Even the peanut butter sandwiches he had eaten on the trail
could not take away the cold that had got in him. Corbière had to keep moving
but he would lose his brother's trail if he tracked at night, so he decided to
walk around in the clearing where he nipped under the canopy of poplars along
the exposed limestone. He would keep warm. Not having the tools to start a fire
left him angry and frustrated. Lack of fire know-how left him pacing for most
of the night hours.
His thoughts turned to the past, taking his mind away from
growing unease of circumstance. Images of laughter on the beaches of north
Ecuador warmed his core. Times of irresponsibility and recklessness, when the
possibilities of life were before him, there for the taking. He never knew
where he would end up but having those options made him feel safe during his
struggle to find his way. He had fit in with the way of life of an expatriate,
never feeling the urge to return to his native Canada and the chill of its
winter wonderland. But his brother did not last long in South America, though
he knew they would last as among the best they had ever shared.
All the while his brother had immersed himself in the Native
culture, choosing to study with a medicine man, learning the old ways of the
great Métis hunters of the prairies like Gabriel Dumont and Jerry Potts.
Corbière had never shared this attraction with the old ways, preferring to
ignore the strain of Mohawk blood that flowed through his veins. It was easy to
do because he didn't look Anishinabec. And his Native past had been demolished
when his grandmother had been taken to the residential schools and brought up
to be European-Canadian. Neither of them knew anything about their Native
heritage. It was his brother who explored it and then adopted it as his own. It
made sense to him. The concept of time was similar. To the old man it was a
world of balance and meaning.
But not to Corbière. The cold in his fingers and ears were a
knife in his flesh during his chilled-to-the-bone all-nighter.
Even firewood was uncooperative and soggy.
Corbière decided if he did not find his older brother in the
first few hours of the day he would return on his ATV with proper tools. He was
exposing himself to too much danger. After all, if his brother wanted to die
while hunting then perhaps that was how it should be. Who was I to think I have
a say in the method or time of his graduation to the Spirit World? Is that not
entirely personal? Even between brothers and family. The old Mohawk thought it
might be the only thing that should be entirely ones own determination.
And then he thought of the incident. That one place he chose
never to tread. Deep waters full of prickly swirls of illogically arranged
variables, the end result always with the same unfitting remainder. The
equation had incongruous seams so it had to be unmasked and seen for what it
was: a fluke of timing and place. The car was moving slowly but when he had put
his head out the door he didn't know that his buddy Rourke was not holding him
from falling out. When he did fall out his head struck the pavement with a dull
thud common to fractured skulls. He thought about it because he wanted to know
why his brother was such an extremist, and never cared about danger that
surrounded him. A head injury had changed him. He had said "There's nothing
they can do. They're not going to put my head into a cast!" And that was the
end of the discussion. Taking no treatment for a smack on the head might have
cost him in some ways, though he could not bring himself to believe that his
brother was not a happier man.
And that's why Corbière was scared.
"We're not going to be hungry this winter," the old man said
to his dog. He stepped back from the stag's matted coat and shining blood, his
muscles weary and hands sore from the weapon. He looked for the orange hue of
the sunset through the lead gray clouds and knew light would be gone in less
than a hour. How he longed for a fire and warm bed! That is what I work for, he
said silently to himself. But it was a series of necessary steps that would
enable him to complete his mission to package his kill back to his camper two
It had always interested him that to disembowel a deer, it
was only the first moment that was difficult. Whenever he tried to convince
himself that the first cut was just a small thing, he could not do it. The
sound and the feel and the smell and the sight of drawing blood with surgical
intent was unpleasant. It was all gravy after finishing the ringpiece ripper.
He wished young Corbière was with him because it would be something he would
ask him to do on the condition that that was the only thing he had to do.
Corbière could then sit back and watch him do the rest.
He used his old gloves for the rest of the operation,
slinging the front legs up to a hanging branch that was perfect to bleed it.
For this he chewed tobacco, the smell and bitter taste taking his attention
away from the aromas of freshly cut flesh. And he knew the nicotine would keep
him up most of the night before his early departure in the morning. Sleep was a
low priority; guarding his meat was more important than shut eye.
Using his water bottle he cleaned the surface of some
limestone and lay a half-dozen slices of meat from the large thigh, tight
enough that it was still protected as it hung from the low-hanging bough, a
large splatter of blood now pooling. If the slices were too bloody Klondike
would enjoy spoils of the fresh kill. The drizzle would speed up the bleeding
before he had to go. The old four-legged had already sampled some of the
innards that he had thrown into the river. It was a water dog before land so it
had happened before. There was nothing he would do. If Klondike's hunger pulled
that hard into the water then it must be healthy liver and kidneys there for
the taking. Old Klondike still had some gas in the pot and it knew what was
good and what wasn't; the old rotty had mastered the art of seeing the signs
from Mother Nature.
Both dog and man shared the same keen sense.
"Okay Klondike, time to get to work." He lit himself a
cigarette and let the smoke come into his nostrils just a bit, which made him
cough up the night's debris, and back into Mother Earth.
The stag would drain it twenty pounds lighter, but it would
take every ounce of strength the old man had. He had been toying with the idea
of an old two-poled sled contraption he had once seen his uncle construct, with
shaved flat ends where two lodge-pole sized pines would bend into the weight of
the meat strapped in with twine. Taking his hand axe from his bag he found two
thin maples that made up the body of his sled.
When he cut the carcass and strapped each leg across the two
poles, he saw that one of the legs had already been mauled, likely he thought
by a weasel or fisher. It would be too fast to defend against. No way in hell
the old man was going to cross-bow a fierce fisher, like a skinny badger with a
"When'ya gonna fin'a fire lik' this? Eh? Eh?" The old
puppy understood the tone of its master, proud and full-bellied beside the
campfire. The bright orange flame warmed his chest, a scent of burnt cotton
endings ignored. The smoky maple a perfume to the old man's senses.
The sparks could not camouflage the sounds of animals
encroaching on them around the stones, the scent of cooked meat still heavy in
the air. The rain had stopped and cold had set in. The old man broke some
medium-sized twigs to fuel the teepee-shaped pieces, and lifted a wide-leaved
branch to give it oxygen, the twigs drying into flame in moments. The dry force
of heated vapour spread over the soaked foliage, the offering of firewood met
with a humble prayer and offering of tobacco. It was the old man's way.
"O' Gitchie Manitou, I thank and honour you for your gift of
fire and for the great four-legged offering, the antlers being there and kept
with honour and dignity as one hunter to another, for you are the Great God,
the Just God, the Father Spirit of us all. And you will punish asunder if one
trespasses or steps out of line with the signs bestowed unto each of us during
our Earth Walk. With respect. Amen."
The old man did not feel the dripping from his nose, or the
cold that had penetrated his left knee. He drew nearer and nearer to the fire
to keep his sinking temperature from falling too far. Klondike too moved so
close to the flame that part of its hindquarters singed against the maple
coals. In a whim the old man hugged his dog, firmly bringing it into his side,
arms holding tight, giving a few moments until heat was born. The rotweiller,
wide in stature, didn't move, holding its head high, neck muscles too big for a
dog. A small bear.
The fire came alive when he poked it, and he danced up and
down listening to the wildlife in the woods communicating in the
snakes-and-ladders of the prey-eat-prey world of Nature. The meat had been too
raw for his taste and it sat heavy in his stomach, thirsty for beer and starved
"Should've brought my bear skin, eh puppy?"
The old man stood leaning over the flame, feeling fleeting
warmth and rubbing his head, the bump from the curb still there like a ditch
along a road, dented by the hand of chance fluke, maltreated by rhyme and reason.
It still hurt, especially when he was thirsty. He didn't trust the run-off
water after the summer-long drought. Kept it to a minimum, sticking with his
own water bottle, kept it so he was just above fainting level. When he felt the
signs of passing out he would take a sip. It had become one of his numerous
dangerous little games. And yet it had kept him alive.
The old man could not ignore the signs all around him. His
epoch was one in a tide of prophecies about the coming of the end of
civilization and the return to the simpler ways of survival. He watched the
comet swoop down and create Hurricane Sandy in the perfect storm. He felt the
change in magnetic poles, the shift predicted by the Mayans, December 21st
being seven weeks away. Political upheaval and wars were the signs he saw but
no one listened, except maybe Corbière, and Klondike. He had it all locked up
there in that large frontal lobe, a Rotweiller Einstein with wobbly legs and a
good heart. ‘Best swimmer from here to the States.
These were the old man's thoughts when he first saw the
faint wisps of daylight hinting in the fog, low air heavy with moisture. It
smelled of coming snow. The old man favored his knee when he stood up.
"I should've brought the bigger knife," he said, finally
acknowledging that he still had not mastered the proper kit. "Ah but it is
human to err."
Washing his knife the first fisher struck, crawling out of
the brush behind the tree. He could hear the ripping of the flesh, efficient
like chainsaws, teeth sharp as a blades. He could not help it when he said:
"I'm sorry stag. What a rotten guard I am. The critters have taken their piece.
Their pound of flesh, the crumbs of our heroic deed. They have defamed
our hunt and took what was not theirs. I'm sorry I let them get you."
He swung the stick wildly at the fishers scurrying away from
the hanging carcass. He used the big rock to protect his ankles from being
bitten, a broken maple tree like a club when he struck the bravest scavengers,
high-pitched yelps alerting others to danger. When they stopped most of he
bottom shank was gone, fisher claw marks outlined on the raw meat of the leg.
"I should have hung you higher great stag," said the old
Mohawk, bruised but not defeated. And he spoke in Ojibwa.
It was a while before silence returned to the forest, the
fire brighter and the venison protected. He felt how his body hurt and that he
had gone out too far. That he should have left the fishers to have their meal,
and that he should have cut half and put it higher.
And later, just as he was about to open his eyes after the
first fight the fishers returned with raccoons in cahoots, tearing flesh from
above, using the upper branches as their route of attack. The carcass that was
left was only a testament to the stag's immense size, the meat now ripped and
useless except for some parts of one flank. He would take the entire animal
because he wanted to bury it honourably near the crick by his camper back on
Even skimping on the twine he barely had enough to complete
all points tightly, giving the apparatus flexibility and give. He put the trump
line around his forehead and dragged the maple poles and meat along the
limestone embankment across the river to the east. The rising sun burned the
fog in a zap, evaporation and perspiration in tandem hand in hand.
When he walked he could feel the sway of the antlers tied to
his shoulders, heavy and unforgiving against his shoulder blades, the extra
weight a terror to his knee. Aware of animals moving around him attracted by
the smell of exposed flesh pungent in the air. Klondike growled at raccoons
that held their ground when the old man passed, the dog letting the hackles up
to say stay back.
The sled was cumbersome but he pressed on knowing that if he
ditched the sled he would have to ditch a leg. The old man sensed it was a test
for his life. Was he worthy to be a man? To still be part of the grand play
that sang forever. Was his usefulness over? He was now only filler and fluff
for the pillows?
He smelled the bear shit immediately. Klondike rolled in it,
following some ancient instinct to show respect to the bear's territory,
honouring the trespass, taking as its smell that of the bear's marker.
The wild bit hard to remind of its supremacy, that it can
give and give not, and that what it does have can only be gotten with respect
to the laws of the wild and poise under pressure. The kill for the old Mohawk
must be made in the spirit of good sportsmanship and dignity for Nature. Bad
spirits must be kept at bay. The wooded house of mammals hummed to its own
drum, a sea of green branches wavering from the winds that skimmed atop the
When he needed help fate would step forward and he accepted
what the forest gave him, even when hardship was required but he didn't want to
be spread-eagled out here all alone. He concluded Klondike would hold tight
until Corbière found him a few days from now if he was to fall.
The old man collected birch bark when he came upon it,
Mother Nature's fire starter homed between chosen rocks. It's the same thing
that had always been done. If he didn't do it then someone else would.
Somewhere along the line the rules changed, and hunting was no longer a free
man's right. Restrictions and licenses had caused man's hunting instinct to
wane, now atrophied and forgotten. A rusted limb withering from its trunk. If
they make something out different to what it was, it had nothing to do with
him. They were the whims of human history, that mantelpiece of morality that
wove like a blanket below it all.
The dog offered its paw to be patted when he rested,
reassurance from the predators that stalked them. It was a sad dog like the
man, knowing of the tragedy of life's arc. With the smell of blood thick and
stirring in his guts, and an animal wild in its core, the dog looked for the
bear still untamed and unharnessed. The smell of bear in the air, they were
outsiders passing unknown turf.
Corbière whistled out of habit, a comforting bagpipe from
the lips, one of the few talents he possessed.
He had to be a cowboy, he thought to himself. It was the
only meaningful life. Did he have to make the kill? Couldn't he go to the
supermarket like everyone else? Why can he not see it is unnecessary to hunt
deer to feed his pot? He does not need to kill to eat. Had we not ascended from
that point in our evolution?
The forest was his brother's home, the safest place to be in
the world, where the trees and wind create a sanctuary, timeless yet evolving,
but to him it was a scary place where wild animals could rip you apart at any
moment. Keeping the wolves and wildlife away was his foremost thought,
intermingled with the sweat under his wool hat covered in wet snow that fell
softly. The thought that this entire foray was for his brother's life failed to
buoy his spirit. He knew the old man would welcome death while hunting as a
badge of honour, as an end worthy of the suffering he had endured by turning
his back on civilized life. He didn't want to face the truth that his brother
didn't care anymore. About anything. Except his ongoing relationship with
Glint off the antlers caught his eye from the sun coming up
from the mainland east of Georgian Bay. He knelt beside the deer, its head
rested on the rock, eyes slightly open, peace in its eyes. It had suffered
enough. It was a good fight, just and valiant. Nature implored him to face the
truths of her hardships, an unfolding fascination of brutality, like the
mushrooms that fed the animals before they were taken down by the foxes and
The thought scared the old Mohawk so he did not give it his
attention but he knew it was there inside him, filed away and forbidden. He
thought of the bear and the possibility some might still scrounging for their
cave and might have sampled bear root, the medicine of choice for its
hibernation. A stoned black bear can be an aggressive interchange.
"I don't want help," he said. It was the old man's code. He
was a man who always stepped forward to bear the brunt of incident if danger
threatened. "I don't want no one making up my mind that's all. That's the thing
Klondike. I want to do my own thing. Just because some say things are a certain
way now is beyond my control, so I have my retreat to the land of spruce and
peregrine hawks and the hum of balance."
To follow an easier tack due east the old man took a
different opening through the trees to a back way along the ridge that was the
high point of the Great Lakes, the rock sticking out from the thin soil. The
denser foliage was slower going but he was able to avoid the steep rocks at the
foothills of the ridge climb.
When the sun had set the old man left the flashlight on for
a while, establishing himself by the cedar patch, making sure there were no
rodent homes nearby. He laid down with his knee raised, throbbing on both bone
ends, the reminder of age wear and tear like a calling card to give up, loosen
his shoulders and let the cold in. The water he drank chilled him to the bone
but he had to take some. Klondike fell on top of him and then pushed against
his body in the cold, rotweiller determined to maximize heat. He only needed
twenty minutes. He didn't think the bear would be so high up on the escarpment.
Last thing he remembered were the fluffy snowflakes landing on his nose.
When he nodded off the landscapes were of South America in
the Andes, tough mountainsides of trees woven like a tweed jacket after
millennia of equatorial rains. In his dreams he saw Guevara-Lynch again, ground
man and front man trooper. Leaving behind the United Nations to the
politicians, Che went into the lush greens of deep river valleys where few men
had ever been. They shared an eye for what was good and strong and gave power
and what was just fluff. Before his eyes opened he was aware that Ernesto had
touched many people's lives, but that his own life had not touched many, except
for his ancestor spirits who watched over him.
His totem medicines were an added layer of defence stashed
in his medicine bundle on his hip.
Klondike groaned when the old man arose, sensing urgency to
reach safety and the comforts of his modern teepee. He looked east and found
what he hoped to see at the highest peak in the entire Great Lakes, the lookout
point. From where he was in the bush he was over four hours to the reservation.
Urinating in a bear's territory is some times a necessary
risk. When the old Mohawk heard the snap of a twig he knew it explained the
smell, thick with odour from the caked fur. When he saw the bear he backed up,
leaving his penis dangling for a moment, posture slightly bowed. Klondike
growled just in front of him, stance spread and hackles up. This dog, part
rotweiller part bear, knew its foe, a young male looking for some meat for his pot.
It was tired of salmon. On its hind legs said he wasn't going to be bullied,
rolling its head and shoulder muscles. Klondike barked and went for the bear.
The bear swatted Klondike on the shoulder but not before
finding purchase in the thick rolls of skin around the bear's neck, jaws
tightening on the folds, the dog's body dangling from it before the bear
smacked it down and fell on top of Klondike, the leg cracking like a branch of
an old tree. He heard the yelp from the sounds the two bodies made, the old man
walking backwards holding out his hand.
"Klondike!" For a moment the dog didn't move, the bear
standing over the dog, arms stopped from cutting more flesh from the
rotweiller. The bear looked at the old man and smelled the stag's meat freshly cut
by the incisors of wild animals. The dog struggled to its feet hopping on three
legs, simpering into the bushes and back to the old man. But instead of leaving
the venison for the bear the old Mohawk took it over his shoulder with his bag
and crossbow. He pondered shooting the bear but remembered the bow was a feeble
weapon against such a predator.
Corbière heard barking across the field of ferns from the
forest to the west and saw him lying on his stomach at the entrance to the
reservation, Klondike beside him on guard. His posture was sharp, as if
something had broken in his chest, his colour white like his hair, the silver
no longer there.
Hearing the dog, Corbière's wife looked out the window from
the kitchen to see the skeleton of the stag just inside the grass line her
bottom lip fell. Her hand went to her chest when she saw the old man lying
beside the deer carcass and his dog lying beside him, tired and wet. A tear
came to her eye, not from knowing of his state but from the beauty of how it
all fit together, as if the pieces interlocked creating a postcard image, of
man and his most loyal friend and the spoils of the hunt.
Corbière arrived with coffee and doughnuts but the old man
did not sit up, instead sipped his coffee at an angle. It did not look like he
could crawl. Spent like an arrow, the old Mohawk lay with a smile, happy to be
in this moment.
"You're a swell sport Klondike. Good doggie."
"Beautiful country around here." Corbière saw that his
brother could not bend his left knee.
"You been to the escarpment? To the bluff?" The older
brother squinted, head lulling back to look at the blue sky.
"Not since that time." They both remembered the time and the
near-death experience after losing their way after an early nightfall. So often
when they were together they faced events caused by extremist behaviour, as if
between brothers only reaching the extreme was a fruitful experience. And
always Corbière's wineskin. Cold and red like grape juice, dry and refreshing.
The old man always had the flashlight and Corbière had the compass, and somehow
between them had enough to squeak through. He had always thirsted for the edge,
slow and gutsy, his broken face healed but still felt by unmended nerves.