Synopsis of Mender of Canoes, from The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Constance Eakins

This poem, written in staves of terza rima, tells the story of Albertine, a young woman with a troubled spirit. Albertine’s beloved boyfriend abandons her to go on a voyage to a distant land. He refuses to tell her his destination, and only says that it lies “beyond the moon.” Albertine’s malaise is further aggravated by the fact that there is a dismal drought in the part of southern Louisiana where she lives, in a small town outside of New Iberia. The water level of the Mississippi River is precipitously low. The wells, and even many of the swamps, have dried up. Parched and irritable, she walks behind her house and into the woods. She comes across a creek and follows it around a bend, where turtles lie stuck in the drying mud of the riverbed.
With a start she notices a wizened old man sitting in a beached canoe. There is a huge tear in the canvas of the boat’s bow. She asks what he is doing sitting there like that, and on her family’s property no less.

“Why, mending this canoe, of course,” says the stranger. “The creek was drying up and I ran into this rock here. It is difficult repair work but I am an expert at mending canoes. Feel free to sit and observe my expertise. I wouldn’t object to your company.”

“But there is no longer enough water in this creek and it does not reach the river for many miles yet. How will you carry it through the forest?”

“I will not attempt a portage, if that’s what you’re asking,” says the man, “especially not with these old bones.” Albertine notices that he is fashioning a patch out of twigs and mud to cover the tear in his boat. “When the mud dries,” he says, “it will act as glue and I will have a sea-worthy vessel once more.”

Albertine watches as the Mender of Canoes pathetically cobbles together his dirt and twigs. She sees in the back of his canoe a sleeping bag, a mess kit, and a large rucksack. Her aggression dims.

“If you’re going to be here for a while, it would be better if you didn’t starve,” she says. She runs back to the house, returning later with a plate of crawfish her mother boiled the night before.

“Greatly obliged, m’am,” says the Mender of Canoes. He has finished his mud patch by now, and is reclining in his boat. When it grows dark she invites him to camp on her property for the night, but he insists on sleeping in the canoe. He doesn’t want to be absent lest it rains somewhere up north and the water rushes back through the creek.

But it does not, so every day after chores Albertine comes to visit him. At night she dreams wild nightmares but the sight of the man sitting in his canoe is her salvation. Besides feeding him leftovers she drops in her handkerchief during her meals, she shares her water portion with him, and he drinks lustily, careful not so spill a drop. They speak for hours, or as long as she can get away from the house without arousing her mother’s suspicion. She discovers that he is a canoe-wanderer, traveling wherever his humble vessel can carry him, but never any further. He comes from a long line of canoe-wanderers, a once common trade that has become endangered in the modern age. He speaks with nostalgia and not a little bitterness, but is gentle with Albertine, as if trying to keep from her a dark secret that would do harm her to hear. They discuss the woods, long-distance travel, lands beyond the moon, and other subjects of mutual interest. She never speaks about her lost love, and he never discloses where he is headed, although she does gather that he has an ailing brother he wants to visit before either of them die. She doesn’t press him for details, but it is implied that the brother is lying prostrate in a canoe floating on some lake in the north country.

Albertine is afraid that if she finds out too much about the canoe-mender, he might become real and leave her behind. She does not want to be abandoned for far-off lands again. Nevertheless she hands him a letter she has written for her boyfriend, just in case the Mender of Canoes happens to encounter him at some point during his travels. The letter is a profession of loneliness, fear, and love, and nothing more. The Mender of Canoes takes it with a nod and says nothing.

One morning Albertine’s fear comes true. At the clearing in the woods she drops her bowl of porridge and it cracks open on a rock. The dry rocks and sediment have been overwhelmed by a loud, rushing stream. The water is higher than she can ever remember it, and it spills onto the shore, funneling down a precipice and over her sandals. She looks up into the sky and, sure enough, she sees on the horizon a set of black clouds messy like smudged charcoal. The ferocity of the creek portends a powerful and violent storm.

Yet despite her new friend’s absence, a sudden mirth overtakes her. That night, when she stares up at the moon, she is sure she sees the silhouette of his canoe paddling there, across the Sea of Crises, the Sea of Vapors, and through a tributary to the Ocean of Storms, carrying her letter all the way, toward the other side of the moon.