|Oct/Nov 2006 Fiction|
"I have served in more raids than High Eagle."
The moment Walking Bear made this boast he knew how stupid it sounded, and Little Crow was quick to pounce on its flaws.
"Do you think that's how I decided whose marriage pelts to accept? By counting raids? And please, be honest. Served. What was it last time, some platters? Some tobacco from an unguarded Neshnabek village?"
"You know the risks. If I were caught, I'd be hanging from some Neshnabek post, my eyes smoked out of their holes." He noted the catch in her breath as he painted this image, and it gave him fleeting satisfaction.
"I did not say there were no risks."
"It's your father who wants you to marry High Eagle."
"I've told you that."
"You also told me you could bend him to your wishes. But you never tried. If you had, you'd be wearing my pelts. Wouldn't that be your first wish?"
Time froze in the teepee as he awaited her response. In the distance he could hear young braves trying to sound like the shamans with their Chichiaya chant: Missouratenouy, Missouratenouy...
"Isn't that what you told me?"
"I cannot say that, Walking Bear."
A knot of despair burned in his chest. In spite of everything, he still wanted to grab her; he imagined the points of her nipples flattening against him, her breath hot on his neck. "I'm leaving," he declared, forcing the image away. He snatched up his tote bundle and stepped toward the mouth of the teepee, moving with exaggerated abruptness, hoping to appear wholly driven by anger; though, in truth, he simply didn't want to hurt so much in her presence. Outside, the evening air was still warm as he strode past the medicine huts, past the corn fields and blotchy patches of wild onion, into an area of thick grass and low young cedars.
At some point he paused to look at the moon, a pale full disk whose light extended unexpected comfort. Did the moon comprehend loss? Did it put you into a kind of union with other pained beings who, perhaps in the same moment, were locked into the spell of its light? He had no way of knowing this, but in seasons to come, many seasons, from the precise spot where he stood, the swath of sky nestling the moon would be obscured by a raised urban railway. Hulking steel enclosures, rooms on wheels, would approach in a grinding roar, sucking force from a long fat rail. Occasionally this force could be seen, sparking free, then falling through the girders like a short-lived snow. I would be riding inside one night, next to Ellen LaFontaine, who would be talking about President Roosevelt, and Hitler, and the war clouds gathering in Europe.
"Who presented the pelts?"
"My brothers," replied Walking Bear. "Timbers and Strong Fox."
The old shaman nodded, his eyes narrowing to a look somewhere between thoughtful and sleepy. "This is good. There's hope then." He unrolled an embroidered cloth, which looked like something he might have obtained in trade with the French. He shook out some powder and, with a deft pinch, sprinkled some grains into a bowl of steaming liquid he had just brought in from the fire.
"Drink up," he said, passing the container to Walking Bear, who associated the musky aroma with the smell inside Bent Willow's harvest mask, the hollowed-out buffalo head which hung from a pole in the teepee. At the base of the pole was a mound of ox horns, some missing their tips, which most likely had been ground into medicines.
"Will this help?"
"...bring Little Crow back."
A quiver climbed the shaman's lip just before he burst into laughter, hard choking cackles, as he folded at the waist and rocked. When he looked up again his eyes were streaming with tears. "Son, I simply thought you'd enjoy some chervil root in your broth."
Walking Bear fumed. Strong Fox had been right. For something this critical he never should have settled for one of the shamans; he should have gone straight to the Medas, even if they did require more gifts for their services.
"I'm wasting my time."
"Wait." The word filled the teepee with surprising authority. Walking Bear felt trapped in the shaman's gaze, a decree of power and rigid intelligence set dead in the core of his pupils. Yet the wrinkles surrounding his eyes, and their soft tributaries, also testified to his gentler side.
"Are you certain your life would be better served if you had this wish, Walking Bear?”
"How do you know?"
"I know how I feel.”
Bent Willow puffed in amusement. "Tell me, as you look about this dodem, do you see husbands tired of their wives, and wives tired of their husbands, sometimes with little between them but despair? Do you think that every one of those sorry beings didn't know how they felt at some prior time, probably with the same sublime confidence you have?
"I'm not stupid, Bent Willow."
The shaman concurred with a subtle nod, which possibly had not been a nod at all, just that unintended shaking old people did as time made them infirm. Bent Willow reached into a pouch and withdrew a disk-shaped stone which, upon closer inspection, was some kind of gorget. Its surface was stained a cornflower blue, and set in the center, carved from horn, was a bone-white crescent which resembled the waning moon.
"Take this to a private place, hold it up to the stars and summon your wish. Don't say it--just hold the wish in your heart. If it is still Little Crow you desire, you must present her this gorget, which will bind her to you with a power greater than a hundred pelts."
"What if she doesn't accept?"
"Oh, she'll accept it, I promise that. But keep this in mind, Walking Bear. Once you have used the gorget's power, it cannot be called again for two generations."
As soon as it was dark, Walking Bear carried the gorget to an open field. He held it up to the sky as he had been told, questioning what it meant to hold the wish in your heart. But to a degree he did know. And, for moments, he became convinced he was achieving the required state as he felt welling tears, and his longing for Little Crow, and the intractable pain of the words, I cannot say that, Walking Bear. He was vigilant for signs of something happening, some strum of force, a stirring of spirits. The gorget felt substantial in his hand; it possessed a solid, heavier-than-expected quality which added to his faith in its powers. By now he had given it a name: Bone Moon. Everything had a name. His guardian Manito had a name: Moohswa-manetoa. The field where he stood had a name: East of Onions. In time this name would be forgotten, and the land would lie abandoned, under wind and snow and lightning and bird droppings. But in seasons to come, many seasons, as though names, themselves, were an inexorable force of nature, they would return in profusion, names so ingenious that you could convey remarkable precision simply by saying them: Randolph Street and Wabash. That is where Walking Bear stood as he held the gorget to the moon. This was the spot Ellen and I were crossing as we rode to Riverview Park on the Jackson-Howard elevated.
"Churchill's been dying to get Roosevelt into the war. Why do you think they're meeting right now in the middle of the Atlantic? They don't go to those lengths just to make newsreels."
It seemed like a smart thing to say. Being smart was essentially her gimmick, and probably the main theme of my attraction to her. But it wasn't enough. In the fall we were headed for separate colleges and, in truth, neither of us had been jumping through hoops to prolong our senior year fling. This was to be our final date, originally planned as a simple walk down State Street, but at the last minute Ellen had insisted on Riverview Park.
"The U.S. won't get into the war," I replied, wanting to keep the conversation going, preferably in a vein unlikely to turn maudlin.
"You don't know that."
"He hasn't got the support in Congress."
"They've already taken a secret vote."
She answered with a leading smile, meaning that I'd done it again, fallen for one of the ad-hoc "facts" she would toss into our running debates. I'd miss these dumb tricks we played, a dynamic which suddenly seemed like the strong suit dealt to a losing hand. "Oh, the President would win," Ellen continued, switching back to her serious tone, "but not by enough; it would have to be a unanimous vote."
The L hit a stretch of less frequent stops and, as it cruised at speed, it hummed out a kind of song, a low droning harmony, like a male chorus extending a mournful vowel. I spotted a sailor across the car, his arm around a young blonde with stiff moderate-sized breasts and a child's face that was also a woman's face, with tawny skin and full rosebud lips, shocked by their emergence from puberty. And it struck me. This was the beauty I craved. And in my new collegiate life I would find it. Whatever it took. The vow felt like something I had inhaled, traceable straight to the well of my stomach, to the balsamy sheen of my bones.
"I cannot accept this, Walking Bear."
"I'm promised to High Eagle. You know that."
"Please, take it. You don't have to marry me just because you accept it."
"I don't have to marry you, accept it or not."
"I'll just leave it."
"No. I don't want it. Take it and go."
Curse Bent Willow. The fraud. Oh, she'll accept it, I can promise that. Walking Bear wanted to pummel him; he imagined skipping upon him sideways, starting with some hard fast kicks to the knees. But what honor would there be in knocking the piss out of someone that old?
He returned to East of Onions where an almost full moon lit the rocks of the scruffy terrain. By now the spirit water was surging through him. The water made you feel things; it changed the way you thought, what you remembered, sometimes allowing you to sneak up on truths which might otherwise have eluded you, but damn if it didn't make it hard to walk.
Curse Bent Willow.
He headed down to the lake and continued up the shore, past the tanning pits, past some elms and patches of waist-high milkweed where, winters ago, braves had perished fighting off the encroaching Iroquois. Eventually he came to the junction of the River Checagou and followed its marshy bank, starting to sing, Nagamoon eli papankamwamanetoa, nagamoon eli mahkwa.... A song to the fox spirit. A song to the bear. Then something he spotted on the bank silenced him. It was like a canoe, but wider and more squared than any canoe he had seen. The sides were made of parallel slats, which looked like neither skin nor bark. The paddles--there were two of them--were held in place by fixed rings made of dark smooth material which felt cool to his touch. Was it metal? Who could force metal into shapes like this?
On the floor was a pile of beaver skins, and a number of soft bulging pouches. He climbed inside for a closer look, the bottom rocking beneath him as he dipped low on his knees for balance. One of the pouches was open. He reached through the opening and withdrew a handful of a dry flaky substance which he raised to his nose. It was tobacco--good tobacco--so why not tuck some in his belt?
"Qui Ltes vous?"
Walking Bear looked up and saw a man with hair on the wrong side of his head. No, actually, he had hair on top too, but the striking feature, which he initially took as a prank of the spirit water, was the billowing pelt streaming from the region where there should have been a mouth and chin. It was like the mane of an animal, which perhaps this was, though his body was entirely clothed--in fact preposterously clothed, considering the warmth of the night. He was wearing some kind of dark coat, closed at the top, then flaring away at the hips. An inner garment of lighter color covered his full chest and, running down the center, was a row of tiny disks, which lustered like polished metal.
"Qui Ltes vous?"
It sounded the same as the first time, and made not a bit more sense. Were these words? Was the Hairy Face simply grunting meaningless sounds? Walking Bear stepped out of the square canoe and took a cautious stride backwards, stumbling over a branch and, in the process of catching himself, he remembered something Bent Willow had once told him about the French: they spoke differently. It was like talking to the Shawnee, who occasionally had different words for things, but with the French it was every word.
"Who are you?" asked Walking Bear, doubting that he could be understood either. Wouldn't the problem apply both ways? He wasn't entirely sure. His own words made so much more sense.
"Qu' est-ce que vous faisiez mon bateau?"
The voice was louder, increasingly agitated. Could this Hairy Face, with his different words, be unaware of the problem?
"My name is Walking Bear." It seemed silly to speak at all, given the circumstances. But what else could you do? "I am of the Wea Clan of the Miami Nation."
The Hairy Face reached behind his back, withdrew a tubular object and pointed it. Walking Bear knew what this was. It was a death pole. You could train it upon someone and take their life just by willing it. The death transition was so instantaneous that it jarred even the afterworld, which would protest with a clap of thunder. There was talk that the Neshnabek had obtained a number of these weapons in trade.
"I mean no harm."
The Hairy Face jabbed the pole into Walking Bear's chest. His instinct was to run. He turned to scan the terrain and, as he did so, he became aware of the Hairy Face drawing the pole back like a club. A crack landed flush on his ear. The next thing he knew he was on the ground, his jaw working up and down while his mouth filled up with dirt. And through the pain, fluxing within its layers, he saw an image of crows pipe-dancing on flat-topped clouds. Two crows turned into four, four into eight, eight into puffy pink balls.
Riverview Park is a tumble of color. Red, green, yellow and violet lights, like edible gels, turn with the beams of the Ferris wheel. Blue running lights, with their cartoonish nautical glow, illuminate the sides of the Chute-the-Chutes boats. And gold, pure gold, glitters from Aladdin's turban as his big head stares out from his haunted castle. He smiles. Piercing, glottal screams resound from inside his fortress, and he smiles.
Ellen and I are walking down the Midway, holding hands, hopping through a range of topics, while avoiding the obvious one, though a stealth part of my mind is toying with possible constructions...
You know, I suppose we should acknowledge... No, too formal.
You know, even though neither of us considered this permanent... No, too self-justifying.
You know, I haven't regretted a single minute... Too false.
At the moment, however, Ellen is going on about the gravitational consequences of the first drop on the Bobs, or rather, my flawed understanding--she called it a common misconception--of the matter.
"You are not weightless. You're falling. That alone, proves you have weight."
"But you're weightless in relation to the seat. That's why your butt goes floating right out of it." I illustrate this with my hands: palm for the seat, fist for the floating butt.
"Great. But you're not weightless in relation to the Earth. Neither is the roller coaster, which probably weights a couple of tons."
"...only in relation to the Earth."
We continue in this vein through the Tilt-a-Whirl and the actual Bobs, but finally fall silent on the Ferris wheel, perhaps a little worn out, not just from our dialectic, but from the long, almost-satisfying year. The summer air has a dense buttery quality, like something you could shape. I watch a bug, a glowing pinpoint, zigzag toward one of the Ferris wheel lights, then vanish. After a number of cycles, the wheel begins stopping to let off riders, as the gondolas on our part of the arc stop one at a time at the top. Eventually, it is our turn at the crest, seat yawing, structure creaking; the night is almost over and a dull regret gnaws inside of me, not just over our looming separation, but over our squandered opportunity to have said something, anything, to honor whatever we were. Should we do it now? Should I be the one to start?
"Listen, Ellen, I think we should. . ."
She looks back with stark alarm, like someone snapping awake from dead sleep, trying to decide if an emergency has occurred. In the light wind her hair has become disheveled and wiry, a few isolated strands standing translucent in the gaudy lights. One's red. One's blue. She reaches into her purse, withdraws a small object, and hands it to me. It's coin-shaped, but larger and thicker than a coin; the flaked surface is mostly dark, with some lighter design in the center, a carving perhaps, which resembles a quarter moon.
"What is this?"
Instead of answering she leans forward and kisses me. For a moment I'm terrified that she has been smitten by some demon of emotional despair. What if she cries? What if this turns into a catharsis? Then I see it entirely differently: this is simply a good-bye kiss, perfectly measured and appropriate. So I kiss back, cautiously tender, carefully cool. That at least is my intention. But damn the libido. Damn the night. Damn the swelling erection.
He awoke in the middle of the night to find himself in a cramped chamber of three stone walls, with a fourth consisting of tall black bars. The spirit water was still surging through him, now in a deadening way, pulling him through a series of slogging dreams and abrupt awakenings. Upon one of these awakenings, amid some clanking, he became aware of an approaching figure, illuminated by the moonlight entering through openings in the adjacent chamber. He was not a Hairy Face, and his clothes were entirely different than those of the man who had clubbed him. He wore a long dark robe with a separate, lighter cloth draped over his shoulders. A wide belt traversed his middle, secured by a loose drooping knot.
"You are Chippewa," said the man, pausing just beyond the bars and stooping to his haunches. His hair was cropped short, curling slightly at the ends. A broad nose dominated his face, which flared into owl-like cheeks, a placid expression, impossible to penetrate. Walking Bear was at first surprised, then relieved to hear his own language, though at first he barely understood the poorly formed words. And it seemed such a strange thing to say. Why would someone tell him he was Chippewa? Then he realized: It was a question.
"I am Miami."
"Me-uh-mee," the man repeated, with too much emphasis at the end. "What is your name?"
"Woukeen Beah. I say right?"
"Wouking Bairrh. I am Brother Pierre. I come, I think, because I may help you. But you must tell me first: how is it you come to be here?"
"I was captured by one of your brothers."
"You must listen, Wouking Bairrh: it is for you I am here. You are a brother as much as this man."
"How can we be brothers?"
"We are both children of Christ."
"Who is Christ?"
"Kitchesmanetoa is God."
"We will discuss another time on this topic. You must understand now that you are in danger. I can help, but first you must tell me everything that happened this night. Each thing in total."
In the morning his head pounded so badly that he swore he'd never take the spirit water again, though, undoubtedly, the crack he had taken from the death pole was also contributing to his pain. He was not awake long before Brother Pierre returned with two men trailing behind him. One was a Hairy Face. For an instant Walking Bear thought it was the one who had clubbed him, but this man's face was thinner, his chin pelt less ample, even if his clothing was exactly the same: dark coat flaring away at the hips, over a lighter inner garment with the row of shiny disks running down the center, fastening the sides together.
The other newcomer was a short portly man with a head of cloudy white hair. He was wearing brown trousers and a silky top with sleeves that appeared increasingly ornate and cumbersome as they approached the cuffs, which terminated in ruffled embroideries. But the oddest thing about him was what he wore in front of his eyes: a pair of round hoops with nothing in them. Or was there? Every now and then, depending on how he turned his head, there seemed to be a glimmer of light.
"Speak only to me," Brother Pierre told Walking Bear, as he guided him through an opening in the bars. "It will be fine. If you need to know what the others are saying, I will tell it to you."
He was led into the adjacent chamber where the new Hairy Face and the fat one sat behind a surface supported on four wooden legs. He and Brother Pierre sat a short distance in front of them on structures Brother Pierre referred to as chaises. It was a little like squatting on tree stumps, except there were surfaces to accommodate one's back. On the far wall he spotted daylight; it came through a tall narrow opening, before which stood a man dressed in the Hairy Face manner, but possessing only normal hair, rigidly gripping a death pole, poised sideways across his chest.
"Stand up and say your name," Brother Pierre murmured into Walking Bear's ear.
He rose on unsteady knees. "Walking Bear."
The Hairy Face nodded, then motioned for him to sit. A moment later the fat one began to speak, his words bursting forth in a rapid hectoring cadence, while his head bobbed for emphasis. Every now and then he would consult a square parchment, which he held in one hand, his speech shifting to an entirely new rhythm --it was slower and more predictable: ta-da ta-da ta-da--as long as his eyes were on the parchment. And, yes, there was something in those eye hoops; it plainly had substance even if you could see right through it, something like sheer pure ice.
"Est-ce que vous êtes entré dans le bateau du soldat?" said the Hairy face, as soon as the fat one had finished. His gaze settled directly upon Walking Bear, as he clearly awaited a response.
"The Captain, he want to know if you entered the soldier's boat," said Brother Pierre.
"Oui," repeated Brother Pierre to the Hairy Face he had just referred to as the Captain. So oui was yes. It was a French word and he had understood it. He reeled to think of all the other things the French must have words for: trees, tent poles, penises, headaches.
The Captain spoke to him again, leaning forward with fox-like eyes.
"Now he want to know if you take anything from boat."
"I did not."
"Non. Pas de tout," Brother Pierre repeated.
The fat one rose and said something brusque. The Captain nodded, then turned to address the man at the entrance who was striding toward Walking bear, boots clopping, death pole wagging in his arm.
"It would be best if you stood," said Brother Pierre.
Once Walking Bear was on his feet, the man began to probe his belt, opening the pouches one at a time, until he came to the one with the tobacco, which he pinched up and deposited in front of the Captain. A spidery fear climbed Walking Bear's stomach. He could feel Brother Pierre's inquisitive, betrayed gaze, which he didn't want to return; instead, he glanced at the death pole, and noticed for the first time that the end of it was one long hole. That must be where your soul went, once it was sucked from your skin. What would that feel like? Would you still be subject to the pains of the flesh? Would you feel the sinews as they stretched and tore? How would Little Crow take the news? Would she even hear the news?
"Do not worry," said Brother Pierre. "Is okay. You are, in fact, now free."
Free? Had he understood correctly? His eyes locked onto the tobacco which still remained in front of the Captain in a compact accusatory mound.
"They do not worry about that," said Brother Pierre, following his gaze. "They confuse you with a Chippewa who took some armaments."
The relief touched him so profoundly that it was difficult to control his smarting eyes. He wished he had something to give Brother Pierre as a display of gratitude, but he had nothing save his tote belt, which he wasn't willing to sacrifice. Then he remembered: Bone Moon. Did Brother Pierre know how worthless it was? He could not recall how much he had told him the previous night under the influence of the spirit water. But what did it matter? A gift was a gift. And by nightfall he would be quite far away.
Your grandmother, of course, thought it was the gorget that brought us together. I've always believed it was the war or, more precisely, the letters we exchanged while I was in the Service. Those letters opened a portal to her soul which that callow young man out of high school, yet to know the pangs of homesickness--let alone mortal fear--would not have been ready to enter.
Perhaps you'll find your grandmother's version more to your liking. Or perhaps, like me, you'll find it hard to account for such superstition in the first woman physics professor at Northwestern University, even allowing for the fact that both gorget and story had been passed through her family for years, starting with her fur-trading ancestor, the former Brother Pierre. She even believed the part about Bone Moon's magic skipping generations, which is why, after her tragically early death in 1982, her final will directed me to set up this trust for you and not your parents. And by the way, happy twenty-first birthday.
You have not been born as I write, and it is not my intent to set up expectations for your literal belief in the more hocus pocus aspects of this, just because Bone Moon now passes to you. I live in a cynical time and I imagine that you will too. Yet, even in skepticism, I suspect you would take some inventory. One wish. Consciously or not, some part of you, I bet, would at least be compelled to ponder, to whittle it down, to isolate that singular thing.
And if you did that, you off in the New Millennium, in some futuristic-sounding year beginning with the improbable digit two, if you did that, I wonder what it would be.