Fiction

YOUNG CEDARS MUST HAVE ROOTS

There was a voice in the night beckoning Paul to adventure and another sweet as the sound of rain calling him home

HUBERT EVANS March 1 1948
Fiction

YOUNG CEDARS MUST HAVE ROOTS

There was a voice in the night beckoning Paul to adventure and another sweet as the sound of rain calling him home

HUBERT EVANS March 1 1948

YOUNG CEDARS MUST HAVE ROOTS

HUBERT EVANS

AT FIRST he thought Eunice must be saying it to tease him the way she mimicked him to show how awkward he had become in their language during his years away. Sometimes, pretending impatience, she would take the fish knife from him and show him how a salmon should be made ready for the smokehouse, Indian style.

He let his cedar canoe drift closer to where Eunice stood on the floathouse porch, seeking the truth of this disturbing story in lier rounded, soft-featured face

“You can’t kid me,” he grinned, pretending to splash her with his paddle. “You’re only saying that.”

Eunice shook her head. “No, Paul. 1 tell you what I hear. Everybody is saying your uncle can’t hold the people. You know how excited everybody gets when Old Jessie spreads the word.”

“That old stuff!” Paul remembered how, before the Big Flu when his parents died and lie had been sent down coast to residential school, all the little kids used to scare themselves by saying Old Jessie was a witch and that the colachans always told her when they were leaving the sea to run up river. Of course, a fellow who was educated and helped Mr. McLeod in the camp store laughed at all that.

“It’s just the spring. Everybody feels restless when spring begins,” he said.

Beneath her long lashes he glimpsed that gently (easing look again. “Say it our way,” she coaxed. “ Ho-hqwa-hu-la.”

“And have you say my tongue’s gone stiff, like a CUM-CHU-AWA’SÍ”’ he asked.

And yet their own word was better. It. stirred you deep down, in a way you didn’t feel when you called it: by the white man’s name. Paddling across the cove to dinner, watching Uncle Eli and the other native fallers zigzagging down the steep trail through the slash, he had noticed how, almost overnight, the snow had gone from the sidehill. For the first time the sun felt really warm on your back and far beyond the head of (lie inlet the peak of old Na-wat-tznye, old Snow Duck, was so dazzling and brilliant it made you blink your eyes.

Over on the clam bead}, some crows were razzing a large gull who stood unruffled, all shining in the sun, and back in the timber a raven made those funny sounds, the way ravens do to tell the people North Wind has lost his teeth.

{CICLES were the North Wind’s teeth and if you broke them it made North Wind angry and he blew the harder. Funny, he had thought, how the things they put into your head as a little fellow stayed with you, no matter what. But it was a harmless tale and nice to recall on this first real day of spring. After all these years away, it was good to be back in your own inlet, with your own people, and feel ho-hqwa-hu-la come in.

But now, Eunice had cast this unsettling talk like a rain cloud across the noon’s bright promise. He must know more. But; just then her mother spoke to her from t heir floathouse door and Eunice turned obediently to the washtubs. Then as he swung the canoe, she smiled around her plump shoulder at him, that same slow-dawning smile, but so intimate and trustful, different from at first when she had been shy of him and his white ways.

Uncle Eli, burly and greying early for an Indian, was on the bench outside the door unlacing his calked boots when Paul tied his canoe ;n front of the Duncan floathouse.

“Somebody’s trying to make trouble,” Paul began. “It’s going around you can’t hold the people.”

As befitted one who was a clan chief as well as head Caller and hiring man for the native crew, Eli Duncan deliberated before answering. Besides, t his quick, direct way of coming to the point, which his nephew had picked up among the whites, confused him.

“You hear what I tell the people,” he reminded gruffly, plucking methodically at his laces. “Better we buy our grease this year.”

“That’s right,” Paul agreed. “Wouldn’t we look foolish leaving good wages to go upriver with the rest of the village, all for a few dollars’ worth of grease? Go-ahead people downcoast stopped making their own long ago. If you ask me, Old Jessie’s putting them up to it. Ones like her want to keep us behind the times—old-fashioned.” He underscored the word with disdain.

His uncle eased his feet into elastic-sided slippers, then, instead of meeting the boy’s eyes, he gazed abstractedly across the cove, all warm with sunshine. “I do what I can.”

Nervously Paul fingered his belt, drew it a hole tighter around his lean hips. “Uncle! What’s up? You don’t sound so sure any more.”

Thick-necked, stolid, Eli Duncan kept looking across the bright water, his blunt hands cupping his knees. “Always our Kildala people have to go up river, ja-whun fishing time.”

“But we all told Mr. McLeod we’d stick. He’s counting on us.”

With slew' reluctance, Eli Duncan nodded. And to young Paul there was evasion in the nod, that evasion which so exasperated whites and made them say Indians were not; reliable, but which was often prompted by t hat twisted sense of consideration which made an Indian want to keep back the truth when it would be unpleasant to his hearer. “Stay here and work, I tell the people. But I hear talk. Every day more talk.” Eli Duncan spoke regretfully, resignedly, like a man from whom the decision has passed to higher hands. “McLeod’s a good friend to our people.” Then again, woodenly, and turning to the door: “I do what I can.”

So it was true. What Eunice had warned was true! And Uncle Eli who had talked so confidently, promised so much, a few weeks ago when they came down from the village, was no more sensible than the rest.

“Always our Kildala people have to go up river ja-whun fishing time.” Haue to? What kind of reasoning was that? And if it was a good reason why couldn’t they have faced it from the first instead of letting Mr. McLeod think he could rely on them? Whites didn’t act like this. If they saw a good chance they struck out for themselves, they got ahead. No wonder our people get mostly the hack work and the Joe jobs, he thought, his humiliation walling him in from the talk at the crowded family table.

Outside, as his uncle was starting back up the hill to the timber claim, Paul pleaded with him. “Please— you talk to the men this afternoon. Don’t make us all look foolish.”

Uncle Eli’s heavy face was set, masklike. “The people change their mind, that’s all. You know how it is. Ho-hqwa-hu-la.”

As if a fellow couldn’t feel, couldn’t understand that part of it! The warm sheen on the water, the hazy, swelling promise in the bare alders, the new tips on the spruces like green candles, the compulsion and the restlessness. All this meant more to them than just the white man’s spring, for in it was the strong, deep pull of all their tribal past, drawing them, waiting to enfold them, not only as individuals, but as parts of one close-woven, communal whole. But this year it was going to be different. Jt has to be, he thought.

“Mr. McLeod will be mad. Suppose he gives our jobs to somebody else? Ever think of that?” he asked.

“He take us back. He change his mind.”

“White people aren’t like us,” Paul blurted. “They don’t give you the run-around. They make up their minds and stick to it.”

“White people!” Aware that the waiting fallers and people on nearby floats were listening, Uncle Eli spoke loudly, scathingly. “All the time white people!”

PAUL felt his chin quiver and the palms of his hands grow moist. There was more to his uncle’s anger than the old face-saving bluster. Why, ever since he had come back, it must have been working up to this. It; all added up. He could see that now—the deliberate, sighting inattention any time he tried to point out how whites did things; the amusement at his slips in the village tongue; the ill-cloaked superiority over his awkwardness with axe or canoe pole.

For this was no new thing, this narrow pride of race, this suspicion that when young people came back with new ideas they were disloyal. Down at school hadn’t he heard stories enough? That young fellow who worked to become a teacher so he could help his village and how they made things so bad

for. him he had to Dave; the two who when they married tried to have their house white style— the way he and Eunice wanted theirs some day—only to be dragged back into the old sloppy ways by their people’s indifference and ridicule.

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There was a voice in the night beckoning Paul to adventure and another sweet as the sound of rain calling him home

Young Cedars Must Have Roots

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“I—I only meant—” But his tongue stuck and he could not meet his uncle’s narrowed eyes. “I don’t see why—”

“Zee-cass!” his uncle commanded. This was the crowning humiliation, to be told to keep quite like a rude child, and in front of all the people, and with Eunice hearing every word across the narrow street of water. Tears of shame, of impotent defiance, smarted his eyes.

“You can go. All of you can go,” he managed through twisted lips. And, though his young voice trembled, the words came out the way he wanted them—defiant, hard. “I’ve got this good job and I’m sticking. See?”

Eli Duncan, short-legged, ponderous, took a step closer and lifted his bearlike arm. “You—young—cedar!” he said.

Jerkily, like some symbolic gesture in one of their old tribal dances, he raised the flat of his hand. “Win-uks!” he ordered belittlingly, with a jerk of his head toward the canoe.

ANGER and smarting shame gave power to Paul’s strokes as he took the canoe surging across the cove. They’d made up their minds to go out but they hadn’t the nerve to tell Mr. McLeod! All right, he’d tell him—tell him plenty. He’d show them he couldn’t be treated like a kid. The boss would see here was one Indian who knew the score. And Eunice, though she might not speak out for him before the others—Eunice would be proud of him. Recklessly eager to justify himself, he went straight to the office shack.

But somehow, the way Mr. McLeod took the news, brought a feeling of bafflement, of anticlimax. “No need to get yourself so steamed up, Paul. I tried to give your folks a break, but for days I’ve seen it working up to this. I’ve had dealings with plenty of Indians l>efore.” He opened a drawer and handed Paul a letter.

The letter was from an employment office in Prince Rupert and it said that two sets of white fallers, with their own power saws, were ready to subcontract on the claim.

So his people were out—for keeps. Although he liad faced Uncle Eli with the possibility, he had not really imagined it would come to this.

“They can’t say they didn’t ask for it,” Mr. McLeod was saying.

“That’s right, Mr. McLeod. They sure can’t. I—I told them to watch out.” Now Uncle Eli would see. Making a fool of him in front of everybody. “But I told them I was sticking.”

The boss logger filled his pipe and rested his elbows on the table. “Look Paul,” he said thoughtfully. “Not that I want to break up families. But you’ve got ability. A live wire like you’d be far better off out on his own. Stick around with your people and they’ll drag you down every time.”

To be praised, advised, like this was really something. “You got something there, Mr. McLeod. I guess you know I’m not so dumb. And I’m sure glad to be working for you.”

But the white man only shook his head. “With the families gone there won’t be enough work in the store. But tell you what. I’ll be pulling out some time tonight to pick up those fallers. I’ll need somebody to spell me off at the wheel of the workboat anyway, so you better come along. A friend of mine runs a mill in Rupert and I’ll put in a word for you. You’d make out.fine up there, Paul.”

Paul drew in his lips and stared hard at the floor. The suggestion, coming so unexpectedly, startled him. But it showed how much Mr. McLeod would do for a fellow he knew had something on the ball. It made you feel alive and all steamed up, in a way he’d never felt before. But mixed up, too, and sort of scared—

“Get away from these people, Paul. And stay away. You talk good English now. Six months and they’ll have you cluck-clucking like the rest. All that old stuff, forget it. It’s dead. Bury it. Then, soon’s you’re of age, get yourself enfranchised, get to be one hundred per cent Canadian. That’s the only way you young Indians ever will get ahead. There’s nothing for you here, Paul. You think it over.”

ALONE in the little store and later x\, while he got fuel and water aboard the workboat for the trip that night, Paul kept telling himself that the time had come when it must be one thing or the other. There were times when he felt sure of himself, daring, eager to vindicate himself in the eyes of his people and to prove the white man’s confidence in him. Then, suddenly, he felt afraid.

Resolutely he tried to fortify himself with all the stirring things his teachers down at residential school sometimes told the older pupils; how they were to be leaders, trail blazers for their people. And at that Native Brotherhood meeting he had gone to in Vancouver when speakers of his own race told of the long struggle for the new day soon to dawn. But though he tried hard, all those fine, high-sounding things stayed what they were—just words. He could see what they meant but inside him he could not make them real.

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If only they would be real, as if they were meant for him. He wanted to bare his mind to them, wanted them to sting him, whip him on to a brave recklessness, but always they stayed no more substantial than the steam of your breath.

The thing that was real was the selfdoubt., the feeling that you did not stand alone, that you had to be part of something.

Then, shortly before quitting time, Eunice came into the store. She bought some things, then ventured shyly, “Don’t be mad at your uncle, Paul.” And there was comfort in lier gentle voice.

He knotted the string around the groceries, snapped it briskly. “I’m not mad.”

“You talked mad. I was scared when I heard you talk so mad.”

“Well, I guess I was kind of sore. But that’s all right. I’m old enough I don’t have to take it any more.” A pause. “Know something? I’m maybe pulling out tonight. Mr. McLeod can get me a job right in Prince Rupert.”

“But Paul!” Her dark eyes widened in disbelief.

“No fooling. There’s nothing for me here. Nothing for the others either.” He told her what Mr. McLeod had said.

“But everything will be all right. After oolachans you can go halibut fishing like everybody does till salmon season. I don’t see why you want to leave the village.”

“What you call all right?” he asked. Her placid acceptance of Mr. McLeod’s decision nettled him.

She looked away. “I guess you don’t like me any more.”

“Like you?” he protested, catching lier hand. “Eunice, are you crazy? You know all—all the things we talk about. Our plans and all like that. But it can’t be that way if we stick here. All along I should have known. Mr. McLeod, he’s my friend. He made me see.”

“But we belong to the village.”

“Belong to it! You can say that again. But here’s one who’s fed up with being held back, pushed around. Village chiefs and clan chiefs, everybody telling us what we can’t do. They think they own us. White kids don’t fall for that old stuff.”

“Don’t go,” she coaxed. “I don’t want you go. I want you stay.”

“Eunice, have a heart! Talk sense,” lie pleaded.

Did she think, too, that he was going to shame himself and knuckle under? Couldn’t she see that, after today, tilings had gone too far? He came around the counter, quickly, but she turned her face away.

“You’re in this too. I’m thinking about you—about us. It had to crime,” lie said. Then, hungry for her, fearing he had hurt her, he caught her by the shoulders and brought her close against him. “Please, Eunice, please.” He stroked her smooth, black hair. “I thought you’d stick up for me,” he chided.

T hen her arms—so soft, so warm— were around his neck. “1 love you Paul. You mustn’t be ashamed you’re an Indian.” His voice was sharp. “I’m not ashamed, it’s only-—”

“Sometimes I think you’re ashamed. The people say you’re ashamed.”

There it was again—the people. Always the people—interfering, twisting all you said and did and hoped into their mold of blind conformity to a past which long ago should have been discarded. But the warm compliance of her body sealed off his anger. He kissed her cheek, tried to find her mouth with his, and saw then she was crying.

“Don’t, Eunice! Eunice, listen! There’s nothing to cry about.”

Like a terrified child she clung to him. “Oh, Paul! Paul!” Over and over, between her broken sobs, her lips caressed his name. But although their arms were tight around each other he had a terrifying feeling that she was no longer close to him. All of her was no longer within his grasp. Only the entreaty of her voice seemed real and near.

But I can’t! I can’t, he thought in anguish. For he knew, then, with stabbing certainty, that this thing, this unreasoning resistance to change, had defeated him. He knew then that if he went he must go altogether alone, for even in her hopes she dare not follow him; knew that this girl he yearned for could never belong completely to him, that her life was inseparably woven into the rigid fabric of her people.

THE islands off the Skoena’s mouth crouched dark against the sunset as the workboat chugged the last miles of its long run north to Prince Rupert. Hours before it had left camp, the Kildala people had learned why Mr. McLeod was going. But instead of worrying because they had thrown away steady jobs—as sensible white people would have done—it seemed to Paul they had grown lighthearted because the decision had been taken out of their hands. There was excitement, an air of release. Packing which had been done furtively, behind closed doors, had been completed openly lastevening.

Like kids—dumb kids who can’t see farther than their noses, Paul had told himself.

It was years since he had gone up river with his village for oolachan fishing, yet he could picture how it all would be; the long, high-prowed canoes lined up abreast across Old Village slough, then the head chief starting the race for the best sets with a rifle shot; the women screaming encouragement to their men and kids sprinting like mad along the cutbank to see which families won the favored places between the fast riffles. The stakes would be driven and the tenfathom funnels of net left bulging in the current. That night on the shelflike bunks in the old shacks, people would lie around the centre fires and, to the drone of their ancestral river tales, old superstitions would troop back in the darkness, immediate and real.

AND Eunice would be there. Why don’t they give her a chance, let her live her own life? he had demanded impotently a dozen times that day. Well, perhaps after all, what the teachers said was meant for ones like him. This bleak sense of separateness, of being cut off-—was it not what every young leader had to overcome when he struck out to blaze new trails?

Perhaps I’ll be the one. Perhaps . . . But it was like in that, school play he had been in—he was only saying words. And the thing which was so real it hurt was the aloneness and the dread that he might never see Eunice any more. He felt surer of himself when they cleared the final point and he could see the lights of Rupert harbor coming on.

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The floats at Cow Bay were lined with gasboats and after they had tied up and Mr. McLeod had hurried off uptown, Paul cooked supper. This was his first time in Rupert since he was a little fellow and after he’d washed up and changed his clothes he thought he might go up and take in a show. First thing in the morning they were to go and see that sawmill man about the job.

He was standing in the wheelhouse doorway, sizing up the nearby boats beneath the floodlights, when three people came along the float. Like most of the people he had seen around the floats these were Indians, too—a girl and two men. One of them unlocked the cabin of the gasboat directly opposite. They went inside and the light came on.

Pretty soon the girl came out. She wore a mustard-yellow coat with a fur collar and she leaned against the back of the cabin and lit a cigarette. Paul could hear the men talking pretty loud inside. The girl hummed a tune and then looked across and smiled.

“Like spring tonight,” she said. Then she asked him what village was he from? And when he told her she said that was a long way to come and too had because the town was pretty dead right now. Paul couldn’t think of anything to say, so he got his new windbreaker and gave his hair a comb and went across. The girl motioned him to go in first, but as soon as he saw what the men were like he wished he hadn’t come. Only by then the girl was on the step behind him. She slid the door shut and made him sit down beside her on the locker next the engine.

The men wore sporty clothes, but sort of mussed-looking, and the cabin was untidy and dirty. The younger man uncapped a bottle and held it out to him. Paul thought at first it was Coke or something but when he saw it wasn’t he took the bottle and set it on the locker beside him.

The girl giggled and leaned against him. All of them had been drinking. “I bet you never had a drink of beer before,” she teased. “It’s all right, kid. We got permits.”

The older man scowled. “You bet we got permits.” He said something in an Indian language Paul did not know. The three of them were watching him. “Fresh off the reservation, huh?” the man asked.

“Something like that.” Paul tried to laugh it off but he felt uneasy.

“Well, we got the franchise. We’re the same as whites. Buy all the booze we like,” and his tone asked if Paul wanted to make something of it.

“Aw, leave the kid alone,” the girl said. “You’re all right, ain’t you, kid?” Her hair was frizzy and dead-looking and her mouth was daubed with lipstick. She put her arm around him and, reaching past him for the bottle, tried to draw his head down onto her breast and put the bottle to his lips. “It’s all right, kid.”

Paul felt rattled and ashamed as he jerked away. “I just remembered,” he mumbled. “I got to go.” Crowding past her he reached the door. “The punk!” he heard one of the men sneer as he scrambled out.

As soon as he had snapped the padlock on the wheelhouse, he headed up the float. He wanted to run, for something inside him made him feel sick. 1 íe wanted to get away from here.

At the head of the ramp an Indian father and mother with two little hoys were getting out of a taxi. They looked like good people and he wished they would speak to him, invite him to their boat. But he walked past them.

It had started to drizzle, but warm and springlike and the sky was light, as if soon there would be a moon. He went up the street the taxi had taken. An Indian man about the build of Uncle Eli was coming down and he had an Indian woman by the arm.

As Paul passed them under the street light he saw her cheek was cut and smeared with blood and her hair was hanging down. The man kept walking her and even when she staggered and swore at him and tried to pull away he did not speak. His face was set and he walked with his shoulders back as if nothing was wrong. Paul felt ashamed for him and pretended he didn’t see them.

Paul walked faster. A terrible mixed-up feeling filled him and he had to hold himself to keep from running. He must make himself think of the Indian people who weren’t like that— not like those three in the boat and the others. Fie must think only of the great ones on this coast—the teachers, ministers and writers. And back East somewhere weren’t there even Indian doctors, lawyers, nurses?

Why didn’t he look only at the decent, well-dressed native people passing him, going into the eating places or to the picture show? Why did he see only the Indians loafing in the juke-box joints, the dull-eyed men in doorways, the overdressed, tittering girls pointing out gaudy stuff in some store window which only a native would fall for?

And somewhere farther on would be the white part of town, self-contained and knowing what it wanted. And out there—the other direction—under the soft spring night, strong old villages and the good clean sea. Between the two this sordid tide flat with its human drift—the weak and rootless ones caught between the world they had deserted and that other world which only the most daring and resolute of his race could .make their own.

A dread of separateness swept over him like a churning, overwhelming wave. I can’t think straight. I’m all mixed up, he said to himself. It was as if two great cruel arms were pulling at him, tearing him in half.

Then, not knowing how he got there, he found himself alone in a park laid out below a rocky hill.

Get hold of yourself boy. Get hold of yourself. All this is crazy. You know you can’t go back. Nothing to be so scared of. Mr. McLeod is your friend and he knows. Maybe you too could get to be a leader . . . Eunice, I hurt you and I didn’t want to hurt you, I was going to help you.

He clenched his teeth on the back of his hand to hold in the sob. Eunice ... I can’t stand it any more to be alone . . . He flung himself down on the wet grass and let the sobs come. For something inside him, deep and old and so sure—so sure—told him that in the morning he must go back home.

When he sat up, the moon was a silver ghost above the curtain of the mist and against it three of the totem poles on the little rocky hill towered black in the unreal light. Like that picture, he thought, Like it was on Calvary, and wondered why it should be so.

But after a while he could feel the defeat and the worst of the hurt going and something strengthening and full of life, like sap that the roots send up, was flowing into him once more.

The Kildala people were his people, no matter what. And Eunice, safe and warm, was in his arms again, if