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The Maiden of Mackinac
Editor's Note: What follows are some pages of a novel I've written and laserprinted and am selling in Northern Michigan. It takes place across a 700-year period and partly within the region in which we live. It is selling in Northern Michigan because it takes place there, as well -- and because I've sold some copies of my previous novels in that area: the Straits of Mackinac. This novel will be published in trade paperback form early in 2004.
The setup: A writer named Madison is convinced by an elderly Florida woman to investigate a vague legend of an Ojibwe maiden born around 1300 and supposedly alive to this day -- and still in early middle age -- on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. The skeptical Madison sees the potential for a magazine article, and is led to a second elderly woman, on Mackinac, who plays for him a tape recording. This chapter is the first portion of that tape, supposedly in the voice of the mysterious Maiden.
I remember my entire life.
I even recall my first moment out of the womb, though others insist this is highly unlikely. It is as clear to me, though, as my image in the mirror.
My childhood is equally resonant. It was a normal-enough upbringing, though residents of this modern century would shake their heads at its deprivations. But since it came long before the pleasant perquisites that civilized society enjoys today, I frame it from a more tolerant perspective.
I entered into young adulthood in roughly average time, but that is the last milestone that I've accomplished in anything remotely approaching average.
For even though that adulthood bloomed on schedule, I have yet to pass beyond the early portion of middle age. That would not be of any concern were it not for the fact that I have lived seven hundred years.
Seven hundred years.
Actually, I've lived seven hundred and six, to be precise.
I have lived through seven centuries; through the equivalent passing of thirty-five generations (if, as some sociologists insist, a new generation is spawned every twenty years); through the development of an amazing array of inventions that have seen pestilence reduced from a drumbeat to a whisper; through tribal wars and the incursion of the white man in North America and the attendant genocide of people who had populated the land for moons beyond counting; through revolution and Civil War and World Wars; through a prolonged era of primitive existence and into the Industrial Age; and through the development of technological marvels: the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, the radio, the television, the talking picture, and the computer.
Thirty-five generations have come and gone, and though there was no such sociological concept at the time, I have been technically a part of only one: the one that grew with me in my first score of years. My generation, unlike youths of today, took no special pride in our uniqueness; we were too busy, quite frankly, striving to survive, for life in the early portion of the fourteenth century was a challenge that often bested even the strong among us. With only rudimentary shelters to protect us, the elements proved cruel and often fatal, claiming young and old indiscriminately and with alarming regularity. "Survival of the fittest" is an interesting concept, but did not fully apply back then. Fitness often carried a person only so far; continued existence sometimes also took luck.
I point as example to an incident that occurred in my thirteenth year.
It involved a boy, verging on manhood, who was called Little Bear -- so named for the claws of a dead bear he sported in a string from his belt; he claimed they provided him with the strength and speed of the forest beast. In the Ojibwe tongue, his name was Kancinci Nyamezela, but I shall stick to Little Bear. The traditions, names and dialects of our tribe are not the key points here. The ebb and flow of life and death are, along with the adage that claims "love conquers all" -- a saying to which I should take particular exception.
My long experience suggests that love does no such thing. It can fight just about any other emotions to a standstill, but seemingly has little chance in the face of nature's onslaught, the spirit world's whims, and time. Time always seems to win in the end -- snatches away loved ones, dulls love into a throbbing growth that can neither be cauterized nor shed. No, I would like to object to that saying, and no doubt should with the firmest of resolves. But part of me still hopes still dreams still waits for love to conquer.
But I digress. This is what happened to Little Bear when he turned fourteen:
It occurred in the spring, during his Spirit Quest -- a rite of passage for young male members of the tribe.
He set up his lodging for the quest -- a wigwam in a clearing in the woods, far from the tribal fires -- and began fasting, an integral part of the search for a mental meeting with the spirit who would guide him, the spirit who would serve, basically, as his mentor in life. But fasting or no, his body required a break to reduce the amount of fluids he was carrying, and he staggered from the lodging in the dark of night in search of suitable terrain on which to relieve himself.
It was while in this exposed state that a giant winged creature swooped down and plucked Little Bear skyward, and carried him out of the clearing and above the treetops and up to a mountain aerie many miles from his land and his tribe and the life he knew -- up into what later became known as the Adirondack Mountains. Little Bear lost consciousness along the way, whether through fear, anxiety, or altitude he couldn't say.
The creature deposited him in a large nest on a remote butte, and in the darkness, as he regained his senses, Little Bear could see nothing, but heard what sounded like rustling sounds nearby, and in his terrorized state imagined all sorts of things, all sorts of animals, for he did not know how high and remotely placed he had become. He was chilled, as well, for the cold was penetrating at that altitude, and he was not suitably dressed, with only a buckskin vest, leggings, a breechcloth and moccasins. What he needed was something of his winter garb: a fur covering of beaver pelts or, more fittingly, of bear.
Not long into his plight, he reached about him in the dark and felt the substance upon which he'd been deposited -- sticks and leaves and mud. He decided rightly that it was a bird's nest, and that the creature that had carried him airborne -- an eagle, he thought, although he had not seen it clearly in the dark -- had taken him to a place of exceeding danger should he find it within himself to move his legs and try to flee. He concluded that the rustling sounds were not as immediate a peril as what awaited him should he set foot over the edge of the structure upon which he now rested -- for eagles were well known to construct their nests in locales that only they or other birds could reach.
The rustling, Little Bear realized, was likely caused by the offspring of the eagle. The degree of danger in that quarter would depend, he supposed, on the young birds' hunger.
As night's darkness yielded to the first rays of dawn, the frightened boy peered frantically about him, trying to bring into some sort of visible relief the scene about him. What he sensed first was emptiness about him, nothingness beyond the edge of the shelter he was in: a daunting altitude. And then he made out the mountainous peaks around him, to the south, west and east. He leaned forward and looked to his right, to the north, and saw a sharp drop-off leading to thick, gently sloped woods that pointed homeward.
Finally, he trained his eyes forward, and saw in the shadows of the branches and leaves of the nest a half dozen fearsome faces dominated by sharply hooked beaks and by eyes that - as he looked - began to blaze in the reflection of the suddenly rising sun. They were, indeed, young eagles.
"Why am I here?" he asked them, fearing that instead of a verbal response he might be attacked and summarily dispatched for breakfast. But the largest of the six birds leaned forward and spoke in his tongue.
"Our mother says you have been bad, and must be punished."
Little Bear did not know what he had done to displease the mother eagle, and so exhibited confusion.
"Bad? Bad?" He said. "I do not think so. I have not done anything to you or to any of the birds of the forest."
The bird that had spoken answered again for the others.
"Yes. She says you have been killing the frogs of the ponds and the fish of the lakes, and slaying the beaver only for their pelts -- and that you have gone out of your way to step on caterpillars and other bugs. Any hunting of such creatures, especially for sport, diminishes their supply for the beasts that subsist on them. You are the enemy."
Little Bear shook his head vigorously.
"No," he said. "I live as one with the forest. I kill the fish for food, and the frogs for the nutrition of their legs when cooked. And the pelts are essential to our existence. Without adequate covering, we would not survive the harsh winters."
The eagle eyed the boy for several seconds.
"And the insects?"
The boy averted his eyes.
"They are small," he said, "and hard to see. I cannot help it if I destroy them when I take steps forward."
But the eagle knew the boy was lying.
"Then our mother is right," he said. "If you do a disservice to the insects, you do a disservice to the birds and beasts that require them. It will be our pleasure to show you how an insect feels."
He turned to his brothers and sisters.
"It is time," he said.
But just then a huge owl, descending from the clouds above, glided past the aerie and snatched Little Bear from his predicament -- carrying him clear of the hungry mouths of the eagles and down from the mountainous region to the forest. The owl rode the wind above the treetops for many miles, finally passing the clearing from which the boy had begun his adventure - the site of his wigwam -- and came at last to the camp of Little Bear's tribe. He soared just beyond it, to a river near which the tribe had settled for that season, and there, from a height of several dozen hands, dropped the boy into the water, and circled as the boy, suddenly submerged, fought his way to the surface. The owl then called out:
"Be as one with the forest, be as one with its denizens. Repent. Repent."
And then the owl accelerated away, into the woods it had just passed above. The boy saw none of this, for he was thrashing about in the water, fighting amid its currents to keep his head clear of the surface and his wind passage open -- fighting a terrible fear, as great as that he had experienced in the aerie, for he was not a swimmer. He had never seen the need to learn.
As he struggled, a strong ribbon of current grabbed his legs and pulled him under, and he took water in his mouth and down his throat, and felt the hand of blackness closing about him, and said a prayer to the spirits for a quick and painless passage to the other side.
But it was not to be, for several braves in the camp, witnessing the owl's action, had entered the river with canoes and traveled quickly to Little Bear. One of them jumped in and grabbed the sinking boy by the hair and pulled him to the surface, where three other braves hoisted him into one of the canoes. And there he remained, coughing and retching until color returned to his face.
Then he sat up and looked without speaking at his rescuers, and nodded, and shrugged, and smiled an embarrassed smile, and the incident passed into tribal lore.
I can attest to this, for I watched from the shore as the rescue occurred. And it was I to whom Little Bear finally spoke some hours later, relating the details of his adventure -- and it was I to whom he vowed never to abuse his forest privileges again.
But I was not attracted to Little Bear. I always considered him a friend, but nothing more. He, on the other hand, had a habit of following me about whenever he was not out hunting and trapping. It was unnerving, but at the same time reassuring -- knowing that someone devoted to me was keeping watch over me. Life in those times could be dangerous, and so a protector -- as I assumed him to be -- was not something to be disdained.
He continued in this vein until such time as Red Feather and I became a couple; then he was no longer obvious, though I often saw him in the distance, watching furtively. I always felt he would come running quickly if needed. That he would continue to be concerned for me in the face of my growing dependence on another member of the tribe told me he was either seriously impaired or eternally in thrall -- perhaps even guided in the direction of devotion by the spirit world. But whatever the cause, he was a continuing comfort.
But he was not Red Feather.
Ah, Red Feather. In the Ojibwe tongue: Usiba Olubomvu. A young man who early on decided to wear a red feather in his headband because he liked his reflection in the river better with it than without. It earned him his name as he entered young adulthood -- as he was given the name that best suited him.
I had known him as long as I had known Little Bear, and I can best describe our early relationship as that of being fast friends. We had been born in the same season in the woods north of what is now called the St. Lawrence River, in what ultimately became part of Canada. The Ojibwe were based largely in that region, where they had moved over time from the coastal region.
Since we were of the same tribal unit, Red Feather and I were perennial neighbors, living in wigwams of relatively close proximity. We saw each other almost every day, together learned to read the ancient birch-bark parchments that contained the rules and history of the Ojibwe, and together helped the older members of the tribe in various daily chores and in seasonal ones -- such as striking the camp when it was time to move to more suitable locations.
The moves were dictated by the seasons and the availability of food. In the cold seasons, we tended to wander far from other Ojibwe tribes, to increase the chances of each in securing daily sustenance. In such weather, we were dependent on our hunters and trappers, for there was little in the way of vegetation to enhance our diets; hence we required a greater area in which to track down and claim the meat that would see us through to spring.
Come warmer weather, the various tribes would set their encampments close by each other, for hunting and trapping and the local vegetation were plentiful. It was from those times that I have the most pleasant of my childhood memories, for I could play endless hours with Red Feather and other children. It was also not unusual to mingle with the neighboring tribes then - to have social gatherings to barter the harvest or smoke the pipe of friendship. I loved those gatherings, for they lent a sense of excitement and anticipation to the days that were lacking throughout the cruel winter.
My name is Lillianna. That was not always the case. In my tribe, and others, first names given at birth often yielded in time to ones more suited to the bearer's personality or physical traits.
My earliest name was Zeebee Kwayzenhs -- River Girl -- for the location of my birth. I was born literally on the shore of a tributary of the St. Lawrence River, where our tribe was settled from spring through autumn. My mother was bathing in the tributary's waters when the time came for my arrival, and I procrastinated not at all. She made it to shore and no farther before deciding that additional movement would be wasted energy. And so she delivered me there, squatting next to a convenient shrub that shielded her from the tribal encampment nearby.
If there was one thing my mother prized -- and I don't think she was too different from the tribe's other women -- it was privacy. And so it was that she and I were alone at my birth. As I said, I recall the moment. Though my eyes were mostly squeezed shut in the manner of newborns, I somehow remember the look of interest on my mother's face as she studied me. I recall a sort of murkiness in her image -- the product, I thought in my youth, of an evening birth, though I was ultimately assured by my mother that my arrival coincided with the noonday sun. So I must have opened my eyes slightly in the brightness -- and was shielded from its harshness either by nature or by an innate disposition to let in as little of this new, strange, and hostile world as possible.
Some Ojibwe tribes had name givers -- members who, through inspiration and communication with the spirits, would attach a suitable name to newborns. That was not the case in my tribe, where parents - and most often the mother -- made the selection. My mother, never tilted toward creativity, named me for the locale of our meeting, and I was known early on simply as Zeebee. Everyone called me that, from adults to playmates. But not too many years into my childhood, I was visited by a dream in which I was walking through a wilderness alone, and encountered in my path a bright light that, upon my entering it, spoke to me.
"Lillianna," it said.
"I'm sorry," I answered, "but my name is Zeebee."
"That is but a given name. Your true name, though not of the Ojibwe tradition, is Lillianna."
"What does it mean?" I asked, and the voice answered:
"Purity. It is a badge of honor you will wear as you represent your people."
"Represent?" I said. "What do you mean?"
"Time will tell. Now go, back to wakefulness, and spread the word. You are to be known as Lillianna."
I did as the voice directed, for I believed it must be from the spirits. Upon waking, I informed my mother of my new name, and of its genesis. And she -- believing my interpretation to be correct, that the dream was spirit-sent -- told the tribe's other women, who in turn directed their men in the proper way to address me.
In time, my new name came rolling off the tongues of the
tribal members as though it always had, and my old name receded
into the dim recesses of memory.
"Kutheni isikhova Kancinci Nyamezela?" Red Feather asked me. "Why did the owl save Little Bear?"
We were seated in a small clearing we had located just inside the forest bordering our encampment. It offered solitude, but was close enough to the tribe to offer safety as well. This was a pleasant early-summer day -- increasingly hot in the sun but cool in the shade of the trees.
Red Feather's words, naturally in the Ojibwe tongue, were more than a simple query. They embodied the wonder of the rescue -- which had been the talk of the tribe since its occurrence three moons earlier -- but also suggested the curious nature of it, for the owl is normally the harbinger of death, not of life. While the eagle does not, in Ojibwe lore, take on the role of a predator of humans, it was the owl's role change that bore heavy on my friend.
"Ndiyacinga, Usiba Olubomvu "
But let me not confuse the matter; let me speak in the tongue to which I have become accustomed, in the English brought by the white man from across the sea.
"I think, Red Feather, that he was exercising his prerogative in the scheme of the universe. It is his place to announce our fates, to call our names in advance of our deaths. The eagle was usurping him. The owl was not yet ready to call for Little Bear -- as he is not yet ready to call for you or me."
Red Feather gave me a startled look, and turned his head upward, scanning the sky beyond our clearing.
"You think, then, that he will be calling my name? When?"
I laughed, and Red Feather scowled in return.
"What is so funny?" he asked.
"You," I said. "He will call for you in due course, but that is likely many, many moons from now. You are liable to live to be an old, old man before he utters your name. If I were you, I would simply do as the owl suggested to Little Bear: Keep your manners where nature is concerned. Little Bear is not the only one who has stomped an insect into oblivion. Behave, or the eagle will be the one you should be looking for -- the one that should be concerning you."
Red Feather glanced nervously upward again, and then about him into the dark of the woods.
"Why look in there?" I asked. "The eagle will come only from the sky."
"Maybe; maybe not. Perhaps he will take another form, and sneak up on me on the ground."
"Silly!" I said. "An eagle cannot change form. There is nothing in our stories that indicates any such thing is possible."
"Hmmmph," said Red Feather. "I don't remember our stories telling about an eagle carrying a brave away, either."
I shook my head, smiling.
"Little Bear is not yet a brave. He has not the years or experience."
"He will be," Red Feather said softly. "And so will I."
"Yes, you will both be braves. But not if you keep upsetting the eagle."
The eagle caused neither Little Bear nor Red Feather any further problems. Both young men -- perhaps with one eye ever cast skyward -- had learned their lesson. With a newfound awareness of the order of things in nature, they became less selfish and less obnoxious in their pursuit of life, and learned to live as one with the creatures of the wild.
Little Bear eventually attempted, this time successfully, the Spirit Quest, and found the guidance through life that he sought from the powers above and around us. Red Feather followed suit, and in time grew into a strong man, a good six inches taller than my own medium height. He became an accomplished hunter and trapper, taking only that food from the forest that our people needed to survive. And so it was that he was often away from our encampments; but still we remained close, and drew closer still when it became time, in the eyes of the elders, for us each to take a spouse.
There was little question that we would choose each other, for there never had been another person of similar age with as much significance in either of our lives. We were destined to share our existence, and with any luck leave evidence of our time on Earth by producing offspring to carry on the Ojibwe traditions that had been passed to us. And so we were joined.
Those first years of marriage blend together a bit now, for there was sameness to them, but one thing stood out and still does. I failed at childbearing, suffering through four miscarriages.
"Ukuze kuyabhalwa," was the pronouncement of my grandmother, my Nokomis, after each such tragedy. "So it is written."
Red Feather wanted to try a fifth time -- longed for a brood of males, stout gwewinzenhs in his image. But I could not face another attempt, no matter how badly I wanted a girl, a kwayzenhs.
Though I wished to please my husband, the door to this one thing had been closed to me. I gave way to the wishes of the stars and the sun, to the fate selected by the power that rules over all things. No more would I seek motherhood.
My husband and I compensated for this hole in our souls by clinging to each other more closely than ever. As devoted as we had been to one another since our childhood, we were now dependent upon each other in ways I would never have imagined: both physically, through such simple means as holding hands up through the complexities of lovemaking, and emotionally, as in spending as much time as we could together, speaking to each other to the practical exclusion of all others, and sharing our existences to the point that we nearly became one.
Our families and friends rarely saw us during this period as we closed off the outside world as much as possible -- not out of design so much as out of daily need. Red Feather neglected some of the societal duties expected of him, preferring to operate alone rather than in a group on those occasions when he hunted or trapped -- securing food for our own personal needs over those of the tribe. We became hermits, living on the edge of the tribal grounds but sharing almost none of the tribal experience. We told ourselves that this was a necessary phase of our lives, to help us past the miscarriages, but it went beyond that -- extended past an acceptable grieving period into the realm of habit and, finally, selfish preference.
We became, without even realizing it, outcasts -- scorned by many members of the tribe for our anti-social behavior. I like to think we would have outgrown this tendency and returned to the fold, but fate is sometimes cruel - sometimes cuts short that which we see stretching far into the future. I had seen my union with Red Feather in those terms, but it was not to be.
"Ndive isikhova," Red Feather said. "I heard the owl."
"What?" I answered. "What did it say?"
We were lying in our wigwam, nearing sleep on an autumn night whose chill promised a turn toward winter in a week or two.
We had recently moved with our tribe to a location far removed from the other Ojibwe, as was the winter custom. Red Feather and I had helped in the move, but as was our tendency, we had set up our wigwam on the tribal periphery -- securing our privacy.
"My name," said Red Feather. "It just called out my name: Usiba Olubomvu, it said, and repeated it twice."
"Perhaps you misunderstood," I responded. I was stricken with fear, but would not show it. To do so would be to give into it.
"No. No, I did not."
"I think you did," I said. "Or else you are making it up."
"Why would I do that?" Red Feather asked.
"To break the monotony of a cold naakshig," I replied.
"I do not consider a night to be monotonous," he said, "when I can share it with you. Besides, it was you who said the owl saved Little Bear from the eagle in order to preserve its rightful role in the future -- and that it would eventually call my name."
"That was child's talk," I said. "Why put credence in the ramblings of a child?"
"But you were right," said Red Feather. "It called to me. It called my name three times. I think the meaning is clear. It is nearly my time."
I pushed my tears back and turned from my husband in a huff.
"I will not speak to someone who talks such nonsense," I said. "Go to sleep. I intend to. And on the morrow, if I see an owl anywhere near, I shall put the lie to its power by dispatching it myself. Then it will not call anyone's name -- and hopefully end your gibberish."
I set my head down firmly and feigned sleep. In due course, Red Feather's breathing became regular, and it was left to me to listen for any approach that death might try to make in the middle of the night.
But it did not come.
Not right away.
The autumn yielded quickly to winter, and the tribe relied on the skill of its hunters and trappers to keep stomachs reasonably full. Red Feather went out mostly on his own, though he expressed misgivings about making himself an easy target. He was leaning, he said, toward the group hunt, toward rejoining the cooperative venture. And so he did, shortly after an early, soft snowfall -- one that made the tracking easy. He repeated the practice in succeeding days, up until the time -- a moon into the winter -- when a ferocious storm moved in upon us, sending temperatures plummeting and making survival a matter of both care and chance. The women and children were confined to the wigwams except to gather wood, which was then used to produce warmth of sorts within each of the shelters. As usual, the longer outdoor sojourns -- to hunt food -- fell to the men.
Red Feather left with the other hunters after spending
the morning heating his layers of buckskin by the fire, a maneuver
he knew would help keep him warm for only a short time.
"I must," he said. "Stands Tall says there were signs yesterday of a herd of deer to the east. If we find them, we shall be in good shape well beyond this storm."
"Wait until the storm abates," I pleaded. "We are not desperate for meat yet; the cold poses more of a threat. Stay here, and warm, and then go when the tracking is better."
Red Feather downed a couple of spoonfuls of gruel, and shook his head.
"The herd might be well beyond our reach by the time the tempest clears," he said. "It is best to look for them now, while they are likely nearby. They may be easy to find, and if not too far, then easy to carry back here, as well."
It was not my place to argue excessively with my husband; our relationship, while one of love and respect, had as a parameter a line I would not cross: I would not shame him by being overtly needy and whiny. And so I joined him in silence through the remainder of the meal, and helped him don the buckskins that had been warming by the fire. He topped his hunting garb with a hat of fur that I had constructed for him; it gave him protection around the ears, though his face was open to the elements.
When it was time for him to leave -- to join half a dozen hunters in the search for the herd -- he took me in his arms and held me for a full minute. Then he kissed the top of my head, and whispered in my ear.
"Ndiyakuthanda," he said. "I love you."
"Ndiyakuthanda. Lumka," I whispered back. "I love you. Be careful."
And with that he broke free of our embrace, hoisted onto his back a basket with materials for a lean-to, grabbed his bow and quiver of arrows, and swept out through the wigwam opening and into the storm.
It was the last time I saw him in an upright position - the last time I saw him before fate had felled him and death was pushing its claim toward his body.
The storm intensified in the coming hours, and my sense of unease with it. I busied myself with what few chores I could think of, and ventured from the shelter several times to gather wood and try through exertion to still the demons pulsing in my brain and tugging at the slipknots holding my emotions in check.
I visited other women in other wigwams, and paid a courtesy call to my father and my mother. This was a rarity in the years since my marriage vows, for I had been devoting almost all of my energies to my husband. In fact, time spent with my parents had been a rarity since long before that -- since Red Feather and I had started dominating each other's time as teen-agers. The exception always had come with formal gatherings.
It had been during one of those -- at a ceremony to honor a visiting tribal leader -- that my father had given me his most useful and, in retrospect, telling advice. I was nearing marriage age at the time.
"Give your all to Red Feather after you are wed, Lillianna, for he is a good man and worthy of a good partner," he said. "Make his days happy ones. He has a good aura, but life is often harsh and sometimes shorter than we might wish. Do not live to regret what you could have done."
I was raised not to question my father, but did so at that juncture. There was in his tone a sadness that indicated to me that he knew something he was not telling me.
"What is it, my father?" I asked, looking him hard in the eyes.
He stared back impassively for several seconds, and then faltered, casting his eyes down and then sideways before returning his gaze to me.
"Let us just say he might have a short lifeline," my father answered.
The unsettling nature of this exchange left me worried for weeks -- until time took me far enough from it to view it in the abstract. Eventually, my mind treated it as though perhaps it had not happened. Logically, my father would not have been speaking without some basis to support his words. But there was just enough ambiguity to lead me away from the truth. Had I pursued it, I might have realized that the spirits had likely visited my father in a dream; had given him the sad word regarding Red Feather.
But denial is a comfort zone, and one I easily sought and found. And so the time came for our marriage, and the years that followed were -- with the exception of the miscarriages -- happy ones. I did indeed dote on my husband, not out of a conscious fear of his early demise, but rather out of a compelling and all-encompassing love.
Now, though, with the fury of the storm descended upon us, and with the men of the tribe on the hunt, and with the words of my husband fresh in my mind -- "I heard the owl" -- my mind traveled back to the words of my father, and the denial melted away, and I knew. The knowledge came as I tended the fire in my wigwam, and was accompanied by a sudden gust of warm wind -- I could not imagine its source, for if any wind were to work its way in, it would carry a frightening chill -- that redirected the smoke of the fire, blowing the vertical plume onto me and around me. In that moment I was overcome by a peace of sorts, an understanding that I could not fight my husband's fate, and would let the spirits carry me along like the breeze in whichever direction they chose. And in that surrender to the power that rules us, in that willingness to be wrapped within the robes of Gitchie Manito, the Great Mystery, my demons were stilled, and my love for Red Feather soared beyond the earth and the stars, and far into Ishpiming, into The Universe.
And so it was written.
They brought him back on a litter pulled by two of the other hunters. The remaining four brought up the rear, guarding against whatever other evil might befall their party. The litter was taken to the wigwam of Bezhik, the medicine man, who knew immediately that nothing could be done, that it was time to prepare Red Feather for the journey to the Great Beyond. And so Bezhik chanted his chants, and said his prayers, and bathed the wounds as best he could to make my husband presentable.
The storm abated during this procedure, and the Ojibwe, one by one, went from their dwellings to that of the medicine man, and stood outside it, staring, their view blocked by the walls of the structure, but nonetheless lending their moral support for Red Feather's swift passage to the other side.
I stayed in my wigwam until summoned. As I approached the medicine man's lodging, I looked at the faces of my neighbors, and saw in each a sadness. But my own sadness had seeped out of me in my wait for the hunters' return, in my surrender to the powers that govern us all. And so I nodded to my neighbors with a self-assurance that even now amazes me, and entered the structure that held my husband.
Red Feather was lying on a pallet by the fire; the medicine man was nearby, chanting with his eyes closed. As soon as I ducked down to negotiate the entrance and then stood to my full height, the chant stopped and its practitioner peered at me through slitted eyes, as though only reluctantly letting in such outside interference. But his look softened when he saw who it was, and he nodded. I approached the pallet and knelt next to Red Feather.
He was lying on his back, staring toward the peak of the wigwam, his eyes glassy, as though he were drugged. When I settled next to him and took his right hand in both of mine, his eyelids fluttered, and he seemed to come out of whatever stupor had seized him. He turned his gaze to his right, toward me, and searched my face.
"Lillianna," he whispered.
"What happened?" I asked, and my voice came out stronger than I had intended, filling the lodging with sound. I sensed the medicine man flinching, but Red Feather held steady. Keeping his eyes locked on mine, he took a couple of raggedy breaths and swallowed several times, working up the moisture with which to answer.
"No one has said?" he finally asked, and I shook my head. Nobody had come to console me or to explain. I had known, from my own internal senses and from the murmurs that had been passed from tribal member to tribal member beyond my wigwam, that the litter carrying Red Feather had been delivered to Bezhik -- and that nothing good would come of whatever had transpired. But the particulars had eluded me.
I could see nothing obviously fatal before me, for a blanket covered my husband's body. The only visible wounds were scratches and bruises upon his forehead, nose and chin. But the life essence was obviously at low ebb; much of him had departed, and it was only a short time until the rest would follow.
"We were on the trail of the herd," he said. "Close. We could see faint tracks. The deer had passed by only minutes before. We fanned out, with me on the right point, to the east. I was separated by the length of a large tree from the next hunter, from Sleeping Water. The wind came then, the big wind, chinoodin. It struck from the north, and knocked my feet from under me. I fell to my knees."
Red Feather coughed, but only softly, as though he had not the strength left even for that. But he summoned more words.
"It was on me suddenly, a white essence. It was unrelenting."
"What was it?" I asked.
"I couldn't see clearly at first," he said. "But then I did. It was the owl. I told you he spoke to me "
"Yes. But it is not his place to attack "
"Well, he came for me, anyway. I fought, but he wouldn't stop. He clawed, and chewed until I could fight no more. And then he left."
I felt a sudden shudder at the image of the fight, at the helplessness of my husband in the face of a great power.
"I am sorry," he said. "I was not strong enough."
He took a rattling breath, coughed softly again, closed his eyes and fell silent. I thought, in the quiet that followed, that he had passed on. But another shallow breath signaled his presence still, and he opened his eyes again.
"Gi zah gin," he said. "I love you."
I placed my hand on his face, and caressed it.
"Gi zah gin," I responded softly.
"Gigawabamin Nagutch," he whispered. "See you later."
"Yes, my love," I said. "Gigawabamin menawah. I will see you again."
And those were our last words .
Author's Addendum: The tape recording continues at length, recounting an uncommonly long life -- including how the Maiden left her tribe and wandered into our region, where she spent many years. She then describes her journey west toward Mackinac -- a trip directed by the spirits and conducted in the company of two very odd companions. Beyond that, the story unfolds in ways best left unsaid. I don't want to ruin it for anyone by summarizing.
Author's Closing note: I have several copies of this novel available in spiral-bound, laserprinted form. The cost is $15, plus $3 shipping (more for overseas), if anyone wants to read it. Just send the payment to: Charlie Haeffner, P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869