If you are following this blog but haven’t read The Little Brudders of Miséricorde, you have probably figured out that Thierry is a francophone mouse who speaks English with a charming Québécois accent. An anglophone fellow named Spence is the protagonist. But Thierry is the very heart of the novel.)
It is Sunday 26 June, just south of Wawa. Several days into summer but it has been raining much of the night. This morning a cold fog has settled in. Thierry is shivering.
I haven’t once worn my socks since leaving Montréal. Just my sandals. Today I put them on. And my warmest merino wool shirt. My rain jacket.
In Montréal today, the temperature will rise to 30°. Here we might get cloudy and 13°. I fasten a flashing red tail light to the bicycle and tell Thierry that it will feel warmer if we keep moving.
“You do what you gotta do, chum. I is goin’ to sleep.”
My sleeping bag is strapped to the top of the front rack. He burrows inside the dry sack that covers it and disappears.
It is another hour before the fog burns off. I keep to the narrow shoulder at a moderate pace. Traffic is light but the highway requires constant vigilance.
I must have said that louder than I intended. Thierry pokes his head out.
“You wanna keep it down? Some of us is nocturnal, you know.”
“Look, Thierry! A bicycle lane!”
There is the sign: Bike Route. And two thick white lines divide the wide shoulder from traffic. The Trans Canada has a bike lane!
And then, a sudden dread overcomes me. I don’t know why (Thierry is a grown man… er… mouse, after all) but I shout to him.
“Thierry! Shut your eyes!”
I suppose I possess some instinct to protect the little guy. Too late. To our right, a blanket of crows erupt like so many black umbrellas at a funeral disrupted by a sudden rain. Just visible, below where their wings knock the air, we see the head and forelegs of a dead moose. Its eyes are black holes.
And then the smell. Every creature knows that smell. None forget it. Ever.
Thierry climbs up and straddles the white front reflector. We ride for a while. It is all manageable ascents and gradual descents. The wind is gusting. A crosswind from the south.
“‘Ow you tink dat moose die, brudder?” He turns around and looks at me earnestly.
I saw no skid marks or remnants of wreckage. But possibly struck by a car, I guess. Maybe. I suppose it may have been ill and disoriented. Just gave up its spirit at the edge of the highway. But I think it possible… even likely… someone got out of their truck and just shot it.
“I don’t know, Thierry.”
He nods. We ride in silence for a while. It is warming up a little. It feels good to ride without doing a shoulder check for trucks and RVs every time I spot a transport coming my way. I’ll get a mirror in Thunder Bay. That should help.
“Where you tink we go when we die?” He doesn’t turn around to ask this.
“I don’t know Thierry. No one knows.”
He is silent for a while longer. Finally…
“You gotta believe something, man. I mean… we gotta hope. Right?”
I hope there will be no more hills. I hope for tailwinds. I hope there is someplace coming up where I can sit down comfortably and take a break. But the wind blows where it chooses. And the shape of the land was decided long ago. Except I don’t say this.
“Where were you before you were born, Thierry?”
He turns and gives me a look like I’ve asked a trick question.
“Get outa ‘ere. What dat s’possed to mean? Nobody remember dat.”
“So before you were born… you weren’t afraid? You weren’t lonely? Or in pain?”
“‘Ow am I gonna know dat? Nobody know dat.”
“I’m just saying… maybe death is a bit like that. Like waiting to be born.”
“What? You sayin’ you believe in reincarnation?”
“Not exactly, Thierry. I’m saying… I suppose I’m saying that nothing goes to waste. I didn’t like seeing those crows. And maybe later a bear will come along. Insects are everywhere. In a way, the moose belongs to all of them now.”
“You dun ‘ave to remind me, brudder. Dem mosquitoes bin eatin’ me -“
He stops himself before he can say ‘alive’.
We ride a while longer. There is a rest stop about 10 or 15 kilometres south-east of White River. I’m not sure how far because we haven’t had cell phone service since Wawa. I tell Thierry we will sleep here tonight. It is getting cold again and I hurry to secure the food in the bear resistant bags. Somehow, Thierry has assembled the tent poles and is struggling to bend them into the metal grommets.
“Man! I need de strength o’ ten mice to do dis!”
Inside the tent, we hear mosquitoes bouncing off the fly and the netting. So many that they sound like tiny rain drops.
“So, you is sayin’ dat when we die we is gonna be transformed?”
“I’m saying that everything that exists has existed since the beginning of time. And nothing that exists can perish. It can only be transformed. That’s… you know… science.”
“But you dun know into what?”
I watch mosquitoes gather on the netting. In the failing light, they seem arranged like cracks in the clay of a dry riverbed. Or a pattern of feathered veins thirsting for just a drop of blood.
“One day you are a wave, Thierry, full of energy and direction. The next you crash on shore and you understand you’re not really a wave. You are the sea.”
“Oh man! Dat’s deep. Hey! I make a joke! Deep! De sea? Get it?”
“Hilarious, Thierry, you’re hilarious.”
The Next Morning…
The mosquitoes are too abundant for us to make coffee or bannock this morning. At the Esso station near Wawa, yesterday in the fog, we stocked up on whatever was available for ready calories. Assorted pastries. A few Snickers bars.
Thierry and I share a confection called a ‘bear claw’. It is mostly sugar and preservatives but it will have to do. It is cold and cloudy and the tent is soaking wet from last night’s rain. When I wasn’t being woken by intermittent downpours, I was startled awake by transports gearing down as they crossed the bridge over the river that flowed by our tent. Trains passed by twice in the dead of night. Loud enough and (it seemed) close enough that it felt like we’d inadvertently set our camp in a railway tunnel.
“Aww. C’mon. You is always asleep at night an’ i got nutin’ to do. Dat train were interestin’ to me. You know… breakin’ up de monotony.”
It takes a little over an hour to cycle into White River. We have breakfast at a donut place. Robin’s Donuts. Coffee, milk, a gray patty of precooked sausage and a precooked egg on a toasted bagel. We get a second cup of coffee for free. The regulars come and go. Nod at me. Make jokes with the woman behind the counter. Everyone knows everybody.
After breakfast we cross the highway to the grocery. They have hotdog buns and Wonder Bread. Thierry suggests we take the bread. We still have a whole jar of peanut butter.
“Hey! I know dat guy! Whats’isname de Pooh!”
“Winnie,” I say. “Winnie the Pooh.”
“Dats right. I ‘eard dem stories when I were a kid! Wid dat donkey what is sad and dat little piglet. What were dat piglet’s name?”
“Piglet. I think.”
Winnie the Pooh is, I suppose, White River’s claim to fame. A rescued black bear cub from here ended up in the London Zoo. A boy named Christopher Robin was fond of the bear. His father was A.A. Milne. You know the rest.
The town has erected a kind of playful monument to Pooh. Like a giant garden ornament. But a big, chubby, cheerful, yellow bear. There are flowerbeds. A playground.
“So Pooh is only in dat book, right?”
“Well, he was inspired by a real bear. A bear from here.”
“So he’s… how do you say?”
Thierry has been climbing all over Winnie. He stops suddenly.
“Yeah. Fictional. What dat mean? Exactement.”
“It means someone who exists only in our imaginations.”
He gives me a curious look.
“So if dat fictional person is only real in de imagination den dat person ne’er gonna die. Right?”
“I guess that’s one way of thinking about it.”
“So. You tink mebbe you exist in somebody’s imagination.”
“I mean before you was born. Like we was talkin’ ‘bout yesterday.”
“See, brudder. You is not de only deep one round ‘ere. Saddle up!”
The bike lane we rode yesterday disappears after White River. Once more a grab bag of pavement: ample shoulder, minimal shoulder, no shoulder. Thierry disappears into the front dry sack and dozes off in my sleeping bag.
Maybe that is all it is. Life, I mean. And death. Waking. Sleeping. Waking. Sleeping. Spinning like the wheels on this bike. Embraced in an imagination big enough and brave enough to hold it all. All that is terrible and beautiful; enduring and brief.