Science Fiction & Fantasy

REENTRY by Peter Cawdron

Advertisement

Fiction

Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, as Told to Raccoon

Okay. So.

There’s a time when I’m looking for Coyote, because I need to tell him this story. So, I walk the St. Lawrence River from one end to the other, and I cannot find him. Check the Rockies—he is not there. I even paddle to Baffin Island, because he likes to sleep on it. It is Coyote-shaped, a little.

He’s not anywhere. But me, I have a story to tell, and so I look for someone else. Raven is not home, and Muskrat is doing Netflix and chill. Moose is too tired, and Polar Bear too endangered. Myself, I am discouraged, and so I skulk through Toronto.

But then, in an alley off West Queen West, I hear Raccoon talking to himself. I poke my head in, and Raccoon, he’s sitting with his back against the brick wall, plastic bags and takeout boxes piled up like a throne. I sit beside him, cursing as I kneel on bus transfers and cigarette butts. He doesn’t look up.

“Raccoon,” I say, “you want to hear a story?”

“What kind of story?” Raccoon says.

“A Canadian story,” I say.

“I got a story, too.”

“But I’m speaking now.”

Raccoon sighs. “Do I have to stop eating?”

“Non.”

“Okay,” Raccoon says.

“D’accord,” I say, and start:

• • • •

Il était une foisthere was a time when Ti-Jean was very old. His fiddle was long out of tune, and his brothers Cordon-Bleu and Cordon-Vert had moved away. He’d spent the gold the Devil put in his tuque, and the bones of the seven-headed dragon he’d killed were crumbled to dust.

One day, he was sitting by the fire when

• • • •

“Wait,” Raccoon says. “Ti-Jean had brothers? There was a seven-headed dragon?”

“Those are Ti-Jean’s other adventures,” I say. “Don’t you know any heritage?”

“Oh, right,” Raccoon says. “I forgot.”

• • • •

One day, he was sitting by the fire when the door creaked open. A rush of cold wind swept in, and the fire hissed and went dark.

Ti-Jean—the same Ti-Jean who had once felled whole forests with one axe-stroke, and fiddled three nights without rest—he struggled to rise from his chair. All his joints snapped, and all his bones ached, and a low moan dribbled between his lips.

“Allô?” he called weakly. “Who is there?”

“C’est moi.”

Ti-Jean gaped as a young maiden stepped into his cabin. Her white dress fluttered in the wind, and her white hair streamed behind her. With eyes clear and grey as storm-swept ice, she gazed on Ti-Jean.

“It is me,” she repeated. “La Morte.”

• • • •

“I don’t know French,” Raccoon says.

“You should,” I say.

“Well, do you know Cree? Algonquin?” Raccoon pauses. “Inuktitut?”

I don’t answer.

“Is the lady Death?” Raccoon asks. “Shouldn’t Death be dressed in black?”

“Death looks like snow,” I say. “Canadians have a deep-rooted fear of dying alone in the snow.”

“Fair enough,” Raccoon says.

• • • •

“Ti-Jean,” Death said, “your time has come.”

“I think,” Ti-Jean said, his gnarled fingers tightening on his cane, “that I would like one last adventure. I should like to escape from you.”

“A game, my brave Ti-Jean?’

“Ouais! A game!” Some of the old strength returned to his voice. He hardly shivered as Death drew nearer, her skirt trailing snowflakes over the floor. “If I escape from you three times

• • • •

“Here, fairy tales happen in fours,” Raccoon says.

“In our fairy tales, it’s three.”

“Well, we’re in Toronto, so it should be four.”

“But I’m the one telling the story,” I say.

“But—” Raccoon says.

“You aren’t listening.”

“Fine,” Raccoon says. “Have it your way.”

• • • •

“If I escape from you three times, I win,” Ti-Jean said. “And you will not take me—not yet, at least.”

Death’s lips were grey as she smiled. “Bien, Ti-Jean, I accept.” With that, she beckoned him. “Come, let us away.”

Before they left the cabin, Ti-Jean grabbed a sewing needle, an old buckwheat galette he’d meant to eat the week before, and his tuque. Wordlessly, Death led him through the forest to the river. A pale canoe waited, and Death nodded towards it. “Get in, Ti-Jean. I will paddle.”

Not since he was a little boy had Ti-Jean sat in the front of a canoe. But how heavy his arms felt, how weak his hands. And so, nodding curtly, he crawled to the bow. Death knelt behind him, steering the canoe with smooth, sure strokes.

Through the forest, tiny lights flickered. No ordinary lights were these, but feux-follets: impish spirits, bent on leading travellers astray. Ti-Jean grinned and pulled out his sewing needle. Quickly, so Death did not see, he threw it at a far-distant tree. It stuck fast in the trunk.

The feux-follets swarmed. They clustered around the tree, each trying to pass through the eye of the needle. From the canoe, they looked like a single lantern, hung to guide them.

“How strange,” Death said, “to reach my land so quickly.” But she paddled towards the riverbank. The moment the bow scraped over the rocky shore, Ti-Jean tottered from the canoe, and by the time Death realized the trick he had played, he was already limping home.

• • • •

“They sound like will-o-the-wisps,” Raccoon says.

“Ouais,” I say.

“Do Americans have feux-follets?”

I think. “Possibly in Maine.”

“Maine’s okay. They can be in Maine.”

“Ouais,” I say. “They can be in Maine.”

• • • •

When Death stomped into Ti-Jean’s cabin for the second time, leaves and twigs poked from her hair. Dirt smeared her frozen white face. Two of her nails were broken.

“Bon soir,” Ti-Jean said, curled up nice and snug with his blanket thrown over his lap. “You look tired, mam’selle. Would you care for tea?”

“Non!” Death blew out Ti-Jean’s lamp and tossed his boots at him. “We have wasted enough time.”

“You know,” Ti-Jean said, as they set off once more, “you might consider some whisky. Your nerves are very tight.”

Death said nothing, but ahead, a copse of trees shattered like ice. A passing owl plummeted from the sky, shedding feathers. And finally, an old cow-moose keeled over with a thump.

“No whisky, then,” Ti-Jean said. “C’est d’accordmore for me.”

Silently, Death ushered Ti-Jean into the canoe. While they sped upriver, Ti-Jean slumped. Lulled by the splashing paddle, he fought to stay awake, but

• • • •

“Hold on,” Raccoon says, digging into the takeout boxes. “Snack break.”

“What are you eating?” I ask.

“Pork bun. Goat roti. Falafel.”

“Nothing Canadian?”

Tahini coats his whiskers. “Tastes Canadian to me.”

• • • •

Slowly, slowly, Ti-Jean drifted to sleep. When he woke, a cream-coloured blanket covered him, striped green and red, yellow and blue. “Whose is this?” he asked, adjusting it more snugly.

“Mine,” said Death. Before Ti-Jean could answer, a thin smile curved her lips. “We are here.”

They had beached at a small inlet. Rising, Ti-Jean tried to climb ashore, but his back seized, his knees buckled, and he sprawled into a drift. For a moment, he lay there, melting snow running like tears down his cheeks.

“Oh, my dear Ti-Jean . . .” Death sank beside him, stroking his shoulder with a cold hand. “You are so tired.”

• • • •

“That’s nice of her,” Raccoon says. “Unusual, but nice.”

• • • •

After a moment longer, Death eased Ti-Jean upright. Blinking, he peered through the darkness. Sheer granite cliffs tore the sky. Beyond, the northern lights whirled and danced. If Ti-Jean squinted very hard, he just glimpsed a tiny yellow light between the cliffs, like a distant cabin at journey’s end.

“Before we depart, mam’selle,” Ti-Jean said, “may I wash my face?”

Death lost her softness. Drawing herself upright, far taller than Ti-Jean, she scowled. “Downriver from the canoe. I do not want you escaping in it.”

“Bien sûr!” Ti-Jean shuffled past Death. Bending over the water, he let the week-old buckwheat galette slip into the river. As it bobbed in the current, it grew bigger, and bigger, until it was a galette large enough to hold Ti-Jean. With a merry wink to Death, he hopped on, pushed off the bank, and floated all the way home.

• • • •

“They were having a nice moment,” Raccoon says.

“It was a trick,” I say.

Raccoon ponders a torn magazine by his paw. A ripped woman smiles up at us, clutching a cream-and-striped Hudson’s Bay blanket. “They usually are,” he says.

• • • •

And so Ti-Jean had escaped from Death twice. “But to win our little game,” he muttered, “there must be one more.”

Turning his tuque over in his hands, he got an idea. Quietly, he left his cabin and called into the woods, “Nanabozho?”

The stars glittered overhead, and there was no answer.

“Nanabozho!” he called again. “It is your friend, Ti-Jean.”

A bush rustled nearby. Nanabozho peered through barren branches, his eyes narrowed. “What is it, Ti-Jean?”

And Ti-Jean told Nanabozho the whole story of his game with Death, and all his escapes so far. He made them sound far grander than they were, but Nanabozho was a trickster, too, and so he understood.

“And for this last trick,” Ti-Jean finished, “I need your help.” Triumphantly, he held his tuque aloft. “You will wear my hat, and Death will think that you are me. While she takes you to her far country, I will escape!”

Nanabozho frowned at Ti-Jean’s ratty tuque. “You want me to dress like you . . . and let Death take me away?”

• • • •

“This symbolism makes me very uncomfortable,” Raccoon says.

“I never thought about it,” I say.

• • • •

“Ben ouais!” exclaimed Ti-Jean.

“Not in a million years,” said Nanabozho, and he left Ti-Jean standing alone in the forest, tuque outstretched.

Ti-Jean bit his lip, thinking hard. Then, he raised his voice again: “Glooscap!”

• • • •

“When will he learn?” Raccoon asks.

“I don’t know.”

• • • •

“Wisakedjak! Kiviuq!”

• • • •

Can he learn?”

“I don’t know.”

• • • •

Name after name he called, but Ti-Jean could not find anyone to dress as him. As he pondered, something crashed through the bush beside him. He startled, preparing to hide from Death, but it was only another old man—with a rifle clutched in his spotted hands, and his thick beard covering his chest like snow.

“Did I hear you calling, son?” the old man asked.

“Oui!” said Ti-Jean.

“Do you need saving from the British?” The old man hefted his rifle. “I’m very good at saving people from the British.”

“Non, merci, not today.”

“We can be over in a jiffy, if you change your mind.”

“Another time,” Ti-Jean said. “Listen.” And he told the man all about Death. “But no one will wear my tuque,” he finished.

The old man dug a finger in his ear. “I’ll do it. Just gotta cowboy up.”

“You are a good friend, hein?”

“Ayup,” said the old man. “Mostly.”

• • • •

“Huzzah!” Raccoon shouts. “He’s from Maine!”

“Oui,” I say.

“See, Maine is okay.”

“Don’t forget the other states,” I say. “They’re good friends, too.”

“Mostly,” Raccoon says. “When they’re not saving us.”

• • • •

And so the little old man from Maine went to sit in Ti-Jean’s cabin, wearing Ti-Jean’s tuque. Meanwhile, Ti-Jean hobbled through the forest. A terrible thought had struck him. Even if he won their little game, he had not truly escaped Death. She would linger: in every approaching storm, around every river bend, at the bottom of every empty flour barrel.

“What must I do,” Ti-Jean cried, “to escape Death forever?”

“You must become a Story,” Death said.

• • • •

“Wait,” Raccoon says.

• • • •

Ti-Jean startled. He had not noticed Death walking so close to him. But then, no one does. In one hand, Death held his tattered tuque. Against her white skirts, it resembled nothing so much as a lump of chewed wool.

“If you’re a Story,” she said quietly, “you change, but you never really die.”

• • • •

“Wait,” Raccoon says. “I see what you’re doing.”

“Oh?” I say.

Raccoon nods. “Story-cycles are very common in French Canada. They end at the beginning, and then they start over.”

“That’s true,” I say.

“I’ve got a story like that. Okay. So. This one time—”

“But I’m telling my story,” I say.

Raccoon’s black lips peel back. Shreds of pork poke through his teeth.

“You have to wait your turn,” I say.

“Over five hundred years,” Raccoon says. “And I’m still waiting.”

• • • •

Ti-Jean thought for so long, he needed to sit down. “But if I am a Story,” he said, “it is not exactly the same as being alive.”

“Perhaps not.” Gently, Death placed Ti-Jean’s tuque on his head. “But you can have new adventures forever.”

• • • •

“Okay, Ti-Jean,” Raccoon says. “You’ve told me your story. You became a cultural figure, a folk hero. You escaped Death for good. Bravo.”

“I’m not Ti-Jean,” I say.

• • • •

“What if the people grow tired of me?” Ti-Jean asked. “What if they stop telling my Story? What if they forget?”

“Then we must find a way to make those stories new.”

• • • •

“In that case,” Raccoon says. “I have a confession.” Under his mask, his needle-like teeth shine in a fierce smile. His dark eyes glow suddenly yellow. “I’m not Raccoon.”

“Oh.” For a long time, I can’t think of anything to say. “So you learned to hide, hein?”

“A story made new,” Coyote agrees, his blunt claws tearing into a Styrofoam container. Then he pauses. “It was a nice moment you had,” he says. “You and Ti-Jean.”

“Over too soon,” I say.

“That’s what I said, when your ships arrived.” He pauses. “You sound different. This story skipped all the British parts.”

“Next time.”

• • • •

Ti-Jean struggled upright, adjusting his tuque. “D’accord,” he said. “Make me a Story, then. Then I’ll come with you.”

So Death began to make Ti-Jean a Story.

“Tell me to someone good,” Ti-Jean said. “Tell me to another trickster.”

• • • •

“So.” Tartar sauce and grease spill down Coyote’s chest. “Where do we go from here?”

“I don’t know.” I wipe my hands on my pants, the white denim stained with oil, earth, and blood. Mostly blood. “Everything’s so complicated, now.”

“It was always complicated,” says Coyote. “You just never listened before.” He holds out a plastic bag. “You want some bannock and Timbits?”

“Merci.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Coyote says. “But it’s my turn to be storyteller. Got that?”

“Okay,” I say.

“You’re awake now?”

“Very much.”

“Over five hundred years, I’ve been waiting,” Coyote says. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. This is going to be good.”

He clears his throat. “Okay. So.”

I listen.

KT Bryski

KT Bryski

KT Bryski is a Canadian author, podcaster, and playwright. Her short fiction has appeared in Apex, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She currently serves as the Apex Magazine podcast producer, and her audio dramas Coxwood History Fun Park and Six Stories, Told at Night are available wherever fine podcasts are found. Select theatre credits include Six Stories, Told at Night (Toronto Fringe), A Canticle of Light (Missed Metaphor Productions), and East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon (Canadian Children’s Opera Company).

KT is a Sunburst finalist, Stonecoast MFA alum, and guardian to a very strange cat. When not writing, she frolics through Toronto enjoying choral music and craft beer. Visit her at www.ktbryski.com or find her on Twitter @ktbryski.