It had to be historical fiction, in a secret bunker, and involve a bag of coins. So here goes:
Synopsis: In 1758, the British expelled thousands of French Acadiens from their farmlands in Nova Scotia to places all over the eastern coastline, separating families and allowing many to die. Anastasie, her daughter Marie-Madeleine, and her cousin Marie-Josée are sent to freezing George’s Island with two hundred other women and children and must use their wits to survive.
Marie-Madeleine shivered and tugged her scarf more tightly around her thin shoulders. “Maman? Why won’t the soldiers let us inside? It’s freezing!”
Anastasie Bourq pulled her daughter in closer. “They say they don’t have space in the barracks, Marie-Madeleine. I only hope they will send your father back soon so he can speak to them in their English.”
It was November 30, 1760, and the Bourqs and two hundred other Acadien women and children shivered on the slopes of Île a la Raquette, what the English called George’s Island, after their king. The only man with them, the Abbé Francois le Guerre, had managed a warm berth in one of the warehouses – not comfortable for sure, but better than out here on the wind-swept ground.
Anastasie remembered well when the English soldiers had pulled them from their churches, how they had taken her husband, Joseph, and the men, and sent the women and children to this island. Already twenty were dead from exposure.
Anastasie’s cousin, Marie-Josée, spoke some English and went to the Barracks, seeking warmth. She had been gone for days when Anastasie heard her shouting at them across the field.
“I thought that was you.” Marie-Josée hugged her cousin. She looked demented, her clothing torn and dirty, her eyes and hair wild.“You know, you can get warm anytime you want, Anna, you just have to be nice to the right fellow.” She grinned, wobbled.
“ Marie-Josée – you’re married! What of your Jean? And the Abbé! What does he think?”
Marie-Josée waved her hand. “The Abbé is drunk – hasn’t been awake for more than an hour for days and awake he is worse about grabbing my ass than the soldiers. And didn’t you hear? Our men were already expelled, on some ship headed somewhere. We’ll never see them again.” She coughed, wiped her nose. She brightened. “But I can help you. I brought food – the men bring it to pay. It may hold you until they bring the ships for us. Unless you want to come in? There’s lots of work …”
Anastasie shuddered. “Non, merci. But the food would be welcome.”
Marie-Josée nodded and put down a bundle tied in a ragged cloth. “I can get more, cousine. This is all I could take with them watching. And, Anastasie, I hear the soldiers talking. There are bunkers all over the island. If you find one, maybe you will be warmer, heh? But lookout for pirates. They shelter there, too.” She turned away. “Bonne chance, Anastasie. See you when the boats come.”
Anastasie spoke to the other frozen women and children on the field. A few came to search with Anastasie and Marie-Madeleine.
“Let’s go, bébé. Perhaps we can find a warm place to hide from the wind.”
They walked around the front of the island, the side facing the ocean, away from Halifax harbour. The wind burned their faces, but there were no soldiers.
Marie-Madeleine called out. “Look, maman! There’s a hole in the hill!”
There was – a dark cave that pointed right out to sea. Anastasie poked her head in, to discover it was a long, curving bunker which seemed to run right around the island. Little holes dug through the wall allowed some light, and she could see several doors, but there were no other people inside. She called the others and they flooded in. As the wind lessened, families spread out along the bunker. Anastasie and Marie-Madeleine sat alone; their only kin were the men, gone now, and Marie-Josée, up with the soldiers. They found a dark corner and ate Marie-Josée’s cheese and bread and dried meat. Afterward, Marie-Madeleine fell asleep against the wall, wrapped in her scarf and finally warm. Anastasie explored the bunker, stepping carefully in the gloom. At the farthest end in the darkest place, as she ran her hands along the wall, she felt a spot of loose crumbly dirt. Curious, she dug at it. In the back of the hollowed out space she touched a cloth bag. When she pulled, out tipped out heavy circles. Coins.
Anastasie sat down against the wall with a thud. Saved!
She opened the seam of her dress hem here and there, pushing the coins in, working in the dark. She had to keep them secret. They had their families; she was alone. When she had them all hidden, she woke her daughter.
“Come, bébé. We must tell more about this place.”
They walked back to the encampment and called to the others, leading them to the bunker. Warmed, the families started to talk to each other about their expulsion and the loss of their land. They wept and raged, prayed and sang. They shared food and clothing as they had before. Once the Abbé visited, but not for long.
Anastasie kept her coins hidden. There was nothing to purchase, anyway, except with her body. Finally the soldiers came and shoved them back to the field.
“Look, Marie-Madeleine! The boats are here!”
“Will we see Papa?”
“Merci Dieu, I hope so.” Anastasie’s heart soared.
The women cheered at the sign of the boats, crossed themselves.
“At last we will be free from this frozen land. I hope we go south,” a woman said. Her fingers were so frostbitten her daughter had to dress her.
They loaded eagerly onto the boats, except for Marie-Josée, who begged to stay behind. Perhaps she’d overheard the soldiers. After two days of heaving waves and sickness, they landed further north instead, in snow-covered Cape Breton. The men were not there.
Anastasie’s coins let her rent a tiny room in Sydney, keeping she and Marie-Madeleine alive until the boats came again to take them to New Orleans. There they found that their men had been recaptured, to repair their dykes and farms. None of the English knew how, and they needed food.
Anastasie counted her coins. Perhaps she had enough for their passage back. Back to Acadie, and Joseph.