[This is one of my first short stories. In the first paragraph I describe the Chateau Lafayette tavern, and how it had never changed. Well, since then it’s changed. But I don’t think any Ottawans would say it’s sold out.]
On an autumn night I walked into the Chateau Lafayette tavern to meet The Greatest Storyteller of All Time. It was bitter cold, but that only made me more excited for the night. Once you closed the door and stepped into the Laff, it didn’t matter how cold or dark it was outside anyways. In here it was bright and warm and loud with laughter and conversation from all the tables. The Laff was the old reliable of the Ottawa Market. Somebody had told me once that it was the oldest bar in Canada. In the years I’d been coming here it hadn’t changed at all, and I liked that. Whatever changed around it, I liked that it could always be the same.
I was the first one there, so I grabbed a table and ordered pitchers of Canadian. I was waiting for old friends. The group of us had all lived together as students at Carleton. Danny, I had known since high school. We’d all grown up in Ottawa, but I didn’t know Paul and Ian back then. We hadn’t seen a lot of each other the last few years, but Danny Costello was in town, and if that wasn’t enough reason to get together I don’t know what is.
Danny was a gifted storyteller right from when I first met him, back when there wasn’t much to tell. I’d seen less and less of him since university, but I had always been a bit glad of it. I knew he was doing what he’d always wanted. He was getting out of the city and having his great adventures. From about the time we went to university, he started doing more and more things on his own- especially travelling, tramping, or camping- and that was when he really became The Greatest Storyteller of All Time. He’d had more jobs, and more queer jobs, than anyone I knew. He’d been a cowboy in Alberta, and a miner in Cape Breton. Then he’d come back and I’d get to hear about it.
He’d once told me that the sign of a good story was the way it made a mark, it left a notice in someone’s mind that the storyteller had been there. And his stories did that for me. He’d been gone three years. That’s what excited me that night.
Ian walked in, tall and cadaverous in his huge overcoat. His glasses were frosted up like a cartoon. I shook his hand as he pulled up a chair with his free arm.
We didn’t catch up. We just talked and laughed, waiting for the main event. After half a glass, Paul and Danny came in together. We jumped up and shook their hands- we were never huggers. Their red, frozen faces looked like they would crack from their smiles. I remember thinking how old we all looked, especially Danny who had stayed so young in my mind. We all sat down, and I filled their glasses.
We joked for a few minutes, and then the conversation hushed down a bit as we all took a little more time with our stories. Gradually, the conversation spun more and more around Danny’s latest experiences. He didn’t push it on us, but let’s be honest, we weren’t there for each others’ stories, just Danny’s. If you have a friend like that, you know what I mean. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been working for me at the shop. He’d been at that for over a year, and then, in the early spring, he’d given me three week’s notice. The weather was too nice, and his feet were just tapping too loud indoors. He’d always dreamed of exploring Ontario’s far north, so he said, and he decided he was just going to do it. That was further than most of his explanations ever went. Since then, I’d received a couple vague postcards, written drunk from Indian-named places I’d never heard of. Then the phone call last week.
“Did you make any money?” Ian asked. “You still owe me from that poker game.”
“No, sorry. I’m stone broke,” Danny said. “Well, wait. I got something out of it.”
He pulled from his coat pocket a piece of craft; a small hoop, with a long feather dangling from it. Inside the hoop was an irregular piece of netting with a hole in the centre.
“This is an Ojibway dreamcatcher. You see them hanging on rear-view mirrors sometimes. Except mine works. Soon after I left Ottawa, I worked at a fishing camp up near Big Trout Lake. I got sick for a little bit, and the manager of the camp and his wife really took care of me. They were Ojibway, a few years younger than us, and they’d become involved in a lot of the old traditions. And they really believed it. Their parents had abandoned the old ways, and they’d re-adopted them. Anyway, after my first summer, when I was sick, she made me this dreamcatcher. In the Fall, you get the Northern Lights. She wanted to make sure their spirits only brought good dreams for me after my sickness. I slept under the lights, bright like fireworks, twisting like snow in the wind. I had my dreamcatcher, and I had the greatest dreams of my life. I felt like that was the real beginning of my time in the bush.”
“How does the dreamcatcher fit in?” Ian asked.
“There’s a whole legend of the origins involving ancient wise men and spiders, I think, but the way it works is, the net catches the bad dreams, but the hole in the centre allows the good dreams to get through. Of course, the eagle feather is for courage, boys.”
The dreamcatcher was passed around the table. I’d seen these in shops, but the idea that this one had been made by someone who believed in it, and had been given with a purpose, made the object seem special. Like all it took was belief to make the magic real.
“So you worked for a bit?” Paul asked.
“Yeah,” Danny said, “a little. But most of the time I just went on my own. Remember, Sam, when I left I had about three and a half grand.”
“I’d been overpaying you,” I said. “Should have kept you broke so you couldn’t leave.”
“Yeah, right. So, I had some money to live off of. After I left the fishing camp, I rented a cabin for a while near James Bay that I used as a home base. I just pretty much fished and lived off that. I was able to sell fish commercially on occasion. With the fishing quotas on the coasts, it’s a lot better market.”
“Isn’t it different fish though, than what they’d catch in the Maritimes?” Paul asked.
Danny laughed. “This was just sold for fish sticks. I’ve never seen anyone check the dorsal fin of a fish stick.”
“So you really lived off the land?”
“Well, like I said, I caught my food, and made a little cash, and used that to buy whatever supplies I needed; I was not too far from a small town. I took jobs from time to time. I got on alright up there. I came back because I just couldn’t take another winter of pickled herring and shadow puppets.”
I could see in Danny’s eyes that the best was still coming. Three years and just returned, I knew he would be bursting with stories. I poured fresh glasses to keep his tongue wet. Confirming my conviction, Danny took a sip, closing his eyes. Then he put his glass down and really started.
“With the cabin as a base, I stayed as far from civilization as I could. The country up there is absolutely stunning, boys. If you remember the cartoon, The Racoons… That’s what this is like. It’s unimaginably vast, a hundred per cent wild, hundreds of lakes, dark with glacial silt, sitting below rock cliffs and crowded by forests. The cities are for the most part ugly mining or forestry towns. Also just like in The Racoons. So I stayed as far away as possible, with just my tent and gear. That was, I guess, two summers ago, after my first winter in the cabin. At that time I was just a little north of Lake Nipigon. Now, Lake Nipigon is an Ojibway centre. The Ojibway were forced up there by the Iroquois tribes in the 1650’s. And the reason I’m telling you this is because of a story my friends at the fishing camp told me the year before. This is a really quite amazing local legend, the kind of thing you’d only hear about in the Canadian bush: the Legend of the French Trapper.”
Danny told us then how the French colonists had traded with the Ojibway from the early 1600’s. In 1712 (according to him), the French entered into a war with some tribes to the south, and they dragged the Ojibway in as their allies. The story goes that there was one Frenchman who decided that this wasn’t what he had signed on for. He’d left France to get away from people and war. He came here for a simpler, more peaceful life. He felt betrayed by the way history was going here, how his people manipulated the Natives into their conflicts. One night he left the camp and struck out on his own, leaving his people behind. He was skilled at living off the lands and was familiar with the Native leaders, who he could barter with for whatever he couldn’t make on his own. He built himself a cabin in the land beyond Lake Nipigon and lives out there still, almost three hundred years later. And he protects the people who travel through the woods on their own.
“Now, I thought this was a pretty incredible story for people to believe,” Danny said. “So when I got up to the region near Lake Nipigon, I started asking around about the French Trapper, to see what people thought, and to use that as an entrée to ask about people’s ideas about spirits and such. Most people called the trapper an old wives’ tale, but a few said they knew someone who had seen him. White people and Indians, both. Some even knew stories of people finding lines of fish or furs when they were lost and desperate out there. But they would explain that they didn’t think it was actually the old trapper. They didn’t want me to think they were foolish. They believed that someone lived alone out there, though. Because fish don’t just hang from trees, and men don’t just disappear, especially when they have a line in the water. So the legend is totally self-perpetuating, which is beautiful, no one will ever knew where it began.
“So, anyway… I was out there in Racoon country, in the land of the French trapper. I loved it. Muskeg wetlands, everything full of life, it really made you think you could live forever out there. Even the dead pines would glow green from the moss which grew out over their trunks and branches. And the fishing was incredible. I’d catch walleye, small-mouth, lake trout, and in the rapids you could find brook trout. I got pretty good, I got to say. For while I ate like a king, travelling near towns when I needed provisions.
“Towards the end of the summer, I became sick again. I was a few days hike from anywhere, and I got feverish. I couldn’t eat, and I had no food anyway because I couldn’t fish. My canteen was empty, but I was too weak to go find water. After two days, I couldn’t even stand. I began hallucinating. I knew I was going to die, but I didn’t care, all I wanted to do was sleep. I lay in my sleeping bag all the second day, but I finally took it off because I was sweating and burning up. That night the temperature dropped and I shook violently from the cold, but I was too delirious to get back in my sleeping bag. I finally fell asleep and I had wild dreams. When I woke on the third day, the sun was already high in the sky. I felt warm, and I realized that someone had wrapped me in my sleeping bag. My canteen was filled with water. I drank, then slept all the rest of that day and night wrapped in the sleeping bag. And when I woke the next morning, there was a line of fish waiting, hanging from a tree. I managed to clean and cook some fish, and I ate a little. That day, the fever broke. I felt like I was coming out of a phantom world, and I forgot all my hallucinations. I found my way down to the river to refill the canteen. Sitting there, on a rock, was my rod and reel with the fly still on it.”
All around us in the Laff people were laughing and yelling, but within our little circle it seemed to fall dead silent.
“Once in a while since then, I remember bits and pieces from the delirium. Sometimes I remember opening my eyes, and seeing an old man standing over me under the stars. And sometimes I remember walking down to the river, carrying my rod in the middle of the night. And honestly, they both seem as valid as far as I can remember.”
“I’m glad you always verify that you’re nuts,” Ian said. “Otherwise I might have to quit my job and leave my wife and come with you.”
“Sure, he’s nuts,” Paul said. “but what’s everyone else’s excuse that sees the Trapper?”
In Danny’s eye I saw that same sign that said he still had a story in mind, and I thought it might be just for me.
We talked for a while longer. Eventually, Ian and Paul had to go home, and I thought, “Danny Cos-te-llo”, so we went back to my place to talk till sun-up like we used to, and I would open up late in the morning. We sat in my living room, and talked for a little while before I asked him if he told anyone that knew the legend his own story.
He smiled and said, “Sam, when I first got up there, there wasn’t one person who knew that legend. But I stuck to it and told it as much as I could, and, yes, left a line of fish out for campers here and there, and by the time I left, I could tell people about my days in the fever, and they would not only tell me about the Legend of the French Trapper, they could tell me about their friend who had seen him!”
“You mean there was no legend?” I said.
He fell back in his chair and laughed. “A three hundred year old legend, I created in three years.”
After a moment I fell back laughing too.
A few months after that Danny left us for good, joining his spirits of the Northern Lights. Many know that story of the French Trapper now- people do love these legends. Of course, no one will ever know its origins. I wouldn’t undo the work of my friend, the Greatest Storyteller of All Time.