Death’s Golden Whisper
They arrived without warning on a perfect Indian Summer day. Marie and I were outside enjoying the rare autumn heat, the last before our northeast corner of the Outaouais was locked into winter. We were planting daffodil bulbs. Or more correctly, Marie was planting while I pretended, my interests slanting more towards soaking up the sun’s rays than doing actual work.
We were partway down the steep rocky slope that dropped into Echo Lake when they swooped over the forest canopy. Perhaps Marie heard them coming. I didn’t. One moment I was day dreaming, the next I was running for cover.
The first roar startled me into thinking we were under attack. By the time I realized it was only a floatplane swooping down to land on Echo Lake, a second plane was clipping the tops of the pine trees. At least, that’s what I thought, when a shower of dead needles rained down upon Marie and me.
“Get the hell away from my trees!” I shouted from behind a particularly solid wall of rock. These pines had survived forest fires and logging frenzies. The last thing I wanted was to have them destroyed by a couple of kamikaze pilots.
The second plane zoomed down close on the tail of the other, so close I feared they would collide. But neither attempted a landing. Instead, one behind the other, they raced above the flat water, then with deep howls arched back up in time to clear the giant trees of Whispers Island at the far end of the lake. The roar of their engines reverberated through the hills. A flock of ducks burst from behind the island.
With their wing tips shimmering in the autumn sun, the planes circled over the gold-drenched hills and back down towards the lake like giant ospreys, talons extended, zeroing in for the kill. Each landed this time, one after another, and skidded along the glass surface, sending a jet of spray into the air. They coasted past the empty shore of Whispers Island and disappeared behind the cliffs of Indian Point into a neighbouring bay.
Within seconds, several motor boats appeared from the north, from the direction of my neighbour, the Forgotten Bay Fishing Camp. They swerved past us and headed west across the half mile distance to Indian Point, to the bay where the planes had gone.
Unfazed by the planes, Marie remained on the exposed rock close to where I’d been planting. “See, only fishermen,” she said, laughing. “You think the trickster come to get you, eh?”
Her black eyes twinkled as she climbed to where I’d fled and offered her hand.
However, feeling like an idiot for overreacting, I declined her help and scrambled to my feet unaided.
She was right. The planes had to be bringing fishermen. It was the noise of their sudden and unexpected arrival that made me think it was something more threatening.
Marie brushed the long, brittle needles from her shoulders and arms. Several pierced her treasured red scarf, the one she always wore. She called it her dream kerchief, because it kept her dreams from flying away. I delicately plucked out the needles.
I moved her thick braids aside and swept the needles from her back. Some remained entangled in the loose weave of her sweater. I debated leaving them, but knowing Marie’s penchant for neatness, I eased them out carefully, so they wouldn’t pull on the worn threads. As for myself, I just shook like a dog, and with a few brisk swipes over my purple sweats considered myself clean.
“No time to stop, lots work left to do,” said Marie in the brusque tone she assumed when goading me into doing more work.
I rubbed my aching back, did a few deep knee bends and reluctantly returned to the rock ledge.
A third plane thundered overhead, but this one missed the pines and landed without fuss on the lake.
“Sure is a big fishing party.” I watched the plane taxi through the still water to join the other two planes behind Indian Point. “Must be in a hurry, if they can’t handle the two hour drive from Ottawa.”
“White man always in a hurry,” muttered Marie, obviously not wanting to miss an opportunity to add more ammunition to her side of our ongoing debate over the advantages of country living versus city. A debate she was winning, since I usually agreed.
She handed me my basket, more full than empty of daffodil bulbs. Although we’d been planting for much of the afternoon, we were barely past the mid-point of the steep incline that defined the edge of the Point. This massive mound of granite with its fringe of old growth pine extended like a giant finger into Echo Lake . My great-grandfather had christened it Three Deer Point. Although no one knew the origins of the name, I suspected — if the Harris family tales of Great-grandpa Joe were anything to go by — that it was to immortalize a successful hunt, not a romantic sighting of three deer.
This morning I’d had the great idea of banishing winter’s blahs with a cascade of spring yellow. Now, I was thinking a rivulet would do just fine.
We were following the stairs that led down to the dock. I was planting on one side of them, Marie, the other. I found it painstaking work and hard on a back not fully conditioned to manual labour. My knees hurt from kneeling on uncushioned rock. My bottom was sore from losing my balance on the uneven slope. Still, I was kind of proud of the number of scattered pockets of earth I’d populated with bulbs, even if I had been concentrating on my tan.
Marie, more used to physical work, crouched several rock ledges further down the hill. Despite her weight, she moved effortlessly over the steep, uneven slope. The shimmer from the lake cast her in a fiery halo, making her look almost ethereal.
I thought, as I often did, how lucky I was to have found Marie Whiteduck, or more correctly, to have been found by her. Shortly after I moved into Three Deer Point, she stood on my doorstep, a squat, solid mass of denim, ready to help make my great-aunt’s long vacant cottage livable. I couldn’t say no to the beseeching but determined look on her deeply lined face. Besides, I owed it to her mother, Whispering Pine, who’d spent a lifetime helping Aunt Aggie, my great-aunt.
However, as close as Marie and I had become, I couldn’t convince her to call me Meg, Margaret or even Ms. Harris. Instead Marie insisted on using “Missie”, and when she was feeling less sure of our relationship, “Miz Agatta Ojimisan”.
Although I was proud to be known as Agatha Harris’ Ojimisan, meaning grandniece, the name made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like being reminded of the gulf that separated us; Marie, an Algonquin Indian who’d spent most of her fifty-plus years on a reserve, and me, a Torontonian, just shy of forty, who was still adjusting to wilderness living.
Looking for an excuse to stop, I said, “You must be very proud of Tommy now that he has his law degree?”
“You bet. My boy’s gonna be a good lawyer,” Marie replied, but didn’t stop working. She continued tapping the earth with her trowel, then dug a new hole for the next bulb.
Realizing my ploy hadn’t worked, I inched down to another patch and began preparing it for the bulbs. “Has he found an articling job yet?”
“Yeah. Maybe. But he don’t tell me much these days.”
“That’s a change. I thought he was pretty open with you?”
“Yeah, used to be. But now he clam up. He get mad when I ask about the job. He away lots too and don’t say where he goes.”
“Sounds like his father.”
Marie stopped. “Louis’s a good man,” she said, lifting hurt eyes towards me, then she dropped her head and resumed digging.
I’d done it again. I should know better than to make any disparaging comment about her man. A month ago, I’d suggested partly as a joke that she should hide her money from him, since Louis seemed to be drinking it up faster than she could earn it. She wasn’t amused, didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.
A distant echo of engines caught my attention. I looked up to see a convoy of boats emerge from behind Indian Point. I watched them head towards Whispers Island and beach on the island’s only flat section of shoreline, a narrow spit of land that jutted out from the northern tip. Tiny figures, more like black dots from this distance, swarmed out of the boats. The wind brought the cough of dying motors and the smell of pine mixed with gasoline.
“Still think they’re fishermen?” I pointed to the no longer empty shore of Whispers Island.
Marie narrowed her eyes towards the island. “Where? I don’t see nothing.”
“It might help if you wore your glasses.”
Marie glared at me, then smiled weakly.
I suppose we all have our quirks of vanity. With Marie, it was her glasses. Said they made her look like a raccoon who’d been scared by a bear, which might have been apt, but who was I to confirm her worst fears. With me, it was my hair. Lately I’d taken to brightening up its greying brilliance with Flame by Clairol.
I watched the figures disappear into the shadow of the giant pines. Other than the ones on my property, they were the last of the ancient white pine that once covered every hill in sight. They extended along the backbone of Whispers Island, making it look like a sleeping porcupine, its tail the spit of land where the boats were beached.
“It looks like they’re checking it out,” I continued.
“What they do that for?”
“I don’t know, maybe they want to have a picnic?”
“Forbidden. Ancestors get mad. Go tell them to leave, Missie.” Marie stood up.
“But Marie, I can’t do that. It’s reserve land. Besides, they must have the Chief’s permission, they’re using his boats.”
“No, Miz Agatta Ojimisan. You tell them.” She started walking down the stairs towards the dock.
“Don’t be silly, Marie. I’ve got nothing to do with Whispers Island,” I shouted at her retreating back.
“Hurry!” Marie yelled up as she stepped onto the dock.
Before I had a chance to respond, Sergei, my on-again, off-again watchdog, suddenly erupted into a fit of barking. I scrambled up the stairs to see what had got my large but wimpy black poodle into such a state and was promptly greeted by the small, wiry figure of Louis limping towards me. He ignored the dog snapping at his legs.
He thrust his weather-eroded face into mine and demanded in his thick Quebecois accent, “Where my woman?” Without waiting for an answer, he brushed past me and down the stairs, leaving me in a wake of alcoholic fumes. I made a grab for the dog, but decided to let him snap at Louis. Sergei was a good judge of character.
It wasn’t more than a couple of minutes before Louis reappeared over the brow of the hill with a subdued Marie in tow. Head bowed, she never gave me a glance as she shuffled to the rusted metal box Louis called a truck.
An all too familiar feeling of dread washed over me. I didn’t move. I didn’t speak.
With a final challenge from his startling blue eyes, he slammed the door, rammed the gear into place and rumbled down the drive.
I whispered “Bastard” at the retreating car.
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