On the Thelon River, 1926
After the war,
and all its deaths
the fear, and the noise, the dirt and smells of the living and the dead in the trenches of Flanders,
I came to Canada,
to breathe cleaner air,
to forget death in a pure, unpeopled wilderness.
I travelled away from the cities, west and north till I came to the end of rail in Onaway.
I found work storekeeping.
I was not happy.
Onaway was not wilderness.
Onaway was like dabbling your feet at the sea shore, not daring to jump in.
I wanted wilderness. I wanted to feel my strength against the flow of swift-moving water, I wanted to live off the land and camp under stars while wolves howled close beyond the fire’s flickering light.
Old timers laughed, said I’d never survive. “You must learn from the natives,” they said. “Learn from trappers like Jack Hornby. Jack Hornby is the best.”
When Hornby stopped at our store for his outfit, I asked him to take me with him.
“No,” Hornby answered.
“Please,” I begged.
“Maybe next season.”
The next season he came with his cousin, a lad of seventeen, fresh out of school, too young even to remember the war.
“Take me with you.” Again I asked Hornby.
He was going to say ‘no.’ I could see it.
I gestured to his outfit. “Only two men to handle all this gear? You need a third. Three are safer in the wilderness.”
That much I knew.
He looked at the boy – Christian was his name, Christian Edgar. He looked back at me. He knew what I said was right.
He didn’t want me. He didn’t like me
but he said, “All right. Come.
The journey was hard. It was late in the season when we built our cabin
by the cold grey river Thelon
in a stand of stunted, wind-whipped spruce trees.
Behind the spruce, bleak, gravelled ridges rose
like waves in an sullen sea.
I came here
to forget death and the fear of it.
Yet here I found it waiting.
It is in the cabin with us now.
We have had no good meat for weeks,
only bone broth and rotted guts.
“The caribou will yet come,” Jack says.
The caribou will have to knock on the cabin door
and stand still
else we will never kill one,
we are so weak.
“Go out and check the snares,” Jack tells me.
I drag myself out.
There is nothing in the snares.
“Fetch wood,” he says.
I am too tired to move again.
I lie down and pull the blanket over my head.
Let him fetch wood.
Or the boy.
I didn’t think it mattered, Hornby’s not liking me.
But it does matter.
I am the third man, the odd man out, the lonely one.
Jack and Christian tell their stories, don’t want to hear mine.
They don’t like my jokes, my suggestions, my songs.
When I stopped talking,
they accused me of sulking.
Now food is scarce, they begrudge me what I eat.
Jack would like to give my portion to Christian.
Christian would give it to Jack.
I need it for myself. I too am a man.
I too am hungry and want to live.
I am the third man, unwanted.
“Don’t worry,” I wrote my parents from Chipewyan. “I’m as safe as houses with Jack.”
I was not afraid.
But now I am weak and hungry and in the long nights I am afraid.
To bear hardships and starve like a gentleman: that’s what makes a good traveller, Jack says.
I am trying to be a good traveller.
But it is hard to starve like a gentleman.
We dig like dogs in the snow to search for bones and hides and offal we discarded when the hunting was good.
We give each other enemas to unstop our guts that are clogged with bone and hair like foxes’ scat.
It is hard to feel like a gentleman when you’re straining with your last little strength to shit.
We are thin.
Jack’s bones creak and grind when he tries to walk. His war wounds ache.
“I’m all right, my boy,” he says. “I’ve come through worse than this. We’ll den up till we get our strength back, then we’ll hunt again. The caribou never fail.”
The caribou did not fail. We failed. We were away down the river when they came.
Their tracks were all around the cabin when we returned; we could have shot them from the door.
Our fishing nets are frozen in the ice, unusable.
The ptarmigan elude our snares.
We ate our two pet foxes – pretty things but not much of a meal.
Jack thinks Adlard could be doing more to help.
He tells him to get up off his lazy arse and check the traps.
With a mean look and no words, Adlard goes.
When he’s gone Jack says, “Our Harry is not quite playing the game.”
I am trying to play the game.
But it is a hell of a game this going without grub.
We eat bones and blood and boiled hide and tea.
A cup of tea perks us up.
I shall brew up tea for Jack and me, and for Adlard when he comes in from the traps.
“We’ll pull through,” Jack says. “We’re in a tight spot now, but I’ve been in worse.
“Some day,” he says, “you’ll be sitting, fat and comfortable by a fireside telling the story of this winter, wishing you were back here again, re-living the adventure, realizing how much you loved this country, how alive you were.”
I believe him as long as I can.
Three things you need to live: food, warmth, and a home for your soul.
I have found my soul’s home here in the barren lands of the north,
the land of feast or famine
where food and warmth are not ready to hand,
and so all the more precious when one comes upon them.
It is a land that tries and tests a man,
a land where the strong live free
and find a beauty that the weak and timid never know.
I have loved this land and found in it my soul’s home.
Last night, when we held each other to keep warm, Christian said to me,
“I have found my soul’s home, Jack.
It is you.”
Sweet words for a dying man to hear.
The end is near for me.
I will not last more than a day or two.
I leave all I have to my beloved Christian.
I pray he will make it through.
Jack died this morning.
Christian held him to the end, the roles reversed as if the lad were the older man, the teacher, the comforter.
Christian wept, and I too.
Not that I loved Jack as he did,
but, in spite of everything, I admired the man,
half believed he might yet save us,
that for him a fat caribou might walk into our clearing, or a tribe of friendly natives.
Old timers call Jack the white Indian.
“He’s the man who can out-run any Indian on the hunting trail, outlast any Indian in endurance, outstarve any Indian when there’s nothing left but starvation.”
That’s what they say about Jack Hornby. “He’s the best. He always comes scraping through at the last minute.”
But his last minute came,
and the caribou did not come, nor the Indians.
We worked all day, Christian and I, to wrap Jack’s body in his blanket and sew it closed.
We dragged him step by slow step
out on to the porch.
We had not the strength to bury him,
and anyway the ground was frozen hard.
At sunset we recited what we could remember of the burial service.
It reminded me of the war:
the blanket-wrapped body and
the grim knowledge that the body in that blanket could just as well be yours.
We knelt because we could not stand.
We tried to remember the words of the burial service.
‘I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me shall not perish but have everlasting life. Man who is of woman born hath but a little time. The grass withereth. The flower fadeth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.’
‘In sure and certain hope,’ Christian remembered, ‘of the resurrection and life everlasting.’ ‘Sure and certain hope,’ he repeated.
We crawled back into the cabin.
I could barely make it to my bunk.
Christian brought me a cup of tea and a bit of boiled hide to chew on. It was kind of him.
I am too tired to chew the hide.
I think Christian does not dislike me as much as Jack did.
If we live through this we may become friends,
but I do not think I can live much longer.
For Christian’s sake, I hope my death will not come before his.
It was a day’s hard work to wrap Harold in his blanket,
another day to drag him out to lie next to Jack.
When I spoke the funeral words, I was afraid of my own voice.
It echoed loud and frightened as a scream in the vast and empty silence.
There will be no voice to speak for me.
But I will not think of my own death.
Jack would not have wanted me to.
I must bear hardship and hunger like a gentleman.
For Jack’s sake I will hang on to life as long as I can.
Feast may follow famine.
I have both guns loaded and ready at the door in case game comes:
a fox or ptarmigan.
Only they are so small
and hard to shoot, for they move so fast.
But I will try, if they come,
if they move out there in the silence.
But I must make preparations for the other case as well.
I must write of Jack’s death and Harold’s.
I must leave the record of our adventure in this beautiful, hard land.
I must tell of how we died, not angry or regretful, but as best we could, in sure and certain hope, like gentlemen.
I must make preparations.
Katharine O’Flynn lives in Montreal. Her historical fiction has appeared in journals such as Storyteller Magazine, The Nashwaak Review, Circa, CommuterLit, and an earlier issue of The Copperfield Review.