Monday, December 3, 2012

The Loons

Laurence, Margaret. A Bird in the House. McClleland & Stewart. 1970

Just below Manawaka, where the Wachakwa River ran brown and noisy over the pebbles, the scrub oak and grey-green willow and chokecherry bushes grew in a dense thicket. In a clearing at the centre of the thicket stood the Tonnerre family’s shack. The basis of this dwelling was a small square cabin made of poplar poles and chinked with mud, which had been built by Jules Tonnerre some fifty years before, when he came back from Batoche with a bullet in his thigh, the year that Riel was hung and the voices of the Metis entered their long silence. Jules had only intended to stay the winter in the Wachakwa Valley, but the family were still there in the thirties, when I was a child. As Tonnerres had increased, their settlement had been added to, until the clearing at the foot of the town hill was a chaos of lean-tos, wooden packing cases, warped lumber, discarded car tires, ramshackle chicken coops, tangled strands of barbed wire and rusty tin cans.

The Tonnerres were French half-breeds, and among themselves they spoke a patois that was neither Cree nor French. Their English was broken and full of obscenities. They did not belong among the Cree of the Galloping Mountain reservation, further north, and they did not belong among the Scots-Irish and Ukrainians of Manawaka, either. They were, as my Grandmother MacLeod would have put it, neither flesh, fowl, nor good salt herring. When their men were not working at odd jobs or as section hands on the C.P.R., they lived on relief. In the summer, one of the Tonnerre youngsters, with a face that seemed totally unfamiliar with laughter, would knock at the door of the town’s brick houses and offer for sale a lard-pail of bruised wild strawberries, and if he got as much as a quarter he would grab the coin and run before the customer had time to change her mind. Sometimes old Jules, or his son Lazarus, would get mixed up in a Saturday-night brawl, and would hit out at whoever was nearest, or howl drunkenly among the offended shoppers on Main Street, and then the Mountie would put them for the night in the barred cell underneath the Court House, and the next morning they would be quiet again.

Piquette Tonnerre, the daughter of Lazarus, was in my class at school. She was older than I, but she had failed several grades, perhaps because her attendance had always been sporadic and her interest in schoolwork negligible. Part of the reason she had missed a lot of school was that she had had tuberculosis of the bone, and had once spent many months in hospital. I knew this because my father was the doctor who had looked after her. Her sickness was almost the only thing I knew about her, however. Otherwise, she existed for me only as a vaguely embarrassing presence, with her hoarse voice and her clumsy limping walk and her grimy cotton dresses that were always miles too long. I was neither friendly nor unfriendly towards her. She dwelt and moved somewhere within my scope of vision, but I did not actually notice her very much until that particular summer when I was eleven.

“I don’t what to do about that kid,” my father said at dinner one evening. “Piquette Tonnerre, I mean. The damn bone’s flared up again. I’ve had her in hospital for quite a while now, and it’s under control all right, but I hate like the dickens to send her home again.”

“Couldn’t you explain to her mother that she has to rest a lot?” my mother said.

“The mother’s not there,” my father replied. “She took off a few years back. Can’t say I blame her. Piquette cooks for them, and she says Lazarus would never do anything for himself as long as she’s there. Anyway, I don’t think she’d take much care of herself, once she got back. She’s only thirteen, after all. Beth, I was thinking – what about taking her up to Diamond Lake with us this summer? A couple of months rest would give that bone a much better chance.”

My mother looked stunned.

“But Ewen – what about Roddie and Vanessa?”

“She’s not contagious,” my father said. “And it would be company for Vanessa.”

“Oh dear,” my mother said in distress, “I’ll bet anything she has nits in her hair.”

“For Pete’s sake,” my father said crossly, “do you think Matron would let her stay in the hospital for all that time like that? Don’t be silly, Beth.”

Grandmother MacLeod, her delicately featured face as rigid as a cameo, now brought her mauve-veined hands together as though she were about to begin a prayer.

“Ewen, if that half-bred youngster comes along to Diamond Lake, I’m not going,” she announced. “I’ll go to Morag’s for the summer.”

I had trouble in stifling my urge to laugh, for my mother brightened visibly and quickly tried to hide it. If it came to a choice between Grandmother MacLeod and Piquette, Piquette would win hands down, nits or not.

“It might be quite nice for you, at that,” she mused. “You haven’t seen Morag in over a year, and you might enjoy being in the city for a while. Well, Ewen dear, you do what you think best. If you think it would do Piquette some good, then we’ll be glad to have her, as long as she behaves herself.”

So it happened that several weeks later, when we all piled into my father’s old Nash, surrounded by suitcases and boxes of provisions and toys for my ten-month-old brother, Piquette was with us and not Grandmother MacLeod, miraculously, was not. My father would only be staying at the cottage for a couple of weeks, for he had to get back to his practice, but the rest of us would stay at Diamond Lake until the end of August.

Our cottage was not named, as many were, “Dew Drop Inn” or “Bide-a-Wee,” or “Bonnie Doon.” The sign on the roadway bore in austere letters only our name, Macleod. It was not a large cottage, but it was on the lakefront. You could look out the windows and see, through the filigree of the spruce trees, the water glistening greenly as the sun caught it. All around the cottage were ferns, and sharp-branched raspberry bushes, and moss that had grown over fallen tree trucks. If you looked carefully among the weeds and grass, you could find wild strawberry plants which were in white flower now and in another month would bear fruit, the fragrant globes hanging like miniature scarlet lanterns on the thin hairy stems. The two grey squirrels were still there, gossiping at us from the tall spruce between the cottage, and by the end of the summer they would again be tame enough to take pieces of crust from my hands. The broad moose antlers that hung above the back door were a little more bleached and fissured after the winter, but otherwise everything was the same. I raced joyfully around my kingdom, greeting all the places I had not seen for a year. My brother, Roderick, who had not been born when we were here last summer, sat on the car rug in the sunshine and examined a brown spruce cone, meticulously turning it round and round in his small and curious hands. My mother and father toted the luggage from car to cottage, exclaiming over hoe well the place had wintered, no broken windows, thank goodness, no apparent damage from storm-felled branches or snow.

Only after I had finished looking around did I notice Piquette. She was sitting on the swing, her lame leg held stiffly out, and her other foot scuffing the ground as she swung slowly back and forth. Her long hair hung back and straight around her shoulders, and her broad coarse-featured face bore no expression – it was blank, as though she no longer dwelt within her own skull, as though she had gone elsewhere. I approached her very hesitantly.

“Want to come and play?”

Piquette looked at me with a sudden flash of scorn.

“I ain’t a kid,” she said.

Wounded, I stamped angrily away, swearing I would not speak to her for the rest of the summer. In the days that followed, however, Piquette began to interest me, and I began to want to interest her. My reasons did not appear bizarre to me. Unlikely as it may seem, I had only just realized that the Tonnerre family, whom I had always heard called half-breeds, were actually Indians, or as near as made no difference. I did not remember ever having seen a real Indian, and my new awareness that Piquette sprang from the people of Big Bear and Poundmaker, of Tecumseh, of the Iroquois who had eaten Father Brebeuf’s heart – all this gave her an instant attraction in my eyes. I was a devoted reader of Pauline Johnson at this age, and sometimes would orate aloud and in an exalted voice, West Wind, blow from your prairie nest; Blow from the mountains, blow from the west – and so on. It seemed to me that Piquette must be in some way a daughter of the forest, a kind of junior prophetess of the wilds, who might impart to me, if I took the right approach, some of the secrets which she undoubtedly knew – where the whippoorwill made her nest, how the coyote reared her young, or whatever it was that it said in Hiawatha.

I set about gaining Piquette’s trust. She was not allowed to go swimming, with her bad leg, but I managed to lure her down to the beach – or rather, she came because there was nothing else to do. The water was always icy, for the lake was fed by springs, but I swam like a dog, thrashing my arms and legs around at such speed and with such an output of energy that I never grew cold. Finally, when I had had enough, I came out and sat beside Piquette on the sand. When she saw me approaching, her hand squashed flat the sand castle she had been building, and she looked at me sullenly, without speaking.

“Do you like this place?” I asked, after a while, intending to lead on from there into the question of the forest lore.

Piquette shrugged. “It’s okay. Good as anywhere.”

“I love it,” I said. “We come here every summer.”

“So what?” Her voice was distant, and I glanced at her uncertainly, wondering what I could have said wrong.

“Do you want to come for a walk?” I asked her. ”We wouldn’t need to go far. If you walk just around the point there, you come to a bay where great big reeds grow in the water, and kinds of fish hang around there. Want to? Come on.”

She shook her head.

“Your dad said I ain’t supposed to do no more walking than I got to.”

I tried another line.

“I bet you know a lot about the woods and all that, eh?” I began respectfully.

Piquette looked at me from her large dark unsmiling eyes.

“I don’t know what in hell you’re talkin’ about,” she replied. “You nuts or somethin’? If you mean where my old man, and me, and all them live, you better shut up, by Jesus, you hear?”

I was startled and my feelings were hurt, but I had a kind of dogged perseverance. I ignored her rebuff. 
“You know something, Piquette? There’s loons here, on this lake. You can see their nests just up the shore there, behind those logs. At night, you can hear them even from the cottage, but it’s better to listen from the beach. My dad says we should listen and try to remember how they sound, because in a few years when more cottages are built at Diamond Lake and more people come in, the loons will go away.”

Piquette was picking up stones and snail shells and then dropping them again.
“Who gives a good goddamn?” she said.

It became increasingly obvious that, as an Indian, Piquette was a dead loss. That evening I went out by myself, scrambling through the bushes that overhung the steep path, my feet slipping on the fallen spruce needles that covered the ground. When I reached the shore, I walked along the firm damp sand to the small pier that my father had built, and sat down there. I heard someone else crashing through the undergrowth and the bracken, and for a moment I thought Piquette had changed her mind, but it turned out to be my father. He sat beside me on the pier and we waited, without speaking.

At night the lake was like black glass with a streak of amber which was the path of the moon. All around, the spruce trees grew tall and close-set, branches blackly sharp against the sky, which was lightened by a cold flickering of stars. Then the loons began their calling. They rose like phantom birds from the nests on the shore, and flew out onto the dark still surface of the water.

No one can ever describe that ululating sound, the crying of the loons, and no one who has heard it can ever forget it. Plaintive, and yet with a quality of chilling mockery, those voices belonged to a world separated by aeons from our neat world of summer cottages and the lighted lamps of home.

“They must have sounded just like that,” my father remarked, “before any person ever set foot here.”

Then he laughed. “You could say the same, of course, about sparrows, or chipmunks, but somehow it only strikes you that way with the loons.”

“I know,” I said.

Neither of us suspected that this would be the last time we would ever sit here together on the shore, listening. We stayed for perhaps half an hour, and then we went back to the cottage. My mother was reading by the fireplace. Piquette was looking at the burning birch log, and not doing anything.

“You should have come along,” I said, although in fact I was glad she had not.

“Not me,” Piquette said. “You wouldn’t catch me walkin’ way down there jus’ for a bunch of squawkin’ birds.”

Piquette and I remained ill at ease with one another. I felt I had somehow failed my father, but I did not know what was the matter, nor why she would not or could not respond when I suggested exploring the woods or playing house. I thought it was probably her slow and difficult walking that held her back. She stayed most of the time in the cottage with my mother, helping her with the dishes or with Roddie, but hardly ever talking. Then the Duncans arrived at their cottage, and I spent my days with Maria, who was my best friend. I could not reach Piquette at all, and I soon lost interest in trying. But all that summer she remained as both a reproach and a mystery to me.

That winter my father died of pneumonia, after less than a week’s illness. For some time I saw nothing around me, being completely immersed in my own pain and my mother’s. When I looked outward once more, I scarcely noticed that Piquette Tonnerre was no longer at school. I do not remember seeing her at all until four years later, one Saturday night when Mavis and I were having Cokes in the Regal Cafe. The jukebox was booming like tuneful thunder, and beside it, leaning lightly on its chrome and its rainbow glass, was a girl.

Piquette must have been about seventeen then, although she looked about twenty. I stared at her, astounded that anyone could have changed so much. Her face, so stolid and expressionless before, was animated now with a gaiety that was almost violent. She laughed and talked very loudly with the boys around her. Her lipstick was bright carmine, and her hair was cut short and frizzily permed. She had not been pretty as a child, and she was not pretty now, for her features were still heavy and blunt. But her dark and slightly slanted eyes were beautiful, and her skin-tight skirt and orange sweater displayed to enviable advantage a soft and slender body.

She saw me, and walked over. She teetered a little, but it was not due to her once-tubercular leg, for her limp was almost gone.

“Hi, Vanessa.” Her voice still had the same hoarseness. “Long time no see, eh?”

“Hi,” I said. “Where’ve you been keeping yourself, Piquette?”

“Oh, I been around,” she said. “I been away almost two years now. Been all over the place – Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon. Jesus, what I could tell you! I come back this summer, but I ain’t stayin’. You kids goin’ to the dance?”

“No,” I said abruptly, for this was a sore point with me. I was fifteen, and thought I was old enough to go to the Saturday-night dances at the Flamingo. My mother, however, thought otherwise.

“Y’oughta come,” Piquette said. “I never miss one. It’s just about the on’y thing in this jerkwater town that’s any fun. Boy, you couldn’ catch me stayin’ here. I don’ give a shit about this place. It stinks.”

She sat down beside me, and I caught the harsh over-sweetness of her perfume.

“Listen, you wanna know something, Vanessa?” she confided, her voice only slightly blurred. “Your dad was the only person in Manawaka that ever done anything good to me.”

I nodded speechlessly. I was certain she was telling the truth. I knew a little more than I had that summer at Diamond Lake, but I could not reach her now any more than I had then. I was ashamed, ashamed of my own timidity, the frightened tendency to look the other way. Yet I felt no real warmth towards her – I only felt that I ought to, because of that distant summer and because my father had hoped she would be company for me, or perhaps that I would be for her, but it had not happened that way. At this moment, meeting her again, I had to admit that she repelled and embarrassed me, and I could not help despising the self-pity in her voice. I wished she would go away. I did not want to see her. I did not know what to say to her. It seemed that we had nothing to say to one another.

“I’ll tell you something else,” Piquette went on. “All the old bitches an’ biddies in this town will sure be surprised. I’m gettin’ married this fall – my boyfriend, he’s an English fella, works in the stockyards in the city there, a very tall guy, got blond wavy hair. Gee, is he ever handsome. Got this really classy name. Alvin Gerald Cummings – some handle, eh? They call him Al.”

For the merest instant, then, I saw her. I really did see her, for the first and only time in all the years we had both lived in the same town. Her defiant face, momentarily, became unguarded and unmasked, and in her eyes there was a terrifying hope. 
“Gee, Piquette- “ I burst out awkwardly, “that’s swell. That’s really wonderful. Congratulations – good luck – I hope you’ll be happy-“

As I mouthed the conventional phrases, I could only guess how great her need must have been, that she had been forced to seek the very things she so bitterly rejected.

When I was eighteen, I left Manawaka and went away to college. At the end of my first year, I came back home for the summer. I spent the first few days in talking non-stop with my mother, as we exchanged all the news that somehow had not found its way into letters – what had happened in my life and what had happened here in Manawaka while I was away. My mother searched her memory for events that concerned people I knew.

“Did I ever write you about Piquette Tonnerre, Vanessa?” she asked one morning.

“No, I don’t think so,” I replied. “Last I heard of her, she was going to marry some guy in the city. Is she still there?”

My mother looked perturbed, and it was a moment before she spoke, as though she did not know how to express what she had to tell and wished she did not need to try.

“She’s dead,” she said at last. Then, as I stared at her, “Oh, Vanessa, when it happened, I couldn’t help thinking of her as she was that summer – so sullen and gauche and badly dressed. I couldn’t help wondering if we could have done something more at that time – but what could we do? She used to be around in the cottage there with me all day, and honestly, it was all I could do to get a word out of her. She didn’t even talk to your father very much, although I think she liked him, in her way.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Either her husband left her, or she left him,” my mother said. “I don’t know which. Anyway, she came back here with two youngsters, both only babies – they must have been born very close together. She kept house, I guess, for Lazarus and her brothers, down in the valley there, in the old Tonnerre place. I used to see her on the street sometimes, but she never spoke to me. She’d put on an awful lot of weight, and she looked a mess, to tell you the truth, a real slattern, dressed any old how. She was up in court a couple of times – drunk and disorderly, of course. One Saturday night last winter, during the coldest weather, Piquette was alone in the shack with the children. The Tonnerres made home brew all the time, so I’ve heard, and Lazarus said later she’d been drinking most of the day when he and the boys went out that evening. They had an old woodstove there – you know the kind, with exposed pipes. The shack caught fire. Piquette didn’t get out, and neither did the children.”

I did not say anything. As so often with Piquette, there did not seem to be anything to say. There was a kind of silence around the image in my mind of the fire and the snow, and I wished I could put from my memory the look that I had seen once in Piquette’s eyes.

I went up to Diamond Lake for a few days that summer, with Mavis and her family. The MacLeod cottage had been sold after my father’s death, and I did not even go to look at it, not wanting to witness my long-ago kingdom possessed now by strangers. But one evening I went down to the shore by myself.

The small pier which my father had built was gone, and in its place there was a large and solid pier built by the government, for Galloping Mountain was now a national park, and Diamond Lake had been re-named Lake Wapakata, for it was felt an Indian name would have a greater appeal to tourists. The one store had become several dozen, and the settlement had all the attributes of a flourishing resort – hotels, a dance-hall, cafes with neon signs, the penetrating odours of potato chips and hot dogs.

I sat on the government pier and looked across the water. At night the lake at least was the same it had always been, darkly shining and bearing within its black glass the streak of amber that was the path of the moon. There was no wind that evening, and everything was quiet all around me. It seemed too quiet, and then I realized that the loons were no longer here. I listened for some time, to make sure, but never once did I hear that long-drawn call, half mocking and half plaintive, spearing through the stillness across the lake.

I did not know what had happened to the birds. Perhaps they had gone away to some far place of belonging. Perhaps they had been unable to find such a place, and had simply died out, having ceased to carer any longer whether they lived or not.

I remembered how Piquette had scorned to come along, when my father and I sat there and listened to the lake birds. It seemed to me now that in some unconscious and totally unrecognized way, Piquette might have been the only one, after all, who had heard the crying of the loons.

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