Translated by: Renée Masson
Artwork by Jimmy Perron
On his way to school every morning, Pitaa walks down the road that runs alongside the river. When he goes by Louise’s place, he turns his head slightly, hoping to see her. And there she is. Standing at the window, with her cup of coffee in hand, she smiles at him. Then Pitaa takes off running to join back up with the band of happy, chattering children. Louise spends a moment studying the snowy tundra. The grey water of the river that snakes toward the sea, the boats moored along the shore, the sleeping dogs, the carcasses of abandoned snowmobiles.
Pitaa is one of her students. Louise has fifteen of them, boys and girls, between ten and twelve years old. She teaches grade five. Pitaa’s the one who pays the least attention, who dreams the most, who sleeps with his heading resting on his desk. School doesn’t interest him. It’s been three months since school started and he’s hardly said anything to her at all. When Louise asks him a question, he doesn’t answer. Time’s going by, and Pitaa isn’t learning math or geography or music, and he still doesn’t speak French.
Pitaa is sometimes absent for several days. If Louise asks the students where he is, they just shrug their shoulders or point towards the tundra. Then he’s back, without giving any explanations. And without fail, he goes back to his daydreams. When he finally emerges from them, he casts Louise a look with his velvety black eyes—and she’s charmed. There’s nothing she can do. She excuses his absences and his inner wanderings and she tells herself that somehow she will find a way to arouse his interest in school.
In a few days, Louise will visit the families to give the parents their children’s report cards. She takes advantage of a period during which the children have a class on Inuit culture to go over the children’s files and jot down what she’d like to mention when she meets with the parents. Réjeanne, the staff’s most senior member, is preparing some math exercises for her students. She’s an ex-nun, in her fifties, almost six feet tall and around 200 pounds. She has salt-and-pepper hair that she keeps very short. She walks briskly, speaks loudly, laughs loudly and profusely, and makes sweeping gestures. Réjeanne is not afraid of the cold or the blizzards. In summer, she is not alarmed by the black flies or the deer flies. She taught at the Catholic residential school in Fort George, where she took care of the Cree. When the institution shut its doors in the 50s, Réjeanne asked to go to the Inuit. Bestowed with a strong adventurous spirit, she nurtured her dream of evangelizing “the most forsaken people in the world,” as she used to say. Réjeanne was one of the first people hired by the federal government to teach in the English school system that was established in the northern communities. Then when the provincial government opened its own schools in the same communities at the beginning of the 70s, Réjeanne joined the ranks of the francophone school board. Francization, teaching good manners, and cooking replaced her mission of evangelization. The North is her life. The Inuit are her children.
“Are you going to see all the parents?” Réjeanne asks, getting up.
“Yes,” Louise replies.
“Better if you said nothing about Pitaa. That’s just the way it is and it won’t change. Don’t waste your time—don’t even go. His father will scare you. Do you have your dish for the potluck?”
Without even waiting for Louise’s response, she gathers up a bundle of papers and leaves the teachers’ room. Shit, I forgot my macaroni salad, thinks Louise, who quickly tidies up her things because she’ll have to run back to her place. The community lunch is an established affair meant to encourage a sense of connection amongst the teachers. “We’ve got to stick together here,” Réjeanne told her when she arrived. Louise prefers to eat alone at home, listen to a little music, and read. But she doesn’t want to offend anyone by going off on her own.
Louise takes advantage of the collective meal to ask questions about Pitaa’s dad. They’ve seen him, from afar. They’ve heard about him, but no one has approached him.
“He’s a hunter who’s well-respected all along the coast” states Robert, a skinny little guy, who wears horn-rimmed glasses. Robert’s introverted and shy and has been in the North for four years.
“He’s a great traveller—he saved the community when the Inuit were suffering from famine,” says Steve with a note of admiration in his tone. Steve’s been teaching carpentry for ten years, and his wife, Suzanne, is a nurse.
“He’s stocky and strong, and his face is scarred,” timidly adds Marie, a single teacher in her forties, who is new like Louise. “He gives me the shivers.”
“He doesn’t like schools. He doesn’t like Whites,” finishes Réjeanne. “I already tried to talk to him. Nothing can be done. He’s irritable. He doesn’t listen at all. He’s made a dozen kids and not one has finished primary school or ever learned anything in class. The boys are all hunters and the girls stay at home helping their mother or their husband. Pitaa is his youngest, and nothing’s going to change with him.”
No one else adds a word. Everyone is bent over their plate. One thing is clear: Louise is no match for the one everyone fears and dreads. But she is determined to confront the myth.
The following Friday, she embarks on her round of visits. It’s ten o’clock. The sun has finally risen. The sky is steel blue, the air, very cold and very dry. She wants to take advantage of the daylight which, at this time of year, lasts until only 3 o’clock. She has in her hands a map of the village with the number of each of the houses she needs to visit. It’s her first chance to visit the families in their homes and to really get to connect with them, and this moment is one of excitement and apprehension. Hopefully she won’t be offered raw seal or caribou meat! She has prepared an itinerary based on how far the students live from the town centre. Some students live at the edge of the village farthest to the west; others on the edge farthest to the east. She has kept the interviews that might be problematic for the end of the day. Two children are particularly unruly, and then there is Pitaa! But before actually meeting anyone, she has to overcome a serious obstacle: going into the houses without knocking. It’s the custom. In the North, no one locks their doors, except for the Whites. This makes Louise uneasy. And in the matchboxes, the toilet, a metal garbage can of sorts fitted with a seat, is behind the door of the house’s only room!
To start off, Louise has chosen to visit the family of her most gifted student: Élisapie. She is certain Élisapie has already told her parents that her teacher is coming and that even at this moment, they are expecting her. They live in the very centre of town, in one of the little prefabricated houses that must date back a few years. A snowmobile is parked next to the entrance. Two dogs, who are tied up close by, move a little and stretch as Louise approaches. Louise is delighted they show so little interest in her, because they are enormous.
Louise timidly pushes the door open. There’s no one in the main room, which serves as both kitchen and living room. The radio plays loudly. The announcer speaks for a minute in Inuktitut. Then a country song takes over. Probably Johnny Cash, but Louise isn’t sure. Paused in the doorway, she examines the room, while a puppy tries to chew on her boots. There are a few dirty dishes on the counter, a table and four chairs, a worn couch, a bookshelf with knickknacks and a bouquet of plastic flowers, a calendar on the wall, a vast array of boots and mittens strewn about, and toys scattered here and there. Suddenly, a bare-chested man with tousled hair bursts into the room. Louise doesn’t know what to say or do. She attempts a smile, but he retreats. A few seconds later, a little woman in her thirties with a baby in her arms enters the kitchen. She is followed by Élisapie and two younger children, one in pyjamas and the other in a diaper and with a runny nose.
“Louise, we just woke up. Come in. My mom will make some tea,” Élisapie says to her in French with hardly any accent. Meanwhile, the woman approaches and offers Louise her hand to shake.
Louise turns her attention for a moment to the little ones, who are absolutely adorable with their chubby cheeks and slanting eyes. Then she seats herself at the table and takes out her folder with her notes and her student’s report card. Élisapie, who now has the baby in her arms, is visibly happy to have her teacher visit. She sits close and gives her lots of smiles. The woman serves a very sweet black tea and a piece of bannock. Louise is surprised to see the children drinking the tea too, but she doesn’t dare comment. Just before the mother joins Louise and takes back her baby to nurse, the father bolts by, slips on his parka, puts on his boots, and leaves. Élisapie translates for Louise. The mother apologizes, explaining that when she was young, there was no French school in the village, only an English school. Now, they will alternate: one child will study in French, the next in English, and so on.
All day long, the visits go by without any problems. The mothers smile and listen. They are the ones at home ready to greet her. They proudly show her their youngest children, some family photos, and the motifs they are embroidering on pieces of clothing. Even the mothers of the unruly children are understanding. In each home, Louise is presented with a very sweet, very black tea and a piece of bannock or raw fish that she doesn’t dare refuse and that she manages to swallow without grimacing.
Louise has kept Pitaa’s family for the end. She hopes his mother will be home to greet her and that his father will be out, like the other fathers, going about their male activities. Pitaa lives at the edge of the river, not too far from her place. His house comes just before the federal and provincial government officials’ houses and the teachers’ new and imposing houses, which are built with multiple units. Louise walks there briskly. The sky is now clear and the sun already low. Louise looks forward to going home to write up a report on how the visits went and to get ready for the evening. She’s going out on her first date with an Inuk, Tamusi, who works at the Hudson Bay store. Louise was browsing the store’s different sections—hunting and fishing gear, clothes, bedding, groceries, furniture, toys, pots, bras, and even cough syrup—when he approached her the first time. After a few casual chats, many smiles and bold looks, he invited her to go with him to a dance to be held at the community hall. And with the thought of an evening in pleasant company, she heads toward her last visit. After consulting her map twice, running into a dead end, and thinking that the listed address doesn’t even exist, she finally finds herself in front of Pitaa’s place.
The house is old with a low roof. It looks like two or three matchboxes put together. The space right in front is packed with junk. A jumble of qamutiiks, gas cans, snowmobile parts, animal bones, traps, and tools has been left there. Even the roof is cluttered with scrap iron, caribou antlers and various other objects. Dogs run the length of their chains toward Louise, who recoils. She takes a deep breath, pretends to ignore the animals, crosses in front of them, and enters a closed, windowless porch, built to prevent the heat from escaping. She finds herself in a narrow and dark entrance. There’s a door she can barely make out. Then a doorknob. She turns it, her heart pounding.
Immediately, the strong smell typical of the homes of hunters engulfs her. A stench that blends the stink of seal meat, rancid oil, and tobacco. Piles of boots, moccasins, and parkas fill the entrance. Animal skins and furs form heaps or stretch across frames. Clothes trail on the floor. The walls are bare. A short and thin older woman, who must be Pitaa’s mother, approaches and offers Louise her hand to shake. The woman doesn’t seem surprised to see Louise, so Pitaa must have said she was coming. But there’s no trace of her pupil. Gesturing with her head, the woman invites her to come on into the house. Louise hurries to take off her boots and follow her. Then she sees the man, and, at the same instant, she realizes that she’s been left alone with him.
He is sitting on the ground, his legs spread apart with the pieces of a dismantled engine between them. He glances up at Louise and then goes on with his work. His head sits on a massive neck. His hair is grey. A crew cut. His face, weathered. His skin, dark. A scar runs across his left cheek. His face is drenched in sweat; he’s clearly hot. His hands are black with grease. All of this is pointless, Louise thinks, since there’s no one to interpret. She has half a mind to turn around. But the man puts down his tools, lifts his head, and meets her pale blue eyes with his piercing gaze. He looks at her, as though he could see into her soul. His presence is intense and imposing, but not hostile. Louise looks away, but she knows he’s watching her. The moment is long. The silence is heavy.
“It’s the first time that a teacher has come to my home to see me,” he says calmly and in impeccable English. “What do you want?”
Petrified, Louise pulls herself together and tries to find the words in English. She jabbers away about Pitaa’s absences and his lack of participation. The man listens. Impassive.
“He wastes his time. He isn’t learning anything. . .”
That’s how she ends her long-winded speech.
The man takes a pair of pliers and tightly grips one of the parts smeared in oil. Louise doesn’t know if the visit is over. She hasn’t taken off her anorak and she’s hot. She rummages in her bag for Pitaa’s report card and places it in front of him, like an offering. The man looks at the piece of paper and nods his head affirmatively.
“I educated my sons the Inuit way, without giving any explanations. I taught by example, through action and the test of hardship. But, since the times are changing, Pitaa will learn the languages of the Whites, their manners, and their customs; I won’t bring him hunting with me like I used to. I have nothing to add. Nakurmiik.
Then he loses interest in Louise, who turns around, crosses the room, slips on her boots, and leaves.
The sun is low. Far off, a fine line of yellow light reflects off the tundra, which stretches as far as the eye can see. Soon everything will be swallowed up by darkness. Louise was too hot. Now she’s freezing. She walks quickly. Her thoughts jostle about in her head. She expected everything but that. That he would ignore her, that he would be enraged, that he would put her in her place, that he would kick her out, or that he would mock her. At best, that he would listen a little, feigning politeness. But never that he would abdicate, renounce his way of doing things. She feels lost, confused, ashamed. She wishes she had never gone to see this man who has braved the cold, storms, wild animals, and humans. Who has seen things she will never see. Who has travelled unfathomable distances. Who has taught his sons how to survive and live in this country. Who has, tattooed in his genes, the memory of thousands of years gone by. Because she is only twenty-five, because she knows hardly anything about the world or about life and absolutely nothing about the North, because she is a total stranger here.
The next Monday, Réjeanne, like the others, is curious and wants to hear about the famous meeting. Louise simply says that they are afraid of him for nothing. If she shares what actually happened, Réjeanne will think that Louise succeeded where she herself has failed. But she didn’t succeed at all. Now doubt has lodged inside her and it haunts her every day she faces the child in class. He hardly knows how to read and count—what will happen to him if he doesn’t learn how to be a hunter?
Pitaa is almost never absent now, although he still goes off on trips to the land inside of him, the land inside the Inuit child who hasn’t been assimilated yet. From time to time, Louise believes he shows some interest in math. Never any interest in French. One Saturday morning in January, she is astonished to find him on her doorstep.
“For you,” he says, holding out a little box.
Louise holds the box in her hands for a moment before opening it. The child looks at her proudly. He smiles. He is so beautiful with his lovely white teeth that seem too big for him. Inside, there’s something wrapped in a piece of cloth: an ivory ring, a little bear that his father has carved for her. Moved, Louise is torn between joy and tears. Pitaa sees her reaction and is dismayed. So Louise takes the child’s hands in her own; her blue eyes gaze into his velvety black ones, and she asks for forgiveness. Seriously and silently, Pitaa gives a slight nod, as though he has understood what Louise just said and, in turn, forgives her. And then he takes off running.
= = =
Glossary of Words in Inuktitut
Qamutiiks — wooden sleds
Nakurmiik — thank you
Author and filmmaker Lucie Lachapelle has been a finalist for the Prix Gémeaux and won other notable prizes. She was awarded the Prix AQPF-ANEL in the short-story category for her collection Histoires nordiques, the Prix France-Québec for her novel Rivière Mékiskan, and a Prix Gémeaux for her documentary Village Mosaïque.
Renée Masson is an Ottawa-based French-English translator pursuing an M.A. in literary translation at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation.