By William Squirrell
Witiko had been howling with hunger for three weeks and they were beginning to starve. So one morning, when its wail was a distant murmur, McKay ventured out past the stockade to try and bag a rabbit or a partridge. Sophia climbed the wobbly ladder and pointed a musket into the trees to give him a little cover should he have to come back in a hurry. This made Sammy furious.
“It should be me up there!” he shouted. “You’re just a girl! I’m a man!”
“You’re not even ten,” Sophia said. “And you’re a terrible shot.”
“I’m a goddam man!”
He tried climbing up after her so she kicked him twice in the mouth.
She perched between the roughly shaved points of the logs, peering out at the squalls of sleety snow. The gusts of arctic air that blew in from the bay gnawed her knuckles raw, and whipped the endless scrub of scrawny jack pines and naked birch into a boil. Sammy raged at her until the faraway howling stopped. Sophia shouted at him to run to the gate and tightened her grip on the gun. When McKay came barreling through the underbrush Sammy let him in.
“Did you see him?” Sammy shouted as McKay secured the gate. “Did you see him?”
Sophia watched the trees wallowing in wind.
“Get in the house,” snapped McKay.
“Did you see him?” Sammy asked again and McKay gave him the back of his hand.
Sammy stared up at him from the frozen mud.
“Back into the goddam house,” said McKay and glanced up at Sophia and her musket.
“And take your sister with you.”
The kids didn’t move.
“Go on in and tell your mother I had no luck,” he said.
Sophia slid down the ladder.
“Broth for supper again,” she said and helped Sammy up.
The howling started as they reached the door. Witiko was right outside the stockade: screaming; roaring at the insult of their continuing existence. They could hear the explosive crack of dry saplings, low branches, rotting logs, as he swept around and around the rickety old fort. The treetops quivered in his wake.
Momma huddled with the little ones by the stove, singing softly. The factor, old Thomas Kearnes, Momma’s man these last five years, sat at the table, his head in his hands.
“No luck, Momma,” said Sophia and leaned the musket against the wall.
“Broth again,” said Sammy and threw himself onto a bed.
“Make us some tea,” said Momma and the children squirmed closer to her.
“You want some tea, Mr. Kearnes?” Sophia asked, but the man didn’t move.
Momma started singing to the kids again.
McKay and Kearnes were pouring rum into their empty bellies.
“We’ll be boiling leather for breakfast,” said Momma.
“Maybe they’ll get lucky tomorrow and shoot something,” said Sophia in Cree.
“These men have no luck,” said Momma. “They are useless.”
Old Kearnes head was on the table. McKay stared at Sophia, eyes like shelled snails, sallow skin hung from the sharp ridges of his cheekbones, blonde whiskers turning white.
“Worse than useless,” said Momma.
“Stop that goddam noise and speak in English,” said McKay and tried to smile. “A little conversation might lift all our spirits, hey? A little conversation and some drink, whaddaya say, Mrs. Kearnes?”
“No thank you, Mr. McKay,” said Momma in her soft English.
“What about you, Sophia?” he peeled back the skin from his teeth. “You’re old enough now.”
Sophia and Momma stared at him.
“Isn’t that right, Kearnes?” McKay nudged the other man.
“Mister Kearnes,” muttered the Factor.
“You’re old enough, Sophia,” said McKay. “Come have a drink.”
“She’s still just a girl, Mr. McKay,” said Momma.
“She’s a woman,” said McKay. “I can smell it on her when she walks by.”
Sophia felt the sting of a blush and looked at her feet.
“She’s just a girl, Mr. McKay.”
McKay’s laugh was angry.
Sophia’s head was on her mother’s lap and Momma stroked her hair. Sammy and the kids were piled around them, whimpering in their dreams. Witiko was quiet, the men snoring: Kearnes face down on the table, McKay sitting against the wall, a rifle across his lap.
“He’s right,” Momma murmured in Cree. “You’re just about a woman now, in the old days you’d be married off already. I was with your Daddy when I was your age.”
“Oh, Momma, what are you saying?”
“Witiko is frightened of girls who are almost women,” said Momma, “scared of their menstrual blood. He is scared of the smell. And if McKay can smell it, so can Witiko.”
Sophia looked up into Momma’s round face. She was still young, with clear eyes and smooth skin. They could almost have been sisters.
“Do you remember Abishabis?” Momma asked: “The boy who was here when Mr. Kearnes brought us down from York Factory?”
“The orphan,” said Sophia. “A strange boy; always staring, watching the men, watching you.”
“He used to stare at you, too, and sometimes I let him brush your hair.”
“I don’t remember that. I just remember he was mean, rude.”
“He was a rough boy, but not bad. He had no one to take care of him but whoever was camped nearby the post, no one to teach him.”
“What happened to him?”
“That old conjuror, the one they called Goosewitch, took him away when he was nine or ten. Mr. Kearnes said nothing. I was so mad that he would let someone take a child away like that. I was so mad I stopped talking to him for a long time.”
The trees creaked and moaned.
“He’s back now,” said Momma. “Living on that island you can see from the point where McKay keeps his canoe.”
“No,” said Momma. “Abishabis.”
“The hunter Red Blanket told me,” Momma continued: “He told me Abishabis was camped on that island, that he was a conjuror now, like Goosewitch, with many spirit friends and servants. Red Blanket said Abishabis built a shaking tent there. Red Blanket brought him tobacco and Abishabis went into the tent and it started to shake. Beaver came to the tent and told Abishabis where his children would be sleeping, where Red Blanket would find their lodges, and Red Blanket went to those places and got rich, so rich he wanted another wife.”
“Oh, Momma!” laughed Sophia. “Was Red Blanket courting you?”
“Sophia,” she said: “You must go to Abishabis. You must ask him to help us. You are the only one who can do this thing. He will not touch you yet. You are the only one who can save us from Witiko. These men here are worse than useless.”
Sophia woke in the dark. The lantern sputtered. Kearnes sat up and stared at the tangle of limbs and tousled hair that was Sammy and the other kids. He stood up and knocked over a tin mug half full of rum. It rolled from the table and fell onto the floor.
“Beavers,” he said and his lips peeled back to show his teeth. “There’s beaver kits in here.”
Momma sat up.
“Wake up, you old fool,” she said. “Those aren’t beavers, they’re your children.”
“Goddam it, they’re beavers,” Kearnes said and wiped saliva from his chin. “We’re saved. We can eat.”
“They’re your children,” repeated Momma. “Now wake up.”
“Momma?” Sophia sat up. “What’s going on?”
Kearnes squinted at her.
“Mr. Kearnes is just dreaming,” said Momma.
“I’ll be damned,” he said and sat down. “They were beaver kits, mewling beaver kits. I swear they were.”
“Go back to sleep, Sophia,” said Momma.
Sophia lay down. She saw the glint of steel by her mother’s hand. Momma had an ax beside her, its head protruding from the covers.
Momma opened the gate for Sophia at dawn. They pressed their foreheads together, eyes closed, Sophia inhaled as deeply as she could, fortifying herself with the musty, musky scent of tobacco and tea and wool and wood smoke, the smell of safety, of home, of Momma.
“Here,” said Momma. “I’ve been saving this.”
Her mother thrust a strip of dry moose meat and a lump of boiled potato into her hands.
“Momma,” laughed Sophia. “You been holding out!”
“It’d be wasted on those men.”
“Give it to the kids.”
“No,” said Momma. “It can’t help them now, but it can help you.”
“Go,” said Momma: “Hurry. Run.”
Sophia tucked the food away, then she turned and ran.
Her feet barely touched the ground; she flew through the forest. She leapt across the mud and the slush and the patches of snow; across the logs; across the spackled stones. Cold air poured into the furnace of her lungs, steam boiled back out. For a long while there was no other sound than piston-pulse of her breath. When the shriek of rage finally came, it seemed right behind her, right beside her. She stumbled into a tumble of bracken, rock, and pine cones. She was on her feet in a flash and running. Witiko crashed and banged through the underbrush, groaning and moaning. She ran and ran, her throat on fire, her hands burning from the fall.
Witiko roared at her heels, but he did not touch her.
At long last she burst out of bush into the bright morning light, right at the first knuckle of the rubbled, treeless point. It stretched out into the sparkling waves, straining to reach the island. A stiff breeze caught at her hair. She jumped onto to one of big round rocks, and then another, and another, and she was at the canoe. She grabbed the paddle from where it lay, pushed the boat out, icy waves slashing at her legs. She hopped in and paddled into the open water, on and on until she felt dizzy from the exertion. She turned and looked at the long flat coastline, the trees sitting lightly on it like a haze.
She saw a figure; tall, impossibly tall and pale; a giant white man with a ragged mane of hair; standing where the point met the mainland; watching her escape. Then she blinked and the figure turned into an old birch nodding in the breeze. She pulled out her moose meat and the crushed potato and ate slowly, savoring each morsel, listening to the slap of the waves against the canoe and the sharp cries of the gulls, shivering from cold and exhaustion, enjoying the sun and the breeze in her hair. She licked her fingers clean.
A single thin column of smoke rose from the far side of the island. Sophia pulled the canoe into the trees and then picked her way towards the smoke.
Abishabis was camped by a little cove. Sophia watched from the woods: a squat young man with unkempt hair, sipping tea from a tin mug by the fire. He threw out his dregs and picked up some bannock. He walked down to the water’s edge and made a few loud goose calls before throwing out chunks of bannock onto the waves. A dozen geese emerged from the bush and launched themselves towards the floating scraps. When they finished they clustered around him, rubbing their beaks against him, letting him scratch their small heads.
“Little sister,” he cooed, “little brother.”
Then they paddled back out into the deeps and took off, one by one, battering the air with their wings, hacking at the waves with their feet until they clawed themselves up into the wind.
“You can come out now,” said Abishabis.
Sophia walked over to the fire and squatted beside it.
“I am Sophia Harding from Godwin House,” she said.
“I know you,” said Abishabis, “and what you want.”
“Please,” Sophia said, “we are starving.”
“What did Kearnes promise me? Brandy? Tobacco? Credit?”
“Kearnes doesn’t know you’re here,” said Sophia. “He doesn’t know I am. My mother sent me. This morning before the men woke.”
“A conspiracy of women,” snorted Abishabis, “with nothing to offer.”
“Please,” said Sophia.
“I remember you,” said Abishabis. “And your mother, she used to let me listen when she sang to you and your brother, let me brush your hair, looked the other way when I took food from her gentleman’s parlor.”
“Then help us for her,” said Sophia.
“It was the very least she could have done,” said Abishabis, “For a small, hungry boy with no family: the very least.”
A distant wail cut the air like a razor.
“I owe her nothing,” said Abishabis. “I owe you nothing.”
“Please,” said Sophia. “The children are starving.”
“Children do,” said Abishabis, “every winter.”
He walked off into the woods.
Sophia squatted by the fire, staring up at the tree tops. Then she curled up and fell asleep.
Sophia woke in late afternoon. Abishabis walked into camp and dropped a pair of rabbits beside her and walked to the shore. She sat up, pulled out her knife, and began skinning the animals.
That evening Abishabis gave her a bowl of roasted rabbit and she pushed it away. He ate by himself then he lit his pipe and stared into the embers.
“We will die if you don’t help us,” said Sophia.
Abishabis kept smoking.
“I won’t leave here,” said Sophia. “I won’t eat. I’ll die.”
Abishabis got up and went into the woods.
Sophia woke. The night sky blazed with sheets of green light. The forest echoed with drums and singing. She went into the woods. The music grew louder and louder until she found its source, a tent constructed from saplings and hides. It was shaking with noise, as if a multitude of people, animals, and spirits, were singing and shouting inside. Then a voice cut through them all, cold steel through warm muscle, and everything went quiet.
“I am hunger,” it said in English. “I am winter.”
“Leave this place,” Abishabis spoke in Cree from the darkness of the tent.
In the morning Abishabis brewed tea.
“Has your menstruation finished?”
“Yes,” said Sophia.
He handed her a steaming mug.
“Drink this, then burn your clothes and bathe in the sea. Scour yourself with sand. You must be very clean. He must smell nothing on you but his own hunger.”
Sophia was half dead from the cold when she came out of the water. She sat chattering by the fire, wrapped in a blanket. A pot of clear broth simmered away and she thought of Momma and Sammy and the little ones all sick with hunger.
“Drink the broth,” Abishabis said. “All of it, at once.”
It was like drinking fire, it burned her tongue and throat and belly. She thought of the forge at York Factory, the men hammering away at strips of red hot iron, the boiling rush of steam when they thrust it into water.
“You must swim to the mainland,” said Abishabis. “And then you must run from Witiko and not stop. If you stop he will kill you. If you stop, everything is lost.”
Sophia was running from Witiko. She had swum through the icy water, Abishabis’ broth burning inside her. For a few minutes on the shore she rested, hunched over, the wind whipping her back, snapping at her. When she heard his screams of anguished hunger approach, and the thunder of his rage, she ran. She was running still. She had been running for hours and he was almost on her. When she looked over her shoulder she could see him. He was like the corpse of an Englishman; very tall, as tall as some of the trees; naked, as naked as her. His eyes were open so wide they should have popped out of his skull.
His lips were chewed to rags. He no longer roared. She could hear trees snapping and breaking, and rocks shattering. She ran: wind in hair, bursts of sunlight through the trees, feet barely touching the ground. Over logs, under bough, darting to this side and that, always forward, down a skidding slope, up a rise, down a crease between two stony swells. Witiko’s breath was the deafening rush of water at a narrow rapids, a gale in the bones of the trees. Sophia’s chest was on fire, every muscle strained to come unknit, she was coming unwound, undone, she was dissolving into air and light. She was not running but falling, arms spread wide for balance. She heard Abishabis singing and the beat of his drum; of wings against air; the mournful cry of the geese.
She felt the blast of Witiko’s hunger on her neck and back, blowing through her, the stench of rotting meat and disease, the stink of shit and bile. The geese were above her, powerful wings driving through the clean air; Abishabis was on his island, beating his drums and singing. A flash of blue cut through her exhaustion, a flash of blue, and again, and again the blue, and then an otherworldly expanse of sky opened up before her; the trees ended in a tumble of granite and gneiss; the ground beneath her was a river of scree spilling over a cliff.
She did not stop: she ran out into the air. Behind her there was a scream; a wail that fell away, Witiko fell and fell, he fell into silence; Sophia thought of McKay and his angry smile; she thought of Kearnes staring at the children; she thought of Momma sleeping with a hand on an axe; Sammy in the mud blinking up at her through his tears. A black forest stretched out for miles beyond her, there was a distant river like a thin silver thread, a spattering of lakes broke up the dark monotony, the water was shining, a shining looking glass, looking at the sky, shining eyes, looking back at her, it was Abishabis. A perfect horizon divided the sky from the ground. She could see the whole of the world spread out before her. She could see the world.
“Little sister,” she heard Abishabis singing, beating his drum in time to her wings, singing on his island. “Fly away, little sister. Witiko is dead and spring is here. Witiko is dead. Fly away.”