up the river in his motorboat.


[by Johanne Alice Côté, translated fall 2010 by yours truly]


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