(Author’s note: This is a chapter from a work in progress, about an very old man who undertakes an extraordinary journey home to the pioneer farm where he was born, and lived, until a tragic series of events happened that left him with a terrible burden of guilt he carried for the rest of his troubled life. By going home, to kneel at his little sister’s grave, he hopes to be with her again, and find forgiveness before he dies. Under ‘categories’ to the right, click on ‘1908’ for earlier chapters.)
The two men, one very old and the other young, who walked the trail through the forest were not alone. They were watched, or felt, by all manner of things, seen and unseen, from the highest branches of the forest canopy, to the forest floor where spring flowers bloomed in the streams of sunlight still reaching the ground. The placement of the flowers charted the passage of the sun from dawn to dusk. It was still early in the season. The annual, renewed growth of the spring, hardwood-tree canopy was not quite complete. A few more days of sun and warmth and it would be. But in the meantime, the forest-floor flowers, clouds of them, flourished in the precious sunlight.
In the soil between the rocky outcrops vast networks of fungal growth sent excited messages to the trees as footsteps approached and passed.
And so, the forest was alerted; it felt and tracked the two men as they walked. The forest knew them both and settled down quietly to watch and listen. Occasionally the young man offered his arm to the much older man for support when they came to a steeper slope on the trail where jagged rocks protruded. Otherwise, they walked quietly side by side, listening.
“Feels like we’re not alone in these woods,” the old man said. “like we’re being watched by many eyes.”
The young man stopped, turning to face the old man. His expression, his eyes, said many things: a little surprise, interest, curiosity, and some reluctance to respond. He wanted to take a moment to be sure the old man really knew what he was saying. Or was it just a few casual words, mere conversation to fill the momentary silence?
“Yes, the forest spirits, and the spirits of others who walked this trail a long time ago. And before time,” the young man said, matter-of-factly, not because it wasn’t special — it was — but because it was a given, a truth beyond speculation. “We are approaching a special place where many others came, often from very far away to heal.”
“And to die,” the old man said, taking in a deep breath as they stood on the trail.
“Yes. What you call Hope Ness we have another name that speaks of it, the spirit that has always been here, and still is, as you can tell. The lookout is an important part of that. It was the place where they stood to look out over the water, to see where they had come from, and where they were going. It’s not far now,” said the young man, whose name, given to him at birth, was Peter. “Just down there, to the right.”
“I’m remembering it well now,” said the old man, “though the forest has changed so much since then. Just a little way, and there’s a trail that goes up the ridge. Even then, it still showed signs of being well-travelled. I went there often as a boy. I always expected to find someone there on my walks. But I never did.”
“They probably saw you first,” Peter said. “By that time, we were made to feel unwelcome, and worse, like we had no right to be here, and not just here but anywhere in the territory that had been our home. But we did have a right to be here, and not just a treaty right to hunt and gather on our traditional lands, even as the land was opened for sale to settlers. It was still ours, and so it remains. I think you can see that: you who are going home to the place where your spirit waits for your return. Others may be there now, there may be new fences. But who can say you have no right to be there, where your family walked, and their bones are buried?
“You’re right Peter. I haven’t thought of that; I guess I just took it for granted.”
“The treaty says the land was given to the Crown in trust, to be surveyed into farm lots and the lots sold on our behalf for our benefit. It says we have a continuing right to be here, to hunt and gather as we always had. In retrospect, even that wording may have imposed misleading limitations; be that as it may, our right to be here was not respected.”
“My father did,” the old man said. “He respected that right, especially about a certain area below the cliffs. He said it was a sacred place, and we should respect that.”
They had started again to walk the rest of the way to the lookout. The old man soon started to feel tired again. The periods of energy allowing him to carry on were becoming shorter.
Earlier, they had stopped to rest for a while after walking through the cottage community of Hope Bay, a short distance from the reserve boundary. The old man remembered that image now. How could that have been right, to draw such a line within which people who had moved freely for thousands of years were expected to remain, and somehow even be content?
They had continued the walk on a road through Hope Bay to a trail around a steep slope up the Niagara Escarpment cliffs. Despite the helping hand, it had taken a lot out of him. He wanted to understand what Peter was telling him, but that was becoming difficult. He had to work hard at it.
“How are you?” asked Peter, seeing the old man’s weariness. “Do you want to stop for a while again, to rest?’
“No, I’ll be alright,” the old man had said, for the sake of his manly pride. He was regretting it now. But the conversation, while using up some of what was left of his energy, was also distracting him from his weariness.
“Here, here is the trail to the lookout,” Peter said, pointing up a short, steep, rocky ridge. “Let me take your hand,” he said, stepping ahead of the old man, then reaching down to help him up.
At the top, the side trail levelled off but followed an irregular path to avoid crevices and large, moss-covered boulders left behind thousands of years ago by the retreating glaciers of the ice age. The old man took a few steps, then stopped and carefully put his hand on top of one of the rocks where a tiny garden of fragile plants was growing on a shallow soil of composted leaf-litter.
“I remember this rock,” he said. “It hasn’t changed at all. It became my touchstone, I guess, because I got into the habit of putting my hand on it just like this. And then I always made a wish, or sometimes I prayed.
“Like any boy, I guess, I had started to let my imagination get carried away. I started to imagine I was in the company of giants who welcomed me to sit with them around their fires, share their food, and listen to their stories of great deeds.”
The old man went quiet. He remembered how as a grieving boy he had earlier pledged not to let his imagination fly again, ever. So, he had put those reveries out of his head, discarded them, and all they might have taught him about living. And now, here he was talking to this young man about them, this young man who was far more entitled than he to speak in this forest of such things, and who already knew them better than he ever could.
“You know them, Peter. You are becoming one of them,” the old man said, the words being spoken by his voice surprising him. He shook his head to himself in self-recrimination for again speaking so presumptuously. He didn’t know, and would not have presumed to think, that the forest had chosen him in that moment to speak its truth to this young man.
“Ah, I’m not worthy of flying in their footsteps,” Peter said, with a good-natured smile, to lighten the moment. He was relieved to see the old man had gotten his humorous play on words right away. They laughed heartily. Still, the sooner they got to the lookout and sat down, the better. “Yes, I am tired,” the old man said.
“I’m trying to do the best I can on the path I have chosen,” Peter said. “Some are born to fly. Some are born to walk.”
The lookout came into view, and the great expanse of blue sky beyond. They walked the rest of the way silently. When they reached the edge of the cliff the old man looked down, just as he had done as a boy when he stopped here, on his Sunday walks through the woods so many years ago. When he turned to look at Peter nearby, he could see he was deep in thought. Peter took the old man’s arm again and helped him sit near him on a flat-rock, limestone ledge. He looked at the old man, and then after a few seconds, he told him:
“This is where some of my people found her,” Peter said, “you mother, sitting like this near the edge of the cliff.”
“‘My mother?’” the old man said, his eyes suddenly open wide with surprise. “I … I don’t understand.”
“Yes, your mother,” Peter continued. “They had seen her from a distance as they came along the trail to the lookout. They stopped and were about to turn around, but one of the women kept going. She felt there was something wrong. She said ‘hello’ in English to warn your mother. But she didn’t move. The woman went up beside her and asked her if she needed help. Your mother looked up but said nothing. The woman could tell from the look in her eyes and the expression on her face that she … her spirit, was in great pain. The other people came and together they asked your mother to come with them, away from the cliff. Then your mother spoke: she asked, “can you take me home?” That is the way my mother has told me what happened. And she was told that by her grandmother, your mother,” Peter said.
The old man had said nothing since his first words of surprise. He still couldn’t speak: it was, for the moment, too much to comprehend. Peter continued:
“The woman who had first approached your mother asked where she lived, after your mother asked to be taken home.
“Your mother said, ‘no, I mean, take me home with you. Please.’
“And that’s what they did,” said Peter. “That’s how your mother came to live with us.”
The old man put one hand over his eyes, while steadying himself as he remained seated on the rock ledge near the edge of the cliff with the other. And then the thought occurred to him that his mother in her grief and despair had been right where he was sitting. And then as he looked, the image, as described by Peter, seem to be appearing.
“When was that?” the old man asked Peter.
“It was many years ago. My mother is not sure of the year. But it was maybe a year or two after the big fire. She was still a young girl when your mother told her how she had come back to Hope Ness. But there was no one at the farm anymore. Someone — she didn’t say who — told her your father had died, and you had been taken in by neighbors, but you ran away. No one knew where you went.”
“Your mother’s heart was broken for a long time. But she became part of our community and never wanted to leave. She was a friend. She married a Nawash man and had a child, a daughter, my grandmother.”
“So, my mother is …you are, my mother’s great grandson. Which means …
“Yes, we are family, Peter said.
“There’s more,” he said. “Your mother went to your sister’s grave as often as she could with her Nawash husband and their daughter. But at a certain point it got to be…difficult, even dangerous.
“What happened to her? Where is she now?”
“Your mother died in 1951. She wanted to be buried with your sister?”
“How is, how was that possible?” the old man asked.
“We kept her with us for a time, in our traditional way. But my mother found a way to honor her grandmother’s wishes. She is with your sister,” Peter said.
“We realized yesterday who you were,” he told the old man. “My mother thought you should know. And, of course, you should. But we both had a feeling the time wasn’t right, that it would take too much out of you, the shock of it, and get in the way of what you are doing. But now, here we are, here, where it happened.”
“You saved her life; your people, I mean,” the old man said.
“They came along at the right time,” said Peter. “Your mother wanted to live. That’s who she was, from all I know about her. But I think she also knew you would come home, and here you are.”
“You did the right thing, Peter, you and your mother, to not tell me right away. I don’t have much time left, maybe only just enough. I need to rest soon. I am tired. Nothing to do with what you’ve just said; I could feel it coming along the trail. If anything, what you’ve told me has given me more reason and strength to keep going. Thank you.”
“My friend at the end of the road where the trail goes out of these woods will help you,” said Peter. “Don’t worry. He won’t interfere.”
They left the lookout and went back to the intersection of the two trails. From there the old man was to continue north alone to Hope Ness, while Peter would go south, to return home. That had been the plan. But now, after all that had just been said, it hardly seemed like the right thing to do.
The old man hesitated, not wanting to watch Peter turn and leave, to watch him walking out of sight on the trail while knowing he might never see him again. When he did say finally, “don’t worry, I’ll be alright. I’ll see your friend,” and Peter himself turned reluctantly to walk away, he soon felt like calling out to him to come back. But he didn’t. He watched as Peter, about to disappear up and over a rise in the trail, turned, and raised his right hand in a last gesture of parting. The old man raised his back. Moments later, as he walked alone on the trail into Hope Ness, the old man felt after all he had done the right thing to go on alone. It was what he had to do. He felt comforted by the presence of the forest, telling him it agreed.
“Did you tell him?” Peter’s mother asked when he got home.
“Yes, I did, at the lookout. Later, we both found it hard to go our different ways. The man at the end of the road will watch out for him. He’ll help him. And he’ll let us know when he leaves in the morning. I’d like to be there when he gets home.”
“I want to go with you.”
“Yes, of course, Oma. I knew you would.”