The Fox Cycle, Story Six- Identity
Near Ville-Marie, New France, 1712
When Renard la Russo awoke, the native women began to talk to her, but she could only stare at them as she waited for the room to stop spinning. When it eventually did, she found herself in what seemed to be a cramped, dimly-lit storeroom with straw strewn on the floor.
“Where is this?” She asked the native women in French, rubbing the back of her head.
The last thing she remembered was pounding on the door of the farmhouse, and then pain and blackness.
The native women, there were six, looked at each other when she spoke. Then one a few years older than Renard’s twelve years drew closer and asked “You no speak…” And rhymed off a string of syllables Ren couldn’t hope to follow.
“No, I speak French.” Ren answered, guessing the question. “Please speak to me in French. Where am I?”
“This is farm of Master Durand. I am Onida.”
“I’m Ren.” She told the girl, then started to get up but the dizziness returned so she held her head and stayed put.
“You shouldn’t make master angry.” Onida commented. “Or he will beat you again.”
“He’s not my master,” Ren snapped. “I’m no slave.”
This caused some surprise among the women, and then Ren noticed for the first time in the poor light that the women’s ankles were shackled with chains between their legs. Suddenly, she felt a little embarrassed at her choice of words.
“I mean…I…” Ren stammered. “I’m not a servant.”
“But, you are of The People?”
It was a phrase Ren knew from dealing with the natives on some of the Seigneuries and in town- “The People” was how the natives referred to themselves as a group. She often wondered what that meant the Europeans were, if they were not people.
“No,” Ren corrected as she usually did when natives approached her because of her appearance. “I’m French. I’m not a savage.”
Onida suddenly laughed at that, and then told the other women something Ren couldn’t understand, and they laughed too.
“The master hit you so hard, you crazy.” Said Onida, grinning at her with white teeth. “You don’t know who you are, little girl. But you learn soon.”
Ren was able to stand again by the time Farmer Durand came to check on her, although she had a large headache. The big, fat man had bushy black hair that seemed to explode from everywhere on his head except his bloodshot eyes. He towered over her while the slaves stood against the wall- looking at their feet.
“Monsieur Durand, there has been a mistake.” Ren told him in her best French.
“Yeah?” He said, eyeing her suspiciously.
“I am not a slave, I am a French girl.”
“Well, you’re somebody’s girl. I can hear that. Why’d you come to my house?”
Ren smiled, glad he was willing to listen.
“Sir, a force of natives is coming in this direction. I was sent you warn you that you need to take your family and escape now before they come.”
“Leave my farm?” He grinned. “Nope. Don’t think I will.”
“Sir, you are in danger.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. The garrison’s always stopped ‘em before.”
“But…” Then she nodded. “As you wish then, sir. Please let me leave.”
“Nope. Don’t think I will.”
“But, sir!” Ren said, horrified.
“Don’t matter what you speak, you’re still a savage. Harvest is coming. I need all the hands I can get.” Then he looked over at the other slaves. “You lot, chain her up.”
Then suddenly hands were grabbing Ren, and as she fought a voice whispered in her ear- “Who you now, French girl?”
Ren lay on her bed of straw, listening to Onida and the other women snore in the hot stinking blackness. She hated them. She hated the farmer. She hated the cold noisy chains around her ankles. She hated the smell of the mouldy straw. She wanted it all to burn in hell.
Mother Mary forgive her- she wanted it so bad, she could almost smell it.
She breathed deeply.
In fact, she could smell it!
Opening her eyes, Ren looked up and saw the orange light dancing across the ceiling of the sleeping room from the single barred window that begrudged them fresh air.
“Fire!” Yelled Ren, jumping to her feet, and almost immediately tripping over the unexpected weight of her shackles.
Ren pulled herself up and rushed to the barred window. Peering out from the outhouse that served as the slave quarters and onto the farmstead itself, she could see the main house burning, and the black shapes of men and horses running against the light.
Then she was jostled aside by the other, larger women, but it didn’t matter- she knew who had come. Diving into the straw pile that had served as her bed, she buried herself as quickly and deeply as she could, hiding beneath the straw. She knew the natives often took women as slaves, and she didn’t intend to trade one master for another.
She held her breath as the door was ripped open, and the warriors rushed into the room. The air was filled with the screams and cries of Onida and the others, and then the sound of men laughing and orders being barked.
For a moment, she thought they’d search the straw and find her.
But then the warriors took the women and left.
She was alone.
Ren stayed beneath the straw until morning, afraid to leave her hiding place in case the natives still lurked. With the coming of the sun, and the sound of the morning birds, she clinked out into the morning light and peered around.
The farmhouse was a smouldering ruin, as were the other farm buildings. A slaughtered pig was all that remained of the livestock, and the yard was a wash of mud and ash. There was no sign of the farmer, or his family.
If this was how the natives acted, she decided she was glad to be French. But, as she walked past the smoking house, she considered- it was the Frenchman who put her in chains, not the natives. The natives naturally accepted her because of her skin, but the Frenchman condemned her for the same reason.
Who was she really? Where did she belong?
She resolved to find out.
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