‘Walking into the woods was like walking into a story.’
– Sylvie Ouellet
Heading towards the new commercial development on the outskirts of town, at the wheel of her tired Toyota (before her divorce, she drove a Santa Fe), Martine remembered that she’d been carsick as a child. And that having a doctor for a father hadn’t helped. She’d had a trick: she’d keep her eyes fixed to the electric wires that endlessly streaked the sky above the fields and woods to distract herself for as long as possible from the foretaste of nausea rising in her throat, but the battle always ended in the same way. After glancing at the rear-view mirror, her father would slow the car down and pull onto the shoulder and, before the car had stopped completely, Martine would fling open the door, nearly tumbling into the ditch in her haste.
On reaching the end of an old country road that was now a street surrounded by condo towers, Martine turned right at the lights. A few kilometres away a vast rectangle of forest had been razed and was bordered by a handful of farmhouses and isolated cottages. Martine drove along a newly paved boulevard that split the terrain like a royal carriageway, majestically unfurling over filled-in wetlands and valleys levelled all the way to the clear cut. Several stores had gone up: a Walmart, a RONA Warehouse, a Canadian Tire, a Mégaburo, a Maxi supermarket and a Costco. A huge parking lot filled the landscape before her.
With a curious and cultivated mind, reading a little of everything, Dr Deschamps wasn’t exactly a cutting-edge practitioner and, according to a hypothesis that he dug up in the L’information médicale et paramédicale, carsickness might be caused by a memory of matricial swaying triggered by the vehicle’s movement. In other words, on the seat that she shared with her sister when she was eight years old, the car’s progress would return Martine insidiously to the fetal stage, as though nausea were only a symptom of an ineffable nostalgia.
The mere taste of Gravol tablets made her throw up and it was even worse when her father smoked while driving. Martine’s mother, Maryse, smoked as well. As did everyone else. She’d lean her head back, with her flamboyant red hair, blowing puff after puff of voluptuous blue smoke. They never even thought about opening the windows.
The Deschamps cottage was located on an island in the middle of a Laurentian lake, on land managed by the Railroad Employees’ Fish and Game Club. Members of these private clubs enjoyed exclusive hunting and fishing rights over swathes of territory that seemed to have been randomly cut from a map. The clubs usually had English names. But, contrary to popular belief, they weren’t the exclusive preserve of captains of industry and their politician friends. Martine’s father had been admitted not because he was a respected and relatively prosperous family doctor from the South Shore, but because his brother-in-law, a mechanic, had been inducted by a childhood friend who worked as an electrician for the Canadian National Railway. He had invited the doctor to join.
In summer, an immutable and chaotic ritual took place every Friday evening: too much luggage hastily packed in the car, a hard-to-close trunk, hamburgers wolfed down for supper against a backdrop of parental bickering before the family set off for the Laurentians. ‘We’re going for two days, not two weeks!’ the doctor grumbled, shaking his head with a look of despair.
Martine thought her father was a good driver. A good doctor too, although his profession seemed helpless in the face of simple carsickness. But on Friday nights, Dr Deschamps became much more than a competent driver and a good and respected man of science to his eight-year-old daughter. He was also a guide and a captain. In days gone by, he’d have held the reins of a pioneer’s covered wagon, or the helm of a schooner that had ventured to far-off estuaries. He was the voyager personified, with the large hands of a wizard wrapped around the steering wheel of an Oldsmobile, rather than the paddle of a large canoe used for portaging furs. If only he hadn’t pressed the dashboard’s cigarette lighter with his thumb so often, its reddish glow lighting another Du Maurier to be shoved between his lips.
One Friday, Martine found her father on hands and knees near the back bumper of his car. Curled up like a snake near his leg was a large, reddish chain.
He couldn’t recall where he’d first heard about this old-wives’ cure: probably when he’d practised country medicine in the Gaspé, as a young doctor fresh out of university.
‘You want to tie me to the back of the car?’ asked Martine, fists on her hips.
‘Of course not. We drag the chain behind us and it cures carsickness. Can you believe it?’
‘But . . . how does it work?’
The doctor seemed to be thinking. He always did before speaking.
‘I don’t know. Maybe the chain’s rattling keeps your mind off the nausea.’
‘And you think I’ll be able to hear it over the engine’s noise?’
‘No idea, sweetheart. But it might be worth a try.’
For Martine, the immediate question was no longer whether she really believed her nausea could be tempered by a rusty old chain dangling behind the car. The question was: what did her father believe?
Today, surrounded by traffic typical of early winter along this brand-new access road, Martine drives to Costco with her shopping list, remembering the chain. She tries to recall whether she ever saw a metal chain dragging behind a car, other than the one under the bumper of the family’s Oldsmobile. The memory of that incident is as fresh as if she’d just invented it. Did she imagine those heavy links scraping and bouncing over the pavement while tossing clusters of sparks into the night? Somewhere, Dr Deschamps’s big car is following her, blending with the traffic like a ghost.
Montreal via the Jacques Cartier Bridge, then Sherbrooke Street right to the end, followed by the Le Gardeur Bridge, the old road, the ancient Chemin du Roy, all the way to Trois-Rivières, where the stench of pulp and paper mills blended with the smell of Du Mauriers smoking up the car. The highway then veered from the river, which had dissolved into a darkness pierced by the navigation lights of a few timber-laden freighters, heading north and inland along roads that were increasingly narrow and unpaved, in a long climb towards the back-country.
It took five hours to reach the club. The last forty kilometres were over hilly terrain, along a dirt road covered with bumps and craters that snaked through the compact foliage of pines and spruces, while headlights brushed their massive darkness without ever cutting through it.
Outboard motors were prohibited on lakes in the Railroad Employees’ Fish and Game Club and, since Dr Deschamps’s and his brother-in-law’s cottages were on an island, the family trip often ended around midnight aboard an overloaded fourteen-foot rowboat, with the exhausted doctor bent over the oars. Martine would play the figurehead in the bow, while the rest of them were crammed in the back with the luggage.
Things finally changed after little Irène, four years old, nearly fell overboard while her parents stood in the rowboat arguing over the oars, baring their teeth like hungry sled dogs, and the following Friday, the Deschamps family stopped in the last village before the deep forest, where they spent the night in a hotel.
A night at the hotel soon became a tradition. In Martine’s imagination, this place, frequented by foresters and a few scarce tourists, appeared like a castle in the land of lumberjacks, haunted by friendly or threatening characters, all of them fascinating. Club wardens, gamekeepers, railroad and local outfitters’ staff and white or Metis fishing guides would endlessly relate local legends and exploits to one another: a breed of men versed in animal cunning and simple pleasures, talking about tracking a wounded moose with huge antlers and three-day benders.
They’d only reach Magwa Lake the next morning, and they’d have to start thinking about heading home on the Sunday, in the early afternoon: a ten-hour drive for thirty hours of peace.
The day her father had attached the chain at the back of the car, they had just passed Shawinigan and were approaching the old iron bridge spanning the Saint-Maurice River in the falling night when Martine, with a tiny voice, asked to stop the car. She walked alongside the rear fender, glanced at the chain dangling from the bumper like a large trinket, burning hot with friction, and then doubled over and vomited up her supper.
The hotel dining room. Yellow birch panelling, waxed tablecloths with the faded patterns of rose bouquets. The smell of fried eggs and bacon, weak coffee, beans, butter melting on toasted bread. ‘A manly breakfast,’ as the doctor liked to say.
After ordering maple-syrup pancakes for Irène, Maryse settled for picking at a fruit salad that had come straight from a can, casting a tired and flirtatious glance at the other tables. Trout fishermen wore heavy green canvas pants and flannel shirts whose collars and sleeves were already buttoned hermetically, as though the first blackfly swarms were about to swoop down on them. They were men of trout, just as there are men of horses. Men who snubbed great northern pike and tasty yellow walleye with the gentle disdain the noble lord saves for the commoner. The trout were biting. The trout were no longer biting. In any event, trout dominated their limited conversation.
Maryse noticed a character framed by the doorway. With his open blue flannel shirt over a vest smeared with grease and old sweat, he blended into the scene. His step was hesitant, both pensive and cautious. She lowered her eyes onto her lukewarm cup of coffee, but it was too late. The man had seen them and was now heading to their table, a smile of stupid kindness hanging from his thick chapped lips.
‘Looks like Zo is on a heavy bender,’ said the doctor, lifting his eyes from the over-easy eggs that shone like two suns on his plate.
‘Find a way to get rid of him,’ Maryse murmured, covering her mouth with her coffee cup.
‘Hi, Zo,’ the doctor blurted out, with somewhat forced gaiety and resignation.
In response, Zo raised his arms and kept them up for a moment, slightly bending them at the elbows, as though he were the Pope himself saluting a million worshippers from his balcony.
Zo, whose real name was Lorenzo, was one of the club’s wardens. An old bachelor who’d blow his paycheck at the hotel as soon as he stepped out of the forest, he claimed to have the gifts of a healer, saying he’d inherited the fluence from his grandfather, a bonesetter. The girls had been wide-eyed the first time Zo had told them about his powers. He could stop bleeding and mend broken bones. Among other things.
Zo stood unsteadily near the table while Maryse waved her hand to dissipate the smell of booze wafting around him.
‘How’s it going, little girl?’ he finally managed to stammer in Martine’s direction.
‘I was sick in the car again, yesterday.’
‘She’s always sick in the car,’ said Irène, her diction hampered by a large mouthful of pancakes and syrup dripping down her chin.
‘Come here, lil’ girl, I’m gonna cure you . . .’
It was too much for Maryse when Martine, her face devoured by curiosity, slid from her chair and walked as though transfixed towards the warden with slightly glazed eyes, arms already outstretched.
‘You’re going to let this old man fiddle with your daughter?’
‘You know he’s harmless,’ the doctor answered blandly, although he also didn’t like to see this tipsy forester moving his large calloused hands towards his eldest daughter.
Everyone inside the hotel was now looking at them. With a sigh, the doctor slowly stood up and stepped in as the healer was about to lay hands on his Martine.
‘Hey!’ he said, gently grabbing hold of Zo’s wrist. ‘Heal me instead, okay?’
The warden turned to him with a stunned gaze, blurred by drunkenness, and the two men stood facing each other.
‘Oh. So what is it . . . that you have?’
‘Me? A cough, old pal. Go ahead; try your powers on me.’
Scruffy and solemn, Lorenzo laid his hands on Martine’s father, who, while smiling, held his gaze without blinking. Would he feel the magic going through him? After a moment, the warden suddenly dropped his arms before turning away and nodding.
The logging road was dry and potholed, strewn with stones and covered with a white dust that formed a large plume behind the Oldsmobile. A forest of grey pines with bearded lichen dangling from their branches cast a shadow over it. The river shimmered to the left, its gleaming foam tumbling down the rocky bed over hundreds of metres of rapids that were scattered with logjams, calmer, shallower pools where clusters of yellowish moss drifted, slowly twirling over the murky water. The road clung to the undulating shoreline, cutting through tawny sand and mossy ground.
The doctor glanced at his rear-view mirror.
‘How are you feeling, honey?’
The Magwa Lake shoreline was heavily indented. Located at the inlet of a bay, the island was elongated, and the two sole cottages stood at either end, linked by a path. The Deschamps cottage, built with knotty pine boards, had a pointed roof that covered a balcony, forming an inverted V whose slope reached nearly to the ground, like that of a Swiss chalet. The brother-in-law’s shanty was made of logs and had a low ceiling, more in the style of a trapper’s cabin. Hard to imagine two people more different than the doctor and his brother-in-law. The first was tall, mild-mannered and a little stooped; the second was stocky, swarthy and covered with hair. The first enjoyed fishing for speckled trout by the book, elegantly casting dry or wet flies over Magwa Lake with great swaying movements. His artificial flies had English names whose music, to Martine’s ears, gave them a mysterious charm and something like an aura of prestige: the Spitfire, the Professor, the Clyde Red, the Quill Gordon, the Hamill’s Killer. He enjoyed telling his eldest daughter that the Deer Lake Special’s red hairs came from a real deer, that the tuft of fine down on the Kaganoma Ruff had once strolled about on a live grouse, and that the artificial nymph was a dead ringer for the mayfly nymph, whose twilight hatching had a tendency to drive fish crazy.
Martine woke at dawn and hurried down the loft’s stepladder. Walking onto the floating dock, she saw her father’s slender profile rising from the gossamer fog thirty metres away, standing in the middle of the rowboat, lashing the sparkling mirror in the morning’s first glorious sunlight. She felt as though she were looking at a delicate knight who had traded his spear for a fibreglass rod. The brother-in-law, for his part, used worms and a lightweight casting rod to catch trout. His tackle box was a gleaming and clanking ironmongery, haphazardly crammed with spinners and wobbling spoons, lead weights, metal leaders, simulated plastic frogs and minnows fitted with treble hooks. Martine promised herself she’d learn to fly-fish.
Later that day, Martine followed her father down the path. The fish weren’t biting and the brother-in-law invited them for hotdogs. Maryse went ahead to give her sister-in-law, Ginette, a hand, taking Irène along. Martine walked in the forest behind her father, who now and again pushed a branch out of the way. She wished the path went even deeper into the fir trees, into the fragrant and endless shade.
Her father suddenly veered off, took a few steps and stopped in front of a large spruce knocked down by the wind which had pulled up a slab of humus as it fell and showed her a patch of reddish sand under the matted roots.
‘I bet I’ll find a grouse feather right there.’
He leaned over and skimmed the sand with his fingertips, taking on a mysterious expression as he handed his daughter a golden-brown feather delicately pinched between his thumb and index.
‘What? How did you know?’
‘That’s how it is. I know things.’
With his skilled fly-fisherman’s eye, he examined the down, its silky texture, its indescribable lightness.
‘Can I have it?’
‘Of course. What will you do with it?’
‘It’s a secret.’
The doctor found his brother-in-law standing at the end of his floating dock across the island, peering at something through his binoculars while holding a beer.
‘What are you looking at?’
‘Neighbours across the lake,’ answered the brother-in-law.
The previous year, a family had built a cabin on the opposite shore, about a kilometre away. They were called Lefebvre, according to what the brother-in-law had learned. Rumour had it they were of Huron extraction.
‘That couldn’t be,’ the brother-in-law had reasoned. ‘Indians would’ve never been admitted to the club.’
‘They may be part Native,’ the doctor replied. ‘Lefebvre doesn’t sound much like an Indian name.’
‘They don’t look like Hurons any more than you or me,’ remarked the brother-in-law.
‘Doesn’t mean they don’t have Indian blood. Hurons and Quebecers have been interbreeding for a long time. But what difference does it make?’
‘The difference,’ said the brother-in-law cleverly, ‘is that even if they’re only half-breeds, as you say, they’ll still fish out the lake.’
The doctor nodded with a smile of amused disapproval, as he did every time he had to listen to another of his brother-in-law’s numerous dirty or racist jokes.
Hand raised to shield his near-sighted eyes from the setting sun, he could now make out a red fibreglass canoe that had pulled away from the shoreline’s dark strip and was heading towards the middle of the lake.
‘Lake overfishers in sight?’ he asked sarcastically, keeping his eyes fixed on the canoe.
‘No idea what they’re up to,’ answered the brother-in-law, handing him the binoculars.
What first struck the doctor was that the canoe, about sixteen-feet long, was overloaded. Four adults and three children, according to his quick calculation. He could distinguish, crouching between the yoke and thwart, a woman holding a kind of steaming pot and a young child nestled in her lap. Near them, an elderly man was pounding what looked like a flat drum, whose weak and monotonous sound could be heard in the distance. Around them were the rest of the children, while a young man with long black hair, seated at the stern, propelled the heavy skiff over the water with slow paddle strokes. In the bow, an old lady wearing a peculiar hat, leaning forward, was shaking the invisible contents of a small metallic box over the water. Waved in fits and starts like a large salt shaker, the box suddenly caught a ray that tossed a silver flash into the lens of the binoculars.
‘Looks like some kind of ceremony,’ noted the doctor, eyes still riveted to the ocular.
‘Can I have a look?’
Surprised, he turned towards Martine, who’d followed him onto the floating dock, and handed her the binoculars.
‘A ceremony,’ repeated the brother-in-law, nodding.
‘Yes, like some kind of funeral rite. That’s what it looks like, anyhow.’
A fire from small conifer logs crackled inside a circle of large stones while the four adults were flopped around the campfire with their third or fourth drink. Now and again, the brother-in-law would toss a large split birch log in it. He lit a cigarette with a brand, offering one to the doctor.
‘It’s always strange to see a doctor smoking.’
‘Why? I’ve often prescribed tobacco to my patients, to calm their nerves. Is dying from stress much better?’
‘He’s right,’ said Maryse, taking a deep drag from her cigarette. ‘There’s too much talk of side effects.’
‘Nicotine stimulates the memory,’ added the doctor with conviction.
At times, one of them would turn their head to listen to the shouts and country songs that the wind blew towards them from the opposite shore, over the water’s lacquered surface that had been set ablaze by the setting sun. A little earlier, they’d even heard a gunshot.
‘Sounds like a real powwow, over there,’ grumbled the brother-in-law.
‘If nicotine really stimulates memory,’ Maryse went on,
‘I wouldn’t have forgotten my watch.’
‘You lost your watch?’
‘I left it in that shabby hotel room in Saint-Profond, that’s the only explanation. My wedding gift. A Bulova. I won’t even tell you how much it cost.’
‘Not the first time it’s happened,’ noted the doctor. ‘Each time . . .’
Maryse raised her chin.
‘That I spend the night away from home?’
‘We’ll stop and pick it up tomorrow, on the way back,’ suggested the doctor, impassively.
Another gunshot rang across the lake.
‘What is it they’re shooting at, anyway?’ wondered the brother-in-law, nodding with a grin.
Sunday. Seated in the car in front of the hotel, waiting for the doctor to return, Martine looked for the grouse-down feather in her pocket, noticing it was no longer there. Her fault. So tiny and fragile. The precious relic must have slipped out of her jeans. Moments later, her father walked back across the parking lot and sat behind the wheel. But he stayed there, without moving.
‘And?’ asked Maryse. ‘Did they find it?’
The car stank of smoke.
‘Yeah.’ Visibly troubled, he handed the Bulova Classic to his wife, then swallowed. ‘But something happened.’
Maryse admired the watch, distractedly checking the hour before tying the band. Then she looked at her husband, waiting for him to go on.
‘Zo is dead. He had a heart attack yesterday morning. The manager told me it happened shortly after we talked to him.’
‘He drank too much,’ said Maryse, before taking a long drag from her cigarette. ‘Benders lasting four or five days, as if that were just fine . . . The two of us know how to drink, right?’
The doctor didn’t answer.
‘Anyhow, he was unlucky. You might have been able to save him, if it had happened during breakfast.’
The Oldsmobile took off and Irène sank back into her nook between the door and back seat, falling asleep right away. The doctor stared at the road without saying a word, while Maryse chain-smoked as she watched the white and sparkling river parade by through the trees. Martine looked at the back of her father’s slender neck and the fleeting shadow on his tense chin. She felt like asking him: ‘How are you doing?’ In the hope that he’d say: ‘Fine.’
And then, amid the prolonged silence, she heard it clearly. A noise of chains, behind the car, scraping the pavement in their wake.
The following year, the Parti Québécois took power in Quebec and the privileges of hunting and fishing clubs were abolished and access to the forest democratized. Like the cavalry soldier who shoots himself in the head to avoid being captured alive by Indians, Dr Deschamps and his brother-in-law sold their cottages without waiting for the new regime to be implemented. Plebs were going to swoop down on their Magwa Lake, and they didn’t want to be there to see it.
At night, Martine went to hide in her room to cry alone in the dark.
Soon after, the doctor started looking for another getaway. First he relocated a mobile home to a spot above Saint-Michel-des-Saints. But a mobile home wasn’t a cottage. After that, he bought land on the shore of Whitefish Lake in the Outaouais, building a quaint little camp on it. But the lake was polluted by a hatchery. Later, he tried again near Mont-Laurier, but it wasn’t the same.
Even though he was too proud to admit it, he regretted selling his cottage on the Magwa.
Building and selling: this back and forth began to weigh on him. In desperation, he bought a small and rather dilapidated property whose main asset was its location: only a few dozen kilometres from Magwa Lake. And when a certain cottage, on an island on that lake, was again for sale, an eager buyer with no concern for the price showed up almost right away. Maybe the ‘plebs’ hadn’t fished out the lake after all? Dr Deschamps paid cash. The circle was complete.
On weekends, the doctor sometimes invited his brother-in-law to the zone d’exploitation contrôlée, which now included Magwa Lake, and the two of them, at beer time, would stand at the end of the floating dock, watching with binoculars and railing against the damned overfishers.
Martine’s father died a few years later, in his bed. Myocardial infarction. Of course, she’d never thought of her father as rich, but she received a comfortable inheritance. Surprisingly, the deceased, superstitious in his own way, hadn’t made funeral arrangements and it was left to his wife and daughters to choose the best way to dispose of his body.
Martine suggested that he be cremated and his ashes be scattered over Magwa Lake. ‘I think,’ she added, ‘that it’s what he would have wanted.’
‘This scattering of ashes all over the place is only another fad,’ she said, shaking her cigarette over a saucer she used as an ashtray. ‘Your father was always an orderly and clean man.’
So they had an oak casket made, with instructions that it include a hidden drawer. When the time came, Irène and Maryse slipped their notes of love and farewell inside while Martine placed a Kaganoma Ruff with grouse-down wings dug up from a compartment in his tackle box.
A year after the funeral, Maryse sold the cottage. Too far, too much trouble. Martine, who was nineteen years old, had no say in the matter.
She never learned to fly-fish.
She’ll be fifty soon and has three children scattered over as many continents. Living alone now, there are still many things she hasn’t done.
It’s winter and she’s driving through the middle of this forest that is living on borrowed time, heading towards a vast clearing giving way to mushrooming stores surrounded by parking lots. At times, she regrets not having been more insistent about the ashes. Her father’s final resting place seems so obvious today that she feels she betrayed him. The woods, near the approach to the commercial sector, are crossed by a pedestrian and bike path where a December jogger and a spaniel on a leash trot away. In some places, for a few seconds, the depth of the territory creates an illusion; the undergrowth seems to have retained some of the bluish shade that bathes the mystery of the wilderness. Now and then, a deer standing by the road in a clearing can still be seen, too busy grazing to raise its head when cars drive by. Martine then slows down, braking instinctively, at the risk of blocking the road and causing an accident. She turns her head and searches the land, farther away, for something else. Looking for what has vanished.
To read this text in French, please visit granta.com/le-club/
Photograph © Markus Spiske