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Strip Away the Ice and Find the Tree Beneath



On a wintry night a year ago I took this unique photo and it’s one of my favourites. The white snow hugging the black branches lit by the streetlight in the distance shows that there’s more than one way for a tree to be gorgeous. It’s one of the reasons Canada’s seasons are such a joy.

Just as it is, with no changes brought about by those changing seasons, this tree would be spectacular but, as we all know, it can be so much more. It can stand against a beautiful blue sky lit by shafts of sunlight streaming through the clouds, its black branches tipped by little red seed pods just waiting to burst. It can be dressed in gorgeous green garb that almost hides its limbs completely. Or later that green can morph into orange or red or even yellow as autumn falls over the land. And then the leaves will skitter down and the skeleton will face winter once more.

This is a little like the writer’s job.

We look at the bare facts and see there is something intriguing there. The boy ran across the street after his dog. Why is he chasing his dog? How fast are they going? Is there any sound? From the boy or the dog? What is ahead of the dog? Or behind the boy? Can the writer smell anything? Hear anything?

In my novel The Loyalist Legacy, I used a story my father had told my cousin about some family history. He said his ancestor had invited a native woman inside her cabin and they left the papoose on the veranda outside and he met a bad end. Here is what I did with that story:

Catherine was just about to answer when a terrible cry broke their peace. She and Kiwidinok raced to the porch. A huge yellow cat of an animal crouched beside the wailing baby. It rested a giant paw on the tiny laced-in infant as though not at all sure what it had discovered. Kiwidinok howled and threw herself toward her wailing child but Catherine grabbed her and together they stared at the spiked ears with the telltale black tufts pointing straight up and the long mustard fur darkly spotted. The lynx looked toward the women but didn’t move its paw.

She thought of her rifle, as the animal’s eyes bore into her own in a staring contest the like of which she’d never before experienced. Her fingers tightened on Kiwidinok’s arm, pulling her back ever so slowly. “Shh,” she whispered, thinking to remove the threat and mollify the big cat.

But even though Kiwidinok retreated with her, the screaming went on, both hers and the child’s. Catherine willed calm into those cream and black eyes and forced deep breaths up from her own churning insides. That cat could be on them in the blink of an eye and then how could they help the child? She forced a smile.

And slipped inside. She grabbed the rifle, jerked it down, and shoved Kiwidinok aside. As she sighted along the barrel, the lynx’s eyes narrowed; it turned back to the whimpering baby. Her finger pulled the cold metal trigger but just as the shot fired a crushing blow smashed her left shoulder. She missed. Kiwidinok’s hand rested in mid air. “I thought…the baby.” The woman had destroyed her aim.

The lynx tore the child off its board and leaped off the end of the porch into the long grass around the corner of the cabin. Catherine grabbed up her rifle that had fallen and again pushed past Kiwidinok as she darted inside for bullets, knowing full well she couldn’t stop the lynx now. Outside, she raced after Kiwidinok who was already staggering around the corner.

At the front of the house they stopped and listened. Silence. They crept to the roadway. Nothing. Across the dusty strip. Still listening. Still nothing. Kiwidinok straggled along beside her, quiet at last, as she edged into the woods across the road. An eerie feeling gnawed at her innards. Was someone watching her? Or something?

Kiwidinok caught up to her. Gone was the calm and composed person who had sat across from her sipping tea just moments ago. Her hair tumbled about her face, frowsy and frazzled, her arms criss-crossed her breast, and her hands beat a soft tattoo on her arms. The worst was her eyes. Always beautiful, black, and brimming with joy, they exuded terror. Catherine pushed ahead.

She could see where the animal had dragged its find in the long grass. She dropped to study the ground. Was that blood? She stepped over it quickly, blocking Kiwidinok’s view. Not much farther along, she raised her arm and stopped. A soft crunching sound came from just up ahead in the trees. Her companion heard it, too, but this time kept quiet. They stepped closer, listening and looking.

Catherine checked the rifle but looked up when Kiwidinok strangled a sound. Ahead, partially hidden by the dead bottom branches of a tall pine, the lynx lay on the ground eating. She moved closer. The animal’s wide jaws opened to reveal for a second its terrible bloodied teeth before red paws stuffed the gaping maw once more. Kiwidinok slumped against her and she eased her to the ground.

The gun on her shoulder, she sighted once more, forced concentration, thought of Lucy’s instructive words, didn’t even breathe. This time she’d kill the beast. The trigger moved with a deadly silence until the sound erupted and the head of the lynx split into red bits flying up and floating down to the ground to settle on the already bloodied blanket of the tiny baby.

Kiwidinok groaned. Catherine knelt down and sat on the ground, cushioned by the coppery pine needles, and cradled the woman in her arms. She heard shouts from afar and knew that Migisi and the children had returned. She did not move.

Migisi crashed toward them through the woods, thankfully without the children, and when he reached them, she saw realization flood his features until he knelt over his wife and Catherine was no longer witness to his absolute despair. She pulled away, stood, walked a few steps closer to her kill. Her feet stopped, though, and she turned away. With the rifle lifeless in her hand, she limped home. 

From The Loyalist Legacy by Elaine Cougler

That story of my father’s was the seed for this upsetting scene and I think it did its work in this part of the book. I stripped away all else and showed the tragedy. The reader is totally on the native mother’s side. I will never again look at a picture of a lynx or the real thing without thinking of this story and the writer in me hopes you won’t either.


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