by Robert Lalonde
translated by Jean-Paul Murray
Ekstasis Editions, 2012
Seven Lakes Further North is the story of Michel, a quarter-blood Native who sets out on a long trip to the great forest for a strange meeting with an Indian who’s taken refuge there following the Oka standoff. The story runs through a land of lakes and forests, from Oka to the Abitibi, to the source of the Ottawa River, as Michel rediscovers his mother, voices from his childhood, memories of fishing trips and his dead father’s torn landscapes. A postcolonial novel of consensus, Seven Lakes Further North reconciles clashing polarities, while painting the Canadian landscape in dreamlike detail.
There still are lakes of pure water and sandy beaches along the road. A village church sounded the angelus. The sun was beating down like it does in midsummer. They drove off the highway and onto a dirt road. In the old days, riding in Louis-Paul’s jalopy, the three of them had often sought and found the creek, the wild bay, the cove with large pebbles and a cascading waterfall. The three of them swam there naked. They fished, Louis-Paul would draw, seated in the shade, filling his coat pockets with dozens of sketches to help him spend the winter, hurried pencil strokes, a rock dotted with quartz, a branch in the water (which would be caught in the ice in the final painting), Angèle’s legs in the clearness of the current. Michel would swim to the small island with his mother, their laughter echoing off a cliff, and they’d return to the beach, swimming on their backs. At the time, Michel knew he was more fish than little boy, otter, muskrat. He’d dive, staying under a long time, thinking: “I’m in the water’s womb, not yet born, a tadpole, an egg sac of skin swollen with blood, already pierced with gills, changing so quickly, wriggling with a desire to enter the world, to spiral upwards to the light, the day, life, the other life.” And then, he ran out of air, a delicious torment, a serious panic shook him, spasms of a terrifying happiness. He knew his nerves and muscles were wonderfully powerful, obedient, and with the thrust of a trout, like a shimmering beaver leaping from the midwater, he darted up, piercing the lake’s surface, a monster from the shallows emerging in the light of day. Neither Louis-Paul nor Angèle worried about his long stays underwater. Slowly, he swam towards them, head filled with that silence of the water, that green light pierced with flashes of liquid silver from the lake’s depths. When the Indian showed up, he was ready: his body knew it could do more than walk and talk on the earth. There was the water, its currents, where his thoughts, like his body, floated, lost their assurance, surpassed their limits, surprised the changing sovereignty of the world. The joy of knowing he was a son of the stream, from source to river, tiny yet so strong, so powerful to be working with the force, cascading with it and swimming in its life-saturated plasma. An apprentice sorcerer discovering the layers, strata and currents of reality, Michel would forever be thankful to Louis-Paul and Angèle for these summers of controlled terror, of acknowledged solitude. For that easy and difficult freedom they gave him by allowing him to dive, run, be quiet or sing without words, by abandoning him to the world while keeping an eye on him. “Two parents who’ve been guardian angels,” he’d often said to friends who’d listened to his fables. That childhood of woods and rivers, of great terrors followed by victories over himself, and not over nature, had been a fable indeed. As had been the apparition of the Indian who’d come to complete the initiation, the secret that’s lost and found again, that show of strength that elicits fear, that involuntary interest which makes you hear and listen to the world’s song and its alarm signals with the same incredible acuity.
The two of them swam, but each on their own. Angèle didn’t venture far from shore. She’d say: “I barely go for a dip now; my legs have no strength.” Seated on a slope of faded grasses, she was letting herself dry off, waiting for him while chewing on a willow branch. Michel was moving through the black water, arms and legs numb with astonishing fatigue. “I’m going to loosen up, another hundred or so breast strokes and my tiny frozen heart will expand, start to heat up, pump oil-like blood, I know myself!” In his resolve to continue, he recognized the need, always pleasant, always violent, to know fear at first, then that crazy longing to be part of the world. But he swam like a fanatic in a pool, weighing his efforts, calculating his breaths. “Good for nothing, I’m good for nothing. Let your body go limp, even if you sink for a minute or so, let your limbs shake off their panic, sink like a lead weight and feel the cozy fever of terror. And then, with fin-like arms and the feet of an otter, you easily surface by following the current, dive at an angle, let only your head emerge, take a breath, and the machine starts up again on its own …”
He came out of the water, half victorious, half drunk still from his own breathing, and went over to shake himself like a hunting dog over Angèle—a ritual from the past which used to make them laugh and chase each other on the shore. His heartbeats were visible, bulges spreading his ribs, a racing engine frightful to behold. She laughed a little, then placed her hand on his chest. “She’s touching my heart through my skin, that heart she made, which she’d had against her own heart, drumming as it now was, always too strongly, beating with anticipation, impatience, desire.” They stayed like this for a long time, while he inhaled and exhaled like a drug addict and she listened through the palm of her hand to the heart whose pounding echoed deep inside her. They didn’t speak to each other, since there weren’t yet words in the life that precedes life. Just the blood’s river-like hum, the pleasure of not yet having anything to say, of still not being, of simply following the rhythm of two hearts working together, amid a kind of red and salty sunlight the two of them would always be able to find again—whether they wanted to or not.
Translation by Jean-Paul Murray