1534 c/o Gay Degani

The Confession

How Capitaine Jacques Cartier Came to Slay a Thousand Birds
During His Voyage to Find a Northwest Passage to Cathay
as told by the only Living Survivor Remy Clandestin
on his deathbed to and written down by
Dominy Kamnoagny Metisse, a Mi’kmaq Iroquois,
descendant of Chief Donnacona

Translated from the French by Danella Fittorini, Librarian

I lied and told them I was fifteen. I had grown brawny from stealing wheels of cheese from the dairy farm outside my village and selling them ten miles away at Genet’s tavern. At first, the crew talked about throwing me overboard to see how strong I really was, but the Capitaine interfered. You see, we were two days out of Saint-Malo when they found me hidden in a wine barrel, and his cabin boy had spent the last twelve hours vomiting into the sea.

That first night after coming out of the hold, I slept like a cur on the floor in front of the Capitaine’s door. I must’ve been born to the briny because I never was sick and soon my skin turned as brown as the mast. We made it to the New World with our two ships, the Grande Hermine and the Petite Hermine, intact, with only one loss of life, Old Martine, a carpenter, having been swept into the sea during a storm. We never doubted we would find a watery channel leading to the riches of Cathay. But I know you do not wish to hear about our voyage nor do you wish to hear about the exploration of the wild brown desert Capitaine called the New-Found-Land. What you want to know is the Massacre, is that not true?

You might believe what happened was my fault, but it wasn’t. Not really. I was very young and very certain about things. Take, for example, that other boy, the one I poisoned just a little bit, sneaking out of my barrel to put a shaving of dried mandrake root into his stew. He did not die. I did not want him to die, was positive he wouldn’t, but I did not know he would never be the same again.

It was dusk when we sailed into the inland bay named for St. Lawrence. As we skittered along the coast, a din arose as if the prisoners of Hell were rising up from the sea. Most of the crew crossed themselves and threw their bodies to the deck, arms stretched out in prostration, begging for Jesus Christ to deliver us. Capitaine Cartier strode from stem to stern with his stick in his hands, poking the sailors to their feet, exhorting them to have courage.

The other cabin boy, his name was Claude, his mind eaten by Mandrake root, began to climb the rigging, screaming as if commanding the devils to show themselves. Then he began to grunt, “uh-uh-uh!” and point.

Our ship and the smaller vessel behind us had reached the end of a slender finger of land when we suddenly saw thousands and thousands of birds wheeling through the air, swooping, forming swirls of feathered clouds.

We gaped. All of us lined up along the railing with our hands clasped over our ears as we sailed closer, the avian screeches becoming louder and more frenzied as we approached.

The Capitaine hollered to drop anchor. The bay held three rocky islands and as the ships remained still, the birds began to circle the sky and settle onto the land. Darkness came too and the world quieted. The air cooled with the disappearance of the sun, but we remained on deck, mumbling about birds and the nature of God.

Sometime before dawn, I woke to shouts on the deck, but before I could scramble to my feet, the Capitaine threw open his cabin door and bellowed for me follow him on deck. Both our ships were astir. Voices muttered. Feet clattered. Riggings swayed and lanterns flamed here and there.

Woozy from sleep, it took me a moment to realize what was going on. My legs began to shake. Surrounding us, natives in canoes gathered in the solemn gray mist. Then, the second mate threw a rope ladder over the side and the Capitaine began to descend into one of the canoes.

The physician followed the Capitaine. He was the interpreter having come to New World with Verrazzano and knowing how to use sign language.

My shipmates and I stood on the deck in spread formation with guns at the ready. No one knew exactly what would come out of this meeting, but we hoped the Capitaine would learn the whereabouts of a passage to Cathay.

Suddenly there was a stir on the side of our ship. I rushed to the railing to peer over. Claude, the poisoned one, was half way down the ladder, waving a flintlock pistol.

An uproar from the natives in the canoes and a single arrow flew straight into Claude’s heart. I could see his eyes startle wide open. Nay, I will never forget that look and then he fell into the murky sea.

All around me sailors prepared their guns but the Capitaine called from the canoe and with all the power of a powerful man he bade his crew to desist.

The birds began to squawk again, their screams filling up the air, frightening us all, and as one, every hand on deck turned his pistol overhead and fired. The Capitaine came aboard as everyone reloaded their guns and let them have at the fowl and when finally their bloodlust was satisfied, the deck, the sea, the canoes of the natives were filled with a thousand birds. The natives then rowed silently away leaving behind them Chief Donnacona’s son to return with us to France. An exchange for the blood of the only human sacrificed that day.

Along the mainland that night we saw great fires as the natives cooked their portion of the kill and on board our two vessels, we too feasted. The next day, I helped the cook set up a smoke house on the poop-deck so that we would have meat for our journey back.

We sailed away leaving the decaying bodies of the birds behind and on for a thousand miles of the river the natives had told us about, but we found no passage to the west.

And of course we then came home. I have felt a sadness as I’ve grown old and guilt I suppose, and although I reject all religion now, I wanted to tell the story. It is Claude’s death that brought your grandfather, Dom Agaya, here to France, and it was I who gave Claude the potion that drove him mad. So, Dominy Metisse, there is your story and now, leave me to die.