Knowing your words
The train is packed. Children are running up and down the narrow corridor between the rows of seats facing each other. The youngest are lying on the thick upholstery, sleeping tight, their breathing soft. The older ones are playing cards on the fold-out tables. I hear laughter and the familiar language of the hunt. Outside it is winter and the north wind shakes the trees heavy with snow. In the warmth of the train car, we talk about this and that, we don’t need to say too much. I’m eleven years old.
You’re sitting across from me. You’re watching the forest move past. You’re elderly. Maybe a little too old to be taking this long day trip. You’re spending less time in the woods now because your bones have started aching. White hair, eyes like slits. Skin tanned by age. The wrinkles on your face, abrasions or history. You are talking to me, murmuring in a distant language. Your hands tremble ever so slightly when you point to the woods, the mountains, Nutshimit, the land in the centre. I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me. I can hardly understand your gestures and misty eyes. I listen. I watch you carefully, and it’s not easy, but little by little a wall breaks down.
I wish I knew your words. I would write them down and store them in my memory, the way we keep life inside us. The way we have our strength when we face uncertainty. I wish I knew the things you are speaking of, if only abstractly, without having touched them, but seeing them with your eyes.
It’s like making the journey the first time. Great spruce covered in thick snow. I look into the distance, the bluish line of the horizon. The slow continuum of a wild landscape, unaltered. I know all of this is perfect. In your mind, grown tired with the years, maybe you are trying to bequeath your memory to me. Maybe there is another way behind your purity. Rougher, with more hazards, harder to preserve from ignorance. Perhaps you know where that road leads.
Later, they will tell me you were a great man. A man who knew much. A scholar of the hunt. An expert in the art of the drum. A prophet when it came to recognizing the rights of the Innu. A human dictionary, they will tell me. They will say that to me. Because, with the words I did not understand, I will want to write your life. Nimushum, my grandfather.
Returning is inevitable. In this tiny village, in this setting of thorn and sand, constructed in my imagination since childhood, I have immutable memories.
On my street, I blended in, a quiet little girl. When I was a baby I cried so rarely that my mother would shake me awake to make sure I was still breathing. When I was a child I was so quiet that once my mother forgot me on the steps outside. Later, the strange justice of life caught up with each of her tears.
When I left my beige-coloured house with the dark-brown beams, I left everything. Everything might not seem like much when you own almost nothing. An iron bedstead and a cover with a beige-and-white leaf pattern. A doll’s house, an enormous playroom in the basement. Spending the winters with cheeks reddened by the cold, and during the summer, my skin as dark as children from the South. Maybe one day I’ll return to the shores of the bay, kiss my aunt and go play in my room.
Exile is an eight-hour drive and it has pale skin. My mother needed two days to make the trip, a distance I calculated by the number of villages we passed through. I ended up knowing their names by heart. And the stops, and the stages. Keeping the pace, moving at the speed limit. I don’t know if the world has changed elsewhere, but I do know the deadly curve at Saint-Siméon that they finally replaced with a straightaway. And the bridge that was never built between Baie-Sainte-Catherine and Tadoussac, the riverbed as deep as the sea. And the tiny parish whose name I have forgotten, that will soon close down now that Route 138 has detoured around it.
They say return is the path of all exiles. That in a person’s patience there is an end to the isolation they have lived. I didn’t choose to leave. Twenty years later, I return and see that things have changed.