The Stonechild Chronicles
Russell Stonechild began talking at the age of eight months. “Amisk” he enunciated with enough clarity to still the busy hands of mother and grandmother as they stripped remnants of flesh from the backside of beaver pelts. “Amisk,” the beaver, had been on their tongues as well as under their hands.
“Amisk!” they repeated in disbelief.
“Amisk,” Russell echoed.
And with that start, Russell began pouring out words while still strapped to his infant pack board, or wriggling around on the dirt floor of the primitive trapper’s cabin.
His ohkhoma, grandmother, with ten years as common-law wife of a Scots fur-trader and general store operator in Northern Saskatchewan, began feeding him words from the peculiar English lexicon of the Scots. This brought his mother into protective play. Fearful of the manner in which Grandmother Suzanne butchered the English language, she began instructing Russell in the more precise grammar of her own Church of England missionary guardians.
Not to be left out, his three-year-old sister began inserting Cree words into his ears.
With Cree and two versions of English covered, Russell’s father introduced Dené.
At the annual spring fur collection point where the Stonechild’s skimmed the best furs from a select group of trappers, the little toddler drew the attention of lonely bachelors, mostly French-speaking Métis who’d spent an isolated winter in the bush. They brought the peculiar terms and structure of Michif. Aboriginal families, too, tested his skills, bewildered by his strange gift.
With the exit of the last trapper, Russell’s father bundled his collection of furs into the wagon of a local Métis farmer, Gabriel Bellerose, for a two-week journey to the railroad at North Battleford, Saskatchewan. It was a rough trip with spring thaw turning roads and trails into rutted mud holes draining strength from men and horses. At one point a spring blizzard held them captive for two days.
With mother and grandmother seated in the wagon bed and his father riding one of the spare team and leading the other, Russell and his sister roamed their tiny space. Russell would often end near the springboard seat, waiting for Gabriel to reach down and nestle him inside the bearskin robe he wore against the cold. Clutched beneath the friendly arm of the Métis farmer, Russell, small face peaking out, would ride the pitching seat in serene safety.
Normally taciturn, the farmer often smiled to himself as Russell chattered away, mixing Cree, Dené, and English with the odd French term thrown in for good measure. Finally, Gabriel began his own tutorial. Not in the peculiar polyglot, Michif, of the Métis community, but using the French language of a well-read man. Whenever, Russell veered from French, Gabriel pressed a finger to the infant lips or frowned severely. Frustrated to tears by this blockade, Russell, nevertheless, began responding and picked up words and phrases fast enough to place a permanent smile on his tutor’s face.
Parting at the train station where they unloaded four coffin-like boxes of furs, Gabriel leaned down, shook hands with his recent pupil, and whispered, “Ne pas oublier votre français!.” He winked. “I’ll see you in the fall.”
From the train station the Stonechild’s walked to the Anglican manse where they bathed and received haircuts. They stored the rugged leather garments of winter and recovered the wool garments of the city. The priest’s wife measured Russell and Esther and sat down to her sewing machine. Russell scampered about between priest and sewing machine, newly dumb from so much novelty.
After supper, the priest gestured towards a pump organ in the tiny living room. “Play for us,” Talitha” he addressed Russell’s mother.
Russell’s mother stepped nervously toward the strange brown box; then, with more confidence, sat herself on a little stool with curved legs and little glass balls at the base of each leg. Her feet began to push against two pedals while her fingers danced around in a most fascinating way. The priest and his wife began to sing and his mother joined.
Russell had occasionally heard his mother sing, but never so unfettered. Ohkhoma sat silent, absent the usual gruffness, reducing singing to a gentle hum. Russell crawled onto his father’s lap and soon fell asleep.
It was still dark as they left the manse next morning. In his half-sleep Russell felt no wonder at his first automobile ride in the priest’s model A Ford. He woke briefly when his grandmother lifted him from the automobile to hear his elders say their “goodbyes”.
“Goodbye” he echoed to the nice man who had helped his mother sing. The priest turned his head, having not yet heard the toddler either speak or fuss.
“What say?” he stuttered, but Russell’s eyes were already closed.
Only when the train jerked into motion did Russell wake, still in his grandmother’s arms. He looked around and saw people in strange clothes. Beside him his mother held Esther and across the aisle he saw his father looking strange in new clothes and a little flat thing on his head.
He writhed to escape his grandmother’s grasp but she held firmly, moving aside till he could stand and look through the window. For a bit he remained fascinated by the buildings passing by, but soon lost interest. He turned back towards the people he could see near his father. He’d grown used to attention in the past weeks and wanted more.
He tried again to escape, but ohkhoma’s grasp only tightened. He accused her with his eyes but shrank from an unusually stern glare. Just beginning to form sentences he questioned, “Why you mad, Ohkhoma?”
She pinched his lips. “Shush Apistshigagasees, my little magpie, on this journey you must quiet your tongue.”
Russell had no way of knowing the tension shadowing each adult in his family. He was too young to know the danger lurking in the boxes of furs they had loaded into baggage. Too young to know the poverty they would face should authorities uncover their cargo of unregistered furs. Confiscation and jail time for Russell’s father could well follow. A precocious infant would draw attention the Stonechild’s could well do without.
At this point in Russell’s life he was also unaware of the intricate path his father’s furs travelled from train to warehouse to designers and stitchers and finally to custom designed outer garments valued by wealthy patrons worldwide.
This was only the second year of dealings between the Stonechild’s and Silversteins. And while Russell’s father and grandmother spent time with Mr. Silverstein, the rest of the Stonechild’s stayed close to their Winnipeg summer home on the Silverstein estate.
Russell early fell into favour with “Mrs Silverstein.” Each time he carefully enunciated her name, she would giggle, gather him into her arms and arrange a treat.
With the Silverstein’s daughter Rachel being the same age as Esther, Russell had little competition for Mrs. Silverstein’s attention. Mrs. Silverstein found herself captivated by this little guy from the bush, who absorbed words as a sponge gathers water. She was also a pianist and aware of child prodigies such as Mozart and Beethoven. With dreams of having such another talent on her hands she began luring Russell towards the piano. On her second attempt, Russell spied a half finished jigsaw puzzle abandoned by the two oder girls. He’d watched them earlier and squatted to examine the various pieces. He chose one of the twelve pieces and awkwardly dropped it into place, pounding it home with a tiny fist. He found another piece and did the same. So for the next few days Mrs. Silverstein abandoned her hopes of turning him into a musician and let him work on puzzles.
Finally Mrs. Silverstein recovered another memory. A young girl, Lillian Baird, had astonished the world with her chess ability. “I’ll start with checkers,” she thought, and removed the chessmen from their normal place on a special pedestal. She added checker pieces and played a game against herself. Russell watched as she talked her way through the game. Engrossed in her work she began talking German.
On the second game she took his little hand and placed them on the black markers. The maid called with a question about supper and she put a puzzle on the floor to occupy his attention. She returned, flustered, having left the little fellow on his own for nearly twenty minutes. Instead of struggling with puzzle pieces he stood at the pedestal playing checkers against himself. A red checker piece had fallen to the floor and he seemed to be puzzling over the board.
“Tsk, tsk,” she muttered and gathered the little guy into her arms. “We shall forget the games and have some milk and cookies. Nice, soft ones for little people growing teeth.”
The Silversteins possessed a guest cottage on their large Winnipeg lot, freed for the Stonechilds. In addition Mrs. Silverstein kindly offered to look after the children should Russell’s mother wish to join the others dealing with furs. It was a practice continuing through many following summers in a cooperative and profitable business partnership that grew into deep friendship.
By the time Russell visited the Silversteins for the sixth time he’d come to recognize the roles played by each of his elders in the Stonechild enterprise. His grandmother made decisions after prolonged periods of listening silence. His father, the official negotiator, after hearing from Ohkhoma. His mother interpreted subtle nuances. Her upbringing in a missionary home had given her a mastery of English she could here put to good use. However, the final decision, sometimes just a nod, other times a crisp summary, always came from his grandmother.
Over the years Russell had lived with an unanswered question. One evening he asked his grandmother, “Where is my mosóm?”
Esther heard the question and came to listen.
They were in the Silverstein’s cottage, the Stonechild parents away with the Silversteins to an organ recital.
Ohkhoma laid aside the needle, beads and buckskin jacket and opened her tobacco tin. She rolled a cigarette and put it unlit to her lips. “It’s a long story,” she began.
“I was the oldest child with three younger brothers. One older brother drowned and two younger ones died of sickness.
We’d brought a good batch of furs to our usual trading post and pitched our tent by a stream going into the lake. I was collecting a bucket of water when your mosóm pulled his canoe into shore. His bare chest glistened like the sun itself and I knew he would be my husband.
She stopped to light her cigarette and took a few thoughtful puffs, rolling the smoke in her mouth, not inhaling. “I knew I looked pretty good, and stepped into the open where he could see me. But he simply pulled a pack from the canoe and walked up the path without looking my way once. We were at the post for a week and I made sure he had a chance to see me more than once, but I didn’t think he noticed.
“Just before we left the post, I went to visit my cousin. Coming back I saw your grandfather talking to my own father. I was puzzled since I had not seen them visiting before. My father caught sight of me and called, ‘Daughter, come here.’
“My father stood looking at the young man who would become your grandfather, in a way I had never seen before. Finally he spoke.
‘This young man’ has just described himself as the best hunter, trapper and canoeist in the country. He has seen you to be strong and skillful. He says you are also as beautiful as swans on a summer day, or the full moon on a cloudless night. He wishes to have you for wife. What say you?’
“I could not talk. My tongue felt like a beaver tail clogging my throat. I looked up at the tall man whose name I barely knew and walked forward and put my hand in his. I spoke to my mother and brothers and packed a few personal things and joined my new husband in his canoe. He gave me a paddle and we moved off together.
“Two children came, but neither lived long enough to suckle my breasts. Then came your father, strong and healthy. But I had no more children. Then, one day a man came to our camp very sick. He was hot and soon began to show spots. I had heard of the white man’s measles and feared it mightily. My husband too feared it and came by himself to our tent.
‘Take our son and go to the cave where we store our traps. I will come later.’
“I waited a month, praying the disease would not follow us and praying too for my husband’s protection. After a month, I knew he would never come. I had learned prayer to be futile; that gods and spirits are dreams of the weak. I went to find my father and mother. But it was too late for them too. Two brothers only were alive and they had no room for me and my young son.
“Maybe,” I thought, “the manager of the trading post will have work for me?”
Ohkhoma scratched a match against a thumbnail and relit her cigarette.
“I waited at the post for two days while I grew more and more desperate. I finally approached the manager. ‘I have a young son,’ I explained. ‘I am strong and know how to clean and care for furs. I will work for food and shelter.
“The man looked at me long and hard. ‘I will do better than food and shelter, but you will also warm my bed.’
“I looked at the man and wished for my own husband. I looked at the man again and thought of my son, your father, and nodded my head.”
“Duncan, the manager was not a bad man and patiently taught me much. He taught me to read and write and bargain. He taught me how to make money, not lose it. He tried to teach me from the English Bible, but I closed my ears.
A day came when Duncan began to cough blood and needed return to Scotland. He gave me the six-year’s wages he had saved for me along with his little plot of ground and a solid log cabin with a good roof.
“When the new manager came he tried to move into the cabin with me, but I held him off with a rifle. He called the Mounties, but I had the proper deed and he backed off. It wasn’t long before he came begging for my help in the trading post and I worked there for three more years until your father turned nine and we went trapping on our own.
“Now, that is the story of your mosóm, one of the grandest men who ever lived. His image rests here and will be with me when I die.” She placed a closed fist on her chest.
She smiled down at the two children. “Because of him, I have you. And as your mother’s Bible says, ‘From dust I came and to dust I will return,’ and in this short journey what more can I ask for than the family I have.”
Those were more words than Russell had ever heard her speak in one go and words he could repeat almost word for word as he grew older and needed inspiration for conquering obstacles of his own.
After the story, Russell looked up at his grandmother. “I would go with Father, Mother and you tomorrow,” he stated matter of fact. “I will listen, not talk.”
The previous three summers had seen Mrs. Silverstein move from games to writing and sums. She found Russell’s progress unnerving. German had been her language of choice when playing chess, and with her own schooling as a base it seemed natural to continue in introducing Russell to math, physics and chemistry. She was proud. Not of her teaching ability, but of the doors she had opened to a remarkable intellect. When Russell began going with the adults in their detailed analysis of furs and the fur trade she spent a day in tears. Russell never saw those tears, nor did the two girls who were occupied in the doctoring and nursing of injuries and ailments of war-wounded dolls. With Russell no longer available as a flesh and blood casualty, they drafted the family dog.
Russell’s detailed overview of the fur business came into play the spring following his tenth summer with the Silversteins. He’d already become an active player in the annual Stonechild fur buying rendezvous, a rendezvous growing more and more secretive with each passing year. He had grown accustomed to a whole range of currencies and means of trading fairly and profitably. Tea, sugar, axes, knives, needles and even dollars were all currencies in the north. For trappers, though, the currency of the “made beaver” trumped everything else.
One prime beaver pelt, well fleshed, and in good condition equaled one “made beaver.” The Stonechilds never accepted a beaver pelt for which they paid less than the equivalent of four “made beavers” for the Silversteins would accept nothing less. They were just as picky regarding furs of other species.
And, each year, in late February as the prime trapping season neared its end, Gabriel Bellerose brought in a dog-team and sleigh with the latest news from the Silversteins on fur values for the coming season. His presents for the Stonechild children always included reading material for Russell. This year he had two books, “Smoky, the Cow Horse,” by Will James and, as always, something in French. This time Dieux Grecs et Fables. With Gabriel on site for two days, Russell paid tribute to their visitor by half listening to adult conversations while he read tales of Greek gods and heroes by flickering firelight. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull who ate maidens and young men by the dozen, proved most interesting.
Hardly had Gabriel departed with a sleigh-load of furs than Russell’s father left to close his trap line for the winter. He pulled a homemade toboggan on which to bring home the last furs as well as his traps.
Russell, by this time, ran his own short trap-line. With the sale of rabbit and squirrel skins from previous years he’d purchased his own single shot .22 rifle, a Cooey Canuck Junior.
When Russell’s father failed to return within three days, Russell’s grandmother called him aside. “We’ve had no snow in the past week,” she began. “Your father’s tracks will be plain. Follow them.”
Russell’s mother prepared a pack board with food, an extra pair of moccasins, and strips of cloth for bandages. Into a pocket Russell dropped the dozen .22 shells still remaining from winter hunting, strapped his gun to his pack, picked up his walking stick and left on his father’s trail.
Behind him mother, Ohkhoma and Esther watched their fragile treasure of eleven winters disappear into the snow and scrub timber. “What can he do?” Russell’s mother asked futilely.
Ohkhoma responded fiercely, “That boy can do anything?”
“Yes,” whispered Esther, while his mother clasped her hands in silence.
Nearing sundown on the fifth day after his departure, Esther saw movement among a distant clump of swamp spruce. “He comes!” she cried.
In moments three pairs of eyes searched the distance. Russell’s mother disappeared inside the cabin and came out with parka and high moose-hide moccasins. She trotted in the steps of husband and son and required no snowshoes.
She moved quickly. The objects of her concern more slowly. She dropped to her knees beside the man on the crude toboggan and cradled him in her arms. Russell, grasping the towrope staggered and nearly fell with the end of his marathon journey in plain view. Russell’s mother left her husband and grasped the rope beside her exhausted son and began to pull. Behind them, his father, leg held straight between sturdy branches used both hands to push with a heavy stick. The toboggan slid forward.
There is a fifth sense among solitary outdoorsmen usually keeping them from catastrophe. Russell’s father, though, had been in a hurry. He’d also been careless and forgotten a bear trap he’d set in the late fall. Even worse he’d placed another trap near the forgotten one and had stepped backward into the deadly jaws.
Hours spent trying to spring the trap proved useless and with fingers beginning to grow as numb as his trapped foot he turned to whatever fragile hopes of survival remained. Leather leggings and high, moose-hide moccasins had cushioned the crushing force of the leg-hold trap. Still, some of the trap’s teeth had penetrated the leather and blood drops dappled the snow. He tried to loosen the heavy peg to which he had attached the trap’s chain, but the frozen ground held tight.
A brush pile near the trap gave him further lease on life. He gathered branches and built a fire over the stubborn peg. Life existed in the fire’s warmth and with warm hands he reached behind him and pressed down on the heavy spring that would set him free. He felt the trap loosen but not enough and it seemed to spring back tighter than ever. Nausea gripped. He paused in his efforts and added fuel to the fire. The trap’s security peg burned along with the other wood. He waited; then tugged against the charred upright. The chain came free in his hands. He was no longer tethered.
He’d gained a fragile freedom, but now faced multiple choices. Five miles further on a makeshift cabin marked the end of his trap line. There he would have wood and shelter and a better place to plan release from his iron captor. That, however, would take him further from home. Further from faint hope of rescue. And how would he travel five miles carrying the twenty-five pound leech clinging to his leg and draining away his very life?
He stretched for the last wood within reach and tossed it on the fire. He looked down, surprised at the lack of pain. He turned his eyes upward to the trail running along a ridge above him. He saw his toboggan, half loaded with pelts. There, too, rested his gun and axe.
Subconsciously he felt for the knife and light hatchet on his belt. He remembered the prayers of his mission-trained wife and her assertion of his own special place in the mind of the Great Creator. At this moment he was far from feeling special, just helpless. However, before reaching for his knife and hatchet he raised his face skyward with a simple, wordless plea.
A fallen log lay twenty-feet away. He would reach it and sit. He would start another fire and then do what he had to do. He’d found empty traps on his line with only the blood and foot of a desperate animal remaining. If an animal could sacrifice a foot for freedom, so could he.
Russell’s Dad didn’t go into much detail on his return, but a bloody axe and knife were cruel reminders of the ordeal.
It had taken Russell a day and a half of steady walking before he met his father on the trail. Two days after getting his father home, Russell and his mother retraced the trail in order to collect traps and any remaining furs. They guessed Russell’s Dad had progressed nearly five miles after his amputation, sitting on the toboggan and poling himself along with a heavy branch.
Russell’s father recovered slowly, and time neared for the fur-buying rendezvous.
One evening, Russell’s grandmother gathered the family around one of their few reminders of civilization; a pot-bellied stove Gabriel had delivered the previous fall.
“Russell and I will manage the rendezvous,” she stated. “We will have to leave our furs for later. We will come back with Gabriel.”
With Russell’s Dad laid up, it proved a tough year. The Silversteins helped obtain an artificial foot, but he couldn’t move as well as before. While Russell and his sister were increasingly capable, the Stonechild trapping business had become even more difficult. The stock market crash of 1929 brought calamity to the fur industry for both trappers and furriers. Only the Silverstein reputation among an elite clientele kept the Stonechilds in business.
From the year of the accident onward, Russell became the chief buyer in an increasingly impossible industry.
For Russell things came to a head in the fall of 1938. With a change in priests at the Anglican church, they leaned more heavily on Gabriel who met them at the train station in Battleford. He shook his head as he examined the meagre pile of supplies and trade goods offloaded from the train.
“I’ve arranged for us to overnight in one of the convent stables. There’s someone wanting to meet you.”
After eating supper in the convent dining room, they were walking towards the stable when an automobile pulled into the driveway. Gabriel paused, and the Stonechild’s halted too. Two men got out and walked towards them.
Gabriel made a sign of the cross, advanced and shook hands; then returned with the strangers. Russell assessed the two men, both with robes and clerical collars. The driver was a small man, especially compared to his passenger. Balding, with chin permanently tucked, and pursed lips, he seemed locked in a prison of his own making. The other priest stood at a level with Gabriel and radiated good will.
Russell’s grandmother, beside him, seemed to sense danger, and he felt her bristle. He looked sideways and saw narrowed eyes and tense jaw.
Gabriel introduced the Stonechild’s and then the priests. “Friar Jullion is pastor of St. Vital, and Father Gagliano is an instructor at the Indian Residential School in Lebret.”
During the exchange of greetings Father Gagliano’s eyes never left Russell.
“Come into our humble cabane,” Gabriel invited. “The holy mother of Jesus could offer no better.”
Inside the stable, Gabriel ignited a coal oil lantern to dispel the gloom, found a three-legged milking stool for Friar Jullion and a block of wood for the other priest. Gabriel and the Stonechilds sat cross-legged in a layer of clean straw. Russell’s grandmother moved protectively nearer.
Embarrassed at the feminine mothering, Russell was still too mannerly to edge away.
Friar Jullion nodded in Russell’s direction, “We’ve heard talk of this young man’s linguistic abilities for many years. The rumours have reached as far south as Lebret and reached the ears of Father Gagliano. He wishes to address Russell’s future.”