This is the place where you'll find my most recent creative writing endeavours: short stories, scripts, and so on. Enjoy!
"Something beginning to end"
By Jennifer Moss - based on interviews with Montreal photographer Alexi Hobbs.
It’s dusk. We’re out in the woods of Northern Quebec again, staying at the family cabin. There’s a small, dark lake here, and the cabin is perched right next to the rocky shore. Old, and made of peeling, red-stained logs, perpetually reflected in the still water, the cabin belongs to my grandfather, Antonio ‘Pit’ Allard, who has had it for as long as I can remember.
Pit is old now too, even older than his cabin. His tall, white-haired form stoops like a tree under too much snow. This year, he is on his last hunting trip to these woods. He says this every year of course, but this time it might be true. When you’re over ninety, all bets are off.
Inside, there is the clatter of activity. My uncles and cousins and I, we’ve come here to ensure there are no mishaps, and that the old man has a successful trip. Nothing much is said about this being his last time. No one wants to be unkind.
Today, like in all the years before, we went out to shoot partridge and snare hare. Pit showed me how to lay the trap, and make a wire collar. I haven’t actually done these things since I was ten. Pit says I used to enjoy hunting and fishing back then, even though I was a city kid. Not like some kids that won’t so much as stick a hook in a fish. Not like that.
We caught plenty of hare this afternoon, but wet weather muddied the tracks in the snow, and the partridge mostly saw us coming. Pit can’t get around like he used to, but he is still very proud. So when he let me drive him out to the hare traps, that meant something. He knew it, and so did I.
These days I’m clearly no hunter. I don’t even carry a gun. Instead I bring my camera, and follow Pit around, taking my own kind of shots. I notice little things. I always have. Like the way the old man’s hands are huge, yet capable of great subtlety. How they can skin a rabbit perfectly every time, without making a mess. And how, on his left hand, there is a big space between his thumb and index finger, for no real reason as far as I can tell. Just a space. It used to baffle me as a kid.
I take a lot of pictures: some, where Pit is smiling in his orange vest, and some, where he’s not.
Earlier today, I photographed a dead rabbit in the snow. There was something about the perfect stillness of its limp outline against the white, frozen ground. I snapped it – thinking about how hunting and photography both have the power to freeze a moment in time. Thinking too about rabbit stew.
In the cabin we finish the business of hunting, the skinning, butchering, washing. Later, the Scotch comes out. Jokes. Warmth. Closeness. Family. We owe all this to Pit, who has fathered five children, including my mother. The old man is the reason we’re all here, huddled in this room at the end of a long, bumpy road, and none of us forgets it. Pit is the star tonight. This trip is for him.
An old metal kettle sings on the white enameled woodstove. Wet wool. The smell of the propane lamp fills the small room, along with the smoke from cooking.
After dinner, before the dishes get rinsed in lake water, there is a pause where Pit gets ready to tell one of his famous stories. We lean in, closer. Though we’ve heard them all before, we somehow crave this moment in time, feeling it slipping away even as he speaks.
There are lots and lots of these old stories, some of them true, some mightily false. They are stories of hunting, trapping, working the woods, the farm…. There’s the one about Pit killing the huge bull moose and dragging it through the woods single-handed, the one about meeting my grandmother, Jeanne…
Then there’s my favourite story, the one about the train.
1941. Pit left the army hanging, and good riddance too. Took the train to Montreal with the rest of his unit for one last leave, one last fling in the big city before they shipped them all off, all those good Quebecois farm boys, to get killed. It put a damper on the party somehow, knowing what it was for.
Pit was only 19 then. He was in love, madly in love, with Jeanne. She was a spitfire, all right. Capable of standing up to him, when most didn’t try. Wild horses couldn’t drag him away. The Canadian army didn’t stand a chance.
So when his leave was over, when it was time to go, as the family tells it, Pit ‘jumped the train.’
As a child, I pictured my grandfather, invincible, literally diving off a moving locomotive, soaring through the air on his way to freedom. Pit seemed like the type who would do something like that. He seemed like the type who would do what he thought best, not what someone else told him to think.
I’ve always admired that kind of hard-headedness. I think maybe a little of Pit’s certainty rubbed off on me. Like with my photography blog. I post my photos in a certain order. I can’t tell you why, exactly. I just know this is how they should be.
And now that I’m grown up of course, I know the real story of the train.
Pit never actually jumped. He just didn’t get back on. The train, the one that would have eventually taken him to the front, left the station without him. It was a decision that made him who he is. Back then, you didn’t just leave the army. It wasn’t allowed. That was desertion, and it meant jail.
But as Pit tells it, jail was for people who didn’t know the woods.
So he went into hiding in the bush. Changed his name, went underground. During these years, he worked as a logger, a farmhand, whatever he could get. Lived like some French Canadian Paul Bunyan, an exile in his own land.
I’m a graphic designer for an architecture firm in Montreal. Unlike Pit, I’ve never rolled a log, or gone into hiding, or anything nearly so exciting. And I’m no storyteller, either. I have a hard time with words sometimes. But I do know that there’s a story here, in these pictures. It’s a vocabulary you start to pick up on, like anything else: Buckets of feathers. Hare stripped of their fur. A sideways wind blowing in off the lake. Smoke. Us.
Back in the city, in a darkroom with no work light, I sort through these images from the trip: Images like the rosary and crucifix tacked to the cabin wall. Above it, a row of baseball hats hanging off the antlers of a long-deceased 5-point buck. A practical solution, using every part of the animal that way. I think I’m more practical now than I used to be. Something else I get from Pit.
Pit survived alone in the woods for four years, eating mostly lard and beans. It was a desolate diet for a desolate, solitary life. But there were bright spots. He got Jeanne a job at a nearby farm, so he could invent excuses to see her. They were of course together, but no one could know. She loved him, but couldn’t risk revealing who he really was. To this day he can recall the glorious tension of it all.
And of course, he could still hunt for food… for deer, moose, or partridge, or lay delicate traps for hare in the bushes. This made dinner more bearable, and this is how Pit Allard waited out the war.
When it was finally all over, he promptly turned himself in. Enough was enough.
I picture this moment – Pit coming out of the bush – defiant, facing hostility, but robustly alive unlike so many others. A tall man, using his real name for the first time in four years. Probably carrying a rifle. Scarred by the war, despite having stayed home.
Pit went to deserter’s jail for about a year… till he managed to bribe one of the guards to let him go. It cost him something like five dollars for his freedom. That was how it was back then.
If Pit was a hare, he would never have been caught.
Once he was free, Pit went home to Jeanne. They moved to a small town and started their family. Pit put those hands of his to work and became a blacksmith.
The train got him in the end though. Being a family man, he couldn’t turn down a good job with CN Rail. The new job meant a move to Montreal, away from his beloved woods.
Montreal. My town. Where I grew up, and where I understand the light better than anywhere. Still, sometimes even I feel the pressure to get out, as if an invisible snare were slowly tightening somewhere out of frame.
Pit never lost the will, or the need to hunt. Something about it reminded him of who he was, where he came from. The deep and unrelenting solitude when you’re out in the woods. The way a hunter can read the signs in the forest like so many words in a book. The unspoken bond that exists between hunter and prey at that quietest of all moments, taking aim. There’s nothing else like it. Nothing. In all his years, he has never found anything better.
Maybe that’s why, at least once a year, his wife sent him back out to the bush. They said it was for sustenance, and it’s true that the kids grew up eating the meat their dad brought home from these trips. But it was more than that. It was a way of life.
1964. No one knew quite how Pit acquired the cabin at the lake in Northern Quebec, but it soon became his second home. He liked the silence around there in the wintertime. The early morning call of loons in summer. He even founded a hunting club up there, with about 20 members. They all took turns chopping wood, keeping things clean, squared away.
For years, the family gathered at the lake: The uncles, the cousins, the kids and grandkids.
At the cabin there is that little jetty, a rock formation on the lake, and you can walk out into the water without actually being in the water. I would get up in the morning and go down to the jetty, lean over the lake, and splash water on my face. Bracing myself.
This year will be the last time… maybe.
I lay the photographs of this hunting trip out on my floor. Pit’s face everywhere, staring up at me. For days, I struggle with the order of the images. Then one day, on the way to a friend’s studio, I get the call. Pit is in hospital - a clot, in the main artery to his brain. He is fighting back, but right now he can’t use his right arm. Shuffling the photos, I look hard at the one of an empty chair on the cabin porch, facing out over the lake. Staring at that image, there is the sense that something is beginning to end. That’s why the pictures matter. Why they have to be right.
Before it was Pit’s, some natives from the area used the log cabin to pass the winter. Then they just abandoned it, and there it sat, waiting for Pit.
Outside the cabin tonight, there is stillness. Dark trees, as far as the eye can see. A skimming of snow covers everything: the clearing, the woodpile, the footpath leading into the woods, and underneath it all, a faint trail of blood.
- By Jen Moss, based on interview with Alexi Hobbs, 2011.