Promises to Keep
The hummingbirds would return soon, tiny warriors marking the true beginning of summer in their frantic, efficient manner, and I smiled every time I saw them. For now I had to be satisfied with the robins, poking their little beaks into the dirt, retrieving what goodness they could find.
How simple for them, I thought, hoisting my second bucket of water. They pulled their food from the earth and drank their fill from the dew, and they had no chores at all. Early summer—nipk to the Mi’kmaq, when Nipniku’s brought the summer moon—meant the morning mud beneath our clogs would be cold, the stinging flies relentless. At the end of the day we would fall back into bed, exhausted and itchy.
Ah, but the little birds did not have what I had either, I mused. They could not come inside and warm their feathers by a welcoming fire when the rain raged or the wind banged the shutters of our house. They could not keep their tiny feet warm in fine woollen socks or wooden clogs like mine. They could not even enjoy the notion of how fortunate we were to live in this wonderful place with a loving family and so many friends.
I heard Maman singing, then Giselle joined in with her high,
happy voice. My little sister was fourteen, but she often seemed younger than that to me. Setting a bucket on the threshold, I opened the door and walked inside, then poured the water into the large pot hanging over the stove. No one had been tending the fire, and I glanced at the others, but they seemed not to sense my annoyance. I thought about mentioning their laziness, but their laughter dissuaded me. There was no sense in dampening their good mood. I knelt and coaxed a flame from the pulsing orange logs.
“Oh! Thank you, Amélie,” Maman said. “I don’t know where my head is this morning.”
“I do!” Giselle said.
Maman shook her head, but she was smiling. “You are a little tease.”
Shame washed through me, and I turned so they wouldn’t see my embarrassment. How could I have forgotten?
“You were distracted,” I said. “Thinking about Claire and Guillaume.”
“Aren’t you?” Giselle asked. “The wedding will be wonderful! Then Claire will have her own home and her own children, and I will be an aunt! Oh, if only we didn’t have to wait until September! But I suppose it is all right. After the harvest we can enjoy it even more. What about you, Amélie? You are seventeen already. When will you choose a husband?”
I abhorred that question, and they loved to ask it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to marry. I simply had not met anyone with whom I could imagine spending the rest of my life. When I thought about the hours in a day, then those in a night, I knew my husband would have to be more than just strong and hard-working. He would have to be someone with whom I could talk about anything, and no one in our village had yet reached my standards.
“Hush, Giselle. Don’t ask me that.”
Maman pursed her lips. “You know, Pierre Melanson—”
“I will not talk about this right now.”
“But, Amélie!” Giselle wailed. “There must be someone—”
“Stop! I said I won’t talk about it.” I yanked the door open. “I suppose I’ll get the milk too, since everyone but me seems too busy to do anything today.”
The sweet, ripe smells of the barn welcomed me inside, and I breathed in deeply, feeling instantly soothed.
“Good morning, Amélie,” Papa and André said, glancing up from their work.
The men in my family have never pressured me to find a husband. Marriage was important, I knew, but they seemed to understand that nagging would do no good.
“Good morning. Maman will have breakfast ready soon.”
“Merci, mon ange,” Papa said, scraping his rake across the stall floor.
“He told them they need their canoes back for fishing,” André said.
I realized I had accidentally interrupted their conversation, and I perked up, listening for clues to the topic. Anything would be more interesting than discussing marriage.
“And said they are losing cattle and oxen to the predators in the woods.”
Papa nodded sombrely. “This is true. Now that the Mi’kmaq have moved away and no longer hunt—”
“They moved away?” I cried. Surely Mali wouldn’t have gone without speaking to me or saying goodbye!
“Not far, but far enough. Don’t worry. Mali will be fine. Go on,” he said to André. “What else? The petition? What did he hear about that?” He gestured with his chin. “And work while you talk.”
That reminded me I had a job to do as well. I dragged a stool
to the cow and leaned my shoulder against her warm, bristled side, letting her know I was there. My fingers closed around her and tugged in a familiar rhythm.
At the other end of the barn André began filling the wheelbarrow, clouding the air with dust. “Governor Lawrence would allow no one to read the petition, Papa. Instead he ordered everyone assembled—all one hundred men—to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown, promising to take up arms against the King of France.”
Papa and I both stopped what we were doing, incredulous.
“Take up arms?” Papa puffed out a breath.
“But we cannot side with the English in any kind of war,” I reasoned. “They can’t make us do that, can they?”
What would the Mi’kmaq do if the Acadians were forced to side with the British? Would they have to fight against us? It hurt to imagine it.
“Keep working, Amélie.” Papa nodded toward the cow. “She’ll get impatient.” He turned back to André. “Tell me, what happened when the men heard the order?”
André could only shrug. “Of course everyone said no. They said such an oath would rob us of our religion and everything else we believe in. So Governor Lawrence arrested them all and sent them to a prison near Halifax!”
Papa groaned. “This Lawrence. I’ve heard terrible things about him, threatening people with his sword, frightening them for fun. A tyrant! Does your friend know what they plan next?”
“No. He ran when he thought the soldiers had discovered him there.” He sighed. “There is more to the story, I am afraid.”
The oldest of my three brothers was an intense man. Even as a child he had been particular and precise in everything he did. His expression was often difficult to interpret, since he deliberately hid his feelings. This morning he was surprisingly easy to read.
“Governor Lawrence took away the priests,” he said, his voice so choked with fury that I feared he might break down. “He then made the church into his command post—”
“What?” I blurted.
“And he himself has moved into the priest’s house. Tents have been picketed all around the area for the soldiers. The English flag now flies over our church, Papa, and they are tossing out sacred items as if they are nothing more than a nuisance.” He flung his shovel aside. “To make matters even worse, more soldiers have come.”
I couldn’t speak. What did this mean? What could have prompted the British to behave so? The act of seizing our church was an insult to all of us. We were not a warring people; if they declared war on us, what would we do?
By the time I had been born in 1738, the British and the French had battled over this land many times, but my people had not been part of the fight. We had always called our home l’Acadie, but when the British had finally defeated the French for good, they named it Nova Scotia. It had never mattered to me which country believed they were in charge, because we Acadians lived independently of them all. I was not a Nova Scotian; I was an Acadian. Politics had never touched my life before now.
I set the full bucket outside the barn, then gazed across the land toward our church. The shapes of men moved among the straight white rows of tents where they slept. Certainly I had seen them before, but they had not seemed so menacing until today.