Try Orion

The Clearing

A short story

by Alexi Zentner

Published in the November/December 2009 issue of Orion magazine



THE TREES PRESSED DOWN so tightly against the banks of the Sawgamet River that Jeannot had little choice but to turn from the river and climb the hill, following a creek into the woods. His dog brushed past him and ran up through the dappled gloom, stopping once to sniff the air before continuing. Jeannot had been traveling for long enough that the dark and the woods should not have been foreign and frightening, but even though the wind was still, he could hear the trees moving in rustling whispers that sounded like voices. He thought that if he turned his head quickly enough he might see who was speaking, and for that reason he kept his head down and moved with a furious focus. He wanted to be out of these woods as soon as possible, back again tracing the arc of the Sawgamet, looking for a place to stop and pan for gold. Mixed in with the voices from the trees, Jeannot could hear the dog panting, and as he stumbled through a stray beam of sunlight, he noticed how lean the dog had become. And then the shadowed whispering came clear and uncluttered, and he heard someone calling his name.

Jeannot hesitated and then stopped in his tracks. He could feel the head of the ax pressing against the top of his hand, the weight of the rifle in his other hand, and with a slight horror he realized that by holding both he would be able to use neither. The woods fell silent. For a moment, just to his side, he thought he saw a young man, a boy his own age, staring at him with a hungry fear, but by the time he turned the boy was gone. He moved in a slow circle, more afraid that he would see someone than that he would not.

He had been alone too long, he thought, and it was too easy out here in the untrammeled woods to convince himself that he saw and heard something that was not there. He lowered his head again and continued following the creek up the hill, thinking that when he crested the rise he might be able to see the lay of the Sawgamet. For the last few days the river had been running mostly straight up a wide valley. A chain of peaks and mountains rose on the other side of the river and Jeannot liked being able to see the improbable snow that capped the mountains, a fanciful affectation against the midsummer sun.

When he stepped into the clearing, Jeannot risked a last glance into the trees, but with the afternoon’s brightness and the dark of the woods, he was able to see only a few dozen paces back. He still thought there was something in there, keeping just past the edge of his vision. While he looked, Flaireur padded up beside him. Jeannot touched him lightly on the head, and then the dog trotted into the middle of the clearing and collapsed on the ground near a wide creek.

He had stolen the dog from a girl in Edmonton who claimed to be a witch, so when Flaireur—Jeannot named the mongrel in anticipation of sniffed-out treasure—refused to move any farther that day, Jeannot decided that he too would go no farther. He had already been walking for thirty-nine days since leaving Quesnellemouthe, and he thought that perhaps the dog was right; to travel one more day would be to risk the wrath of God. Jeannot dropped his pack, took his ax, and cut saplings and branches to make a lean-to against a fallen tree. He had learned to handle the ax and to fend for himself during the two years and three thousand miles it had taken him to reach Quesnellemouthe from Montreal, and when he was finished making shelter, he cut fallen wood until he had more than enough to burn through the night.

In years to come, Jeannot would eat so much that the growth that had stopped in his childhood would spring upon him, and he’d grow up and out, but on this day, the day that he founded what was to become Sawgamet, Jeannot was sixteen, whip thin, wire strong, and able to both give and absorb a brutal amount of punishment. He would later joke that he had been punched so hard and so often that his nose had rounded his face twice before stopping just off of center. But he would never tell his son or his grandson why he had left the orphanage, would not speak of the girl he had loved who had been taken away from him, the reason why he had traveled across the whole of Rupert’s Land; he would only tell stories from the moment when he had dropped his pack beside the creek, as if he himself were an invention that began to exist at the same moment as Sawgamet.

After he finished cutting firewood, Jeannot forced himself to walk back through the woods and down the hill to the river, so that he could catch a fish to share with Flaireur for dinner. When it was finally dark, he unrolled his blanket under the lean-to and listened to the low burble of the creek, and beyond that, the muted roar coming from the Sawgamet. The sound of the water and the crackling embers were a comfort to him, as was the slow breathing of Flaireur; the dog had not been willing to move from the spot where he had collapsed earlier in the evening, but he seemed restful now. The wind pushed in occasional soft moans, moving warm across his body. Jeannot fell asleep quickly and easily, with the heavy instantaneousness that is only available to the young.

When he woke in the middle of the night, the fire had died completely, as had the wind. Flaireur stood above him, his mouth open in a soundless snarl. Jeannot had spent countless nights in the dark wilderness during his trek—the open plains, the cut-black trees between where he was now and Quesnellemouthe—but today was the first time he had ever felt frightened. He had bedded the witch before stealing Flaireur, and now, with Flaireur standing above him, he thought she had come back, first to steal the dog’s voice, and then to steal Jeannot’s soul. Jeannot could see Flaireur’s teeth in the moonlight, and when he put his hand out to touch the dog’s neck, he could feel the low rumble that should have carried sound. With a start, he realized that the night had fallen quiet as well. Even the creek had been rendered mute.

Jeannot was not sure if he saw the creature or smelled it first. It was fish-pale and carried the gagging scent of spoiled meat. He could not tell if it was a man or a woman, but as it stumbled and lurched across the little clearing, Jeannot could see the milk-white eyes that seemed to be searching for him, like it knew he was there. Its hair clumped over its shoulders, and its skin was loose and mottled, like a drowned body come to claim Jeannot in some hideous marriage. As the creature’s head turned toward him, Jeannot clamped his hands around Flaireur’s silently gulping muzzle, forcing Flaireur’s mouth shut and stilling the dog. The creature seemed to pause, and Jeannot felt his stomach turn at the thought that it might see him through its clouded eyes, but it did not stop its awkward shuffle. As it disappeared into the woods, sound returned—the creek, the river, the birds, the rustle of the wind through the trees, everything except for Flaireur. The dog stayed dumb, and Jeannot knew that he had escaped something that he did not understand.

In later years, when he told the story, some men argued that Jeannot had simply been young and scared, or that he had been dreaming. That in the moonlight and his tiredness he had mistaken a bear or another animal for some perversion. Other men, particularly men who had spent more time in the woods or who had dealings with Indians, men who understood that there were things that they had yet to see, believed him. It was a shape shifter, it was the loup-garou, the Mahaha, it was an Adlet, come to drink his blood. No, it was a Qallupilluit, they said, one of the sea witches who felt the greed running through Jeannot’s body and had come to claim him.

Greed did run through Jeannot’s body, and though the creature did not return for him that night, he resolved to flee. He carried an unwillingness to break no matter how hard he was bent, and a burning desire to find gold in the northern corner of this new land, but he had no desire to spend another night under the lean-to, waiting for the creature to return and eat his soul.

He spent the morning trying to coax Flaireur into leaving with him. Like the day before, however, the dog refused to take another step. Flaireur continued to bark—or rather, continued to attempt to bark, his bristly muzzle dropping and snapping like he was capable of making noise—but he remained tethered to an invisible anchor. Jeannot briefly thought of bashing the dog’s head with the back of his ax, but he could not bear to do so. Instead, Jeannot walked down the slope and through the trees, thinking that a fresh-caught fish might lure the dog away from his post.

Sitting on the bank of the river, Jeannot thought of the rotted meat smell of the creature from the night before. He would leave even if Flaireur would not accompany him, he decided. He had been so sure of his choice to stop the day before. He thought that Flaireur’s refusal to go on was some great sign that this was where he was meant to make his fortune. He knew nothing of mining or gold, only that he was a decade past the Fraser rush and he could easily end up like all of the other greenhorns who came late, worked like dogs, and left empty-handed. Before he left the orphanage and started walking west, the nuns had thought Jeannot would be a priest, and they taught him accordingly. What he knew when he started walking west was not of much use in this world. So when he built the lean-to it was because he thought Flaireur carried some message: the dog stopping was a burning bush. Then, when the creature came to him in the night, he thought that he had read too much into the tiredness of a dog. He did not want to leave Flaireur behind, but as he sat by the creek and waited for a fish to take his line, Jeannot knew that he was afraid; the creature’s stench was too close to what he imagined the flesh of his own body would smell like in death.

The line tugged against his hand, and he pulled it in slowly. In the still water along the edge of the bank, Jeannot saw that he had lip-hooked a small, bluish trout. He frowned. Though the fish was putting up a decent fight, it was not worth the effort to pick the meat from its bones. He was willing to wait for something larger, something that he could split equally with Flaireur. He pulled the trout from the water, slipped out the hook, and tossed both the fish and his line back into the river. Instantly, the fish darted back to the hook—the grub that he had used as bait now gone—and hit it hard, swallowing it down. Jeannot shook his head and decided that, given his urgency to make ground before nightfall, the fish would serve his purpose.

Back at the camp, Jeannot cut off a thin slice of flesh from the trout’s back and threw it to the dog. Flaireur caught it in the air, but showed no intention of moving from his guard. The dog barked airlessly, still silent, and Jeannot carved and threw him another piece. He turned the fish over and worked the tip of his knife up alongside the bones, taking off the fillet. He dangled it from his hand. As he waved the piece of fish back and forth, Flaireur’s head tracked Jeannot’s hand, but the dog still did not move from his spot. Jeannot sighed and then tossed the fillet into the air. As he did so, a glint of something caught his eye.

At first he thought it was sunlight off his knife, but when he looked down at the scraped carcass of the fish in his hand, Jeannot saw a dull gleaming from inside the trout. He speared the tip of his knife into the fish’s half-split insides and exposed the nugget to the air. He fished it out with his fingers and, as if he were in a dream, stepped over to the gurgling creek and washed it off. When he held it up in the air, the chunk of gold glistened in the sunlight. It was solid and misshapen, a damaged acorn the size of the end of his thumb, and it was why he had headed west instead of any of the other directions a young man his age could have gone.

He gave what scraps of fish were left to Flaireur, and then he picked up his shovel and a pan and headed down through the woods and back to the river. Damn that sightless creature, he thought, and damn these woods; they would not drive him off. He could not be beaten. He had caught a fish with a belly full of gold, and no monsters, no whisperings from the trees would be enough to drive him away.

He dug by the banks of the river every day, sifting and panning for gold, starting where he caught the fish, and then moving upriver, but he found nothing else of value. At first he tried dragging Flaireur along, but no matter how much he beat him, the dog refused to follow Jeannot. He stayed near the lean-to and continued to bark fruitlessly, sound only a ghost.

Jeannot lost count of the days. He caught fish and gathered berries and nuts, trying to reserve what was left of the stores that he had carried with him from Quesnellemouthe. He stood in the river panning until his feet were numb, and then he dug along the banks. He looked for signs of gold—though he was not sure what those signs would be—in the moss and the grasses along the edge of the Sawgamet. He worked until his hands turned to leather and his muscles into iron, but more gold eluded him. The same hardheadedness that had allowed him to be beaten but not defeated on his trip west, that had kept him going through cold and hunger and through the warnings of men who had headed west and returned home empty-handed, kept him digging until well past the time when the leaves had turned and began to litter the ground.

It was not until the first of October when Jeannot realized what he had done. He was bathing in the river—it was never truly warm, even in the heat of the summer—but as he came naked out of the water, he felt a sudden coldness on his skin, and he seemed to see for the first time the finger of ice that had already begun to cling to the bank. It had taken him one less than forty days and nights to walk from Quesnellemouthe, but he did not have that much time before the snows would be upon him. He would have to winter in Sawgamet.

Flaireur still would not move from the clearing, so Jeannot did the only thing he could think of. He dug shallow trenches in the ground around where the dog sat barking silently, marking out where the cabin’s walls would stand. He took down trees, limbed them, and stripped the bark, working in haste and barely sleeping. Had Jeannot thought he would need to protect himself for more than a single winter, he would have put more care into footing the cabin, but all he was worried about was the simple expedience of shelter and the need to stock food for what he expected to be a long, cold solitude.

The cabin took its squat form quickly, Jeannot building it barely to the height of his shoulders, deciding that once the snows came he could use the enforced leisure of the dark winter nights to dig out the floor, eventually giving himself room to stand. All the time that Jeannot built, Flaireur stayed in the epicenter of the construction, mimicking the motions of a barking dog, leaving off only to discreetly relieve himself in the bushes or to drink from the creek.

It took him five days to build the cabin, working late into each night by the poor light of the fire, and as he finished, snow began to settle in. The cabin was ugly and crude, the logs only partially stripped of bark because of his haste, barely big enough for him to lie out straight inside. It was nothing like the neat, tucked-together homes that Jeannot had been hired to help build in farming communities and mining towns along his journey west, but he did not mind. It was comfortable, and despite the sound of the wind pushing snow around in the darkness outside, he slept warm with Flaireur curled against his back.

After finishing the structure, he spent another two days hauling and fitting flat stones from the river until he had a workable hearth and chimney, and another day hauling enough dead and fallen wood to last him for a few weeks. More pressing than his need for firewood—that was something he could take care of even in the cold, he reasoned—was the necessity of packing in food before the last of the game went to ground.

He did not fool himself. Jeannot knew exactly what he was, which was a young man from Montreal who was, at best, a poor shot with a rifle. He had caught enough fish and eaten enough berries along the way that he still had some salted meat and beans left, maybe enough to get him through a few weeks, a month if he did not give Flaireur a share. Snow was already starting to pile up against the sides of the stubby cabin, and had Jeannot been a different sort of boy he would have despaired, he would have wondered if he should have risked the snow and headed back to Quesnellemouthe. He could have found a job and a place to stay and spent the winter somewhere where he did not have to worry about finding food. But he was not the sort of boy to look back and question his decisions. Instead, he bent himself to the task of procuring food with the same iron inflexibility that he had brought to the task of fruitlessly panning for gold. Over the course of three days, he collected as many of the damaged berries and promising-looking plants as he could find underneath the first coverings of snow, forcing Flaireur to eat a few bites of each variety to ensure that Jeannot would not accidentally poison himself. Then, taking up his rifle, he spent several days tromping through the woods, unaware that the few animals that had not gone to ground as the snow pushed and built were well warned by his heavy step and penchant for colloquial schoolyard cursing that the nuns from the orphanage had failed to beat out of him.

He did not take a single shot, but he walked for miles and miles, from first light until dark, searching for something to aim his rifle at, and finally, he was tired. It had been a week of building his cabin, and then a week of tromping through the snow in a fruitless search for food, on top of the thirty-nine days and nights of walking and three months of working the river for gold, and Jeannot could feel himself worn down. He was aware of his one singular strength—his ability to ignore pain and discomfort and to keep working and pushing until his body collapsed under some weight that he did not recognize—but this moment of weakness, this sudden fragility, terrified him. He did not understand the simple signs of tiredness, of having gone beyond the limits of his endurance, and for the first of many times throughout his long life, Jeannot Boucher knew with absolute certainty that he must be dying.

Though it was early in the afternoon, he built a small fire in the hearth of the cabin. He lay on the ground, too exhausted to even sleep. Flaireur rose from his normal spot in the middle of the floor and ceased his soundless barking long enough to gently lick and nuzzle at Jeannot’s face. Jeannot reached up and shook the scruff of the dog’s neck gently and said, “You’ve been a good boy. When I die, maybe then you’ll be free to leave this spot.”

And then Flaireur began to sing.

For the first time in months—since the creature had passed them by in the night—sound came from the dog’s mouth, and it frightened Jeannot. He thought that the dog was calling for Death himself. Though he was so fatigued that even his bones were tired, he reached for his ax and his rifle. He would put up a fight. He was not going to let Death take him unscathed.

Jeannot rose to his knees and watched Flaireur sing. The dog kept his haunches firmly on the dirt floor, his muzzle raised into the air, eyes closed, and in the dog’s haunting voice, Jeannot, for the first time, recognized the lupine qualities of this animal that he had stolen from a witch. Jeannot finally understood that, like his new master, Flaireur was unable to quit.

Suddenly there was a torrential knocking at the door, an uneven and constant beating that called to mind the legions of the dead that the nuns at the orphanage had always told Jeannot he would join when he went to hell. Solid, weighty thuds attacked the door and then the walls and the roof. He could hear the flap of wings and some terrible cawing that covered even Flaireur’s desperate song. Jeannot, crouched under the low roof of the cabin, felt his hands begin to shiver.

Death he could face, but he did not expect to have to fight the entire underworld. The walls began to shake, and he was afraid that if he waited any longer the door would rip off the crude hinges he had whittled from tree stumps, the roof would be torn asunder, and whatever winged and scaled monsters waited outside would destroy him. With his ax and rifle in hand, hoping that Flaireur would cease his singing in order to rip at the Dark Angel’s throat, Jeannot opened the door, prepared to conquer Death and the legions of the damned that he had brought with him.

He was immediately knocked to the ground in a flurry of beating wings, beaks, and claws tearing his clothing and ripping at his eyes. In the whirling commotion, he fired his rifle uselessly into the ground before dropping both the rifle and his ax in order to cover his eyes. After a few seconds of confusion, Jeannot had the presence of mind to slam shut the door of the cabin, and then to latch it in order to keep the hundreds of birds—blue grouse, chickadees, ravens, jays, ptarmigan, even an out-of-season thrush that he spotted for a moment among the flapping hordes—from finding their way out of the cabin as quickly as they had been sung in by Flaireur. With his hands pressed tightly over his eyes, he tried to look through the slits between his fingers, but the flying multitudes made him fear for his sight. He groped for his spare shirt and then quickly wrapped the cloth around his head.

Wings beat against his head, his arms, and he felt the sharp spear of a bird’s beak digging into his side, and the sudden wetness of blood. He placed one hand tightly over the wound and then pulled his knife from his belt. The cabin was so thick with flight that he did not need to see to begin the slaughter. It was enough simply to sit still and stab his knife into the air. Flaireur too joined in the carnage, stopping his singing and opening his mouth now only to tear and bite. Jeannot found feathers invading his mouth, the dirt floor of the cabin becoming slick with the blood of the birds, but after an indeterminable time of darkness and stabbing, the sound of fluttering wings began to slacken, and he dared to pull the shirt off his head so that he could join Flaireur in tracking down the few birds that had managed thus far to elude fang and blade.

Outside of the cabin, Jeannot cleared snow from the ground and then dug until his shovel blade bounced off dirt that was frozen too hard to penetrate. His side throbbed from where the bird had speared him, but he did not want to let any of this bounty go to waste. He loaded this storage hole with the birds that he had killed, packed the hole with snow, and then fashioned a lid of sorts from a flat stone that he found near the riverbank. That night, confident that he had enough food to last through the snows, Jeannot roasted a dozen birds and blew on them until they were cool enough to feed to Flaireur. The dog lay quiet again, and Jeannot saw to the scratches and gouges that his dog had suffered, pressing moss and snow upon the larger cuts that the birds had inflicted. It was only when he rolled Flaireur onto his back in order to treat a bloody gash in the dog’s belly that Jeannot noticed the small bullet hole in the floor.

At first Jeannot thought it was a trick of the light, the fire reflecting off some last vestige of bird blood that had pooled in the dirt, but the glow was something else, something substantial. Jeannot dug with his bare hands, not even thinking to reach for his shovel, and within moments had pulled a rock of gold the size of a dinner roll from the ground. He was stunned at how heavy the chunk was. He guessed it to be ten pounds, and as he held the nugget in one hand, he ran the fingers of his other hand through the coarse fur on Flaireur’s chest. The dog looked at him and opened his mouth like he was going to sing again, but then he went to sleep in such a restful manner that Jeannot wondered if, in Flaireur’s unceasing vigilance, his refusal to take another step, he had known that the gold was beneath his paws the entire time.

In the spring, once the snow broke, Jeannot returned to Quesnellemouthe and used the gold—despite furious digging he had found no more—to hire two dozen men with packs and canoes to carry supplies back to Sawgamet for him.

Jeannot was seventeen by then, and he did not think of what the news of gold would do. The hired men left off the beans and flour and rice and salted meat, the pots and pans, the crate of books, the cloth and the barrel of nails outside of Jeannot’s cabin, but they did not return to Quesnellemouthe. Like the hundreds of other men who had jumped at the news of gold, the hired men stayed to seek their fortunes, panning for gold on the banks of the river. Every day, dozens more joined the men already there, and soon a colony of tents lined the flat plateau above the river, a cramped, pulsing, dangerous pestilence on the landscape.

Some of the men knew what they were doing, and before Jeannot had even finished unpacking his supplies, a Russian man had already panned out a nugget of gold the size of an eyeball. It was a world transformed. Everywhere Jeannot looked he saw men standing in the water panning for gold, men digging on the banks. Though he was unable to find even one more flake of gold, every hour or so another man would yell in excitement, and those men working nearest to that man would also cheer. Men continued to stream into Sawgamet in search of gold, and soon enough a small trickle of men began to return to Quesnellemouthe with their bounty and tales of earth so rich with gold that you could not touch the ground without making your fortune. From Quesnellemouthe the word spread south to Vancouver and then farther south to San Francisco, and from there east to Toronto and Montreal, to Chicago, New York, and Boston, and it was like an earthquake shook the land, so many feet came stomping through the woods.

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Alexi Zentner's fiction has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Atlantic, and Tin House, among other publications. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

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