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The Queen of Unforgetting

ONE

She Prostrates Herself Before Frye

April 1973

No month goes by that I don’t think of the big man who pulled me out of the lake when I was thirteen. Not that it’s

become a ritual or anything; I don’t observe a minute of silence every fourth Sunday. But my brain has fixed a tiny

shrine around the moment so I can always visit and worship. The essence of the moment: my body plunging out of

the sun-saturated afternoon into the chill water. Down, down, as if there were no bottom. It was barely six feet

deep, but I was only five-one. You don’t need much water to drown in. I was an inexperienced swimmer and I

thought kicking my feet furiously would get me up and out. So why was I pulled down to the bottom like a lump of

cement? I could hear the other kids playing above me, their voices an echo in a conch shell, while my feet

thrashed wildly in the heavy water, producing no noise and no waves. I was locked in the lake’s embrace. My

breath escaped me. Would my soul flee the vessel of my body? Was this how I was going to die?

I was too young to understand the concept; it didn’t occur to me that I might be mortal.  A large hand grasped my

arm and pulled me up. I must’ve gasped for air. I don’t remember the moment of new breath pulling into my lungs.

I hope I thanked him, the huge man who’d been horsing around with his son on the

dock. At least six-foot-five. Wavy brown hair, stubbly beard. Later, when I asked who he was, some kid said they

called him Tiny. He was a sports fisherman. What can I say about the irony? He fished me out of the drink like the

catch of the day. No one else had noticed I was drowning. The day rolled on undisturbed, while I quietly sank to

the bottom of the lake in my new flowered bathing suit. In two earth-shattering seconds, Tiny pulled me out of the

foaming water and deposited me on the dock, a few short feet away. He smiled at me with big white teeth amid the

dark beard. A mischievous smile. What did he mean by that smile? Don’t thank me, I would’ve done the same for a

dog? Do something with your life now that you’ve got a second chance?

In some cultures if a person saves your life, he’s responsible for you forever. He must keep watch, feed you,

protect you, as if by saving you in the first place, he thwarted fate and must now take responsibility for his

foolishness. It’s like that sign in the china shop: if you break it, it’s yours. He shirked his responsibility to me and

the universe when he walked out of my life.

Maybe he could tell just by looking at me that I was going to have problems. Chubby little kid, always thinking too

hard. Maybe his goofy smile on the dock said: Look, kid, I’ve done my bit. You’re not dead. Now it’s up to you. 

Thanks, Tiny.

Since that day at the lake, twelve years ago, I feel like I’ve had to pull myself out of the water by the scruff of the

neck, over and over. And here I am. Not dead. I wonder if Tiny would approve of who I’ve become. It took more

effort than I thought possible, but it was all worth it.

Because I am a scholar. I don’t say that lightly. With almost no help from anyone, I’ve worked hard to get where I

am. And where I am is sitting across from the great Northrop Frye. World-renowned man of brilliance in our own

little Victoria College. He’s still a man (though he’s what, now—sixty?). Before entering his office I released my

blond wavy hair from its clasp. I catch his eyes straying through the steel-rimmed spectacles to the bit of cleavage

winking above the V of my sweater while we discuss my thesis proposal. I’ve lost all my baby fat and to my own

astonishment, have become—pardon the immodesty—a knockout. But no, he’s too old to be interested; it must be

astigmatism. He’s made a career out of his genius. I don’t begrudge him that. You have to use what you’ve got. It’s

all there is. He’s a soft-spoken, serious man in his vest and brown tweed, though not without some dry humour in

his lectures, which he delivers deadpan. A halo of fine white hair emanates from his large skull, like ideas

hovering. 

He listens with attentive hooded eyes while I speak. I wish I could read his mind. Especially when I tell him what I

want to base my thesis on: Brébeuf and his Brethren, a book-length poem about Jean de Brébeuf written by Frye’s

own mentor, E.J. Pratt. I propose to demonstrate how the poem makes use of Brébeuf’s written account of his

experiences among the Huron in seventeenth century Ontario. My emphasis will be on the motif of redemption.

I’ve chosen my topic with care, knowing Frye will be interested in Pratt’s work. It was Pratt, born in a Newfoundland

fishing village, who recruited Frye to the University of Toronto, thus securing the great thinker his position for life—

though Frye never actually earned a doctorate. This is what I want for myself, a place I can call home: a position. If

I can convince Frye to supervise my thesis, I will almost certainly be offered a spot in that firmament.

The problem is the competition. Frye is a celebrated scholar and must be inundated with requests like mine. I’ve

caught him at the tail end of his office hours on the day before an exam. Less chance of other students floating

about. His office is plain for a great man, a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookcases behind him.  Hills of books and

student essays loom upon his rambling L-shaped desk.   Only one adornment—a disquieting portrait hung on the

wall to my left: a balding man with sad, pensive eyes, the features defined in thick strokes of brown,

“You’ve been very successful with William Blake,” Frye says coyly.

I’ve been waiting for this turn in the conversation. During the winter, the College announced that my essay had

beaten out all the other masters students to win the William Blake Award. Prestigious, with a little cash on the side,

it was a competition for the best essay on the poet. The chairman of the award, a desiccated professor named

Garrick, presented me with a cheque in his tiny office in a corner of Old Vic. I’ll never understand the alumni who

fund these things. I can’t imagine having that much money to spare. At least people sat up and took notice when I

won. It gave me the nerve to approach Frye.

“I thought you might continue with him.”

I won’t tell him I’m sick to death of Blake and his winged angels. Frye wrote the seminal book on the ‘mad poet.’

Instead, I say “Blake will never want for scholars. I’d like to work on something closer to home. A Canadian poet

with a Canadian story.”

He nods and I’m encouraged to go on.

I explain my plan to research the Jesuit Relations, the journals the French Jesuits kept over the forty years they

ministered in North America. Also Francis Parkman’s enthusiastic biography of the Black Robes, with special

fawning over Brébeuf. But Frye has read everything ever written, like a giant indiscriminate brain, and is too polite

to admit familiarity with my material.

He watches me intently as I rattle on about my research. “Some critics see the poem as anti-Christian,” I say, “and

write about Pratt’s sense of irony. They say he was repelled by the mission among the Hurons, and that he wrote a

satire. I strongly disagree.”

Frye listens politely.  I continue.

“There’s not a whit of irony in the whole poem. Rather it’s reverent. I think those critics are projecting their own

aversion for the Jesuits onto Pratt. From what I’ve heard, he was a generous, unpretentious man…”

I wait for confirmation from one who knew him well. None comes.

“…who brought to life an heroic period in our history. With great compassion. I take the poem at face value. And I’ll

discuss the imagery throughout, especially the role of fire and the cross.” 

Frye spends a good deal of lecture time expounding on religious symbolism.

His expression hasn’t changed but I note a tiny arch of one eyebrow. He’s too private a man to jump in with an

anecdote on Pratt or even acknowledge their relationship. They were both United Church ministers, for heaven’s

sake.  Perhaps I’ve presumed too much in coming here.

“Your project has much merit,” he says, shifting slightly in his chair. “Your topic might be more in Dr. Watt’s area of

expertise. You know Dr. Watt?”

Yes, I know Dr. Watt and he’s not Frye. I sit chastened by my own thoughts—the folly of assuming the great man

would take on a lowly grad student he barely knows. Maybe I should’ve stuck to Blake. Despite my presence in

Frye’s classes, I find it hard to speak up. I am happy to roll back my skirt to reveal a crossed leg at my desk, but

loath to voice ideas that might expose what lies within. I gather up my nerve.

“Have you been to the reconstructed fort, Sainte-Marie, near Midland?”

He nods, patiently. He probably knows its history, but allows me to wax eloquent about the timbered structures

rebuilt according to old drawings and archaeological findings. I describe the smell of wood smoke hanging in the

air, my main memory of the place. The people wandering the site in period costume, chopping wood, baking

bread, as if they were in a time warp and Brébeuf himself might step out of the chapel at any moment in his long

black cloak, large crucifix around his neck.

“He was a very tall man,” I say.

“Yes, Miss Montrose. A giant, for his day.”

Frye surprises me by using my name. Why shouldn’t he know my name? I’m the most attractive woman in his

classes—grad students tend to be mousey. Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my long legs and my curtain of hair,

but they’re a backdrop for my real life, which goes on inside my head.

I’m intent on convincing him of the merit of my thesis, so I keep at it. He’s too polite to cut me off. Perhaps he will

tell his wife tonight that a pretty but boring young student kept him from coming home earlier.

“Frankly, I was hoping… because of your connection to Dr. Pratt, I might get some deeper insight into his poetry.”

“I can discuss his work with you, but I wouldn’t want to encroach on your own ideas.” He speaks in a monotone

and whatever he says sounds as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I can give you copies of the essays I’ve

written about him.”

I’ve lost the battle. Because that’s what it was. I can see my future drifting away down a river. It’s lodged in a brittle

wooden box approaching the rapids. I know I’m in a crisis when my brain turns to water imagery.

“If you don’t mind,” I say, defeated, “you knew him personally. What was he like? I picture him as a very serious

man. All that Newfoundland angst.”

Finally a hint of a smile around his lips. “No, no. Not serious at all. Very gregarious, in fact. An exuberant teller of

stories. And jokes.”

“I’m astounded! The sea poems, the tragedy of the fishermen—from what well-spring did he write those?”

“He was a complicated man.”

“Those poems….  People drowning in the dark, the terrible sadness. I always remember the opening of “The

Drowning”:

The rust of hours,

Through a year of days,

Has dulled the edge of the pain;

But at night

A wheel in my sleep

Grinds it smooth and keen.”

I feel an inexplicable well of tears rising in me, the picture of my young body standing on the bottom of the lake in

the new flowered bathing suit, the air expelling from my lungs. “I nearly drowned once… and ever since, I find it

hard…”

I feel my face grow hot. Why did I tell him that? I can’t look at him. Of all people, he’s the last person who needs to

know anything about my personal life. How did I get here, into this chair opposite the man they call Buddha? Ah

yes. Now I remember. I am the queen of cobbling together disparate pieces of debris to manufacture a unified

whole. Here is the aimless flotsam I wove together:

the fact that I developed an instant fascination when I read about Brébeuf in grade school;

the fact that Pratt wrote an epic poem about my hero;

the fact that Pratt was a dear friend of Frye’s;

the fact that I want Frye to supervise my thesis;

the fact that Brébeuf was a giant in his time and could easily have plucked me out of the lake.

Alright, the last point is a kind of subheading of the first. But if you draw them all on the same page, they become a

map. I was hoping the map would guide me to my future, but it suddenly seems archaic, like the names written

there.

I am about to rise, demolished, from my chair, when the great man clears his throat. “Well, Miss Montrose, write up

your proposal and drop it in my box. Come back in three weeks. We can discuss it then.” His impenetrable eyes

look tired; I have worn him down.

I feel my mouth fall open, with no sound emitting. “Thank you,” I croak, and steal away before I can say something

that changes his mind.