Acadian Chronicles: When Ancestors Look Down

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The Saqamaw Is Dead, Long Live the Saqamaw!

Kneeling on the guestroom floor, my chest against the mattress, I study the lineup of Barbies to select the right one for the dolly exchange. I suspend my arm over the Barbies, freezing into a rigid pose. Which one to select? I love them all, but who will best represent my family among the seven – four blondes, three brunettes, some fair-skinned, others with dark complexions? Yes, that one! Léa, the one most like Maman – the storyteller, the most caring of all my dollies. I reach over to Léa, my fingertips grazing her face. The sensation chills me to the bone. Léa’s skin so cold, hard cold, making me think she might never return. I pull back my arm, jerking my whole body away from the bed.

Small mistakes can turn into disasters – those little mistakes that snowball while you’re still smiling at how unimportant they seem – but instead, looking back, you know they were big mistakes from the start. Any mistake now, while hiding, might be deadly. This dolly exchange is not a game. I know the stakes are high. We need allies to help us, not to stand alone.

I reach again to take hold of Léa. Then I lift myself, with Léa in one hand, using the bedpost to pull up, stiff with a cramp in my calf, holding my breath in sharp pain. I need some kind of hope that Léa will be returned safely. Are there any guaranties with the Forest People? Didn’t Annie say they were tricksters? Why did I set up this risky exchange? Why am I putting Léa in danger? Will I see her again? Why did I take on so much responsibility? I’m just a little girl – the dolly exchange was supposed to be fun.

“Hey, Violette, leave room on the bed. I’ll show you what I brought from home.” insists Vicky. “Look at this, but I only have one. The other’s missing – the Talkabouts that Papa bought us in New Brunswick.” Violette puts Léa aside, not sure what Vicky was saying:

“What did you bring, Vicky?”

“A walkie talkie, I could only find one when I was packing, not the other, so it’s pretty useless.”

“Great! No worries! Hey, we both had the same idea. I have the other one. Remember how good the sound is? I brought a full pack of batteries too.” says Violette.

Youpi, Violette! Good packing job! No wonder your bag weighed a ton. But thanks for being so responsible. You’re growing up fast.”

“Vicky, we have to avoid making mistakes, even small ones. Do we both agree that our hiding place will be the tower wigwam? Annie said we could use it, and only Mr. Payen and Annie know about it. It has a hidden mirror door too. In fact, I checked the blueprint, that room doesn’t show on the floor plan. It was added after Annie moved here.”

“Wow, you did your homework, Violette. Agreed – the wigwam. We’ll move there to set up our camp as soon as possible. The walkie talkies will help. Let’s go over tonight the supplies we have and what we still need. We don’t really know the day when Maman, Papa and Max will arrive, maybe in two days, maybe even tomorrow. That doesn’t give us much time to plan, but we’ll make it work. We can trust Annie for certain things, but let’s still not tell her everything.”

After preparing their inventory, listing what they already had on hand – the compass, blueprint, walkie talkies, batteries, as well as what they still needed to figure out – the bedding for a whole family, possible escape routes, if needed, and a system of meal deliveries to the tower – could Annie help as a go-between from the kitchen? Vicky told Violette that she remembered reading The Diary of Anne Frank, all about a Jewish girl and her family who hid for 761 days in a secret annex in Amsterdam. Hiding in Payen Hall would surely be easier, right? It must have taken the same kind of ingenuity to escape the British for those Acadians who eluded deportation. However, Violette thought a secret hiding place at Payen Hall was really unnecessary. Why couldn’t the whole family simply stay inside the locked guestroom? But Vicky reminded Violette that the Protectors had insisted on a more secret hiding place, though Vicky didn’t know why.

After supper, Vicky and Violette said nothing to Annie about their plans for the annex, agreeing to wait till morning to involve her. In fact, Annie was quite surprised when the girls put on pajamas as early as 8 o’clock and told her they were ready for bed. Lying in bed Vicky recited silently her Mi’kmaw prayer, and despite their nervousness, both girls fell asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow, neither one revisiting at all the annex in their dreams. The Protectors made sure to relax and empower Vicky and Violette with restorative sleep, so they could meet head-on all the challenges to come.

Just before sunrise, Vicky awoke feeling a sharp jolt, thinking for a moment it had been an earthquake. Vicky was shaken by the first jolt, followed by a push to her left side, a shove that almost made her tumble out of bed, a knock similar to the kind a bumper car makes when it collides with another bumper car at the Palm Springs Pumpkin Patch. Her rude awakening disoriented Vicky:

“What was that?” Now alert, squinting, Vicky surveys the guestroom, no one there – nothing – not even a whisper to guide her, not another presence – alone in bed, alone in the room! No Violette. No Annie. Annie’s bedding, empty and made for the day. Reaching for her frames, Vicky spies a note and begins to read it:

Dear Vicky:

You’re safe, and so is Violette. The Forest People are protecting you. I asked them to wake you before dawn. You can’t see them. In fact, no one can see them while they’re guarding someone, but they’re with you. Please go straight to the Ballroom. Mr. Payen is waiting for you, eager to meet and greet you. I’m with Violette doing the dolly exchange. We’ll see you very soon!

Love,

Annie

If Vicky was going to meet Mr. Payen on the third floor, then she’d better get dressed. She looked around, thinking about all the invisible Forest People guarding her, so she collected her clothes and took them into the adjoining bathroom to change. When Vicky stepped back out, her bed was made and the room tidied up.

“Thanks, everyone!” Vicky announced joyfully, hoping the tiny people might understand her French. Then invisible hands swung open the bedroom door, and Vicky exited the guestroom, heading down the hall a few paces to the trapdoor, not far. One of the little people there must have pulled the wire, the stairway already unfolding. As the trapdoor yawned wider and wider, Vicky could hear fiddling.

“That must be Mr. Payen.” she thought. As Vicky climbed up, the music stopped, and before her stood a smallish man, a male version in every way of Annie. Both lean and agile with very similar facial features. They could have been twins. But Mr. Payen looked 60 years old – not 120 years and counting!

“Greetings and welcome, Vicky! My sister tells me many good things about you and Violette.”

“Good to meet you, Mr. Payen. Thanks for letting us be guests and for helping our family.” replied Vicky.

“But you’re much more than guests, Vicky. My sister is motherly by nature, though she was never able to have children. Anne tells me every day how she wishes she had daughters like you two.” To which Vicky adds:

“Annie reminds us of our own mother. They’re very much alike. With Annie around, Violette and I feel we have family here. Mr. Payen, I was wondering, are Annie and Violette downstairs doing the dolly exchange?”

“Heavens, no! Violette was worried sick about her dolly, Léa, so Anne promised to take Violette to the village in the vortex – the first time ever for Anne, to make sure that Léa arrives in safe hands for the family exchange.” Vicky adds:

“Annie left me a note that they’ll be right back.”

“Well, Vicky, it’s hard to measure time in a vortex. There’s so much spinning and stretching every which way. Vortex travel is new for Anne. Tempus fugit. That means time can be distorted in these twisty tunnels. Sometimes you’ll travel backwards in time, sometimes forward into the future, but I instructed my sister carefully how to remain in the so-called present tense – guiding her straight to the village of the Forest People in Acadia. To be sure that they stay on course, I had two tiny people accompany Anne and Violette.” Vicky wants to know more about time travel:

“Why can’t we see the Forest People right now, here, with us?”

“The Forest People, no matter when or where, move at high speed, in another dimension than ours, a more fluid dimension, unlike our understanding of time. All around us, right now, there are twenty tiny people. But because they move in their own time dimension, they can come and go, and they can make themselves either appear or disappear. Can you see them now, Vicky?”

“No, Mr. Payen, but they woke me up this morning, and they cleaned up the guestroom.”

“Really? They must like you. They don’t like doing chores.”

“Mr. Payen, do you know when my parents will join us?”

“They plan to arrive tomorrow. I bet you miss them.” said Mr. Payen.

“Very, very much.”

“You must have good parents. If only more parents were like yours – encouraging their children to be all they can be, the best they can be – what a different world for all of us. Some parents don’t bother to mentor their children as they should. They leave it up to teachers at school or hired babysitters. But it’s more than a job. That’s why our ancestors had clan leaders called Saqamaq…”

“What are Saqamaq?” interrupts Vicky.

“That’s what the Mi’kmaq call a leader or chief. It’s the duty of a chief to educate young people in preparing them to become in all ways responsible adults. Young members of the Mi’kmaw family were dependent on a Saqamaw. All young members were cared for by the Saqamaw – given the necessary tools to be successful in life, including guidance in deciding a means of livelihood, how to budget for food, lodging, clothes. In return, the Saqamaw expected the young to run errands and other tasks for him. The young continued to live under his authority till marriage. Either the young lived in the house of the Saqamaw or in modest lodging provided by him. Most Saqamaq also took under their wing other young people of the community who had no relations or even those with family but who wished to place themselves under his protection.”

“It sounds like being a good parent, Mr. Payen, but also like an apprenticeship for the young, how to live and take care of themselves as future adults.” adds Vicky.

“That’s right, Vicky! The Saqamaw was more than a father figure. He was also their mentor for life.” Vicky interrupts this thought:

“It sounds like a huge responsibility. How can one person be and do so many things?”

“It was also expensive, but mostly it was a great honor, since only elders with an outstanding track record could offer these benefits to young people. And, of course, every young person has different dreams, talents and plans for the future. That means the Saqamaw had to be broadminded and flexible. The Saqamaw also had to settle quarrels and jealousies in his household, but usually, these conflicts were not too serious, since it was never to the young person’s advantage to make too many waves, and, therefore, lose his or her benefactor and mentor.”

Suddenly, tiny servants appear with an array of laden trays. Mr. Payen, the Saqamaw of Payen Hall in Vicky’s eyes, comes forward, offering his arm to Vicky, leading her to the center of the Ballroom. The entire floor is paved with marble slabs, and the sound of their footsteps re-echoes throughout – as in a church. All the Forest People become visible and begin talking to Vicky as amicably as if they had known her a long time, but she doesn’t understand a word. Tiny men and women, festooned with flowers about their heads, all smile and greet Vicky.

At 7:00 a.m. breakfast is served. The tiny men, who are in the majority, sit down at the first table in the great hall, all the ladies at the second table. Vicky, arriving at the ladies’ table, breathes in all the aromas – a blend of fragrant flowers, fine table linen, along with the delicious fumes of freshly-cooked fiddleheads and crusty baguettes. The silver dish covers reflect the crystal chandeliers aloft, and rising steam, from the assortment of delicacies, reflects rays of morning sunlight. Bouquets had been placed in a row the whole length of each table. In the large-bordered plates, red claws of lobsters hang over the dishes. Blueberries and strawberries are piled up in open baskets. Tiny servers circulate, offering ready-carved meats between the shoulders of the guests, with each guest simply pointing to let the servers give the piece chosen. Bubbly spring water is poured out, and Vicky shivers, as she feels its icy coldness in her mouth.

As soon as breakfast is over, the Snake Dance begins. One can hear the beckoning flourish of the Saqamaw’s fiddle. Vicky’s heart beats even faster when a tiny man takes hold of her by the tips of the fingers, leading Vicky to the snake line just forming, where dancers are waiting to start. At that moment, the Saqamaw steps up to Vicky, reassuring her that he will guide her, if necessary, and that she will surely do very well. A smile rises to Vicky’s lips as the fiddler ignites the room with a strike of his bow, tiny feet marking time, skirts and hearts swelling. At first, they begin slowly, then move more rapidly. As the music accelerates, everything begins turning round and round for the guest of honor — chandeliers, the marble floor, everwhere she looks, Vicky like a dervish in a trance. Panting, she almost falls, when the same tiny man who had led her to the Snake Dance then guides her back to her seat. Vicky leans back, removing her frames, covering her eyes with her hands.

The fiddler then reignites the dance. The Forest People now follow a frenzied tempo. Tiny people have so much energy! They keep it up a long time. Vicky watches the Snake Dance, noticing the Forest People have good cheer and pleasant comportment that comes from healthy living — admiring their clear complexions, ease of motion and indomitable spirit. Even those who are old have an air of youth, while there is something mature in the faces of the young. With their steadfast cheerfulness and gentleness of manner, Vicky imagines they never worry the way she does. As the frenzy mounts, despite the high ceiling and spacious Ballroom, the air on the dance floor begins to stifle the Snake. A tiny man then stands on a chair and breaks a window-pane. At the crash of the glass, Vicky turns her head, her worries reawakened. Where are Violette and Annie? Why haven’t they returned?

“We need to prepare the hiding place! This is not the time to be dancing!” Vicky begins to panic.

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