|Jul/Aug 2014 Fiction|
Image credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov
It was two weeks after Christmas, and it was courting season. The River lay locked and silent from the shipyards of Lauzon to the potato fields of St-Jean-Chrysostome, from the flat, frozen marshes down to the jumbled ice-pans on the beach. On the Island, Jean Gobeil, who hung doors and tightened carriage-springs for the two eastern parishes, drilled a hole in the ice and declared it a good two feet. The runners of the cariole were freshly waxed, and Monsieur Gobeil's son Olivier, his sister Amandine, and all her friends squeezed in under a heap of furs and drove across the ice-bridge to the dance in Ste-Anne's.
Inside the hot, hazy hall, the fiddle was making the dancers leap like midges on an iron stove. Outside, the air was so cold it sparkled, and young people who wished to get up to mischief were hard-pressed to take their accomplices anywhere but back inside—where they made mischief anyway, to their elders' outrage and delight.
Now, Olivier spied a girl who was not dancing. She was an odd looking girl, for halfway down her legs her knees were bent in the wrong direction, and each furry, unshod foot had only one hard, black toenail, like a forest deer. But her dress became her very well, for she had sewn it herself. The green taffeta had arrived by steamer in St-Jean-Chrysostome on the Feast of Kings, a present from her lover who lived down in the States.
Olivier went to the girl and asked her name. "Marie-Hélène," she said. "Would she dance?" Yes, she would, though it was a little awkward. She had to be careful not to tread on his toes with her hard, black feet.
They danced until the candles had burned down and a chilly light touched the seaward stretches of the estuary. Then Olivier said, "Wouldn't you like to come live with me on the Island, in a wooden house with seven stairs and six good chairs, and a bed and a window and a big iron stove?" But Marie-Hélène made no reply, and Olivier had to summon his sister's friends and return over the ice-bridge. However, Marie-Hélène did not sleep that night. She sat on a stool, folding her strange, stiff legs under the kitchen table, took up her pen, and wrote to her lover.
Sir, she wrote—for she had been with the Ursuline Sisters, and had a beautiful hand—For many years now you have tarried in the south. Therefore, send me back the ring I gave you, and I will say a prayer for you at the church of the Virgin's Mother.
When her lover received this letter, he wrote straight back, begging her to wait for him, and saying that he would soon be there to kiss her hand and kneel at her feet. He wrote: Only be my true love, and I will give you a bag of gold that no one else can find; For it lies under a fir tree deep in the woods, guarded by a great white owl.
That week it was so cold that all the poplars beside the shore split like sausage casings, and the snow squeaked so loudly at every step that it was like being followed by an insolent pack of imps. Olivier harnessed the cariole and drove over the ice-bridge to see Marie-Hélène. He sat in front of her kitchen fire for an hour without saying a word, but as he got up to leave he said, "Now then, wouldn't you like to be married?"
Marie-Hélène said, "What good is marriage without means of support? Go search for a fir tree guarded by a great white owl, and dig beneath it. Come back with whatever you find. Then I will give you an answer."
So Olivier took his shovel into the still, white forest, where only the wings of the chickadee stirred the spruce boughs. He searched until he came to a great fir tree, the tallest between Montréal and Tadoussac, with a great white owl perched in the top. He started to dig, but the ground was as hard as iron. When the owl saw him digging, it swooped down and stabbed his knuckles with its beak until they bled. But Olivier said, "I was sent on this errand by the girl I love, and if you were a demon from the icy pit you couldn't stop me." When the owl heard this, it alighted on the ground, it and all the other owls of the forest, and they thawed the hard earth with their warm feathers. Olivier dug up the bag of gold and took it back to Marie-Hélène.
Marie-Hélène took the gold and kissed Olivier soundly. "Come back next week," she said, "And do not fail." As soon as he had gone she sat down on her stool, took a pen and wrote to her lover, Now sir, what do I want with gold? I have bags of gold enough. But send me the ring that I gave you, and don't be afraid that I will forget to bless you.
When the lover read this he wrote back immediately, reminding Marie-Hélène of the summer they had met at the Hôtel de Ville, when her feet, still as nimble and shapely as any maiden's, had captured his heart with their dancing—and then, perhaps realizing that this was a less than winning argument, he hastily assured her that he would soon be in St-Jean-Chrysostome to worship her in person.
And if you will be my true love, he wrote, I know of a silver harp that lies at the bottom of a deep stream guarded by an ancient sturgeon, and I will give it to you with all my heart.
The next week it was so cold that when Olivier's sister Amandine set down a pitcher of milk on a tree-stump it cracked into two pieces, leaving the milk standing there like a white pillar in the church of Ste-Petronille. But Olivier hitched the horses to the cariole and drove across the ice-bridge to see Marie-Hélène. He sat for an hour with her in the kitchen. When he got up to leave, he said, "What do you say? Shall we be married?"
Marie-Hélène replied, "What good is marriage if the days are long and silent? Go find a deep stream guarded by an ancient fish. Bring me back what you will find at the bottom of that stream. Then I will give you an answer."
So Olivier took his axe and his crampons into the white forest, where only the chickadee was flitting among the undergrowth. He searched until he came to a deep stream. Through the ice he could see the shadow of the sturgeon, turning and rolling like a thundercloud. He was enormous, because he had eaten all the other fish, and though his eyes were as blind as two dry peas, he could hear a water-strider on Lac St-Charles 100 miles away.
Olivier put the crampons on his feet and stepped out onto the ice. Before he reached mid-stream, the old fish heard him, and with a plunge and a twist, smacked its giant tail against the ice beneath his feet. A crack opened directly behind Olivier, and quickly widened to farther than a man could leap. Without hesitation, Olivier took another step forward. Again the old fish smacked his tail against the ice. Another crack appeared, this time in front of Olivier, and widened to farther than a man could throw a stone. But Olivier gripped his axe in two hands and said, "I was sent on this errand by the girl I love, and if you were a devil from the cold abyss you couldn't stop me."
When the fish heard this, he swam down to the bottom of the stream and came back with the silver harp, which Olivier took from between his cold, white lips.
He brought the harp to Marie-Hélène's house, where she gave him two hearty kisses. "Come back next week," she said, "And do not fail."
When Olivier had gone, Marie-Hélène sat down straight away on her stool, took her pen, and wrote to her lover in the States, saying, Now, sir, don't waste my time, for if I wanted a harp I could have harps aplenty. But send me the ring I gave you, and I will pray for you this Sunday at Ste-Anne de Beaupré.
Her lover wasted no time in writing back, comparing her to all the famous lovers, from Héloïse to Elaine of Astolat. And he wrote, Can you find it in your heart to leave me when I wish to give you marvels unseen by men? I know of a bushel full of wheat, barley and corn, which is never empty though you poured it out all day long. It lies concealed in a cave beneath a fallen oak, guarded by a white wolf; and this shall be yours if you consent to love me.
The next week it was so cold that the goats and cows and even the chickens had long white beards of frost where they breathed over their chins. But Olivier was not daunted, and he drove his cariole over the ice-bridge to sit in Marie-Hélène's kitchen while she darned a pair of socks that had been worn to pieces by her hard, black toes. And at the end of an hour he asked, just as usual, "What would you say, my dear, to us getting married?"
Marie-Hélène replied, "How can there be marriage where hunger lives? Go into the woods and search for a cave beneath a fallen oak, guarded by a white wolf. Bring me what you find there. Then I will give you my answer."
Now, Olivier was more worried about this task than he had been about any of the others, because in those years the wolves were hungrier, just as the winters were harder. But he put his gun over his shoulder and went.
He hadn't walked far when a chickadee flew over his head, all alone in the still, white forest. "Hey there," Olivier said. "If you tell me where I can find a cave beneath a fallen oak, I'll give you a crust of bread."
The chickadee said only, "Tchèr, tsi-tsi-tsi," but Olivier gave him the bread anyway.
All day he looked, high and low, but he couldn't find the cave, so his gun did him no good at all.
The next day Olivier didn't go to sit in Marie-Hélène's kitchen. That day, and the whole week that followed, he kept searching in the woods. He was getting anxious, for the season of Lent was approaching, and soon the ice-bridge would melt. Then the young men of the Island would have no way of visiting the young women on the mainland, and those who had not married must spend the summer working on their fathers' farms.
But a strange thing happened. That year, the ice-bridge did not melt, and the weather did not grow warmer. It grew colder, so cold that to walk outside was like stepping into a white-hot furnace, and people stayed indoors, burning their chairs and their cupboard doors when the firewood ran out. But Olivier went out every day, and when the horses grew too weak, he went by snowshoe, over the ice-bridge and into the woods. He wore a goose-down coat, a knitted scarf, a wool sweater, a vest, a clean white shirt, and a set of woolly underwear. For it was so cold that the bare trees had budded out new, white leaves made of frost, and the tiny birds froze solid on their branches, like bright teaberries; all except the chickadee, who swooped over his head, calling boldly.
Olivier sat down to eat his lunch. The chickadee sat beside him, so Olivier offered him a piece of bread. The chickadee refused, saying, "Keep it, keep it! I am the King of Birds and my stomach is full of barley, wheat and corn."
"Where do you find food like that," Olivier asked, "When the earth is locked up with snow?"
"From a magic bushel," the chickadee said.
"And where is this magic bushel?" Olivier asked.
"It lies in a cave beneath a fallen oak," the chickadee said. So Olivier asked the chickadee to lead him to the place. When they got there the bird flew away. As Olivier tightened his grip on his gun and approached the cave entrance, a white wolf vaulted over the fallen oak and landed in front of him, snarling.
Olivier said, "I am on a sacred mission of love, and though you guarded the icy gates of hell, yet I would pass through."
But the wolf said, "Love? You are not old enough to understand love," and she knocked Olivier backward in the snow, putting a giant paw upon his chest. The five long claws pricked through his clothes: through the goose-down coat, the knitted scarf, the wool sweater, the vest, the clean white shirt—and stopped at the woolly underwear.
Although he found himself terrified and upside down, Olivier kept his wits, and struck the wolf as hard as he could on its nose. At once the wolf turned into a beautiful woman. She was a grand lady from the city who had long ago rejected the advances of Marie-Hélène's lover, and, out of spite, he had used his magic to transform her. Olivier helped her to her feet and gave her his coat. Then he went into the cave and brought out the magic bushel. It over-flowed so much that as he walked back to Marie-Hélène's house he left a golden trail behind him.
When he came to her door, Marie-Hélène gave him three hearty kisses and said, "Come back in four days when I have sewn a wedding dress. On that day we shall be married."
When Olivier had gone she wrote to her lover in the States, saying, Your talk of bushels is nonsense, and I have no use for it. Therefore, do not write again unless it is to send me the ring, which you are so tardy in giving up. And if there has been bitterness between us, may God remove it from our hearts.
Now her lover, when he read this, detected a note of finality that had not been in her previous letters, and he began to be alarmed. But he still had many affairs in the south, and it was four days before he took a train to Québec and rented a sleigh to drive to St-Jean-Chrysostome.
On the fourth day, Olivier threw back his bedcovers, which were stiff with frost. He broke the ice in the water pitcher, and gave himself a chilly shave. Then he asked for his father's blessing, which he got very readily. As he left, his mother slipped him some frozen bacon that he could gnaw on his way; for they were running very short of fuel for the stove.
When he arrived at Marie-Hélène's house at ten o'clock, however, she had a cup of hot, black tea waiting for him. The two of them made very merry, talking of how they would live together on the Island.
As they talked, however, they heard sleigh-bells in the yard. It was Marie-Hélène's lover, arriving from the city. Marie-Hélène said, "Get up! Hide yourself in the attic."
No sooner was Olivier out of sight than in walked the lover. He wore fur-lined boots, and a great fur coat, and the finest wool mittens. But he did not see the chickadee fly in through the door behind him.
"So, it's you," Marie-Hélène said. "My ring isn't that valuable, you know. You could have sent it on the mail-packet.
"Darling," her lover said, "I couldn't stand being so far away from you. Bring me something hot to drink, and let's be good to one another."
Marie-Hélène put the kettle on the stove, but she had to wash a teacup under the kitchen pump because she had no extra.
"My dearest," her lover said, "Whose cup is this sitting on the table?"
"My love," said Marie-Hélène. "You know it is so cold that the ants come into the house for warmth. I put a cup of sugared tea on the table so they might fall in and scald themselves."
She set his tea and a plate of biscuits on the table, and they began to eat. But her lover said, "My dearest, why is there a suitcase of clothes sitting beside the door?"
"My love," Marie-Hélène said. "It has been so cold that the moths have come indoors and are nesting in my clothes-chest. I'm taking all my clothes out to the barn and leaving them there overnight so their eggs will freeze."
They ate a few more biscuits, but now the lover was growing suspicious, and he said, "Sweet Marie-Hélène, I don't mean to criticize your housekeeping, but I see grains of wheat, barley, and corn upon the floor. Hadn't you better pass a broom?"
Marie-Hélène was frightened, because of course the grains came from the magic bushel, but just then she heard the chickadee call from rafters, "Tvic! Tvic, tsi-tsi," and that gave her an idea. "I've been putting out grain for the birds," she said, "for I know God blesses the cheerful giver. But the cheeky wretches bring their mess inside. Look! There's one of the them perched above our heads."
"I'll soon chase him out," her lover said, jumping to his feet. But the chickadee swooped away from him, and he banged his forehead into the roof-beam and knocked himself silly.
"All right, Olivier, come down," Marie-Hélène called. They snatched up the bag of gold, the silver harp, the magic bushel, and Marie-Hélène's suitcase of clothes, but when they reached the door Marie-Hélène said, "Wait!"
She went to her lover, who was dead to the world, and hunted through his pockets. It only took her a minute to find the ring. "Listen," she said. "This man is an enchanter who stole my true shape by keeping this ring from me." She put it on her finger, and instantly her knees bent back in the right direction, her feet became fine and arched, and her toes were soft and pink, like yours or mine.
Off they set towards the ice-bridge. It was wet going, for, miraculously, the snow had begun to melt, and the path was flooded. Marie-Hélène had no shoes, not having needed them before, and she might have lost her new toes to frostbite not an hour after she had gained them, if Olivier hadn't slipped his mittens over them and lifted her into his arms. But well they might hurry! For the enchanter was too powerful to stay unconscious long. He was already climbing into his sleigh before they had reached the River, and when he arrived at the riverbank, they were exactly in the middle of the ice-bridge, as exposed as two mealworms on a porcelain platter.
Then the enchanter thought he had them; he whipped up his horse and drove straight onto the ice-bridge at high speed. But just as his runners passed over the deepest part of the channel, the ice split, the dark water opened, and the sleigh sunk to the bottom of the River, taking the enchanter with it. Marie-Hélène and Olivier barely had time to scramble onto the shore before the ice-bridge was swept away.
The enchanter was never seen again, although months later they heard that a big, black fur coat, such as city-folk wear, had washed ashore amid the ice floes on a beach in Rimouski.
But there on the Island, winter had finally ended. Marie-Hélène and Olivier walked to his parents' house, with the sound of creeks and streams and babbling brooks following their steps. Later, they built a house where they lived very happily; for they were in the springtime of their love.