By Anel Viz
~ 1 ~
He was a fur trapper, one of the best. People at Lower Fort Garry called him “the Frenchman”. They thought he was my friend because I’d been to his cabin and let him sleep in my room when he came to town. He wasn’t. I barely knew him; he kept tight as a clam and didn’t say much about anything, least of all about himself. He started to open up a bit after the half-breed came to live with him, the one he called Corniaud. I didn’t even know his name until I found the note he left. I speak a little French, not enough to carry on a real conversation, and I can’t read it, so I didn’t understand what he’d written. But what he’d scribbled at the bottom of the page was obviously his signature and his name was – had been – Pierre Charcut.
I brought the note to Dr. Burnham, who translated it for me. “This is crazy,” he said, “makes no sense at all. No way of telling what that Frenchman’s talking about.” But I understood.
Though the Frenchman never told me his name, he must have known mine, must have heard people call me by it, but I can’t remember him using it when he spoke to me. He didn’t use names at all. To him everyone was “you” or “he” or “she”, sometimes with a description like “the tall one” or “the one with the broken nose” so you’d know which “he” he meant. Corniaud was the exception, and of course that was just what the Frenchman called him, not his real name, his Indian name.
Corniaud called the Frenchman “Miishaakozhe”. They didn’t say much to each other. When they did, it was hard to follow what they were saying because they spoke a mixture of French, English and an Indian language the Frenchman said was Ojibwe. They may have talked more when they were alone together, but I doubt it. As if starved for conversation, Corniaud couldn’t shut up when I was with them, although speaking English was a struggle for him.
I asked Corniaud about the name he’d given the Frenchman. He said it meant hairy body, a good description, I thought, not that I ever saw more of him than his head: the shaggy, dark shoulder-length mane, bushy eyebrows and thick beard. His hairy hands, too. Only Corniaud knew what he looked like under his buckskins. They were lovers, after all. He didn’t keep Corniaud with him just to talk. If other people suspected, they kept it to themselves, as did I, who knew it for a fact. It neither embarrassed nor disgusted me that they slept together. Who’s to say I wouldn’t have done the same if I were in his place? Even a loner like the Frenchman can’t live without sex.
I don’t think it was by choice he lived with a boy instead of a woman. The Frenchman was not the kind of person who actively seeks companionship. No white woman would have had him even if he lived in town, and I couldn’t imagine he’d have thought it worth the trouble to haggle for a squaw. Corniaud fell into his lap by chance, and the arrangement suited him.
Since Corniaud was half or three-quarters Indian, his skin was smooth as a woman’s. He often went shirtless in hot weather, and his hair hung over his shoulders in two thick braids. It isn’t easy to judge an Indian’s age, but I’d guess he was under twenty. He had a compact, muscular body and cut a handsome figure in spite of the ugly scars that covered his left upper arm and half his back. Though only an inch or so below average height, he looked tiny standing next to the burly, six-and-a-half-foot Frenchman. His slim hips and narrow shoulders reinforced that impression.
The Hudson’s Bay Company sent me to work at their general store at Lower Fort Garry when it was built to replace Upper Garry a few years after the flood. I met the Frenchman when I’d been there about a month. He rode his horse, Crins-épars – the only creature beside Corniaud he called by name – to the fort no more than two or three times a year, and, instead of trading directly with the Company, he sold his furs to anyone who paid cash and used the money to buy supplies at the Company store.
The Frenchman was crouched by the counter bundling up his purchases. I turned back to Joshua Gallingay and apologized again. The new stove he’d ordered hadn’t arrived on schedule. “It’ll be in the next shipment. You can count on it,” I said. “Should be here in about two weeks.”
“Won’t do no good. Can’t come to town that soon. Gotta be home to tend the farm.”
“Then I’ll get someone to bring it out in the wagon. Do it myself if I have to.”
The Frenchman looked up. “You make deliveries?” he asked.
“Sometimes. Nothing regular.”
“Depends on what we’re delivering.”
“Well, I need more than my horse can carry, and I ain’t big on coming here unless I got plenty to trade. I’ll make you a list and you can cart it out when you bring them their stove. I’ll pay.”
“Tell me where you live.”
“Out by the lake, none too far from where you’ll be taking the stove. I’ll meet you at their farm. No way you can drive a wagon all the way to my cabin.”
“That okay with you?” I asked Gallingay.
He nodded. “My place ain’t hard to find. No more than half a day away in a wagon. If you set out early enough, you’ll be back before dark.”
The Frenchman ignored him, didn’t even thank him. “Just tell me when you’ll be coming by,” he said to me. “Can’t be hanging around waiting for you day after day.”
“Let’s make it a month from now. That way we can be sure it gets here and I’ll be able to make time for the trip.”
While Gallingay was explaining how to get to his farm, the Frenchman wrote down what he wanted from the store. I told him it looked like more than one horseload.
“Won’t have to come in for another year,” he grunted. “How much?”
I told him, and he paid in advance.
“Why don’t you throw in a barrel of beer for me, too, while you’re at it?” Gallingay said after the Frenchman had gone. “Make it two.”
“With the stove and those barrels of beer, I’d have to hitch the wagon to an ox. Won’t be able to make it there and back in a day.”
“Then you can spend the night with us. We got room.”
I reached the Gallingays’ homestead early in the evening. What they called a farm was no more than a cow, three pigs in a sty, a half-dozen chickens, a small vegetable patch, and a half-acre cornfield. Only the sty had a fence around it. The house, however, was bigger than I expected, with an upstairs and two bedrooms. They had three children and were expecting another.
The Frenchman wasn’t there waiting for me as promised. Gallingay saw no reason for me to stay until he arrived. “We’ll store what he bought in my woodshed,” he said. “He’ll stop by when he gets the chance.”
“He live far from here?” Distance doesn’t mean the same thing to a trapper that it does to other people.
“Don’t know where he lives. Nobody does.”
Mrs. Gallingay, a métis, probably never got to leave the farm and was happy to have a guest. She cooked us a fine supper, better than anything they served at the fort’s canteen, where I ate most of my meals. As soon as we’d finished, she put their three children to sleep in the same bed so I’d have one to myself, and I went outside to smoke a pipe with Gallingay while she washed the dishes. I turned in early. I wanted to get on the road at the crack of dawn.
I found the Frenchman leaning on the side of the house when I awoke. A scrawny, reddish-brown cow stood chewing the cud a short way off. “Where’s my stuff?” he asked.
There was, as I had told him, twice as much as his horse could carry unless he walked alongside it. “Can’t lug it all home by myself,” he said.
“That your cow?” I’d never heard of a trapper owning a cow. What would he do with her?
“Bought her for my wife. Then she died. Nine years ago last winter.”
Cow or no cow, I found it hard to believe any woman would marry the Frenchman and live alone with him in the woods, miles away from the nearest human habitation. “Sorry for your loss,” I said. I pointed to the cow. “You can put it on her back.”
“My cow ain’t no beast of burden. Anyway, she’s staying here.”
“Then you’ll have to make two trips.”
“Can’t. Gotta check my traps. You ride with me. I’ll pay.”
“I don’t have a horse.” Didn’t he see the ox standing by my wagon?
“We’ll borrow one of Gallingay’s.”
“I couldn’t ask him that.”
“I will. He’ll let us have it. I’ll pay him for it.”
Gallingay had heard us talking and stepped out of the house. “See you brought your cow,” he said.
The Frenchman nodded. “That’s why I’m late. Cow slowed me down. You’ll bring her to Jamison for breeding.” It was more a statement than a request for a favor.
“Mine ain’t in season yet.”
“Will be soon now that mine’s with her.”
I was growing impatient to hand over the supplies. Breeding his cow didn’t concern me. “It’s a long way back to the fort, you know. I don’t want to impose on the Gallingays’ hospitality a second night.”
“Ain’t no trouble. You’re more than welcome,” Gallingay assured me. I figured he’d prefer to get the Frenchman’s things out of his woodshed than have to see him again twice, first for his supplies and then to get his the cow.
“He can sleep in my cabin tonight,” the Frenchman said. “It’ll take the better part of the day to get there, anyway.”
“But that’ll make three nights away from my job!”
“I said I’d pay. Enough for you to earn a little extra and return your wages to your boss for the days you missed.”
“I don’t think I should…”
Before I finished my sentence, the Frenchman had untied a leather pouch from his belt and counted out more than I earned in a month. He obviously had no idea what the Hudson’s Bay Company paid its clerks. Then he tossed Gallingay a silver dollar for the use of his horse and said, “Let’s get started.”
I pocketed the money and followed him to the woodshed.
The Frenchman didn’t say another word to me until we reached his cabin late that afternoon. I tried to make conversation, but he wouldn’t even grunt an answer. I gave up and passed the time humming to myself.
He had built his cabin on a rise, in a stand of pines. It stood in a space not much larger than what he had cleared chopping down the trees to build it. I saw a smoke house a short distance off in the woods. The trees were widely spaced, and grass grew among the pine needles that carpeted the ground between them. The cabin itself was small but comfortable, a single room with a stone fireplace and a sleeping loft high on one side. A fortune’s worth of pelts lay piled on two racks underneath the loft. There was a glass-paned window with wooden shutters near the fireplace and, across from the loft, another door led to a stable for the Frenchman’s cow and Crins-épars. “Room enough in there for Gallingay’s mare even if the cow was with us,” he said, breaking the silence. “Help me get my wares in the cabin. I’ll pay.”
“You’ve paid me enough already.”
He eyed me as if I had offended him, or perhaps he was concerned he had given me too much, which he had. “Then you do it. I’ll take a look at some of the traps I laid out yesterday. Stable the horses if I ain’t back by dark.”
“What about supper?” My stomach was growling.
“There’s biscuits.” He pointed to a cupboard. I must have looked alarmed, because he added, “There’ll be plenty to eat. I’ll cook when I come back.” He cleared his throat. “Squirrel good enough for you?”
“You sure? ’Cause if you ain’t, you can go catch us some fish. Lake’s that way.” He jerked his head to one side to show me where the lake was and pointed to a pole in the corner.
“Thanks. Squirrel’s good.”
Then he shouldered his rifle and headed off to the woods.
The traps must have been empty, because he returned in less than two hours with four freshly killed squirrels and nothing else. He skinned, cleaned and spitted them two on a stick, and we roasted them over a fire in front of the cabin since it was too warm to light one inside. He buried a few small wrinkled potatoes in the embers to eat with them.
The Frenchman didn’t have a table. We sat on stools and wolfed down our supper from tin plates balanced on our laps, taking swigs from a jug of his homemade whisky. Then he spread a pile of furs in front of the fireplace, said, “You sleep here,” and climbed into the loft.
“You sleep here” were the last words I heard him speak until he returned to the fort the following spring. He saw me off without so much as asking if I could find my way to the Gallingays’. I did, but I probably wouldn’t have had it not been for their horse’s homing instinct. More than once, I was sure I’d gotten hopelessly lost.
~ 2 ~
I returned home by way of the Gallingays’ and spent another night with them. The two cows were tied together and looked glad for the company. Gallingay explained the story behind the Frenchman’s cow.
He brought her to them every other year to be covered. If she calved a heifer, he gave it to the Gallingays as payment; if a bull, they slaughtered it and split the carcass. All his talk about “I’ll pay” had made me think he was a miser. In fact, he made very free with his money. “That’s mighty generous of him,” I said.
Instead of seconding my observation, Gallingay said, “Must like his milk.”
The more I learned about the Frenchman, the more he intrigued me. He was back at the fort for supplies and to sell his furs in late spring and again at the end of summer. The second time, Crins-épars was burdened with so many pelts he had to walk beside it. The next spring, he came early, before all the snow had melted, and with much less to sell.
“I may want you to deliver what I’ll need for winter,” he told me. “Not sure I’ll be back. Don’t want to leave the cabin.”
“I’m sorry. That’s impossible.”
“I couldn’t find my way back there, not in a million years.”
“I’ll draw you a map. I made a list. Two lists for two trips. Your horse won’t be able to carry everything I need and you too. I’ll pay for the stuff in advance.”
“Can’t you come yourself?”
“On what?” He glared at me as if my question intruded on his privacy. “Depends on what?” I repeated.
I could see my persistence annoyed him, but he was determined to make me agree. He mulled it over a while and then launched into the longest string of sentences I’d ever heard come from his lips.
“Some bastard’s been stealing from my traps. I mean to catch him and put a bullet in his skull. Tracking him won’t be easy, and I ain’t leaving the cabin till I get him. Could take all summer. If I ain’t here by the end of July, you bring the first load. If I ain’t here by the middle of September, bring the second.”
“I could take an extra horse with me and only make one trip.”
He thought it over and shook his head. “No. If I catch him, I’ll want to come to town to trade what I’ve trapped.”
So the last week in July, I set out for the Frenchman’s cabin with his map and a load of supplies.
The place was deserted. Everything looked the same, except he had built himself a table since the last time I’d been there. I looked in the stable. The Frenchman had locked the cow and Crins-épars inside and gone off on foot; I had no idea for how long. The fishing pole was still in the corner. I took it and went to the lake to catch my supper.
He had returned when I got back. He nodded approvingly at the fish. “Got everything on the list?” he asked.
“On the first list. You catch the thief?”
“Not yet. He’s still at it.” He pointed to the much diminished pile of furs beneath the loft, took the fish from me, and set about cleaning them.
He was brooding and spoke even less on that visit than the one before. I was glad to get away in the morning, and made up my mind that if I had to come again, I’d bring a book. To spend a day saying nothing in someone’s company is worse than the silence of being alone.
When I left, he handed me a third list and told me to bring two horses the next time I came. “Know how much it’ll come to?” he asked.
“I couldn’t say.”
“How about ten dollars down?”
“Might not come to that much.”
“The store can pay me back if I make it to town.”
The weather turned cold and rainy at the end of August. Everyone said winter would come early. The Frenchman had not returned, and I thought it best to bring him his supplies before it snowed. I waited for the rain to stop and then spent all day assembling everything he’d asked for, and then deciding what to leave behind when I realized it wouldn’t all fit on two horses unless I walked. Walking could take three days, and I had no intention of camping along the way.
The cold spell broke during the night, and by noon it was blazing hot. This was my third trip, so I only had to consult the map occasionally and made good time.
The first thing that caught my eye was what I least expected to find there: an Indian boy, or perhaps a young man, squatting in the clearing, barefoot and shirtless in buckskin breeches. He smiled shyly at me.
“I brought supplies,” I said. He nodded and smiled again. “The Frenchman around?”
He looked puzzled at first, then smiled a third time and answered, “Miishaakozhe come tonight.”
I introduced myself: “Randall.”
He helped me carry what I’d brought into the house. Then he asked, “We go lake?”
“Fish for supper?”
“Swim. Very hot. We have venison.”
I’d been sweating, and the salt caked on my skin attracted a swarm of flies and mosquitoes. A swim sounded good.
We walked the quarter-mile down to the lake. I could tell he wanted to talk but was too shy to start. His shyness looked almost like flirting.
“You’re leaving the animals outside?” I asked. I assumed the Frenchman had had him come to guard them while he was away.
“Cabin not far. Hear if scared.” Then he pointed to a white cloth bag hanging in the shade from a branch, well out of easy reach and exposed to the breeze coming off the lake. “Miishaakozhe make cheese,” he said, and rubbed his belly to show he considered it a delicacy.
“How do you know the Frenchman? You live close by?”
His answer surprised me more than finding him at the cabin. “Here. With Miishaakozhe.”
“Soon one moon.”
His shyness didn’t stop him from stripping naked when we got to the lake. His body was so perfect I found myself staring. So as not to give him the wrong idea, I pointed questioningly at his half-healed wounds that were beginning to scar.
“Wolf,” he said, “very big.” He closed his hand in a fist in front of his navel and abruptly jerked it up to the top of his breastbone, gesturing that he had slit the animal’s belly. To make sure I’d understood, I asked, “You killed it?”
He nodded and smiled proudly.
“You hunt wolves?”
“Wolf hunt Corniaud. You swim too?” I hadn’t removed a single article of clothing, not even my shoes.
He watched intently as I undressed. “Not like Miishaakozhe,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“Hair. More like me.”
More like him? That would make the Frenchman very furry indeed. My legs and forearms are moderately hairy, and there’s a little on my chest. On the other hand, it’s less noticeable because I’m blond.
I laughed. “You were wondering if all white men are as hairy as the Frenchman. I don’t know how hairy he is, but I suspect they aren’t.”
“We’re all different, but yes, like me.”
He ran into the water. I felt relieved his curiosity was confined to my body hair. All in all, I was glad the Frenchman wasn’t living alone and I wouldn’t have to rely on my book to keep my mind occupied.
We stayed at the lake for about an hour. The Frenchman had returned while we were swimming. He spoke sharply to Corniaud in simple French. “Pas de feu? Où étais-tu?”
He answered in English, I think out of consideration for me. “Lake. Not long. Corniaud cook now.”
The Frenchman waited for the boy to start working. Only then did he acknowledge me. “You came early.”
“I thought winter had come.”
He snorted at my stupidity and asked, “Bring everything?”
“Most of it. Everything I could fit on the horses.”
“I’ll buy the other horse, the gelding.” He jerked his head in Corniaud’s direction. “For him. Can you sell it? Is it yours?”
“I think so. It’s the Company’s.”
“They’ll sell. Name?”
“Mascot. You catch your thief?”
“No, only him. But it’s stopped. Can’t be sure it’s forever.”
“You found Corniaud?”
“I found him. Mangled and half-dead in the woods with a dead wolf next to him. You see that skin stretched on the frame outside?”
I had. It was enormous. “It’ll fetch a good price,” I said.
“Ain’t mine to sell. Corniaud killed him. He’ll wear it in winter. Right, Corniaud?”
Corniaud looked up at us and smiled.
“Found him lying just a few yards from one of my traps,” the Frenchman continued. “It’d been sprung, but he didn’t do it. There was no blood on it, so nothing had been taken.”
“A lone wolf won’t attack a grown man, not unless it’s rabid, ” I said. “People say it happens sometimes, but if you ask me, that’s just talk.”
The Frenchman cast an odd glance in Corniaud’s direction and said, “Might if it felt threatened.”
I looked at Corniaud. “Felt threatened by that boy?” I exclaimed. Had he set out to kill a wolf with his bare hands as some kind of rite of passage? But he’d told me the wolf was the hunter.
“Corniaud showed him who was boss.”
Of all the things the Frenchman had told me, that made the least sense, but he seemed to have volunteered all the information he was going to, and Corniaud’s English wasn’t good enough to tell the whole story. “And he’s been here ever since?” I asked.
The Frenchman shrugged. “Wasn’t that long ago.”
It wasn’t much of an answer, but what the Frenchman had said about Corniaud wearing the pelt in winter and the way he’d said it gave me the impression he’d stay on. “Where’s he from?” I asked.
“He ain’t telling. Not Assiniboine.”
I thought it more likely the Frenchman hadn’t asked and didn’t care. The boy had been fairly open with me. He didn’t strike me as the kind to hold back information.
The French said nothing for about ten minutes. Then he asked, “What didn’t you bring?”
I gave him the list. “What isn’t crossed out.”
He looked at it and said, “I’ll come for it myself in October if nothing’s gone missing from my traps. Gonna need more anyway. For Corniaud.”
“You could send him.”
“To sell my furs? He wouldn’t know what they’re worth.”
We ate supper in silence. Corniaud seemed in the mood to talk, but the Frenchman made it clear he wasn’t interested in listening to conversation. He made a bed of furs for me by the fireplace while the boy was washing the plates. “You owe me,” he said. “I’ll stay with you if I come.”
“I only have one room. It’s not very big.”
“Don’t matter. I’ll have my pelts to sleep on.”
I lay down to sleep. The Frenchman lit a pipe and sat up smoking until Corniaud had finished his chores. Then he climbed into the loft. The boy followed.
The Frenchman didn’t even wait for me to fall asleep. The noises started almost immediately. I knew what they were up to. Not exactly, of course, but more or less, and it was easy to tell who made which sounds. The muffled grunts were the Frenchman’s, the whimpers and sighs came from Corniaud.
I could hear that, for the most part, the boy liked what was being done to him. At one point, he stifled a yelp, but after that his moans of pleasure became more insistent and more frequent. The loft began to jiggle and the pace increased. The Frenchman was breathing heavily. They had my full attention. I was in no rush for them to stop so I could go to sleep.
Soon it was over. The Frenchman gave a loud, throaty gurgle and Corniaud emitted a long-drawn humming sound like a whine. Then all was quiet.
A few minutes later, Corniaud began to whimper, a different kind of whimper from when they were having sex. He sounded frightened. The Frenchman cursed and slapped him hard.
“Pardon,” the boy whispered.
The Frenchman cursed again. I heard nothing more.
At first light, the Frenchman threw some dried fish and pemmican cakes into a sack, grabbed his rifle, and stalked off into the forest. Corniaud came down from the loft and stoked the fire. I was relieved not to see any bruises. I’d been worried that the Frenchman had roughed him up.
I made ready to leave. “You stay,” he said. It was an invitation, not an order.
“I can’t. I have to get back.”
“Did he hurt you?”
Corniaud shook his head. “My fault.”
How was it his fault? If the Frenchman felt guilty about having sex with a man, he had only himself to blame. “I don’t believe it,” I said. “What did you do wrong?”
His answer came in a broken whisper. “Stuck.”
“Stuck? What’s that supposed to mean?”
He blushed crimson. “Miishaakozhe. Inside me.” He hung his head.
It took a moment before it to hit me. It seemed unreal, it was so improbable. Had his backside gone into spasm? Could the Frenchman’s penis really be that big? But what else could he have meant? “You’re joking,” I said.
Without looking up, he mumbled, “Not first time.” It sounded like a confession I had wrung from his breast.
He quickly raised his head. “Pas toujours.”
I tried to reassure him. It could be he felt tense because I was there to overhear them. He looked at me in astonishment, unable to grasp why my presence should have made a difference.
I didn’t try to explain. In his village, people must have been able to hear everything that went on in their neighbors’ birchbark huts, and while it isn’t common practice, Indians see nothing shameful in two men having sex with each other. As far as he knew, it was the same for white men.
“My fault,” he repeated.
It had happened to me once with a whore many years ago, before I was assigned to the new fort. Her vagina had clamped tight around me and wouldn’t let go. It spooked me, but what could I do? She was more panicked than me, and I began kissing her so she’d calm down, first her neck, then her breasts. She relaxed, but now I was hard again, so I took her a second time and pulled out easily when I’d finished.
A vagina is nothing like an arsehole, however. How big was the Frenchman, anyway? I thought it indiscreet to ask. Instead, I suggested it might have been caused by the position they did it in.
“Always same,” he said and tried to explain how they coupled, but couldn’t find the English or French words. “Corniaud,” he said and got down on all fours, his head pressed to the ground and his rump pushed up high. Then, still on his knees he raised his body and thrust his hips back and forth: “Miishaakozhe.” Finally, he imitated the Frenchman trying to pull free of him. He rubbed his buttocks. “Hurt bad.”
I made light of it. “Well, he wasn’t stuck there forever, was he?” The boy forced a smile. “He was right where he wanted to be,” I continued. “Why be in such a hurry to leave?”
He cheered up immediately. “Corniaud not pressé. Feel good.”
“Good. Now breakfast. Déjeuner.”
~ 3 ~
Corniaud hadn’t stinted on the details of his couplings with the Frenchman; he’d told more than I cared to know. For Indians, sex is a natural human activity like any other, but they don’t go about parading it in front of anyone who’ll listen. Corniaud’s frankness was more than unusual; it was downright bizarre. He’d shown no sign of wanting to seduce me. Perhaps the Frenchman belittled him when he got stuck, and the boy needed to get it off his chest. But Indians are stoics. The one thing they do hide is their emotions. Corniaud was young, but he wasn’t a child. He had his pride and, under normal circumstances, would not have bared his soul to his own people, much less a stranger. I could make neither head nor tail of it.
I made up my mind to make deliveries whenever the Frenchman wanted. I’d do more. He’d be coming to Fort Garry in a month. When he came, I’d volunteer. So I could see Corniaud again. Already I thought of him as my friend, the difficulty of communicating notwithstanding
Only three weeks later, the two of them walked into the general store on a Saturday evening just as we were closing. When the manager shooed them out, the Frenchman grumbled about a day wasted. The Governor made a display of his Christian principles, and the Company conducted no business on Sundays.
Corniaud didn’t hide that he was happy to see me and excited by his first visit to a white man’s fort. I said I had not expected him to come too.
“I brought him so he could choose a rifle,” the Frenchman said.
“That will have to wait until Monday. We’ll put your furs in my room and then go to the canteen for supper. I don’t have a kitchen.”
Predictably, the Frenchman said, “I’ll pay. For Corniaud, too.”
Corniaud’s English was still very limited, but his French had become more proficient than mine in the three weeks since I’d seen him. The men didn’t like having an Indian at the canteen. He was, of course, a métis, but, as far as I could tell, no white men had had a hand in his upbringing. Since he was affable and polite – he made a point of calling me Mr. Randall while we were there – nobody objected openly. Some found it amusing that he was unabashed at being the only Indian there; others resented his not knowing his place, and it showed. Corniaud seemed not to notice.
We had a whole day before the Frenchman could buy what he needed. I told Corniaud I’d show him around town. “We can even ride to Upper Garry. They rebuilt it last summer. There’ll be time. It isn’t far.”
The Frenchman said he’d spend the day at the saloon. That, too, would be closed.
“You have whisky?”
“Then I’ll stay here and drink it. I’ll pay.”
We spread out furs for their bed. Corniaud quickly took off all his clothes and lay down. He looked disappointed when the Frenchman kept his on. He may not have minded having sex within earshot of me, but of course he wouldn’t mount Corniaud where I could see them.
We left the Frenchman in my room and went out to explore the fort and the small settlement around it, stopping at the canteen for coffee. There was nothing to explore, really, not on a Sunday with everything closed except the church, but for Corniaud it was an exploration. We spoke in French.
I thought it best not to bring him to church. The service might last two hours or more, he would not be able to follow the prayers, much less the sermon, since it was all in English, and once inside, we would not be able to leave until it had ended. Instead, we went first to Upper Fort Garry. People would be up and about when we got back, and there would be more for him to see than empty streets. It didn’t matter that we would miss lunch at the canteen. We could still find something to eat there mid-afternoon, though not a full meal.
We had had a dry summer, and it was a dusty ride. On our way back, I suggested we wash off in the river. It wasn’t what one would call a warm day, but there was no wind and it was too early for the water to have turned cold. The river was low, so we could walk out on the sandy bank away from the mosquitoes. Better that than toting pails of water up to my room for three men to bathe crowded together in such a tiny space.
I hadn’t paid attention when Corniaud undressed the night before. I didn’t want the Frenchman to catch me staring. Seeing him naked in the bright afternoon light, I was again struck by how handsome he looked – lean and perfectly proportioned, his movements graceful, his burnished skin unblemished except where the wolf had mauled him. His buttocks were as smooth as ripe plums. I thought of the use the Frenchman made of his bottom, and, knowing it wouldn’t embarrass him, I asked if he still got stuck sometimes. What I really wanted to know was how they were getting along, but Corniaud had never spoken of any aspect of their relationship besides the sexual connection.
His face clouded over. “Toujours. Il ne m’encule plus souvent comme au début.”
I didn’t understand the word. He acted out what it meant – buggering. He went on to explain that now he mostly pleasured the Frenchman with his mouth. “Miishaakozhe doesn’t like it as much,” he said in French. “It’s not what he wants.”
“Do you like it?”
I only wanted a simple yes or no. He astounded me by going into graphic detail.
“Not so much sucking, but I like licking him, licking all over his body. Miishaakozhe doesn’t let me. ‘You’re like a dog,’ he says. Corniaud is a dog.”
It occurred to me dogs also get stuck together when they mate. I hoped that thought hadn’t crossed his mind. “You’re not a dog, Corniaud,” I said.
“My name. Corniaud means dog.”
My French vocabulary was growing. “And what about you?” I asked.
“I want him to be happy.”
“No, I meant…” I had to switch to English. “Do you get to ejaculate?”
He didn’t know the word. It was my turn to show him what it meant using my hands.
“Yes, when he takes me from behind, always.”
In other words, the Frenchman only cared for his own pleasure. “Do you love him?” I asked.
“I live in his cabin. He found me. I belong to Miishaakozhe,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Did the Frenchman see him only as a plaything to satisfy his lust? Surely there was more to it than that. They must have talked about other things besides sex, talked a lot, for Corniaud to have learned so much French so quickly. I was afraid of turning him against his Miishaakozhe if I pressed the point. The Frenchman had saved his life. I had no right to interfere.
“Let’s get back to the fort,” I said.
After we’d eaten something at the canteen, I showed him what little Lower Fort Garry had to offer. Quite a few people were up and about, enjoying the autumn sunshine before the cold drove them indoors for the long winter. I asked Corniaud what he thought of the white man’s settlement. I felt like a tour guide.
“Big,” he said. What would he think if he saw a real city?
The Frenchman did not show up at the canteen for supper. We found him sprawled across my bed in a drunken stupor, an empty whisky bottle in his hand, and snoring like a locomotive.
“Is he often like this?” I asked Corniaud.
He imitated his snoring to ask if that was what I’d meant. I shook my head and played at being drunk.
“No, Miishaakozhe works hard. Always in the forest hunting.”
“Do you go with him?”
“No, I take care of the cabin while he’s gone.”
So Corniaud did more than just provide sex. He was also a servant. “He comes back every night?” I asked.
“No. Two, three days, a week. Sometimes longer.”
“And when he’s home…?”
“He doesn’t get drunk. A glass of whisky, maybe two. Here there was nothing for him to do. I’m sorry. Now where will you sleep?”
“On the floor with you.”
We spread the pelts and lay down in our clothes. Corniaud had told me the Frenchman didn’t drink heavily, but not what he did when he was at the cabin. I asked again, hoping that their living arrangements were advantageous to him, too, and his answer would set my mind at rest.
“Very tired. He has traps everywhere and a lot to carry. He eats; we go to bed.”
“And what do you do?”
“I make him feel good.”
“No, when he’s gone for days and you’re by yourself.”
“Fish, swim, ride my horse, shoot birds—”
“Wouldn’t you like to live where there are other people?”
“Here? With you?”
“Not with me, but maybe here… Or with your own people.”
“Not here. I don’t like how white people look at me. Not you, not Miishaakozhe. The others. Like this.”
He sat up to show me. He lowered his chin and turned his head to one side. I couldn’t see his eyes in the dark, but I knew what he meant: with suspicion. I wish I could have told him it was because they didn’t know him, but that wouldn’t have been honest. They didn’t look at strangers that way, only Indians.
“Not you,” he’d said, and he’d asked “With you?” when I’d talked about living where there were other people. Would he leave the Frenchman to be with me? He seemed to like me more. But what would I do with him? Where would I put him? At least the Frenchman found him useful. To me he would be a burden.
And yet I didn’t want him to leave. The Frenchman spent the morning buying what he needed; then the three of us had lunch at the canteen. The Frenchman wanted to pay me for the meals Corniaud had eaten and he had missed. I refused to take his money.
“For the room, then.”
“I didn’t pay you for your hospitality.”
He wanted to leave right away. “Shouldn’t you stay another night?” I asked. “You won’t reach the cabin till late tomorrow.” Both horses were loaded with what he’d bought. They would be on foot.
“It’s not that cold. We’ll sleep in the woods.”
“You have enough to last the winter? I can ride there with more if you make a list.”
“Then I’ll see you in spring.”
He nodded and turned to go. Corniaud followed. When he’d gone a few paces, he looked back and called out, “Au revoir.”
When I told the Frenchmen I’d see him in spring, I’d said vous, meaning I’d see them in spring, both him and Corniaud, but when the Frenchman returned to Lower Fort Garry, he came alone.
“Isn’t Corniaud with you?” I asked.
He looked at me as if he were thinking, Do you see him here? You aren’t blind.
“Why didn’t you bring him?”
“Wolves. All winter, prowling around the cabin. I shot three of them. Big ones.” He showed me the pelts.
“They kept coming back anyway. Still are. Probably will as long as there’s snow on the ground. The cow.”
I thought for a moment that he had changed the subject. Then I realized what he meant. “Won’t she be safe in the stable? They can’t break into it, can they?”
“Oh. And how’s Corniaud doing?”
Suddenly he was full of information and didn’t hold back. He leaned in to me and whispered conspiratorially, “Strange. When the wolves are about, he stays up all night listening to them.”
“It’s the howling. It keeps him awake.”
“When you hear them howl, it’s from far away. They don’t howl when they’re near the cabin. Can’t hear them at all. You just feel they’re there. It’s eerie, how he sits there for hours huddled in that wolf skin of his. I tell him to ignore them, but he ignores me instead.”
“Maybe he’s frightened.”
“An Indian? No, it ain’t fear. He doesn’t get all jittery like the horses, doesn’t move a muscle, doesn’t even shiver, and the nights are damn cold. It ain’t fear, I tell you; it’s fascination. His eyes get as big as my fist.”
“Because he’s afraid. One almost killed him. Remember?”
His answer made no sense at all. “That’s what makes it so strange.”
“Well, tell him hello when you get back, and that I hope to see him next time you’re here.”
“Only if the wolves go away.”
The Frenchman had never said more than the bare minimum he needed to buy and sell. Now every time he opened his mouth he brought up the wolves. That was all he could talk about. It seemed to me it wasn’t Corniaud who had a fascination for wolves.
In my room that night, he said, “I keep thinking: Why my cabin? Never had trouble with wolves before. Wasn’t that hard a winter.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“I shouldn’t have left him there.”
“Who? Corniaud? I’m sure he’ll be all right.”
“That’s not what worries me. Can I trust you to give me a fair price for my pelts?”
His question caught me completely off guard. It had nothing to do with wolves. It had nothing to do with anything, as far as I could tell. “I don’t need any more furs,” I said.
“If I sell them to the Company.”
“I’m not the one who buys.”
“You could sell them for me if I gave them to you. I’ll pay a commission. Ten percent.”
I figured that he’d finally realized the sensible thing to do was sell directly to the Company. Why he wanted to go through me was a mystery. Was he offering to make me his partner so he could become a hermit? Was I supposed to ride out to his cabin, pick up the furs, and then go back and pay him what I’d got for them? What would my manager say if I started working for him? Ten percent of the price of his furs would make me rich in no time. I hadn’t thought about it before, but he probably had a fortune in gold stashed away somewhere in his cabin.
“If you tell me what you think they’re worth, I’ll get the best price I can,” I said.
I expected him to shake hands on the deal we’d just made. That is, if we had, in fact, made one. He was hinting at something but hadn’t told me exactly what he had in mind.
He knitted his brow and said, “I’ll think about it.”
Think about what, for God’s sake? I wondered.
~ 4 ~
One morning toward the end of summer, Corniaud came to the fort leading the two horses. He brought so many furs that he couldn’t ride. The Frenchman had stayed behind at the cabin. I can’t say I was disappointed.
When he told me what the Frenchman was asking for them, I knew the Hudson’s Bay Company would snatch them up immediately. I could choose any dozen skins as my commission.
Corniaud looked the same, but I sensed something different about him. He seemed anxious and withdrawn, less sure of himself. Not shy – he’d stopped being shy with me. Maybe it was that air of insecurity that made it seem he hadn’t aged at all. Or else he was older than I thought when I met him.
I asked how long he could stay.
“Miishaakozhe said come straight back.”
“You’ll stay with me tonight, won’t you?” He looked hesitant. “Don’t you want to? Your Frenchman won’t know how long it took you to walk here.”
“All right. One night.”
“Is the Frenchman ill, or is this how he intends to operate from now on?”
“Miishaakozhe didn’t say. He’s in good health.”
“And you? No, we’ll talk about that tonight when we’re alone.” I felt certain his relationship with the Frenchman had soured.
“Yes, when we’re alone. After we’ve sold Miishaakozhe’s skins.”
I wasn’t mistaken. I had to prod him but little by little, I wrung the story out of him, and what he had to say disturbed me.
The Frenchman kept his distance from him. He’d stopped speaking to him, wouldn’t let him sleep in the loft, wouldn’t look at him directly, but watched his every move. “The way the white men look at me here,” he said. On the days he spent at home skinning the animals he’d snared and scraping and curing their pelts, Corniaud would go into the forest and not return until it was time to cook supper. When the Frenchman went to check his traps, he’d stay away for days at time, sometimes over two weeks, and as soon as he got back, he would hurry to see if his cow and the horses were all right, as if he didn’t trust Corniaud to care for them.
“Why, in God’s name?”
“There must be a reason.”
“I think that’s why he sent me with the furs.”
Corniaud’s face remained impassive while he told me his troubles, but I could see his distress. Weeks, if not months of silence weighed heavily on him, for he was talkative by nature. Never before had he confided in me, poured out his heart.
“You don’t have to stay with him, you know,” I said. “You could go away.”
“Go where? No, what will happen, will happen.”
“You could go back to your people.”
“That was another life. Then I was Oshkaasige; now I am Corniaud.”
“We only have one life.”
“No. We have many.”
“Then you can have a third, and yet another name. You don’t have to stay Corniaud.”
“Sometimes they called me Zoongingwaam, too, because I’m a heavy sleeper. What would you call me?” he asked.
“What would you like to be called?”
He smiled wistfully but didn’t answer. “What will happen, will happen,” he repeated. “My place is with Miishaakozhe.”
I was overcome with foreboding. What did he expect would happen? “Let’s go to sleep,” I said.
I made a bed for him of the pelts I had chosen and snuffed out the lantern. He stripped naked and lay down, his body aglow in the light of the full moon shining through the open casement. I also took off everything. It was a hot night.
He asked me to lie next to him.
“To do with you what the Frenchman does? No.”
“To sleep. It’s not good to sleep alone.”
I lay down beside him, but not close. He was as lonely for human contact, for companionship, as he was for speech. “How old are you, Corniaud?” I asked.
I doubt he knew. “I have seen many winters,” he answered.
“How many since you left your village?”
“That was another life.”
The Frenchman had been right. He would not talk about his past. He had stayed with the Frenchman because he would not, or could not, go back to his people.
I awoke in the dark, long before sunrise. The moon had set; the birds were still quiet. Corniaud had moved close to me in his sleep and wrapped his hand around my erect penis. I gently pried his fingers loose, stood up, slipped on my breeches, and lay down on my bed. He was, as he’d said, a very heavy sleeper.
I listened to his soft breathing and watched him as he slept, a shadow veiled in shadows. What fate awaited him at the Frenchman’s cabin? If only he would leave! He would, I thought, if I invited him to stay with me. But what would he do here? Be my servant? I neither needed one nor could I afford one. And what would people think if I lived in one room with an Indian boy?
The birds began singing and the sky grew lighter. I could see him clearly now, sleeping peacefully. He was very beautiful. If only he were a woman. I tried to imagine him as one. I couldn’t. The evidence he wasn’t lay bare in front of my eyes.
The sun was high when at last he stirred. “Get dressed and we’ll go for breakfast,” I said.
He sat up, rubbed his eyes, and looked around. “No, it’s late. I have to leave.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
He looked puzzled, then hopeful. “To do what, Randall?” he asked.
“Maybe I can get the Frenchman to tell me what’s bothering him.”
He shook his head. “What Miishaakozhe thinks, he keeps to himself. What will happen, will happen.”
I accompanied him to the gates of the fort and watched him ride away. Again I thought, If only he were a woman. I didn’t need a servant, but I would have liked to have a wife. It suddenly occurred to me that I was now in a position to get one. I had chosen the very best of the Frenchman’s pelts for my commission and could sell them for more than the value he’d put on them, more than enough for the gifts I’d need to purchase a bride from the Assiniboine. The Indians liked me; they would readily agree. I treated them with respect and dealt with them fairly. I probably had enough to furnish a small house, too. I could build one myself, a cabin close to the fort.
My boss approved of the idea. “Ask around when Indians come to the store,” he said, “and when you’ve lined up a few prospects, I’ll give you a week to visit their villages and look them over so you’ll see which concubine suits you best.”
I thanked him. It was not my intention, however, to have an Indian concubine. I’d marry her in the church. Of course, she’d have to be baptized first.
So, early in October, I made the rounds of the Indian villages and chose a young girl to take home with me. My travels had taken me many miles north of the fort. I decided to look in on Corniaud and his Frenchman before I returned and see if they had resolved their differences. I promised my bride’s father I would be back the next day to fetch her.
I found the Frenchman scraping hides in front of the cabin. “Where’s Corniaud?” I asked.
“He no longer lives with you?”
“Hunting. He spends all his days in the woods. He’ll be back. The moon is only a quarter full.”
What did the moon have to do with it? Were things so bad between them that Corniaud stayed in the forest when it was light at night?
“As long as you’re here,” the Frenchman continued, “you can take a load of furs to sell for me. Keep some of what you get for yourself and give the rest to Corniaud when he comes in spring.”
“You won’t come yourself?”
“And leave my stock to the wolves?”
“They’ll be safe with Corniaud.”
“He’s one of them. I’m sure of it now.”
“Corniaud, a wolf? Do you mean he’s a shaman? He couldn’t be. He’s too young.”
“Not a shaman.”
I said no more about it. The Frenchman was talking crazy. I wondered if Corniaud knew what he was thinking. I wondered how he handled it.
Corniaud returned after dark. He acknowledged my presence but said nothing. He held up the brace of rabbits he’d shot and got to work preparing supper. After we’d eaten, the Frenchman laid out my bed and Corniaud went to sit outside draped in his wolf skin.
“You see,” the Frenchman whispered. “A wolf.”
“He needs it to keep warm. It’s bitterly cold.”
“It’ll be a hard winter.”
“Will he stay out all night?”
“He only comes inside to eat. It’s better that way.” Then he went and bolted the door.
I would have to wait until morning to speak to Corniaud. I was more anxious than ever to convince him to leave. When I woke before dawn, he was already gone. I assumed he didn’t want the Frenchman to hear what he wanted to tell me, and I would find him waiting for me in the woods on my way back. But he wasn’t.
The Frenchman had predicted a hard winter. It was worse than hard; it was brutal. Toward the beginning of March, the store manager came to me and asked if I knew how to drive a dog sled.
“I’ve done it. Why?”
“I’m concerned about the half-dozen families who live off in the woods. Could be running low on provisions. You’re the only one who isn’t a trapper who knows the country north of here. I thought you might be willing to make the rounds and see how they’re doing. Bring them the basics. Cough medicine, too. Wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of them were sick.”
“The Gallingays’ is the only farm I know.”
“You’ve been to the Frenchman’s place. If you can find that, you can find anything. Go to the Gallingays first. They’ll point you in the right direction for the others.”
I knew I would go and also stop by the Frenchman’s cabin. Perhaps I could talk Corniaud into coming away with me. “I’ll be gone at least a week,” I said. “What about Martha?”
I had given that name to my Assiniboine wife-to-be. She was unwelcome in the canteen, and I brought her meals to our room, where we ate together. I had staked out a plot of land for the cabin I would build us in summer. My boss promised she wouldn’t go hungry while I was away.
It was a few days before I before I could set out. Another heavy snowfall blew in that evening, making it certain the river would overflow its banks come spring and another flood threaten to wash away Upper Garry. After living with me for a little under five months, Martha had only just begun to catch on to English, and I don’t think she realized I was going on a journey until she saw me load the dogsled. I held up eight fingers to let her know how long I’d be gone. She nodded. I wondered if I oughtn’t bring her to stay in her village, but that would mean a longer time away from the fort, and, for all I knew, her people might have migrated south for the winter. I couldn’t remember another this cold.
I didn’t trust myself to keep to the road or recognize the paths hidden beneath several feet of snow, so I followed the river. All the farmsteads were close to it; only the Frenchman lived off in the woods. I felt confident, however, that I could find the lake where I’d gone swimming with Corniaud and from there make my way to his cabin. I would go there last, in case I got lost. It would be easy to get back to the river once I’d found it.
I spent each night at a different farm. A couple of them I might not have found if the man in whose house I’d stayed the night before hadn’t come with me to show the way. Gallingay was sure I’d get lost trying to find the Frenchman’s cabin and tried to dissuade me from going.
I regretted that on previous trips I had relied on landmarks and not made more use of my compass. It was three days’ trek from the last homestead before I reached what I hoped was the right lake. I had to camp in the woods at night. The howling of the wolves made my dogs restless. They seemed ready to bolt. I was afraid to let them out of harness.
I couldn’t be sure it was the right lake. I had gone too far north and was at the wrong end of it, but I took it as a good sign the south end was thick with evergreens. The dogs perked up when the cabin came into view and made a beeline for it, but when we pulled up in front of it, they grew distressed and began to whine.
The cabin was shrouded in silence and appeared deserted. No smoke rose from the chimney, the double doors of the stable were bolted on the outside, and the drifts lay so high I had to dig my way through to reach the door. I pushed it open and stepped inside. Coming from of the glare of the sun reflected on snow into the darkened room, I did not at first discern the figure hanging by the neck from a beam under the roof. It was the Frenchman.
There was no way of telling how long he had been dead. His body was frozen solid. I found his note on the table and stuffed it in my pocket.
The bolt was drawn across the door to the adjoining stable. By force of will, I opened it, not knowing what I would find but expecting something dreadful. What I saw there was infinitely more horrible than anything I could have imagined: the carcasses of a cow and two horses, stripped nearly bare of flesh.
The stable appeared to have been ransacked: the partitions separating the stalls splintered, the tools and other gear ripped from their place, the leather harnesses half-chewed, claw marks scratched deeply on the walls, wolf spoor mixed in with the fodder scattered across the floor. Off to one side, half-hidden under his wolf skin, I found Corniaud’s ravaged body. The wolves had bitten large chunks out of his legs and back, but they hadn’t picked him clean like the cow and horses.
I cut the Frenchman down and hauled his body to the sled to bring it to the fort for burial. The dogs protested the grisly burden; even after I had piled the furs he had trapped and cured on top of him, they balked. I left what remained of Corniaud under his wolf skin. I would have buried him in the stable, but the earthen floor was frozen hard as rock.
I drove the dogs relentlessly and made the trip back to the fort in only a day and a half. I slept fitfully when I camped for the night, my rest disturbed by dreams of attacking wolves. The dogs slept soundly. They calmed down once we had left the cabin behind, and all was quiet in the forest. No wolf howled.
I brought the Frenchman’s body to Dr. Burnham. The rope marks on his neck and the note I’d found left no doubt that he had hanged himself. The doctor read it to me in French and asked, “What do you make of it, Randall?” I hadn’t told him about Corniaud.
“What’s to make of it? His note says it all.”
But it puzzled him, so he read it again in English, thinking I had misunderstood.
He was just an Indian boy like all the others. Nobody will care what I did or believe why I did it. My punishment is in my own hands. I will not shirk it.
I can imagine what happened and how. It haunts my dreams. I wake up in a sweat, the vicious growling of the wolves and their gnashing teeth, the panicked whinnying of the horses, the cow’s terrified bellowing, and Corniaud’s screams ringing in my ears.
It was a hard winter for everyone, man and beast. The starving wolf pack, drawn by the scent of the stabled animals, prowled night after night around the cabin. Troubled by his absurd fantasy, the Frenchman imagined that it wasn’t hunger that made them bold; he was convinced Corniaud had summoned them to a feast. Afraid to sleep in the same room as Corniaud, he ordered him into the stable and locked the door behind him. Then he flung the stable doors open and took refuge in the cabin as the wolves swept past him and rushed in for the kill. Half-crazed with hunger, they devoured everything in sight. A wolf will not usually attack a man – the one whose skin Corniaud wore was an exception – even when in a pack, they keep their distance when other prey is available. Now the frenzy of blood lust had overtaken them, and nothing could stop them.
Even in my waking hours, the vision will not leave me. I picture the Frenchman barricaded inside his cabin, torn between gloating and terror as he listens to the massacre taking place on the other side of the wall. I see him willing himself to resist the temptation to chase off the marauders, to take his rifle and shoot or light a torch and set fire to their fur. Would that have stopped them? I think not, but I can’t imagine I would have done nothing.
I imagine the Frenchman entering the stable after the wolves have left and staring bewildered at the devastation inside. The reek of blood fills his nostrils and mine. I feel his anguish as the horror of his crime slowly dawns on him. I hear his footsteps in the silent cabin as he slowly walks to get the rope. I watch him hang himself. And my heart aches for my friend, so hideously – and needlessly – destroyed.
That, then, is my story. There’s nothing left to tell. The Frenchman’s furs have made me a rich man. I shall use the money to build a real frame house, not a one-room log cabin, with a separate kitchen and three bedrooms for us and our children. Martha is expecting a baby in summer. It won’t do to call him Corniaud if it’s a boy. Perhaps I’ll name him Cornelius.