One chapter of a historical fiction novel
by Chris Hibbard
The dog sniffed closer, circling the fire until it found a suitable spot to lie down. It was not a handsome dog, though at one time it may have come from Dane stock. This made no difference to Taraktarak Tekakwitha, better known as Cricket to his friends, and Kyle to the Whites at his school. The dog had been coming around Cricket’s house for as long as he could remember, though when pressed on the issue, no one seemed to know from where he had come. For this reason, the dog had been called Stranger, and he never seemed to mind.
As Stranger sighed and drifted into beautiful dog dreams, Cricket thought to himself that it was getting late and yet his father and brother had yet to return from their hunting expedition. This was not so unusual, but Cricket had been home for hours, was hungry and bored, and needed to do something, so he got up off the blanket he was sitting on and headed towards the river. Stranger, annoyed with this disruption, raised his head and took one long look at the reservation house nearby, then chuffed softly and slowly followed behind.
It was not yet entirely dark, but in the dim summer twilight, the rushing water in the St. Lawrence could have been pure black oil. There were some nights where the dark water frightened Cricket, so much so that he would not venture far, but tonight, aside from boredom and loneliness, Cricket was especially motivated. The bridge was almost done.
* * *
Two years ago, White Men had come on horseback (horses with iron shoes at that) to Kahnawake to meet with the Chiefs. The Clan Mothers invited themselves along too of course, for they would have it no other way. This meeting took many hours, and when it was over, Cricket’s father sat him down with his brother who had recently had the name Deer Hand (Ohskennontonohsnonhse) given to him, and told them about a startling new development. The white men wanted to build a bridge across the St. Lawrence, to help build something called a Seaway. This Seaway would connect the Great Lakes (Fingerprints of the Creator, Cricket had been told) and the St. Lawrence with the Atlantic Ocean, many miles away. Cricket was startled by this revelation. For generations, his family had been canoeing down the St. Lawrence just the way it was, and now they wanted to change it?
“What did you say ‘Niha?” asked Cricket, fully expecting his father to throw back his head and laugh out loud, followed by a retelling of a very firm dismissal.
“We listened to all that the white men had to say. They are from the Grand Trunk Railway Company. They will be putting tracks down for trains to travel on our land. They were asked by their chiefs to come here and get our permission to build it,” was the reply.
“But you didn’t give them permission did you ‘Niha? You told them that it was our river and that they can’t touch it, that’s what you told them right?” With this outburst, Cricket’s voice raised and his arms spoke just as loudly as his words.
“Taraktarak. You are not yet a man,” his father said quietly. “I do not expect you to understand. We have agreed to let them build their bridge, for they will build it even if we had not. Their visit was purely a sign of respect for our people.”
“Respect for our people? They don’t know us; they don’t even know our names. They tease us and insult us at their school, spit on us when we try to trade in their town and chase us when we go out alone? You call this respect?” shouted Cricket. “Why would you…how could you agree to this? It is our river. That is what you have always told me.”
“Shut up ‘Kenha and listen to ‘Niha. He is trying to make you wiser,” said Deer Hand, with a firm shove for emphasis. Cricket shut up. He knew he should listen to his father and he knew that his brother could shove much harder than that if he wanted.
His father waited to be sure he was listening again, and then said, “They will begin building their bridge in two weeks time. There will be many men descending on Kahnawake, with many tools and much noise. We have agreed to let them do this, with the understanding of three things. The first is that they will come to us to trade. They will buy our furs and hides, and they will buy the Three Sisters from us for their dinners. This means that we will not need to go into town this Autumn. This is good. It is a long journey into town, and you are right Taraktarak, they do not treat us well there.” With this, he reached down into a pocket and removed a piece of kahontaksen, which he put in his pipe, but did not light. “They have agreed to stay on that side of the river while they are working, and will not bother us on ours unless it is to trade. They have also agreed to let some of our men assist them in building their bridge.”
This last point was just too much. “What are you saying ‘Niha? We are going to help them do this? Why should we do that?” asked Cricket.
His father struck a match and lit his pipe, puffing out one small cloud of sweet smelling smoke, and then said, “Be quiet and listen to me Eksa’a. You cannot hear what I am saying when your mouth is so full of your tongue. It should be obvious to you that with every passing day there are more white men arriving in our land. There are so many now that they do not fit in their own cities, they are spilling over the sides. They have more than enough men of their own to build their bridge, but bridge building is something that we have never done. Think on what I have I told you Taraktarak, about those things that we have never done?”
Cricket thought about this, absentmindedly stroking Stranger, who was never too far away, then replied, “You have told me that those things that we have never done are often those things that are most worth doing.”
“That is right Eksa’a. Sometimes one must change with the times and try something new, otherwise before he knows it, the times have changed like the seasons, but he has forgotten to change his clothes with them.”
* * *
Now, two years later, as Cricket made his way downriver along the shore, he reminisced about his father’s words on that night, and realized now that his father has been right as usual. There were many men across the river, and though the St. Lawrence was very wide, Cricket could see the lights from their lanterns and fires, and could smell their meat cooking – it’s burning Cricket thought, wrinkling his nose. Looking beside him at Stranger he laughed out loud. Drool was dripping from his jaws. “I guess even burnt meat is still food though huh Kanahskwa?”
The pair continued on until they reached the foundations of the bridge. It was an enormous undertaking to be sure. Cricket had learned at school that this was to be called the Bridge of Quebec, a riveted steel cantilever bridge with a finished single span of 1800 feet, the longest in the world. The bridge stretched from this spot here at Levis all the way across the river to a point five miles above Quebec City on the north shore. His teacher Mrs. Bronson had spent an entire class one morning talking about it.
According to her, because the St. Lawrence was a shipping lane, the bridge was almost 150 feet above the water, to allow the ocean-going vessels to pass. It was to be “multifunctional” (a new word to Cricket that he used often, though inappropriately, that week) and was to be wide enough to accommodate two sets of railway tracks, two streetcar tracks and two roadways. She had called it “one of the world’s great engineering marvels” and had implied that it was a sign of things to come in the 20th century, whatever that was supposed to mean. Cricket had asked why it was the 20th century when the wall calendar read that it was still only August 28, in the year 1907. Mrs. Bronson had just smiled and kept on teaching. She never answered the Mohawk children’s questions like she did with the Whites.
No matter how the Whites chose to describe it, the bridge was a sight to behold, especially at night. The stars simply twinkled when one looked up at the sky, but when reflected off the steel over the blackness of the river below, shined like priceless diamonds, or at least, like how Cricket always imagined priceless diamonds would shine. Before this bridge was here, Cricket thought, the only way to travel from this side of the river to the other was to pay a lot of money to take a ferry, or make the three-day trip by canoe downriver until it was calm enough to disembark on the other side, then make your way back upriver to town. Looking at it now, Quebec City seemed only a hop, skip, and a jump away, not that any self-respecting Mohawk would ever want to go there anyway.
Looking around carefully, and ignoring the whine of Stranger behind him, Cricket slowly made his way out along one of the narrow cantilever arms, never watching his feet, but looking straight ahead. He had learned by experience that to look down at the river below, at day or night, meant a sudden case of dizziness and a sudden stop to any further movement. The first time Cricket had looked down; he was stuck there until workers arrived two hours later to help him down. The workers still laughed and called him Glueboy when they saw him around, because of how firmly he was stuck in one spot on that fateful early morning. But since then, Cricket had made serious progress. He could keep his balance, swinging his feet one at a time, focusing on the distant unfinished end of the bridge, and move as gracefully as a cat. It was only at night or early in the morning however that he could attempt to break his own personal record, making it all the way to the far side and back again. The last time he had tried it his ‘Nihstenha had caught him and given him such a swatting that he could still feel it. Even so, he missed her hands every single day.
Cricket had made it only 20 feet when he heard Stranger bark once loudly. Cricket knew that bark – that meant that Deer Hand was around – Stranger hated Deer Hand, ever since Deer Hand tied a flaming branch to his tail when he was sleeping by the fire and then scared him awake, laughing as he took off running with a flaming rear end. No real harm done, but a dog never forgets a trick like that, especially when the fur never grows back entirely. Pivoting quickly on one heel, Cricket made his way back to the shore, just in time to hear his brother’s voice calling his name.
“Taraktarak, you had better not be out there on that bridge again. You remember what ‘Niha said about playing on the — oh, there you are. What have you been doing? Oh never mind, come on home, we’re having stew – a’sehson’a and ahkwesen – I shot them straight out of the air, you should’ve seen it!”
And off they went, Stranger in the lead, peeking back warily at Deer Hand, with Cricket dragging behind, peeking back longingly at “one of the world’s great engineering marvels.”
* * *
The next morning, the sun woke early, warming the earth until it was too hard to stay in bed any longer, not that he could have had he wanted to. It was only Thursday and he had to head off to school yet again. Both his father and Deer Hand would already be hard at work, but the schoolmarms gave him breakfast at least. Of course, he had to pray over it first, thanking the Baby Jesus for the food, even though it was grown right here in Kahnawake, and prepared by a greasy old man in the kitchen who always had stains under his arms, but at least it was food. It always amazed Cricket that he could go to sleep so full and satisfied, yet wake up hours later so hungry again. His mom used to say that he was born without a stomach, but she was only teasing he was sure.
The first class of the day was Numbers; something that Cricket found came easily, much more so than the White Language class. He could always cheat in Numbers, using his fingers and toes to add and subtract before writing down the correct answer. As the day progressed however, with the sun and shadows moving outside the windows a constant reminder of another day wasted, Cricket’s mind began to wander back to the bridge.
Two years ago, the Mohawk men, young and old, were told to supply the stone for the large piers that now supported the bridge. When that was over, they would unload box cars and perform other menial tasks. Bored with such a tedious role in the construction, the younger Mohawk men would often just lay about, watching the white workers to see what they were doing. One day, after their shift was over, a dozen of them, including Deer Hand, scaled the bridge. Once atop, they danced and chased each other around, racing along the girders. They were ‘agile as goats”, Cricket heard one bridge company official say. Their agility was such that the company officials hired the lot of them, training them to rivet. These twelve teenagers became so efficient in comparison to their white counterparts that they were coined “Fearless Wonders.” There they were walking on narrow beams several hundred feet above a raging river, as casual as if they were strolling down a forest path.
By the time that first year was over, the Mohawk men were making almost four dollars an hour thanks to these things called Trade Unions in the United States. Cricket once heard a White Man asking his supervisor for a raise from $8 to $9, claiming that he had kids to feed, but he had also overheard his father talking about his job one day, and remembered how happy he had sounded. When Cricket asked him why he smiled so, his father replied, “I am making money my Raks’a, and doing something that challenges me. This is why I am proud.”
Cricket had not heard his father say he was proud of anything since his mother’s Condolence Ceremony. In fact, come to think of it, he could not even remember seeing his father’s smile since his wife had started coughing in her sleep.
Cricket was startled out of his daydreaming by the sound of the school bell, and with the typical crash and clatter of a schoolhouse, the classroom was suddenly empty around him. He looked up at the wall clock, and figured that his family would be off work soon, so he may as well swing by home, grab his faithful Stranger, and go greet them at the bridge. But before he could leave the room, he was stopped by Mrs. Bronson.
“Kyle,” she said, “in class today you seemed far away. Where did your mind go?”
Cricket thought for a minute and replied, “Not very far. Just down the river a ways.”
Before she could say anything more, he smiled and politely excused himself. If he had learned anything from White school, it was that politeness would get you everywhere. But the minute he was out the door, he was gone.
* * *
Stranger met him down the road from his house and together they ran down the road. Sometimes Cricket ran just for the sake of running, feeling the air flowing in and out of his lungs, testing his own speed, pretending that he was a dog like Stranger. This was one of those occasions. They had just turned the last bend in the road before the bridge when the end-of-workday whistle blew. Cricket could hear laughter and faint cheering coming from the far side of the bridge, and wished yet again that he was old enough to be out there working, instead of learning stupid Numbers and Cursive Handwriting. But as quickly as this thought crossed his mind, it was blown clear out again by the most tremendous sound he had ever heard, louder than cannon shot a hundred times over. The sound was so loud that he could hear bells ringing inside his skull.
By the time he noticed that Stranger had disappeared, he had also comprehended something far worse. The bridge, which normally looked so stable and imposing, was bending. Two of the compression chords in the south anchor arm of the bridge were missing, and the lattice pattern running along the sides was ruptured and torn. It did not even register in his young mind that those were human bodies falling from the bridge into the frigid waters below, so complete was his shock.
Ever so slowly, the scene played out in his head. 19,000 tonnes of nearly completed bridge thundered down onto the banks of the river, and into the water which it had been designed and intended to cross, with no sign of Deer Hand or his father.
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