A New Arrival
Cracked palms. Blueblack fingers. Jean Comeau gripped the axe by its frosty handle and brought it down against a trunk of perfect granite. The cedar’s sap was still frozen, but the spring thaw was on its way and it wouldn’t be long before the season’s first timbers floated millward down the nearby river. Jean’s puffing face and ursine body might have struck onlookers as clumsy or even dull-witted. But he was in fact a formidable scholar of Christian scripture and the most skilful hewer within thirty kilometres of the Albertville timber camp. His task was to mount the trunks of felled trees and hack them into square timbers, measuring his cuts with nothing more than his fierce, discriminating eyes. Despite this skill, though, most men in the timber camp looked on Jean Comeau with a mixture of resentment and fear. The man took a furious pride in his power to hew away nature’s mistakes, and it did not matter whether he saw these mistakes in timber or in his fellow men.
Forty feet to Comeau’s right stood a young teamster who observed with folded arms as each of Jean’s strokes split more bark from the frozen tree. The boy tried to keep his face grim against the sawtoothed cold. It was his first winter working at the timber camp and he was eager to prove himself to men like Comeau. He’d spent his childhood in a one-room shack farther south on the river, where a life of malnourishment had filled him with veneration for the thickbearded timbermen who laboured near his home. He admired most those nimble river-drivers who danced across the springtime logs that often buoyed within perfect view of his home’s only window. Poverty had cursed him with a humiliating lack of equilibrium, and he had recognized at a young age that he would never acquire the grace needed to negotiate the boneshattering logjams that still claimed the limbs and lives of so many better men.
Like his body, the young man’s mind lacked balance. It stumbled from thought to thought unable to stand upon any concept for long before the thing would slip out from underneath him. Ideas pounded through his skull like a swelling river, jamming one moment and bursting forth the next. On gloomy afternoons like this, the boy felt spiteful toward men like Monsieur Comeau and found pleasure only in the fleeting moments when it seemed as though the old man had split his tree too deeply. But Comeau never took long to wipe away his mistake, along with the boy’s frostbitten sneer.
A lone crow landed between Comeau and the young man, gargling its stark caw. Both men turned toward the bird as it dug a pit in the powder and fluttered its wings, scattering snow over its head. The young man glanced back up and froze to find Monsieur Comeau holding him with glittering eyes—
He bathes himself in the Lord’s melting ice, Comeau said, jabbing his axe toward the bird. And he yearns like all living creatures to cleanse himself of the blackness that never washes away. Comeau paused and waited for the young man to complete his thought, as though the proper reply were evident.
Until kingdom come, sir.
Comeau shook his head and sunk his axe again into the felled tree.
The young man watched and waited until Comeau had finished. When the moment arrived, the young man stepped forward and presented Monsieur with a wet piece of caribou meat that he’d fished from one of his coat’s filthy pockets. Comeau took the purple pulp without a word and began working through its fatty sinews.
You would like to learn my trade, Comeau said while chewing.
It is a difficult skill and there are many things to know about these woods. I do not know everything about this world, son, nor do I hope to. Comeau scanned the surrounding forest and snapped his eyes back onto the boy. But what you can know with certainty is the word of God, which contains more knowledge than any schoolhouse ever will.
The younger man could only nod.
Comeau snorted a shard of frozen mucus and swallowed. You cannot know everything, he added. But you can know everything that is important.
The young man grimaced. In all his years of Sunday church and daily devotion he’d never heard his parish priest or even his Monseigneur speak with the kind of stony certainty Comeau did. The young man craved that same kind of assurance and began to fantasize about reading the Bible, becoming as impenetrable as the man who stood before him. He glimpsed a horizon within reach, a meeting of earth and sky that promised to steady his trembling mind and banish uncertainty and fear from his soul forever. Jean Comeau could all but hear the young man’s thoughts.
Make Him your rock, boy, for He is a perfection that no axe will ever split. Once you know Him, you will know Truth.
The young man smiled childishly. He met the black, searching pupils of Monsieur Comeau and felt his hands warm against the cold.
Everything that happens is supposed to happen, he said.
Why haven’t you been working this past half-hour?
The question struck the young man like a blow. The river in his mind thawed and surged wildly over its banks.
I was part of the team that cut down this tree. The young man pointed to the hewn log at Comeau’s feet.
You did not cut down a tree, boy. You cut down a cedar. Crude words are for crude minds.
But sir. You just said that everything I need to know is in the Word of God. Why scold me for such a small mistake? Where in the Bible does it say the difference between a tree and a cedar?
Comeau sprang from the snow and cuffed the boy so hard that his ears rang and his tongue tasted metal.
You are just standing about and not working, boy. That is sloth. You have also questioned one of your elders, which is vanity. What other mortal sins do you plan on committing this afternoon?
The young man rubbed his ear and turned to slink back to the cabins of his timber camp, confused tears standing in his eyes. The glowing coals of Comeau’s gaze burned into his back as he went. The young man knew that some of the burlier men at his camp would have tried to return the old man’s blow. But he could not forget the stories he’d heard about Comeau when he first arrived into the timber camp – stories that told of Comeau beating the fiercest teamsters to the edge of death. The young man disappeared into the forest like a lost child and never saw Comeau again.