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The Maiden of Mackinac: The Gathering

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. Anyway, I've added these chapters to The Odessa File mix to keep readers busy.

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 part of that tape, supposedly in the voice of the mysterious Maiden.

For a look at an earlier chapter, click here.

For a look at a later chapter, click here.


The Gathering

"Come, come, come, come, come," said the little wizened old man. He was, I thought, the smallest person I had ever seen - and the strangest. He had all the requisite features to qualify as human -- eyes, ears, nose, arms, hands, legs and feet -- but they were all odd: incredibly bright blue eyes, huge ears, a conversely tiny nose that was little more than two nostril holes, long arms, large and hairy hands that I could see were each short by one digit, thick stumpy legs, and immense feet -- or at least immense footwear. The hair on his head was thin and going to white, but was much thicker as it descended from sideburns and widened near his chin, stopping just short of a beard. He was, judging by the deep crevasses of his forehead and cheeks, a being of significant age.

He was speaking in my native tongue, though he clearly was not of my tribe. We were in a forest glade, on a day uncommonly warm for late autumn. That very morning had brought a frost, but the midday heat -- despite a breeze and dense clouds that muted the sunlight -- was reminiscent of summer's depths. Then I realized that this was but a vision, and that I had once again escaped the boredom of daily routine by paying a visit to the world of my imagination. And in that imagination I had encountered warmth and this little old man, who had popped out from behind a tree as I picked berries on a path in the woods. The open glade we now traversed was drearily damp and, I thought, a little foreboding.

"Come, come, come, come, come," he said again as I hesitated. His voice was on the high side - a little reedy, I decided. "We must hurry if we are to make it in time."

"Make what?" I asked, for I had no idea who this odd little fellow was or where he was taking me.

"Why, make the gathering," he said. "They are all waiting, you know. And still you tarry. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Such a lackadaisical attitude. Please pick up your pace, Lillianna, or they might disperse. We can't have that. It would be such a shame, such a shame."

"But … where are you taking me? What gathering?"

"No questions, no questions," he insisted, waving me forward. He was ahead of me by a dozen of my paces, despite the short nature of his steps.

"Okay, okay," I said, for I saw no choice. This might have been my vision, but he was clearly directing me, and I had no other thoughts of where to go. And so I hurried, closing the distance between us as he strode past the glade and onto a narrow path that required us to fend off impeding brush and branches.

"Can I ask how far?" I ventured after a few minutes of this journey.

"Not far, not far," he said. "We shall reach the doorway soon."

"Doorway?" I said. "Then we are going to somebody's shelter?"

"Shelter?" he asked, and then he laughed. "Hee, hee. Hee hee. No, no. Not a shelter. Quite in the open. Oh, my, yes."

He did not slow during this exchange -- just kept pushing aside the annoying brush and moving forward. Finally, we reached another clearing -- one brighter than the last, as though the clouds above had dispersed in those minutes just passed. I looked up to confirm that assumption, but saw a thick cloud cover and no sign of sunlight breaking through. And so I was mystified as to the source of the brightness.

And then I realized that this glade -- perhaps thirty yards square -- was ringed by torches affixed to the perimeter trees. The torches numbered in the dozens.

The little man hustled toward the center of the clearing, stepped up nimbly onto what looked -- to my quick perusal -- very like an oval platform, and turned quickly to motion me ahead, for I had stopped but three or four yards inside the forest line.

"Come, come, come," he urged. "They are waiting."

"So you said," I answered. "But how much farther? And why is this clearing illuminated like this?"

"No farther, no farther," he said. "We have arrived. They are here. But come, come. You must join me here, in the center."

Totally mystified, and slightly fearful, I took small steps forward, peering about with some anxiety as I moved, waiting for … I knew not what. Perhaps I thought someone or something would spring forth from the forest; perhaps I moved cautiously because this vision, this personal possession of mine, seemed to be out of my control.

"Come. Give me your hand," the little man said as I closed to within a couple of yards of him. He was crouched on the platform, holding his right arm out to me.

As I moved closer, I reached forward and grabbed the hand and squeezed it tightly, as though seeking safety there. But instead of safety, I found something odd as he gently pulled and I stepped up onto the platform - so odd that my breath caught.

As soon as I gained a foothold, the clearing began to change its shape and texture, and the spot upon which I stood rose a few inches in its center. The little old man and I were suddenly on a slightly curved, convex platform, and the area in front of us was evolving from a vacant glade into one with a gathering of living figures: beings similar in size to my partner, and larger people, and deer, bears, wolves, rabbits, coyotes and other animals. The people were seated on the ground and on stumps and blankets, while the animals stood silently by, scattered among them, waiting politely for whatever was to transpire. And at the front of this crowd, directly before me, was a large creature unlike any I had ever seen -- a huge black bird with a frightening hooked beak and dark eyes. Its wings, which I immediately supposed to be of significant span -- perhaps ten feet -- were tucked into its side.

"Whatever is that?" I said with what I'm certain was wonder.

"Yes, yes," said the little old man. "That is the thunderbird. Amazing, yes? A magnificent being."

"Of course!" I said. I had heard of such a creature, but had never seen one. The thunderbird is part of Ojibwe legend, supposedly so powerful -- said to kill with lightning from the eyes -- that he can never be around humans without causing great tragedy. But that wasn't the case now. This thunderbird was looking directly at me, and yet I was still standing; there had been no fatal bolts.

I glanced down at the little man, intending to add something to my exclamation, but he was not looking at me, and I thought paying me no attention; his eyes were on the thunderbird, as though awaiting something from that quarter. I followed his lead, and turned back to this strange winged being, and waited. It did not take long for the thunderbird to speak, in a deep, resonant voice that carried beyond us to the trees that stood to our rear, and echoed back.

"Welcome, Lillianna," the voice intoned. "We have been awaiting your arrival."

The creatures seated around the thunderbird murmured what I took to be assent; the sound was a cacophony of voices, grunts, growls and, in the case of the wolves, some muted howls, but it all struck me as positive.

I waited for the thunderbird to continue, but he and the crowd seemed to be waiting for something themselves. I heard the little old man whisper to me, and so I leaned to my left, down a little way toward him in order to better hear his message.

"What?" I said, trying also to whisper. But in the silence, the word rang out like a cannon shot, causing me to flinch. I heard titters from the group around us, and felt a flush of embarrassment.

But the little man responded, and somehow managed to keep his words between us -- keep them barely audible.

"They expect a certain level of politeness," he said. "They're a good lot, and very steeped in etiquette. So tell him 'Thank you.'"

I nodded and tried to whisper my gratitude to the little man.

"Thank you," I said to him, and again it came out loudly, and this time seemed to echo.

There were again a few giggles from the onlookers, but then a brief silence until the thunderbird spoke again.

"You're welcome," he said.

I heard the little man chuckle, and then straightened myself for whatever was to come next.

The thunderbird, who had been seated, legs bent, seemingly resting on his rear end, stood on his two legs and stretched, his wings thrusting outward. The movement, sudden as it was, knocked a man on his left and a bobcat on his right over onto their sides. The thunderbird twisted his head left and then right at the mayhem he had caused, and seemed momentarily flustered.

"Oh, sorry, Samuel. Sorry, Constantine. I just had to stretch. My fault. Here, let me help you up."
He brought his wings in tight to his body and somehow managed with his beak to grab hold of the man -- Samuel -- first, and lift him upright as he had been; then he did the same with Constantine.

"There. Okay?" he asked, and they both nodded, although Constantine gave what I took to be a dissatisfied glare. I reasoned that such a glance was the most he might dare, for as polite as the thunderbird seemed, he was a ferocious-looking figure, fully seven feet tall when on his legs. His face was foreboding, especially with that curved, pointed beak, although he possessed something akin to what I had noticed in the little old man: a crinkle around the eyes, as though he was enjoying life.

"Now then," he said, turning his attention back to me, "as I was saying, we are most gratified that you have graced us with your presence, Lillianna, for you are well known in these parts for the existence you have lived for so long in the woods hereabouts. I know we have never met, but that is only because we don't normally mix with members of your species."

I was confused at that, and I'm sure I looked the part as I shifted my gaze from the thunderbird to the man he had knocked down and, indeed, to others in the crowd whom I would have classified as people.

"I'm sorry, sir," I said, "I don't mean to sound…"

But I was stopped.

"Animikee," said the thunderbird.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"Animikee," he repeated. "Not 'sir.' My name is Animikee. That is what everybody calls me."

I nodded, and started again.

"Okay. Animikee," I said. "I don't mean to sound contrary, but I do not understand how it is that you 'don't normally mix with' … um … well, I guess with people. That's what you said, right? With members of my species? Because … well …"

And with that, I motioned with my right hand toward the crowd, specifically toward the people in it. I don't know how many there were, but a couple dozen at least, perhaps evenly divided between male and female, all wearing garb that looked perfectly normal for the forest: buckskins and other hides of various kinds.

Animikee looked around him, and then back at me.

"Ah, I see," he said. "No, no. It is as I say. These folks here are not of your species. They have merely chosen these guises to make you feel more at ease. I am afraid that if they had not, you might have been unsettled, for they…"

He leaned forward at that juncture, and adopted a whisper that barely reached my ears.

"… They are terribly frightful to the untrained eye. But they are a decent bunch, as evidenced by the thoughtfulness they've shown in presenting you with this civilized front."

He pulled back, and I nodded.

"Very well," I said. I wanted to pursue the matter -- to find out what manner of creatures they might be -- but did not wish to overstep the obvious etiquette of the situation. And so I dropped it, and -- after one more look about the grounds, specifically at some of the people (most of whom I noticed were wearing smiles) -- focused my attention on the thunderbird.

"So …" I said.

"So," said Animikee. "I suppose we should get to the reason we brought you here."

I nodded again.

"You have heard, have you not," Animikee said, "about the Great Turtle?"

I was aware of various stories and lore -- staples of numerous tribes -- related to the sacred nature of the turtle, but was not certain to which he was referring. And so I neither nodded nor shook my head.

"Just so," he said after observing my response. "The legend to which I refer is one embedded in the tradition of the Oneida tribe. It says that the earth itself was built upon the shell of the Great Turtle, a powerful figure in their worship. This turtle, the story goes, was the only creature with strength enough to support the immense weight of this world and to carry it through the ages."

"I see," I answered. "I'm sorry, but I am not steeped in Oneida tradition. As you no doubt know, I am -- or was -- Ojibwe."

"Oh, you still are," Animikee said. "Your unusual circumstance might have created a situation in which you had to separate yourself from your people, but that does not separate you from your roots or your ancestors. You will always be Ojibwe."

I had not thought in terms of my tribe or of my place in it for a long time, but the sincerity and definitive nature of this statement brought a wave of emotion over me, and I felt my eyes welling. Self-consciously, I wiped the tears away.

"And beyond that," Animikee continued, "we are gathered here to tell you -- to urge you, I guess would be a more kindly approach -- to journey to the northwest, for there you will eventually be reunited with the Ojibwe. You will arrive first, though, and by virtue of that, establish a toehold that engenders their respect. By being present when they arrive, you shall be deemed to have rights you could not enjoy before as a mere widow. Your age, should it once again become common knowledge, will not be looked upon with jealousy or envy, but with a certain reverence. You have but to leave here, depart this land of the Seneca and Cayuga -- and, soon, the land of settlers from overseas, with all their greed and disease -- and you shall find the destiny that the spirits have fashioned for you."

Animikee fell silent, and a low murmur circulated in the crowd. I deduced from the anticipation in the faces before me that I was expected to speak, and so I did.

"You say to go to the northwest," I said. "The spirit of my husband once told me the same thing. But that is very general. Where, exactly, am I supposed to be heading? How do I get there?"

"Good, good," I heard the little man next to me mutter. "She is interested. Good, good."

I looked at him with amusement, but also annoyance, for he was distracting me from what was, indeed, interesting me. I swiveled in short order back to Animikee and waited, eyebrows raised in question.

"Yes, good," said the thunderbird. "In answer to your first question, you should head for a stretch of water between two great lakes -- actually at the tip of one, near the border of the other -- wherein lies an island which, lore has it, owes much to a turtle."

I smiled. We were back to that.

"A turtle?" I said. "This land of which you speak is not Oneida territory, is it?"

"No, no," said Animikee. "Legend has it that the island was formed on the back of a giant turtle, though one clearly not as large as that employed by the tale I related. This turtle has been referred to by various names, but the most popular rendition is Makinauk. In any event, it is there that you should go and set up quarters, for that is where your people -- the Ojibwe nation -- will eventually gravitate."

"My tribe was but one of many components," I answered, "one of many Ojibwe units. Together, our people number in the thousands. Is this island destined to be the home of so many? Is it that large?"

Animikee shook his head.

"Nay," he said, "but it will be the center of the Ojibwe world after the migration begins, and it is there - in a place of beauty and mystery -- where you will find an association with the elements and the spirits that bodes well for you. You shall find acceptance by your own people, and yet privacy -- a shroud of secrecy, if you will - that will protect you from outside interests when they come forth. You will find nourishment in the bounty and love offered by the spirits, and return that love to the land and life that surround you."

I thought Animikee was waxing on the vague side now, and so -- since this was supposed to be my vision in the first place -- I became slightly impatient. I wanted, for the first time, to bring this experience to an end.

"Animikee, with all due respect," I said, and nodded to show my obeisance, "I gather this journey is a long one, for I am not familiar with 'two great lakes,' as you say. I know only the rivers and the small lakes of our region. I have heard of a larger lake to our north, but you said this was to the northwest. Exactly how long would this journey take, and at what peril to me?"

Animikee smiled, as well as a beaked creature can, and answered thusly:

"It is very far as the crow flies, and even farther as the human walks. It shall take you at least two full seasons, but you will not be alone. The spirits who gave you longevity have secured for you companions who will offer the gifts of personal exchange and protection, and will also provide for you a means across the significant bodies of water that you encounter on your travels."
"What companions?" I said. "I have no such relationships. I live alone in the wild."

"You do, indeed," said Animikee, "but that will change in short order. You will be taking with you Young Tobias and a creature named Xanthrox. However, the latter prefers to be called Kingsley, in that he fancies himself the King of his species."

I looked around at the crowd in front of me -- the apparent people and undisguised creatures flanking and standing behind Animikee -- in an effort to discover who owned the two names to which he referred. But all I received were blank stares back and, in the case of a coyote and a bear, a pair of shrugs and sad (I thought) shakes of their heads. Unable to determine the identity of Young Tobias and Kingsley, I turned back to the thunderbird.

"Very well," I said. "Just who are these two?"

"They are with you already," said Animikee, which prompted another mild murmur from the crowd.

"With me?" I said. "I don't think so. As I said, I live by myself. I have had nobody but Nagamon with me, and now she is gone."

"No, no," said Animikee. "I mean that they are with you now. You are standing next to Young Tobias, and on top of Xanthrox."



Rarely in my long life had I experienced anything so disorienting, though the feeling was but short-term. The initial confusion gave way to understanding of one half of the equation, for I was standing next to the little old man with the white mutton-chop whiskers. The irony was not lost on me: despite his age, or apparent age, he was known among this gathering as "young": Young Tobias.

I looked down at him with a neutral expression, trying to decide how I felt about the thunderbird's words. If I were to believe them, I would be taking a journey to the west and north with this little fellow, despite the obvious obstacle: he was but a role player in a vision I was experiencing, not part of the real world I inhabited.

Young Tobias smiled sweetly back at me, and I noticed he had a fine set of tiny white teeth -- uncommon in someone so clearly aged. But perhaps I was wrong about his age. Why would they be calling him "young" if in fact he wasn't? But it was not a matter I dwelt upon at much length, for the other half of the equation begged my attention. I pulled my gaze from the cheery old face of the little man, and set it upon Animikee.

"Young Tobias I understand," I said, "but what do you mean I am on top of Xanthrox?" I looked down at the platform underfoot, the raised level which provided me with a clear view of the crowd, and which gave them a clear view of me. I had not noticed the platform's texture before -- rough and seemingly plated -- although the convex curvature had caught my attention early on.
I shook my head, trying to reason it out. What did the texture and curvature mean? And then I recalled the use by Animikee of the two turtle tales, and I recoiled slightly.

"Tell me," I said, "that I am not standing on a giant turtle."

"Hee hee," Little Tobias giggled. "Okay. You are not standing on a giant turtle."

No sooner had he spoken than the platform moved, throwing me off balance and back several steps. I looked to the thunderbird for confirmation.

"Yes," he said, nodding. "Xanthrox is indeed a giant turtle."

The motion of the platform had momentarily stopped, but now it resumed, lifting upward as Xanthrox pushed his head out the end of his shell - for that is what the platform was. I looked to my left, and watched as the turtle extended his head as far as he could and swiveled it back, eyeing Animikee.

"The name is Kingsley, please," he said, in a voice that was curiously gentle, with a slight lisp.

"Right," said Animikee. "My apologies. You prefer Kingsley. So … Kingsley, meet Lillianna, who will be your travel companion on your upcoming adventure. Young Tobias you already know."

The head of the turtle did a slow arc from the right to the left, so that his left eye was now in view, and clearly studying me.

"Lillianna," he said. "It is a distinct pleasure to meet you at last. You have been on our minds for some time. The spirits have favored you, yes?"

I stood transfixed, for I had never seen such a large turtle, nor heard any turtle speak.
"Yes?" he asked again.

"What?" I said, not understanding, for I had not immediately assimilated all of his words to me.
"I said, the spirits have favored you, yes? With eternal life?"

"Oh," I said, and glanced toward Animikee, who motioned with his head in the direction of Kingsley. And so I answered. "Yes, I suppose so. But I don't know that it is eternal; that it is forever. I mean, it is long, but …"

"Yes, well," he said. "I myself have been alive for even longer than you; it has been so long, in fact, that I cannot even say for how long."

"Oh," I said, "then you too are blessed."

The turtle laughed. It came out as a light buzz, like the sound created by the beating wings of a hummingbird.

"Blessed?" he said. "Favored, perhaps. But blessed? I'm not sure I would call it that. There is something to be said about life limits."

"Life limits," I repeated softly. And then a little louder: "Yes, life limits. They do have a certain appeal."

The turtle and I eyed each other for a few silent moments, and then nodded in tandem.


But this was only a vision, so …

"There is just one thing," I said to the thunderbird.


"What am I to make of what I have seen here today? Is this a message from the spirits, confirming what the spirit of my husband urged: that I go westward? Is it a suggestion that I secure companionship for the long journey, to minimize the perils that lie ahead? Or is this just my overactive imagination at work, out of loneliness? What, exactly, is the message here, Animikee?"

Animikee peered at me over his beak, and then -- the muscles above his eyes raised in mild surprise -- looked to his right and his left, as if seeking input. There was none, however.

"The message?" he said at last. "Why, the message, dear Lillianna, is as it has been presented. You have a great journey before you, and a land awaiting your kindness and special circumstance, and you have been provided with companions in Kingsley and Young Tobias. It is really that simple. It is all there is."

I was certain he had not understood me, and rubbed my nose in thought. But I dug a little too hard and scratched myself. I pulled my finger back to look at it; it had a trace of blood upon it. My blood. And the nose carried a mild pain.

"Pain," I said softly. "And blood. Those are not generally in my visions. So … real."

I heard a soft laugh, and realized it came from the throat of Animikee.

"Ah," he said. "Now I understand. You are disoriented. Let me be direct, dear Lillianna. What you have experienced here is not a vision. Oh, it has some of the same trappings; a feeling within you that it is not of the physical world. But that was only installed to minimize your resistance in following Young Tobias to our gathering. It is all quite real, my dear. You are to go west and north, and Kingsley and Young Tobias will escort you. They will stay with you, too, after you reach your destination, or within reasonable distance in case they are ever needed. That is their destiny, and yours."

He took a step forward, separating himself from the crowd, and then turned to address it.
"Our business here is done. You can all return to your homes or your duties. Lillianna has her mission, and her protectors. Praise be!"

"Praise be!" the crowd chanted in unison, and then dispersed, the animals scooting quickly into the surrounding brush and the figures who appeared so humanlike moving more slowly, as though unsure of how to traverse ground upright and on two legs. Gradually, as they too neared the tree line, their shapes began to change, into a variety of four-, five- and six-legged creatures, some with two heads. One had eight legs and appeared to be a giant insect. I observed this scene silently, in wonder, until they had all disappeared from my sight. All that was left in the clearing with me were the large turtle, the little old man, and the thunderbird. It was Animikee who spoke first.
"Go," he said to me. "Prepare for your journey."

"But … I am not ready for such a journey. It will take detailed preparation, adequate supplies, and proper weather. The cold months are upon us soon, and I do not mean to be traveling when they strike."

"You shan't," said Animikee. "The journey will begin at the time of your choosing."

I felt better about that; was not, in fact, in any hurry. I knew it would be difficult to leave the region I had inhabited for so long, for it had been good to me. It had become my home. But the spirit of my husband had been clear on the matter of relocating, and so it had been on my mind in an abstract sense. Now, I knew, my mind would work on the matter until my departure became practical -- became something I both wanted and was willing to risk.

I must confess I still harbored doubts about the reality of what had just transpired in that clearing, but even if Kingsley, Young Tobias, Animikee and the others were but works of my fevered imagination, here was a clear message from the gods: I was to journey west and north.

"Go. Prepare," Animikee said again. "When it is time, Young Tobias and Kingsley will know it, and be there for you. Godspeed. Now, if you'll kindly step down."

He motioned to the ground next to Kingsley. Tobias and I climbed off the shell, down to the earth of the clearing.

As soon as we did, Animikee took several steps backward, started beating his wings, slowly at first and then with increasing rapidity, and after a nod in the direction of Kingsley's head, started loping toward the turtle, leaped upon the shell and, using the upward slope, lifted off as he reached its zenith. He wavered at first, but then regained his rhythm, and gradually, gliding in circles within the confines of the clearing, gained altitude until he finally exceeded the top of the trees and soared at last out of sight above the forest.

"Come, come," said Young Tobias. "I will show you the way back home."

"Thank you," I said, looking above me in wonder, "but I am no novice in the woods. I think I can retrace my steps."

"As you wish," he said, and bowed at the waist.

I glanced toward Kingsley's head. He had turned in my direction after watching the thunderbird's labored exit.

"Yes, the way from here to your camp will not be difficult," he intoned. "But you will require us when the time comes for the sojourn west. We will meet again then."

I smiled.

"I shall be glad for the company," I said.

Which I would be - if this scene in the clearing was indeed built on truth.

But I would not know for sure until my departure was at hand.


Author's Addendum: The tape recording continues, recounting Lillianna's journey west toward Mackinac -- in the company of her 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. I plan on printing it in standard trade paperback format next year.



© The Odessa File 2005
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869