The preview of LaBelle Christiane, my very first manuscript which has never been read publicly before. Let me know if it snares your interest.
British Canada, July 1774
In a birch bark canoe, Christiane, the Algonquin Shaw-nee-awk-kee who’d adopted her and his son glided down the Ottawa River. She was taking another journey that would change her life. In front and behind her came only the rhythmic dip and swish of paddles. In the cramped space between, she hugged her knees to herself and pressed her forehead against her tattered skirt.
She glanced sideways into the remorseless current, wishing for time, for control. But instead, the river, shimmering with molten sunlight, gave her glimmers of the past–candlelight on silver, soft lace against skin, frosting on the tip of the tongue. But she’d fled France with her father, here to Canada and then. . . . She thrust all thoughts of the past year aside. She had to face today. Tonight, I’ll be some stranger’s wife.
The thought brought fear, a rush of sensation—-as if the bottom of the canoe, her protection, parted and she was plunged into the cool water. She fought her way to the surface of this feeling, gasping for air, pushing down panic. She pressed her face harder against her knees. I will not shame myself. Never.
When they reached the trading post on the western shore, the bronze summer sun gleamed low through black tree trunks. The two Indians beached the canoe and without a glance backward, headed toward the crude fort.
Christiane took a deep breath, reciting a half-remembered prayer the nuns had taught her. She climbed out of the canoe and heard the squish of the wet sand under her worn-thin soles. Staring at the flimsy stockade of slender tree-trunks bound together, she staggered inside, stiff from hours of sitting.
After living a few months among the Indians, she was startled that–with their beards, knit caps, buckskin breeches and colorful plaid cotton shirts–white men now looked strange to her. As she passed by, the men stopped. Their heads turned and they nudged each other in the ribs. She heard soft appreciative exclamations in French, “La belle, la jeune fille.” Many of them followed her, murmuring to each other. She ignored them, averting her eyes. That much her mother had taught her. But she hurried to close the gap between her and Shaw-nee-awk-kee.
The rough tavern door stood open to the muggy night air. “Stay here,” Shaw-nee-awk-kee muttered to her at the doorway. Her heart thudding against her breastbone, she leaned back against the open door, only then noticing the cluster of men who’d followed her. Some of them passed on inside, their eyes averted. The bolder ones formed a semi-circle in front of her. A warm blush crept up to the roots of her hair.
She would never have willingly shown herself like this— unkempt and with stained and worn attire–to her own countrymen. She tried to conceal herself in the dusky shadows, pressing herself back against the rough-hewn logs. Avoiding their stares, she gazed inside the tavern.
Holding up two fingers, Shaw-nee-awk-kee ordered ale. The barman thumped two mugs of beer onto a raw oak slab. Both Indians took the draughts in one long swallow. After belching politely, Shaw-nee-awk-kee passed the bartender a coin and then announced in a patois of French and English, “I look for white homme. Man who want wife.”
The barkeep looked puzzled. Catching the direction of the other men’s glances, he stepped around the bar and gawked at her. “Blanc,” he said.
“Oui, white daughter.” Shaw-nee-awk-kee motioned for another round.
“Your daughter?” The barman asked, tapping the keg again.
“Oui, I find. I keep.” Shaw-nee-awk-kee lifted his mug and paused. “You know man who want wife?”
“I don’t know,” the barman stammered. There was a heavy silence. Outside, one of the men standing around her took a step forward and lifted his hand toward her cheek. She jerked her head aside, warning him away with a look. He stepped back.
Then a spirited voice issued from the crowd inside, “What do you want for her?”
“You already have a wife, Jacques,” the barkeep answered.
“Only a squaw. I could use another.” There was laughter over this.
Christiane radiated white hot shame. Going to the highest bidder? Wasn’t that what she’d tried to escape?
Then another man spoke up, “But this girl’s white, Jacques, a Christian. It’s all right to have two Indian wives, but…” He was stopped by a chorus of agreement.
There was another lull. Finally, a man of medium height came forward into the failing day light. “Let’s see the girl. I have no wife,” he said.
Christiane tried to see what he looked like but the fading daylight deepened the gloom moment by moment.
Shaw-nee-awk-kee called her. She looked up, wishing desperately that she could turn and run. Instead, she lifted her chin and forced herself to walk into the tavern. Inside, the odor of stale beer and warm bodies struck her, almost making her sick. But she bit her lower lip and walked to Shaw-nee-awk-kee.
Reaching out an arm’s length, the Frenchman turned her chin toward the daylight to see her face better. He then placed his hands on her shoulders and rotated her in a slow circle. The concentration of the crowd was intense as intense as her embarrassment. Christiane wanted to scratch a maddening itch in the middle of her back. But gritting her teeth, she kept her hands at her sides.
“Is she a virgin, Indian?” the Frenchman asked.
Still flaming, Christiane took refuge in lowering her eyes.
The old Indian nodded, then asked, “What you offer?”
Before the first Frenchman could respond, another spoke up, “One moment, Paul. You’re not the only one without a woman to winter with.” This second man rose from an up-ended log he was sitting on and strode forward to face the first.
Soon three more suitors swarmed around Christiane. She shivered at the change around her. The sleepy atmosphere of the tavern had come alive with loud antagonism, rivalry. She cast around for a way to escape.
“What is going on here?” a cool English voice sliced through the room. The clamor evaporated.
All eyes, including hers turned to the red-and-white uniformed captain.”
Next Tuesday drop by and read the rest of the scene. Remember to invite your friends. I’ll begin posting this scene by scene the first week of January 2011!