by Allan Reeve
What if Jesus were born in Canada today?
To be true to the story, he would most certainly be born an indigenous native Canadian. He would be of a tribe out on the fringe of the Empire. He’d live within a day’s travel of the capital – say within an Otter’s flight – putting him perhaps in a community in Northern Quebec?
It’s been seven generations since his people have drifted from their traditional ways. Slowly at first, they lost their trust in the land as the source of security. Slowly they began to depend upon the machines and tinned foods and coin of the realm that eventually invaded every aspect of their lives.
Mary and Joe remember the stories their grandparents told them. They remember trips stolen away from school where they were shown how to negotiate the waters, get what was needed from the land, use everything to good purpose, watch the stars, the birds, the tracks that would tell them where they were, when they were, who they were. Sometimes they can even remember parts of the songs their grandparents sang.
So the legend goes – seven generations is the time for renewal, for rebirth, for hope – when ancient ways become new again. When a new path is found that will lead the people – Anishnabe – for seven generations still to come.
It was bad timing. It was perfect timing. Mary got pregnant just as the government orders came through for evacuation. Their town’s site would soon be deep under water. Their town was about to be flooded by the power damn under construction. They’d protested and fought against it in courts. They’d prayed against it since they were children. They resisted – and held out – staying while others gave up and left – hoping for a last minute court injunction.
But when Mary was just about due to deliver – Joseph had a dream. The visitor told him to go. Told him that the journey they were about to begin would be a great unwinding of the circle – starting small and reaching far beyond any horizons he could imagine. He would name his son “Singer of old Songs”.
Mary was also visited. She got the message that the babe in her belonged to the past, and belonged to the future. She would know the suffering of her people in the birth and death of the life in her womb. But with this bad news came also a strange and powerful joy that didn’t let her worry but provided an incredible, calm, trust in what was to come.
Maybe it was partly the story that had reached her of her sister’s recent delivery. Elizabeth had given birth to a boy. Months before, while they both carried, they had shared notions and intuitions of the Maker moving within them, certain intuitions of a season not seen for countless moons. They’d laughed it off as hormones and the crazed thoughts of pregnant women everywhere. What women didn’t feel that the child within them was special like no other?
But when Elizabeth’s husband had announced the baby’s name as “John” the babe started wailing and didn’t stop wailing. It had deafened them. Neighbours offered advice. Town nurses talked of sedatives. It was only during the naming ceremony – that everyone present got a story to tell. The ancient, croaking, hoarse-voiced midwife had interrupted – at the critical time when the parents were to provide the name – she’d cried out over the cries of the babe “his name is Trailbreaker”. And the babe was quiet. Hadn’t cried since – Mary had been told.
Not everyone was going to the new location. Despite the sales job they’d been given about the new place – better schools, better healthcare, better sanitation and water and work – many had decided it was time to try city life. Many had decided to join family in other northern fringe towns.
Mary, watching from the Otter’s small window, saw the homes she’d grown up in, the school she’d trained in, the church she’d prayed in, all shrink small and smaller as the plane rose off the ground, made one last arc over the town, and it was all left – memories drowned –behind her.
So, Mary and Joe boarded the Otter and headed south with the others. The weather was supposed to be clear. But the storms had become more and more unpredictable with every passing year. Before they’d been in the air an hour, the pilot had announced that they were in for some rough riding. Mary worried that the jumps and jerks might bring her labour on. But one look at Joseph’s strained face changed that. She’d let him do the worrying. She’d be strong and calm – claiming the gift the visitor had offered.
It got a lot worse before it got better. And it only got better when the pilot gave up and decided to land at the power dam construction site. He knew there’d be empty barracks there for his passengers. He’d flown the crew out for the holidays just days before.
There was still a skeleton crew left behind to run the place. They’d stayed for the double overtime pay – to keep the heat on and fuel in the machines – keep them running so the whole place wouldn’t freeze solid.
The shift boss met the travelers in the mess hall and assigned them barracks. The cooks got busy putting on coffee and chili and sandwiches. Then the boss got a look at Mary – doubled up in pain – and Joseph’s pleading gaze. He got the dishwashers to go clear some space in the food storage shed. It was the cleanest place in the camp – and there was room because supplies were low. Only trouble was – the camp nurse and company doctor had left on the last flight out. He apologized to the couple and showed them to their digs. Maybe the baby would wait?
There happened to be an international team of scientists at the station. They were passing through on their way to the arctic – studying frequency variations in the aurora borealis as indicators of global warming. They offered up their emergency first aid supplies. Pain killers, sterile swabs, and a heart monitor. Totally unnecessary as it turned out- but the family accepted their gifts.
At the station that night there also happened to be an Innu hunting party blown in by the storm. Further south than they usually traveled they didn’t really need the shelter or supplies. They were accustomed to getting by with few comforts. But they’d decided to go see the construction site. They wanted to be able to tell their children about the place where everything changed. About the place where the river’s power was sold to the south in exchange for the last of their memories. They were old. Their children didn’t know what they knew. Their grandchildren would never know. They wanted to see the place where this final change would happen.
What they found instead was a couple in need. The grandmother with them had been at many births and she took things in hand. As she worked to prepare she sang songs in a dialect from which Mary and Joe could only catch a word or two – the odd phase rang familiar – but the comfort of the woman’s song ran deep within them. An old man, her husband sat on a milk crate in the corner keeping rhythm with a shaker he’d produced from deep parka pockets.
Not many in the camp slept that night. The winds howled and everyone was sure that it was Mary’s cries they heard. No one dared break in on them until finally they could stand it no longer. The storm was raging. They woke the shift boss to go find out. “We’re worried about how they’re doing out there in that shack in this storm!” they explained.
“What storm?” he asked stumbling over to his office window. There was a luminous glow – green, blue, white, orange filling the pane. They all crowded to the window in wonder.
The wind had blown the storm over – and now a still quiet had descended upon the camp. The stars pierced the black night like high trumpet notes while the sky danced with colour celebrating the limitless universe filling their eyes to overflowing, making their hearts jump up and their guts boom deep – all without a sound.
They knew. As if with one mind, their gaze now turned to the storage shed where they saw a dull low light in the window. Without a word they all – every one of them – headed for the door – without stopping for parkas they walked out into the night and to the door of the shed where they froze stiff – still – for a century – until finally the shift boss reached out and turned the handle and they one by one filed into the room.
It was no room. It had become a sanctuary. In the dim light the ceiling seemed to soar above them. The crates and boxes were ancient stone pillars rising in grandeur. The four people priests at an altar where something new lay quietly breathing among blankets in an empty banana box. You could almost hear her tiny breath – the whispered awe was so thick among them.
They way they explained it later – to friends and family and strangers who might listen – “it was like the baby was aware of my presence. I felt like the child was mine. Like I felt when my own kids were born. This child – whose parents I’d never met before that night – gave me such a sense of belonging in that room. Gave me a sense that time had stopped and the whole universe was spinning around us – with us standing there at its centre.
It’s crazy talk I know. But the funny thing was – over breakfast when we talked it over – we all felt the same. We all just knew that something had happened that would change everything. We were changed. Don’t ask me how. I just know that now – since that night – I’m watching and searching and aware of things I’d never noticed before that night. There’s something new inside me I never knew before – or had long forgotten. I know we’ll be hearing good news coming about that girl one day.”
With thanks for the riff to John Bird’s story of the same name