Récollets

The good brother Gabriel Sagard sat behind a young scout named Andatayon, and collected himself. He was watching eddies dance in the wake of his companion’s withdrawn paddle, ruminating their mysterious creation. Andatayon had used his new steel blade—a gift from Sagard, who wanted to start things off right—to craft his new paddle, starting from a sturdy piece of driftwood that he found on the river’s bank, and just last night he started to carve markings into its shaft and grip. Alas, it bore no similes of Jesus Christ the crucified, and yet the beauty of its heretic glyphs could not be denied. Between these marks, the strange man who made them, and the delicate curls of water they both espoused, Sagard was struck by the latent grace of unrestrained wilderness. He felt renewed hope for his mission.

La Rivière du Canada was certainly great, rival to those in the Moluccas or the Antipodes, and its navigation required an intimate knowledge of its ebbs and flows. Sagard and his companions—a group of Houendot scouts meant to guide him to his new home—were seated in narrow vessels made of tree bark and fish glue, labouring their way towards Houadonia, a land only a handful of French had ever seen. Thankfully their party’s lead canoe was adept at choosing river lanes with minimal resistance, and their pace was consistent.

Of considerable surprise to Sagard was the placement of his interpreter, Étienne Brûlé, at the bow of this lead canoe. It was likely justified however; both the Houendots and Brûlé had shown nothing but patience and affability. To the Frenchman’s credit, the otherwise implacable savages seemed to consider him as one of their own. Yet as a fait accompli it was not very surprising. Stories of these strange painted men, the sole inhabitants of a bedeviled land, had well preceded them, but so did those regarding the scoundrel known as Brûlé, who had been living amongst them for years.

Brûlé stood in his canoe, put one leg on the crossbeam to steady himself, and raised his hand to obscure the afternoon sun. He was looking at a distant shore. Although he still bore culottes, his skin was deeply tanned, his beard was trimmed to the nub, and his dress incorporated many pieces of hide and beadwork. From a distance, Brûlé almost would have passed for a Houendot turned French.

Andatayon gazed at their newest scout with a display of serious inquiry and called up, “Daigh’ton’tah?”, but Brûlé just kept his hand pressed to his brow and cooly remarked, “A’a, yo sa hah… to ro to’. A’ hada’ uraha’, huneroti’”. At this cue, Andatayon turned his head to address Sagard behind him, and in his rigid and stilted cadence said, “Wa’so… pou’ la chas’”. He then uttered some instructions to their canoe’s third rower, a hearty man whose face was painted red and black with rich pigments, and whose name Sagard to his own embarrassment had failed to learn. The man nodded “Hao’”, and their trajectory changed.

Musing Andatayon’s syllables, Sagard hoped to decipher some meaning. It wasn’t until he could see the shore Brûlé had pointed out—which contained a flock of large and vibrantly colored birds—that they would truly resonate. Oiseaux… Pour la chasse. They were pulling toward shore to procure dinner.

Once landed, Brûlé approached him and said, “We’ve spotted a flock of cranes, which could make for a good feast. Once we make camp, I’ll join the hunters. I was hoping you would keep watch on our provisions.” Sagard obliged, growing ever more impressed at Brûlé’s full immersion into the customs of the tribe. After settling on a decent site, each man got to work. He watched as everyone dutifully carried out their role, whether it was finding flat stones to pound maize, or selecting the proper wood that would easily yield fire. Once their camp was set the hunting party left, and he sat by their small fire, more than ready to eat fresh game.

The other friars at Quebec had given him a modest supply of sea biscuits, which to mark an honorable beginning to a long journey, he had shared with his companions. It was an act of charity, and not to be rued, but evidently they quite enjoyed the foreign food; as of two nights past, their store was all used up. He wondered how these itinerant savages could have such a reckless appetite. He had not eaten since, and subsisted by sucking kernels of dried corn proffered by Andatayon or the others. Having seen them prepare their sagamité several times already, adding days old unscaled fish, and cooking in kettles that once served as canoe chamber pots, he did not look forward to its future prominence in his diet.

Twilight began to mingle with the trees, and he could see the ink spot silhouettes of bats scurry across the graded sky. His hunger was almost lessened by the air itself, humid and thick with pollen from hundreds of midsummer flowers in full bloom. These northern lands had a surprisingly oppressive summer heat, and with it an abundance of mosquitos and midges, which forced him to pull his rough wool cloak over his head.

Stifled yet free to collect himself, he put his back to the hard ground as close to the fire as he could bear and tried to relax. Thoughts of Saint Francis materialized, about voyages across the Italian countryside.

Those promenades instilled in Saint Francis the far-reaching humility that would guide his career of reverence and lift him to the status of the immortals. Sagard wished to recapitulate the esoteric lessons of his long departed mentor, and immerse himself in the splendor of God’s creation. He wanted to acquire the clarity and ranking of saintly thought.

However, as a lay brother, he knew he must climb many rungs just to make the register. This realization often swayed him from more productive meditations, but was nonetheless often unavoidable.

Even as a young man, Sagard mused the absurdity of such echelons, and the entitlements they enabled. The equality of all men was self-evident—given a proper morality—but equal opportunities were a different story all together. This line of thinking is what eventually led him to join the Récollets, whose founding mandate extolled a pious and unique freedom. Certainly his order had developed its own subtle hierarchy, but as a missionary he would scarcely have to concern himself with this. He needed only concern himself with God’s will, and carry out his work dutifully.

Undeniably, it was the lure of inhabiting an untouched land, utterly free from the schemes and fabricated divisions of Europe, that brought him to his present location. This insight had already brought him solace in the face of many discomforts, as it certainly would in the days and months to come.

The echo of a discharged harquebus reached Sagard’s ears and his stomach grumbled with anticipation. Surely some birds were felled. Indeed, with the night’s darkness came sharp howls from the savage hunters, howls whose intensity heightened with proximity, and continued until the party finally emerged from the woods with a good store of birds.

He tried to ignore his companions as they prepared the meat. They piled it on the ground and cooked it on the raw coals of the fire, leaving it filthy and only barely palatable. Even with a dire hunger, he stripped his share of its sullied outer layers and fed them to the dogs, leaving himself just a few tender morsels. As he finished eating, Brûlé approached him with an air of apprehension and said, “I realize you have yet to achieve any comfort with these men’s efforts, but you must at least recognize them.”

Sagard was aghast at the directness of the comment, which gave Brûlé time to elaborate. “It’s uncouth to toss hard-won game to the hounds, you must eat what’s offered, lest you offend. They may go to great lengths to hide their contempt, but rest assured that is how they feel. On my end, I would rather—if you don’t already—that you realize just how long, and just how hard this journey is. I would rather you were well fed, so you can meet the upcoming trials. Soon we’ll come to the first of many long portages, and I hope you’ll bear your share of the burden. I’m sorry to be so frank, please realize that I am only trying to help. As you’ll see, these people stem from a very large and powerful nation, and it would be in our best interest if we could encourage their alliance.”

Imagine the nerve of this unrepentant sinner, accusing a lay brother, lowly servant to the Almighty, here to spread the light of the gospel to the savage heathens, of lacking in humility!

Brûlé was certainly no better than they, with the exception that his devotion to ignorance was folly. Presumably he grew up under the eye of the Lord, seeing as he was wore the Agnus Dei around his neck.

Lamb of God indeed! What bad faith! This lustful wretch had no right to don such a holy piece! It presented any number of conflicts that he would have to overcome whilst leading the savages to their salvation, especially given his immersion in the tribe, and the trust that came with it.

Yet, as he pondered Brûlé’s brusque admonition, it suddenly dawned on him that acceptance to the tribe may come at a price—that of eroding one’s ties to decency, to God. Surely, however, it was not the only way…

Sagard’s thoughtful reticence was focused on the idol hanging from Brûlé’s chain. Having noticed this, Brûlé looked to his chest, shrugged, and said, “I know what’s on your mind friend, and I ask that you bear with me. I’ve got a job to do, and my own tactics to succeed. Rest assured that I’m also a penitent man, with the same mores as you or anyone else.” Sagard could see that Brûlé was no fool, even given his reputed sins; he was wily, and would clearly admit to nothing. He settled on the modest remark that it was a beautiful charm, and thanked Brûlé for his advice.

“Would you like to hear a story?” Brûlé removed the chain from his neck. “It’s about this medallion, which my mother gave me before I left home. As it turns out, this trinket has more than just worldly value.” Sagard turned to attention, admittedly curious about Brûlé’s conception of the otherworldly, and asked him to continue.

“Well as it goes, I was sent to the land of the Andastoerrhonon tribe, where I was meant to recruit a host of warriors to help in our,” and here Brûlé swept out his arm, indicating their companions, “war against the Haudenosaunee. Our destination was many leagues to the south, and we had no choice but to risk travelling deep into enemy lands. We hoped to avoid it, but our group was ambushed by a group of Seneca scouts. Thankfully, it only took one blast from my gun to subdue them with terror. In the end, we captured two and brought them with us as proof of our seriousness. Those poor souls, turns out the Andastoerrhonon are just as vicious as our Houendots, and deal out the same barbaric punishments.”

He heard the rumors from the other friars at Quebec, but coming from Brûlé their full import hit him. Barbaric punishments. He was now among a truly lost people, at their mercy.

“Finally we arrived in good order, but our return was delayed because the Andastoerrhonon chiefs were too concerned with honouring our arrival—and dealing with the captives…

“To come to the point, we failed to convince the tribe of our urgency, the war party never set out, and I ended up staying with those men for almost a full year, exploring their territory as far south as Florida. The story itself is about my return from those journeys.

“You see, when I was ready, the Andastoerrhonon provided six scouts to take me back north, to where you and I are headed, but midway through our journey we were waylaid by a band of Senecas. My companions fled in terror and abandoned me, but I also managed to escape, only to find myself lost deep in enemy lands. Enough time went by that I started to think my case hopeless, wandering alone, and without any supplies. Then, I stumbled on some Seneca fishermen, whose language is familiar enough to me that I somehow convinced them to bring me—peaceably—to their village for an introduction.

“Well as you may have guessed already, the Senecas are a fickle tribe, and that plan went sour. I ended up tied to a tree, prey to their torturous whims…

“Fortunately they made an attempt at interrogation, which allowed providence to yield a way out. The preliminaries were awful enough—to ensure that I was being truthful they tore my beard out, and singed my skin with hot sticks—but my agonies ended there. The tribe’s chief approached, and was looking at this very medallion as it hung from my neck, when I stated with all the authority I could muster:

“‘If you touch that, you and all your race will die!’

“It gave the chief pause, and he mused my words for a brief time, but he persisted anyway. He plucked the medallion from my chest, and made a show of inspecting its inscriptions.

“Let me tell you at this point I gave up. I had thrown a bluff, but it was my last, and the only thing left was to die. In what I took to be my final moments, I even recited la Benedicte.”

At this last detail Sagard smirked, which caught the attention of the proud man before him. Brûlé held his gaze and continued, “I admit, it was the only prayer I could remember, but I sought it out regardless, and earnestly. And then, when the chief decided he would keep the medallion, and tore the chain from my neck, just then a crack of lightning struck in the sky behind me! And thunder clapped! And the Senecas were beside themselves with terror. The torture was called off, I was received forthwith, and my damages were put to mend.

“I spent a good deal of time with those people as I recovered, but as soon as possible I set out northward, having told them I wanted to rejoin the French colony, but also promising to return for trade.”

Brûlé’s yarn was humbling, but Sagard nevertheless felt incredulous. He had witnessed storms develop quickly in this new world, and it was obvious that Brûlé was the type who might seek an advantage from that very tendency. Besides, there was no guarantee that Brûlé’s story was even true, and it’s not like he could ask their companions about its veracity. He decided to tread lightly before doing any prodding, and commended Brûlé for his bravery at the hands of his captors. Brûlé mulled the compliment and replied, “Thank you for your kind words, but I’m not sure that’s what spurred me. In any case, having come this far, it’s always given me much to reflect on.”

Just as Sagard was about to subdue his suspicions and ask Brûlé to expand his remark, Andatayon appeared and set his hand to Brûlé’s shoulder, who excused himself, and turned to his fellow scout to say, “Heh’?”. After he and Andatayon conferred, Brûlé turned back to say, “Sorry Gabriel. Andatayon informed me that I have we have to arrange tonight’s watch, seeing as our goods are not safe here. What was it you wanted to say?”

The moment had passed, and he could see their companions laying out, so Sagard just replied, “Nothing. There’s no rush.” With nobody to talk to, he too laid to rest. Again he was torn between the possibility of feeling the cool evening breeze, or keeping the mosquitos at bay. Again he opted to delve into his cloak and sweat it out until he fell asleep; those creatures truly were incessant.

With the fire dying, darkness set in. Unable to sleep, he turned on his back and looked up through the small gap in his cloak’s hood, chasing the moon’s waning crescent through the swaying treetops. Finally his mind drifted off to the celestial plane, only to resettle in a strange but similar place.

It was dusk, and a hazy sunset gave the sky a smouldering orange glow. He stood amidst a village of long huts made from tree branches and bark, intersected by well-trodden dirt paths, and reigned in by a wall of spiked logs rising fathoms from the ground. Savage men kept brushing past him, and were gathering in a clearing in the town’s centre, surrounding some kind of central figure or event. Sharp howls pierced his eardrums as the men jockeyed for position to get a better look. Finally he was grabbed by the arm and implored to go on.

After drifting through a sea of scarlet faces, glittering wampum, and vibrant porcupine quills, he came to be face à face with Brûlé, who looked pitiful to say the least, seeing as he was tied to a stake, and he was burned, bruised, and lacerated. He had also grown considerably older. He was broader, sturdier, and his jawline was more refined. What’s more, he wore an unkempt beard that was speckled with grey hairs.

It occurred to him that the tribesmen wanted him to question Brûlé; they wanted the scoundrel to admit that he’d betrayed their nation’s dearest ally.

Sagard had no idea why he was given this task, or what exactly they wanted him to find out. He’d only recently met Brûlé, and believed him to be an ally of God—or at least one undeserving of this treatment. The others around him became more and more agitated as he delayed, and finally he was pushed aside and fell to his knees. He regained his senses, and looked up to see an aged Andatayon in a pagan fury, ripping out a fistful of hair from Brûlé’s beard, and making a last frenzied demand in that same indecipherable tongue.

Wincing with pain, Brûlé looked the chief in the eye, then slowly, quietly at first, he began to laugh. It was a piercing laugh, one that gradually overtook the raucous meeting around him. All were dumbfounded by this laughter, which seemed to break loose from some hitherto inaccessible depth within Brûlé. The laughter continued, and was reaching its crescendo, when the chief broke free from its spell, and in one swift movement shoved his good steel blade into Brûlé’s stomach, silencing him.

Just as Brûlé was being quartered, the very same man put his hand to Sagard’s shoulder and gently roused him from his sleep. “Let’s go Gabriel, time to wake up! We will eat a little something, and then set off. I trust you rested well?” Sagard assured him that his sleep was deep. Indeed, vivid memories of his dream still hung in his mind, but thankfully these were fading quickly.

One last thought remained, a question. Why had God in his infinite wisdom set those horrid images before him? What could it possibly signify? He would have to think on it. Having thus decided to go for a small walk before they set off, he said as much to Brûlé, who assented only hesitantly, warning him not to get lost.

He picked his way through a small belt of trees, and quickly found himself in a sweeping meadow full of wild grasses and flowers. He followed the tree line and discovered a bush full of blueberries, those Brûlé had told him to watch out for. He ate his fill, then used the fringe of his cloak to gather more for his companions. As he harvested the delicious fruit, he mused his surroundings, and decided this land was better than any he’d ever seen. It would take a good deal of hard work, but he would have no trouble in making a home for himself here. Surely he would have to learn the savage tongue if he planned on successfully spreading the light of the gospel, but he was up to the task.

He wondered about their word for God. The gulf separating him from these men was wider than he expected. And that included, most astonishingly, the deviant Frenchman Brûlé.

They set out soon after he found his way back, but not before Brûlé explained their plans for the next few days. They would reach Cap Victoire before dusk in order to replenish supplies, and probably spend the night. They would then head for the confluence into the Ottawa river. They would most likely be in sight of Mont Réal as soon as the next evening.

He was glad to hear this, as he yearned to journey inland. He wanted to explore the remains of the legendary city Hochelaga, where Cartier made first contact with the new world heathens, and introduced them to the light of the one true faith. Alas, he knew Brûlé would never condone such a frivolous detour. It was clear he would have to make the pilgrimage some other time…

By mid-afternoon the river had broadened into a vast churning lake, and in the distance Sagard could see the tendrils of smoke that marked their destination. Cap Victoire was little more than a few humble timber buildings next to a small tributary, but it was well maintained, with a garden plot, and a few pot bellied pigs in a small pen. There were few enough Frenchman there, and none that were known to Sagard. Brûlé could not place them either, but they seemed to recognize him. They exchanged looks amongst themselves upon hearing his name. Regardless, they proved good friends, and let him pack whatever items were deemed necessary. They also asked that he and Brûlé take a bed for the night, and join them for dinner.

The trading post was also playing host to a large group of Montaignais who insisted on questioning Brûlé and Andatayon about what prospects lay in Quebec. Before answering, Brûlé and Andatayon conferred, then Brûlé broke off to have a quick word with Sagard, “The Montaignais are curious about our provisions from Quebec. They know we have many valuables, and are therefore not to be trusted. We will try and barter for one or two of their dogs, and tell them what they want to hear, but I’m afraid we’ll also have to double our watch on the canoes tonight. That means you’ll have to fend for yourself again.”

He kindly informed Brûlé that he would be joining the Frenchmen for dinner inside, and most likely spending the night there as well. Brûlé nodded his assent, but before returning to arrange his watch said, “Please rest well Gabriel, we’ll probably not linger here, I suspect we’ll be leaving in the morning.”

That night was a breath of familiar air. His French brethren provided fresh-caught whitefish fried in butter, salt and pepper. In France this was humble fare, but in the present environment, it was a meal for kings. The feast also included wine, and as the night proceeded, the stories became bawdier. Before long Brûlé’s name appeared, so Sagard retired to his bunk and slept as soundly as ever.

True to his word Brûlé roused him just past sun up, and they emerged from the cabin to see the others packing the canoes. Brûlé said, “Come and have some sagamité,” and quickly added, “Don’t worry, I helped prepare it. I made sure to throw some of your blueberries in it, and we used a clean kettle. It’s really not that bad.” Sagard gathered his things from the cabin, and quietly thanked the others inside, telling them not to get up. He then joined his group for a quick breakfast before they set out.

Later that afternoon, as they were rowing their way into a smaller tributary that would take them into the Ottawa confluence, they came upon some river-barring rock formations jutting forth into the river’s path. He anticipated their first portage, and accordingly, they came as close to the rocks as they could, and pulled their canoes in. The men congregated on shore, and fell into a serious conversation, leaving Sagard to ponder its subject. Finally Brûlé pulled him aside to say one thing, “We are going to linger here a while, the reason will become obvious to you shortly.”

He walked away to unpack three large bails of leafy plants—tobacco, presumably—from the front of his canoe. The tobacco was distributed to each member of their party, who had begun to apply colourful stains to their faces and bodies, mixing their pigments in the same kettles they’d used to prepare breakfast. They did this solemnly, and spoke very little. Much to his dismay, Brûlé stripped his vest and shirt, and their companions painted his forehead, cheeks, chest and arms with alternating lines of vivid yellow and deep crimson. Each man then grabbed their portion of tobacco, and followed a familiar route to the rocky banks upriver.

One outcropping was prominent among the others. It was huge, and resembled a human form with outstretched arms, with its lower half framed by frothing white water. The colourful men picked their way from rock to rock, and gathered on a small projection at its base. Sagard decided to remain in the fringe of the woods, where he still had shade from the late afternoon sun. He walked a ways upriver until his gaze was parallel with the rocky break in the surging river. He wanted a better view of the proceedings.

Andatayon stood on the small pedestal at the rocky figure’s base, holding two fistfuls of tobacco aloft in the mist, whereupon he spoke some proud words and sung a pagan song. He took a knee and touched his forehead to the ground, tobacco still in hand, and spoke more incantations. Finally, he rose from his supplicant position, and cast the plants into the falling water. Each man did the same, even Brûlé, who for a split second before casting his spoil, raised his eye to Sagard’s, and winked.

There was no question that Brûlé was an enigmatic fellow, but surely he knew the penalty for participating in this devilry! And to make light of it, as though it were all some kind of joke! The man had gone too far. Nevertheless, the story from two nights past, bolstered by its harrowing dreamscape, continued to ring through Sagard’s mind.

The ceremony ended, and the men left their idol. They filed past him one by one, with Brûlé last in line, who paused, putting his arm to Sagard’s shoulder, and spoke quietly, “I implore you Gabriel, don’t ask.” He then followed after the others, leaving the good brother some time to collect his thoughts.

Sagard stood watching the swift currents tumble past the makeshift deity, and realized that God may indeed have shown Brûlé the precipice of death.

Perhaps the Almighty had led Brûlé to the torturous Senecas, and intervened at the precise right moment, not as a lesson however, but rather as a warning. Perhaps Brûlé had been tested, not to bolster his penitence, but more so because he represented some form of threat, and needed to be shown his place. Either way, Brûlé failed to appreciate the generosity of their Lord Saviour.

He turned back toward the canoes, deciding he would have to collect himself once more, and try to access a perspective larger than his own. Perhaps then he could gain a view into Brûlé’s soul, and know whether he acted out of good faith, or bad.