“Ti-Georges! Time to get to work! Allons-y!”
Joseph-Georges groaned sleepily, the last remnants of his dream fading away. He’d dreamed of being back home with Bérengère and the children, on the farm. It wasn’t a big farm, a few cows, pigs and chickens, one big draft horse and some crops. It was down an old dirt road that lead straight into the middle of nowhere, about half an hour from the nearest town. Which hardly was a town, to be honest, but deep in rural Québec, it was the closest thing there was.
They didn’t make any money from the farm, using most of the produce for themselves or to trade with their neighbours. That was why Joseph-Georges found himself in a tent out in the woods. It was a crisp spring morning, but like the days before it would warm up once the sun rose higher into the sky. He tied the flap of his tent closed and walked over to join the other men who were eating breakfast.
A bowl of oatmeal was pressed into his hands by one of the younger men, who nudged his arm in the process. “You’re late. Did you sleep in?”
Joseph-Georges nodded, already swallowing a mouthful of oatmeal. “Oui. I was dreaming,” he explained.
“About a girl, of course,” one of the other men said. The comment caused the group to break into rough laughter.
“About my children,” Joseph-Georges corrected with a smile. He didn’t mind the teasing. After spending weeks in the forest with a small group of men, he was used to it.
“Ah, les enfants,” the younger man said. “You have two, yes?”
“Oui, Gaétan et Jeanne.”
“How old are they?”
“Thirteen and nine,” Joseph-Georges said.
“Enough about Monsieur Côté and his family.” The boss got to his feet and stretched his arms over his head. “We must get to work. There are a lot of logs to move.” He walked off purposefully, leaving the other men to shovel down the rest of their food and follow him.
The river was right over the next ridge. It was thin, with a swift current, and coated with logs. Logs of all sizes, widths and lengths. Pine, oak, maple – trees all stripped of their branches. They still looked like trees, though, and they would until they reached the mill after a couple more days floating. There they would become planks, stiff and boring.
Joseph-Georges liked trees. He liked the way they sprouted from the ground, solid and strong, some of them older than he could imagine. He cut them down anyway. Every winter, when the snow made dragging them through the forest easier, he joined the lumberjack camps in the north. It was a steady job, one he knew he could return to every winter. It was the rest of the year that caused problems, when he had to look around for odd jobs to do. He’d been lucky this spring to get the job with the river drivers. It was tiring work, but at least he had it. He would have money to take home to Bérengère.
“Ti-Georges, help me with the boat!”
The boss was calling for him. Joseph-Georges turned away from the river, joining the boss over by the boat they’d pulled up on shore the evening before. Together, they pushed the boat back into the river, forcing the floating logs out of the way. The other men from the team were moving around, getting ready for the day. The more experienced drivers were picking up their poles and eyeing the logs, already on the lookout for any jams that needed to be dealt with. They would spend all day walking around on the floating logs, the spiked soles of their boots digging into the wet wood. Joseph-Georges didn’t envy them. Their job was the hardest.
Joseph-Georges hopped into the boat, along with the boss and a few other men. They helped when they could, looking for log jams and leaning over the side to poke at the logs themselves.
As the morning passed by, the men and the logs slowly drifted downriver. By the end of the day they hoped to reach the wider part of the river, where the logs could be tied into rafts. They were less likely to jam that way. They jammed constantly while they were floating loose from each other. A log would nudge the shore, turn and cause a jam. Sometimes the end of a log would sink, too waterlogged to keep afloat, and firmly plant itself into the riverbed, blocking all the logs behind it. The more experienced drivers were very busy.
Around noon, some of the men started to sing and Joseph-Georges gladly joined in. It was a typical working song, valued more for its rhythm than the eloquence of the words. He leaned against the side of the boat and watched the men jumping from log to log, prancing even, making a bit of a game out of it to pass the time more quickly. They moved to the beat of the song, laughing and taunting each other.
The boat suddenly shuddered to a stop. Joseph-Georges grabbed the side to stop from falling and looked back at the boss. He was already directing a few men to loosen the jam that they had run into. It was a bad one. A few of the experienced drivers came over to help, but most of them stayed out of the way.
“Ti-Georges.” The boss was waving him over. “Ici, work on this one.”
Joseph-Georges did was he was told. Hoisting a long pike, he leaned over the side of the boat and jammed his pole between two logs, trying to move them slightly so that other logs could be moved by the other men. The log causing the problem was a big oak up ahead, which had been turned by an eddy and caught between two rocks. The men needed to loosen the jam before the big log could be moved.
Joseph-Georges leaned against his pike as hard as he could. Ahead something shifted, the boat lurched forward, and his grip slipped. He fell over the boat’s side, landing on the logs for a moment before they bobbed away and he slid between them. The water was freezing. The current pulled at him, tugging him under the jam. Above, the logs blocked out the light as solidly as a wall. The rocks loomed closer.
He tried to swim. He tried to reach through the logs. But the logs were fading away and in their place he could see the farm.
Bérengère. Gaétan. Jeanne. They were standing at the door.
Joseph-Georges relaxed and walked towards them.