Grace by Sarah Hutchinson
Grace knew that if anyone ever found her here, in this natural open glade, she would be punished, maybe even killed. Her family would just punish her, a good lashing most likely; but if the Anishnawbe found her, trespassing here, here where no one ever came, where spirits preferred to dance alone…
The wind twirled about the topmost branches of the giant ash trees at the north side of the glade. Grace answered with a little twirl and a three-step half-jig. Her mother often spoke of the country dances back home, in Ayr. Grace had never been to a country dance. No one danced here. Here there was only work, and hardship.
Grace twirled about in her three-step half-jig and the wind picked up the beat. The giant ash, the elegant birch, swayed and swirled, her partners. Even the wall of cedar along the glades’ south and eastern line swayed in time. The piles of stones that marked those ancient Anishnawbe graves were silent, a sleeping audience to the dance.
Suddenly, a stark call interrupted everyone. Grace nearly tripped over a rock and looked up angrily to scold this interloper. The bright red bird with the bold, angry cap scolded her instead. He was so angry, the squawking aimed right at her. Grace had loved the red bird’s lilting up and down song so often at home when she was out in the gardens. Why was he so mad at her now?
Grace retreated to the line of the great ash trees and sat upon a dry fallen log behind the boulder. Her gaze fell upon the line of cedars, still swaying with a life of their own, though the wind had ceased its play among the taller trees.
The cedars swayed, and swayed, and then from between them came a figure. Dressed in many layers of skin hides, carrying many bundles, this figure was followed by another, and another. Five in total shifted out of the cedars, and stopped in the middle of the glade. They spoke, and though Grace’s heart beat like a jackrabbit, she could not tear her eyes from these faces. Gaunt, thin, but more than anything they looked weary. Grace had known the labour of a settler born on thin, weak-soiled land. Grace had known weariness, but now, having seen these faces, she knew it could run deeper.
Grace’s father had spoken of this often of late, how the government was causing many Anishnawbe from faraway places to come to this island, to live here in a place they had always held sacred, as special. Father was mad about it because the same government had bade him come here, and many farmers like him, too. Father was so angry: ‘were they supposed to share?!’ he shouted.
The people spoke in low voices from their thin, weary faces. The red bird flew across the glade, and away north, to the lakeshore not far away. The man of the Anishnawbe spoke to this family, then walked in the bird’ direction. The others began to work, making camp, and Grace, her heart in her mouth, carefully picked her way amongst the tall trees, crouching low, praying not to be seen.
With a lurch in her stomach, Grace realized the stone cairns lay ahead of her. To go around them to the right she would have to pass too close to the steep rocky edge above the shoreline – the way the man had gone. To pass to the left of them would take her back into the clearing.
Her heart in her mouth, Grace stepped on the silent ground, passing one low, circular mound of stones, and two ahead. It occurred to Grace with stark clarity that she was more afraid of the spirits living amongst those circular mounds than she was of being caught by the living Anishnawbeg.
Finally, the stone mounds behind her, Grace moved a bit more quickly through the bush towards home. It was early summer and she was glad to have the soft green earth muffling her footsteps.
A flash of red to her right heralded the cardinal once more. Grace stopped, and held her breath waiting to see if he would scold her again. And then, as if she’d always seen him but just now realized he was there, a boy was in the ferns below where the cardinal sat. He was far away, yet he looked straight at her.
Grace did not worry for making sounds now. Somehow, she was not afraid as she continued homeward. The boys’ face held no malice, and she knew she would be home soon.
Less than a fortnight later, Grace saw the boy again. Once more, the cardinal appeared first, as Grace worked away in the vegetable garden. The next time she looked up, the boy was there. He sat motionless for the entire day as Grace toiled, yet somehow she was glad for his company. She left a handful of young carrots – they truly were hers for the giving – at the edge of the garden when supper called.
Grace spent many days within that summer being watched by the boy. Always he sat, motionless as a stone, and almost always the cardinal would visit with them as well.
Near summer’s end, when the boys’ face seemed less hungry, nay even content, he beckoned to Grace. Tentatively, Grace approached, and took from his proffered hand the thick strip of food he held out to her. It looked like a soaked belt, but its smell reminded Grace of spiced cider at Christmastime. When Grace bit into it, her taste buds burst into song, like the cacophony of birdsong before a spring sunrise; her mouth was a riot of flavour.
That fall and winter Grace had to live far away, in town, to attend school. Her parents retrieved her at holidays and some week-ends. She lived with, and kept house for, the Ketterly’s: an elderly couple who did not approve of idleness amongst the young. Grace was proud to see her own vegetables adorning their table most nights. Sometimes, she thought of the family living in the clearing. She thought of the pemmican, how she hadn’t even wanted her supper after eating such a little strip that day. Would they have enough to last the winter?
At homecoming for the summer, as soon as she could get away, Grace went to the clearing. The family was no longer there, though a long-cold firepit showed they had wintered there.
Dreamily, musingly, Grace glided along the cedar tree-line past the boulder. There, ahead in the trees, were the three old stone cairns. Two more cairns were there now.
At first, Grace marveled at the piles: the uniformity of rocks, all the size of a fist, none larger than a man’s head. In a landscape of mostly flat limestone Grace knew that the only way to get stones such as these was to find them by chance on the forest floor, or to earnestly dig them out of the earth, as she had done most of her life. How far, for how many days, did the family focus on building these cairns for these loved ones. And who had died – the old man? The father? The mother? The child? The baby? The boy?
Grace’s face was a mess of tears when she got home, though she did not really remember crying. No amount of her mother’s questioning would prompt Grace to divulge her woe.
As a woman, Grace moved to Peterborough and married a good man. She preferred city life, and she loved the good soil of the south.
When her boy was almost grown, Grace felt he should spend a summer at hard farming, so she brought him home to Manitoulin. Perhaps, if he took to it, he would take over her aging father’s farm.
On a Saturday morning, the buggy wheels spinning toward town, Grace bade her son halt the horse. They were in the native community and a line of four different vendors stalls lined the road. Her son at her side, Grace approached the stalls. The Anishnawbe women smiled at her, their eyes forever on the ground, and Grace said ‘Aanii’ like the boy had taught her long ago. Surprised, the women looked at each other, and they spoke amongst each other as Grace bought a head of young lettuce and a perfectly tanned white rabbit pelt at a fair price.
The fourth stall was manned by a father and son team. Grace did not look at them, she was too drawn by the wares on the table. Fabulous carvings of woodland animals fairly jumped and crawled and flew before her eyes. Most were carved from antler, but some were wood, and some of clay. There, at the corner, a perfect cardinal sat. Grace gasped and looked up.
The old man’s face, whose wrinkles were more from the sun and weather and weariness than of age, held the eyes of the boy.
The reunited friends smiled into each other’s hearts for many long minutes. Grace’s son, Peter, and the man’s son exchanged pleasantries. The boys’ English was faltering, and Peter behaved graciously.
Driving on, towards town, Grace smiled at the cardinal carving in her hands.
“I wonder, mum,” said Peter. “Do you think those people might play baseball, if I taught them?”
“I don’t know, Peter. I’m sure they have their own games, and ways. Do you think you might hunt with a bow, if they taught you?”
“Good point, mother,” replied her son. “Perhaps we can trade ideas. You know, maybe we can share.”