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.
Promises to Keep
We were not expecting a knock on the door. Usually approaching voices could be heard before anyone requested entry, but these footfalls had been quiet. The sound startled us, and we stopped what we were doing, glancing up to gauge each others’ reactions.
Whoever our visitors were, they were fortunate to find us in the house. It was growing late in the afternoon, and Papa, my youngest sibling Mathieu, and I had only just come in from the fields. Papa had wanted a bite to eat and had just lit his pipe, filling the house with its sweet smoke. Mathieu had carried in another bucket of water for the soup, and Maman and I sat by the window, letting the sun spill light onto our mending.
A knock came again, and Mathieu peeked through the window. “Deux soldats anglais,” he whispered.
Why would English soldiers come to our house? They never had before. I tried without success to read my parents’ expressions, but it didn’t matter. I knew they were concerned.
Nevertheless, Papa wore a cordial smile as he lifted the latch and swung open the door. “Good afternoon, messieurs.”
Two red-coated men stood before him. The first was tall and evidently in charge, for the shorter man stood silently behind.
The officer spoke hesitant French, but while he had trouble with our language, he seemed not the least bit confused about his orders. His Majesty, he informed us, had decreed that our people were to hand over our weapons. He said they would be kept safe but that the army needed to hold them, to make sure we Acadians kept our promise and did not take up arms against the British.
“Our weapons?” Papa asked. “I do not understand what you say.”
I interpreted the foul order, and he blinked with surprise.
“I do not intend to fight anyone,” he objected, as the officer pushed inside.
Papa’s two rifles were in plain view, leaning against the wall next to the stove. They were all we had for defending ourselves—besides kitchen knives and fists. Like every other home in Grand Pré, our house was small. We had no place in which to hide our things even if we had considered doing so beforehand. The arrogance I saw in this man’s eyes made me wish we had.
“Those are for protecting our farms from beasts of the forest.”
The softness in Papa’s voice was meant to soothe, but the officer appeared not to be listening.
“It does not matter,” he replied in his broken French. “We take them. Move.”
After the slightest hesitation, Papa stepped back and gave Maman a subtle nod. Her gaze dropped to the floor and her fingers locked around each other as if to contain her nerves. Beside her, Mathieu took a breath to speak, but Papa’s tight look held him back.
As the officer stalked toward the stove, the second man entered our house. He already carried Papa’s axe. He must have picked it up outside, by the woodpile.
“Will we have our axe back on colder nights?” Mathieu demanded, putting words to my concern.
Both soldiers stopped and everyone stared at my bold thirteen-year-old brother, including me. But how could he have kept his mouth closed? It was the truth. How would we survive without it?
The officer scowled at Mathieu. “The king will decide.”
This was an insult of the worst kind. Maman instinctively grabbed for my arm, but I moved out of her reach and toward the second soldier, the one holding Papa’s axe. He had said nothing, suggesting to me he was the easier mark.
“Surely the gracious king wouldn’t ask us to live a winter without a fire!” I cried in English.
It was the officer, the one with the sharp eyes, who answered. “His Majesty will take care of all his subjects. It is not your place to question him.”
His smug reply was like a slap. Determined not to react, I stepped closer to the quiet soldier. “Trust must be earned,” I replied. “What about you? Do you trust the king to take care of us?”
Before he could respond, the officer blustered past, knocking him sideways. “This is all?” he demanded of Papa. “Two old hunting rifles and one axe?”
Papa’s anger was quickly veiled by an expression of confusion. He opened his palms and shrugged. “Oui, c’est tout. I am farmer, not soldier.”
Evidently disapproving, the officer grunted and started toward the door. “MacDonnell!” he snapped.
“Yes, sir,” the other soldier replied, but before leaving he made a quick bow to Papa. “My apologies for the interruption,” he said in a cultured French accent. Then he left, closing the door softly behind him.
No one spoke.
“This is not good,” Maman eventually muttered.
“They will surely bring back the axe,” I said.
Mathieu regarded me closely. “What did you say to them?”
“Only that I could not believe the king would allow us to live without it.”
“And they said what?”
“That I had no right to question the king.”
“You must be careful, Amélie,” Maman warned. “They do not hear a question, they see a beautiful young woman, and one who dares challenge them. You are not as safe as you once were.”
“Especially now that they have stolen all our weapons!” Mathieu added. “Papa, can they do that?”
Our father had not grown up as we had. When he was only five, a group of Mi’kmaq hunters had discovered his father, drowned in the Gaspereau. His mother had died the year before, giving birth to his stillborn sister, leaving him an orphan. The Mi’kmaq had welcomed little Charles to their village and raised him as one of their own. He came to know their language as well as he knew French, if not better, and he learned the secrets of the forest. He lived and trained with the other youths, hunted with them, ate with them. I had been told that in a dark forest, he could be mistaken for one of them—as long as he covered his bright gold hair.
I loved to imagine him as the young blond warrior he had once been, strong, courageous, living wild. I imagined he sometimes longed to return to that life, if only for a little while. Now would be one of those times.
He answered my brother through a clenched jaw. “Apparently so.”
I needed air. Slipping my apron over my head, I hung it on the hook, then tied my bonnet tighter as I stepped outside. The wind reached for it, but I foiled her attempts. The best she could do was whip at my skirt, but I pressed my palms flat against the material as I stormed barefoot up the slope behind our home. When
I reached the peak, I hugged my arms across my chest, looking down over the fields and watching a stand of scraggly spruce bow and dance with the wind. The crops swayed as well, though their rich ocean of green buds was shallow, still swelling in adolescence.
I came to this place when I needed to be refreshed, to escape my family’s expectations, to clear my thoughts. In my life I’d never gone beyond the limits of Grand Pré, but from here I could see past the golden rises of the dikes and let my daydreams ride the Atlantic. The prettiest sight of all was at the end of the day, when the fishermen’s white-sailed boats returned home, riding the spill of sunset on the water. They had been joined recently by a number of much larger, unfamiliar ships, and we all wondered at their business. Until this morning, I had enjoyed the anticipation of one day finding out why they were there. Now I knew from my brother that they brought only more soldiers. I was no longer happy to see them.
A patch of darkness skimmed over the fields as a lone cloud passed overhead, and I looked up. Claire always said cloud shadows warned of darkness yet to come, but I chose to ignore her superstitious words. I liked the clouds.
Another gust of salty air washed over me, tacky on my lips, and I closed my eyes. My favourite afternoons came before a storm, when I stood in the wind and watched rolls of hungry clouds swallow the sun. When the sudden darkness folded around us—a last-minute warning to bring in drying laundry and gather children—its power made me shiver with anticipation. Even more wondrous was when lightning cut through the sky, diving down to split the water. Those storms were rare, making them a gift in my eyes. When hurricanes blew in autumn, I stayed out of doors as long as I could, welcoming the impending madness.
Today I felt no rain on the wind but a tension in the air, as if the clouds waited with me to see what might happen next.
A small child cried out, and I searched out the Labiches’ home. I knew the sound of little Jacqueline, and when I squinted I saw her stamping tiny feet in the grass. Angelique and Suzanne stood with her, their mother behind. Monsieur Labiche was in their doorway, staring down the same two soldiers who had just left our home. Another man I hadn’t spotted before sat beyond on a wagon bench, holding his horse’s reins and watching over a load of seized weapons. Monsieur Labiche was a big man with a temper, and I wondered at the fortitude of the soldiers, since I probably would have turned and run if faced with his wrath. Then again, I imagined they had faced worse.
Curiosity led me down the hill toward the little group. I already knew the soldiers’ mission; Monsieur Labiche would eventually be forced to surrender his weapons. About halfway down the slope I stopped and listened, wanting to hear how they would persuade him, but all that came to me was the officer’s terrible nasal attempts at French. His tone was disrespectful, making me angry all over again, but I would not interfere. I paused twenty feet away, and the other soldier—MacDonnell, I recalled—looked my way.
I have seen a rabbit freeze in place, trying not to be seen though it was in plain view. That was my instinct as well. But like the rabbit, I had stopped too late. MacDonnell glanced from me to his commanding officer, assessing the situation, then stepped toward me. At the wagon, he removed his coat and set it on top, partially covering Papa’s rifles and our axe. His white shirt was stained with exhaustion, and I wondered who was tending these men—doing their wash, cooking their meals. They were only human after all.
I saw no hostility on MacDonnell’s face; his expression was one of curiosity. Even so, I shifted my feet, on guard. He must
have seen my inadvertent movement, for his mouth curved in response, adding an unexpected gentleness to his expression. When he was about six feet away, I stepped back.
He stopped and held out empty hands. “You’ve nothing to fear.”
I lifted my chin in denial, strangely pleased that he’d chosen to speak French. Still, regardless of the language, he and I were strangers, and I did not mean for him to pretend otherwise.
“That’s not what we’ve been told.”
His mouth twisted slightly. He found this funny? “No, I suppose not,” he said. “The British army does not make friends easily, does it? What I mean is that you, yourself, have nothing to fear from me.”
I crossed my arms. “No? Why not?”
“I will not hurt you.”
It was a bold statement. I decided the test was not over. “Will you give me back my family’s weapons?”
“I cannot. You know that.”
“At least our axe?” Any pretense of bravado faded from my voice.
“I cannot. I am sorry.”
“Then you lie,” I said, turning away. “Without that axe you not only hurt me and my family, you kill us.” I climbed back up the slope, my head held high. I didn’t want him to see defeat in the set of my shoulders.
But he seemed disinclined to end our conversation. His feet shushed through the grass behind me. “Wait! Mademoiselle, wait!”
I paused but did not turn around. “Is that an order?”
“Please, mademoiselle, I am sorry. Truly I am. But if we gave back your axe, we would have to return them all, and the whole
point is to ensure your people will not carry weapons which could be used against us. I do know you will need firewood. We all know that.” He hesitated, then his voice lowered. “I will do what I can to help you and your family when that time comes.”
I nodded but continued up the hill, feeling his eyes on me the whole way.