Author’s note: Ti-Jean, or Petite Jean, means Little John. Ti-Jean is a popular folk hero in French Canadian and Metis traditions. Ti-Jean is the everyday man, the every day boy who through his ingenuity, his perseverence, his ability as a trickmaster, outsmarts everyone else (usually his brothers) and saves the day or gets the princess. In English folktales, Ti-Jean is the character Jack.

 

WHEN PHAKACK CAME TO STEAL PAPA: A TI-JEAN STORY

Once upon a time, not that long ago, and maybe even yesterday, a young boy named Ti-Jean lived in the wilds of northern Canada with Mama Marie, Papa Pierre, and two older brothers. One day in late fall, when the ice was forming on the rivers and lakes, Papa Pierre left to work the trap lines.

Everyone helped with the fall chores, knowing Papa Pierre would return in two weeks with a bundle of furs, soon to be traded for flour and clothes. Papa would then hunt a moose so they’d have meat for the long cold winter.

Two weeks passed. Papa Pierre didn’t return as expected, and with winter quickly approaching, they were worried indeed.

“Papa can take care of himself,” the eldest brother said. “But as he is late, I’ll shoot a moose.” So, he shot a moose and brought it back home. They skinned the moose, cut the meat in strips, and dried it. Some of it they kept for jerky, and the rest they crisped over a fire, pounded into powder, mixed with dried berries and melted fat to make pemmican.

“Papa likes his fried bread and bannock,” said the second. “Without his furs, we cannot buy flour.” So, he set off in the direction of Papa’s trap line and found a pile of pelts. He tied a strap around the pelts, and after hefting the pile onto his back, he secured the band across his hairline, leaned forward and carried the bundle to the trading post. He bought flour to make fried bread and bannock for Papa.

They were now set for the winter, but Papa still hadn’t returned. Without him, there would be no one to play the fiddle to protect them from Phakack, the skeleton who stole souls and gnawed on dead people’s bones through the winter.

Their mother wrung her hands with worry so much that she nearly wore out her wrists. Ti-Jean told his brothers they needed to find Papa or poor Mama would die of grief and Phakack would feast on her bones. His brothers said, “Ti-Jean, don’t worry. Papa Pierre always comes back.”

But Ti-Jean did worry. He hopped from one foot to the other as he fretted. His brothers teased him that he’d wear out his moccasins and the floor too if he wasn’t careful. Ti-Jean knew that unlike his older brother, he wasn’t big enough to hunt a moose. He couldn’t carry the bundle of furs like his second brother could. He couldn’t even play the fiddle to keep Phakack from stealing their souls and gnawing on their bones. All he could do was dance.

The next morning, while everyone still slept, Ti-Jean put on his moccasins and dressed in his warmest wool sweater and leather coat. He spied the empty corner where Papa Pierre always kept his fiddle, and he vowed to bring Papa and the fiddle home to keep Phakack away. Outside, Ti-Jean felt the cold of the night sweep over him as it sprinkled its shiny seeds for the coming snow. A branch rattled. Phakack! Ti-Jean bolted into the wilderness.

Ti-Jean ran to escape Phakack. He ran to find Papa. He ran right to Old Grandmother’s tipi.

“Ti-Jean, my son,” she said. “I heard you running from far away. What great problem have you when the seeds of snow fall?”

“Papa Pierre is missing,” he said, “and I must find him.”

Old Grandmother nodded. “I am one hundred years old,” she said. “Come, let me feed you and rest you for the night.”

Ti-Jean did as he was told and on a pile of furs, he slept well.

The next morning, Old Grandmother fed him breakfast and gave him a gift.

“Thank you,” he said, taking a beaded leather pouch from her and sliding it into a coat pocket.

“This pouch will feed you for as long as you need. But beware, if you come across the black wolf, remember he is Rougarou,  half man, half wolf. If he tricks you, say once to the wolf-man, do not eat me.”

Ti-Jean ran all day. As night fell, he came across another tipi. Inside, Older Grandmother waited for him.

“Ti-Jean, my son,” Older Grandmother said. “I heard you running from Old Grandmother’s house. What greater problem have you that worries you so?”

“Papa Pierre is missing,” he said, “and I must find him.”

Older Grandmother nodded. “I am three hundred years old,” she said. “Come, let me feed you and rest you for the night.”

Ti-Jean did as he was told and atop a pile of furs he slept well.

The next morning, Older Grandmother fed him breakfast and gave him a gift.

“Thank you,” he said as he accepted a sash woven in the browns, reds and greens of autumn and tied it around his waist.

“Two eyes have you to see. If Raven tricks you, say you to him, my eyes you cannot pick, my eyes you cannot pick. Wrap then, this cloth twice around your head–once above your eyes and the other below leaving the tiniest slits through which to see. Then Raven will let you be.”

Again, Ti-Jean ran all day. As night fell, he came across a third tipi. Oldest Grandmother waited inside for him.

“Ti-Jean, my son,” she said. “I heard you running from Older Grandmother’s house. What greatest problem have you that you run to the wilderness where old Phakack lives?”

“Papa Pierre is missing,” he said, “and I must find him.”

Oldest Grandmother nodded. “I am six hundred years old,” she said. “Come, let me feed you and rest you for the night.”

Ti-Jean did as he was told and on a pile of furs, he slept well.

The next morning, Oldest Grandmother fed him and gave him a gift of beaded moccasins.

“Thank you,” he said, “but I have moccasins.”

Oldest Grandmother held up his moccasins. The bottoms were worn to the felt.

“Mend these, I could not,” she said. “Your feet you need to find Papa Pierre. Hurry, my son.”

Ti-Jean slipped on the new moccasins and tied them tight. Outside, everything was covered in brilliant white snow. Unwilling to wear their fresh white blankets, tree branches shook and rattled like dry bones. Phakack searched for him! Ti-Jean ran from Oldest Grandmother’s tipi as hard and as fast as he could.

But then, he tripped over a big heaping mound and felt the cold sting of fresh snow when his face hit the ground.

The mound howled and sprang into the air so quickly that Ti-Jean found himself on his back, staring into the face of a big black wolf. A Rougarou! A man who had changed into a wolf!

Rougarou towered over Ti-Jean, its front paws pinned his shoulders to the ground. The wolf’s red eyes burned into his but fear kept Ti-Jean’s eyes wide and round. Drool dripped from Rougarou’s mouth and onto Ti-Jean’s face. He wanted to scream but Rougarou’s bad breath choked him. Never again would he argue with Mama about chewing on mint and using reeds to clean his teeth. That is, if the wolf-man didn’t eat him first.

Rougarou bared his teeth and snarled. Ti-Jean almost peed himself. The wolf-man’s nose came close to touching his.

“I smell Old Grandmother’s food,” Rougarou said. “Give it to me or I’ll eat you instead.”

“How?” Ti-Jean yelped. “I can’t move!”

“I’ll let you go,” Rougarou growled, “but remember, I’m faster than you.”

Ti-Jean wasn’t certain of that, not with Oldest Grandmother’s moccasins. Rougarou took his paw off one shoulder.

“Give it to me!”

“I would,” Ti-Jean said, “but it’s in a pocket on the other side.”

Rougarou pinned his free shoulder and released the other. Now, Ti-Jean’s other hand was free but he still couldn’t run.

“Give it to me!”Rougarou snarled, his eyes as red as blood. His teeth glistened with drool. He opened his mouth wide and leaned in.

“Please,” Ti-Jean said, “don’t eat me!”

Rougarou jumped off and sat beside Ti-Jean. He didn’t growl or snarl or drool. It was then that Ti-Jean remembered—Old Grandmother had told him to say please don’t eat me.

The wolf-man sniffed at Ti-Jean’s pocket.

“Hungry, aren’t you?” Ti-Jean said.

He shared the pemmican and Rougarou snapped it down. Then something strange happened—Rougarou changed from wolf to man! He still smelled bad and his clothes were tattered, but he was a man. A scared man whose eyes were no longer red but blue.

“I was lost,” the man said. “Hungry and I .…”

“Take this.” Ti-Jean filled the man’s pockets with pemmican.

“But how?” the man looked from his pockets to Ti-Jean.

Old Grandmother’s gift was sacred, so Ti-Jean simply pointed and said, “If you go that way, you’ll find your way back.”

“But you?” the tattered man asked.

“I’m not lost, just searching.”

Bones rattled deep in the forest. Phakack! Ti-Jean had beaten Rougarou and he wasn’t going to let Phakack catch him now. He ran.

The day was bright and it got brighter as the sun went higher and bounced off the snow stabbing Ti-Jean’s eyes until they began to hurt. He saw black spots and they grew bigger and bigger. He was going blind! The black spots flapped, and landed beside him. Ravens!

“Why don’t you lay down,” the first raven said, “and rest your eyes?”

“Please do,” croaked the second. “We’ll guard you.”

“Make sure no one bothers you,” added the first.

Ti-Jean sat on a fallen log and closed his sore eyes. These ravens, with their constant croaking, made his head ache.

“Leave me be!” Ti-Jean snapped. “My head hurts and my eyes are sore.”

“I’ll guard one eye,” said the first.

“And I the other,” croaked the second.

“Aye we will!” they cawed.

“You know,” said the first raven, “if you give us your eyes, we’ll stop the light from hurting them.”

“And they won’t pain you anymore,” said the second.

“We brought the light to the world,” said the first.

“And we can take it away,” croaked the second.

They wanted to trick him into thinking they were helping him and then they’d surely peck out his eyes. The tricksters!

“You cannot eat me,” Ti-Jean said hoping it would stop them as it had Rougarou.

Still, the ravens cackled for his eyes. He threw them pemmican but again they pestered him for his eyes.

When Ti-Jean covered his burning eyes with his hands, he peeked at the ravens through his fingers. Now, he remembered Older Grandmother’s gift. He whipped the sash from his waist and wrapped it around his eyes just as Older Grandmother had told him to. He could squint between the wrapped sash just enough to see without the brightness stabbing his aching head.

“My eyes you cannot pick. My eyes you cannot pick,” he said.

“In this world his eyes still be,” the first raven said.

“No darkness to ease your pain can we bring,” cawed the second.

The ravens flew in the same direction he’d been running. Papa Pierre! If they had wanted to eat his eyes, what would they want from Papa? What if Papa was sick and couldn’t save himself? Running as hard as he could, Ti-Jean followed the disappearing dots.

The ravens circled over a trapper’s hut. It was a small wooden building, just big enough for one man to sleep in and to hold his pelts and store his food. The hut was as cold and still as a frozen cattail in the winter ice. Frozen pelts hung on drying racks outside. There were no foot prints in the snow; no sign that papa was ever here. This was not good.

Ti-Jean rushed to the hut, flung open the door and tore the sash off his head. The hut was dark despite the door being open. The place smelled horrible, like someone had been sick over and over again. The little potbelly stove was silent and cold. Fur pelts were piled in a corner by the door. Papa’s fiddle sat on a shelf. His bear-skin coat was thrown over the lone chair in the room. The cot was a rumpled mess of blankets and a fur which had nearly slid off it.

Then the rumple moved. Papa!

Ti-Jean ran to the cot and nearly slipped on the frozen mess of sickness on the floor. Papa was cold and sweaty, and he barely breathed. Ti-Jean gently shook Papa’s shoulders.

“Papa!” Ti-Jean shouted. “It’s me!”

“Nooooo, Phakack! Noooo!” Papa coughed and Ti-Jean heard the distant sound of Phakack’s rattling bones.

What should he do? Papa was too sick to eat Old Grandmother’s pemmican. Older Grandmother’s sash wasn’t big enough to keep Papa warm. But Oldest Grandmother’s moccasins—he’d run back to Oldest Grandmother for help.

Phakack’s bones rattled through the forest. Phakack was coming! Ti-Jean couldn’t leave Papa alone.

Papa moaned. Ti-Jean touched his forehead. It was hot. That was bad. Ti-Jean grabbed fur pelts and fur side down, he covered Papa. He gathered wood for the potbelly stove and lit a fire. Bucket in hand, he ran to the river, broke through the shell of ice and scooped water. He cut willow branches and brought them in with the water. After filling the kettle, he put it on the stove to heat. Ti-Jean peeled the bark off the willow branches and scraped the insides into a tall tin teapot to which he added dried Labrador Tea leaves, and hot water. Then, he held Papa’s head and made him drink the way Mama made Ti-Jean drink when he was sick. Papa coughed and his chest rattled. Phakack! What to do now? Ti-Jean hopped from one foot to the other with worry.

The fiddle! He plucked a string. The twang hurt his ears. Again, Papa’s chest rattled. Ti-Jean plucked all the strings. They sounded horrible. Another coughing fit rattled Papa’s chest. The hut shook. The door shuddered and door blew open. Phakack had come!

Tall, white and bony, Phakack’s skeleton filled the doorway.

“For Papa Pierre, I have come,” Phakack said. His bones rattled as he stepped into the hut.

Sweat rolled off Ti-Jean’s brow. What to do? How to stop him? He plucked a string on the fiddle.

“The wind ruffling the hair of the dead, that is the tune,” Phakack rattled closer to Papa.

The pemmican in Old Grandmother’s pouch wouldn’t feed Phakack but .…

“Please don’t eat Papa!” he yelled.

“A wild cat’s last yowls, is your voice!” Phakack rattled a step closer. “Eat him, I will!”

Older Grandmother’s sash had kept the ravens from stealing the light from Ti-Jean’s eyes. He wrapped it around Phakack’s skull.

Phakack laughed. “Think you that now I cannot see? The eyes of your world I have not but the eyes of the dark I do.” Phakack flung the sash off its head.

Older Grandmother’s words had stopped the ravens. “His bones you cannot pick! His bones you cannot pick!” Ti-Jean yelled but Phakack still moved. Ti-Jean drew the bow across the fiddle.

“Play, you cannot,” Phakack whistled through his empty skull. “Papa Pierre I will have.”

“Play I cannot but dance I can,” Ti-Jean said. “Dance I can, dance I can, dance I can!”

All night Ti-Jean danced around Phakack, never letting the creature get close to Papa Pierre. Sometimes he danced to his singing, sometimes he danced to the fiddle’s screeches but always, he danced. The more Ti-Jean danced, the less and less Phakack moved and soon, Phakack was just a stack of swaying bones.

Ti-Jean danced into the early hours when those brave enough to wake swallow the sun’s first rays with their morning yawns.

“Ti-Jean,” Papa rasped. “Stop that racket!”

Phakack disappeared and Ti-Jean collapsed into the chair. His dance had sent Phakack away!

The next day, Ti-Jean snared a rabbit to make a stew to which he added chopped cattail roots, buffalo berries and hazelnuts. He was sad because he had no flour to make bannock for Papa. The second night they ate Old Grandmother’s pemmican. On the third day when Ti-Jean was deciding if he should catch a fish or a grouse for their dinner, the door to the hut opened.

A man stood in the doorway. Tall, and in a heavy fur coat.

“Rou–” Ti-Jean began and then caught himself.

“Henri Devreaux,” the man said and held out his hand.

To Papa he said, “Your son saved my life. When I got back to camp, I told my men about him. We decided that if he was searching for something, we needed to help him.”

And so it was that Henri and his friends had come with two dog sleds. In one they loaded Papa Pierre under a pile of furs. The other they filled with furs. Two men walked behind the sleds while Ti-Jean danced to keep Phakack away.

When they arrived home, Mama Marie and Ti-Jean’s brothers were overjoyed to see them all. Mama fussed the way mamas do and once Papa was comfortable, Ti-Jean’s brothers told Papa everything they’d done.

“I hunted a moose!” the oldest brother bragged.

“I found your pelts six hills away from the river on Rocky Creek and I traded them for flour at the trading post,” boasted the second.

“You,” Papa said to the oldest brother, “hunted a moose alone!”

The oldest brother beamed.

“Don’t ever do that again without me,” Papa said. “Moose are dangerous this time of year. We are lucky to have the meat but foolish you were.”

To the second brother he said, “Those pelts you took, they were not mine. You were on the Kennedy’s trap line. You must carry those furs to them.” Papa pointed to his pile of furs. “And you,” he said to the oldest, “must go with him because the way to the Kennedys is far.”

Ti-Jean gave his brothers Old Grandmother’s pouch that always had pemmican so they wouldn’t be hungry on their journey. He gave them Older Grandmother’s sash in case the ravens wanted to peck their eyes. When his brothers laughed and said they didn’t need these things because they were older, stronger and knew what to do, Papa Pierre said, “Unlike you, Ti-Jean accepted help. He not only survived, but he saved me too.”

After the brothers left, Papa played the fiddle while Mama clapped and sang. Ti-Jean danced in the moccasins Oldest Grandmother had made just for him. He loved them for it was their magic that had helped him dance all night to save Papa.

And that is the story of a young boy named Ti-Jean who lived in the wilds of northern Canada—a boy who was clever enough to ask for help, and to do what he did best, so he could save Papa Pierre.

The End

(Published in On Spec The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic, 2016 #103 vol 27 no 4)