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SILHOUETTES AT DUSK
by Richard L. Provencher
5/27/2008 / Short Stories
Winter became a rage of stinging snow, as Grand Papa used his reserve of strength to keep the sleigh on its tracks. Heading up the hill earlier to retrieve cut wood left aside the road came too easily. At that time the snow was mere inches deep and the pace of his horses was surging power, able to secure proper footing.
Danger lurked as a rabid skunk seeking victims in the chill of this night. Both adults drew closer to grandchildren in a sleigh led by a pair of determined horses, nostrils steaming. Their return journey advanced on snow-piled layers, more like weighty blankets upon a slippery trail. And these usually sure-footed animals began to slip and slide from hidden icy ridges.
"Mon Dieu," Grand Papa wheezed. "Dis weather not so nice, eh, mes enfants?"
Mumbled answers sounded like "WeWe" carried to his ears. The children were French-Canadien. In reality, their responses of, "OuiOui," meant "YesYes" in English.
Many years before their grandfather, veteran of weather-hardened living, came from Northern Quebec. Two visits to this beautiful land called Nouvelle Ecosse convinced him to relocate here. And he purchased a thirty-five acre wooded parcel of land with ample room and resources to build his cabin for a life of future memories. Considered remote in the 1940's he survived in comfort along with other families and their descendants.
"It is so nice there, Mon Cherie," he said forty years before to his wife Camille, now snuggled beside him on the wagon.
"And cheap too. Dere is dis hill with some room for a pasture, hay, some cows. A fine woods too where we can chop our trees for not'ing. They can be lasting forever."
Before long Camille accompanied her husband to this new province, on the promise of a cozy log cabin, with a scenic view of the valley. Part of their plan was to raise a household of babies. But it was not to be. Only one daughter was born and when she turned eighteen, she returned to Quebec.
Year's later tragedy struck their daughter and husband, and their orphaned children were placed temporarily with relatives. Due to an abundance of space, it was decided 'les enfants' must move to Nova Scotia and live with their grandparents.
Camille's heart remained full of songs, with a robust husband and growing grandchildren by her side. She was satisfied in this land of plenty. Where their garden, crops and hard work sustained them.
Grand Mama had been the one to insist their daughter's young ones come to live with them until they were grown. She knew two active children needed space to roam. And very soon, Grand Papa was able to teach the boy the ways of a small farm in the woods. The boy had shown a willing spirit and grew to love his grandparents.
Even Monique learned valuable lessons. Grand Mama was able to show her grand daughter the advantages of cooking in a fine country kitchen. And she too learned about the importance of satisfying appetites for two hard-working men.
But now Camille's man was getting old. And they missed friendship from neighbors who moved to nearby towns, no longer able to work the land. She knew her husband's shoulder also limited his activities due to recent bouts of arthritis. For forty-three years Camille tried her best to keep him healthy, as was her duty.
Good food, especially pea soup and the love of growing grandchildren kept spirits high. And raising two healthy children fulfilled her husband in his older years.
"We are soon to arrive home," Grand Papa said, interrupting her thoughts. "Den we can escape dis storm." His dear Camille was such a blessing. He looked at her through falling flakes of snow. And touched her cheek gently, unable to feel the softness of skin through his mitt. Her returning smile produced a warm glow in his chest and he grunted with satisfaction.
"The children," she said. "They are very cold. Watch the tracks. Our horses are having a most difficult time."
'Harry' was a strawberry Roan and 'Kit', a race trotter saved from the Glue Factory. They were recent gifts from English neighbors, for two people with the courage to take on the responsibility of raising two young grandchildren. Besides, Grand Papa's old horse was happy to be allowed to spend his last days in a corral beside the cabin. Certainly he was not going to miss the challenge of trails in hilly terrain, a difficult journey for any horse with aging legs.
Snow continued to persist in a flood of snowflakes upon all four people. For the children it meant absorbing the wonder of a magical scene as they traveled along through what seemed a sky full of white fireflies. Grand Mama cuddled closer to her husband.
"The weather is hard on my bones too," she murmured, wrapping loving arms around her grandchildren.
"How much longer, Grand Mama?" Monique asked feebly. She was a slender young girl of nine. Her flowing blond hair hid under the hood of her jacket. She could barely wait to finish baking tonight. Homemade cookies for everyone would bring many smiles.
Henri was eleven and very much the protecting brother. He proved it often as his snowshoe tracks were like patterns of thread within this hilly country. It was also his duty to be watchful and supervise his sister as they completed chores and played games together. In Quebec, his name was pronounced 'Ah-Ri.' But here, school chums called him "Henry."
Both children learned to enjoy living in the roughness of woods ever since their parents died of Tuberculosis, in Ville Marie, Quebec. After that sadness and much talking they eagerly agreed to go live with Grand Papa and Grand Mama. "Dat fresh air will be good for you too," Grand Papa said at the time. Years later, they continued to agree.
It was fortunate in this evening of snowflake-onslaught, the children had bundled up in heavy coats and scarves. However the wind continued to give them a jolting surprise, dropping icicle-chills down warm backs.
"Welcome to a winter storm, in the woods of Nova Scotia!" came as a sudden shout of exuberance from Henri. It was also a true message, which spoke of the rapidly changing weather conditions in this part of the province. He was also proud of his knowledge of English, a welcome addition to his French heritage.
Their log cabin almost in the center of their property was a quarter of a mile from the nearest neighbor. It was a testimony to its construction that the old cabin remained sturdy after all these years. And the extra-strengthened roof easily sustained any accumulating snow.
Everyone knew the waiting Quebec heater would soon be red hot, and they could relax in its warmth. Anxious breaths exhaled impatiently for wet clothes to be soon hung close to the heat to dry. Perhaps Ah-Ri would have time for a game of checkers with Grand Papa, before retiring for the night.
Tall pine trees and birch near their home grew in bunches and provided for cooking and heating needs over many years. First, the log home was built, then the barn; afterwards a shelter for storage of firewood. The hammering of a chopping axe was a familiar sound as it echoed in strength against the hills.
At first deer rushed off, caution in their movements. Then lingering as they investigated the new presence in their once quiet woods. Often a raccoon or bear watched from the shelter of a favorite tree. And before long, wildlife accepted this family as new neighbors and no longer intruders. There was a partnership bonded in mutual acceptance. The children learned to bond with their natural surroundings.
"Finally," Monique said as both horses stamped noisily in front of their almost empty wood shelter.
Everyone shook off layers of snow, scrambled from the wagon and began stacking their precious cargo. Inactive bodies had a chance to warm up through busy bending and carrying wood to its destination. The ways of the outdoors demanded all do their share.
As usual Ah-Ri tried to carry more than his young arms should attempt.
"Wait, my little one," said Grand Papa. "We are four here. You must let us help together in dis task."
Before long both horses were unhitched, placed in their stalls, then given fresh water and hay. Afterwards each family member raced for the cabin, arms bundled with a load of firewood.
"I go fill de 'eater so we soon be like warm toast," Grand Papa promised. He knew everyone had similar thoughts. Soon, it did become very warm, as melting snow-drenched clothes hissed and smoked as they hung close to the fireplace.
The evening progressed through various stages. From excitement over Monique's snack of sugar cookies and Grand Mama's hot chocolate, to ghost stories around the hot stove.
Eyelids faltered, cups returned to the sink and crumbs swept up. GrandPapa's snoring from the couch signaled it was time for everyone to be sleeping. And to succumb to their own private dreams. A forceful wind whistled and grunted against the log cabin. Its front door was almost overwhelmed by drifting snow.
Sometime during the night, Henry awakened. Something did not seem right. An alertness triggered fear, which began to rise from within his chest. A variety of half-completed thoughts raced through his mind. Some seemed silly. And, right now he didn't really care about how anyone pronounced his name. He smelled something. Yes, it was smoke.
Not far away, crackling sounds were much different than those within the security of a stove. Surely it was not a house fire as he was used to hearing tales about during cookouts in the woods? In school he also learned one should not sit up during any smoke danger. But roll off the bed.
This he did, except he forgot he was on the top bunk. Henry hit the floor with enough noise to wake everyone up. He was certain their dog was barking outside their home. Henry covered his mouth as he tried to shake his sister awake. Monique was not moving at first, until he slapped her face several times.
"Why did you do that, Ah-Ri?" she asked. Her brother had never done this before. And tears began to roll down her cheeks.
"Hush Monique. Listenlisten." Henry didn't wish to make her cry. But, it was getting very hot in here. The word "Fire!!" escaped his lips with a thunderous shout. Now she completely understood the panic both shared. Where were his grandparents? After the loud crash Henri made, falling out of bed, they should be close by.
The children began to choke as they crawled across the floor, stumbling into furniture. Moving in the right direction was difficult beneath a blanket of smoke. They moved slowly into the next room, finally able to feel Grand Papa and Grand Mama's faces.
But they were not moving. Nothing the children did could get a sound from their much-loved surrogate parents. Monique and Ah-Ri tried desperately to drag them from their bed. But it was no use. It was so dark in their grandparent's room then suddenly a flash of red advanced towards them.
Henry knew he and Monique must get out, and very quickly, too. He pulled his sister close and flung her onto his back like a sack of flour, surprised at his strength. Then he paused for a brief moment in prayer before making a hurried dash hoping to penetrate the wall of flame.
"If only" he thought, not realizing his life was but a memory in the instant he turned into a piece of burnt toast.
From her window in the barn, the milking cow watched the cabin turn from a dark cloud of anger, to bright yellow. She sensed somehow never again would she feel the sure hands of her master, as rich milk spilled into a waiting bucket.
After continuous barking from smoke-filled lungs, the dog decided to leave the scene and seek help. He too sensed he would never again hear the laughter of two children who enjoyed playing with him.
It seemed proper to leave everything as a sanctuary for lives lost that winter night. Years passed swiftly through seasons of natural outdoor growth. Whispers of conversation traveled throughout the valley. About grandparents and two children, who lived on a winding road that climbed Onslow Mountain. The tale of tragedy was even used as a skipping rope song sung by area Elementary School children.
Their message during playtime continues to resonate through nursery rhymes in a frankness that translates the tragedy into an epic:
"Ah-Ri and Monigue," they said.
"One, two, three and four. Fire! Fire!
Please, don't burn me any more."
Yet, each night for many seasons, as the sun goes down there is a different message. It comes as a flock of geese landing regularly in a fallow field belonging to the old farm. Something about the area provides a soothing for tired wings, anxious for respite after a harrowing flight. And this landing area developed into a favorite during their season's journey.
It was a safe haven, with sheltering trees grown thicker over the years. Even the sweet taste of water from a hidden pond provided precious moisture. Trout silhouettes swam swiftly beneath the surface, lily pads taking root along the bank and frogs providing artful burping.
Loons often swam in silence upon the tranquil pond, heads upraised, as if awaiting the once familiar laughter of a family. Where deer continue to be regular visitors at this vacant land, drawn to the aroma of apple-laden trees. No one desired to purchase the acreage, which allowed the house to collapse from natural erosion and settle in a final resting place. Now all that was left from years of hard work was the outline of a stone foundation. A memory not in vain.
Sturdy Dandelions filled in most of the vacant spots. St. Anne's lace grew in clusters on the north side, where the small porch used to be. Passing eyes noticed tiny shoots within the ancient foundation. But each season of moisture and sunshine encouraged a stubborn upward growth.
One evening, during a hike with his own grandparents, a child noticed something different on the old farm. "Look," the boy said. "Four trees all together."
Indeed, there was distinctive growth from once young shoots, reaching up from the sadness that once was. When discussed area families agreed it must be each tree represented the tragedy of four humans lost one terrible night, so long ago.
From various angles, the larger two spruce trees could be seen from a distance. It wasn't long before they were named after Grand Papa and Grand Mama.
The shorter two spruces were really one trunk that grew strongly in two directions. They were named for Henry, a loving brother and his sister Monique. Four silhouettes at dusk are a reminder of a loving family who once lived here.
* * *
Richard & Esther Provencher 2007
Richard enjoys writing poems; many of which have been published in Print and Online. He and his wife, Esther are also co-authors of stories and a print novel. They are "born again" Christians and very busy in their church, Abundant Life Victory International, in Bible Hill, Nova Scotia.
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