“When Lions Came in Brown Boxes”

*Shortlisted, Highly Recommended, 2011 Commonwealth Short Story Contest
*Finalist, Surrey International Writers Festival
*Read on CBC Radio’s “North by Northwest”

It is 1966, in Northern Quebec, Canada. “Kap-en-ham-ica!” my younger brother Lindsay yells, the Cree word echoing around our family-owned fishing tourist camp. “Plane!” he adds for the benefit of the American fishermen. My mother comes out of the kitchen cabin, checking the food order list before she stuffs it into the outgoing canvas mailbag and walks toward the lake.

A short distance from the guests’ cabins, I cram cold, damp sphagnum moss into waxed-coated boxes then pack more moss around the frozen landlocked salmon and lake trout. The fish are always the last things packed and made ready for shipping to New York and Chicago, an eight- and ten-hour flight from our tourist camp on Quebec’s Kaniapiskau River.

The float plane has landed and taxied toward us, the pilot cutting the engine even before the right pontoon gently nudges the dock. Cree guides Dion, Ronnie, and their families are waiting on the shore, the men stoic, the women giggling, the children running around and getting in everyone’s way though no-one seems to mind. My father ties the plane to a wooden post, and very quickly, food boxes and 35-gallon gas tanks are unloaded, the space soon filled again with outgoing guests and their luggage. Within thirty minutes, Dion is releasing the ropes that held the plane to the dock as my father and brother push against the plane’s tailfin, helping it head out onto the choppy water. I grab the incoming canvas mailbag and run up the short path to our cabin, shove open the door, step over the cat, and empty the bag onto my bottom bunk bed.

Letters, week-old newspapers, and the real treasure, a string-tied brown box from the Montreal Public Library (almost 1,000 km away) tumbles out. This is what I’ve been waiting for, our twice-a-month treasure arranged by my mother so that we can sample worlds beyond this wild bush life.

Yanking on the string lets me unfold the cardboard flaps and expose two weeks worth of reading: three non-fiction books for my father, three best sellers for my mother, and six “age appropriate” books for my brother and me. In our Northern Quebec bush world, minus electricity and television, where the short-wave radio only works late at night—and not at all if there are northern lights—books remain our main source of evening relaxation after the day’s chores and card games are done.

I reach in, touching Upper Fourth at Malory Towers, Born Free, The Looking Glass War, Tai-Pan. I hear my father yelling at me to help carry food boxes up to the kitchen. Reluctantly, I close the flaps.

Finally, it’s night. Curled up in my lower bunk bed, my brother just an upward foot-prod away, the Coleman lantern hissing, there is a new book ritual I follow. I smell the pages, the ink hinting at the world that lies among the words. I position the first page so the lantern light hits just right. Only then can I begin to read.

But even as I hold the story of Elsa the lioness in my hands I know I’ll read my books too quickly, leaving me no choice but to move on from Joy Adamson and Enid Blyton to my parents’ Le Carré and Clavell. Twelve unread books that will let me dream of the day when I can live in a boarding school instead of this cabin, pat a lion instead of swat a mosquito, and eat ice cream and fresh peaches any time I want.


  1. Catherine McLaughlin - @

    Lovely. We received those brown, string tied boxes of books while living in northern Alberta in a community that didn’t have a library in the late ’70’s, early 1980’s. They arrived via our tiny Canada Post Office, not an exotic float plane. The treasure they contained was the same.
    thanks for the memory, Catherine

    • TamarackJourneyProductions.com">Joyce Thierry Llewellyn - @

      What fun to hear that this treasure of a brown box was experienced by others too. I’ve never heard this from anyone else. Must have impacted both of us to become writers. Joyce

      • Catherine McLaughlin - @

        The books came from the Extension Library at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I only found out about the service in our 5th and final year there. I was a mom at home with 2 young kids and no money to buy books and no book store anyway. (of course this was also long before the Internet) I was already doing a bit of writing, mostly poetry, but this experience sure pointed out to me what life can be like without a library. It was like taking away my food and air. And, as you know, writers read – a lot! Catherine

        • TamarackJourneyProductions.com">Joyce Thierry Llewellyn - @

          Where in Northern Alberta were you?

          • Catherine McLaughlin - @

            Falher, population 1100; 40 miles due south of the town of Peace River.

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