La forêt boréale, Terre de Rupert, British North America
Two young Cree men stand before Philippe. The cold and the wind have pinked their joyless faces and ice crystals cling to their brows. They have set a litter in front of him in the snow. The taller of the two signs: He was hurt by a bear.
Philippe signs back: But the bears sleep.
The Cree: The bears are hungry this winter, so they wake to hunt. Their food is disappearing because of the trappers.
Philippe: I can’t help him.
The body and face of the injured man are covered and he expels a single cough.
The Cree: He’s one of yours. Take him.
Philippe: He’s near death. His breath is weak.
The Cree: You have strong plant medicine.
Philippe: He’ll die.
The Cree: Take him.
The two men turn and walk away into the pine forest, their backs to the fading winter light. With the covering of new snow, the boughs are heavy and the Cree must stay close to the center of the trail so as not to disturb the branches.
Philippe stands for a moment with the snow collecting on his elk hide coat, the cold biting his nose and fingers. The snowfall has turned from a flurry to a storm even in his few moments with the Cree. The wind has risen and the blowing snow stings his face and eyes. He should let the man die here. In the cold. And not prolong his life. What was he doing hunting during the winter solstice? And in the forêt boréale? Philippe is not aware of any Français this far from the great waters of the Wînipekw.
Philippe looks down at the man and resents the obstinacy of the Cree, their sense of duty and responsibility, a responsibility now transferred to him. He crouches and pulls away the blanket, already thick with snow. The face is uninjured and reflects a young man of perhaps 20 years. The man is handsome, with a close beard and dark hair pulled back in a knot, but his pallor suggests he has lost blood. Philippe places a hand on his chest to feel him breathe. There is little perceptible movement. No, I can’t help this one, Philippe thinks, and shakes his head.
He looks around the clearing. The Cree have moved out of sight down the trail and into the trees. The snow is falling faster and he feels its weight on his head and shoulders. He looks again at the man and fights the urge to turn and leave him. Then the man coughs, the sound almost inaudible in the wind and snow, but the bright vapor of the man’s breath rises, expelled from his lungs, and it reproaches Philippe.
He swears in the Cree language and spits into the snow. He looks one more time down the trail after the Cree, their footprints already hidden by the fresh snow.
“This may hurt,” he says, unsure if the man can hear.
And so he stands, covers the man’s face, and lifts his shoulders a few feet from the ground. He drags him off the litter and over the snow to his lodge some 50 feet from the clearing. The lodge is built within a tree-covered hill and its roof stands about shoulder high, requiring Philippe to stoop when inside.
He swings open the plank door and pulls the man through the animal skins protecting the doorway. Pushed by the wind, snow rushes inside with them and covers the packed earth floor with a crystalline dusting. Philippe turns and pulls the door closed with a muffled thump and bars the door with two thick tree limbs cut to size. He wraps the braces with hemp and pulls the rope taut with the full weight of his body. Last, he ties off the rope to an exposed tree root the size of a man’s thigh, making their entombment almost perfect. Indeed, in a few moments, the temperature inside will become quite comfortable.
He places the man near the fire at the back. Built into the mountain wall, the hearth uses a natural ceiling vent to its advantage. Philippe spends most of the long winter nights captive in his lodge, sitting cross-legged before the hearth. He looks into its coals for endless hours, surviving on dried fish from the river, trying to drive away the darkness in his soul.
The man has not moved or spoken.