I Once in the winter Out on a lake In the heart of the north-land, Far from the Fort And far from the hunters, A Chippewa woman With her sick baby, Crouched in the last hours Of a great storm. Frozen and hungry, She fished through the ice With a line of the twisted Bark of the cedar, And a rabbit-bone hook Polished and barbed; Fished with the bare hook All through the wild day, Fished and caught nothing; While the young chieftain Tugged at her breasts, Or slept in the lacings Of the warm tikanagan. All the lake-surface Streamed with the hissing Of millions of iceflakes Hurled by the wind; Behind her the round Of a lonely island Roared like a fire With the voice of the storm In the deeps of the cedars. Valiant, unshaken, She took of her own flesh, Baited the fish-hook, Drew in a gray-trout, Drew in his fellows, Heaped them beside her, Dead in the snow. Valiant, unshaken, She faced the long distance, Wolf-haunted and lonely, Sure of her goal And the life of her dear one: Tramped for two days, On the third in the morning, Saw the strong bulk Of the Fort by the river, Saw the wood-smoke Hand soft in the spruces, Heard the keen yelp Of the ravenous huskies Fighting for whitefish: Then she had rest.
Years and years after, When she was old and withered, When her son was an old man And his children filled with vigour, They came in their northern tour on the verge of winter, To an island in a lonely lake. There one night they camped, and on the morrow Gathered their kettles and birch-bark Their rabbit-skin robes and their mink-traps, Launched their canoes and slunk away through the islands, Left her alone forever, Without a word of farewell, Because she was old and useless, Like a paddle broken and warped, Or a pole that was splintered. Then, without a sigh, Valiant, unshaken, She smoothed her dark locks under her kerchief, Composed her shawl in state, Then folded her hands ridged with sinews and corded with veins, Folded them across her breasts spent with the nourishment of children, Gazed at the sky past the tops of the cedars, Saw two spangled nights arise out of the twilight, Saw two days go by filled with the tranquil sunshine, Saw, without pain, or dread, or even a moment of longing: Then on the third great night there came thronging and thronging Millions of snowflakes out of a windless cloud; They covered her close with a beautiful crystal shroud, Covered her deep and silent. But in the frost of the dawn, Up from the life below, Rose a column of breath Through a tiny cleft in the snow, Fragile, delicately drawn, Wavering with its own weakness, In the wilderness a sign of the spirit, Persisting still in the sight of the sun Till day was done. Then all light was gathered up by the hand of God and hid in His breast, Then there was born a silence deeper than silence, Then she had rest.