Fiction

LET MY PEOPLE GO

Even the woman he loved seemed part of the past he hated as Cy fought to make a dream come true for his tribe

HUBERT EVANS October 15 1947
Fiction

LET MY PEOPLE GO

Even the woman he loved seemed part of the past he hated as Cy fought to make a dream come true for his tribe

HUBERT EVANS October 15 1947

HOW many times do I have to tell you?” Cy Hecate demanded. “You know we want Rachel to talk only English. Now cut it out.” He slammed his books on the table, strode across and took his child from Old Paul’s knee. “You go to your mother.” He pulled down the two-year-old’s frivolous wisp of dress and gave her a gentle spank to start her in the direction of Miriam who was at the sewing machine at the far end of her grandfather’s big living room.

Old Paul, thick-shouldered, squat as a toad, cloaked his eyes with blankness. The muscles of his massive jaw clenched stubbornly.

Well, it had to come. These weeks since he had been back up coast from Vancouver Normal, Cy had seen that. He might have spoken more kindly if the day’s teaching had not been so exasperating. And that was mainly because elders like Old Paul refused to use English themselves, and were dead set to keep the children from learning ¡I. And now there was going to be trouble in the house.

Ponderous, unyielding as a totem carving, Old Paul stared straight in front of him. For months now he had had the shakes, and his hands, cupped by age to the curve of axe and paddle—and canoe

pole handle—lay palms up on the chair arms, trembling. Very slowly he reversed them, hoisted himself out of the low chair and shuffled past Cy, never looking, never speaking, and out the door.

Cy followed as far as the sewing machine. “What was he telling her this time?”

Miriam looked up with mild pleading in her brown eyes. “Oh, it was nothing. Only our people’s old story about the porcupines and the hunter. You know the one.” She found his hand and fondled it in both of hers. “I used to love him to tell it when I was little. At the end he’d do the porcupines’ rain dance. It made me laugh.” Then softly: “Don’t be cross with him. Think of it as

one of our people’s fairy stories. That’s all it is.” “That part of it’s all right. But he knows we want her to have good English. He’s got English enough, when he wants to use it.” Her arms, bare almost to the shoulders, were so smooth and brown and warm. He stroked one of them as he went on: “I know one thing. We’ve got to find some

place of our own before the little fellow comes. If we stay in his house much longer there’ll be one hellish bust-up. Young couples should have a house of their own anyway—right from the first. White style.”

LET MY PEOPLE GO

HUBERT EVANS

Even the woman he loved seemed part of the past he hated as Cy fought to make a dream come true for his tribe

“But grandfather’s so old!”

“Now look, Miriam. You know that’s not why he works on you to stay. He wants it this way because it’s how our people always did it. He’s like that all down the line. The native language, native food, native ways.” His handsome face darkened as he chanced to see a wizened, hairy bulb dangling on a string from the doorjamb, shoulder-high, so that anyone passing must brush against it. “When did he put that fool thing there?”

“Why—why it’s been there for days,” Miriam answered reluctantly. “You just didn’t happen to notice.”

“I suppose he’s stuffed Rachel full of that nonsense, too!”

“No. No, Cy. At least I don’t think so.”

“If ever he does—”

“Please, Cy. Don’t be mad,” she coaxed. “Swamp root’s probably old medicine-man stuff like you say, but he honestly believes if. helps his ‘heart-sick.’ It can’t hurt anybody, and you never know.” He drew away his hand and started for the door. “Cy, don’t you do that !” Apprehensively she watched him snatch the charm and toss if out the door.

“That’s one more reason we’re getting out of

here,” he said grimly, coming back to her.

Miriam was disturbed. “You’re funny sometimes. Honestly! All this fuss over a piece of swamp root. I don’t see why.”

“I know you don’t,” he thought. Old Paul and his kind had seen to that. 'Poo many houses in the village like this one with old people insisting on a language which thickened the tongues of the young so that they felt awkward and strange on the steamers and when they went among whites in Vancouver or Prince Rupert; too many old customs, old superstitions, blind loyalties to the past jealously preserved to imprison his people. Well, he had come back heve to end all that.

A/ES, Miriam told the truth. She did not see.

X So few of them did. But it was not their fault. What chance had the elders allowed them to see? A deep protective pity made him take her hands and draw her close against him. If he had only met t his thing head on from t he first. But she never had been the daring kind and he had hesitated to strip away too quickly many of the old, outworn beliefs. The time had not yet come when she dared to walk alone.

In Vancouver, among white friends, she had

fancied she had put all this behind her. But here, back in her village, in this old house, with this old man—even for Cy himself, who had caught the vision of his people walking upright and free in this land which had been theirs long before the first whites came, the tight had not been easy at first.

The quick fervor of her arms, the intimacy of her pliant, ripened body, made him long to shield her. The new life within her had stirred last night and there was heightened allure in the touch of her, a glowing emanation from her to him which enhanced his desire for her which was always there. She was his and he was hers. It would take time to lead her completely out of the bondage of the past, but at any cost she and Rachel and the little fellow were going to be free.

“My Miriam,” he whispered, his cheek against her smoot h black hair.

“You won’t go on making trouble with grandfather, will you? Please!” Her voice was gently pleading, anxious.

“I’m sorry. I’ll watch myself. I promise.”

Yearningly she turned his face to hers, her eyes farseeing yet wondrously intent. “Wun-i-kh/” she whispered.

And Cy Hecate, teacher of Kitelse Indian Day School, failed completely to notice that it was in the Kitelse tongue, not in English, that she had called him sweetheart.

11 TOMORROW was Old Paul’s big day, and as X Cy got the crosscut from under the house and went to the beach he passed close to the old manas he cut spreaders for the five-fathom canoe he planned to steam tomorrow. Cy halted in line with its higharched brow and admired its lines. Some said it was as good a canoe as Old Paul had ever made, and he was famous for his canoes. It was said that one of his was in some back-cast museum. This would probably be his last, for t lu* shakes and spells of terrifying breathlessness had hampered him so sorely of late that he had told Miriam he would never make anot her.

Cy could feel the shrewd old eyes upon him. “I like it,” he said.

Old Paul accepted t his praise without comment.

Cy crossed the litter of cedar chips, still crisp from the hewing, walked down to tide line and started on the spruce log he had promised that morning to buck into cordwood to heat the stones for the steaming. Miriam’s embrace had melted the hard core of revolt in his heart, and he felt a satisfying glow of completeness. After all, he must not, be too hard on the old man. These things took time, for the roots went deep.

Working bareheaded in the slanting sunshine of the late fall afternoon, young Hecate now and then looked down the curve of village beach. Here and there other men were sawing wood in front of their houses, and when a wedge of geese flew toward the river flats they looked up in unison. Somewhere at the far end of the village another canoe was in the making, and the adz blows on the hollowed cedar came drumlike across the unruffled water. An old woman, Miriam’s aunt, walked stiffly up the path to her house next door, her cedarbark basket bulged with the “lie-saw” eating roots, leaning heavily on her long digging stick.

During those months in Vancouver, whenever they felt homesick, he and Miriam had talked of it like this. Here life kept to its slow, time-tested rhythm. No nervous haste, no shallow frenzy of attainment, no ostentation, no loneliness or bitter poverty. Here everyone was known. Within the wider, protective families of the clans were no unwanted children, and the old and feeble had honored places beside the home fires. This was his village, these his people. Holding tast. to what had value in the old, reaching for the best of what was new, life could be satisfying and full-rounded here.

Keep the best of the old, take the best of the new. This was how it had to be. Surely, in time, even Old Paul would come to understand.

As the block of spruce started to drop, he swung the long saw free and saw Rachel toddling down the path, her black, Continued on paffe 37

Continued on paffe 37

Let My People Go

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straight hair in the sunshine lustrous as a raven’s wing. She teetered over the uneven footing of the chips and Old Paul, squatting on his heels, reached out to steady her, then sheltered her between his knees.

The old man beside his canoe and the child squirming to smile up into his face made a disarming picture. She must have brought some childish present from the house, for Cy saw Old Paul take something from her hand. Old Paul stared at it, then spoke sharply to her in Kitelse.

Cy laid the crosscut along the log and went over. “Please, grandfather.” His voice was controlled. “Let’s not have any more trouble.”

Old Paul’s jaw clamped, sullen as a cod’s. “She found this. 1 know you. You threw it out of my house.” He turned the swamp root in his shaking hand.

Cy swallowed hard. “I had my reasons.”

Old Paul glared. “I know your reasons.”

“No,” Cy contradicted. “No, I don’t think you do.”

Under their pursed lids Old Paul’s eyes followed the flight of a gull across the water. He watched it circle and land: “You want to make me die.”

Cy reached and took the child away from him. “That’s crazy talk.”

“Not one man of this village tried that trick since I was a young cedar.” The old voice was rasping with a great contempt. “Better you go back to white people where you belong.”

The stupid accusation stung, but Cy knew he must be reasonable about this for Miriam’s sake. “You think swamp root helps your heartsick, don’t you? Well, of course, that’s foolish. But tell you what. Miriam and 1 both think you should see a doctor. I’ll pay a boat to take you out. And I’ll pay for the hospital when you get there.”

Old Paul straightened his arms, his legs, his back, then steadied himself before he shuffled over the chips and leaned against his canoe.

“I wish you would,” Cy urged. “Miriam’s worried, and so am I. How about it?”

Old Paul’s face was stiff as one of the old Kitelse wooden dance masks as he shifted around the canoe’s high bow and, with contemptuous deliberation, picked up his handsaw. His plane lay in the canoe and he got that too. The nostrils of his rather small, flat nose rose and fell like the gill covers of a struggling fish. “Go back to the white man, you. I know your tricks. But you will fail. You cannot make us different.” He tucked the saw under his shaking arm and started slowly toward the house.

Standing very still and straight, holding his child, Cy Hecate followed the angry old man with his eyes. What could you do with people like that? What could you do? He watched old Paul past the crippled plum tree, past his wife’s white gravestone, watched him go under the house to leave his tools, then, clinging to the handrail, haul himself up the steps and out of sight.

CY WENT back to the log. He sat Rachel on a sand patch, gave her a few cockleshells to play with, arid started sawing furiously, finding, in the harsh bite of the crosscut, some outlet for his frustration. If only the old man would reason, if only he would he rational and argue, you might feel you had a chance. But most of these old people were like deep-bedded boulders blocking the path. No matter from

which direction you came at them they gave you no point of attack, no handhold.

“Different!” he thought savagely, “I’ll say we’re different!” But why? Why should Indians be different? There were too many whites who wanted that. Like on those government forms the agent sometimes mailed him to fill out. “Live Birth of an Indian,” “Death of an Indian”; even his and Miriam’s marriage certificate read “Marriage of Indians.” Indians were people too, but it seemed as if there was some conspiracy to set his race apart from Canadians forever.

And, in the long struggle for full citizenship, Old Paul and all he stood for were as great a handicap as any. From where he worked Cy could see the modern sehoolhouse the Government had built. White teachers were scarce and the Government had spent hundreds of dollars helping him through Normal. But here he was, wasting precious schooltime teaching the Grade Ones rudimentary English they should have learned at home. And all too often, thanks to ones like Old Paul, they only mouthed the English words he managed to teach them and went on thinking in their now-useless language. Yet when he tried to correct all that Old Paul treated him like a betrayer of his race.

For a long, long time Kitelse had had a succession of missionary nurses, yet there beyond the wild crab apple clumps stood the dispensary cottage, empty since the war years. And no minister in the historic mission house because the church had none to send. For two full generations the whites had taught and ministered and nursed them. Now they must learn to help themselves. Until they did, what ground had the Indian race for its rising protest against being treated as minors, as wards of the rest of Canada?

Yet in this village, and in other villages, were boys and girls intelligent enough for leadership. But for the language barrier and their bondage to dead custom and stupid superstition which the Old Pauls imposed, these kids could go anywhere, do anything. Why shouldn’t his people raise up their own teachers, nurses, doctors—yes and Indian Agents? These kids were as bright as they came—Model School had shown him that. All the Old Pauls in the world could not hold them back forever. Miriam, not fully understanding, would have him compromise with what Old Paul personified. But even for her he never would. For he knew, with passionate, rebellious certainty, that these elders with their blind loyalty to a dead past must be forced to let his people go.

SUPPER was ready when, carrying the saw, he led Rachel to the house. He washed her face then, leaving her playing in the living room, he went out back for gasoline to cut the spruce pitch off his hands.

He met Miriam coming from the woodshed with some sticks of dry cedar. “I’m hurrying up the potatoes,” she said. “It will only take a minute.” But presently she hurried out the back door, pulling her red sweater around her shoulders, and started quickly along the woods path.

Cy was surprised. “Hey! I thought supper was—-” Something furtive in her manner disturbed him and he cut across to the woods path. “Hey! Hold on. What’s the big idea?”

“I’ll be right back,” she called over her shoulder and began to run. Then, hearing his feet on the path close behind, she gave up and faced him.

“What’s up?” he insisted, alarmed by the evasion in her eyes. “Miriam, look at me!”

She plucked a bracken frond and twisted it nervously in her fingers. “Grandfather’s not feeling well. Make fun of it if you want to but—”

The flash of fear, the haunting uncertainty in her eyes, made him speak sharply. “Don’t let him scare you.” So that was the old man’s trick, eh? Even before she was old enough to think rationally about such things he had poisoned her mind with this evil heritage of superstition. Now, behind her husband’s back, he thought he could trade on it. Well, he was not going to get away with that. “You’re not getting him any swamp root. I’m telling you. Anyhow, he’s got that other piece. Rachel gave it to him and I saw him stuff it in his pocket.”

“He says you spoiled that. What you did took all the good out of it.” Miriam flung the words at him and tried to run, but he held her by both shoulders.

“But I tell you that’s all foolishness!”

“You said that. I didn’t say it!” Her scared voice was sharp with disavowal. “Let me go. You hear me? Let me go.”

Her rounded shoulders, struggling to pull free, roused him to a strange, deep anger—not at her, not even at the old man, but rather at the fear reaching from the past to take possession of them. The rebellion and the bitter thoughts which had come to him just now, out on the beach, rushed back to fortify him. P'or too long the old man’s dull hostility and contempt had made him feel maddeningly ineffectual. But now the whole thing was out in the open where he could lay hands on it and fight it. “No, Miriam. I tell you no. You’re not going.”

She had stopped struggling, but the fear and unreasoning defiance in her eyes stabbed him. “If anything happens to him it will be your fault. I’m warning you.” Her indignation wilted and she began to cry. “Let me, Cy. Please. You never know.”

“I know all right,” he told her bitterly.

Weakly, as if afraid of his touch, she tried to draw away, but he slipped his arm around her and led her back to the house. Only there was no yielding in her body now. “Hospital’s the place for him,” he said. “He should start tonight.”

As they came up the back steps they could hear Rachel, still in the livingroom. “Grandpa, grandpa,” she kept saying with grave, wondering curiosity.

They hurried in. Old Paul must have fallen as he came out of his room, for he was sprawled out on hands and knees near the heater. His head hung almost to the linoleum. As they ran to him he flung it so far back on his straining neck that his distorted face was toward the ceiling.

They got him to the sofa. With vague, dilated eyes old Paul stared at or past them, Cy could not tell.

“Look my tongue. Gone dead.” The words came in a bubbling gasp. He rocked forward and as he threw himself back, hard, like an animal fighting a trap, he let it loll hideously for them to see. Miriam began to sob. “What can we do?” Cy muttered helplessly.

Presently, when the torture of his air hunger lessened, Old Paul sat up straight, cocking his big head like a man straining to listen. “Oi!” he shouted, so strongly that Cy was startled.

“Grandfather!” Miriam reached up and clung to him.

But the old man seemed neither to feel nor hear her.

“Oi!” he shouted, even more strongly this time.

Cy knew that in his prime Old Paul had been a famous hunter of the

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mountain goat and now it seemed, by some dark magic, that the years had rolled back and he was lost in a mist among high crags and was straining all his remaining faculties to catch the reassuring echo of his own voice. His frowning concentration made it seem uncannily real. Then in dazed perplexity he shook his head and fell back on the pillows.

For what seemed minutes he lay t here, staring upward, with a numbed, disgruntled resignation. Slowly the wrinkles of his forehead furrowed and he stared into Miriam’s face with beclouded recognition. “Where is it?” asked Old Paul.

“I-—I didn’t get it,” she confessed tearfully.

“You see, there was not time,” Cy found himself explaining. Somehow' it seemed important that the old man believe that. Cy spoke loudly, as if the old man wrere deaf, or at a distance.

“But I’ll go now,” Miriam hurried on. “I know right where some is growing.”

She tried to withdraw her hands, but Old Paul’s cold fingers clamped her wrist.

Sight and hearing were failing Old Paul now, but it was as if Cy could feel him trying to rally, to project his stubborn personality through the mists which were closing around him. For Old Paul, too, this last struggle was in the battle of their wills.

“He’s dying—dying fast,” was Cy’s thought. “But he won’t give in to me. He won’t let me have my way—ever.”

“You know what he wants,” Miriam burst out. Then swiftly, with a protective urgency which was almost fierce: “There’s a root of it just past

the first salmon pool. Under those three big cedars. Run!”

Cy saw the agony of supplication in I her eyes. “I’ll call the neighbors.”

“Get it! Cy, you hear me? Get it!” she cried in terror after him as he ran out.

MIRIAM’S old aunt was coming from the smokehouse to the house next door. Lie shouted the bad news to her. All right, he would get it. Either way it could make no difference now.

But couldn’t it ? As he raced along the woods path the broad leaves of the devil’s-clubs rasped against his legs. Already there was dusk under the high arches of the cedars and the moist night breath of the forest felt chill on his face. No difference, when she had be^n conquered by the ancient, shapeless fears? No difference to have Rachel see and, in the days to come, to have the little fellow know? He, who had j outgrown all this—

But if he did not bring the root Miriam would think his unbelief had killed her grandfather. How could she j though? Wasn’t it sheer coincidence that this should happen so soon after he had thrown out that other swamp root? Of course it was. And yet . . . and yet . . . Panting, sweating, he made himself halt on the path.

Out of his own past the ghosts of memory came slinking back—the sinister implications of tribal myth and folklore which the old storytellers for centuries had impressed upon the young; the retribution, the dark revenge, the looming fears with which I old customs had fastened its bonds on ; each succeeding generation. For years he had prided himself he had shaken free of these, yet now they were adding to theturmoil of his mind. Was Miriam right? Was it true you never could he sure?

From behind him, thin at first, came the ululating, primitive distress of women’s voices. Swiftly mounting,

then dropping, swirling like a flock of frightened birds folded back on it self by stormy gusts, the dread dissonance sheared through the forest hush. A great fear clutched him. It was the off-key lament of the wailing women. Old Paul was dead.

Now he must go back and face them all. He started, but seeing the people black around the door and steps, he dared net go in. At the edge of the woods he sank down on a stump, head in hands.

Dusk liad seeped into the clearing when Miriam found him there. She did not run toward him. She came on slowly, as if uncertain of herself, of him. “They want you,” she said. “Come now. You must go in.”

He looked up dully. “And listen to their lies? Hear them say I killed him?” She touched his hair. “They won’t say that.”

“Won’t they, though? I know them.” “They don’t know what happened.” The night breeze was cold. She shivered and drew her sweater more snugly around her. “They never will.” “But you believe I killed him.” There was nothing of accusation in his voice, only a great and tragic pity, for her, for him, for all of them. The keening voices soared, and once again the past was reaching out dead hands for both of them. Still so much to escape from, still so far to go . . .

Miriam knelt then and folded herself into the shelter of his arms. “You? You’d never do that. You couldn’t. But other ways—sometimes I don’t know what I really do believe. I try —I want to—oh, wun-i-kh! hold me tighter—tighter—how I need you!” With a new and tender understanding, humbled by the realization that even within himself the long fight was not yet won, he held her trembling body close to his. “I need you too.” Her cheek was wet upon his lips. “For you are braver than you know—braver than I ever knew.”

Passionately, not speaking, they clung to each other. Then protectively he led her toward the old ones waiting in the house,

Know Your Way Around Maclean’s?

Try to find the shortest possible word that can be formed by adding letters on both sides of the letter groups listed below. No plural endings or verb forms are permitted. (For example: The best solution for No. 2 would be BANK or BAND, etc.)

Score one point for each word that is not longer than the one given in the answer list on page 52. A score of 14-16 is excellent; 11-13 good.

1. — ME—

2 — AN—

3. —Cl—

4. —LZ—

5. — EA—

6. — AG—

7. _ NA—

8. —SM—

9. — MS-

10. -AN-

11. —GA—

12. — AE—

13. —ZL—

14. -IC-

lo. —NA—

16. - EM—