Sandy Mecowatch, a descendant of Missinabi Cree people, falls through the ice leaving behind his wife Louise and eleven year old daughter Alison "Joe Pete". Joe Pete's grief propels her to risk searching for her father in the same winter conditions that took him. Along with her obedient and protective cousin Simon, they embark on a journey where they will find more than they anticipated buried beneath the snow. Their journey will unlock the ancestors and spirits embedded in the present who call back to a past marked by war and kinship, by conflict and wisdom that continue to contour their trajectory towards the future.
About the author
Ian McCulloch (1957-2019) was born in Comox, B.C. and raised in Northern Ontario. A member of the Chapleau Cree First Nation (Fox Lake), his writing was deeply influenced by family and his indigenous heritage. He was the author of three books of poetry: The Moon of Hunger (Penumbra, 1982), The Efficiency of Killers (Penumbra, 1988) and Parables and Rain (Penumbra, 1993) and the chapbooks, A Balsam to Ease All Pains (Alburnum Press, 1998), Certain Humans and A Box of Light (both above/ground press, 2019). He was also the author of the novel Childforever (Mercury, 1996). A founding member of Northern Ontario's longest-running reading series, The Conspiracy of Three.
Excerpt: Joe Pete (by (author) Ian McCulloch)
Chapter One: Names
There was a thaw and then the return of the bitter cold. A week of piercing sunshine and rising temperatures that chewed away at the thick blanket of snow, softened the ice on the rivers and exposed last year's grass in shallow bowls around the trunks of trees. Then the tattered drab curtain of what remained of winter fell over everything again. Rain, snow, sleet, or a dreary mix of all three, smeared across the entire day, fluctuating in unpredictable conditions. Ominous clouds seethed and roiled across a capricious sky that had seen the promise of blue only moments before.
On the day before temperatures plummeted Joe Pete and her mother had been perched out on the porch that spanned the front of their cabin. They had left their heavy winter coats drooping on hooks just inside the door while they basked in the sun. Now cold had returned seeping in under a clear star-flecked night and morning found the wash basin holding a thick disk of ice. The mirror on the wall near the door was clouded over and frost had crept up along the walls. In the frigid dawn Louisa impatiently stoked the wood stove into life, a long sigh visible in the chilled air around her head as she muttered something about dreaming you were a child and then waking up as an old woman.
Across the snowy field that lay rigid and pock-marked with deep footprints under the blue-grey dawn, her eleven-year-old daughter lay sleepless under a rabbit skin blanket in her grandfather's small house. She was contemplating all that had occurred in the past few wretched months. Her father taken from her and the fruitless search to find him that dominated their lives. The broken ice and the cracked sorrow that had come with the long dark nights of winter and how time itself had slowed in its passage like the snow-burdened river that had swallowed him.
Her thoughts returned to the previous afternoon when she and her mother had reclined languidly on the wooden steps, enjoying the temperate lull together. They sat close, hardly speaking, afraid to disrupt the tenuous nature of the day, certain that before long an abrupt shift in the wind would drive them inside. During that pleasant respite, the daughter had studied her mother's face as she leaned back, arms splayed behind her, eyes closed against the unabashed sun. There was a muscular grief in the space between them, put aside for a time, but still potent even in the undiluted brilliance of that languid hour. She looked to where she could just see the grey, angular silhouette that was the back of her grandfather's house farther down the point. It never occurred to her to question why they were the only ones who lived on the narrow bit of land and had only been confused whenever she heard it referred to by its official designation, Cree Indian Reserve 75A.
Everyone in town knew it as Indian Arm and she had always assumed that it belonged to Poppa Sam in its entirety. In a way it did since he had been the first and, for a long time, the only one to reside there. He had done so with quiet stubbornness, in the name of all Cree people who, like him, had moved down out of the north following the ancient routes on the great rivers for thousands of years. They had been left with no real place to call their own when the formation of the Game Preserve ten years before had seen the appropriation of almost two million acres. The very idea of it being a reserve was a strange concept to her. She knew her grandfather was an Indian, as was her father and her mother. She was in fact an Indian and had been raised to take pride in that heritage. Yet still, she saw her family as somehow separate from the native people who came into town to McCarthy's Dry Goods and Fur Buyer's to trade and sell what they'd trapped. The shy looking women in head scarves and shawls standing outside the CPR station or the clustered families she saw waiting with their bundles along the tracks for the train when she travelled with her parent's out to the logging camps for work.
Despite the well-intentioned efforts of her grandfather, no one else ever attempted to settle there with him. It was a very humble tract of land with little to recommend it. An extended peninsula of rough woods and swampy terrain jutting out into Long Lake which was formed by the joining of two rivers flowing north. Town was a couple miles away squeezed between the two rivers and separated from the reserve by a few acres of bush. It seemed that anyone else entitled to a piece of it, had found it wanting and chose to live either in town or out on the land or on one of the nearby Ojibwa reserves. The Game Preserve that had been established in 1925, and known locally as simply The Park, was across the big river and extended north bordered by Long Lake and a chain of other lakes which narrowed in between to become the Wenushk River snaking all the way to James Bay. The impetus behind the preserve had been to save the fur trade in the face of dwindling game populations. It meant much more travelling for anyone who wanted to hunt or trap. Some, including all the inhabitants of the original Cree Reserve, were left with no option but to abandon their trap lines and homes and move out. Many people, white and Indian, harboured a bitter antipathy over what they saw as an arbitrary act of government interference even if some acknowledged a grudging acceptance that something had needed to be done.
Sam Mecowatch had lived on Indian Arm in a modest house with a small garden since the railroad work had dried up and he had left the Killdeer Reserve to be closer to where his children were in school. He had become a familiar figure in town dressed in his dark three-piece-suit, white shirt, and blood red tie. He kept his hair, dark and straight with flecks of grey, cut short and parted neatly on one side, and with his heavy eyebrows and full moustache he could easily have been taken for the long-lost brother of Mr. Fortunato, the town's Italian butcher. He collected a survivor's benefit pension now because his oldest son, Daniel, had died as a soldier in France from what they called Trench Fever. The old man did not seem unhappy in his solitude but appeared quite comfortable as the sole tenant of the land now known as Cree Reserve 75A even before it had this official Government designation. Joe Pete knew though that he was pleased when his only remaining son, through unfortunate circumstances, had brought his small family to live on the land with him. Now the recent loss of his youngest boy, the last of his sons, was a great sorrow shared with his granddaughter that had strengthened the powerful bond between them.
Joe Pete took great pleasure now in the fact that they were the only ones living on the Point. She liked that they were set apart, having all that territory to themselves, exiles together in their sorrow. She had never had many friends and since her father's disappearance she had become even more of a loner. She did not want to play other children's games or hear about their families. Her cousin Simon was her only companion besides her grandfather. Her mother, Louisa, still lamented the forced move back and she felt that people in town saw them differently afterwards and resented them for it. They had achieved a certain status living in the big house on Railway Street and it had faded quickly after the fire had put them back on the other side of the tracks, somewhere between the Reserve Indians, who moved like shadows through town wrapped in their shawls and blankets, and the immigrant workers and mixed bloods who had settled in Lower Town.
In recent weeks her mother's time with her had been meagre and strained and now they simply wanted to sit close together in the sunshine, enjoying the unexpected warmth. The persistent apprehension of their loss lingered like a cold touch and Joe Pete grappled with the sudden fearful circumstance of moving on. The young girl felt incapable of putting into words the combination of dismay and anticipation she felt encroaching with the changing season. She knew that the frail sliver of summer they lounged in was only an illusion and that soon their shadows would shift on the porch and the trickle of melt water dripping from the eaves would slow to a sporadic dripping. In these subtle incremental changes, she could feel the whole earth moving and it was as frightening and awesome as the pain that filled her heart. Spring uncovered things and she was afraid that something terrible waited for them in the ice. She sat uneasily in the full light of the sun, shading her eyes to study the day's radiant and dreadful promise. Eyes tightly closed, a faint smile on her lips, she tried to seal away her sorrow for a while. She turned away, filled with trepidation, as if in persisting she might see the whole of her life ahead of her. A life without her father. A chill shivered Joe Pete's backbone and she trembled fighting hard to resist the compelling and insistent urge to let go. To begin forgetting.
Instead, she clung to a hard kernel of resentment growing inside of her. A burgeoning thorny antagonism towards her mother because she, like everyone else, had given up and consigned her father to the dark, cold water. She was allowing his memory to be swept away disappearing under the rough, deceptive mystery of the ice. She would not let go, she knew him too well. If they could not say for certain this is his body and he is dead, then maybe it wasn't true. She believed that she and her grandfather alone knew the measure of her father's strength and his resolve and the love he had for them. He had taught her, from the beginning, that Life was sacred. A precious gift not to be taken without regret or remorse and never surrendered without struggle.
Never give up, he had admonished her two summers before when they had been caught in a sudden squall halfway across Jackfish Lake. The sky had shifted so abruptly to black it seemed as if one day had swallowed another. A row of low clouds was surging towards them overhead like a locomotive and the wind whipped the waves up into rolling two-foot crests. "Dig in hard, Joe Pete," he had yelled. "Paddle. Paddle." Immediately she could feel his strength from the stern, the canoe ploughing into the waves, water splashing up over the sides into her face as they headed for shore. It had looked too far away to her, the wind screaming in her ears, the water black as oil and the sky pressing down on them. She stared at the distant shoreline where the trees swayed wildly, trembling and clashing against each other and it refused to draw any closer. They seemed stuck, held fast by the churning lake and then she missed a stroke and her paddle caught under the bow and was pulled out of her hands just as thunder detonated in the air around them.
She screamed and covered her ears and she felt him slide forward towards the centre of the canoe and with one hand push her down onto the bottom. The boat rocked and the waves slapped hard against the thin hull and she could feel the power in his strokes as he worked relentlessly against the storm. She stayed low, hands over her head, paralysed with fear until she felt the bow keel scrape onto the rocky beach. Her father leapt in a single motion, hands braced on the gunwales, into the shallow water to haul the boat up onto the gravel shingle and she tried to jump out prematurely while he still pulled, and she tumbled out off-balance into the waves.
The wind was wild around them, a giant rabid wolf shrieking among the pines and she heard one uprooted tree after another crashing down through a tumult of snapping limbs and flayed bark. Her father flipped the canoe and she scrambled under on all fours, soaking wet, just as hail began to pelt all around them. He slid underneath with her and held her close with one arm while he grasped the thwart with the other and struggled to keep the canoe over them.
For long minutes, ice pellets pounded on the hull and rattled across the stone beach, trees toppled down one after another and she wondered if any would be left standing. One massive aspen, its centre rotted out, leaning for years in grim anticipation, slammed across the beach, its punky top exploding into the turbulent surf. At times the canoe seemed almost to hover above them and she was sure they would be crushed or blown out into the frothing lake. He lay behind her breathing calmly, without complaining or cursing the storm and she surrendered to this serenity, to the weight of his arm across her shoulder and the strength that held them safe and soon the wind subsided into impotent gusts and the trees stopped their clamour and the hail became a light rain. They remained hidden under the canoe a few minutes while she listened and he waited to feel the tension leave her body and then he raised himself as far as he could on his elbow and whispered those words into her ear, "Never give up." She had turned on to her back and looked into his face, chagrined by the fear she had shown. She tried with her eyes to let him know she was sorry and that she understood the extraordinary meaning his words carried. Once he had been to the very edge of death only to be pulled at the last minute from a premature and unexpected grave.