The Strait : Chapter 1 : Obenabi

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(1934 - 1985)
Fredy Perlman (August 20, 1934 – July 26, 1985) was an American author, publisher, professor, and activist. His most popular work, the book Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!, details the rise of state domination with a retelling of history through the Hobbesian metaphor of the Leviathan. Though Perlman detested ideology and claimed that the only "-ist" he would respond to was "cellist," his work as an author and publisher has been influential on modern anarchist thought. (From :


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Chapter 1

Chapter 1. Obenabi

Journey to the Beginning

It was fear of the manhunters who killed my uncle Topinbi t hat roused me to travel on the path toward the morning sun from, the Bison Prairie on the long lake to the beaverlodge village on the strait.

Though companioned by a horse weighed down by dead leavers, like Topinbi used to go, I did not follow the trail in Hcmrch of objects but of knowledge. I went as a scout, to learn if t he angry sun would continue to warm the lodges of his grandchildren in the Bison Prairie. As I went further east, the wide trail, its bushes removed, its trees felled, was like a scar gouged by some unfeeling beast that destroys all life on its path. I thought that by scouting I could learn why such a powerful creature insists on following paths of deer and of Rootkin who did not scar the forest.

The sight of so many beings deprived of life for no reason filled me with sorrow, and at a crossing with a familiar deer trail I strayed from the wide path and guided my horse northward toward a lake once far removed from the paths of unfeeling Invaders, where deer play among sparse trees on green ground that surrounds water as still and blue as the sky.

The moment I saw the great tree that had witnessed my love fifteen springs earlier, all the pain flowed from my heart, all the sorrow from my mind. I let the horse roam, sat near the root of the tree, took a lock of black hair from my bundle, and sang.

For two days my voice roamed over the water between the grassy shores singing of birds who returned when the snows melted and the trees birthed new leaves, singing of Rootkin who had wandered here from the land of ice and would wander no further, singing of Udatonte who took winter’s cold from me by guiding me to the spring warmth of this tree.

And as I sang my body filled with joy, my limbs grew as light as the limbs of a weightless deer hopping among the trees, a deer running to the grassy shore to lap the lake’s blue water, suddenly startled by the reflection of another deer lapping beside him, startled by Udatonte alongside me in the shape of a young deer nudging my side with her nose, singing me her dreams by touch. My mind, very far from the dead beings along the widened path, suddenly knew it was not a deer, nor any living being, that was nudging my side.

The barrel-end of a rifle was pressed into my arm. The man who pointed it held my horse’s reins in his other hand.

Tears came to my eyes, not so much from fear as from deep sorrow, for the coming of this man put an abrupt end to all the beauty, love, joy. I sensed the question on the lips of the birds, of the trees, even of the water and the grass: Why, in the midst of this green where all forms of newborn life trustingly wrapped themselves with air’s warmth and joyfully absorbed earth’s moisture, why was this smirking creature with his killing-stick here at all?

But the question stayed mute, as if it were not he who had to answer but we, as if the birds, trees, lake, grass and I existed only on the suffrance of this man, as if the sun could warm the living only with his consent, as if the great mystery had come to depend on one’s distance from the end of his killing-stick.

"Git up off the grass,” he ordered, pointing the rifle at my heart as I rose shaking like a leaf in the wind, with a fear I had not felt since my separation from Udatonte.

What I had learned from uncle Topinbi’s death was being confirmed: in the vicinity of such a person, all life became a hunted animal. "I’ll pay for whatever harm my horse done,” I offered weakly, knowing that he, without a trace of greatness or valor, without even a show of excellence, but simply by moving a finger, could take all the money, the furs and the horse.

"What do they call ye, Yaller-face-in-the-sky?” he spat, laughing.

"Burr-net,” I answered, pronouncing carefully. "Jacob liurr-net.”

"Barnets of Noo Jersey?” he asked, and lowered the rifle when I nodded. "You rangers gonna have your heads blown off I rcmpassing on property looking like redskins.” He dropped my horse’s reins and walked quickly toward the forest.

I silently thanked Wimego my father for giving me this Hncond life, and pulled cloth pants and a cotton shirt from the I'nr stack, masking myself before proceeding toward the beaver village.

Long before my path reached ancient Shutaha’s trail, I was greeted by ax-marked stumps, mortally wounded trees, di'l ritus-surrounded camp spots. When I heard piercing shouts in the language of Scabeaters and their Scalper kin, I quick- nnod my pace, circling the outskirts of the village of dams hu ill on land, at last reaching the woods behind the great lodge I Iml, stands on the graves of our ancestors and pausing among It«m'h to watch children playing.

My tired horse’s neigh betrayed my presence to a silk-clad youngster playing scout who shouted, "Look, it’s chief Topee nn-bee with the fur shipment!”

Four girls, three in dresses and one in deerskin, ran toward me after the boy. "Mais ce n’est pas Topinbi, ce doit etre l’oncle Jacques,” exclaimed a tall, thin girl with eyes as green and hair as yellow as my sister’s.

Whereupon the youngest girl danced around the boy Minting, as if to reproach him, "It’s not Topinbi but uncle Jack,” a refrain the boy interspersed with, "But I’m the one who saw Iiih pack.”

"Besides, he’s not your uncle,” the boy declared as he leaped out. of the circle, "and he’s Ben, like me, not Jack.”

"Bienvenue,” said the tall girl smiling, walking toward me extending her hand. "Je suis ta niece Marti et voici ma soeur Molly.”

The boy was judge Jay-may’s son Benji-may, Marti explained; the youngest girl was not the boy’s sister but his niece, Margit’s granddaughter Marianne Brooks, and the black-braided girl in deerskin who studied me from her post between two trees was Mendideti from Karontaen, "mais ici on l’appelle Anne; elle est noter preceptrice.”

Mendideti glared with burning eyes at the fur load on the horse and chanted, in Udatonte’s tongue, "They say Obenabi the son of Nanikibi does not swim in the blood of his beaverkin.”

I tried to keep my eyes fixed on hers, but shame forced mine toward the braid of wavy hair and then toward the ground— shame of what she saw, of all I was impersonating.

My thoughts were drowned by the voices of Benji-may and Marianne who raced each other toward the great lodge shouting, "Father, Maman! It’s uncle Ben avec les fourrures du parque aux vaches!”

Soon aunt Margft was embracing me, "Bienvenue, Jacques, mais quelle surprise!” Tears flowing, all her emotions worn externally like clothes.

A younger woman, undoubtedly Greta-may Brooks, ran behind Margft, avoided glancing at me, grabbed Marianne by the hand and hastily disappeared.

As I moved hesitantly toward the back entrance, judge Jay-may shouted for someone to take charge of the horse and its load, then patted me on the back and called me prodigal son, his eyes shifting between me and the peltry.

At last Wabnokwe emerged, thin, frail, unchanged but for the hint of gray further lightening her yellow hair. "I thank the rising sun—” she began in the tongue of our Rootkin, but speaking it nasally, like the habitants, and then she too threw her arms around me and wept, "Mon petit frere.” I sensed she already knew why I had come.

I explained to Wabnokwe that I would feast and sleep only after smoking and counciling with my kin of the Strait. W alking away from the afternoon sun toward the riverbank, I was struck by a sound and sight more hideous than all the stumps and injured trees. An ominous screech filled the air and smoke blackened the sky as if the Strait’s water were boiling and rising in gray steam, its banks shrieking from pain. Looking past intervening trees toward the water, my eyes saw something my mind rejected: an island was floating in the strait, moving upstream, cinders and smoke emerging from its tallest lodge.

So intrusive, so unnatural a sight can be described only with the habitants’ word barbare. Yeti felt it was I who was out of place and, reflecting on my earlier shame, I wondered if it was shame over my being here at all, or shame over my feeling out of place on ground where my grandmothers lay buried.

Wabnokwe and Jim-may led me to the house and restored my calm by making the wondrous sounds emerge from their music instruments. When the music ended, the councilroom of the great lodge was crowded with kin I hadn’t seen for eleven springs. Several of the May children were in the circle: of course playful young Benji-may, his slightly older sister Carrie-may, who seemed to wish she were elsewhere, and young Jim-may, a physical replica of his father, but with pensive eyes.

Cousins Beth Lion, Lisa Will-yams and Liket Kampo sat next to each other and whispered, as inseparable as they had been. The former fourth comer of their world, aunt Monfk unaccompanied by her husband Kuyerye, sat alongside and whispered with the other three. Aunt Margit’s twin Jozet sat next to her husband Wit-nags across the circle from me.

I prepared a pipe and aimed the smoke toward the opening behind me and carried the pipe to Wit-nags, who passed it directly to Jay-may. The pipestem had barely reached the judge’s mouth when Wit-nags burst with impatience. "We already know all about your uncle’s death, if that’s what you’re hiding behind this smokescreen.”

Mumbling to aunt Monik, "La democratic de tes beaux- freres est une tyrannie,” Liket rose, ready to leave

Angry eyes of Monlk and Margit sought their sister’s, until at last Jozet whispered to Wit-nags, "Mais tais-toi, mon vieux, et laisse-le fumer et parler, puisqu’il est venu jusqu’ici.” Liket sat down, and all eyes turned to me.

I thanked the life-giving powers for preserving so many of my kin for this gathering. While Wabnokwe was translating for Wit-nags’ and Jay-may’s benefit, Wit-nags shouted, "You’re wasting our time, Burr-net. Come to the point! And speak American. We all know you’re as conversant with it as your sister.”

Jay-may then told Wabnokwe, "If your kinsman insists on using his own language, please refrain from translating until he starts talking sense.”

I went on to describe the circumstances of uncle Topinbi’s death, just as cousin Shando had narrated them: the nightlong torture, the fatal weakness, the final fall.

Although Wabnokwe, on the verge of tears gave an abbreviated summary of my account, Wit-nags interrupted before she was done, and furiously asked me, "Who told you this fairy tale, Burr-net? Chief To-pin-a-bee’s ghost? We learned the facts from people who saw, with their own eyes, how and why the chief died. He died because he fell off his horse. He fell because he was too drunk to ride.”

Aunt Margit, visibly irritated, said quietly to her husband, "Mais Shando etait avec Topinbi!”

It was Wit-nags who answered, "Is Burr-net setting drunkard Shando’s veracity above a surveying crew’s?”

Wabnokwe, biting her lip from frustration, urged me to disregard the intrusions.

I told her I had not come as the voice of our Bison Prairie kin, but only as a scout; that our kin were not of one voice; some were already preparing paint; others wanted the killers turned over to Topinbi’s village, still others insisted not only that the killers be brought to justice by those who engaged them, but also that torturers and manhunters, if they had to be nurtured, be encouraged and guided to practice their arts among each other and not among our kin. Our girls were no longer sent to the forest to fast. Our boys go to fasting lodges without being told that their isolation is continually protected by armed scouts.

I then said that Shando was preparing to accompany a man in search of a land beyond the Long River far from the settlements of the Invaders, and that I had come to the Strait to learn if my sister and cousins could dream of accompanying their western kin to such a land if it were found.

My last statements hit the gathering like a sudden thunderstorm.

"Quelle horreur!” said Liket.

"Mais tu es fou, mon frere!” Wabnokwe exclaimed.

Aunt Monik and even aunt Jozet glared at me with indignant disbelief.

We’re like hunted animals; we cannot live in constant fear, I tried to explain, but was cut short by Mendideti, whose nearwhisper in Udatonte’s tongue was like wind shaking fall leaves. "It is said the earth and sun gave your grandfather strength, rain quenched his thirst, and the great trees protected him. Yet you speak of wandering to prairies and plains with little rain and few trees. You speak of a land with few rivers and no lakes for your canoes. Once there, will you give chase to the bison hunters who live there as you’re being chased? Whose protection will you seek when Invaders follow you across the Long River?”

The unanswerable questions posed in Udatonte’s musical tongue made me see myself as I was seen, and I was horrified. "La fille a raison,” Lisa said, admonishing me.

Liket said, "La belle presqu’fle privee de ses arbres, de ses animaux, et maintenant de ses gens—c’est l’enfer!”

Aunt Margit was in tears, as was my sister. My head felt like a rattle, empty yet banging.

Cousin Beth, ready as ever to give all of herself to the unsheltered, took it on herself to defend me. "Nous n’avons pas le droit de le juger. Mendideti connait l’horreur, mais nous n’en sommes pas les victimes. Qui sommes-nous sinon les institu- trices, les femmes, les servantes des envahisseurs?”

At this point Jay-may apparently guessed the subject of our discussion. "Do I understand that your brother wants this matter brought before the headman?”

Wabnokwe answered, "The way a hunted animal would wish to reason with his hunter.”

Wit-nags responded with, "If he wants government protection, is he willing to talk about relocating to premises where such protection is feasible?”

Jay-may said, "He made some reference to that preacher’s New Caynin across the Long River.”

"If you’d said this in English, it would have been the most sensible thing you’d ever said,” Wit-nags said to me. To the judge he added, "That preacher is doing God’s work out there.” Mendideti extended her arms winglike. "The carrion birds have sighted raw flesh.” All but two smiled.

Jay-may rose as if to strike her. "I’ll not have that heathen casting spells at my expense!”

Benji-may, Molly and Marti pulled Mendideti outside. Margit kept the judge from following. Wabnokwe told Jay-may, "My brother is here to see that our uncle’s murderers are brought to justice.”

"We would all like to see justice done,” Jay-may said. "But let me be blunt. The official report of your uncle’s death was submitted by several people of substance. Does your brother wish to challenge this report in court with a story he heard from a certain Monsieur Shandone?”

Aunt Margit pleaded, "Mais tu es insupportable! Shando est mon neveu!”

"Your relative Shando is not a stranger to the court, having been convicted . . Jay-may spoke on.

But I rose from the circle, suffocating. The air was like the gray smoke I had seen over the strait, the voices merged into a deafening din above which I heard Udatonte’s musical voice like a distant hum. I stumbled toward clear air, to a spot overlooking the now calm river. The sun had set behind the great lodge. I longed to be with the children playing among the trees separating me from the water.

In the darkening light the children appeared to be reenacting the scene inside: Benji-may was sitting uncomfortably, like his father, while Mendideti, her arms extended, sang of greedy vultures circling high above their prey. Benji-may rose, stick in hand, freed himself from Marti’s restraining grasp, and rushed toward Mendideti.

The two girls hid behind trees, and when Benji-may stopped to look, he was caught in an ambush. Now it was Marti who rushed toward him, nearly exposing herself to a blow from his stick, when Mendideti leaped from behind a bush and downed him, sending the stick flying. Marti held the boy’s feet, Mendideti his shoulders, as they carried him to a spot behind two trees.

The boy’s free hand flailed violently in the air until it embedded itself in the long braid, loosening a curtain of black hair while Mendideti struggled to tear off his shirt and tie up his hands with it. All I could see through the narrow opening between the two trees was the boy’s heaving chest and the black hair above it, his legs, presumably still held by Marti, being hidden from me by the tree on the right, his head by the tree on the left, so that the boy’s body appeared like a convulsing, beheaded torso.

As the curtain of hair descended toward the torso like a sheet of black rain, a high-pitched, sad voice rose above the treetops with the song of a girl celebrating the return of her sister’s beloved while mourning the absence of her own young love among the victors.

My head, no longer a rattle but more like a bucket heavy with tree sap, fell back to rest on the tree trunk behind me. In the moonless dark, I could barely distinguish the human figures from the intervening bushes shaking in the wind, yet still I raised sleep-heavy lids and kept my eyes fixed on the torso, for I had become entranced by the game and intoxicated by the melody. The hair hung over the boy’s chest like drooping branches of a willow or like the rounded poles of a circular lodge suspended above sleepers.

The song, though now only a hum barely audible above the rustle of shaking bushes, nevertheless drowned out the noises that had come from the lodge behind me, the continual comings and goings, the multi-lingual shouting.

Suddenly even the hum ceased, the chest stopped heaving, no wind shook the bushes, the world was perfectly still.

A gentle breeze from the west shakes the bush before me ever so slightly, turning the black hair beyond it into shimmering drops of rain that fall along intermittent strands, encircling the headless torso like transparent walls of a circular black tent.

While all else stays motionless and silent, the black tent slowly descends until the ends of the strands touch the region near the torso’s neck; here the tent begins to sweep along the torso’s length, hovering above the heart before proceeding toward the navel, stopping, returning toward the heart and neck only to resume the first course yet again, stroking the torso rhythmically like a curtain of rain caressing a newly planted field, like waves of ocean water sweeping over sand and then receding, like flocks of birds flying southward in fall and in spring returning.

Now the torso’s heaving resumes, no longer resisting but responding, its rises and falls converging with the rhythm of the waves stroking it, like the earth when it pushes up shoots in spring and reaches upward toward the sun and clouds that caress her, uniting herself and the sky into a single pulsating being.

All at once my stomach heaves and my whole body starts trembling, for out of the comer of my eye, to the left of the tree that hides the head from my view, I see four gushing streams of liquid, each shaped like an arch. The gushing ceases when the transparent tent reaches the torso’s neck and then resumes when the black tent again sweeps toward the navel. Further to the left, on the spot where one of the gushing arches reaches ground, a sapling emerges, and grows larger with every shower of black rain; where a second stream hits ground an egg cracks, a tiny bird emerges, stands facing the stream, fills its beak with black liquid and extends its wings; a third jet lands on a worm and elongates it into the writhing body of a snake; while the fourth stream showers the body of a furry animal that rises on its hind legs like a bear, exposes its chest to the stream and heaves in rhythm with the onrush, like the torso beneath the tent of hair.

Shaking with repulsion, I circumvent the arches and crawl toward the strait’s shore.

Descent to the water

I stumble toward a split tree at the water’s edge and lean against a roundish rock below its overhanging branch as fog settles over the strait.

Suddenly the rock moves, as if it were alive. I quickly realize it’s I who jumped at the smoking island’s screech. My ears continue to buzz with threatening sounds: railing laughter that seems to come from the great lodge, the melody accompanying the gushing of the arch-shaped streams. Enveloped by fog at the strait’s edge, trapped between the smoking island, the mocking lodge and the horrid gushing, I feel like a stalked animal in a field of forces it cannot grasp. Longing to flee, I remove my bundle’s lock of hair and clutch it in my right hand.

There’s a sound in the fog, which I first take for water lapping the shore but soon identify as the swish of a paddle. I fill with joy as I distinguish the outline of a canoe as it glides to shore. A hand gropes toward mine, grasps, pulls me in. I enter, gratefully kneel behind a silent figure as she paddles toward the middle of the strait. Soon we’re gliding past land which must be the Isle of Fruit Trees across from Udatonte’s Karontaen, away from the cramping alternatives of forced escape or death, toward a place where seeds and dreams can grow unhindered. "New corn grows only where the old plants are destroyed,” the paddling figure chants in Udatonte’s melodious tongue.

The voice is strange. Leaning forward, I make out waves in her braid’s hair! Fear sharpens my awareness of my whereabouts, and I realize with dismay that the land we’re passing is too short to be the Isle of Fruit Trees, that the previous island was the Isle of Serpents where habitants once kept their hogs, that the land we’re passing is the fisher’s isle, that we haven’t been moving toward Karontaen at all, but rather northward toward the gate where the Clear Lake empties into the strait, and that we’re heading directly into the mouth of the Moming- land River.

By the dim light of fogged sunrise I make out floating objects; when near one I see it’s a corpse! Now I hear shouts and gunshots. The paddler banks the canoe near the river’s bend, leaps out and runs toward the din.

I start to tremble when a voice near my canoe drawls: I’ll skin this yaller chief fur me yunguns. Another shouts: cant ya see sur t’ant no cheef but a yaller skwa—nuthin but a yaller skwa?

A rifle shot deafens me; my arm bums with pain; my right hand’s tightly gripped contents are gone! Distracted by the pain, I look up only when the canoe moves. The fog has lifted. Along the back of the girl paddling falls a long braid of straight black hair. Udatonte! I extend my left hand toward her shoulder, but can’t reach it, as if she were gliding in a different canoe directly ahead of mine.

We return to the rivermouth, pass the Clear Lake’s shore, enter the strait and head toward the shore with the roundish rock and the double-trunked tree. Where Jay-may’s rectangular lodge stood, there’s a long bark mound consisting of several connected round lodges with open tops and south-facing entrances.

Masked figures emerge from the long lodge, dancing to a drumbeat, humming a melody sung at the planting of com- seeds. The first dancer carries an object. I cry out from horror when I recognize the object as a hand.

She who brings me to this, never showing her face, cannot be Udatonte. I slide to the canoe floor, weak from pain and dismay, yet still longing to be taken to the healing blue water of the lake surrounded by grass. The canoe moves. As if my longing had been heard.

But when I look out I realize with returned dismay that we’re not heading inland toward the Grass Lake nor westward toward the Long River but northward across the Clear Lake and through the upper strait beside the Peninsula’s thumb.

Day and night she paddles, now across Sagi Bay between thumb and forefinger, now toward Mishilimakina at the tip of the long fingers, now south again past the village of the leaning tree, across the bay to the little finger, down the length of Mishigami, not once pausing to alleviate my pain, and instead of heading toward sunset and Long River at the Lakebottom’s portage, completing a circle by turning toward Bison Prairie at the wrist’s crease, carrying the canoe over the Kekionga portage to hurry back—when suddenly she stops by a shore where the lodges are flattened, the cornfields burned, and runs toward a field of fallen trees which resounds with the derisive laughter of village-destroyers.

I lose consciousness when something sharp crashes into my head—and regain it stretched out on the canoe floor, shivering from cold, head splitting, arm burning, trying to remember what I was fleeing and where I was rushing. Powerful arms lift me, and I look up at an ancient face, wrinkled like bark.

I’m carried into a circle of sitting women and placed on the ground near the fire at the center. The bark-faced woman chants a melody I last heard when my cousin’s son was born, others rise and begin to dance around me and the fire, each adding another melody, other words, some in harmony, others in dissonance with the rest. The volume rises, the pace quickens, the dance becomes frenzied and my head threatens to explode. I use up my remaining energy rising to my feet and stumbling out of the circle.

The dance stops. My captor rushes at me; she returns me to the center and sings me a riddle about a man who came from the Sunrise Mountains to the valleys of the Wabash looking for seeds. She tells how the man plucked her lover’s courage in the forests of Kekionga, seized her brother’s strength in the valley of the great Kanawha, filched her father’s generosity at the crossing paths of Pickawillany, plundered her grandmother’s vision on the shores of Mishigami, sowed his pilfered seeds, reaped their fruit, and grew fearful, weak, mean and blind, for he sowed only leaves, having destroyed the seeds, being a man who put last things first.

Her song done, she and the other women put out the fire and disperse with its ashes, leaving me shivering with cold and pain. Redfrocked soldiers emerge from the forest, rail and kick me, poke my body with surveying instruments; a scalping knife cuts the sash that holds my bundle, moves toward my head—then pauses above my eyes, glistening, and withdraws as Redcoats and instruments return to the forest fleeing from a bear who ambles toward me carrying a stick.

I stretch my left hand toward my spilled pendant, but the bear picks it up and as she ties it around her neck I see below the bear’s head the body of an ancient woman covered to the waist by white hair. Apprehensively I gather the rest of my bundle’s contents, but can’t find the fragment of bark scroll.

My fright grows when countless others approach; bodies of young and old women and men, short bearded men, children with heads of wolves, moose, bear, fox, deer, or topped by heads of turtles, herons, hawks, even sturgeons and watersnakes. The greatest number form into a large circle at the very fringe of the forest, others into a smaller circle inside the larger, while scores gather near my sides and feet.

The bearwoman unrolls over me a scroll which depicts a palm, its fingertips by my feet, its wrist by my neck. The figures nearest me pile up dry sticks which the bearwoman proceeds to light, abandoning her own stick in the third fire. Trapped between scalping Redcoats, masked captors and three raging fires, I struggle to shake off the scroll covering me and to rise—but a fox and a beaver rush to keep my feet down, while the bearwoman replaces the scroll.

A song with words of ancient Riverpeople begins in the outer circle behind my head, another is sung on my right in the language of Turtlefolk, a third below my feet and on my left in the tongue of Rootkin. Those in the middle circle dance, the path of their movement forming the outline of a hand. My anxiety grows when the innermost figures whirl and leap with unrestrained vigor around each fire, those on my right repeatedly naming Tiosa Rondion, those by my feet Mishilimakina, those on my left Bison Prairie.

The chanting, dancing and whirling grow ever more frenzied—when all at once the circles become an inchoate multitude as a hare with a stick chases the group on my right, extinguishes its fire, repeats this by my feet and proceeds to extinguish the fire on my left. Here the whitehaired bearwoman blocks his path. The hare tries to chase her. But when bears from every quarter, all armed with sticks, encircle him, the hare slips his mask over my head and flees to the fringe as a beaver. Now the enraged bears close their circle around me, poking me with their sticks.

My feet suddenly freed by my captors, I leap away from the sticks and trip headfirst into the fire! The bearwoman extinguishes my burning hair as well as the fire and then vanishes with her scroll and all her throng.

Alone, cold, writhing with pain, I’m horrified by the thought that the gray moon on the horizon is the rising sun and that I’m nearly blind. Something cold touches my injured arm, sending a shudder down my spine. On my right lies a body I must have looked over to see the horizon. Apparently a young woman, she seems to have been pushed up from the earth like a flower. Weakly pulling me, she’s trying to rise and make me rise with her.

Turning my head, I make out bodies everywhere and the figure of a man removing robes, cutting pendants, taking earrings. Looking up I see agitated black shapes whose excited cries identify them as ravens waiting for the scavenger to be done with his picking. Moving toward my companion and me, the scavenger roars with laughter—and stops abruptly when my companion rises and shouts a curse in the Turtlefolk tongue: May your children’s children scavenge your grave and filch your bones for trophies!

She gropes toward my bundle, removes my arrowhead, places her hands under my armpits to help me rise, and aims the arrowhead at the scavenger as if it were a spear. Although unscathed, he quickly gathers up his trophies and flees.

My companion looks around as if in search of something among the plague’s harvest of bodies, among the barren trees with spring buds swallowed by winter’s return, and she wails, as if to give voice to the desolation.

She walks supporting me to the canoe on the strait’s shore, paddles awkwardly across the strait, and although not herself strong, walks on, supporting me, over the length of Moming- land to the Great Falls. Here she pauses, collects icy water in cupped hands, and applies it over my eyes. Neither the water nor her sad wail improve my sight but the weight of my head is lightened by the untiring determination with which she guides me along the bank of the Easternmost Lake to where the waters flow out of the land through the great Northern River.

My left hand with all the weight behind it resting on her supporting shoulder, she seems to become thinner and smaller, yet she trods on toward ancient Hochelaga, the island village. Here she rushes from abandoned round lodges to abandoned longhouses, then runs in desperation to the shore where bearded men carry bags from floating islands and she curses: Destroyers of seeds! May all you reap torture, poison and destroy you!

Both of us stumble from exhaustion as she pulls me on toward ancient Stadacona, the village on hills overlooking the river, where on the ruins of destroyed longhouses, bearded men gather and disperse, entering and leaving square lodges.

My guide leaves me and runs into a longhouse that still stands. I hear a child’s voice scream with frustration, and in the distance an echo that for an instant resembles the scavenger’s laughter.

My companion returns, still as death, in the arms of a tall woman in otterskin. The woman places the small body on the ground and my companion vanishes, as if swallowed by the earth that pushed her up.

I collapse from exhaustion and from my new and most painful loss. The otterwoman pulls my shell out of my bundle and fixes it over my right eye while singing in the tongue of ancient Oceanshore Rootkin of earth’s exhaustion from swallowing so many corpses and of a new earth that will rise from the corpses’ bones; and as she sings, floating islands crowded with bearded men from Hochelaga, pause by the shore to gather Stadacona’s bearded men.

The otterwoman picks me up and carries me like a child yet further toward the sunrise, crossing streams by raft or canoe, never slowing her pace nor ceasing her song.

All the floating islands are congregating at the Northern River’s enormous mouth where the Great Lakes’ waters flow into the salt sea. Bearded men offer us knives and ropes while pulling on the otterskin. The woman rushes past them toward the southern entrance of a lodge at land’s end. I vaguely remember having dreaded this lodge, but no longer know why.

The woman takes my feather from my bundle, rushes to a comer, returns with a large bag, removes a shell identical to mine and places it over my left eye.

I’m carried out of the lodge and deposited on something soft and yielding. Two hands remove the shells from my eyes. I’m astounded by the light! I can see—but too late to view the face of the tall Rootwoman; even her otterskin robe recedes in the distance as I rise in the air on the soft back of a raven.

The bird swoops toward longbearded men who, on seeing us, gather up furs, ropes, knives, and flee to floating islands. The raven flies eastward over the land surrounded by salt sea, then southward over shores of eastern Rootkin and Lenapikin, eastward again over the land of stone giants and feathered serpents, and wherever she swoops down, horses rear up and throw off lance-armed riders; cows, sheep, horses, rats and men with guns race each other to crowded islands floating out to sea.

Raven and I chuckle over the simplicity of our stratagem: the bearded men take bird and rider for a single being, an invincible deity coming to reclaim her invaded land.

Returning northward, I forget my pains on seeing the great river’s banks lush with leaves and multicolored flowers, teeming with animals, shimmering with the ecstatic motion of Talamatun dancers in myriad camps of longhouses.

At last I see the otterwoman, paddling upstream almost as quickly as the raven flies, the water in her canoe’s channel seeming to be rushing upstream with her. Between each stroke she throws a shell, and where the shells land, birds hatch, trees bloom, village fires are lit, councilgrounds throb with orgies of renewal.

Strapping the canoe to her back, the otterwoman runs from the shore of the Easternmost Lake to the Sunrise Mountains and resumes her water journey where the body of the Beautiful River is fed by the outstretched arms of two rushing mountain rivers. Downstream at the valleys whose mouths kiss the Beautiful River, at the Muskingum, Kanawha, Scioto, Omaumek, Kentaki, Wabash, and then upstream along the shores of the Long River, she pauses to place shells on mounds shaped like mountains, breasts, bears, serpents, thunderbirds. Bones emerge from the mounds and bloom into bodies of Riverpeople, Tellegwi, who dance in masks of wolves, serpents and moose.

Throwing her remaining shells toward earthlodges in western prairies and stonelodges in distant canyons of the Sunset Mountains, she runs to the shore of Mishigami, fills her bag with stones, and walks over the hand-shaped Peninsula, sowing stones which become Neshnabek, the first people.

Scores of Neshnabek paddle from Kichigami toward the three comers of the hand, while Talamutun from Momingland and Tellegwi from the river valleys rush to mingle with them. As the raven rises into moonless night, stars light up the great circles surrounding the Peninsula. The soothing up and down rhythm of her wings puts me to sleep.

I find myself at the very edge of salt water where northern lands end, dancing alongside naked Neshnabek around a fire that wards off icy Digowin. I feel free, my head is clear, my feet strong, my right hand grasps a spearhandle and my bundle holds a packet of fishbones.

When our dancing slackens, Digowin extinguishes our fire and tries to hold down the rising sun, but we chase after him through thick forests along the paths he flattens disguised as a monstrous bison with serpent’s face and bird’s feet; we conquer the monster and celebrate a feast.

The monster’s angry spirit causes earth to shake and flood, so we flee across a land of sand where our feet burn and our throats parch until at last we reach a world where we need neither fire nor spears, a world of perpetual lushness and warmth where we sing with birds, dance with bears, hop with hares and slither with snakes, where we bathe ourselves with sun, travel with stars and wrap ourselves with moonlight while we bed with beautiful earth.

Alone with the full moon, I dip my head to sip water from a still pond. A face rises, its lips kiss mine. In the shell-less turtle with beaver’s head and glistening silvery-gray scales I recognize the one I’m seeking.

I lower my bundle into the pond but the water muddies and she vanishes. Slowly I crawl into the pond after her, waddling on turtle feet to the very bottom of the watery world. I sense myself becoming liquid, full, unbounded.


I dissolve. There’s only water. Water with a dream in its depths, like moon’s reflection, a liquid yolk wrapped in a watery blanket, a seed in a womb, a dream that’s roused whenever sun’s yellow hair caresses or moon’s cool tongue licks the water’s surface and makes it ripple.

Sun’s warm strands penetrate, make the dream rise like a bubble and break through the surface as foam, which becomes a rainbow uniting water with sky while its moisture falls and dissolves.

Love-play of sun and moon on water’s surface rouses the dream again, making it fly upward, fragment into myriad particles which dance frenziedly until, exhausted and amorphous, they fall back as slime and mud, only to rise yet again, intoxicated with desire, and heave upward in a gush that pulls up water’s bottom and sends mud and slime dancing toward the sky.

Water rushes upward to reclaim the fragmenting mud, but its dominion is overturned. The mud dries in baking sun and hardens into mountains. Bottom is top.

Desire satisfied, the fragments relax, fall back, try to dissolve, try to become one again. But the unity is ruptured. Rather than lying naked and thirsty between water and sky, fragments who flew out on wings waddle back on paddles, but then return again, bodies in water, snouts sniffing air, oscillating between land and water like beavers, undecided.

Waves and torrents wash down all who try to waddle upshore, until earth starts to play with the water, to trap it between her rocky bones. Turning the water into her body’s blood, earth decorates her moistened flesh with hair and welcomes the silvery-gray scaled turtle spawning on its surface. When reckless feasting by the turtle’s children thins earth’s lush hair, the parent turns on the children and, like the water that reclaimed risen mud, swallows the offspring.

They give themselves—but only when they can’t avoid being eaten. Many fly into the air, others crawl under rocks, yet others walk to dens. Some of us join the fliers in their nests, the crawlers under their rocks, the walkers in their dens.

Some of us nurture a dream, which soon gnaws our depths. Hiding our dream, we wake the others on a moonless night and invite them to feast on a food that emerges only after dark, a food we name Digowin.

Our kin descend from trees, emerge from rocks and dens, and wait for our signal, when all pounce at once and tear off chunks of Digowin. Strengthened and intoxicated by what we eat, we dance frenziedly, circling the spot ecstatically, stretching out limbs toward the sky until we fall to the ground exhausted.

The morning after the feast, we wake surrounded by enormous fishbones which are all that remains of our parent, and by herbs pushing up from the ground, berries ripening on bushes, fruit sprouting on trees. Earth’s hair is renewed! It grows out of the same dreaming slime we’re made of!

Yet our kin turn from us, avoid us, some even run from us. We look at ourselves, at all those implicated in the deed, at the winged ones with curved beaks and claws, at the furry ones with fangs, and at the slow, weak shell-less turtles with silvery-gray scales, and we see what the others are seeing, we see the one we named Digowin, the unquenchable, the flesh- eater, the devourer of kin.

The moment we recognize ourselves, earth begins to shake, chasms open, prairies rise up into mountains, forests are drowned by brackish waters. We flee toward nests, under rocks, into dens, but our cousins refuse to shelter us. Even carrion birds and wolves, enraged at us for implicating them in our deed, turn against us and threaten to do with us what we did with Digowin. If only we hadn’t implicated others!

The shaking, the hostility, the threats don’t end until we agree to take ourselves and the remains of our parent away from our moist, warm home. With heavy hearts we trudge beyond forest’s end to where earth’s skin is scorched. To avoid burning all four limbs on the hot sand, we walk on hind legs only; our scales fall off our dried-up skins; only those on toes and fingers remain. Many despair and return to the land of our plant-eating kin.

Those of us who at last reach sand’s end, averse to raw flesh since the morning after our deed, acquire a taste for roasted flesh when we find a giant burnt by a forest fire. Tying stones to tree stems, we stalk the giant’s kin, and convince them to offer themselves to us by reminding them we’re all Digowin’s grandchildren.

We come to a lush forest on a tongue of land bounded by ice mountains and salt sea. Here generous water cousins attach themselves to our poles, fleet deer give themselves when we learn to deliver our stone-tipped stems from Ibows, even enormous bison occasionally pause in the path of our spears.

Covering ourselves with our cousins’ skins during ever longer and colder nights, we recover the warmth we left only when we gorge and intoxicate ourselves on our cousins’ flesh, and when we huddle around moistened hot stones in bison skin tents where reunited fragments dissolve into warm sweat.

But a fire blazes across the sky and melts the ice mountains, flooding forests with cold slush, washing our cousins and earth’s lushness into the salt sea. On paddle-sihoes that hold us above deep snow, we flee behind hares and deer to where great mountains rise.

Here we part sadly with sisters and brothers who take the slope facing sunset and we wander into woodlands bounded by seas of sweet water. We know the moment we arrive that we will wander no more. Our first home could not have been more lush, more beautiful.

The cousins who welcome us to Kichigami, this land of great lakes, seem to have forgiven or forgotten our deed. As in ancient days, bear, beaver, deer, muskrat and marten whisper to us in the forest, sparrow and gull sing to us, sturgeon visit us in dreams. They show us the paths, guide us to an island with red stones, lead us to roots, berries, tree nectar, water rice, and on a windless day take us to a birch grove where the very bark sings of lodges that hold warmth, of containers that hold tree sugar, of canoes that float on sweet water.

Yet some of us again grow restless with a dream that gnaws our depths. We set out, unexpectedly reach Boweting, the cataract where Kichigami’s waters flow out, smash our canoes, and return to our camp on foot. Setting out again in new canoes, which we carry past the cataract, we come to an island at the center of the lakes. Following one and then the other side, we learn the island is a giant’s right hand. After sleeping and feasting on the giant’s palm, we carry our canoes up the giant’s body, follow a stream, and reach a beautiful river that flows from the sunrise.

Walking toward a camping spot, we come to tracks made by two-legged walkers. A sister tells us that these tracks were not made by Neshnabek, and we grow fearful, since we, the Neshnabek, the Rootkin, are the only upright walkers in all Kichigami.

The tracks must be Digowin’s. We prepare to flee. But our uncle stops us by saying that Neshnabek do not flee from Digowin; then he tells us his dream: I saw a hare who told me he was Wiske, the giver. He told me he was once as weak as the first Neshnabek, until he instigated the slaying of Digowin. The deed made him potent. When the fleeing Neshnabek grew hungry, he gave a tree stem the pointed shape of his long member and so made the first spear. When we grew cold, he rubbed his member on dry sticks and made them flame. He guided us to the land of ice and made our first arrow, bow and snowshoe. When we reached Kichigami he gave us the canoe and the bark lodge. He commands the deer to offer themselves to our arrows. He even speaks to the wind and the rain. When I begged for his powers, the hare vanished.

Emboldened by his dream, we name our uncle Wiske and follow him, by the light of the full moon, toward the source of the tracks made by people who are not Neshnabek. We come to a brushless field cleared neither by storm nor by fire, then to a camp of round, breast-shaped mounds surrounded by a mud embankment. Climbing a hill, we reach a gathering more numerous than several camps ofNeshnabek.

Homed men leaning on spears suck reeds attached to bowls and emit smoke. Women wearing bison robes dance, wail and shout incomprehensible sounds. At the center of all is a monstrous serpent with several coils and gapingjaws.

Tellegwi, one of us whispers, naming the strangers Serpents. All at once a naked girl runs up the hill, past horned men, past wailing women, straight into the serpent’s jaws. We notice three other naked girls dancing in the field below the hill. Rushing down, we ambush each in turn as she begins to run uphill, and we carry them to the river’s shore, far from the serpent’s jaws. Wiske promptly impregnates all three virgins with his large member.

Only the forethought of a nephew who had brought the canoes from their hiding places saves Wiske’s member from being cut to pieces by the spears of pursuing homed men.

On our return journey Wiske alternately boasts of our exploit as a second victory over Digowin, and vows to return with a canoe caravan of armed nephews to achieve such a victory. He says the Tellegwi, even the three brides, are not people but embodiments of Digowin, whose spirit abandoned our parent’s body just before our deed, and came here to wait for our coming.

The journey is long. We stray from our path to seek bison for the strange women. One of them learns to speak, and even to dispute with Wiske: We have flesh from earth, life from the sun and blood from the sky, like you.

Wiske says: If the Tellegwi were cousins of the Neshnabek, they would have had to devise the spear, flee over the land of ice, and arrive in Kichigami before us, all without the hare’s guidance. That’s unthinkable. You are Digowin.

The bride responds: Cousins or not, our grandmothers were camped on the Beautiful River before there were any Neshnabek, when a mountain-sized white serpent descended from the north and swallowed people, animals, trees and land. No Wiske stopped the serpent, and we had to flee to the south, where we acquired the seed-scattering powers of the wind. When we returned the serpent retreated, for which we thank him whenever we give our seeds to earth.

By the time we reach our Rootkin’s shore, Wiske, like the rest of us, wears a bison’s head and robe, emits smoke from a pipe, and waves a spear.

Our surprised kin don’t greet us with welcoming laughter. They shower us with arrows and come after us in swift canoes. We flee more quickly than we fled from the Tellegwi.

Wiske removes his bison coverings and swims toward our kin shouting obscenities. The rest of us paddle without pause to a spot halfway between hostile kin, a place on the palm, by the thumb and wrist, by a beaverpond next to a strait.

Our new kinswomen give birth to daughters and a son.

Before long, bison hunters from the Beautiful River as well as deerhunters from the north hear us learning each other’s songs, approach our camp, and at last smoke with us. From the visitors we learn that Wiske, having vowed to defeat Digowin for the second time, led a caravan of armed nephews, not through the strait to where Tellegwi warriors waited, but toward the sunset and down a long river. They found a camp of strangers and promptly attacked, convinced that the strangers were Tellegwi, even though their lodges stood on ground and not on mounds, men wore no bison heads, youth carried bows and not spears.

The strangers’ discernment was no greater than Wiske’s, for they hastily revenged themselves on the Neshnabek by attacking a band of Tellegwi bison hunters. return with a strange youth who tells us, in broken Rootspeech aided by signs, that his kin are not monsters, man-eaters or serpents; on the contrary: We fled from a land far to the south where stone giants, man-eaters and great-horned serpents pur- sued us.

The stranger learns to dispute with us more quickly than he learns our speech, and when he hears our account of the first Wiske’s victory over Digowin, he protests: Wiske did not slay t he great turtle, since earth still rests on the turtle’s back.

Laughing, we name him Turtleperson, Talamatun, somewhat unfairly, since Neshnabek trace their descent to the turtle?, whereas the stranger claims to descend from a woman who Ml from the sky, for whose sake a beaver and a muskrat nearly hurst their lungs diving to the bottom of the sea for earth to place on the turtle’s back.

The youth tells us: When your Wiske attacked us, we thought the man-eaters were after us again, so we broke camp and crossed the Long River on rafts and logs. But the closer we got to the sunrise, the more our scouts spoke of the things we feared, of earthen giants, of horned serpents, of spear-armed men whose very tongue resembled the tongue of our old pur- suers. When your party reached us, we were relieved to learn our attacker was a mere hare, and we stretched our memories to catch every familiar word spoken by the Riverwoman among the peacemakers, our tongues being anciently related. We were enraptured by your kinswoman’s description of a vast woodland with beaver and deer, and without bison to trample our cornfields.

We expect the Talamatun’s numerous kin to arrive any day from their sunset camps, but canoes of deerhunters from the north arrive instead and invite us to a great fish feast at the cataract of Boweting.

Our guest accompanies us to the north, fearful that something terrible happened to his kin.

At the council, a one-armed warrior speaks of Wiske’s second and larger caravan of armed nephews: Finding no camps on the Long River, we paddled up the Beautiful River and attacked villages with and without mounds. At first the besieged took their revenge by turning on each other. But when they began to make common cause with each other and against us, Wiske fled. The rest of us appeased our pursuers by offering protection from the monster Digowin, some to one camp, some to the other. Now all are suspicious of Neshnabek; every village sings of war;

On hearing this, we send a peace party toward sunset in search of the strangers. After a long absence, the peacemakers bands of fratricidal manhunters roam the woods and indiscriminately attack bison hunters, deerhunters, travelers, even vision seekers. Rumors grow ever more terrifying. Each village thinks its mortal enemy lodges in the village at two removes. Yet I return home only to find our uncle recruiting still another armed caravan!

A newly painted youth rises and asks indignantly: Where would we be without our uncle’s guidance, his gifts, his protection from Digowin, his striving . . .

Before the youth is done, an old Rootwoman pulls Wiske into the circle by the ear and asks: What guidance? What gifts? What protection? Was it this hare or our great-grandmother who pulled a dead bison from a rockslide and placed a sharp rock in her son’s hand; who saw lightning strike dead brushwood and ever after kept a firestick; who followed a duck to where rice grows, a bee to where sap oozes, a bear to where berries ripen; who heard from a sturgeon about the canoe and went with a whitefish to find the red rock? What’s this one’s gift but to turn our youth into hollow reeds filled with his wind? Who is the Digowin we need protection from if not this boaster?

Wiske’s eyes look to the sky, as if inviting the clouds to strike us with lightning and to drown us, but when several women approach him with sticks in their hands, he slinks away toward the forest.

The clouds suddenly release a torrential storm, and through the lightning and thunder the women shout: Go to a land of ice, or of rampant floods, or of sand where no rain falls, no rice grows, no sap oozes. There find nephews who need your gifts!

After the storm, peace parties set out in four directions. But by the time the peacemakers reach their destinations, the whole world is changed.

Most Talamatun are heading toward the sunrise, many Tellegwi toward sunset. Some are joining each other in villages north of the Beautiful River.

Rootkin who joined with Tellegwi are moving to valleys south of the river; those who joined with Talamatun are heading toward sunrise and the salt sea.

When we return to our encampment, we find Talamatun lodged in the Morningland across the strait; they name the strait’s shores Karontaen.

Tiosa Rondion, place of the beaverdams, is the name the Turtlefolk give our village. It is no longer a mere camp. We, the beaverchildren, peacemakers of northern speech and southern ways, maintain three ever-living fires on the triangular council- ground of Tiosa Rondion. Around these fires we sing and council with Rootkin, Riverpeople and Turtlefolk from the four directions of the circle surrounding the hand in the lakes.

Our main disputes are with each other, and on cold winter nights these never end. A youth who returns from a deerhunt ridicules his sister for running naked in a newly planted field.

The girl retorts: I’m not like those who fool earth by eating the flesh and giving her the bones, nor those who fool the sky by burning the tobacco and giving him the smoke.

Who leads you to it, your own dream or your grandmother’s? the boy taunts.

Their bison-horned cousin asks the boy: And who leads you? Grandmother or the sly embroiler? I’ve seen you place bea- verteeth and hawkfeathers on the rock by the split tree you think no one recognizes, one trunk leaning over water, the other over land like a giant hare’s ears.

When the snows melt, the three leave Tiosa Rondion and go sharpen their own ways, the boy accompanying his uncle to the fish feast at Boweting, the girl accompanying her father to the strawberry festival in Morningland, their cousin accompanying his mother to the festival on the Beautiful River where Tellegwi from every quarter merge the bones of their dead in a common grave under a rising mound that bonds the descendants in renewed kinship.

Disputes resume the moment the three return, and continue through the meal of squash in maple syrup, deermeat with corn, bison chunks in bean sauce. The disputants pause when the girl fills a pipe and passes it to her cousin, when tobacco fragments reunited by a flame emerge from the bowl as smoke and rise to the sky like the bubbles of longing that once pulled upward from ocean’s floor.

We’re still learning each other’s ways and songs, and embellishing our own, when canoes arrive from the north and, with an urgency we’ve sensed once before, invite us, not only to a fish feast, but also to the first bone festival held by Neshnabek.

At Boweting we hear of great whales swimming to earth from where the sun rises in the salt sea. We hear this, not from a protection-offering long-eared hare, but from a tall Rootwoman covered by an otterskin robe decorated with oceanshells.

Many of us start to shake; cold sweat drips down our faces.

Something of vast importance is about to slip out of my grasp. I reach out to hold on—but it’s already too late. There’s a flapping of wings.

I wake leaning against a roundish rock by a split tree at water’s edge; the night is moonless; fog licks the water of the strait.

How did I get here? There’s a packet of fishbones in the bundle beside me. I faintly remember having been under the water. Did I climb out by the tree’s roots?

I feel light, as if I were floating; I find myself sitting on a bed of down. I remember falling asleep on a raven’s back. Was it she who just flew off? Raising a feather toward my eyes, I can see its outline, but not the hand that holds it.

Feather and bundle are here. But I’m not here. Yet I’m able to put the feather into the bundle. It’s as if I were a dream without a mind or a body.

I hear the swish of a paddle in the water. A figure approaches through the fog, each hand extending something. I reach out; my left hand grasps a shell, a small ocean shell; my right tightens its grip on a mask with a face as wrinkled as the shell’s.

I lift the mask to where my face should be. I’m suddenly elsewhere. I’m the person whose mask I wear.

The mask is smooth now, I have a young woman’s body. The afternoon sun is in my eyes, but I cast no shadow.

I faintly remember having emerged from a place under the ground, or from a cave, or a womb.

Looking behind me I remember I’ve just come out of the long medicine lodge. An ancient woman, my grandmother, emerges after me, her hand extending something. It’s a shell.

She bids me sit next to her, unrolls a disintegrating scroll which depicts four aligned circles in a long rectangular enclosure, like the lodge I’ve just been through, and pointing to a tiny shell-like form at the western edge of the rectangle, she starts to sing.

She sings of the love-play of sun and moon that roused a dream to rise from ocean’s floor. Moving her finger from the shell to shapes inside the circles, she sings of the time when the first people feasted endlessly on earth’s sumptuous fruits and sky’s sweet nectar, of the time of the separation from kin, of the journey to the land of ice, and of the fourth age when the people reached the shores of Kichigami and recovered the kinship, the beauty and the abundance they had lost in their wanderings.

Carefully rolling and tying the first, Grandmother unrolls a second, newer scroll, with lines and ovals and the outline of a hand in the center. I recognize the paths from oceanshore to sunset. She chants in a mournful wail as she guides my eyes from the shell-like shapes by the sunrise edge toward the turtle- and bear-like shapes along the river and the lakes.

She sings of the time of her first fish feast at Boweting, when an oceanshore Rootwoman brought shells from the sea and a message from the otter: great whales had come from the sunrise to the shores of the island beyond the mouth of the Northern River and had swallowed the island’s people, chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits.

Tears come to Grandmother’s eyes as her finger follows a line along the bottom of the scroll, pausing at spots where black wings of carrion birds hover over skulls, each spot designating a Tellegwi mound village on the Beautiful River, where Grandfather’s people witnessed more deaths than when the white serpents had descended from the north.

She sings of the time of my mother’s birth in Tiosa Rondion, when Grandfather went to the last bone festival on the Beautiful River and never returned, when Tellegwi from every quarter arrived with the bones of their kin and wailed of deaths so numerous that even the carrion birds were repelled: Tellegwi from the oceanshore chanted of whales that disgorged short- statured manlike creatures with covered bodies and the pallor of death on their faces; every direction in which the faces turned, healthy men and women grew feverish, red spots appeared on chests and stomachs, blood ran from every orifice, bodies became wasted.

Tellegwi from the south chanted of giant dogs with men’s heads that spat fire and killed all people and animals in their path. Angry villagers danced and sang, then ambushed the monsters and killed them, only to succumb to fatal tortures sent after them by the monsters’ ghosts.

Survivors carried the bones of their dead kin to the Beautiful River, raised a mound over them, and while they built and chanted, they became delirious and chilled, their groins swelled and turned dark, they disgorged a black poison. In a few days the half-raised mound was surrounded by corpses; the dead had swallowed the living.

Southbranch Rootkin who visited Tiosa Rondion said all the mound villages of the Muskingum, Scioto, Omaumek and Wabash valleys were abandoned.

The few surviving Riverpeople had taken the bones of their kin to the village of Cahokia on the Long River, where surviving Tellegwi from every quarter congregated for their last bone festival, raised a great mound, buried large gifts, pleaded with the dead to spare the living, but all to no avail.

When the plague broke out in Cahokia, many fled to western plains and mountains, determined to forget bone festivals, river villages, mounds, ancestors, as well as their last mound- building kin who perished while raising the greatest of all their mounds.

The bone festival ceased to be celebrated in Boweting. After Grandfather’s death, Grandmother became keeper of the second fire in Tiosa Rondion, and she went to the Boweting fish feast every spring to take part in the doings of the medicine lodge.

The year of my birth a second messenger from the east arrived in Boweting and sang of islands that floated from the sunrise and collided with the land, of manlike beings wearing glistening knives who came off the islands spitting fire, of a fever that attacked all Eastbranch Rootkin who had contact with those beings: hearts raced, skins bled and turned yellow; suddenly the fever retreated, only to return more violently; people vomited blood and then black sand.

Of every ten Rootkin in the coastal villages, only one survived. Some of the survivors sought refuge in the joint villages of Turtlefolk and Rootkin along the banks of the Northern River, but the strange islands had already entered the river’s mouth, their sorcery had already attacked Neshnabek and Talamatun villagers.

People who had never seen the sea monsters lay writhing on the ground, their skins swelled, blistered and oozed; the healthiest felt the greatest pain and died first; in a longlodge of thirty people, two survived: a grandmother and a baby.

The villages along both banks of the Northern River became desolate. At the beautiful hill village of Stadacona, numerous men from the sea spat fire at the few surviving Turtlefolk, and then swallowed the yellow corn and the squashes and beans of their mangled victims’ lush fields.

Survivors fled into the woodlands by the Eastern River; others fled westward, but the sorcery flew ahead of them faster than canoes.

No sea monsters had reached the island village of Hochelaga, yet it was a burial ground. Its lodges held unburied corpses of Turtlefolk, Rootkin and newly adopted refugees. The few who survived were tormented by blisters which crusted, itched and pained; when the crusts fell off, the skin stayed marked by pits. Many marked survivors accompanied Rootkin to the Bay of Rolling White Sands in the northern Morningland, and a few even to the Boweting cataract and the shores of Kichigami.

The year of my first bleeding I accompanied Grandmother to the spring doings at Boweting. The refugees from the east who hovered around the medicine lodge repelled me. Some had swollen tongues and distrusted people, animals and earth; some had no memory of kin; some had swollen eyes and were vengeful, gloomy, indifferent to everything.

In Tiosa Rondion, a young and healthy deerhunter began to give me songs. I longed to go with him to a hunting lodge in the northern forest. But the Oceanshore Rootwoman visited my dream: she was short and old, her sightless eyes and her tongue were swelled, her skin was broken by pits.

I did not answer the hunter’s songs, but continued to gather Grandmother’s herbs and to accompany her to the spring doings in Boweting. I stayed away from the somber and irritable refugees from the east, and mingled with Kichigami Rootkin and with Peninsula cousins who burned three fires in Mishili- makina just south of Boweting and in Bison Prairie at the opposite corner of the Peninsula by the wrist’s crease.

When Grandmother asked if I felt ready, I followed her into the crowded medicine lodge. I fell to the ground when hit by the shell thrown by the Oceanshore Rootwoman and rose again when she sang; she was exactly as I had seen her in my dream.

Grandmother emerges from the lodge after me, gives me the shell that hit me, bids me sit next to her as she unrolls her scrolls and sings her songs, those of the four ages and those of the great changes. When her songs are done, she rolls the scrolls, ties them, and gives them to me.

A few days later I and the lodge women throw earth over Grandmother’s grave.

I wait for the doings to be over and seek out the Oceanshore Rootwoman. I confess to her that my mind is on a young deerhunter, that I’m repelled by the medicine lodge, by her, by the otter and the shell and everything that comes from the salt sea, and that I’m not a worthy keeper of Grandmother’s scrolls. I unroll the scroll that shows the changes and migrations and I tell her I learned only one thing: whatever comes westward from the ocean brings desolation.

The old woman can’t see the scroll I hold before her. She tells me to join the deerhunter and bear him children, to keep the scrolls, to forget the medicine lodge until the shell and the otter visit my dreams.

I return to the village by the beaverdam and answer the deerhunter’s song. I go with him to hunting lodges in the northern forest. I bear him a son and a daughter. I replace Grandmother as keeper of Tiosa Rondion’s second fire and I see to it that the flame never dies. But it burns for no one. No River- people ever council or smoke around my fire; the nearest Tellegwi are in a bay beyond the Long Lake on the other side of the Peninsula.

I go north with the hunter less and less frequently, preferring to paddle alone to the small isle at the entrance to the Strait, where I fish, or to the long isle across from Tiosa Rondion, where I grab turkeys, or to the large isle downstream, where I gather fruits and berries.

I most enjoy paddling to the beautiful Isle of Rattlesnakes where, all alone under a full moon, I sing the songs Grandmother taught me about my silvery-gray scaled ancestors during their first age; or paddling to the Isle of White Trees at the very end of the Strait where, dancing alone among the trees, I feel the joy of the foamlike beings who flew up from water toward sky and slid back down along the rainbow.

My pensive daughter watches a Tellegwi aunt dance to the growing corn and listens to a Neshnabek aunt sing to herbs and roots. My son wanders with his father in the northern forest; they return with deermeat on their dog-drawn travois, sometimes with bear. But the year the boy’s uncle prepares a dream lodge after the snows melt, neither the boy nor the man returns.

Birds fly south, then north, then south again, but neither boy nor man returns.

The son of the woman who keeps the third fire gives my daughter a pendant; she grows blind to one aunt’s dances, deaf to the other’s songs, and accepts the gift.

Only then does her brother return, in a canoe laden with objects that are not of this world, with a band of men whose skins are gouged by deep pits.

My son avoids me. I find him hovering around the first fire, listening to stories about Wiske, giving the young narrators objects from his canoe, and telling the youth of the longbearded men from the salt sea who are raising stone lodges in all the Northern River’s abandoned villages, from the mouth to Hochelaga.

It is said that some of them hold contests at killing people with their firesticks. When told we war only to avenge dead kin, they laugh at us for calling petty feuds wars. Their bearded faces beam when they’re near the skins of dead beaver, mink or marten. Those are the things they war over. They kill the living and hoard the dead. The more dead things they hoard, the more their power grows.

My son’s eyes gleam with pride, as if the powers he described were his own.

Yet this boy who’d once helped track moose in midwinter winds sits close to the fire wrapped in fur and shivers, coughs and drips. I stay close to him after the other youth disperse. He’s somber and irritable. He tells me: Father and I were returning by way of the Morningland. We paused at a festival. The plague broke out. Bodies lay on the ground writhing with pain. Certain men moved among the dead and dying and stripped them of robes, pendants, belts. I crawled to those men. I was alive! I helped them strip corpses. I found a cache of furs in a lodge. The men gave me gifts. They adopted me. They took me with them to Stadacona to deliver the animal skins. I saw the bearded men who laugh when we talk of our kinship with animals. I saw their faces beam when they sighted our bundles of fur. They gave me shimmering knives and axes sharper than stone.

I say to my son: Those who deny their kinship with animals deny people as well. In our songs, the powers you praise are powers of the devourer of life, the unquenchable Digowin.

He says: I sang our songs. I prepared to dream. I kept bones intact. But I saw a whole village succumb even as they danced and sang. My father whispered to animals, dreamed of them. He always kept their bones intact. He was one of the first to perish after two days of indescribable pain. The animals didn’t protect him. They mocked him. They betrayed him. I writhed helplessly alongside him. But I crawled away from that field of corpses. I no longer wanted to dream of animals. The power that devoured so much life so quickly was greater. I understood this after I met the Longbeards. Why do they thrive and multiply while we die and dwindle? Because they’re not guided by our dreams. They scatter bones and throw them into campfires. They know how to squeeze power over the living out of the skins of the dead. But their power is not in the animals or in earth. Their power is in axes and knives sharper than stone, and in firesticks that kill at short and long distances. This is the power that protects and guides me.

Scavengers who reap plague’s harvest have twisted his pit-marked spirit. I say nothing; I walk, almost run away from my son. In his understanding, it is not the earth-claimer and kin-devourer, but earth and kin, who are monsters, and his killing missions make him Wiske, the world-changer, the slayer of Digowin.

I paddle to the Isle of Rattlesnakes. There, among the trees behind the sandy beach, I see the otter emerge from the strait and walk toward me with a shell. The shell touches me. I fall to the ground. When I rise I hear the songs I’ve sung all my life with melodies and words I’ve never heard before.

When I return to the village, my son and his band have left to refill their canoes with skins; none of the Strait’s youth accompanied the band; none have pit-marked skins.

I rush to my daughter’s lodge; she has given birth to a son. I take the baby in my arms, carry him to all the lodges, and invite his grandparents, aunts and cousins to gather by the fires.

I place the baby on his back at the center of the council- ground, arrange the masked dancers in circles within circles and sing the melodies and words as the otter sang them, no longer repelled by otter, shell or salt sea, for I suddenly know that the shell is not death, that the otter’s message is beautiful, that the great water is the source of all that emerged from it, not only of monsters reclaiming life, but also of a dream that rose toward the sky.

Singing of the life that first emerged, I feel the water heaving and retreating in my chest, rushing like rivers among my bones, lodging like lakes in my flesh. I feel myself and the baby and the kin around us transported to the lush warmth of the first age, or to Kichigami when we first arrived.

Life rose up from the ocean floor, this baby emerged from my daughter’s womb, I rose from the ground on the beach of Rattlesnake Isle, Tellegwi will rise again in the valleys that kiss the Beautiful River and Talamatun in the villages along both banks of the Northern River.

No change is final. When the prearranged hare breaks through our circles and extinguishes the fires, I place a stick in my grandson’s hand. The baby restlessly waves arms and legs toward the sky. I name him Wedasi, fighter, when he shakes the stick at the hare. I fall in ecstasy alongside the child and at last dissolve in sleep.

The following spring I take my daughter, her husband and their child to the fish feast at Boweting. I reenter the medicine lodge. A generation has passed since my previous visit.

We renew our visit every spring, but only four times.

Returning to Tiosa Rondion from our last visit to Boweting, we see our kin on shore gesticulating frantically, some pointing northward, others to the ground. They want us to flee. The ground is crowded with corpses; the plague has crossed the strait and reached the place of the beaverdams.

I press the child to my breast; his mother and father paddle with all their strength. We’re joined by canoes rushing out of Sagi Bay. Grandchildren of Turtlefolk, Riverpeople and Root- kin are all fleeing from the Peninsula that had been their home since the fourth age began.

At the top of the thumb we separate from Talamatun cousins who guide their bark canoes as gracefully as Rootkin toward the Morningland’s northern Bay of White Sands. As we glide past the tips of the fingers and enter the long lake Mish- igami, we’re joined by survivors from Mishilimakina, and as we cross Mishigami, canoes from Bison Prairie approach us. The three fires are extinguished in every corner of the Peninsula.

Many rush to the carryingplaces, determined to cross the Long River and wander past the prairies toward the plains and mountains beyond the sunset.

We find refuge on an island in the green bay on the sunset shore of Mishigami.

I unroll the scroll with the changes and etch into it the beaverchildren and all their Peninsulakin migrating from the center to the periphery.

Visiting Neshnabek from Kichigami smoke at the first fire of our new councilground. I light the second fire, and the green bay’s Tellegwi share their songs with us, but these last Riverpeople in the Great Lakes do not sing of mounds or bones or the Beautiful River. The third fire remains unlit; its keeper lies unburied in Tiosa Rondion and her son, my daughter’s husband, cannot bring himself to replace her.

Soon after my daughter gives birth to a second son, a canoe caravan arrives with my son and with good news from the east: our Talamatun cousins invite us to renew our kinship by celebrating a festival of bones at the Bay of White Rolling Sands in the Morningland.

Together with my son and my daughter’s family in one canoe, heading toward a festival of renewal with the cousins who complete us, I joyously anticipate life’s reemergence.

I am not ready for the fever, the cracking skin, the blisters. Did I fail to hear the otter’s message in its entirety? Was it necessary to reenact the murder of Digowin as well?

I tell my daughter: Your husband is dead. Take the children and the scrolls and flee to the sunset. I can no longer teach you the songs.

The pain is unbearable. I tear off the mask.

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November 30, 1987 :
Chapter 1 -- Publication.

April 26, 2020 13:58:57 :
Chapter 1 -- Added to


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