RJ Belcourt
I. Fay, editor

In the shade of the towering poplar at the back of my house, I sit on the lower step of the laundry stand terrorizing a community of ants with a twig. I poke at their sand hills constructed in the cracks of the hot asphalt and watch them scurry for their lives. For an instant, I feel a surge of power, but then I stop to wonder why I am entertained by such a malicious act. My thoughts are interrupted by shouts. I look up to see my best buddies, Curtis and Gilles, racing their bicycles down the gravel driveway towards me, leaving a trail of dry dust streaming behind them. Curtis’ Schwinn Stingray comes to a sliding stop only a wheel length ahead of Gilles’ new Centennial.

‘I win! Beat you again, Baker,’ shouts Gilles, a wide smirk breaking across his face.

‘I gave you a head start. And besides, my tires aren’t designed for gravel,’ explains Curtis, trying to catch his breath.

‘Excuses! Excuses! Hey, Ray, grab your bike. We’re heading to Whitson River for a dip,’ urges Gilles.

‘We can’t get to the swimming hole on my property anymore. Old man Simard put up a barbed wire fence between our fields and hung up a big-ass No Trespassing sign.’

‘We can ride to Whitson through your field, stash the bikes and wade down the creek to the swimming hole,’ suggests Curtis.

‘Naw. It’ll take us forever to get there and then back. And besides, I don’t want anyone to swipe my new wheels,’ says Gilles.

‘No big deal. We can sneak on through their front driveway,’ proposes Curtis.

‘Old man Simard is crazy. Word is he keeps a shotgun loaded with salt shot by the front porch just for fun and giggles,’ adds Curtis.

‘No sweat, man. I know Daniel, his son. I trade comics with him. I’ll ask him to join us. His dad will be none the wiser.’

‘Daniel isn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, either,’ reminds Curtis.

‘I guess he is kind of an odd duck, but he is harmless,’ I answer in his defense.

‘Damn good thing. He’s as strong as an ox. I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side,’ says Gilles.

‘Daniel wouldn’t hurt a fly. Poor guy gets teased all the time and never says a word. Anyway, daylight is burning. Let’s get going.’

I take the lead. We race our bikes along the gravel shoulder of the highway to Daniel’s place. I spot him at the back of the house by the old barn, feeding chickens.

‘Daniel, you want to ride to the river with us,’ I ask.

He doesn’t answer. He simply nods and walks into an old shed.

‘Where the heck is he going?’ asks Curtis.

Before I can hazard a guess, Daniel comes out, riding an old bike and grinning from ear to ear. The front wheel is missing a few spokes, and the brake pads whine and squeak as they rub against the twisted rim on every turn.

‘Nice ride, Daniel. That’s a sweet vintage model,’ I say to encourage him.

‘It’s a CCM,’ answers Daniel, smiling with pride.

We ride up the beaten tractor trail along the fence line. The grasshoppers pop up ahead of our tires and fly forward a few meters only to pop up again and again. We stop in the shade of a choke cherry tree to get relief from the scorching sun and eat a few of the sour berries. We fill our mouths with the sour unripened fruit and spit the seeds out in a juicy mess. Laughing hysterically, we take turns trying to call out tongue twisters as the inside of our mouths pucker and make the words incomprehensible. Rested we continue a few kilometers along the trail to the river’s edge.

‘Last one in is a rotten egg!’ yells Gilles. He drops his bike on its side and starts stripping down. Curtis and I follow suit, peeling our clothes off as fast as we can. The sound of a loud splash stops us. We look in disbelief as Daniel, fully dressed in jeans and plaid shirt, complete with shoes, wades in the river.

‘Rotten eggs! Rotten eggs!’ shouts Daniel, pointing at us and laughing.

‘That boy is nuttier than a shithouse rat,’ says Gilles.

‘Yeah, but he ain’t no rotten egg like you suckers,’ shouts Curtis dropping his shorts and sprinting down the river bank for the water.

After a few hours of skinny dipping and play-fighting in the cool current, we head back to Simard’s house. We are tired but feeling refreshed and revitalized from the cool dip. Daniel’s mother is in the backyard as we pull up. She takes one look at her son in his wet clothes and goes ballistic.

‘I warned you never to go into the river. You stupid no good for nothing imbecile. Didn’t I warn you. Can’t you ever get that into your empty wooden head. I’ll teach you to listen to me when I talk to you.’

We stand in shock as she grabs him by the collar and drags him off the bike. She swings him around like a rag doll with one arm as she beats him with the other. She doesn’t even pay attention to us or seem to care that we are watching. Daniel screams and cries, desperately yelling for her to stop while trying to block her blows, but she relentlessly continues to beat him like a dog. Not knowing how to deal with the situation, and frankly terrified that she would soon turn on us, we panic and speed out of the yard and down the highway.

We ride home in silence, not mentioning one word to each other about what we have just witnessed. I’m not sure why we keep quiet—is it the fear and horror of the assault or are we ashamed of ourselves for not trying to help him? Are we terrified helpless bystanders or cowards running from fear?

The next day I wake up as if nothing had happened. Just another sleepy Monday morning, like every other school day morning. I thud up the steps from my bedroom in the basement to the kitchen. My sister stands red-faced at the front door with her books and lunch-kit in hand threatening not to hold the school bus for me—again.

‘You’re always late. The bus parks at the driveway, beeping its horn, waiting for you. It’s embarrassing. Why don’t you grow up?’

‘Why don’t you go fly a kite?’

‘Mom! Ray is late again.’

‘Don’t forget your lunch,’ shouts my mom. ‘And don’t sit at the back of the bus with the English kids.’

‘What? Why not? Whatever. I got to go, Mom. Bye.’

My mom insists that I sit in the front of the bus with the French kids. It’s like the English kids have some sort of contagious disease. She rambles on about our responsibility as French-Canadians to protect our language. Many of these English kids are my neighbors and some are good friends of mine. I really don’t care what language they speak. I can speak both English and French, so I don’t understand the problem. Besides if anybody wants to speak French—nobody is stopping them.

I hop on the bus and sit down next to Jean-Pierre. Everybody calls him Mimi; I’m not sure why. He is a thin, wiry farm kid who is always getting in some sort of trouble. We are sitting directly behind Daniel this morning. I can see the blemishes on the side of Daniel’s face and neck from the beating he got from his mother.

‘Hey Ray. Let’s have some fun,’ says Mimi tugging at Daniel’s hair. Daniel slides over tight against the window.

‘Leave him alone,’ I said.

Mimi reaches over the seat again and snaps his index finger at Daniel’s ear.

Daniel cringes in pain and leans forward.

‘You’re such a jerk. How would you like someone doing that to you?’ I ask.

‘They wouldn’t dare,’ answers Mimi sitting back in his seat giggling like a fool.

‘One day you will pick on the wrong person and I swear you will get yours.’

At the school, Daniel slumps low in his chair at the back of the classroom—quiet, head down, eyes on his scribbler. The chair seems tiny under the fourteen-year-old’s oversized frame. Barely visible, a pencil protrudes from his powerful hands, a short twig growing from a stump. Daniel draws on his scribbler; the Incredible Hulk; his favorite comic character. He flinches at a crumpled wad of paper that whizzes past his head, followed by a cackling of laughter. He ignores the teasing from the jokesters and returns to his doodling, which continues, even after the teacher enters the room and turns everyone else’s attention to Math.

The bell rings signaling the end of class, and instantly the door is jammed with teenagers trying to get out of the room. Last in line, Daniel follows the group. One of his common harassers casually slaps Daniel’s books and binders from his hands, sending them cascading across the hallway floor. Frowning, Daniel kneels to pick up his things. The motion is routine, a reflex.

Later, at recess, I join some friends in the school yard for a game of soccer. Mimi plays on the other team and behaves himself, until he sees Daniel standing on the sidelines staring out into space. I knew there would be trouble when Mimi walked off the field and bee-lined for Daniel. The rest of the team and I run over, arriving in time to hear Mimi go into his usual routine.

‘Daniel, are you lost?’ asks Mimi circling him.

‘No, I’m not lost.’

‘No? Well, a gorilla escaped from the zoo this morning, and they’re all looking for you,’ says Mimi laughing and jumping around and gesturing with his arms like a monkey.

Daniel gives a nervous smile and tries to ignore Mimi.

‘Hey, King Kong, I’m talking to you. You look like you’ve eaten one too many bananas, ape man,’ says Mimi, as he pokes at Daniel’s mid-section.

‘No,’ answers Daniel trying unsuccessfully to avoid Mimi’s jabs.

‘Wait, what’s that on your face? Is that banana?’ asks Mimi.

‘Banana? Where?’ asks a confused Daniel confused.

‘Right there,’ answers Mimi, slapping Daniel on the cheek. And there and there,’ he repeats slapping him repeatedly. Daniel’s glasses fly off his face and one lens shatters as they hit the ground.

Daniel’s face turns red, his eyes tear up and his bottom lip quivers.

‘Aw, what? Are you going to cry now, King Kong? I thought you were a big ape, but you’re nothing but a baby monkey.’

‘Mimi. Leave him alone,’ I say.

‘Stay out of this, Belcourt. I’m just having some fun with Curious George.’

Sobbing, Daniel bends to pick up the remnants of his broken glasses. Mimi takes advantage of his vulnerable position and kicks him hard in the behind, sending him tumbling. Slowly, he gets to his knees and reaches for his glasses only to watch Mimi step down and crush them under his foot.

I can see the anger gathering in Daniel’s swollen eyes. He climbs to his feet and starts to hyperventilate as he walks slowly and steadily towards Mimi.

‘Holy cow. Now you’ve done it,’ I say to Mimi.

‘What? Are you going to cry, baby monkey? Are you going to call for mommy monkey to come help you?’

Daniel roars and rushes Mimi. The body slam, completely unexpected, drives Mimi to the ground. Daniel flails, throwing wild punches about Mimi’s head, many of them hitting their mark. Pinned under the big boy’s weight, Mimi yells for help and tries unsuccessfully to squirm his way-out. We stand in shock, watching the onslaught. Some of the onlookers begin to urge Daniel on.

The assault seems to go on forever. Finally a teacher arrived to break it up. Mimi’s face is a swollen balloon. Turns out he has suffered a broken nose and two black eyes, not to mention various bruises. He goes home for the rest of the afternoon and doesn’t return to school for a couple of days; recovering from his injuries and a broken ego, I would suspect. Daniel spends the rest of the school day in the nurse’s office trying to calm down.


Mimi’s physical and mental abuse of Daniel, which had been going on for some time, came to an abrupt end with that thrashing. I guess the malicious crushing of his glasses was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Daniel, the last in a long series of abuses he endured from many sources. I don’t condone violence, but I cannot say Daniel’s actions were unjustified. A person can turn the other cheek only so often; sometimes fighting back is the only answer to violence. And although Mimi was the only physical target of Daniel’s beating that day, I suspect that Daniel was mentally punching his abusive mother and every other bully who hit, teased or insulted him over the years.


“Enough” Published in “Canadian Stories Magazine, June/July 2019.


Blood Cove (The Hunt)


The scratching at the door startles the vampire, a testament to just how absorbed in his feast he has been. Normally he would have been aware of the approach of the wolves. Enraged at being interrupted, he carelessly drops the boy on the mattress and rushes to the door. The wolves, smelling the fresh blood, are growling and clawing at the barracks entrance. Incensed at the interruption, the vampire screams in rage and frustration. He wrenches the door open and it slams against the wall. Startled by the sound and terrified by the sight of the enraged vampire, the pack scatters yelping and howling to the security of darkness just inside the tree line.

The vampire steps into the yard, roaring at the wolves the non-verbal anguish of blood lust, a language they know well. They cower together, tails tucked under their rumps in submission. The young night and the full moon beckon the wolves to the hunt. The hunger in the wolves’ eyes is unmistakable and the vampire senses their excitement, their anticipation, their impatience for the night’s kill. This is a need the vampire knows and understands all too well.

wolf howling

The largest wolf, the alpha, breaks from the pack and slowly advances toward the vampire, its thick dark fur raised along its hunched back. The alpha growls and snarls in defiance as it approaches. The vampire stands his ground, fists clenched, ready to fight should it come to that. Abruptly, the wolf rolls onto its back, spraying the air with acrid urine, surrendering its pack. The vampire screams in victory, turns and lopes into the shadowed forest ahead of the pack. The beasts, human and non, are united in a single purpose: to kill, to rend fresh meat and taste more blood.

The vampire races up the mountain path along the ridge, the slavering carnivores hard on his heels. In no time they are deep in the rain forest. Century-old cedar trees, the old forest’s tall dark sentinels, fill the moist night air with their sweet aroma and cast moon-shadows across the root-webbed trail. Thick moss saturated by the evening dew fills the gaps between the roots, a silent cushion for the beasts’ paws as they tear through the trees, nostrils flared with the hunt.

The vampire is suddenly overwhelmed by an unmistakable smell and stops abruptly. Prey! Sensing his heightening lust, the pack becomes frenzied. Noses to the ground, they pick up the scent. They veer off the path, down into a ravine towards the river. They are in luck; approaching from downwind, the prey is unaware of their presence, while its scent is strong in their nostrils. The river, running fast and loud, masks the sound of their descent through the thick underbrush.

The wolves move swiftly through ferns, low to the ground, ears erect, noses in the air. As the vampire tears down the incline, a sharp hemlock branch rips through his shirt, gouging deep into his flesh and drawing blood. Picking up the scent of his blood, a bitch in the pack turns on the vampire, snarling, teeth bared. The sight of blood running down his arm overwhelms the she-wolf’s senses. Equally ruled by the demands of his senses, the vampire grunts in defiance. Maddened, the beast instinctively pounces at her prey, a fatal underestimation. The kick is swift and crushing, catching the animal in the throat and driving her against a nearby stump. Her shriek of pain is brief, choked off as she goes limp, dying on the forest floor. The pack, unaffected by the savagery to one of their own, await his intention, then turn to follow him downhill following the scent.

The roar of rushing water grows to deafening intensity as the pack approaches the forest edge. The vampire slows, cautiously creeping toward the clearing along the river. Eager with anticipation, the wolves close ranks behind him, nervously panting in unison as they watch their leader’s every move, awaiting his orders. The vampire grins as he spots the prey, a lone woodland caribou buck, head down quenching his thirst from the icy stream.

Why the young caribou had strayed so far from the herd was impossible to know, but that error in judgment would be its last. The pack would not attack a strong, healthy buck within the protection of the herd; the risk of their antlers doing serious injury to the wolves was too great. Rather they would opt for the safe kill, a sick or old straggling member of the herd. Luck is running in two directions this night: good luck for the wolves, wretched luck for the young stray about to die.

The vampire turns to the wolf pack and motions them to their positions. Instinctively, they split into two groups, one arcing to the right, the other to the left. Bodies low to the forest floor, they snake their way to either side of the unsuspecting victim. In position, adrenaline spurring the blood pumping through their veins, saliva dripping from their glands and running down their chins, every muscle taut and ready to release, they await the alpha’s signal.

The vampire breaks from the wall of foliage and sprints across the rocky clearing too fast for the caribou to react. The hungry wolves charge from the flanks, trapping the startled animal along the water’s edge with no escape. Leaping onto the caribou’s back, the vampire squeezes his strong arms around its neck. The wolves slash with vicious teeth, tearing at any tender area that presents itself—rump, under-belly, throat—as it kicks and thrashes in the water.

The caribou tosses its head about in desperation, its rack of antlers its only defence. A pack member, impaled by one of those deadly tines, is thrown several feet along the rocky slope. The wolf, bleeding profusely, rises and attacks, enraged. The caribou’s hind leg flashes out, catching the charging wolf in full stride with its razor-sharp hoof. The attacker dies instantly, its head split wide. The corpse is swept away by the torrential waters.

The wolves, relentless and undeterred by the loss, continue to rip and tear at the caribou’s flesh, weakening the animal. A spray of blood and hair fills the air. The vampire, still holding fast to the young buck, stabs his teeth into the side of its throat, puncturing the carotid artery. The caribou collapses in shock onto the rocks, its dying heartbeats gushing thick hot blood down the vampire’s throat. The vampire pulls away from his victim, surrendering the kill to the voracious pack. Overcome by the bliss and rapture of the hunt, he stumbles to the tree line, lies down on a bed of moss and, with a warm sense of fulfillment, watches as the pack rips, tears and devours the inert carcass.

‘Get out—go away! You flea infested mongrels.’

The wolves lift their blood-stained heads from the caribou carcass and growl at this new human. The hair on their haunches grows erect and their gums pull back exposing their long, sharp fangs, guarding their feast. Without hesitation or hint of fear, the stranger rushes the wolves. Flailing his arms and splashing through the river’s current, he yells, ‘I said get out of here now before I beat your mangy asses to a bloody pulp.’

The unexpected verbal assault and the complete lack of fear behind the words spark fear and the survival instinct among the wolves. Surrendering their meal, they turn and run to the safety of the forest.


The vampire, startled from his sated slumber by the shouting, jumps to his feet, eyes scanning in search of the source of the offensive noise. To his surprise, he sees no one. The only thing moving on the river bank, aside from himself, is a raven perched on the dead caribou’s skull. The bird is energetically tearing off bits of the raw flesh, lifting its beak to stretch its throat and gulping them down. Abruptly, the raven stops. It turns to peer at the vampire and screeches a reverberating caw. The blue-black bird returns its wide-eyed gaze to the caribou, cocks its head and pecks the glassy eyeball from the animal’s skull. In a show of leisurely indifference, the raven flaps into the air and soon disappears over the towering cedars.

A cool rain has begun to fall. The vampire scrambles up the steep river bank. Pulling himself over the lip, he stands on the ridge at the edge of the forest, gazing out over the river valley. His shirt and pants already wet with blood and ripped from the night’s kill, now cling to his body as they become soaked by the soft morning rain. Heavy black muck from the climb up the bank clings to his boots.

The vampire looks up river to the east and frowns. A faint glow is just beginning to lighten the horizon as rays from the rising sun peek between the pine trees. He instinctively turns to the narrow path leading back to town and sets off at a steady jog, ever mindful of his footing on the slippery rocks. He is startled by the sudden caw of the returned raven as it swoops from above the forest canopy. A wet slop of stinking bird dropping splatters on his shoulder. The vampire grunts in disgust, launches a curse at the mischievous bird and hurries along his way. With another caw, as if in defiance, the raven flies ahead down the trail.



Faded Glory


A few years ago in late summer I took a day trip from Leduc to Drumheller. I spent the sunny afternoon exploring the Jurassic landscape, perusing local gift stores and checking out the spectacular view of Horsethief Canyon.  Later I managed to schedule in a quick tour of the dinosaur exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. I returned home that afternoon a bit weary from a full day of activities but deeply satisfied by the experience. Driving out of the valley I was fascinated by the contrast between the arid barren landscape of the Badlands and the lush prairie crops just up the valley a few miles away. Being an avid photographer I was itching to capture this prairie scene for my gallery. The light was perfect and the large low hanging cumulous clouds puffed out against the deep blue sky offered a sweet backdrop. I scanned the roadside for the perfect subject for my setting but not a building was visible for miles around. Frustrated and about to give up the hunt I spotted the peak of an old shed poking up just over a small hill next to a canola field. I drove my Chevy off the road, across the pasture and down the coulee to the structure. The old shed turned out to be an abandoned farmhouse.  The house leaned like a tired old lady and the moss-covered weathered roof hung down precariously by its edges.  I wondered who raised a family in this isolated area and if they had a happy life. I shrugged my shoulders and snapped the photo freezing her last dying moment in time.

(Look for the article/photo in the upcoming April/May issue of Our Canada Magazine.)

Artscapes/Pays-arts Canada (Second edition)

I’m happy to share Artscapes/Pays-arts Canada (second edition) coffee table art-book has been published and released. Your copy of this beautiful full coloured book of landscape paintings from across Canada is available on Amazon.


For a quick preview pick up the latest copy of Our Canada magazine at your local Chapters store. A selection of paintings from Artscapes Canada is featured in the magazine.

The book makes s great Christmas gift or a perfect souvenir for friends visiting from abroad.

“I enjoyed your article in Our Canada and found the painting/photographs striking, some of them beautiful. I’m impressed by the talent of the painters and the photographer. And I find the price of your book very reasonable.”
Faith Moffatt
Leamington, Ontario

“…Even as I was about to turn the page, I was drawn back to reading your story. Wow, I was very taken up with your lost backpack…Newfoundland still has that today. You weren’t just lucky, it was “Meant to Be”…I want to give the book, after perusing it, to friends for Christmas; you solved my ‘shopping problem’. Thanks…let me again state what a great article you wrote. You drew me in.”
K Bruce Monroe
Pointe-Claire, QC

“We published a story from Ray Belcourt about his Artscapes Canada project in the December-January 2019 of Our Canada magazine. And I have to say, I’m not sure if I was more impressed by Ray’s ability to merge photography and painting into amazing works of art, or by his knack for bringing together incredibly talented artists from across the country in pursuit of a common goal. Either way, the end result is an innovative and inspirational book that showcases the beauty of Canada and shines a spotlight on some of the many gifted artists who call Canada home.”

Gary George, Editor-in-chief
Our Canada & More of Our Canada


When R. J. Belcourt first published ‘Artscapes’ in 2012, a new genre splashed itself all throughout Canada and returned with a dazzling new look at our great country that no one could fail to appreciate.  The glorious pictures morph gracefully into paintings, each offering a unique style and a format born of ‘color.’   These magnificent works, from some of the best artists in far-reaching regions of the country were carefully collected and settled into a ‘splendid’ and ‘uplifting’ book.  As a reader of ‘Artscapes,’ I am privileged to slowly meander through my country on a unique journey with a stunning book guiding me to an even deeper love of Canada.  As the original publication was a limited printing, I missed my chance to purchase this stunning work.  Thank you Ray for your trusty camera and this ‘second’ print run.  I can assure you that I am on the way to get my copy.

Colin Bishop
Edmonton, Alberta

Your copy of Artscapes/Pay-arts Canada can be purchased at Amazon.ca


Indigo.ca & Goodreads.com

RJ Belcourt

Bear Bells

Emerald Lake - final

My mother-in-law, Dora, visited us last summer. She is from Lima, Peru, a large South American city of over ten million people. My wife and I wanted to show her a taste of the vast beauty of Alberta and the Canadian Rockies. The grandeur of the magnificent Rocky Mountains is only four hundred kilometres west of our home in Leduc. We planned a long weekend holiday in Banff, including a visit to Lake Louise and a bonus side trip to beautiful Emerald Lake just inside the British Columbia border.

Immediately upon arriving at Lake Louise in the early afternoon, we spotted a couple of mule deer eating grass on a hill by the parking lot. Lake Louise itself was spectacular, even more incredible than the glossy photos of the lake that grace so many Canadian calendars. My mother-in-law could not imagine the existence of another lake or landscape that could surpass this majestic view.

We headed west along the winding Trans-Canada Highway, across the BC border towards Yoho National Park. We crossed a suspension bridge high above the Fraser River and started our descent to the gravel valley below, past the town of Trail. I turned off the pavement at the outskirts of town and followed the narrow road to the Emerald Lake Resort.

Parking the car, we followed the main trail through the trees past a few picnic tables. A welcoming board displayed a map of the trails in the area with a notice to be cautious of bears. Dora asked if it was safe to continue towards the lake. I assured her that, although bears are always a concern in the National Parks, the presence of hundreds of tourists talking and making noise in this location kept most of the bears away. Only slightly reassured, she nervously followed us to the water’s edge.

At the shoreline, Dora stood speechless. Captivated by the natural beauty before her, she released a long wistful sigh, a soft smile of peace and contentment enveloping her face. The glassy surface of the jade-colored waters of Emerald Lake mirrored Wapta Mountain and Mount Burgess that stood on the opposite shore. The effect was surreal, like a painter’s impressionistic rendering on canvas. Our senses nearing overload, we continued on a short hike exploring the trails around the lake and the flower gardens around the resort. On the way back, we stopped at a little kiosk for a dark-roasted coffee and a fresh pastry before crossing a small wooden bridge leading to the boathouse and souvenir shop. The boathouse rents canoes, kayaks and rowboats in summer and cross-country skis and snowshoes in winter. As I browsed around the shop, looking at miscellaneous souvenirs and trinkets, I noticed Dora standing at a gift rack, a puzzled look on her face.

‘What are these bell bracelets for?’ she asked.

‘They are bear bells, for keeping hikers safe from bears,’ I explained.

Dora examined the bracelet closer and, with a confused look, asked, ‘But how do you get these on the bears?’

We drove back to Leduc later that afternoon, feeling happy and rejuvenated by our day in the wilderness. We tried not to tease Dora any more than we already had.


(Published in Canadian Stories Magazine Dec/Jan 2019 )


Brujeria (witchcraft)

Amazon (2)

RJ Belcourt

Deep in the Amazon jungle of Peru, the traditional mode of travel on the Ucayali River is the narrow watercraft called Peque-Peque. A young boy, in his late teens perhaps, sits cross-legged at the stern navigating the boat around the large hazardous logs that float down river. The only thing more frightening than the threat of flipping the small craft into the swift murky current and being ripped to pieces by ravenous Pirañas is attempting to sleep overnight on the river’s shores. In the dark, the jungle comes to life with the sounds of every crawling creature imaginable. They slither, creep and slink down from the thick Amazonian canopy to explore the lush jungle floor. And if the thought of tarantulas, giant beetles, centipedes and snakes invading your tent doesn’t drive you insane, the bats will—bats the size of a prairie dog with wings that, like crazy kamikaze pilots, crash into your mosguitero. But I digress. The story begins in Lima—the city of kings, a thousand kilometers away.


My name is Gabriela Velez, and I am a dentist. I grew up in Lima, in a small, humble apartment with my mother, my younger sister, Claudia, and my Aunt, Lucia. Claudia is actually Lucia’s daughter, but grew up in our household, and I loved her like my own sister. Her father was a taxi driver who died when the rebels set off a bomb on Tarata Street in Miraflores. Lucia did not have the means to take care of Claudia on her own, so my parents took her in. My father left home to fight for the socialist party in Guatemala when Claudia and I were young. His departure ultimately led him to a new love and my parents’ divorce, but despite the meager finances and dire straits, we managed to survive our childhood. In the face of unending hardship, I was hell-bent on getting an education and becoming a doctora.


I was five years old when I first decided that I would become a doctor just like my grandpa. His name was Emillio, but I called him Abu. He was one of Lima’s most respected surgeons specialized in traditional medicine. I was his favorite grandchild and he loved to spoil me. Every Sunday, after attending Mass at St Judas, he and my grandma visited and had lunch with us. After dessert, Abu would step into the living room while the women cleaned up the dishes. He always sat in his favorite chair by the window and smoked his pipe. To this day, the sweet smell of pipe tobacco brings back memories of those afternoons spent on his knee listening to the most fascinating things about the human brain and anatomy. Years later, after several failed attempts at entering medical school, I conceded and decided to become a dentist. I would stay in the field, be designated a doctor and still be able to help people. To pay my tuition, I worked night shift at the local McDonald’s and sold baked goods and hand-made specialty cards to students at the university. I was twenty-five when I earned my degree. A loan from my grandpa enabled me to open a dental clinic of my own. My new career and the chance to help others were like a dream come true. All was going well till I met a young, inspired doctor named Andres.


I met him during my dentistry internship at Maria Auxiliadora in Lima. By chance, my sister Claudia was admitted to the same hospital with a punctured appendix. Having made some connections during my stay, I insisted on the best pediatric surgeon. Andres was the young intern working under the surgeon’s supervision. The compassion and care with which he treated my sister, his intelligence and dedication, and his passion for medicine made him very attractive to me.


On a Saturday he asked me out. That first evening, we shared thoughts and ideas about medicine and caring for others in general, but we both recognized that our attraction was more than intellectual. We found ourselves sharing our dreams, our passions. During those hours, we began to feel we were meant for each other. We talked till dawn. When Andres asked me to marry him, I said yes. Never would I have suspected that one day I would regret that decision.


At home, I fell into bed, exhausted. I intended to sleep late, since Sunday was my only day off. I relished those late Sunday mornings because I studied very late into the evening on every other day of the week. Voices and the closing of the front door woke me from my slumber. Sleepy-eyed and miffed from the rude awakening, I made my way down to the kitchen where mother was drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Obviously troubled, she forced a smile and a Good Morning when I entered.


‘Hey, what’s wrong? Who was at the door?’


‘It was Toni. You remember Toni, from the corner apartment building?’


‘Your friend, the clairvoyant? Yes, of course. How could I forget him? Remember how he predicted Patricia’s marriage to Jim. Auntie told him he was loco if he thought she would ever date a gringo. Then she ended up marrying one. Ha ha. That guy is a freak of nature.’


‘Well, he dropped by for coffee this morning, and everything was fine until he leaned back against your sister’s sweater, which she left on the sofa.’


‘Oh, no. My lord! Please don’t tell me she’s going to marry a gringo, too?’ I said sarcastically.


‘You make fun, but Toni’s predictions are real, mi amore.’


‘Of course. So what is it this time? Car accident, hit by lightning, gingivitis?


‘Cancer! He said she has cancer.’


‘She is fine. She doesn’t have cancer, mother.’


‘How do you know? After all, they found that small mass when they were removing her appendix, and we’re still waiting for the results of the biopsy.’


‘Yeah, well, that’s no reason to jump to conclusions.’


‘The poor thing. She is too young to suffer with cancer.’


‘You’re so gullible. Toni is a nice guy and all, and quite insightful, but his predictions are hunches and guesses at best.’


‘Really, dear? What about Patricia and Jim? You yourself said…’


‘Even a broken clock is right twice a day, mom.’


‘But there’s more, sweetheart. He told me you have met a man.’


Trying to mask my surprise at Toni’s prediction, I answered, ‘Mom! I meet men every day. I work in a hospital, remember?’


‘Listen, he said you mustn’t get involved with this man. He will bring you heartache.’


‘Oh my God, Enough of this nonsense. I’m going back to bed.’


‘He will break your heart. Please listen to Toni. He knows these things.’


‘Well, you can thank Sherlock for warning me. Now, would you please keep the noise down? I really need to catch up on some sleep.’


A few days later, Mother met Andres. She did not approve, but was quick to point out Toni’s accurate premonition. He had none of the required characteristics of a successful suitor for her daughter. He was not particularly handsome, not white nor from the same social class. Mom didn’t speak to me for a week after I told her that we were engaged. The day she finally broke her silence, she merely said ‘Toni warned you.’


Shortly after that, Andres was sequestered to a charitable medical mission deep in the jungle on the Ucayali River in eastern Peru. We were less than thrilled about the assignment, but such things were part and parcel of the life of a Man of Medicine. He was stationed at the remote clinic for many months, and I missed him very much. Every Sunday he was allowed to chat with me for fifteen minutes by high-frequency radio. We spent most of those minutes crying and telling each other how much we missed each other.


The second of March. I remember the date like it was yesterday. I knew immediately something had changed. Even his ‘hello’ was different. Call it intuition, call it whatever. When I heard his voice, alarms went off in my head. Warnings of infidelity, broken trust, a cheating partner screamed for attention. Of course, he denied anything was wrong, but I knew. Something had changed. I was no stranger to the stories of faithful married men being seduced, entranced by half-naked Amazonian women; men who, after one night of erotic rapture, never returned to their families in the city. As a doctor educated in sciences and owner of the successful Dental Clinic, I had difficulty believing such farfetched tales, but I couldn’t be sure. When he announced that his placement had been extended by three months, I was suspicious. I suggested that I visit him at the mission. I had to face him, look in his eyes and know the truth.


‘Andres, listen to me. I am coming to meet you. Understand? You have been away for three months, and now you say your placement has been extended by God knows how much longer. I miss you so much.’


‘Out of the question. The trip is much too dangerous,’ he said, and went on to emphasize how treacherous the voyage could be. River pirates were common and often stopped Peque-Peque to rob the travelers especially ‘Blanquitas,’ white city people. I told him that challenges didn’t frighten me, and I looked forward to a little adventure. I was coming to join him regardless of the hazards. He was not pleased.


Andres, this is not up for discussion. I am coming to spend some time with you. Tomorrow morning, board the first boat down river; I will take the next flight out. We’ll meet in downtown Pucallpa at the Manish Hotel. We’ll spend the night together before heading back up river to your clinic in Curiaca in the morning. Yes, I am stubborn. You know me well.’


He recognized that my mind was made up. ’Mi amor, please promise me you’ll wear your life jacket. I know nobody else wears them, but you can’t swim. I don’t want to lose you through some stupid accident. Those Peque-Peques are not the most stable boats. Please promise me. Thank you. See you soon, mi amor. Beso.’


The flight over the Andes to Pucallpa was a dizzying turbo-prop rollercoaster ride due to heavy air turbulence created by the mountains. Relieved to hear the squeal of the tires meet the asphalt runway of Captain Rolden International Airport, I couldn’t help but wonder if the rough flight had perhaps been an omen. Pushing the negative thought to the back of my mind, I grabbed my backpack, deplaned, and made my way through the thick, humid air into the crowded airport. A quick exit led me to the waiting line of mototáxis, essentially three-wheeled, enclosed motorbikes, the main source of transportation in many South American cities. Most are modified by the operators, with more pride than skill, to accommodate a driver and two nervous passengers. They weave in and out of city traffic, coming within inches of crashing into other vehicles, each other and foolhardy pedestrians. In my experience, for the sake of one’s sanity, it’s best to shut up, hang on and say a short prayer. Arriving at the Manish Hotel unscathed, and a little surprised at the fact, I paid the driver, thanking him for delivering me in one piece. He laughed out loud and revved off with a spray of dusty gravel, disappearing into a cloud of blue exhaust.


I checked in at the front desk. I was excited to finally see Andres after several months apart. My excitement was quickly dampened by the clerk at the front desk. He informed me that Andres had not checked in yet. Disappointed, but really not surprised, I went to my room. Too exhausted to tackle undressing and taking a shower I laid down and fell fast asleep. I ate alone that evening in the dining room. I wasn’t overly worried about his tardiness because Peque-Peque operators rarely run on a schedule, and the seating was assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. If the boat was filled to capacity at the first few stops downstream, passengers upstream would have to patiently await the next one available.


The following afternoon, I located a shop that offered High Frequency radio time for a small fee. After several attempts to contact ports along the river, I finally got through to someone at Curiaca del Caco; the village where Andres was stationed.


‘What do you mean he left three days ago? They would have arrived here in Pucallpa yesterday, at the latest. What? The boat capsized! A fisherman told you three people drowned? Oh my God! Was one of the victims a doctor? Of course, yes. Of course, I understand. How would you know? Thank you.’


My mind was churning with worry. Was Andres one of the drowned passengers? No, he must have worn his life jacket, like I asked. What should I do now? Wait here and hope he shows up in the next few days or head to the marina, rent a charter and travel upstream to find him? That river is so wide and traveled by dozens of boats a day; the chances of seeing him on the water were slim to none. What if I arrive in Curiaca and he isn’t there—then what? Damn! I had to stay put and wait. That was the most rational conclusion.


I managed to fall asleep sometime after midnight. I woke to the honking of the morning traffic blasting through my open window. As I slowly opened my eyes and began collecting my senses, I was jolted to reality by a knock at the door. I jumped out of bed and opened the door to find Andres standing in the hallway.


‘Andres! You’re alive?’ I blurted.


‘Yes, and only because you made me promise to wear my life jacket. It saved my life. Without it, I surely would have drowned.’


‘Come in. I got word from Curiaca that the boat overturned. They said people died.’


‘Yes, but I managed to save a few passengers. Wearing my life jacket allowed me to dog paddle to some of the people hanging on to the overturned hull of the boat and pull them to shore.’


‘That took courage. Thank God you’re okay.’


‘I’m fine. I managed to get some sleep on the next boat heading here. We only have a few hours. The next charter for Curiaca leaves at noon.’


I quickly got dressed. We had brunch in the hotel restaurant before rushing out to pick up some medical supplies and a few provisions. We arrived at the marina just in time to board the next boat out. The forty two-hour boat ride gave me a lot of time to consider my options. If my suspicions proved true, and Andres had dared break our trust, could I ever forgive him? Latin men, especially doctors, were notorious for cheating on their wives. Many treated their mistresses with more respect than they did their spouses. Most Latinas turned a blind eye to this practice. The missing five minutes of love making was not considered a tragedy. But I am not your average Latina; I would never allow any man to control or disrespect me. Although I felt silly, I couldn’t help but wonder if Toni’s prediction had been accurate after all.


Twenty-six hours later we arrived at Galilea, a quick stop to drop off  some supplies,  pick up passengers and refuel. The captain had barely landed the vessel when I leaped out of the boat and scrambled up the dock’s rickety wooden stairs into the edge of the forest to pee. I felt like my bladder was about to explode. Unlike most of the locals, I didn’t have the courage to hang my butt over the side of the boat in order to tinkle. Not with two dozen onlookers. Feeling relieved, I returned to the dock and followed Andres up the beaten path to the village situated in an opening only a few hundred meters away. I considered returning to cool in the river, but the thought of piranhas lurking in the muddy waters changed my mind. A small cabin by the entrance to the village served as a hospice and medical centre. The lady behind the counter addressed Andres by his first name, which was not unusual since he had dropped off supplies before, but what she said set off alarms in my head.


‘Doctor Romero. Thank God you’re alive! Your wife called and was worried to death about you.’


‘Huh? Pardon me, but I am the Doctor’s fiancé, and I didn’t call here. What are you talking about?’ I asked laying the parcels on the counter.


‘Oh, I’m sorry. I received so many calls in regards to the boat accident, I was confused. Uh, excuse me. I have to run an errand in the village. Leave the supplies here. I’ll tend to them when I return.’


‘Andres, should I be worried?’ I asked, looking into his eyes for an explanation.


‘Of course not. Misinformation is common at the posts along the river. I’m surprised any of these boats get to their destination.’


‘That’s comforting. One more reason to wear our life jackets.’


The next sixteen hours to Curiaca were spent mostly in silence. Andres suspected that I did not fall for his cover up and I could tell it made him very uncomfortable. I knew my suspicions of his affair were well founded and I was going to deal with them in due time, but for the moment I was preparing myself for the encounter. I wasn’t going to head back to Lima without meeting this tramp face to face.


Surprisingly, we arrived at Curiaca on schedule. Tribesmen ran down to the dock to help us carry the supplies up to the medical cabin. They were very uneasy with me, taking quick glances at me and turning away when I looked at them. Andres explained that white women were very uncommon visitors to their village and certainly never accepted as doctors.


‘They don’t believe women are intelligent enough to become doctors. Women are only smart enough to cook, clean and tend to the children.’


‘Well, I guess it’s time to set them straight,’ I replied.


‘Please be patient. And be very careful till you earn their trust. They believe ‘Pishtaco,’ white people, kill natives and boil their bodies down to oil in order to fuel the planes they see fly over their village.’


‘You can’t be serious,’ I exclaimed.


‘I am very serious. These are but a few misconceptions they have passed on from generation to generation. These myths may sound crazy, but they serve an important role in assuring their survival over the years.’


‘Okay, fair enough. For your sake, I will tolerate it, but this will be the only place I will put up with that nonsense.’


I stopped momentarily along the path to undo one of my sandals. Andres and the tribesmen continued ahead while I dislodged a pebble that had wedged itself between my foot and the insole of my sandal. They had already reached the center of the village by the time I finally caught up to them. A nurse running up to Andres and hugging him stopped me in my tracks.


‘Thank God, you’re alive, Andres. I thought I lost you!’ she exclaimed.


She noticed me over Andres shoulder and quickly pulled away from him. ‘I mean, we thought you had drowned, Doctor.’


‘The boat did capsize,’ answered Andres, nervously. ‘But because of my fiancée’s eternal wisdom, I survived and even helped rescue a few others.’


Andres took a few steps back and put his arm around my waist. ‘This is my fiancée, Gabi. Gabi, this is Sandra, my head nurse. She is instrumental in keeping this centre operating smoothly.’


‘Yes, I’m sure she takes good care of you,’ I answered.


‘Nice to meet, Gabi.’ Sandra extended her hand.


‘May I see the medical clinic?’ I ask, ignoring her offered handshake.’


‘Uh, of course. This way,’ she answered, awkwardly lowering her hand.


In those few minutes, my suspicions of Andres unfaithfulness increased. That Sandra was the tramp was becoming clear; no assistant nurse would ever call her doctor by his first name or openly hug him in public. I was hurt, but I had many hours along the Amazon River to prepare myself for the inevitable. I wasn’t about to make a scene and leave, crying like some teenage girl that got felt up at the prom. No! I was going to make the best of the next couple of weeks, and make things very uncomfortable for the cheater and his tramp.


That night we slept in the same hut in the same bed, but Andres never touched me. No words were spoken, and you could cut the tension in that bedroom with a knife. He didn’t dare touch me or pretend to be affectionate, and he certainly wasn’t going to ask me what was wrong. He squirmed and tossed all night long. I’m sure he suspected that I was onto them, but was too terrified to tell me the truth. He was a scumbag and a coward, and I relished his agony.


Early the next morning, we were awakened by the chief’s son. He said his father wanted Andres to come to his cabin right away. We quickly threw on our clothes and ran over. The chief was waiting at the entrance and asked Andres to come in. When I tried to follow, the chief stepped in front of me and pointed outside. Insulted, I was about to say something, but was cut short by Andres.


‘Gabi, please. Remember what we talked about. Just give me a minute, and I’ll arrange to get you in.’


I stepped out onto the trail to calm down, grumbling under my breath. After what seemed like an eternity, Andres emerged from the cabin with the chief, who looked at me as if I had a penis growing out of my forehead.


‘What’s his problem?’ I asked.


‘There’s no problem. His wife, Adela, had several teeth removed by a US dental student a week ago. She has been in severe pain ever since. I was asked to have a look. I explained that you were a dentist and better qualified to diagnose her than I am.’


‘Better qualified? I am the only one here qualified to do dental work!’ I responded with indignation.


‘Yes, that’s what I meant. Unfortunately, she has an issue with you being a Pishtaco. She will not allow you to touch her unless the community members are present to watch.’


‘You aren’t serious?’


‘Actually, I am. I needed to use every argument I could to get him to agree to you completing the procedure at all.’


‘Well, isn’t that gracious of him. It’s not a sterile environment out here. Does he understand she could end up with a nasty infection?’


‘They have no understanding of our medical practices nor the concept of sterilization and infection. If the chief’s wife develops an infection after your surgery, you will be found responsible.’


I agreed to do the procedure, but not without misgivings. The chief had his wife lie on a large makeshift reclining chair in the courtyard. The village people gathered several meters away. They gasped in unison when I set out my dental tools next to the patient. Startled by the sound and the sight of my tools, Adela sprang up and began to complain to her husband. Andres again assured the chief that his wife was in good hands and that she had nothing to fear. Appeased after a few minutes of persuasion, Adela lay back down and opened her mouth wide. As I suspected, she had several un-sutured dry sockets that were infected and still contained bone shards. I administered the freezing and got to work. Fifteen minutes into the procedure, Adela became agitated, struggling to speak. I removed my instruments to enable her to communicate with Andres.


‘What is it now? Is she feeling pain or discomfort?’ I asked Andres.


‘No, it’s just the opposite. She doesn’t believe you are a good dentist because she feels no pain. All her other experiences with dentists were painful.’


‘I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or an insult.’


As the surgery continued, Adela relaxed. The crowd, feeling more comfortable, moved in for a closer look. At one point, I had to have Andres ask them to move back a meter from the operating table to enable me to do my job, and more importantly, to avoid contaminating the area more than it already was.


With Andres as interpreter, I successfully completed the surgery. The chief and his wife were pleased. I gained respect from them and the villagers that day. After that, they addressed me as Doctora and brought me the best fish from their daily catch for dinner, sparing me the bony-spined pirañas, serving me the delicious Dorado instead.


Over the next two months, we continued treating patients. I completed surgeries and spent many hours training Lucho, the boat operator and ‘community appointed’ dentist, the basics of injecting anesthetic and removing teeth. Andres was busy helping to deliver babies, treating serious Dengue Fever patients and immunizing the locals for TBC, measles and mumps.


We worked professionally together, but there was no intimacy between us. We slept in the same bed, but Andres never touched me nor made any attempt to caress or kiss me. The tension between Andres and his head nurse, because of my presence, increased daily until her unscheduled departure for Lima.


Andre was clearly upset and things would soon get worse for him because I planned to leave only a few days later myself, as soon as I was caught up with my dental patients. He would be in a bad way with no head nurse nor medical assistant. He had brought it on himself.


I was ready to leave both Curiaca and Andres for good. My suspicions had been confirmed and I had accomplished what I had intended by coming. No man was going to play me and make me a victim—not now—not ever!


I was interrupted in the middle of a tooth extraction a few days later to take an emergency phone call from my mom.


‘Toni was right. Claudia has cancer. They caught it early and the doctors say she has a very good chance of recovery. She is terrified of the chemo and the radiation treatments; so upset that she refuses to make an appointment for the therapy. Please come home and talk some sense into her?’


‘Stay calm, mother. You will only make things worse if you try to pressure her. There are alternatives to occidental medicine that she could try. I am just about finished here and was planning to head back anyway. I’ll take the next charter out and return to Lima as soon as possible.’


‘Hurry, Gabi. The sooner she begins treatment, the better. You’re seriously not considering jungle remedies are you?’


‘I think we’re losing the connection, I’ll be home as soon as possible. Bye. Love you.’


I completed the procedure, then I contacted the village Shaman to discuss natural treatments for cancer.

The jungle is a literal pharmacy with a remedy equivalent to just about anything conventional medicine has to offer. Antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, parasite control, pain relief, and even cancer medicines, can be found in the roots, bark and leaves of the Amazonian plants. These remedies are carefully guarded and  passed from generation to generation, Shaman to Shaman.


Andres agreed to translate for me. The old Shaman listened to us carefully, then asked me some questions—some very odd questions about Claudia, such as did she have any enemies or did anybody wish her harm? Andres explained that cancer was not known to the Shipibo-conibo as cancer, but rather as a curse brought on by inner negative vibes or cast from a malicious person wanting to cause deliberate harm as revenge. I told the Shaman that she was a sweet girl and had no known enemies. The Shaman grinned and asked me where Claudia was experiencing pain. When I told him, he simply nodded and sent a young boy to the jungle to gather the medicine he required. The youngster returned with a plastic jar wrapped in cheese cloth. I was instructed how to administer the medicine. I was not convinced, however, that Claudia would entertain the idea of ingesting Gorgojos (True weevils).


I returned to Lima feeling strangely revitalized and free. With Andres out of the picture, I had more time to concentrate on operating my dental practice. I was returning to a clinic I shared with Alberto, my partner, and a large clientele I had amassed over the years.


During that period, Claudia surprised me by agreeing to the unusual True weevils treatment prescribed by the Shaman. Before starting the treatment, she researched the therapy with a local doctor of alternative medicine who explained that it did have some merit and that the treatment had, in some cases, cured the patients of the cancer. The science was simple: the digestion of the live bugs by the stomach acid releases enzymes that enter the blood stream that attack and destroy the cancerous cells. After only a month, Claudia’s tumor had shrunk to half the size, and in the months that followed, it eventually disappeared altogether. Her family doctor was skeptical from the start, but couldn’t refute the results of the x-rays and blood test. Claudia was cured.


Of course I was thrilled for Claudia but my own good fortune was short-lived. Inexplicably, patients were no longer booking appointments. Much of my income, of course, depended on regularly scheduled check-ups, dental work and cleanings. Soon I was struggling to pay my share of the rent and groceries. I tried to get a temporary loan from the bank, but I had maxed out all my credit cards. The loan application was rejected.


My mom, always understanding, told me not to worry, business would certainly turn around and I could repay her then. Alberto wasn’t as kind and understanding. We shared the clinic space; we each had our own work station, but operating expenses were shared. Alberto became upset at me for not keeping up with the payments.


‘You’re three months behind on your share of the expenses. I can’t afford to support you. I’m not a bank.’


‘Do you think I’m not trying, Alberto? I don’t know what the hell to do? I even tried calling my patients to remind them of their scheduled appointments. There has been nothing but stories and excuses for not re-booking. It’s mind boggling. Everything was fine till I got back from the jungle.’


‘Maybe if you had spent more time taking care of your paying clients in Lima rather than running off to the middle of the jungle to play Mother Teresa, you could pay your bills.’


‘That’s not fair. What I do with my vacation time is none of your concern.’


‘Then what is it? I’m as busy as ever, maybe you should have considered something more appropriate as a career.’


‘Don’t you dare lay that Latin macho shit on me. I am a professional and a damn good dentist with the same qualifications you have, and twice the skill. I will figure out what is going on. And don’t worry. I will get you your precious money, but don’t ever pull that chauvinist crap on me again or I swear…’ I shouted.


Alberto stood speechless as I turned, walked out of his office and into mine, slamming the door behind me.


I was so angry and frustrated. I couldn’t believe that he would suggest such a thing. It was so out of character for him to suggest such a thing. Alberto thought pretty highly of himself, and often jokingly insinuated that he was my superior, but he never came across with such hostility before. Overcome, I put my head down on my desk and had a good cry.


A few minutes later, feeling better, I decided to do some paper work; busy work, really, to take my mind off my problems. I had been organizing files and folders in my filing cabinet for about forty-five minutes, when I felt an odd shape at the bottom of one of the folders. Removing the papers and reaching to the bottom, I pulled out a disgusting jawbone. It exuded a foul odor. Bits of flesh and hair still clung to it. The mandible seemed to be from a large rodent, much bigger than a mouse or a rat. I had no idea where it came from nor how it got into my filing cabinet. I put the jaw into a plastic bag and brought it home. Then I called Toni—the one person I knew could figure out this riddle.


I was not a big believer in Toni’s clairvoyant abilities and supernatural knowledge, but if my experience with the Shaman and Claudia’s recovery taught me anything, it was that I had to open my mind to the possibility that witchcraft could be a factor in the occurrence of the offensive mandible found in my office.


‘I am amazed that you called Toni to come look at this bone,’ said mom.


‘Well, I have nothing to lose by having him take a look at it, do I?’


‘True. But you’re so skeptical of these things.’


‘To be honest, mother, I don’t believe in fairies and ghosts, but  maybe I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.’


‘The doorbell. That must be Toni.’


I opened the front door and let Toni into the apartment. He was dressed in black, as somber as ever. He has always been sort of an odd duck, yet somehow his demeanor made him strangely interesting and mysterious. I told him about the fascinating discovery I made in my dental office. He simply frowned, seeming unsurprised.


‘Do you know of anyone who wants you harmed?’


‘No, not that I can think of.’


‘Did you do or say something to someone that may have really upset them?’


I don’t understand. What does that have to do with this jaw bone?


‘If I am correct, this jaw bone is no ordinary bone. It is a fetish.’


‘Fetish? You mean as in somebody getting their jollies by putting a rodent bone in my file folder?’


No. Fetish, from the French fétiche, which stems from the Portuguese word feitiço meaning ‘charm’ or ‘sorcery.’ Bones are a type of fetish that can embody an evil spirit or carry magical potency. Skulls and bones are used by Shaman as simple ways to connect with spirits of the dead. They can be used to cause many ailments, such as disease, pain, strife between friends, and even bad luck.’


‘Wait. You’re saying that this, this rodent bone, is some kind of curse or jinx? That someone took the time to travel to the jungle in order to have a Shaman place a curse in this bone – ah, fetish—then, broke into my office and slipped it into my filing cabinet?


‘Yes, it definitely could be used in that way.’


‘Well, that explains it. Until recently, my dental practice has been running smoothly for years. Sure, business slows at times, the usual lull around holidays, for example, but I’ve never seen it as dead as the last few months. Patients haven’t been booking their regular appointments or they’ve simply cancelled appointments for no apparent reasons. Or they just don’t show up. I was at my wit’s end trying to understand what was happening. But a curse? Toni, if what you say is true—well, that would explain everything. But who would want to hurt me? Who would go to that extent—? Wait! Unless the person was already in the jungle! Sandra! Andres’ head nurse. That tramp!


‘Gabi, do you actually believe Sandra would break into your clinic?’


‘Only one way to find out, Mother. Hand me the phone. I’m going to call the clinic. My partner, Alberto, was taking patients in his office while I was away. He will know if Sandra came to the office.


‘Alberto. Am I interrupting anything? Oh, okay,. I’ll be quick. Did Sandra have an appointment with you while I was in Curiaca? Yes, Andre’s head nurse. She did! She booked for a cleaning. Tell me, did she stay in the chair the whole time she was at your station? Yes, it was a while ago. I know it’s a strange question, but please humor me, Alberto. It’s important. Uh-huh, yeah. Oh, nothing, I’ll explain later. You’ve been a great help. Thanks. Bye.


‘Well Toni, you’ve made this Doctora a believer. Sandra went to the bathroom in the middle of the cleaning. That was her opportunity. So, now that the bone is out of my office, will the curse end?’


‘Yes, but you have now contaminated your apartment. Take the trash and that bone to the street, and have Father Fuertes bless your place as soon as possible. The evil must be chased out at all costs or your bad luck could return.’


A knock at the door interrupts Toni.


‘Who can that be?’ wonders Mom, getting up to answer the door. As she opens it, Andres steps past her without saying a word and approaches me in the kitchen.


‘How dare you. I called you half a dozen times over the months and you hung up on me every single time. How dare you leave me like that without notice? You left me with no assistant, nobody to help me with the patients. You sneak away in the morning like a thief, no warning, no explanation! What the hell is wrong with you?’


‘You know damn well what’s wrong, and it isn’t me, I don’t owe you any explanations, you cheater!’ I yelled back.


‘You don’t get to talk to me that way. I should…’


‘Enough!’ shouts Toni, stepping between us and grabbing Andres by the arms.


‘Who the hell are you? Take your dirty hands off me.’


Toni pulled Andres in tight against his chest and whispered into his ear. Struggling in vain, Andres couldn’t get free from Toni’s powerful grip. The whispers continued. In moments, Andres began to relax, to listen to Toni. He stared wide-eyed over Toni’s shoulder at me. His eyes began to well up, and tears ran down his cheeks. The two stood together for several awkward minutes till Toni finally released Andres. Toni stepped away into the living room and crossed to stare out the window.


Andres stood in front of me, visibly upset and crying.


‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ Andres turned and walked out the door.


I never saw Andres again. Toni never told me what he whispered to Andres and I’ve never asked, I guess I already knew everything I needed to know. Not long after, my regular customers started making their usual scheduled appointments, and soon my business was thriving again. Claudia regained her strength and continued the True Weevil treatment as a precaution. She was so fascinated by the outcome of her treatment, she enrolled in a school for traditional and herbal medicine. She has made several excursions to the jungle to learn the therapeutic secrets that lie in the leaves, barks and roots of the Amazon.


Over the next few years, I learned to love myself and be happy being single. There is going to be a soul mate in my future, a confident, trusting man who will love this intelligent, strong-willed, Latina. If you can believe it, an earthquake will bring us together! I know this to be true. Toni told me so.



This year I got the opportunity to travel to Lima Peru again. In fact, it’s been my fifth time visiting the South American Country. My wife and daughter were citizens of the capital until they immigrated to Canada to live with me. We take the opportunity on each visit to Lima to explore a different region of this remarkable country.

Peru has three major climate zones: Coastal, the Andean Mountains and the jungle. On this occasion, we flew from the capital to Iquitos in the Great Plains of the Amazon Basin. We journeyed up the muddy river to an adventure lodge to spend a week of exploration and discovery in the sweltering heat of the jungle. It was a fascinating experience and a wealth of resources for my literary imagination.

In my upcoming July short story I combine some of these sensory experiences with native tribal beliefs to create an intriguing mix of love, adventure and mysticism. I look forward to sharing it with you.

Amazon (2)

The Raven

English followed by Spanish

The Raven

by Ray Belcourt
(edited by Ignatius Fay)

Mom was only seven years old when she experienced her first taste of hatred and prejudice for simply being born Haida. It was her first day in grade two at the native day school in Skidegate. That morning she was sitting at her desk chatting with a friend next to her. The teacher had just walked into the classroom and was writing her name on the blackboard. Mom and her friend were so excited about their first day in grade two that they began singing and clapping a traditional Haida cradle song.

Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
What | are you for, | what | are you for?
Sgâ’na lî’ñga-i kûdjû’diañ.
Supernatural power | you are going to have | (you) are there for
Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
What | are you for, | what | are you for?

The teacher whirled on them, infuriated, grasped a wooden yard stick from her desk and lashed out at my mother. The blow struck her across the face and sent her sprawling across the classroom floor. Standing over her with the stick held high, the teacher yelled down, ‘How dare you? You dirty little savage. Don’t you ever chant that pagan nonsense in my classroom again? Did you not learn the rules of the school yet? Well? Answer me, half breed. Answer me.’
‘Yes, ma’am,.’ Trembling and terrified, Mom cowered under her desk, covering the welt on her face with her hand. The teacher dragged her to the front of the room and made her stand with her back to the class. Pulling a whip from her desk, she exclaimed, ‘There is only one way to civilize natives and it’s to beat the Indian out of them once and for all.’ She proceeded to lash my mother like a dog.’
Mom told me she remembers that pain to this day. Every lash was like a sharp knife slicing into her flesh. She fell to her knees as the teacher continued to beat her. That’s when she spotted the black bird perched on the window sill. A raven, it stared at her and she stared back at him. For a minute it felt that time stood still. She says she felt a spiritual connection, a voice telling her she was one of his creatures and she would be okay. At that moment, she said the sharp burning sting of the whip disappeared, and a peaceful calm came over her. When Mom quit reacting to the lashes, the teacher stopped the torture, thinking that my mom had passed out. She also noticed the raven on the window ledge. She ran towards it waving her arms and chased it away.
Somehow, Mom says, the raven had touched a core of resolve within her. That was the only way she could explain where she got the courage to stand up, wipe the tears from her eyes and begin to sing again…

Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
What | are you for, | what | are you for?

The teacher turned at the sound and stared in total disbelief. My seven-year-old mother looked directly into the teacher’s eyes and continued to sing in defiance. Then my mother walked trance-like towards the teacher, never dropping her stare from the bewildered teacher’s face.

Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
What | are you for, | what | are you for?

The teacher looked as if she were seeing a ghost and backed away from my mother, visibly shaken. ‘That’s quite enough now. Get back to your seat. I said, get back to your seat,’ instructed the teacher in frightened tones. Mom, not dropping a note, kept walking zombie-like towards her until the teacher had been backed against the wall.

Sgâ’na lî’ñga-i kûdjû’diañ.
Supernatural power | you are going to have | (you) are there for
Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
What | are you for, | what | are you for?

Unbelievably, at that point, the terrified teacher began to weep openly. Slumping to the floor, she begged the child to leave. Mom stopped singing and stood in silence, staring at the teacher for what seemed an eternity. The trembling teacher jumped back as mom reached over and grasped her hand, and said in the sweet voice of a child, ‘It’s okay, I forgive you.’
She let go of the teacher’s hand and calmly walked back to her seat. The startled teacher, still weeping and humiliated, stood up and raced from the classroom.
Mom told her dad what happened that day. He said she had to go back to school and listen to what the teachers said.
She did not know it at the time, but back then, if she was kept from going to the school, the family allowance payments would be stopped and her parents could be arrested by the RCMP.
At the end of that very day, the teacher was walking home through the park when she was struck by a falling pine branch. The limb struck her in the head and knocked her out cold. Her face was lacerated from her chin, across her nose to her right ear. She was lucky an off-duty nurse walking by found her and rendered first aid or she would have probably bled to death. The nurse said the teacher just kept muttering something about a cursed raven. She received thirty stitches and a hideous scar. She never returned to the school after that day. Mom has had a personal relationship with the Raven ever since.
Word of the event spread through the school faster than a scandalous rumor. Mom gained a new status amongst her friends, one of respect and awe. The teachers and staff at the Indian day school never harassed her again. Certainly, there was still plenty of abuse in other classes, but none of the teachers dared confront my mother or any of her classmates. The facts, over time, were embellished and bent, enriching the details of the story, along with my mother’s reputation.
She’s told me that her experience that day and her new relationship with the Raven empowered her, gave her the means and the courage to help other Haida who struggle against the prejudice and shame cast upon them by the white man. As time passed, her friends and family came to realize that mom had been touched by the Raven and had a very special place in the Haida community. She assumed the role of Shaman eventually, and acquired a distinguished place amongst the Haida elders. She taught us to never forget our past, but to find peace through forgiveness and the power to heal and change our future. My mother’s experience taught me to be proud of my heritage and to stand up for myself and for others who have difficulty doing it for themselves.


(Published in More of Our Canada (Reader’s Digest) November 2018)



El Cuervo

Ray Belcourt
(editado por Ignatius Fay)

Mi madre tenía solo siete años cuando experimentó por primera vez el sabor del odio y los prejuicios, por el simple hecho de haber nacido Haida. Sucedió el primer día en segundo grado en el colegio nativo de Skidegate. Esa mañana Madre estaba en su pupitre, conversando con la niña sentada cerca de ella. La maestra acababa de entrar en la clase y estaba escribiendo su nombre en la pizarra. Madre y su amiga estaban tan contentas acerca del primer día en segundo grado que empezaron a cantar y a aplaudir una canción de cuna Haida.
Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
Para qué | eres bueno, | para qué | eres bueno?
Sgâ’na lî’ñga-i kûdjû’diañ.
Poderes supernaturales | vas a tener | (tú) estás allí
Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
Para qué | eres bueno, | para qué | eres bueno?

La maestra girando, molesta, tomó la regla de madera que estaba sobre su escritorio y golpeó a mi madre. El golpe le dio en la cara, haciéndola caer al suelo. Parada frente a ella con la regla sostenida en el aire, la maestra gritó: “¿Cómo te atreves? Salvaje sucia. Nunca más repitas esa tontería pagana en mi clase. ¿Acaso aún no aprendiste las reglas de la escuela? ¿Qué esperas? Responde mestiza. Respóndeme”
“Si señora” Temblando y asustada, Madre se escondió debajo del pupitre, tapando la marca de la cara con una mano. La maestra la arrastró hacia el frente de la clase y la hizo parar con la espalda hacia la clase. Sacando un látigo del cajón, exclamó, “Hay sólo una forma de civilizar nativos, y esa es golpeando el Indio fuera de ellos”. Dicho esto, procedió a darle latigazos a Madre como si fuera un perro.
Madre me contó que hasta el día de hoy recuerda el dolor que sintió. Cada latigazo era como un cuchillo afilado cortándole la piel. Madre terminó arrodillada mientras la maestra continuaba golpeándola. Es entonces cuando divisó el ave negra parada en el borde de la ventana, un cuervo, quien la miró fijamente. Ella le clavó la mirada. Por un minuto se sintió como si el tiempo se detuviera. Dice que sintió una conexión espiritual, una voz diciéndole que ella era una de sus criaturas y que iba a estar bien. En ese momento, sintió que el dolor intenso y punzante del látigo desaparecía y una calma inmensa la rodeó. Cuando Madre dejó de reaccionar a los latigazos, la maestra paró la tortura, pensando que Madre había perdido el conocimiento. También se dio cuenta del cuervo en la ventana. Corrió hacia él moviendo los brazos para espantarlo.
De alguna manera, dice Madre, el cuervo tocó una fibra de determinación en ella. Esta es la única forma como Madre puede explicar de dónde salió el coraje para ponerse de pie, limpiar las lágrimas de su rostro y empezar a cantar nuevamente…
Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
Para qué | eres bueno, | para qué | eres bueno?

La maestra, al escuchar el canto, se volteó sin poder creer lo que estaba pasando. Madre, con sólo siete años de edad, miró a la maestra directamente en los ojos y continuó cantando de manera desafiante. Luego Madre caminó hacia la maestra en una especie de trance, sin bajar la mirada.
Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
Para qué | eres bueno, | para qué | eres bueno?

La maestra la miraba como si estuviera viendo a un fantasma y retrocediendo, totalmente confundida. “Es suficiente. Regresa a tu asiento. He dicho, ¡regresa a tu asiento!” La maestra exclamó asustada. Madre, sin perder el tono, continuó caminando hacia ella como un zombi, obligando a la maestra a retroceder, hasta que la puso contra la pared.
Sgâ’na lî’ñga-i kûdjû’diañ.
Poderes supernaturales | vas a tener | (tú) estás allí
Gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ, gûs lîñ kûdjû’diañ?
Para qué | eres bueno, | para qué | eres bueno?

Increíble como parece, en ese momento la maestra aterrorizada empezó a llorar abiertamente. Cayendo de rodillas, rogó a la niña que la dejara sola. Madre dejó de cantar y se paró en silencio, mirando a la maestra por lo que pareció una eternidad. La maestra temblando trató de escapar; en ese momento Madre le agarró la mano, y en una dulce voz infantil dijo “está bien, te perdono”
Madre dejó ir la mano de la maestra y calmadamente regresó a su asiento. La maestra sorprendida, aun llorando y humillada, se paró y corriendo salió de la clase.
Madre le contó a su padre lo que sucedió aquel día. Él le dijo que tendría que volver a la escuela y prestar atención a las maestras.
Ella no lo sabía en ese momento, pero en aquel entonces, si uno no enviaba a los niños a la escuela, la familia dejaba de recibir subsidio y los padres podrían ser arrestados por la policía.
Al final de ese día, mientras la maestra caminaba hacia su casa a través del parque, la rama de un árbol la golpeó fuertemente en la cabeza noqueándola por completo. Su cara estaba herida desde la barbilla, pasando por la nariz hacia el oído derecho. Tuvo la suerte que una enfermera que estaba saliendo del trabajo la encontró y le dio los primeros auxilios o probablemente hubiera muerto desangrada. La enfermera comentó que la maestra decía algo entre dientes. Algo acerca de un cuervo maldito. La maestra terminó con treinta puntadas y una cicatriz horrible. Después de aquel día, nunca más regresó a la escuela. Madre ha tenido una relación muy cercana con El Cuervo desde entonces.
Lo que sucedió ese día se diseminó por toda la escuela más rápido que un rumor escandaloso. Madre ganó un estatus nuevo frente a sus amigos, uno de respeto y asombro. Las maestras y trabajadores de la escuela India nunca más la molestaron. Definitivamente el abuso continuaba en otras clases, pero ninguna de las maestras se atrevía a confrontar a Madre o a ninguno de sus compañeros de clase. Con el tiempo, la historia sobre lo que sucedió aquel día fue embelleciéndose, cambiando, aumentando en detalles, así como también mejoró la reputación de Madre.
Madre me contó que la experiencia de ese día y la nueva relación con El Cuervo le dio el coraje necesario para ayudar a otros Haida que sufren por el prejuicio y vergüenza impuesto por el hombre blanco. Eventualmente sus amigos y familia empezaron a comprender que Madre había sido elegida por El Cuervo y fue ocupando un lugar muy especial en la comunidad Haida. Con el tiempo asumió el rol de Shaman y fue adquiriendo un distinguido lugar entre los ancianos sabios* Ella nos enseñó a no olvidar nuestro pasado y a encontrar la paz a través del perdón así como el poder de sanar y cambiar nuestro futuro. La experiencia de Madre me enseñó a estar orgulloso de mis antepasados, a defenderme y defender a aquellos que no pueden hacerlo por sí mismos.