I don’t know what brought me back to northern Ontario in 1978. I don’t remember deciding to head there. I don’t recall thinking of it. I just wound up near Redditt where my brother had found my family before we set out for Gods Lake.

I arrived on a rainy day without much money in my pocket. After I’d settled at a small motel, I made the rounds of mills and lumberyards, the railroad and a few construction companies. I managed to get onto a crew breaking up rock at a quarry and put in a good couple of weeks. But after that there was no work to be found. I was tired of my life, really tired, and I lost my ability to hold things together. Before long I was too broke to get out of town and too wasted to care. I hung around the draft joints cadging drinks and hoping for a break. I was at a table in the corner of a workingman’s bar, almost passed out, when someone shook my shoulder.

“You need to wake up there, fella.”

I looked up and I expected to see the waiter or a cop, but the man was older, white, dressed in coveralls, a John Deere hat and work boots.

“Why?” I slurred at him.

“I don’t drink with sleepers,” he said.

“Why the hell would you want to drink with me?”

“Ojibways are the best storytellers I know. Got a story or two in you, I imagine. Don’t ya?”

“Maybe. If you’re buying.”

“I’ll buy. You just sit up and look proud.”

“Sitting up I can manage.”

“All of us got pride. You just need to remember you have it. Your people? A real proud people. Been my pleasure to know a lot of them.”

“That why you sat here? Because you’re proud of who I am?”

“Proud of your people. Seems like enough to start a conversation, anyway. Sift is my name. Ervin Sift,” he said and stuck out a hand.

I shook his hand limply, though I managed to grab the draft beers the waiter dropped firmly enough. Sift let me be, and I was grateful for the lack of talk.

“Eat?” he said after another round of drinks.

“I could, yeah.”

He ordered us steaks with mashed potatoes and beans. When the food arrived, he folded his hands right there in the bar and offered a prayer. Embarrassed, I cast a look around to see if anyone was watching.

He lifted his head, folded his napkin in his lap. “Soon’s we’re done this we’ll head on home.” All I could do was stare at him.

Over the next three days he nursed me through a killer hangover. I’d come to and he’d be at my bedside with a wet cloth to wipe my brow or a cup of soup he’d hold while I sipped it. He talked to me when I got scared, calmed me down. When I was over the worst, he helped me walk out to the porch for fresh air. All through it, he never asked a question.

Erv Sift was a farmer with a good-sized acreage where he managed a dozen head of cattle, a few sheep, chickens and an old burro left over from when he’d had horses. He ran a wood-cutting operation to augment his income. His last woodman had walked off unexpectedly, and he needed someone to take over. I drove his extra pickup truck around and cut firewood from deadfall, from slash piles the forestry guys had left behind, or from trees other landowners needed cleared from their property. Sometimes I winched dead trees out of the bush. I hauled everything to Erv’s woodlot, made sure the piles were arranged according to the kind of wood and the amount of time they’d been seasoned. It was easy work. I knew my way around timber, and I got to work alone. I delivered firewood to homes all over the area. It didn’t pay any screaming hell, but it was good, honest work, and I felt that I owed it to him. He gave me a room in the farmhouse. He was a widower. His wife had died a decade before, and he lived alone. They hadn’t had any children.

Erv didn’t drink much and he was a good hand at the stove. He never charged me for my meals. There was nowhere to spend my money, so soon I had a bank account for the first time in a long time. I fell into the routine we’d set up, and there was a degree of comfort in it. But there was a restlessness in me, something that wouldn’t settle.