Copyright 2016 Jonathan Cook
Published by Jonathan Cook at Shakespir
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Table of Contents
kiilhswa saakaciweeta (the sun emerges)
The sun burst from the earth.
Golden light swept into Myaamionki from the horizon. It illuminated the hilltops and open meadows. It shimmered through the treetops, infused the deep ravines with a luminous radiance, and then scattered over the shallows of the burbling creeks that emptied into the people’s river. The sunlight winked between the chattering leaves on the eastern shore of the Wabash River. It came sparkling across the waters and into the eyes of Little Owl.
He breathed deeply, straightening his shoulders and filling his chest. He soaked in the warmth of the sun’s return. An energetic gift to the land and its inhabitants, the sunlight warmed his heart as much as his skin.
He closed his eyes, smiled, and whispered a quick prayer to say thanks for the orb’s return from its journey through the core of the world.
The forest around him awakened to greet the day. A mourning dove cooed from the ferns near the riverbank. Cicadas trilled from the oak, maple, and redbud trees. A hungry woodpecker beat fiercely at deadwood.
“Miintikwa!” Owl’s uncle called out to him from his canoe, which drifted near the center of the river.
Little Owl waved at his uncle.
Standing in his boat, Nišihsa cupped his mouth with both hands. “Get on with it!” he shouted, trying to coax his nephew into the water. “The fish are waiting for you.”
“I do hope so, Uncle,” Owl replied.
Owl stepped from the riverbank and waded into the water.
The oblong stones which rested on the river-bottom kneaded at the soles of his feet. The cool water crept up his legs as he walked and soon the current was jostling at his waist.
“We’ve been on the river two days,” Owl said. “No luck yet. Will today be any different?”
“Today is our day! I can feel it. Down there,” Uncle motioned. “A catfish as big as you!”
“Yes, Nišihsa,” he agreed, trying to be hopeful.
Owl was eager to get into the water, but in truth it wasn’t fish he expected to see.
He threaded his net over his shoulder and tucked it close to his side. He drew in all the air he could and sunk beneath the surface.
Everything went silent. The water cut out the sounds of the forest above. The trilling and singing and pounding ended abruptly.
He headed for the depths. Owl drifted just above the rocky riverbed, stretching out his hands to feel for catfish, but only water rushed between his fingers.
He glided through the depths, wishing to bump into the soft flesh of one of the bottom-dwellers. He propelled himself forward, keeping to the bottom where the catfish usually rested. The riverbed stretched on before him, but it was empty.
Owl’s lungs pricked at his mind, reminding him of his need for air.
As he shot for the surface, he saw his uncle’s reflection rippling from above. He was leaning over the edge of his canoe, anticipating Owl’s return.
Little Owl broke through the surface and drew in air.
“Well?” his uncle asked impatiently.
Owl shook his head. “Nothing,” he said.
Uncle frowned. He lifted himself up and then stood in his canoe, scanning the river.
“Let’s try the cove,” he said, changing tactics. He pointed to a small confluence where a creek entered the Wabash. Uncle sat down and began to paddle.
Owl swam silently next to the boat.
His uncle’s impatience was unusual. Typically he enjoyed the leisure of fishing from his canoe with a net, or from a ledge along the river, but a lot was riding on this day. If it proved as fruitless as the past few, they likely would head home, something Nišihsa did not want. Neither did Owl. He wanted to continue their journey north and see the town of his ancestors.
They floated quietly, so they wouldn’t disturb any fish that might have retreated to the cove.
Owl held his breath and sunk into the depths.
The world above was cut off again.
The brightening sky above illuminated the cove below. It shimmered in shades of green and blue. He touched the sandy bottom with his toes, then he rested on his knees. Owl scanned the water column.
It was empty of fish.
Where were they? Had the Peeyankihšia really eaten them all? It was possible, Owl supposed. Their village was overflowing with hungry people.
There were no fish, but there were plenty of mussels. Their little tubes poked out of the sand near Owl’s feet. With fish scarce, he spent most of his time gathering mussels while the fishermen fretted over their lack of food.
Here, before his eyes, the mussels blanketed the riverbed.
Owl didn’t want to come up empty-handed again, so he scooped at the sand, freeing the living stones from their burrows, and then deposited them in his net.
For a moment, Owl imagined their soft innards would make an easy meal, but he abandoned the notion. The mussels were poisonous.
He didn’t want to leave the serene depths or the multitude of clams, but his lungs burned for air, so he tucked in his legs, pushed off the riverbed, and shot toward the sky. He breached the surface and sucked in air, then he swam to his uncle’s boat.
“Did you see catfish?”
“Still none,” he said.
Owl shook his head.
“Bass? Any fish at all?”
“No Uncle,” Owl said, disappointed.
Nišihsa stared out over the water. “We’ll find them,” he said with determination, though his voice betrayed a hint of weakening resolve.
Owl’s net still lay just below the surface, growing heavier by the moment.
When he discovered the shells last summer, he thought they were stones resting on the riverbed in patterns of earthy reds, purples, yellows, and greens. It wasn’t until they burrowed into the sand and sucked at the water that he realized they were alive. The inside of the shell was a rosy color and smooth to the touch.
Owl brightened. “There are a lot of mussels,” he said, hoping that his catch might cheer up his uncle. He tossed the net into the boat.
But his uncle only frowned at the wet mess.
Owl immediately realized that Nišihsa was in no mood for his collecting today. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ll get them out.”
Uncle shook his head. He stared at the net, seemingly transfixed. Would he dump it into the river? Nišihsa reached into his canoe. Singling out a small clam, he lifted it carefully between finger and thumb and examined its surface.
“This one is colorful,” he said finally.
Owl breathed a sigh of relief. Then he pulled himself up against the boat to see it more closely. Flecks of purple reflected from the surface of the shell, hinting at what lay hidden inside.
Indeed, it was pretty.
“You know what I’m thinking?” Uncle asked, winking at his nephew. He held it higher. “I’m thinking this would make a good necklace for Willow.”
Little Owl laughed, but then he shook his head. “No,” he said, his smile disappearing as he thought of the last time he and Willow had played together. “We really don’t hang out that much anymore.”
“So what?” Uncle pressed.
“So,” Owl explained. “Giving her something now would just be weird.”
“Bah,” Uncle retorted. “A gift is a great way to get reacquainted with an old friend.”
“A shell wouldn’t work with Willow,” Owl said. “Anyway, she’s with Sharp Knife these days, training to fight the Ciipaya.”
Uncle nodded silently for a moment and then he said, “I always did like Willow. You two were a good pair.”
Nišihsa was ignoring the fact that Sharp Knife was the fiercest fighter in the village.
“You know how her father feels about me,” Owl said. “About my family.”
“Yes,” Nišihsa said, disapprovingly, shaking his head.
For a moment, his uncle looked as if he might question Owl further about her, but then he turned back to his canoe.
“Anyway, your trinkets are fine. You can use my boat for your shells,” he said. “But let’s not give up on the fish yet.”
Owl nodded. He let go of the boat, turned and dove again. A few moments later he came back with another net full of mussels.
The day wore on. The sun climbed higher. The fish remained elusive, but the mussels just kept coming.
Uncle stared at the floor of his canoe. Dozens of multicolored clams shifted around the bottom of his boat like lethargic skipping stones. He put up his hands. “That’s enough,” he said, glancing about to see if the other fishermen saw what they were putting in the boat. The mussels were taboo. Everyone knew they were poisonous. Owl followed his uncle’s gaze. A couple fishermen were close by, but they were focused on their own tasks at hand and didn’t seem to notice Owl’s efforts.
It was late morning. Sitting down, Nišihsa sighed. He wiped the sweat from his brow. His shoulders slumped. Uncle’s darkening mood threatened to get worse, but just when hope seemed dim, he chuckled instead. He shook his head, but he was smiling now. “That’s enough clams for today,” he said more calmly.
“Let me ask you something, Nephew. “ he said, reflectively. “What do you want with so many mussels?” He seemed genuinely curious.
“I’m sorry,” Owl apologized. “I don’t know. I just love collecting them I guess.”
“That you do,” Nišihsa said. “You hardly notice anything else when you’re after them.”
“I don’t know what comes over me,” Owl said. “I can’t stop myself.”
“You should hold off for a couple days,” Nišihsa suggested.
“Okay.” Owl agreed.
“Perhaps you’ll find something new when we reach Waayaahtanonki,” Nišihsa offered.
Waayaahtanonki, At the Whirlpool was a village of the fifth age, the place of their emergence into this world, though no one had visited it in the generations since. Owl peered upriver as if he might catch a glimpse of the ancient town. “How much farther?”
“Two days,” his uncle answered. “Perhaps three.”
Owl began to imagine shells with strange new patterns and textures. “Most likely they’ll be different colors,” he supposed. “Perhaps of a kind never seen before.”
Suddenly, water lapped against the hull of a boat, interrupting Owl’s contemplations. A curious fisherman had approached quietly, catching them unaware. “How have you fared?” he asked. “You sure seemed busy with the net. Are you keeping the good fishing spots from the rest of us?” He joked.
The fisherman skirted by their canoe and peered into the boat. His hopeful expression quickly turned sour when he saw the mussels.
The fisherman cringed at the sight of the poisonous bottom-dwellers. “I should have known,” he said, looking at Owl. Disgusted, he paddled away as quickly as he had come.
“Don’t mind him,” Nišihsa said.
Owl and his uncle chose to ignore the man’s contempt, but the absence of fish today probably meant a quick end for their scouting. More than anything, Owl hoped to see the old abandoned town to the north, but it was likely too far for a scouting party with dashed hopes. Even worse than not seeing the town, if they went home now, the Peeyankihšia might go to war.
Little Owl hoisted the net of mussels over his shoulder, waded from the water, and stepped onto the sandy riverbank. His legs wobbled. After spending most of the morning in the river he had trouble steadying himself. He knelt for a moment to get his footing.
The fishermen had already left the water to gather on a sandbar nearby. The sun rose high and now struck the tops of their heads, so the fishermen gathered together under a sycamore as it leaned over the river. Its shadow stretched out onto the sandbar.
Owl walked gingerly toward the fishermen.
His muscles ached and he was starving. He complained to his uncle. “You beached our canoe. I had to carry them in myself,” Owl said, indicating the load on his shoulder.
“I was hungry and ready for a break,” his uncle explained. “Do you expect an old man to swim for shore?”
“You’re not that old,” Owl said. “And there’s nothing wrong with a good swim.”
The fisherman who sat next to his uncle chuckled. “The boy is right,” he said.
“Swimming is good for you,” Owl argued.
“What’s in the net?” another fisherman asked Owl.
He lowered it so that he could see.
“What is it?” another asked.
The first fisherman scowled. “Mussels,” he said, disdainfully.
Others also muttered their disapproval.
Owl ignored them. “The river here is full of them,” he said. “Much more than home.”
Another fisherman spoke up. “When I was a boy we rarely saw them,” he said, more neutrally. “It is strange to see so many.”
“What do you think it means?” another asked.
Nišihsa said, “It means that Raccoon and Otter will grow fat!”
Some of the men chuckled.
Another fisherman spoke up. He was Sandhill Crane.
“It is forbidden to eat them,” he said. “So many mussels surely must be a bad sign.”
If ever there was a curmudgeon among them, it was Crane.
“Rest,” Uncle said to Owl, choosing to direct the subject away from his nephew’s dearest pastime. He didn’t like where it was leading them, likely back home. “Eat,” Uncle said, and tossed Owl a pear.
To catch the fruit, Owl hastily dropped the dripping net to the ground, which struck the leg of a fisherman as he sat in the sand.
The fisherman recoiled. “Keep those filthy things off me,” he said angrily.
Owl pulled them away and quickly apologized.
The fisherman shook his head. “If you’d spend more time above the water than below, we’d have more fish,” he complained, as he brushed mud from his leg. “Worthless poisonous creatures!”
Owl dropped his pear into the hands of the fisherman whose leg he muddied.
His uncle quickly tossed him another, and then with a sweeping hand he proclaimed, “All is forgiven.”
The muddied fisherman took a quick bite of the fruit and then nodded in agreement.
“They do make good necklaces,” Nišihsa said, arguing for his nephew’s interests.
A few of the men laughed.
“The people need fish. Not trinkets,” another said.
“He will be a boy only a little longer,” Uncle told the other fishermen. “Why not let him have his fun?”
They only frowned. Since they weren’t doing so well with the essential task at hand – fishing for food, they were in no mood for talk of play while there was work to be done. Yesterday they found an old weir and spent the evening repairing it by adding wooden stakes in the shallows. They hoped to trap fish overnight, but alas, it was empty at dawn. The morning was spent trying to find fish to drive into the trap. They fared about the same as Owl and Nišihsa, not one fish all morning.
Uncle cleared his throat. “The people will split again, as we did in the fifth world. Then we’ll have two towns, our old Peeyankihšionki, and then a resettlement of Waayaahtanonki.”
“I am not as confident as you,” Sandhill Crane said. “As we’ve seen today, it’s no better here.”
“Waayaahtanonki is four days journey up the Wabash,” Nišihsa said, defending his position.
“Yes, from Peeyankihšionki, but we are now only two days away from Waayaahtanonki. Fish are just as scarce. Do you think it will be any better there?”
“If we don’t find fish in the north, the council may decide to go to war with our enemy,” Nišihsa said.
Everyone grew still. It was a divisive comment, one to draw a line in the sand. Owl was surprised to hear it, but then supposed that Uncle decided to be direct and bring out the question likely on everyone’s mind. More than ever before, it seemed obvious to Owl that most of them wanted to go home. And they were willing to go home, even if it meant forcing war on the Ciipaya by invading their lands to the south, something the Peeyankihšia had never done. Was his uncle the only one truly averse to fighting?
A moment later, Nišihsa broke the silence. “No one has lived at Waayaahtanonki since we emerged,” he said, in a more hopeful tone. “There will be plenty to eat.”
Some of the fishermen nodded, choosing to agree with their elder, but was it more out of wishful thinking rather than any real faith that there would be food at the ancient site?
They grew silent again.
Owl held his pear with his teeth and secured his catch.
“Good net,” Nišihsa told Little Owl, trying to lift the conversation further. Uncle was in fact complementing his own handiwork. He had fashioned the net with the fibers of pawpaw tree bark, as nets were made, but this one he modified to Owl’s specifications to account for the peculiar way in which he used it to extract the mussels from the sandy river bottom. Owl was very proud of his net and cherished his uncle’s creation.
Owl nodded. He carefully set the net down into the canoe and took a bite of his own pear.
“You have crafted an excellent net, Uncle,” Owl said proudly.
Nišihsa smiled and nodded, thanking him for the compliment.
“Good at shell harvesting,” Sandhill Crane said. “But the question is, will catfish find his way inside?”
Owl ate his pear and soon grew restless. His muscles recovered and he felt like getting back into the water, so he stood and walked a few paces toward the river, and then made his way to the other side of the sandbar.
Owl looked out across their beloved river. A week earlier, when his uncle mentioned the trip, Owl jumped at the chance to explore the Wabash to the north. If it went well, they might even make it all the way to Waayaahtanonki (At the Whirlpool), the old abandoned village, and the subject of Owl’s imaginings for as long as he could remember.
For two days now they had been on the river, slowly making their way upstream, lingering at the best fishing spots. It was early afternoon on the second day when they reached the point that marked a boundary few had passed since the people emerged into the sixth world five generations ago. The Peeyankihšia avoided the lands to the northeast of their village.
Owl looked upstream, toward the unknown. Another couple days and they would reach Waayaahtanonki. The people of the fifth world abandoned Waayaahtanonki long ago and no one lived there in the sixth. The area was a place to avoid, a place where lingering ghosts and bad spirits were thought to dwell. In fact, no one within memory travelled to this point on the river. Rather, they hunted and fished to the west along Vermillion River and to the south along the Wabash, but only as far as Sugar Maple Tree Creek and along its course to the east. Their territory was small in the sixth world. The enemy of the people, the Ciipaya, fiercely blocked the south. But their home, Peeyankihšionki was overburdened at nearly a thousand people, so they must do something. As to what exactly to do, there was disagreement among the people. Some argued for braving the ghosts and going north, others were for fighting their way south. Nišihsa was among those who wanted to go north. He was done fighting the Ciipaya. He decided to try his luck with the fishermen and so he organized this scouting trip.
As the morning passed, they grew more restless, knowing that a decision was about to be made. Would they continue north toward evermore ill-possessed ground? We’ve proven fishing is no better here, some said. But were they in fact simply frightened? Fishermen were especially superstitious, Owl discovered. More than anyone, they held their fingers upon the pulse of the underworld, and it did seem to thrum particularly ominous as of late. Before they would even consider resettling the old town, shamans would come and cleanse the land of ghosts and spirits. No one among the fishermen really wished to go all the way to Waayaahtanonki this day, except for Uncle and Little Owl.
Owl was still holding onto hope that he might see the ancient village, but then he spied the eddy swirling just a few paces into the water. It was on the other side of the sandbar, exactly where it got deep. He unconsciously took a step back.
“Miintikwa?” Nišihsa asked after him. His uncle must have sensed his alarm. A moment later he was standing next to Owl, following his gaze.
One after another, the men stood and soon they were all watching the river, waiting to see if this was some aberration, a momentary disturbance, or if it was something more meaningful, a new but permanent contour in their river put there by manitou (nature spirits) as a sign. The riverbank remained hushed as the situation teetered on the brink of either possibility.
The eddy remained.
“This is a bad omen,” one man whispered, articulating what everyone else was thinking.
Whirlpools were linked to Mihšipinšiwa (Underwater Panther), a fearsome creature of the underworld, and deep water was thought to be a passage between the worlds. On any other day, a simple prayer, an offering of tobacco would have sufficed, and the fishermen would have carried on with their chores, but today was different. They were on the border of unknown territory, and this whirlpool gurgled loudly as it churned and carved a deep black hole out of the water.
Owl looked about the group of fishermen and frowned. Since childhood he had listened to the stories, whose conjured images were surely flashing before their eyes at present. They all held a fear of whirlpools, even Owl. His dread was immediate, like surprising a snake on a footpath. However, he was not going to let superstition get in the way of seeing the ancient site. He was eager to get underway and didn’t believe there was really anything to the disturbance in the water. Owl stepped from the beach and waded into the river. Before anyone knew what he was doing he was waist deep.
“Aapweeyohseelo!” Owl’s uncle scolded. “You walk back!”
Owl pretended he didn’t hear, took a big breath and dove into the water. He heard one fisherman gasp, but he was cut off. The stillness of big water shut out all airy sounds.
Owl had seen whirlpools firsthand. He had a unique perspective from summers of swimming underwater. Before his eyes, mysterious currents transformed from fearsome creatures into simple opposing water flow. The reflective surface denied those viewers from above the clarity necessary to see what currents really were. The occasional odd current in the river wasn’t mysterious. Beautiful yes, but not sinister. It was exquisite and divine of origin, a manitou to be respected, but not to be feared.
Water pressed at his ears and silenced the plethora of airy sounds from above. He dove deep and swam along the riverbed and as he did his ears acclimated to the watery world. From the distance, rapids rushed over a bed of rubble and the river rocks shuddered, clicked, and popped.
He began to see the outline of a disturbance in the water column. Despite his experience with similar phenomena, the motion of this whirlpool was indeed peculiar. Owl’s resolve faltered. Images welled up from stories he had heard since birth about Underwater Panther. As he approached, the details grew clearer. The water whirled, drawing air from above and swirling it into tiny water bubbles. Owl moved in.
Figures formed before him. Owl had never seen a current so substantial and constant. Most whirlpools disappeared after a few seconds. The conjured images in his head fused with what was before him and tiny panther effigies formed among the bubbles. He concentrated on one of them, hoping reality would prevail, but the little panther only grew more vivid. The wildcat turned its head to peer at him. Lips formed upon the tiny shimmering surface. They mouthed words. Owl strained to read them, but could not. Again, the panther mouthed the words. He concentrated. And he finally understood.
Owl felt water rushing around him. It shook away the vision and his understanding quickly evaporated.
He thought, what an odd place to daydream, at the bottom of a river? What had the tiny panther said? The words left him as quickly as they had come, but he did remember it was something about awakening.
The whirlpool rose before him. He thought of the ancient village and how much he wanted to see it. He knew the false notions of the fishermen had to be dispelled. Only he could do it, so he mustered his courage and propelled himself through the whirlpool. He felt the pressure of the whirling water, but his momentum broke through. Despite its persistence, it wasn’t strong enough to take him under. He spun around and entered the current again. Now it was even weaker. Again he rushed through, and then he stopped and rose to the surface.
Nišihsa looked on helplessly. Maybe the need to avoid war was as much on Owl’s mind as his own, but Nišihsa also knew how desperately Owl wanted to see the town from the fifth world. In the last war with the Ciipaya, the boy had lost his entire paternal line, his father and his grandfather, and his uncle. The Meehšimeelwia family line was severed that day. At the time, Little Owl was too young for them to tell the stories of their hero, the secret stories that only his elders knew. So lacking this connection to his fathers, in many ways Owl felt alone. His eagerness in seeing the old town surely must come from what the boy sensed was missing, but Nišihsa hadn’t expected the boy would risk drowning over it.
He knew what Owl was up to. His nephew intended to use his diving skills to find out what made the swirling current and to convince the fishermen that the whirlpool meant nothing. How far would he go to see the old town?
The whirlpool churned steadily, but there was no sign of Owl.
He was a good swimmer, perhaps the best among the Peeyankihšia, especially below the surface of the water, mainly because he could hold his breath longer than anyone. He spent more time in the water than not, but this whirlpool made Nišihsa nervous.
“Owl!” he shouted, his voice echoing along the banks of the Wabash. Another few moments passed. He couldn’t stand by any longer. He waded in. But then, as if on cue, the boy surfaced at the center of the whirlpool. His presence there disrupted the water-flow. The whirlpool disappeared and then reappeared again, but it was obvious now that the churning was not strong enough to take him under. His nephew raised a hand toward the men gathered on the shore.
“I’m alright,” Owl shouted. “You see? It’s nothing!”
Nišihsa waved to his nephew.
Sandhill Crane walked to Nišihsa, shaking his head.
“Your boy has gone too far,” he whispered. “Tempting Mihšipinšiwa like this.”
Nišihsa nodded agreement. “It is true,” he said.
“When will the boy enter the Rite?”
Nišihsa shook his head. “Soon,” he said, reluctantly.
Crane nodded. “The sooner the better,” he said.
Sandhill Crane spoke of the Rite of Passage, one that all boys and girls went through when they were of age. For many participants, the Rite was a proud moment of transition. It brought purpose into their lives. Nišihsa did not agree, but he was in the minority among the people. Perhaps it wasn’t always so, but more often than not these days, it seemed to be rigged. Most all of the young people were coming out with war totems. Those with power argued that the predominance of war totems was just another sign that fighting the Ciipaya was the answer to their problems. The manitou were simply preparing them. All the talk of fighting added fuel to that fire. Nišihsa saw no real connection with the manitou during the Rite. Personally, he preferred the sweat lodge for gleaning information from the spirits. Furthermore, Nišihsa feared that for Little Owl, the Rite would surely be staged, given the current political climate. The Meehšimeelwia family had fallen out of favor and Owl was the last of the line. It would be easy to give Owl a war totem and send him directly south. Thus ending forever the influence of the descendants of the Great-horned Owl. Nišihsa would have to think of something to protect his nephew.
Sandhill Crane tipped his head toward the whirlpool. “We will be going back now you know,” Crane said. “The fishermen won’t paddle even one more stroke north.”
Nišihsa sighed. “I know. So many generations have passed since the end of the last age. I had hoped the manitou and the northlands were cleansed of the trauma by now,” he said. “We are now a step closer to war.”
“There’s a season for everything,” Crane said, and then he turned and addressed the whole group. “I think I speak for all of us. Fishing is no better here and the whirlpool is a sign for us to turn back. We can just as easily fish on the way home, as upriver.”
Several of the fishermen nodded agreement and they all moved toward their boats.
Despite Owl’s attempts at dissuading them, the fishermen held steadfast to their view that the whirlpool was a sign meant to send them home. None would pass, even with the threat of war. The group abandoned their scouting of Waayaahtanonki and began the journey home. The lack of fish did much to depress them. Everyone knew Peeyankihšionki was too crowded, but they were wrong to take the northlands on themselves. This was work meant for a shaman, that is, if they were going to settle these lands again.
As for Owl, his disrespect for the omen had soured the fishermen more than his collecting of the mussels ever had. All the way home, if they weren’t pretending he didn’t exist, they were scowling at him. Swimming into the whirlpool was a bad idea, he decided. Even his uncle’s mood had darkened. His idea to scout for fish toward Waayaahtanonki had ended in disaster.
When they arrived at their old town, they unloaded their tools, their weapons, and their meager catch, and made their way up the muddy riverbank.
The fishermen said their goodbyes and left for their homes.
Nišihsa turned to Owl. He smiled at his nephew.
“We have to talk,” he said.
Nišihsa put a hand on each of Owl’s shoulders. “Your elders are pushing for you to enter the Rite of Passage.”
“Is this about the whirlpool?” he asked, disgusted. “It’s not what they think.”
Uncle shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s not only the fishermen. Others have also suggested it is your time.”
“The council,” Nišihsa said.
“What?” Owl said. “Why do they care when I go through it?”
“Don’t worry so much about who,” he said. “Just listen. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“What choice do I have?” Owl asked. It wasn’t so much fishermen who benefited from the ritual. The warriors were the focus of the ritual and although Owl knew how to fight, he didn’t feel like it was his calling. No, he wasn’t eager for the Rite, but he knew everyone went through it. There were no exceptions. Everyone among his people had a guardian totem and the Rite was the way to get one.
“I may have an alternative,” Uncle said.
“What?” Owl asked, perplexed. “How?”
“I need to consider it more. In the meantime, try not to draw attention to yourself.” Uncle looked suspiciously about and then back to him. “And don’t commit to anything.”
“Uncle,” Owl said, shaking his head. “What alternative? You’re not speaking of the sweat lodge are you? That’s no substitute for the Rite.”
Nišihsa shook his head. “No, my nephew,” he said. “This is no elusion. In many ways, what I am proposing is more dangerous.”
“More dangerous?” Owl asked. “Why would I want to do this if it’s more dangerous?”
“Because you don’t want to be deceived,” Uncle said. “And you don’t want to go to war.”
Owl wasn’t sure what to say.
“Do you trust me?” Uncle asked.
Owl nodded. “Of course,” he said. Truly he did. Besides his mother, Nišihsa was perhaps the only one he felt he could trust completely.
Dusk was on the verge of giving way to the night. The cicadas wound down their chanting, so that the katydids could begin their trill night song. Nišihsa left his house and made his way among the people who were settling in for the evening. Stoking fires and gathering children, they waved as he passed. He was on his way to the councilhouse. The town council was gathering for the evening. By the time he passed the threshold at the entrance, it was well underway. He found a spot to sit and listen.
Nišihsa remained silent for most of the night as hunters, farmers, and gatherers spoke of what was troubling them. They spoke of dwindling food stores and lack of game or fish. A farmer and her daughter talked about their fields and of depleted soil. A scout spoke of the conspicuous absence of the Ciipaya. Others related the odd behavior of animals in the surrounding forests. One in particular had noticed a deer, spooked and trembling as if hunted to exhaustion, but no pursuer appeared.
Many who had gathered remained silent. They came just to hear about the latest issues and happenings which were troubling the people.
As the evening wore on, the silence between them grew and Nišihsa decided it was time to speak for Owl, to reveal what he had in mind. He stood, cleared his throat, and then requested to speak.
“Vision seeking in the wilds? In place of the Rite of Passage?”
“Why?” The councilman asked, genuinely curious. Nišihsa could tell from his tone that he couldn’t imagine a boy or girl wanting to do this.
“Why not,” Nišihsa said, stubbornly.
“Because the custom is that youth go through the Rite of Passage,” the councilman said, stating the obvious.
“I ask only that we again honor vision seeking in the wilds as our ancestors once did.”
“What is your particular interest in this, Nišihsa?” The councilman asked.
“My nephew, Little Owl,” he said. “It is his time for a totem.”
The councilman nodded. “Ah, yes, the diver,” he said. “The boy who fishes for clams.”
A soft wave of laughter passed over the council house. Nišihsa did not see the humor in the councilman’s words. He only frowned and looked about disapprovingly.
“Why set the boy apart?” The councilman asked. “Why not let him join his friends in the Rite?”
“I don’t feel that my nephew is meant for war,” he said, bringing to light his suspicion that the Rite was focused on delivering recruits for an invasion into their ancient enemy’s territory, rather than a more balanced set of vocations. “Though he is strong and knows how to fight, his place is on the river. He is a fisherman.”
“What does the Rite of Passage have to do with war?” the councilman asked.
Nišihsa chuckled, his voice betraying a bit of apprehension. “Everyone that comes out of the Rite ends up with a totem of war,” he said.
Leaping Fox, an active participant in the Rite and a war party leader cleared his throat and shuffled from foot to foot. Nišihsa supposed he might speak, but he chose instead to keep silent for the time being.
“No one has sought a vision in the wilds for five generations,” the councilman said, obviously sidestepping the accusation. “The last to try it came back without his mind. He remained a simpleton for the rest of his days.”
The subtle laughter filled the house again. When the observers grew still, Nišihsa said, “Not true. There were others. In fact, the boy’s grandfather sought the spirits in the wild. And he came back whole.”
The head of council considered Nišihsa, contemptuously.
Leaping Fox interjected finally, “Except that he advocated peace with the Ciipaya,” he said with a tone full of disapproval.
Some nodded and agreed with Leaping Fox’s sentiment. The consensus here was a view that opposed the idea of peace with their enemy.
“With all do respect, Leaping Fox,” Nišihsa said. “There is nothing unreasonable or weak-minded about wanting peace.”
The war party leader’s eyes grew wide. “Do you think the Ciipaya would honor peace?” He challenged. “I have seen what they are capable of. And I can tell you, they would not.”
Nišihsa bowed respectfully and then nodded. With no hint of pretension, but with reluctance and regret, he said softly, “I have seen it too.”
The councilhouse fell silent. No one dared to challenge that assertion. They all knew Nišihsa had once been among the most skilled and courageous warriors. He had lived through dozens of battles.
“But how can we say for sure?” Nišihsa asked. “A peace accord was never even discussed, let alone attempted.”
He turned back to the councilman. The councilman looked as if he wished Nišihsa would just go away. He had quickly lost interest in arguing about vision seeking and didn’t want their impromptu debate to get out of hand. After all, the evening was nearly at an end.
“The priests tells us the manitou still suffer from the trauma of the last age,” the councilman said. “It is risky to interact with them. Are you willing to send him off in the face of such danger?”
“The risk is not as great as they would have us believe.” Nišihsa said. “The time has come for our youth to get acquainted with the forest manitou again. If my nephew chooses vision seeking, will the council honor his chosen totem?”
The councilman nodded, somewhat reluctantly. “If the boy wishes to risk madness, he can go. Yes, we will honor it.”
“Will the priests?” Nišihsa pressed.
The councilman frowned and waved his hands. He shook his head. “I cannot speak for the priests. Little Owl will have to announce his intent to bow out of the Rite of Passage at the opening ceremony. Let the boy ask for their blessing.”
Nišihsa nodded and said, “Thank you, councilman. I will let the boy know.”
He bowed and left the councilhouse without any further word. He felt satisfied with the result, though he had hoped Little Owl could avoid the opening ceremony. He wished his nephew wouldn’t have to go through a public pronouncement. There was the potential for humiliation. But arguing against it was likely of no use. Nišihsa got what he came for. He supposed it was a small price to pay to avoid a pointless death at the hands of Ciipaya.
He stepped into the fresh night air. The stars were spread liberally across the sky. Nišihsa had a full view of them from the hill at town center. The celestial beacons hovered just above the trees by the river and stretched along the great dome above their town and fell down toward the depths of their hunting grounds in the forests to the west. The katydids lay hidden in the treetops and were in full swing now. The peoples’ fires smoldered, mere embers now. Most were asleep at this late hour.
The Peeyankihšia really had no business invading their enemy’s homeland, Nišihsa thought. They ought to migrate north. It was, after all, where they had come from, where they had entered this world.
“Vision seeking?” Owl asked in disbelief. “Are you sure?”
“I think it is your best choice,” Uncle said. “But it won’t be easy.”
Lately, Nišihsa spoke a lot about how it was time for Owl to turn to the manitou. It was time for him to fashion a little more respect for the spirits, his uncle would say. But talk of connecting with the manitou normally led to the Rite. Had his stunt at the whirlpool brought this on?
Owl recalled the story of the last vision seeker, about how badly it had ended for him.
“Didn’t the last to go seek vision in the wilds lose his mind?” Owl asked.
Uncle shook his head. “Your grandfather sought the manitou and survived.”
Owl considered. That didn’t surprise him. “I didn’t know,” Owl said. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“You were very young,” Uncle said.
Owl nodded. “I’ve heard that before,” he said.
“You lost so much that day.” He spoke of the battle in which Owl’s entire paternal line had been killed. His eyes grew distant as he remembered. Nišihsa was there too. He was one of the few survivors.
“It wasn’t only that you were too young. Your grandfather kept his visions to himself. That’s just the way he was.”
“Did you do it?” Owl asked his uncle. “Did you go into the wilds?”
“No,” Uncle said, shaking his head. “We spoke of it, your grandfather and I. And your uncle. There were a few of us who wished to bring back the old way. But after they were killed, the rest of us lost heart. I dreamed of going on a vision quest. Of finding a totem on my own terms.” He shook his head. “But it didn’t work out. I entered the Rite just like everybody else.”
He seemed disappointed, but then his eyes lit up. “I was lucky,” he said. “I still made a real connection. Badger is a good totem for me. I think he would have found me in the wilds anyway.”
“Badger is a warrior’s totem, isn’t he?”
Uncle nodded. “Yes, he is. But he can also be a strong healer and a channeler of energies.”
“Just like you,” Owl said, proudly. It’s what Uncle did when he guided those participating in a sweat lodge ceremony.
The manitou of the Rite were animal totems, the principal essence of the species which didn’t die. But more generally, they were the subtle presence living in the world, and could be something besides an animal. They could be the essence of a place. A manitou could inhabit a field or a forest. They could whisper from the boughs or the brambles, abide in the rocks or in the roots of a giant tree. A spirit might lie quietly in the still waters of their ponds, or chatter ceaselessly in the gurgling creeks and rushing rivers. They were above and in the earth. And below it. In vision seeking, your totem could be any one of these. The intent of vision seeking was to connect with them.
He did like this idea.
But there were supposed risks. Through stories told in the winter months, the elders warned young men and women to be wary of the manitou. They were cross, the old sages said. The stories described great upheaval at the end of the last age, which affected everyone, supposedly even the manitou. Owl shuddered at the thought, of something so catastrophic as to rattle the spirits. The truth was, Owl sensed the spirits, but he was more curious than fearful. Their stories said be wary and watch for omens. Owl simply wanted to know more.
Despite the trouble he caused upriver, his courage had only risen after swimming headlong into the whirlpool. Why did he feel different than his elders? Was he wrong, in fact? Did he misperceive things? Or had the demeanor of the manitou really changed in the last generation or so? Perhaps they had finally regained peace. Owl couldn’t say for sure, but perhaps he was about to find out.
Vision seeking belonged to the last age. Some called it Crying for a Dream, a state of mind born out of the peoples’ struggle as they fought against extinction in the prior world and for survival as they emerged into this one. Seeking vision was for people needing direction. Did he need direction? In one sense, no. He knew exactly how he wanted to spend his days – on the river.
In the Rite, there were only a small number of animal spirits. You were placed under the guardianship of one and you felt a kinship with those who shared your totem. Vision seeking was a different story. You sought out the animal totem in the wilds. And so it could be anything. Owl was curious about this idea, of seeking an animal spirit, but no one among the people did this anymore. What would his be? Deer was a possible totem. Or it might be that his namesake, Owl was his guardian animal spirit. Who am I? What do I love? These were questions of vision seekers.
What’s more, visions were often powerful communions for the seeker. Would the manitou return to him what was torn away by the last war? Could it stand in for his father or his grandfather and impart the secret knowledge of his Meehšimeelwia ancestors?
As for the journey, it was a terrifying prospect. To seek a vision meant fasting for many days alone in the forest. It meant pitting yourself against predators and Ciipaya alike. Owl knew he couldn’t go on delaying it. It was going to be one of two choices, either subject himself to the whims of those behind the Rite, or face the latent dangers in the surrounding forests.
He thought of the ancient village to the north. His imagination ran wild about the old town. It was one of his favorite things to do with so much talk among his mother’s clan about the potential split and resettlement.
Suddenly, he had a thought. Why not let vision seeking take him there, to seek his totem among the forests surrounding the ancient town? It was a delightful idea that filled him with enthusiasm the moment it crossed his mind.
Trouble was, it was a long way upstream. Not an easy task to be on the river so long. And this time he would be alone. Had his uncle considered this? He did want to go north. But perhaps he hadn’t considered it for Owl’s vision seeking. No, he couldn’t imagine Nišihsa suggesting that he go all the way there alone.
The journey home would be downstream. He imagined napping all the way back.
What about the ghosts? He thought to himself.
Well, he was seeking spirits after all. That was the point. Perhaps this vision quest was just the thing. It was perfect in fact.
His elders discouraged going out into the woods alone. In the company of others, he would likely never get to explore just for the sake of exploring. While vision seeking, there would be no one to dissuade him. Owl decided he would go, but he also decided he would need to keep the particulars of his plan to himself.
“What do you say, Little Owl?” Uncle asked. “Do you trust me?”
“Wonderful,” Nišihsa said. He looked relieved.
“What do I have to do?” Owl asked. “Must I go before the council?”
Nišihsa shook his head. “I’ve already been to council about this matter,” Uncle said.
Owl felt relieved that his uncle did this for him. “What did they say?” he asked.
“Well,” Uncle said. “They won’t stop you.”
“Okay, good,” Owl said. “What’s next?”
He suspected that his uncle would have him go through the sweat lodge next for purification.
“You will still have to go to the Rite,” Uncle said.
“What?” Owl asked. “But why?”
“Just for the opening ceremony,” Uncle said. “You’ll have to announce that you’re seeking your totem in the wilds instead of through the Rite. Hopefully the priests will accept this as the council did.”
“In front of everyone?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Nišihsa said.
A group of boys, some older and some younger than Owl turned to him as he entered the fields of the Rite. They were from other Peeyankihšia clans. He didn’t know them very well.
“What are you doing here?” one boy asked.
“Today is the Rite of Passage,” Owl said, surprised at the question.
They looked at one another and snickered.
“But I heard you’re not going through the Rite,” another said.
Word travelled fast. Surely Uncle would not have spoken to anyone. Owl thought of the council. Had they spread the word?
Owl turned to face the totem hopefuls. “I’m here, aren’t I?” he said.
“You’re just going to tell them you won’t accept the divination of your totem,” the first boy said.
Little Owl shook his head. He didn’t care what these boys thought, but then he wondered about Willow. What brought her to mind, he didn’t know. Perhaps because she recently went through this ritual. Owl had been an onlooker that day. She was a warrior, so it meant a lot to her to go through the Rite. She had won several games for her team. And when it came time for the divination, the priest saw Badger as her totem, just like his uncle, the sign of a fierce warrior. She wasn’t here today, likely patrolling the forests, training and preparing for war. But Owl wondered what would Willow think of him when she found out that he shirked out of the Rite?
Owl looked around the field. He saw his Uncle among the onlookers. His mother was there too. Owl believed his uncle, about what was really going on with the Rite, but most people thought he was crazy. And most would think Owl was avoiding responsibility.
The councilman raised his hands. He served as master of ceremonies for the Rite today. He circled slowly, gaining the attention of all those present.
“It is time to begin,” he shouted. “Will the totem hopefuls come forward please?”
Yes, now was the time. Uncle and his mother trained their eyes on him. They were expecting him to announce his vision seeking, to put the question before the council and thus ask for the blessing of the people.
The boys and girls converged on the master. Facing the councilman, each of them promised acceptance of whatever totem revealed itself to them today.
If the boys knew what Owl and his uncle planned, then surely many of those present knew as well. The crowd seemed large today. The spectators were likely anxious to hear his words. Were they here just to ogle him? Would they sneer? Would they laugh? Would they think less of him? What would the onlookers decide?
The boys who had questioned him were each making their promises now. One by one, they accepted, were momentarily dismissed, and ran onto the field to join their friends.
The master, knowing each of them, called their names as they appeared before him.
Owl was next.
The councilman looked curious. He probably wondered what he was waiting on, perhaps he was already expecting Owl to announce that he was eluding the Rite.
Owl squared off in front of him.
“Little Owl,” he announced. “Will you accept your totem today?”
Here it was, the moment when he would show everyone what he thought of this Rite and how brave he was to seek vision in the wilds. Prove to those boys that he had more courage than they. And prove to Willow that he was special. He looked up at the master, who surely was expecting his defiant pronouncement.
Instead, Owl nodded his acceptance, bowed to the councilman, and then passed by. He entered the field. All eyes were trained upon him, he knew. He could feel his face turning red.
As he approached the other hopefuls, they turned and eyed him with smiles.
“You decided to stay?” one asked.
Owl nodded, timidly, not sure what to expect.
“You play handball, right?”
Handball was one of his favorite games and pastimes when he wasn’t on the river. “I do,” Owl told the boy.
“Well come on then,” he said. “You can be on our team.”
Owl joined them, relieved that he was being included, despite his original intent to bow out. He glanced at his mother and uncle. They both waved at him. He waved back.
“Do you have corn?” the boy asked Owl.
Owl shook his head. He didn’t know what he meant.
“Here,” the boy said, reaching into his pocket and producing a handful of corn kernels. “You’ll need this for later.” He gave Owl about half of his kernels. Owl took them and put them in his pocket.
“Thanks,” he said.
They played handball for the rest of the day. It was like most other days when his friends would meet in the fields to play games, except for the presence of the council and the priests and so many onlookers. Little Owl felt like he was being judged. But once they got to playing and laughing, he nearly forgot about them.
The day was nearly done. It wasn’t so bad, after all. Owl had proved himself in the games on the field. He had scored several points for his team.
The master of the Rite and a priest stood at the place where the field met the hillside. They were all tucked just under the canopy. The master was there to oversee the divination ritual. The priest did the reading that would determine their totems. Bedrock protruded from the hillside and several mortars lay in the exposed stone. Used for grinding corn and nuts, they were ancient. Peeyankihšia of the last age ground their corn here. Now these smooth depressions in the rock were considered sacred and were only used for the Rite. An apprentice to the priest knelt before one of the mortars. He held a pestle like a walking stick. Each of the youth brought a handful of corn from home, which had jostled around in their pockets all day. When it was their turn, they handed their corn to the apprentice. He took it, lay it in the mortar and ground it with his pestle, humming and singing a sacred song as he did. When it was ground, he fished it out of the mortar, cupped the meal in his hand, and gave it to the priest. The priest eyed the dry meal. Then he knelt and spread it over the stone. Reaching for a water skin, he poured it over the cornmeal on the stone. The water trickled out, caught in the miniature flow, and coagulated to form strange shapes that only the priest could read. Supposedly, the events of the day on the field influenced what the priest saw. The priest examined the dampened cornmeal and its shapes in order to divine their totem animal. This is what Nišihsa claimed was a farce.
The boy just ahead of him got Cougar. What an excellent totem, Owl thought, the hallmark of a warrior. It was a totem thought to draw out courage, loyalty, and responsibility from the warrior. A warrior with Cougar as his totem might one day be a leader. Owl wondered if his might also be Cougar. The other totems which had expressed themselves today were Badger, Boar, and Bee, all signs of a warrior.
“Little Owl,” the master addressed him.
Owl felt proud of his performance, despite the fact that his choosing to stay likely meant that he would soon join a scouting party headed for the south. Uncle would not be pleased.
Owl reached into his pocket and produced his kernels of corn. He handed them to the priest.
The priest took them and cast them into the mortar. He said a quick prayer as the apprentice ground them. When he was finished, he reached in, scooped up the cornmeal and handed it to the priest. The priest took it and spread it over the bedrock next to him. He reached for the water skin and gently poured it over the maize. Leaning in, he examined the curdling meal. His future was about to crystalized before him.
The priest turned to Owl and cleared his throat. “Miintikwa,” he said. “Your totem is Beaver.”
“Beaver?” Owl said, the shock in his voice apparent.
The priest was taken aback. The master of the Rite shushed Owl, scolding him for speaking out. The apprentice only looked amused. But Little Owl hadn’t meant to speak out loud. It’s just that the priest’s choice of totem for him was such a shock. Beaver was not a warrior’s totem at all. It was a gatherer’s totem. Rather than wait for an answer to his unintended question, Owl bowed, formally accepting the totem. He felt his cheeks turn crimson. He left the circle with slumped shoulders.
“What happened?” Nišihsa asked. “Did you change your mind?”
Owl shook his head. “I messed up,” he said. “I was afraid everyone would laugh at me.”
Owl swept up to his uncle. “Did you hear what they gave me?” he asked.
Uncle nodded, casting his eyes downward.
“Beaver?” Owl said. “Why would they give me Beaver when everyone else is getting warrior totems?”
“Don’t take offense, nephew,” Nišihsa said. “I never imagined it would go that way, but don’t let them bother you. Beaver isn’t so bad.”
“Beaver is a gatherer,” Owl protested. “Next they’ll make me wapingwatah. Is this because of what I did at the whirlpool?” he asked his uncle. “Or because I collect the mussels? It’s punishment, isn’t it?”
Nišihsa shook his head. “I suggest you don’t take this personally,” he offered. “On the bright side, you won’t be going south to fight the Ciipaya.”
Owl thought of his familial line, the Meehšimeelwians. “This is about my father and grandfather,” Owl said. “Because they wanted peace.”
“Not outside the realm of possibility,” Uncle agreed. “But are you sure you feel no connection with this manitou?”
Owl shook his head. “Beaver is not right for me. I made a mistake,” he said. “I only entered the Rite because I was angry. I was worried about what they would think of me.”
Uncle nodded. “True, those are not good reasons to go through with something,” Uncle said, somewhat reluctantly.
“Please, Uncle,” Owl implored, sensing that it was his safety that was weighing so heavily on his uncle’s mind at present. “I want to seek vision in the wilds. Is it too late?”
Nišihsa gripped Owl’s shoulder, concern for his nephew showing in his eyes. He shook his head. “It is not too late,” he declared. “If you feel that Beaver is not right for you.”
He patted his nephew on the back. They turned and began walking away from the Rite. “You should keep looking,” he said. “But one thing. I think it best if we keep quiet about what’s coming next,” Nišihsa said. “We won’t make a fuss.”
“What do you mean?” Owl asked.
“Your preparations for vision seeking,” Nišihsa said. “And the totem you find in the wilds, your true totem,” Nišihsa said. “You’ll have to keep that to yourself. Are you okay with that?”
Owl considered. “I think so,” he said, not entirely sure what the implications were.
“Good. We’ll start with the sweat lodge. You’ll need to start your fasting soon,” Uncle said, his mind beginning to work now. “There is much to do. I’ll need a day to prepare and then we’ll begin.”
Owl hoped to rest the next morning and to keep to himself, but just as dawn was overcoming the darkness, his aunt shook him awake. Then she set him to work. He helped the women of his mother’s clan as they prepared for the day. At first, Owl enjoyed working and talking with his relatives about the latest happenings, but by mid-morning he grew weary of it. His vision seeking ceremony would be tomorrow. That meant only one day remained for play, so as he worked on yet another task given to him by his aunt, Owl stopped chatting so much and soon drifted away. Finally seeing his chance at escape, he put down his tools and fled.
He met with his friend Hare. They ran to the riverbank, crawled into a canoe and made for the confluence of the Vermillion River, their favorite place to swim, because it was away from town and away from their families and any work that grownups might find for them. However, today something besides swimming drew Owl and his friend to the banks of the Vermillion.
Poor harvests of the past few seasons had forced the Peeyankihšia farmers onto new ground. And now for the first time since entering the sixth world, five generations in all, they were clearing new fields. But neither was it simply the newly cleared fields that drew the boys to the riverbank. Rather, what drew them was the farmers and what they had found in the earth. In their digging they uncovered peculiar artifacts in the soil. What in fact came out of the ground the boys didn’t know. What information they had, came from eavesdropping on others and the matter was spoken of only in whispers. Truth be told, no one knew what was coming out of the ground. The artifacts disappeared as soon as they were unearthed, likely hidden away by the priests.
They paddled across the Wabash and then up the swift waters of the Vermillion. They beached their canoe among the reeds and then dove into the shallows.
The boys drifted into the deeper part of the channel. They dove to the bottom and swam in the depths.
After a few moments, Hare came up, but Owl hugged the riverbed a while longer.
Finally Owl surfaced. The boys tread water.
“I’m going into the wilds to find my totem,” Owl said.
“That’s daring. I haven’t heard of anyone doing that for—” he said, thinking for a moment. “Forever come to think of it. You didn’t get enough soul-searching and scrutiny at the Rite?”
“I’m serious,” Owl said.
His friend nodded. “True. You are serious. Going off to get yourself killed,” Hare said, and then he reached for the top of Owl’s head and pushed him under.
When Owl surfaced again, he did so with eyes narrowed.
“Are you fasting?” Hare asked, ignoring his friend’s look.
“I start tonight,” Owl said. “My uncle is having a sweat lodge ceremony for me.”
“In the morning,” Owl said.
“You should be stuffing your face with food right now,” Hare said.
“Why?” Little Owl asked.
“How can you be asking that?” Hare said. “You won’t be eating for days. Maybe weeks. You’ll starve to death unless you eat everything you can get your hands on.”
His friend had a point.
Hare turned and began to swim toward the middle of the river. “Let’s go,” he said.
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see,” Hare said.
Owl kicked at the water to catch up to his friend.
They swam across the Vermillion and came out on its opposite shore. They waded through the grass and walked along a trail. When they came upon a maize field, Hare stopped.
“What are we doing?”
“You’ve heard the stories,” Hare said. “Don’t you want to see what they’re finding out there?”
“But these aren’t the new fields,” Owl said.
“I know,” Hare said, smiling and pointing across the open space. “The new fields are through those trees, just beyond this field.”
“You’re hungry aren’t you?” Hare asked.
“Yeah,” Owl said. “Why?”
“We’ll walk through and pick a bite to eat on our way to the new fields,” he said.
Owl shook his head. “It’s not harvest time. You know they’ll kill us if they catch us in there.”
Hare looked about. “Do you see anybody?”
Owl looked across the field. “Well no,” he admitted.
“How are they going to kill us then?” Hare said, and then he walked into the field.
On cue, Owl’s stomach growled. He could do nothing but follow his friend.
Endless rows of maize stretched across the field, but with little rain this season, the stalks were too short. Harvest would likely be meager again. Owl and Hare sped down the rows between the stunted cornstalks and tiptoed over the vines of withering squash and bean plants.
They made their way across the field. They didn’t speak a word to each other. Owl suspected Hare was equally worried by what they saw, such a pitiful sight.
Unfortunately for Owl there were hardly any vegetables worth stealing. The field angled to the west and they followed a grove of peach trees, which divided sections of the crops. Hare did manage to find a couple of shoots of young beans and one tiny ear of corn.
“Sorry buddy,” Hare said, offering the corn to his friend. “Care for a taste?”
Owl took the cob and sunk his teeth into it. Despite its small size, it did taste good.
Suddenly, they came upon a group of women tending the fields. Owl and Hare froze. The women looked up.
The crop tenders and the boys were equally startled.
Finally, one of the women began to shout at them.
“Get out of there!” She raised her hands, threatening the boys. “Put that down!” she said to Owl about the maize in his hand.
The other women joined in and they started toward them waving their tools menacingly.
Owl and Hare ran for the woods. The women followed, but the boys soon outdistanced them. They ran on until the women’s voices faded into the distance. They sprinted up and down a couple of hills into the depths of the forest before they felt it was safe to stop. They stood at the base of a steep cliff.
Their chests heaved to suck in air. Owl’s lungs burned. He bent over trying to catch his breath.
“Did we shake them?”
“I think so.”
“I told you they’d be angry.”
Owl glanced about warily. The wrath of the women had driven them well inside the forest. The boys were far from the brambles that bordered their village and fields and the trees towered like giants. The shadowy gaps between their colossal trunks seemingly hushed the forest floor. Owl thought of his vision seeking and he realized that this would be his world for the next few days, alone in the depths of the wilderness.
Suddenly he felt the need to tell someone about what he planned, if only to check himself, to make sure it wasn’t complete suicide to do what he was contemplating. He thought of Hare. He was pretty good at keeping secrets.
“I’m going to Waayaahtanonki,” Owl said flatly.
“What did you say?”
“You heard me,” Owl said. “I’m going there on my vision quest. To go see the ancient town.”
For a long time, Hare considered what Owl was saying.
Here it comes, Owl thought, cursing himself silently for telling his secret. I shouldn’t have told a soul.
“That’s brilliant,” Hare said finally, surprising Owl. “Brilliant, but crazy too.”
Owl couldn’t help but laugh. His friend knew him too well.
“But that’s a long way to walk,” Hare said.
“I’m not walking,” Owl said.
“You’re not walking?”
Owl shook his head. “I’m taking the river,” he said.
Hare considered. “Well that does fit you pretty well,” he said, then he grew serious.
“What is it?” Owl asked.
“Just thinking about the ancestors of your father.” Hare patted Owl on the shoulder. “Perhaps you’ll find the place where your grandfather led us into the sixth world.”
Owl nodded, appreciating his friend’s sentiment, a rare emotion for Hare.
“Or perhaps a bear will find you and chase you home,” he said.
Hare laughed and Owl suddenly became aware of a hushed stillness over the woods. Hare’s laughter echoed among the cliffs. They were being too loud, he realized.
Owl caught movement out of the corner of his eye. It was a subtle shift of a shadow from the cliff above where they stood. Several large trees were anchored in the hillside. He thought he saw someone disappear behind one of them.
“Knowing you, you’d swim—”
Owl silenced Hare.
“Did you see that?” he whispered.
Hare peered in the direction of Owl’s gaze.
“Maybe,” Hare whispered. “I think I did see something move up there. Maybe the women.”
Owl shook his head. “There’s no way they could’ve gotten around us and up that hill.”
The forest seemed hushed, oppressive, and suddenly darkened. The boys waited in silence. The shadows appeared to lengthen as they watched the woods. Nothing moved. Their apprehension grew with the darkness.
“Ciipaya?” Hare whispered.
“I don’t want wait to find out,” Owl said. “Let’s get back to the river.”
They turned and began to walk back the way they came.
Owl heard a whisper. He stopped. “Did you hear that?” he asked.
Hare glanced at Owl. He looked at him curiously, but then shook his head.
What was going on? He risked a look back up the hill to the tree. It was farther away now, in an even greater degree of shadow. Owl could’ve sworn he saw the profile of a figure peering around the back of the tree, but it was black and hard to say for sure. It narrowed subtly, as if slowly melting in with the tree. He didn’t mention what he saw to Hare. He only wanted to get out of there. One last thought crossed his mind. Had the phantom figure heard what he told Hare about going to Waayaahtanonki? Owl shuddered at the thought. Hare had also spoken of Owl’s Meehšimeelwian ancestors. This was something Owl never mentioned lightly, especially in unknown company. This worried him even more.
They made their way back toward the field and found the women back at work. The boys stayed along the edge of the woods, avoiding the farmers until they found the river again.
Owl suddenly thought of their reason for coming, the strange artifacts buried in the new fields.
“Wait,” he said.
Hare stopped and turned to his friend.
“What about the new fields?” Owl asked.
Hare looked unsure. He glanced back the way they had come. Owl thought he saw a hint of fear in his friend’s eyes. Hare shook his head.
“Maybe another day,” Owl said, feeling as equally spooked as his friend.
They swam across the river, retrieved their canoe, and then headed back home.
Little Owl awoke to the dim light of dawn filtering through the wall near his bunk. The broad sheets of elm bark usually kept the wind, the rain, and sunlight out of their home, but a strip of the bark had pulled away from its seam, which let the early morning light shine into his eyes. His younger brother snored from a bunk beside his. Beyond his brother, his mother slept peaceably. They shared the longhouse with another family of his mother’s clan, who also slept soundly, but across the open aisle. He sat up in his bunk and waited for the dreariness to leave his head. A day of fasting and then a day in the sweat lodge stood between Owl and the beginning of his vision seeking.
The fire had died down in the night. The air in the house was cool, despite it being the beginning of summer. Owl rubbed his arms for warmth and to sooth his aching muscles.
He leapt out of his bunk, landed on the mat floor, and then crept to the fire pit at the center of their house. He knelt and blew at the grey embers. The ashes danced away and the embers glowed red again. Owl lay a couple of pieces of wood over the revived embers and stoked the fire. Soon flames were leaping up around the wood. They popped and crackled.
Someone stirred in their bunk.
“Owl?” she called. It was his mother.
“Here by the fire,” he said in a whisper.
His mother came down from her bed and joined Owl.
“Nišihsa tells me you will be seeking your spirit totem,” she said.
“Your uncle is very pleased,” she said. “And I’m happy for you. I will worry about you, but it is good that you will do this.”
“What do you think it will be like?” he asked.
“Terrifying,” she admitted, rubbing her shoulders briskly.
Owl moaned. “I expected something encouraging from you,” he said, smiling.
She touched his cheek and then pulled his head to her and squeezed him just a little too tightly. She kissed the top of his head and then let him go.
“More than ever before, you need the truth,” she said. “Much to my dismay, vision seeking is meant to pitch you out of your mother’s house!”
“What advice do you have for me, mother?” Owl asked.
She leaned in.
“You will want to give in,” she said. “You’ll begin to see anything as a sign of your totem. Just make sure you really feel it. Look in your heart. And if there is a question there, then you are not done. Just move on. Know this, despite your doubts, your manitou will come. When he does, you will know for sure.”
Owl wasn’t exactly sure what his mother meant. He really had no idea what his totem might be. Easily a couple dozen animals whirled around in his head. She must have sensed his confusion.
“What I mean is don’t take the first animal that scurries in front of you,” she said.
Owl nodded agreement. “How do you know so much about seeking vision?”
“Your father and grandfather spoke of it,” she said.
“I wish they were here,” Owl said. “Or at least that I had been old enough so that they could tell me some of what they knew.”
“In the absence of your father, my brother has done well by you,” she said.
“Yes, of course,” Owl said. “If I didn’t have Uncle, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
“Even still,” Mother said. “I know you’ve felt like an outsider where the council is concerned. The Meehšimeelwians were once very influential. And for good reason. They were a wise bunch. With the loss of your father and grandfather, the people have suffered as you and I have suffered,” his mother said. “This could be your chance to regain the secret knowledge. And perhaps a place at council.”
“Do you really think the manitou can do that?”
His scalp tingled. Though his mother had never spoken directly of the shift in power since their death, Owl had felt it. His father and grandfather died in a Ciipaya raid when he was very young and so they never introduced him at council. But why had the leaders not called upon him? As he grew older, Owl sensed the lack of trust and respect, virtues that he hoped he was living by. As a direct ancestor of Meehšimeelwia, he felt it would be an honor to serve on the council. Instead, he was a simple fisherman. Nothing more. Owl loved being on the river and he was wary of going down the path toward paranoia, but something was truly amiss. Thoughts of living up to this ancestral precedence nagged at him and so he did have a desire to fulfill the tradition of his fathers before him who had a place at council. It was a paternal line, rather than the familial lines which defined an individual’s sense of who they were. He belonged to his mother’s clan, but the Meehšimeelwia line was special too.
Owl felt a twinge of guilt. He realized that, rather than some sort of justice for his paternal line or a solution to the people’s troubles, it was really his own burning curiosity about Waayaahtanonki that motivated him. He suddenly felt a need to help someone besides himself. He thought of the game disappearing from the forest and the fish that had become so scarce.
“Is there anything I should ask of the manitou?” Owl asked.
“Questions for the manitou should come from your heart,” she said. “Not from what someone else thinks.”
“I mean, is there something they could do for the Peeyankihšia?” Owl pressed.
She put a hand to her heart and smiled. “It is a good question. Ask them as you burn the sage, with your dancing, your singing, and your prayers,” she said. “I’m sure they will answer you.”
Nišihsa was shaman, a role he acquired late in his life, mostly out of necessity. The people around him needed a shaman, rather than it being an inner calling. Nišihsa had always known a little about such matters, so he filled the role as best he could. Before long though, the people were seeking him out in earnest. It was strange. He had already been a warrior. And so tending to the spirits was like living an extra life on top of the one he already had. Nišihsa had once been a powerful fighter and was still highly revered by many. He fought against the Ciipaya, alongside Owl’s father and grandfather and uncle. That ended many years ago, when Owl was a small boy. There was a terrible battle between the Peeyankihšia and the Ciipaya. Many lost their lives. Tragically, the men of Owl’s paternal line were among the dead. Nišihsa, older brother to Owl’s mother, was one of only a few survivors. That battle marked the end of that war, although there was no compromise or clear truce reached. There were many theories as to why the fighting stopped, but likely the Ciipaya were as traumatized as the Peeyankihšia and so both sides simply ceased their raiding.
That battle changed Nišihsa. He never stopped grieving for the loss of so many loved ones. Years ago when he was still a young man, rather than fight again, Nišihsa became wapingwatah. Sometimes when old men’s careers were behind them, they turned to domestic chores. Mostly women and children gathered from the forests and tended the fields, but occasionally circumstances were such that a man became a gatherer and farmer and did other tasks normally done by women. Sometimes even young men felt a calling to become wapingwatah. It could also carry negative connotations on occasion when men were made into wapingwatah due to some wrong they committed against the people. If a man became wapingwatah, it wasn’t necessarily bad, but it could be. Nišihsa became wapingwatah because he gave up on life. He was ready for something new.
At the time, Nišihsa thought perhaps he had lived out his usefulness as a warrior, so he consigned himself to domestic work in his grief. But then one day he found that he liked to fish. In fact he got really good at it and soon he was out on the river from sun up to sundown. Later still, after becoming reacquainted with the manitou, he became shaman for the people, and so was made anew by purpose.
Owl was a small boy when his father was killed by Ciipaya. As Owl grew older, his uncle took him under his wing.
The dawn grew brighter and the dim sky gave way to the blue of a new day. Owl emerged from his home and made his way to the edge of town where they would meet to build the sweat lodge. As he walked, the question nagged at him about who was on the hillside above the cliffs spying on Owl and his friend. And did they overhear about who he was and where he was going? For all Owl knew, they might be at the ceremony. If it wasn’t Peeyankihšia, then who? Ciipaya? This was an even scarier thought.
Nišihsa explained that Owl must be cleansed for the sacred journey through the forest. He would be seeking assistance from the manitou. One must have a pure heart in order to hear them and to gain their sympathies. The sweat lodge would do the trick, the physical effects of the heat would coax negative energies from his body, and the fasting and accompanying prayers might just enlist their aid.
Two others, a man and a woman joined in the ceremony. The ceremony took place less often now and there were few among the people who knew the particulars of what to do at the sweat lodge, but Nišihsa knew who they were and invited them to Owl’s ceremony. Owl didn’t know much about them beyond their names. They lived in another part of town. They were Apahkwayaki (Cattail) and Saakipakahki (Leaves Emerge). The sweat lodge ceremony was for purification, not just for vision seeking.
They built the lodge from tall saplings fastened together with strips of hide. They dug holes in a circle around the pit for the base of the structure. They gathered stones to heat the small space. At the center they dug a pit, which would be used to hold the heated stones.
Owl took the sapling and set its end on the ground. As his uncle instructed, he shifted it into one of the holes. Then he reached high and took hold of the tip. He stepped backwards and at the same time pulled down on the little tree and walked to the other side of the structure. It arched over the pit in the center.
“Good,” Nišihsa said, nodding. “Now set it in the ground on the other side.”
Owl did as he was told. The others joined in. They did this with the other saplings and bound the trees together. When they were done, all the saplings together formed a lattice above the pit.
Nišihsa called for the hides to be brought in. Everyone helped carry them. Each of them took one and laid it over the structure. Soon it was covered. Nišihsa separated the skins on the eastern side of the lodge. This became the door, which faced east, toward the Dawnland.
They dug another pit a few paces away from the entrance. Uncle said the fire would be built there. Between the fire pit and the entrance, he set a post. At its base he set the skull of a deer. He lay sage and tobacco around the post.
“What is this for?” Owl asked about the post.
“That should keep you from stumbling into the fire when you emerge later.” his uncle said, chuckling.
One of the lodge fellows was adjusting the hides, making sure the whole thing was covered. Owl peered inside. It was now very dark within.
The fire keeper arrived. He greeted everyone and wished them a good cleansing of the soul. He gathered firewood and began stacking it up next to the pit. Nišihsa and the fire keeper carried the stones and set them carefully in the pit. Uncle called them the Stone People. The lodge fellows paused and welcomed them to their sacred space.
Nišihsa told everyone to gather outside the entrance. He stood at the door with the fire keeper.
“Are you ready to begin?” he asked.
Owl nodded, as did the others. They were ready. The fire keeper lit the stack of wood and then coaxed it into a nice blaze. Nišihsa took out a bundle of cedar shavings and asked the fire keeper to light them. Soon the bundle was smoking.
“Come,” Nišihsa said, waving them forward.
Cattail went first. He stood before Nišihsa. Uncle moved the bundle of cedar just over Cattail’s body, letting the smoke steep his skin. Nišihsa said a prayer and asked him to go in. Cattail thanked him and then ducked into the lodge. Leaves Emerge followed with Nišihsa performing the same smudging and prayer. Just before ducking into the lodge, she turned to Owl to gauge how he was doing. Owl smiled, indicating that he was ready. Nišihsa smudged Owl with the cedar smoke.
The scent livened his senses.
“Go in like this,” Uncle said to Owl, making a circular motion with his hand, showing which side of the interior to follow.
“May you gain the courage to let go of all that does not serve you,” Nišihsa said as Owl ducked into the lodge.
Owl climbed inside and immediately felt as if he had entered a realm adjacent to the one he was used to, one of stillness and space, one conducive to any amount of contemplations a person might wish for. He felt like he had entered the earth.
They sat down together. The space was dim, but some light did filter in from the flap at the door, which was held slightly open. Soon, Owl expected it would be pitch black, after everyone was in and the flap closed. The ceremony came in cycles. This first sweat was all about the darkness after the sun set in the west. It represented the place that the people occupied, as mortals in the dark.
Nišihsa entered the room. Once inside and the door was closed, Nišihsa became Miteewa, shaman for the group.
“Is everyone comfortable?” he asked.
They all nodded.
Nišihsa called to the doorkeeper to close the flap. A moment later the space plunged into darkness.
“You may leave at any time. If the heat gets to be too much for you, just give the signal and I will help you out,” Miteewa said. “Now let’s sit in silence and please reflect on what your heart says about why you are here.”
Everyone grew still. It was so quiet that Owl could hear the crackling of the fire outside on the other side of the post.
A short while later, Nišihsa called for the flap to be opened. Light shone in again. The fire keeper ambled in with the first set of stones, cradled in an animal skin soaked with water to keep it from burning up. The stones were red hot. He rushed in with them and knelt before the pit in the center of the lodge. He lifted the skin so that the stones tumbled into the pit.
The fire keeper went back for another load of rocks. Soon he was back in and setting the load into the pit.
When he finished, he closed the flap. Darkness fell over them again. Now there was only a bit of light, the red glow of the stones at the center of the lodge.
A drum began to beat steadily. It had an unusual quality. Owl soon realized that it was a water drum, one of his favorite instruments in fact, though he rarely heard it.
The water in the drum jostled with each strike of the drumstick. A soft and subtle sound rose, like a chorus of baby birds. Their voices quickly synchronized until only one singer called out. Though Owl knew it came from the drum, somehow it sounded as if the voice sang from far away beyond the wall of the sweat lodge. Suddenly, the drummer began beating his instrument harder and faster. Each new beat brought the singer seemingly closer to the lodge fellows. In the red glowing chamber Owl imagined a gathering of forest manitou dancing to the watery rhythm.
Miteewa stood and Owl’s vision of singer and dancers disappeared like vapor.
“We call on you, spirits of the land of the setting sun.” His uncle faced west. “We sing prayers to you and the Stone People glow red for you, so that the blackness where you dwell may have a bit of light.”
Miteewa angled slightly in the warming space to face a new direction.
“Spirits to the north, light us up with courage. Help us to be honest and clean of body and spirit.”
He turned again.
“Spirits of the Dawnland, we honor your wisdom. Help us to keep an open heart in order to reflect it in our own lives.”
Miteewa turned again and faced the last direction.
“Spirits of the south, draw upon all the powers of the others so that we may heal our wounds and move into prosperity.”
Miteewa poured water over the fire. It hissed and steamed. Soon the steam and the heat reached Owl’s arms and legs.
Miteewa returned to his own place beside Little Owl. He stood for a moment.
“Now that I’ve sealed the circle, we return to the west and settle into the darkness there. This will be a good time to reflect on your own mortality.”
Miteewa pressed his palms together and touched them just below his lips. He whispered a short prayer to himself, bowed, and sat down.
The lodge fellows settled into quiet contemplation and the chamber grew hotter with each passing moment.
It wasn’t long before Owl’s belly grumbled. Soon it felt like it would sink in on itself. The night before, Owl broke his fast and ate dried fish and pawpaw fruit and drank water. Preferably the seeker took in nothing, but if he absolutely had to eat, these were permitted. They were thought to be conducive to visions anyway. He knew they would soon be sweated out of him. He hadn’t eaten anything at breakfast, so by mid-morning he felt like lying down.
He had never fasted before. Already, he decided he wasn’t very good at it.
Owl spent the entire day in the sacred space with the others, singing at times, praying at others, and sometimes just sitting in quiet meditation. Just before noon, Miteewa called for an end to the first round. When Owl emerged, he was blind and cold, despite the summer sun beating down on him. He stumbled around, squinting and gripping his own shoulders. He looked down at the deer skull and the post and now understood perfectly the reason for them. Without them, he might indeed have stumbled into the fire.
Eventually, he recovered his senses. All the lodge fellows walked around, stretching their arms and legs, and enjoying the afternoon light. They gathered together at the base of a maple tree and chatted about the goings-on in the town.
Cattail and Leaves Emerge sat with Little Owl. Nišihsa had told them that he was preparing to seek vision.
“Be careful in the forests,” Cattail said. “Danger lurks there.”
Owl wasn’t surprised to hear this. He knew he would be especially susceptible to predators.
“Cougar?” Owl asked.
“Indeed, you should always keep an eye out for Cougar,” he said. “But what I mean is that the forests are especially bewitched these days.”
“People are coming out of the woods with strange stories.”
“Don’t scare the boy unnecessarily,” Leaves Emerge said.
“I’m merely giving him proper warning,” Cattail said.
If Cattail only knew what Little Owl was really planning for his vision seeking, a journey into lands no one had seen since the last age, then he might offer him more than a warning.
Owl thought of their old enemy. If they happened to stumble upon him, they would take advantage of his weakened state.
“Do you mean Ciipaya?” he asked.
“Yes,” Cattail said. “Yawning Bear saw one of them a couple days ago. I think you were up river when it happened. Everyone in town was talking about it.”
Owl tried to think of the last time anyone encountered Ciipaya.
“Yawning Bear told me what happened. He was gathering roots near the river. When he looked up, there was the Dark One, within whispering distance. The grin on his face showed what thoughts he shared with Yawning Bear. They both knew he could have easily killed him. But then the Ciipaya bolted and just went running through the woods. They are a strange race in any case, but the way this one behaved, Yawning Bear wondered if he had lost his mind.”
“But then Yawning Bear realized why Ciipaya didn’t kill him.”
“Just a feeling. And he recalled the look in his eyes.”
“Why didn’t the Dark One kill him?” Owl asked.
Cattail leaned in. “Because something bigger is on its way,” he said.
Owl shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he said.
Leaves Emerges snorted her contempt for Cattail telling the story to Little Owl.
“You’re doing this just to frighten him!” she scolded. And then she stood up and left.
Cattail watched her stomp away. He chuckled. “I think she is the one who is frightened.” He considered her for a moment more, then turned back to Owl.
“I’ll explain about what I mean by something bigger on its way,” Cattail said. “Imagine you were being hunted by Cougar.”
“That’s trouble enough,” Cattail said. “But then let’s say a thunderstorm sweeps in.
“Like the violent ones we get in the summer?” Owl asked, helping out with the story.
“Exactly,” Cattail said. “The biggest you’ve ever seen. When it sweeps in, suddenly Cougar is much less concerned with you than he is with the fire lighting the sky. The whole thing turns from hunter and prey to something more. That is, you both are running for your life.”
It was a strange thought, that a Peeyankihšia and a Ciipaya would be running together. Cattail was an unusual man with atypical ideas. Owl supposed that Uncle was beginning to keep company with folks who held views like his own.
They sat together under the tree as the burning orb touched the treetops and the summer light dimmed. Nearer to the horizon, the sun began to fall faster toward the surface of the earth. Once there, it would begin its nightly journey to the core. Their world was mostly a mystery. Though dusk was closing in on them, they continued talking about what they did know.
For reasons that were beyond the people, the last world came to an end, but the Peeyankihšia were spared. The stories said they were chosen in some sense, but those particulars were vague. The Ciipaya were not of the prior world. They did not exist there with the people. When the Peeyankihšia passed through the threshold into the sixth world, as the story went, the Ciipaya took advantage of the opening, and forced their way through. No one knew exactly where they came from. They walked as the Peeyankihšia did, on two legs. They made weapons, or at least used them, as the people did. They lived in groups and had babies, but that’s where the similarities ceased. They were deathly pale in appearance, but dark in character. The Ciipaya had eyes that were the deepest black. Strangely, their features bordered on gaunt, though beneath their skin stretched powerful muscles. This pale appearance was the source of one name the people had for them and their character another. Ciipaya meant soul of the dead. They also called them the Dark Ones. They were rumored to live in caves, but no one knew for sure. One story held that they worshipped Mishiginebig (Great-horned Serpent), a denizen of the underworld.
They were sinister creatures, bent on the destruction of the Peeyankihšia. The Ciipaya were fierce fighters. In one-on-one combat, only the most experienced and strongest Peeyankihšia were a match for them. They lived to the south in such numbers that the people dared not hunt or gather there. In past generations, encounters occurred daily. War was ongoing. The burden of being prepared for battle at a moment’s notice was handed down from parent to child.
One day the constant pressure from the south, which had gone on for generations, abruptly ceased. The people began to see fewer of the Ciipaya within the borders of their lands. For the past few seasons the people rarely saw them. No one knew exactly why. Warring for so many years, the Peeyankihšia had learned to always keep an eye out for the Dark Ones.
The only people in the sixth world were the Peeyankihšia, but they did have knowledge of other tribes. Their stories told them that once there were many different peoples. But all that ended at the end of the fifth world. The Peeyankihšia had only their own. And the Ciipaya. But the Peeyankihšia did not know them as people. Sometimes in contemplations and philosophical discussions within council, this topic would rise. Were they human? Many considered the Ciipaya existing somehow at the same time between this world and the underworld, though none could prove it. There were accounts of unnatural feats of the Ciipaya, witnessed by warriors in the heat of battle.
There was a problem with Owl’s plan. He had no idea where the old village was. Before, he was looking to the fishermen to lead him there. Without them, he might just miss it and paddle right by the site.
“How is it that we know about the fifth world?” he asked his uncle. “I mean, how do we know where the villages were, since no one has been there since long ago?”
“I learned from my father,” Uncle said.
“How did he learn?”
“From our ancestors,” Uncle said.
“And how did they know?”
Nišihsa chuckled, realizing that this could go on forever. “We have maps,” he said.
“Maps,” Owl repeated, not understanding.
“What are maps?” Owl asked.
“Remember how we draw in the earth sometimes when we talk about where we’re going in the river or across the land?”
Owl remembered many times crouching down to gather around someone, and watching as they scratched at the ground and told of where a place was. It helped to see where they were going on the river or over land. Owl nodded.
“Maps are like those markings, but they are made on skins,” he said. “Jumping Frog is keeper of the maps. He is very good at reading them.”
Nišihsa considered Owl. He seemed to be contemplating something. Owl hoped he hadn’t guessed his plans.
His uncle continued staring at him.
Owl was sure he had guessed. “What’s wrong?” he asked finally.
“I’m thinking it would be good for you to see them,” Nišihsa said, patting him on the shoulder. “Since you will be so far into the woods alone for the first time.”
Relief washed over Owl. Apparently his uncle hadn’t guessed his plans. Owl nodded. “I’d like that,” he said.
“I’ll speak to Akooka. To arrange for you to see the maps,” his uncle said.
Owl arrived at the sweat lodge before anyone else. He sat in the dirt just on the other side of the fire pit and waited for the others. Finally, Cattail arrived.
“Where is Leaves Emerge?” Owl asked.
“On her way,” Cattail said. “Help me gather the firewood?”
“Yes,” Owl said.
“We’ll set them next to the fire pit,” Cattail said.
He pulled a couple of branches out of the bundle of firewood to use as kindling. He broke them into smaller pieces and was about to toss one on the fire when Cattail held up his hands.
“No,” he said. “That is for the fire keeper.”
“It’s a sacred task. We’ll wait for him. He will arrange the pieces.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t know. Just set them next to the fire pit.”
Later, Nišihsa came up the hill with a stranger. Owl hoped he was the mapkeeper.
“This is Eempihsaaci Akooka (Jumping Frog),” Owl’s uncle said.
In his hands were two bundles wrapped in protective fur.
“Akooka is mapkeeper,” Uncle said. “Shall we take a look at your maps?”
They sat together on the ground. Sunlight streamed from the east into the clearing.
The fire keeper arrived and greeted everyone. He thanks Cattail and Owl for helping gather the wood.
As Akooka prepared to show the maps, the fire keeper began to sing. Owl recognized it as a sacred song, one to clear a space of negative energies.
Jumping Frog sat one bundle down. Carefully, he opened the other one. They leaned in. Inside, was an very old tanned deer skin.
“These were brought from the fifth world,” Akooka said.
Owl’s scalp tingled. He imagined the hands which touched these skins, hands belonging to people born of another world, perhaps even Meehšimeelwia (Great-horned Owl) himself had touched them.
Thin etchings marked the ancient skin, some stretched all the way across the hide, while others were short. Some came together and others went apart in different directions.
“This map,” Akooka said, indicating the one he held in his hands, “shows the lands to the north. As you may know, this is territory that no one among us has seen for many generations.”
Akooka’s hand passed over the skin. He pointed at a spot toward the bottom. “Imagine we are here,” he said, “This is Waapaahšiki.” His hand swept over the etching of their beloved river, toward the top of the skin. “This way is upstream,” he said. Owl began to understand. Each of the lines were rivers or creeks and where they came together were confluences and where they stretched apart ended in headwaters.
“Here is Peeyankihšia,” Akooka said, pointing to the bottom again. “Away this way goes the Vermillion River.” His hand traced upstream to the northwest from the Wabash.
His hand swept from side to side above their village. “As you know, our people never go north beyond this line.”
“Listen close, nephew,” Uncle told Owl, as if reading his mind.
Akooka eyed Owl and then his uncle, then he went back to the map.
So far, there was no mention of the old village. How would he approach the question?
“This one,” he said, tapping the skin. “Sugar Maple Tree Creek. You see where it joins the Wabash?” He was asking Owl.
Owl broke off his contemplations. He nodded. “I see,” he said to Akooka.
“To go farther south is to risk running into Ciipaya,” the mapkeeper warned.
Owl reeled, waiting for some mention of Waayaahtanonki. He didn’t want to ask outright for fear that someone would catch on to his intention of visiting the ancient site alone. He scanned the map with zeal, looking for any mark that might show its location relative to the dozens of confluences and headwaters represented. Nothing stood out.
He thought sure that Akooka would close the map at any moment.
Now the fire keeper had ceased his singing and was peering over Akooka’s shoulder.
“Where is the village of the fifth world?” the fire keeper asked. Owl almost jumped for joy.
Akooka looked up from his map. He blinked markedly and then settled his eyes again on the skin.
Everyone else sat quietly.
Owl dared not look up.
Akooka’s brow furrowed. He puzzled over the skin, for so long that Owl began to doubt whether he knew.
“Ah,” he said finally, tapping the map. “Here is Waayaahtanonki.”
Owl leaned in, trying his best to be subtle about it. As quickly as he could, starting from his own village he began to count all the confluences on his way north, until he reached the spot where Akooka’s finger rested.
“There is a small creek just to the east, which empties into the Wabash,” Akooka said. “That is where our Waayaahtanonki (Wea) brothers lived.”
Owl stared at the map. He did not lift his eyes for anything. The impression of the lines which represented the Wabash and the creek just to the east bore into his mind. He counted seven confluences between his town and the ancient village, including the creek just to the east of Waayaahtanonki. He did not want to forget.
Akooka made to leave. Nišihsa and Owl thanked him for sharing the maps. Akooka wished Owl luck on his vision seeking. Leaves Emerge arrived and they all crawled into the lodge to begin the ceremony.
Toward the end of the day, the lodge fellows grew weary. They were content, but sleepy. They sat together in silence, listening to the fire hiss, watching the steam rise. Owl struggled to keep his eyes open and his belly rumbled with hunger. His thoughts turned to the last day on the river. He thought of the whirlpool. For the first time since that day he recalled his imagining the bubble panthers swirling in the water column. He forgot that one had spoken to him. What had it said? Something about sleeping. In his dreariness, he dozed and day-dreamt. He was back underwater beside the whirlpool. The panthers appeared. Owl remembered. One turned to him and mouthed the words – I sleep no more.
The group of lodge fellows sat together. They had finished another round and were outside cooling off in the open air under the shade of a hickory tree.
“Look there,” Spinning Stick said, pointing down the hill.
A priest appeared at the bottom of the hill. A warrior accompanied him.
“What could they want?” Cattail asked.
“I have no idea,” Uncle said. “Putting his nose where it doesn’t belong, I imagine.”
When the priest and his warrior reached the top of the hill and the shade tree, the lodge fellows stood and greeted them cordially.
“What can we do for you?” Uncle asked.
“Word has spread that there is a purification ceremony today,” the priest said. “I’m only here in case you need my services.”
The group was silent. Not one person spoke up. The moment was awkward. Owl looked about at his elders. He got the sense that no one here liked this man. Just before the awkwardness threatened to turn into disrespect for the priest, Uncle spoke.
“We appreciate the offer, but we have everything covered,” he said.
The priest frowned.
“Are you sure?” he asked, meeting the eyes of everyone in turn. “Without proper guidance, some spirits can prove dangerous, especially if you find an ill-tempered manitou.”
Owl could sense his uncle bristling. He began to fear that there might be a confrontation.
“We trust our shaman completely,” Spinning Stick said, patting Nišihsa’s shoulder.
Everyone present nodded their agreement.
“Very well,” the priest said. “Good luck then.” He moved to depart but then paused. The priest looked directly at Owl. The gaze sent chills down his spine.
“One more thing. A question, if you don’t mind. Why is the boy here? Isn’t he too young to need cleansing?”
“He is my nephew. I’m teaching him about the ceremony.”
The priest considered Owl. His gaze did not waver. “Just be careful that you do not linger long in dangerous territory.”
The priest turned and walked down the hill. His warrior escort followed.
Did the priest somehow know of his plans to go to Waayaahtanonki? He wasn’t sure why a priest would even care, but with his words and the look he gave Owl just before he left it was just too obvious not to ponder. Did the priest have spies in the woods?
When Owl and his uncle were alone, Owl spoke up. He was curious about the visitors and Uncle’s discomfort with their presence at the sweat lodge ceremony.
“The priest made me uncomfortable,” Owl admitted. “I sense he did you too.”
“He’s a charlatan,” Uncle said flatly.
“A what?” Owl asked.
“He tells others that manitou can only communicate through him.”
Such a strange notion, Owl thought.
“Do people actually believe him?”
“Yes,” his uncle said. “Many do believe him.”
“The manitou do not discriminate,” Owl said.
Uncle smiled. He stood and squeezed his nephews shoulders. “That’s exactly right!” he said. “And never let anyone convince you otherwise.”
But then it occurred to Owl that his uncle was like the priest in that he directed them in the ceremony.
“But you lead us through the sweat lodge ceremony,” Owl said.
“What is the difference?” Owl asked.
“I am only there to assist you through the process. Nothing about what I do or say dictates to you what to see. Your vision is your own. I provide the space in which it occurs. Whether it is right for Fox, or Beaver, or Bear, Otter, Maple Tree, or Sandstone to speak to you, I cannot say. That is your power.”
“And how would the priest conduct the ceremony?”
Uncle held up his hand and then closed it so that a single finger pointed to the sky.
“He would choose for you,” Uncle said. “And it would be the same every time. That is the way of the Rite of Passage.”
“It hasn’t always been so, but lately the priests and the Meteor Man-being society steer toward troubling waters. They have origins in the fifth world. I’ve always steered clear of them myself, though I do believe their beginnings were of pure heart. It’s just that recent happenings suggest that they are occupied with matters other than those which align with the heart.”
“It is time to go home,” Nišihsa said. “I’ll leave you with your thoughts now. Have a restful evening.”
“Thank you,” Owl said.
Owl considered his uncle’s words. It did seem odd that the priest would believe that there was only one way to the spirits, and stranger still, he would have him believe it too. The Meteor Man-being society was yet another nexus of power that was a mystery to him. They were part of the Peeyankihšia council, which was a black hole as far as Owl was concerned, besides their organizing the Rite of Passage. Owl had no idea of their history, but he knew for sure that he didn’t like the way the priest looked at him. Owl agreed with Uncle and if he ever made it to council, he would definitely be wary of them.
The next morning Nišihsa declared that it was time for Owl to leave for the woods. The group gathered by the river next to his canoe.
“Travel a day or so up river,” his uncle recommended. “No need to push beyond your limits.”
Everyone knew Owl would be paddling upstream. Most hunters and fishermen did the same, though they could choose either the Vermillion or the Wabash. Traveling downstream was nothing short of suicidal as the Ciipaya grew more numerous the farther south one went.
Owl thought of the Dark One his lodge fellow had mentioned.
“Uncle,” Owl said. “What about the Ciipaya?”
Uncle shook his head. “They are always a threat,” he said. “I have taught you the tricks to avoid them. Keep my lessons close to your heart.”
“I have something for you,” Nišihsa said. He pulled a knife from his belt and presented it to Owl.
For as long as he could remember, his uncle had worn it, using it as a weapon and a tool. It was made from the bone of a deer, taken by his grandfather, on his mother’s side, as the story went, long ago.
“Your knife?” Owl asked, disbelieving.
Uncle nodded. “It is yours,” he said.
Owl accepted the knife, bowing slightly out of respect. He tried to keep a respectful attitude, but failed, unable to resist the excitement welling up in his heart. He grinned profusely.
“Thank you Nišihsa,” he said.
“You’ve listened to my instruction for the past few days. Find a place that appeals to you,” his uncle said. “One that draws you in. Beach your canoe and enter the woods. The deeper you go, the greater your vision. How far you go is up to you and your power.”
Owl could only nod. He did not mention his plan to break tradition by not going into the woods. He would go see Waayaahtanonki, but no one could know.
As he started out, he thought of the ancient village. He thought of the supposed ghosts, but two days of fasting, sweating, and praying gave Owl a sense of spiritual strength and purity. He felt ready. Owl felt confident he could risk it and head for Waayaahtanonki. However his vision seeking ended, it would be somewhere away from his home. If he didn’t make it all the way, so be it. He would at least attempt the journey. Owl smiled as he began to paddle. Perhaps after all, he would get to see the old town from another age.
“Little Owl left for vision seeking this morning.”
“Who?” Willow asked.
Mother shot her daughter a disapproving look. “Red Willow,” she said. “You remember Miintikwa.”
A flood of memories washed over her, which had been tucked away for too long, of splashing by the river and running through the fields. She felt a twinge of guilt and a little surprise. She had not heard his name for quite some time. His presence in her life had diminished, but the sound of his name sent a barrage of latent memories and feelings rushing to her.
“Willow? Did you forget your old friend?”
She stirred from her contemplations. “Of course not, mother,” she said. “It’s just that I haven’t spoken to Little Owl for many seasons.”
“Yes I know,” her mother said. “It saddens me. Once upon a time you two were inseparable.”
As a little girl she liked to play by the boats near the river, a place where she usually found Owl. From day one, he had fascinated her. She knew of no one else who swam the way he did. Even when they were tiny, Owl could disappear beneath the surface of the river. The water grew smooth until it perfectly reflected the sky. Long moments would pass before he would pop up again.
Her fondness for him grew as she entered her teenage years. She knew it was a crush. She had kept that to herself, but her father had sensed their affection. Boys made him bristle in any case, but a Meehšimeelwian showing affection for his daughter sent him over the edge. And so he had snuffed it out.
“Father doesn’t like Owl,” Willow said. “He’s the one who told me to stop going to the river.”
“It wasn’t Owl. It was—,”
“I know what it was mother,” Willow said.
She knew, but supposed none of that mattered anyway. Times change. She was grown up now. For the last few seasons she had been busy preparing for her role as a warrior. And Little Owl had gone his own way. It had been a long time since they played together down by the beached canoes.
“We went our separate ways,” Willow said. “Did you say vision seeking? In the wilds?”
“He’s not going through the Rite?” Willow asked.
“He did go through the Rite.”
“Then why is he vision seeking?”
“He rejected the totem,” she said.
“He did what?” Willow asked. Rejecting a totem revealed during the Rite was unheard of. “I didn’t know you could even do that.”
“His uncle originally requested that Owl seek a vision in the wilds, rather than participate in the Rite. Owl was granted this, but then at the last minute, he chose to go through the Rite anyway.”
“So he didn’t like what totem he was given?” Willow said. “What totem?”
“Beaver,” her mother said.
“Beaver?” Willow said. “That is very unusual. Most totems these days are warrior totems. But a river creature suits him, don’t you think? I wonder why he rejected it?”
“I think he expected a warrior’s totem,” her mother said. “He and his uncle thought it was rigged. They took it as an insult.”
Willow shook her head, smiling. “This is what happens when I go away scouting,” she said, jokingly. “Where did his vision seeking take him?”
“North,” her mother said. “On the Wabash. In a canoe.”
Willow nodded. On the river, she thought. Of course. “That makes sense, but no one has sought vision for so long. It’s so dangerous.”
“I know,” Mother said, shaking her head. “In my mind, I still see him as a little boy. Owl had it rough. He and his mother were left alone, since his father and grandfather—”
Owl’s grandfather… likely the single reason that her father disliked Little Owl. It wasn’t exactly their fondness for each other that angered him so much. It was Willow associating with someone of the Meehšimeelwia family. Owl’s grandfather had done the unthinkable, calling for peace between the Peeyankihšia and the Ciipaya. This was an absurd, even blasphemous suggestion in the eyes of her father, given the generations of bloodshed which existed between them. Not to mention the fact that the Ciipaya were evil to their core.
Evening was closing in fast. Red Willow ate in the longhouse with the families of her mother’s clan, but she was restless. Her father had left abruptly to meet with the council. And her mother had a worried look about her.
“Why did father leave?”
“He has a proposal for the council. They want to go south,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m afraid we’re moving closer to war with the Ciipaya.”
Her mother reached for her daughter. She touched her cheek and then tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
“Perhaps you should stay close by,” her mother suggested.
She shook her head. “I’m sorry mother. You know my place is out there.”
Willow hugged her and said goodnight, and then walked from the house, though unlike her father, it wasn’t the council she intended to visit tonight. Willow’s mentor was expecting her for night training in the forest. Sharp Knife was a few seasons older than Willow. In contrast to the younger warriors, who hadn’t seen a real fight, besides scuffles among themselves, Sharp Knife had much to offer her as a mentor. But Willow suspected there was more to their sanctioned time together. She had spent the last week with him, scouting for Ciipaya along their southern border. Her family was hinting at a potential bond between them. True, he would bring much to a union of their two families, but Willow did not feel the way she thought she should about him as a life partner. He was a fine warrior and a good person in general, but at times he was also arrogant, forceful, and even self-absorbed. She knew she could handle him, but as a lifelong partner? She wasn’t so sure.
Willow arrived at the edge of the forest. No one appeared. She waited as the sun teased the earth, hanging just above the horizon. She sighed and turned toward the village to watch as her people settled in for the night.
Cooking fires lingered. A smoky haze hovered above the town, thick and fragrant, a comforting sight in itself, but Willow knew about the food stores and how quickly they were emptying because of poor harvests and disappearing game.
Suddenly she felt arms wrap around her from behind and squeeze her. Their grip tightened. Abruptly she shifted her legs and let the earth take her, a motion which freed her. And her weapon. She whirled about, her outstretched arm in a wide arc with a blade of bone at its end. She sliced at her attacker, but her weapon met only air. Then she realized who it was.
Sharp Knife stood a few paces away, crouching and smiling. He had rolled away as soon as she drew her weapon. This was one of his lessons, though Willow suspected it may have just been an excuse to touch her.
“Why did you do that?” she said, her voice sharp with anger.
“Aren’t I to teach you how to fight this evening?” he asked.
“Tonight you are to teach me the difference between the sounds of the forest and those of our enemy, not how you can sneak up on me.”
“True. Your point is well taken,” he said, nodding and smiling. “But you should always be ready for the unexpected. By the way, your counter was excellent. If I had been anybody else, Ciipaya or otherwise, I would have been cleaved in two.”
Willow shook her head.
Sharp Knife stood and walked to her.
“Did you hear?” he asked. “Ciipaya was spotted again.”
“Upstream,” he said.
“The Wabash? Or Vermillion?”
“Wabash,” Sharp Knife said.
Willow immediately thought of Owl and his vision seeking.
“How do you know this?” she asked.
“The scout passed right through here just before sunset,” he said. “In fact, he was on his way to your father’s council house to tell of it.”
Willow turned and started down the hill.
“Where are you going?” he asked in astonishment.
“To my father’s council house,” she shouted.
She paused for a moment. “I am sorry. I have to go.” Then she continued back down the hill.
“The Dark One was sighted far upstream,” he pleaded. “Nowhere near us.”
“I’m not concerned about us,” Willow said, continuing downhill.
Willow’s father, Raging Buffalo held council with his war party leaders. They were preparing for a scouting trip, but needed the blessing of the council, since they would cross their border, Sugar Maple Tree Creek, and head deep into Ciipaya lands. They intended to discover exactly why the Dark Ones had ceased their raids. Raging Buffalo expected the council would approve, not necessarily out of curiosity about the Ciipaya, but because they were running out of food.
Her father liked to keep an eye on the forests, for anything unusual, though mostly for any movements of Ciipaya. Willow came in right after the scout from the north. She intended to listen in on their discussions. She crept up to the lodge. Keeping to the shadows, she slipped in unnoticed.
“Ciipaya were spotted going north along the river,” the scout said.
“Did you find them?” Raging Buffalo asked. “How many?”
The scout shook his head. “When they caught up with him they saw only one lone warrior. And I saw no signs of group movement.”
“Only one? Is he not dead?”
The scout shook his head. “The Dark One disappeared. We lost his trail.”
Willow’s father nodded understanding. The Ciipaya were superb at vanishing without a trace.
“Probably a rogue,” he said. “Of no concern to us for now.”
“A vision seeker left the village today,” another warrior said.
Willow’s ears perked up.
“Miintikwa?” Raging Buffalo asked.
“Yes,” the scout said. “The Meehšimeelwian. He was going north.”
“I heard of this at council,” he said.
Willow’s heart raced. She thought of her friend as they played in the water so many years ago. Hearing his name spoken out loud conjured up that dimpled smile and those twinkling eyes. The thought of him alone in the woods with a Ciipaya nearby filled her heart with dread. She drew her cloak around her. Surely Father would send a warrior to protect Little Owl on his vision quest.
“The boy is on his own,” Raging Buffalo told the warrior.
“Father!” Willow shouted impulsively from the shadows, revealing her presence.
Raging Buffalo was at first stunned, but then he frowned. His brow furrowed. “How many times have I told you not to spy?” he said.
“I am sorry for spying,” Willow said, avoiding her father’s gaze, but she held onto her courage. “You cannot let Owl alone in the forest with the Dark Ones about.”
“Red Willow,” he said. “He chose vision seeking, fully aware of the dangers.”
Desperation for Owl gripped her heart. “But father,” she implored.
Anger flashed across Raging Buffalo’s face. His voice was filled with scorn. “Your fondness for this boy still clouds your judgement.”
It had been so many seasons and Little Owl had hardly come up in conversation, even trivially. And so Willow was stunned by her father’s rage. It was difficult not to take it personally, though she knew what was really behind it. His contempt for the Meehšimeelwians ran deep, but she couldn’t help feeling the injustice here. Owl was innocent.
Willow erupted. “I haven’t spoken of him once in all these years!” she shouted, her voice cracking. “Why do you hate him?”
And then Willow grew silent in the face of her father’s aberrant behavior.
“I don’t hate the boy,” he said.
He shook his head. “I cannot spare even a single man,” he said, obviously sidestepping the real issue. “You know what we’re preparing to do.”
Father was speaking of the scouting trip that every able-bodied warrior would join. They had grown restless in their idleness, she thought. Hearing her father talking casually about it among family gave her insights that no one else had. Willow knew the scouting was more like a guise for war.
Willow suddenly realized that all eyes were upon her. She felt self-conscious. The courage she had mustered quickly vanished. She looked at her father. There would be no convincing him. She saw it in his eyes.
“I understand,” Willow said, defeated.
“Besides,” Raging Buffalo said, empathy for his daughter quickly cracking up the anger in his voice. “The forest is vast. And it is only one Ciipaya. They are not likely to find each other.”
Willow nodded. What her father was saying made sense, but she could not shake away her worry for Owl. True, the forest was a big place. One could easily get lost in its depths.
And yet, if they did meet, what chance did Owl, a fisherman, have against Ciipaya?
Little Owl struggled against the river’s current. Hunger tore at his mind and lay waste to the muscles of his arms. After the first turn of the river, his light-headedness, his feeble grip, and quaking legs had him convinced that his muscles simply lacked the energy necessary to go on. He might have gone home then had he not recollected the advice of his uncle.
“Don’t pay any attention to whining, no matter where it’s coming from,” Uncle had said.
Owl knew he meant the whining could come from his own mind. So instead, he pushed through the grief that his belly was giving him. His first struggle during vision seeking was against himself.
As the day wore on, he saw old fishing holes where he and his uncle had spent long hours. On fishing days, they would go only as far as would allow them to return by nightfall. Before he knew it, it was late afternoon and already he was approaching the usual boundaries of their fishing trips.
One cove in particular enlivened an old memory. With hemlocks towering above and deep placid water at its center, the cove appeared enchanted. It was there under a rocky ledge submerged in waist deep water where he caught the biggest catfish he had ever seen. His uncle taught him the trick. Use your fingers as bait, he said. Owl did what he was told and stuck his arm deep under the ledge. A moment later, the fish grabbed hold of his hand. He jerked instinctively, but the monster was already halfway to his shoulder. Terrified, he shot out of the water. Never had he seen his uncle so excited. Laughing, Nišihsa dove in to rescue his nephew. It was a peculiar feeling, the fish gyrating and animating his own arm. It thrashed violently and they barely managed to get the catfish in the boat. They did though. And paddled hard all the way back to Peeyankihšionki each grinning ear to ear. When they arrived home, it seemed the whole village turned out to see their catch. Owl’s monster catfish was one of the last big ones ever caught by the fishermen.
The sun pressed low on the horizon. It hovered just above the treetops. As evening approached, Owl began to feel very much alone.
The river grew narrow. The surrounding trees closed in. Owl watched the shadows deepen and listened as the day bugs grew silent. It was that time between day and night when the woods seemed to hush of its own volition.
Owl sensed that he was being watched, but he told himself that this was only his imagination getting away from him.
He thought of the coming night. He would have almost no light when it got dark. Fire-building was out of the question during vision seeking. He would be breaking one tradition by staying on the river the whole time, but he dared not break anymore. Owl intended to stick to the rule of no fires. Manitou, it was said, tended to flee from fires. After dark, offerings of tobacco with their glowing embers were the only source of light for the seeker. Owl knew not to expect much help from the heavens either, as it was peemineeta kiilhswa (waning phase, the moon is going along dying). So, knowing there would be no flames to comfort him, he planned to remain on the river for as long as he could.
Reasoning to himself did little to dispel his feeling of being watched. His neck prickled with the sensation of eyes upon him. After he passed through the narrows and the river opened up again, Owl took advantage of the sluggish water to listen for signs that someone or something was really out there. He thought of Cougar and shuddered.
Owl lifted his paddle from the reflective surface of the river and drifted in silence. He closed his eyes and listened attentively to the surrounding forest. The woods were still, save for an occasional bird call and the rising chorus of insects. He squeezed his eyelids tight, shutting out all distraction. He carefully tracked the position of each bird and the waves of thrumming insects.
Was that a gap in the sounds emanating from the woods along the eastern shore? If someone were there, their mere presence would silence the insects. His boat nearly stalled. Gently, he sunk his paddle back into the water and propelled it forward. He grew quiet again and listened. Again, he found the gap of silence. It had moved. He tracked it.
The gap which fell over the slope along the shore was real. Now he was sure that someone was following him. Someone or something was out there on the hill above the river.
The sun sank lower and backlit the canopy and tree trunks. Light filtered through the branches at odd angles. Leaves shimmered and limbs swayed. Owl saw shadows of pursuers in the woods. Was it a band of Ciipaya? The gap was real, but perhaps the shadows were his imagination. He tried to calm himself.
The last bit of light was fading fast. Owl decided he needed to act.
When the trees closed in again, he paddled fiercely toward the riverbank. He knew he would be out of sight for a few moments. He entered a dense stand of undergrowth, jumped out of his canoe and into waist-deep water. He rushed for shore, stashed his canoe, and sprinted into the woods. He darted up the hill to the base of an outcropping.
“This will do,” he whispered to himself.
Owl circled around the rocks and climbed the hill where they emerged. He would at least have the upper ground. He reached the top of the rock hill and eased out over the edge for a look around.
No one approached, not yet anyway.
Owl recalled the path of his supposed pursuer and estimated where it would line up beside the course of the river. If he succeeded, his adversary would expect him to still be on the river. He pressed against a big maple, putting the tree between himself and where he imagined his pursuer would emerge.
He waited for a long time.
Soon he was doubting his own senses. Perhaps no one was there. It had only been his imagination. Loneliness pressed in again. Visions of Waayaahtanonki ghosts welled up in his mind and danced among the dimming boughs.
Real shadows danced in the trees through the dense stand of saplings. Was it a deer? They did like to move at this time of the evening, searching for a place to bed down for the night.
Owl hoped to get a better look. He shifted and peered around the tree.
It was definitely not a deer. A dark figure approached. His pursuer was walking on two legs! An icy sensation ran up and down his spine. His heart began to beat fiercely in his chest. Likely this was Ciipaya.
He had the high ground, he told himself. The advantage of surprise was his. But he had to act. Now.
He pushed away from his tree and crept along the edge of the cliff. He could take him from above. His pursuer would never know what hit him. Owl moved silently. He thought of his uncle’s knife and pulled it free. His foot hit the ledge and he leapt.
And then slammed into the figure.
She screamed. A girl?
Owl had succeeded in gaining surprise.
He collided with her, but momentum of the fall sent both of them rolling down the hill. Owl struggled, regained control, rushed at her, and landed on her again. It was near dark, but even with the failing light, he now recognized his pursuer.
“Get off me, Owl!” she scolded.
More or less at once, Owl felt shocked, relieved, thrilled, miffed, and finally curious.
He rolled away and then moved to his knees.
Willow sat up, leaves falling from her hair. She looked angry.
“Why on earth did you do that?” she asked.
“I thought you were Ciipaya,” Owl said.
“Well you thought wrong,” Willow said.
“I know that now. I’m sorry. But you shouldn’t be sneaking up behind people like that,” Owl said. “I could have killed you.”
“Not likely,” Willow said, brushing dirt from her legs. “You are perceptive. I’ll give you that. And quiet too. You did get the jump on me, but that…” she motioned toward the cliff. “That was laughable,” she said. “That was no attack. You simply fell on me.”
“I ambushed you,” Owl said, defending himself.
“Is that right?” Willow asked. “Well then where is your knife?”
Owl considered. Yes. He had drawn his knife, but he no longer had the weapon. He was so shocked to find his pursuer was Willow that he completely forgot about the blade. Owl scanned the ground quickly, but found nothing.
He turned back to Willow.
Slowly, she held out her hand. His knife lay in her palm. She smiled, seeming to taunt him.
“Give it back,” Owl said.
Willow considered the weapon. “No,” she said. “I think I’ll hang onto it for a while.”
“Why are you following me?” Owl asked, steering away from the fact that she bested him.
“I’m watching your back,” she said, brushing the last of the dirt from her arms.
“Well I don’t need you watching my back.”
“Obviously you do,” Willow said. “The woods are dangerous right now.”
“That’s kind of the point of a vision quest,” Owl said, standing up.
Willow shook her head. She walked close to Owl.
“One of my father’s scouts spotted Ciipaya near here.”
“And did he send you after me?” Owl asked, sarcastically.
“Well no,” she said.
“Of course he didn’t,” he said.
She handed his knife to him. Owl snatched it back.
Willow shook her head.
“I couldn’t stand by and wait to hear from some fisherman about how you were slain,” she said.
Owl dismissed her concerns and instead began to imagine the grief he would get about this from his mother, from his uncle, and especially Willow’s father, Raging Buffalo.
He suddenly felt anger toward her for putting him in this position, but kept his mouth shut, choosing silence over accusations.
He started down the hill toward the river and his canoe.
“Where are you going?” Willow asked after him.
“Back to the river,” he said.
“Wait,” she demanded.
“Go home Willow,” Owl said, waving a hand as he walked away.
“I will not,” she said.
“Your father will kill me when he finds out you’re out here with me.”
“He’ll never know,” she said. She started after Owl.
“Where else would you be?” he said over his shoulder.
“Looking for berries,” Willow offered. She caught up with him.
“Fine,” Owl said. “Suit yourself. But I won’t be responsible for you.”
“Hey!” Willow shouted, stopping. “I followed you, risking my life to make sure you’re okay. And now you’re saying you’re not responsible?”
Suddenly Owl felt dizzy. Blackness closed in. His vision narrowed. He staggered, then fell to one knee.
“Owl?” Willow called out in alarm.
“I’m okay,” he said, putting a hand to his forehead.
Willow ran to him and took him by his shoulders. “Here,” she said. “Sit down.”
Owl shook his head. “No. I just want to get back to the water.”
Willow helped him up. “It’s the fasting,” she said. “And all this running around in the woods. I think you’re right. Let’s get you back to the river.”
They stood and Willow helped Owl down the hill.
They made their way back to the Wabash. The air cooled considerably and Owl began to feel better. When they emerged onto the beach, the night sky had dimmed to blackness, save a scattering of stars. A quarter moon hung low on the horizon. It was more than Owl hoped for. He had never been all alone so far from home. He suddenly appreciated Willow’s presence.
They decided it was too late to get into the canoe and instead made camp.
It had been a long time since he and Willow had been together alone. Being so near her made Owl uncomfortable. He wasn’t exactly sure why. His own sentiment surprised him a little. Once upon a time they were best friends, but it had been several years since they had played together down by the shore near the beached canoes. Owl knew it was her father who put an end to their play. They rarely spoke since that time. She spent all her days training in the ways of a warrior. And he spent all his time on the river. Memories rushed in of days gone by. Suddenly, he was remembering with clarity the sweet sound of her laughing. They used to splash each other in the shallows. Now she was vying to be a warrior. She had already gone through the Rite, though she was a couple seasons younger than Owl. The warrior’s path was purposeful and so for her it had happened earlier.
Some seasons ago, Little Owl’s mother hinted at the potential for a lifelong bond, but no one from Willow’s clan held any such presumptions, though her mother had been fond of him. Willow’s father only scowled in Owl’s presence.
Raging Buffalo’s prominence at council had waned in recent months and this had only darkened his mood. Speaking at council was born of necessity. He was simply not needed as much. With little pressure from their enemies, discussion turned to more domestic matters. It was all due to Ciipaya. Or lack thereof. Suddenly they ceased their raids. From that day, as days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, Raging Buffalo was simply not needed, so his involvement was less at council. However, no one imagined that the Ciipaya had completely disappeared. They were always in the minds of the people. Having been at the center of activity all his life, with the lull in fighting, Raging Buffalo was more prone to brooding. In the last couple days, suddenly he was back at the center of attention. As food grew more scarce and with the Ciipaya absent, the townspeople began talking about trying their luck to the south. But it would be foolish for gatherers, fishermen, and hunters to enter the lands of their enemy so hastily. They needed warriors to sweep the area just to be safe. Raging Buffalo jumped at the idea. Finally, something to do besides sit around and wonder when Ciipaya would raid again. Since the fishermen’s scouting trip to the north came back empty-handed, he had all the backing he needed and the seasoned warrior was beyond eager to head south.
Owl knew of Raging Buffalo’s distain for his Meehšimeelwian roots. He imagined the war chief’s wrath when he discovered Willow was with him in the north.
Here she was sitting cross-legged in the sand before him. She was gorgeous, he thought. Another reason for his discomfort. Was he dreaming? No, of course not. This was real. The summer night chilled even further. A breeze blew across the water and Willow couldn’t help but shiver. Suddenly, she appeared vulnerable. He was compelled to wrap his arms around her, but he quickly suppressed the urge. A fire is what she needs, he thought excitedly, but then he remembered this wasn’t possible.
“I’m sorry,” Owl said. “I can’t build a fire.”
“I know,” Willow said. “It’s fine.” She looked to the sky. “At least we have the moon for a little while.”
“We’ll make an offering of tobacco,” Owl said. “It’s not much, but it should liven our spirits.”
“That would be good,” Willow said.
He took his deer skin pack from his canoe, walked to where Willow sat and placed it next to her. He began to clean away all the debris – the twigs, the rubble, and the old leaves from the sand around them. Willow joined him in his efforts. They brushed away a few of the larger ants and beetles, apologizing to each for disturbing them. When the space was clean, they smoothed out the sand and drew a big circle. They eased down next to each other within the sacred circle.
From his pack Owl pulled two bundles, one of sage and one of tobacco. He lay them on the beach before them. He took out flint and kiiphkatwi and struck them together. A spark flew away but quickly died. He struck again and more sparks shot out toward the dried sacred plants. He continued to strike the flint until showers of sparks came forth. Finally, the sage took fire and began to smoke. Owl leaned in and blew on the bundle. Soon the tips glowed red. He turned to Willow, who smiled eagerly. He nudged the tobacco bundle into the embers as he blew and it took fire too.
With the tendrils of smoke rising to the sky, Owl and Willow began to sing. It was a song each had sung their whole lives. It was a prayer to the manitou, giving thanks and asking for guidance.
When it was over, Owl and Willow lay back and watched the sky from within their circle.
The moon died away. Fireflies added a little bit of their own illumination to the night.
Owl dozed. He thought Willow did the same, though he could hardly see her through the inky darkness.
“Willow?” Owl asked after a while, interrupting their mutual silence.
“Hmm?” she said, sleepily.
“Thanks for watching out for me,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me too,” she said.
The day had been exhausting, for each of the young Peeyankihšia. Soon they were asleep, though tendrils of fragrant smoke still rose into the trees, continuing to carry their prayers into the heavens.
“Over there,” Willow said excitedly, pointing to a place on the riverbank. “Let’s stop there.”
“What is it?” Owl asked.
“You’ll see,” she said.
Owl steered toward the edge of the water and they beached the canoe.
Willow jumped out and climbed the embankment. Owl followed her. She stopped at a stand of red bushes. Owl laughed when he recognized the plant.
“Red willow!” he said. It was the plant she had been named for.
“Let’s take a few branches,” she said. The plant had many uses. The inner bark could be made into a mixture and smoked like tobacco. It had powerful medicine. In the hands of a shaman, it could be used to ward off monsters. The limbs made excellent arrows. Arrows made from red willow were often used in ceremonies. Owl helped cut a few of the straightest branches. From the bigger trunks, they pulled away bark for Owl to use for his evening offerings to the manitou.
“That’s enough,” she said, “Let’s leave some for whoever may come next.” They returned to the boat.
Owl paddled to the middle of the river and they settled back into their journey. She took one of the red willow branches and stripped the bark away from it.
“What are you making?” Owl asked.
“An arrow,” she said.
She cut a notch at one end then set it down. She reached into her pack and retrieved a stone. It was quartz crystal, a dazzling rock to behold, though easy to find in stream beds. She eyed Owl, smiling proudly. She held it up to him so that he could see it closely. It lay in her palm. The crystal was opaque. It had a smoky white hue.
“You know,” Owl said, remembering a bit of lore. “They say Underwater Panther favors the white ones.”
“Is that so?” she asked.
He touched it with one finger. Owl could tell that she had worked on the arrowhead before, as it had a fine edge.
“It’s almost finished,” she said.
She eyed it carefully, then took up a rock from her pocket and struck it several times, fine-tuning its point. When she was finished with the stone, she retrieved cord from her pack, set the arrowhead into the groove at the tip of the red willow shaft, and wound the cord around the base of the arrowhead, securing it to the shaft. Then she pulled a couple of feathers out and bound them to the other end with more of the cord.
Willow held up the arrow. “You like it?” she asked, smiling proudly. He leaned in for a closer look.
He lifted his oar and laid it over the boat. He reached for the arrow, took it carefully in his hands, and ran his fingers along its length. It was remarkably straight and light, and the arrowhead looked very sharp. At the other end were brilliant red feathers, slid neatly into grooves. The cord, made from the tendon of deer, held them securely.
“You picked the perfect shaft. It’s a fine straight arrow. Beautiful,” he said, and then he handed it back to her.
They continued upriver as Willow fine-tuned all the pieces, especially the feathers.
When she finally completed the arrow, the sun had dipped below the trees.
“You’re not going to shoot that are you?” Owl asked.
She turned to Owl. “Of course I’m going to shoot it,” Willow said. “It is an arrow after all!”
“It’s too beautiful. It would be a shame to lose it. Or break it in the hide of a deer.”
“What would you have me do with it?” Willow asked.
“If it were mine, I’d keep it safe at home. I’d put it above my bed so that I could see it every night before I went to sleep and again every morning when I awoke.”
Willow giggled. “That’s ridiculous,” she said, shaking her head, but seemingly flattered. “Trust me Owl. This arrow is destined to be notched in my bow. It will find either the heart of a deer or that of Ciipaya.”
“You can’t go all the way to Waayaahtanonki,” she told Owl.
“Because it’s just too far,” she said.
“We’re already a quarter of the way there,” he pointed out.
“Well I’m not going that far,” she declared.
“I didn’t ask you to,” he said. “Anyway, what are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” she said. “But you should show a little more respect.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“No one has been to the ancient town since we left it. At the beginning of this age,” she said. “Now why do you suppose that is?”
Owl shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, stubbornly.
“You do know,” she said. “Why do you suppose after all these years, not one hunter, gatherer, or fisherman visited the old town?”
“People are content to stay put?” he offered.
“No!” she said. “It’s because it is too dangerous.”
“I didn’t figure you were one to be so timid,” Owl said.
“Timid? Me?” she said. “This isn’t about me, anyway.”
“Exactly,” he said. “This is my vision quest.”
He thought of his hesitancy at the Rite, of his fear of what Willow would think of him, of all the people in attendance and how he worried what they would think of him. Would they see him as a coward, he remembered thinking. And that priest handing him Beaver as totem. What an insult that had been.
“If you’re scared, I’ll steer to the riverbank and you can go home,” he offered.
“That’s ridiculous, Owl,” she said and then she settled into the boat again. Owl dug his paddle into the water with long, smooth, and gentle strokes. A cicada called from the tree line, its voice surging with each passing moment like a crescendo. Another joined the first and their singing rose and fell in the hot afternoon air.
Willow huffed and said, “You are so stubborn. Sometimes you make me so mad.”
Another day passed and they reached the boundary where the fishermen abandoned their scouting. Owl searched for the whirlpool, but curiously it was gone.
They continued upriver as it meandered through the forests, into depths neither one of them had seen and likely none had for more than four generations. Both Owl and Willow were comfortable in the forests. They had journeyed all their lives in groups, looking for game, fish, berries and roots, but they had kept to familiar territory. They were definitely outside of their comfort zone beyond the boundary. With every stroke, Owl felt like he was moving back into the fifth world.
“Are you frightened?”
“No,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Well maybe a little,” he said. “But I’m mostly just excited to finally be here.”
“Do you really think there are ghosts here?”
“I can’t say for sure,” Owl said.
“What does your uncle believe?”
“He supposes they are misguided spirits, made that way by the trauma of the end of the fifth world.”
“Do you believe him?”
“I’ve come across a lot of mysterious things, though I am now able to explain most of them. But we don’t know much of anything about the last age, so I suppose what he says could be possible.”
“I don’t want to run into any bad spirits,” Willow said.
As the river widened and the water grew still, they grew quiet. The only sounds were those made by his oar as it tugged at the water and a plopping of droplets each time he pulled it out. But as the sun climbed toward the center of the sky, the cicadas came out in full force.
“Why do you suppose the Ciipaya have ceased their raids?” Owl asked, thinking she might have some insight, considering her father’s position.
Willow shook her head. “No one knows,” she said. “That’s why they are going south. To find out.”
“But there must be some speculation,” Owl offered.
“It may be disease,” she offered.
Owl nodded. “Perhaps,” he said. “Though no one has seen any of them sick.”
“What do you think?” Willow asked, turning the question around on him.
“I wonder if they are tired of fighting us,” he said.
“I really don’t think so,” she said.
“Where do you suppose they are?” he asked her.
Willow shook her head. “No one knows.”
“I mean where do you think they are,” Owl pressed. “You must have an opinion.” He leaned in. “You look like you have an opinion.”
She smiled and then nodded. “I do?”
“I suppose I do,” she said.
“Let’s hear your idea.”
“The Dark Ones may have a new enemy,” Willow said.
Owl frowned. “You favor that over my theory?”
“That’s impossible. I mean who could it be? There are no other people in the sixth world.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Willow said.
“We do,” he implored.
“How do we know?” Willow pressed. “You mean the stories?”
“That’s not all. We’ve been here five generations. In all that time we haven’t seen anybody else.”
Willow laughed. “Have you ever thought about how small our territory really is?” she asked. “This world is much bigger than any of us care to admit.”
Little Owl shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“In more ways than one,” she added.
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
“Just a feeling.”
“What does that mean exactly?” Owl asked
“Sometimes I overhear things that my father never intends for me to hear.”
“Like what?” Owl asked.
Now Willow whispered. “You know about Meteor Man-being warrior society right?”
“Not too much,” Owl said. “I know they exist. And that they do a pretty good job of keeping quiet about what they do, outside of warring against the Ciipaya.”
Willow nodded. “One of their leaders came to Father a few days ago. His name is Waking Turtle. He’s an old warrior. Do you know him?”
Owl shook his head.
“He is a bit of a hermit, but many consider him a powerful sage. He came to warn Father,” Willow said.
“What was the warning?” Owl asked, now very curious.
“My father dismissed him, so I’m not surprised that you haven’t heard.”
“Dismissed him?” Owl asked. “Why?”
“It has to do with the nature of what Waking Turtle said. And my father’s attitude toward such things.” Willow said. “He is a very pragmatic man, my father.”
“I don’t understand,” Owl said. “What did the old sage say?”
“He spoke about an ancient spirit, one that was with us in the fifth world, but went to sleep after a great battle,” she said. “And the spirit has slept ever since.”
A tingling crept up Owl’s spine.
“Since the fifth world. Such a long time,” he said. “But I don’t get it, why is that worrisome?”
“That the spirit slept so long wasn’t what concerned him,” she said. “Turtle said the spirit is awake now. But the strangest thing for me is that my father seemed to know about this spirit. And even though he didn’t really believe the old warrior, he knew exactly what he was talking about. Have you ever heard of such thing?” she asked. “I mean, have you heard any of our stories speak of such thing?”
He began to feel a bit queasy.
He breathed deeply, exhaling loudly, and then shook it off. “Why do you ask?” he said.
“It looks like the blood just left your face,” she said.
“I’m fine. Your story reminded me of a dream I had. It kinda spooked me.”
“You’re giving me goose bumps,” she said. “You dreamed of this spirit?”
“Maybe,” he said, and then something drew his attention. He pulled in his oar and stood carefully in the canoe.
“Owl! What’s wrong? Please sit down.”
“There’s something odd there,” Owl said, pointing the handle of his oar toward the trees on the east bank.
Willow squinted to see. She raised a hand to her brow.
“What?” she asked.
“That rock,” Owl said.
“I see it,” Willow said.
“Let’s take a closer look.”
Owl steered to the eastern shore. They beached the canoe and climbed the hill.
The rock was big. Twice his height and just as wide. The edges of the stone were most peculiar. In fact, it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. And the hair on his arms rose. It was obvious now to Willow too. Owl saw the alarm in her eyes.
They walked around the other side. There were more of the big rocks.
A dozen of the strange stones lay on the hill above the river. At first, because of the trees growing up between them and the undergrowth nearly overtaking them, they looked to be randomly spaced, but then as they walked around, Owl realized that they were lined up straight, in two rows. Owl walked up to one in particular. It was perfectly flat and the corners were all lined up. It looked like it had been carved by someone. He brushed at the surface. Soon he could see that something was embedded in the stone, a material the color of red ochre. It snaked in and out of the rock in several places. Owl couldn’t imagine how anything could have ended up inside solid rock.
Do you have any idea what this is?” Owl asked Willow.
She only shook her head. “It looks like rope, doesn’t it?” she said.
The gigantic rocks were lined up, pointing toward the river. Owl gazed across the water to the other side. Something seemed odd there too. A moment later, realization came to him.
“They are over there too,” he said, pointing to the other side of the river.
Willow’s eyes widened. Owl saw realization in them.
“What do you think it is?” he asked.
“I think this was a bridge,” Willow said, assuredly.
“A bridge? To where?”
Willow pointed across the water. “To the other side.”
Owl walked to the edge of the cliff. “How could that be?” he said. “It’s too far.”
Owl turned. He looked at the huge stone, and then walked to it again.
He brushed two fingers over the strange ochre material. Pieces of it flaked off onto the ground.
He brushed again, wondering if it might disintegrate before him. Flakes continued to fall away, until finally the material grew hard and impenetrable. It was only the outside that fell away easily.
An idea occurred to him. He pulled out his knife. He ran the edge of his weapon over the strange stuff. It didn’t give. He tried again, this time pressing harder. The material was solid. He gouged it. Bone powder remnants streaked across the surface. Owl brushed them away. He blew at it, then rubbed it vigorously. There was not a sign of any damage, no scratches, dents, or chips of any kind.
Owl picked up a rock, the size of his head.
“What are you doing?” Willow asked.
He lifted the rock over his head and then let it fall. At the last moment, he shifted to the side and stepped out of the way.
“Owl!” Willow shouted.
The rock slammed into the surface. It clanged loudly and then bounced off, nearly striking him in the leg.
“Are you okay?” Willow asked. “Why on earth did you do that?”
“I’m trying to break it,” he said.
Owl came around to where the rock hit. White dust and fragments of rubble lay strewn all over the place. The rock sat on the ground in several pieces. Owl stepped close to the place of impact and brushed away the rubble.
Again. Not a scratch, dent, or puncture.
“What could it be?” Owl asked.
She shook her head. “Perhaps it’s not for our eyes. We should go.” She looked about nervously and then backed away.
“What’s wrong?” Owl asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I have a bad feeling. I think we’ve made too much noise.”
Owl looked about. Suddenly, the old sensation of eyes upon him returned.
Owl nodded. “I think you’re right. Let’s get back to the river.”
Owl and Willow left the hill and the giant stones behind. They climbed down the escarpment and entered the woods. When they reached the floor of the ravine, the sound of hooves came from the trees on the opposite hill.
A herd of deer ran toward them. The frightened animals stopped only a few paces away. One stood so close that Owl could almost reach out and touch her nose. Their ears twitched nervously. Owl or Willow might have taken one easily with an arrow or even a knife at such close range, but neither did, partly because Willow had plenty of rations and Owl would not break his fast, but most of all it was the demeanor of the deer that stayed the Peeyankihšia and their weapons. It was peculiar for the deer to come so close to the hunters.
The encounter was reminding Owl of something, something someone had said recently, and then it occurred to him. It was the story that his lodge fellow had told. How predator and prey turn to each other in terror when they know a bigger threat looms. This realization shook Owl. He feared for their lives, but had no idea how to explain this to Willow now. They could do nothing but wait and see what happened next. Then all at once, the deer tore off in the exact same direction they had come, as if something from the other hill was threatening them. Soon the deer were gone, as if they had never come. Owl and Willow crouched in the undergrowth, expecting something to rush down the hill and keep the chase, but nothing ever came.
“Let’s get back to the river,” Willow said.
They stood and made their way back to the water.
Was deer his totem? He remembered his mother’s advice and tried to imagine deer as his guardian. But after considering it, deer just didn’t fit. He would have to keep looking.
It was noon and the sun lingered mercilessly at the apex of the sky. Willow played with the feathers of her red willow arrow. The river eased by beneath them, lulling her into contemplations. Her mind darted about, trying to stay awake.
She thought of the strange rocks and her vision of the bridge.
Were the Ciipaya really out there?
Willow thought of her father and mother. Had they finally begun to see her as grown up and now capable of handling what may come her way? Or did they worry over her still? She thought of the few times that the topic of Owl came up, mostly because of her mother. Her mother had really liked Owl, but Father wouldn’t have it. In fact, the more their friendship was discussed, the more enraged he became. Mother finally dropped it completely and Owl hadn’t been mentioned for many seasons. That’s why her mother’s mentioning his name was such a shock.
A splash interrupted her contemplations. She looked up.
It was Owl. He must have fallen off the boat. “Miintikwa!” she shouted, but her voice only skittered across the surface of the water and echoed from the cliffs above the riverbank.
The surface fizzed where he hit the water.
She shot up in the canoe and stood with her eyes on the spot where he disappeared.
What happened? He had been paddling quietly.
Willow looked about.
She could see that they had drifted a little toward the western edge of the river, but were still in deep water.
A twinge of panic hit her. Had he fallen asleep and fell in?
He had been humming a tune, she remembered. And she had got lost in her contemplations.
Soon the water transformed into a smooth surface. It was as if he had never pierced its surface. The quiet overcame her. Suddenly she felt alone.
Willow wanted to call out, but she stopped herself. The truth was she could shout at the top of her lungs and he would never hear her down there.
Moments passed and still no Owl.
She leaned in toward the water. The faint outline of flat rock materialized. Was that the bottom she saw? Yes, she thought it was. A fish passed along the riverbed. It was a giant, probably a catfish. Oh! A fish! Perhaps they were more plentiful upstream. She focused on its back. No, actually it wasn’t right. It was too light to be a fish. She saw legs and a breechcloth. Willow sighed. It was Owl on the bottom of the river. His arms shot forward and then swept to his hips. His legs kicked like a frog and he sped through the water like an arrow, passing beneath the canoe. Willow shifted to the other side. Owl seemed to fly along the bottom. He drifted for a long distance. Something was looped over his shoulder. He was fumbling with it and scooping up something from the riverbed. He drifted until he came to a stop, crouched on the riverbed, and then kicked hard off the bottom. He shot toward the surface. When he burst from the water he threw something into the boat. It was a net and it was full of mussels. Willow recoiled. Like most Peeyankihšia, mussels made her cringe. She turned back to Owl. He gripped the side of the boat with one hand.
“You could’ve warned me!” she scolded, as much about the mussels as jumping into the river.
Owl smiled. “You seemed lost in your thoughts. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
He held out a hand to Willow.
“Help me in?” he asked.
Willow sighed, but then grasped his hand and pulled. He bobbed up and his chest came out of the water, but then she felt his weight tug at her.
Willow gasped. She suddenly realized she was about to tumble into the river. Owl’s smile turned to one of teasing. His arm went rigid and she went flying over the boat and into the water.
A curse flew out of her mouth, but it was cut off by the river. She fought to get back to the surface. A moment later her head popped up. She gasped for a breath. Willow wiped the water from her eyes and then opened them to find Owl before her, treading water. He was laughing.
“Why did you do that?”
“The water felt so good,” he said. “I wanted you to feel it too.”
“You might have asked me!”
“And you might have said no,” Owl said. “This way your stubbornness doesn’t get in the way.”
“My stubbornness?” Taking in a deep breath and then kicking, she rose up with her hands on top of Owl’s head and dunked him underwater. His head disappeared from her hands. The river grew still. Willow tread water.
Owl finally surfaced again. He did so quietly, seemingly without taking a breath. He smiled.
“You have to see this,” he said.
“Take a big breath and you’ll see.”
Willow breathed deeply, held it and dove. She kicked her legs up in the air to help push her under and made her way toward the bottom. The water rushed over her skin. She felt the layers shifting toward ever cooler depths. The silence was soothing. Owl was nearly to the bottom. When he reached the floor of the river, he took her hand and spun her about. He pointed toward the river’s edge. Willow could see a rock shelf rise to the surface. All along the riverbank rested a multitude of different sizes and colors of mussels. They blanketed the Wabash.
The sand-peppered stone of the riverbed pressed up under her feet. Together they kicked off, shot through the green column of water, and flew to the sky. They burst from the surface and Owl’s voice and the sounds of the forest rushed at her. She watched Owl wipe the water from his eyes. He looked at her and smiled.
“What do you think?” Owl asked.
“Okay I’ll admit it, I’m glad you pulled me in.”
Their boat had drifted downriver. Laughing, they swam to recover it. They reached the boat and gripped the rim.
“Now what?” she asked. “How are we supposed to get back in?”
She figured they would have to push the boat to the riverbank.
“Hold on,” Owl said. “I’ll go to the other side.”
Owl swam around to the opposite side of the boat.
“Together,” he said, out of sight. “Pull up at the same time.”
“Yes,” Willow said.
Willow hauled herself out of the water. Owl did the same. They collapsed in the floor of the boat and laughed at their success. Somehow she ended up on top of him. She was chilled from the river depths and was not inclined to push away. Owl felt warm.
They were breathing heavily, compensating for being underwater.
Owl’s breathing slowed. He grew quiet and warmer beneath her with each passing moment. Willow wrestled with meeting his eyes. She was afraid of what she might find there, the assurance of a friend, the attraction of something more, or perhaps both?
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, turning to meet his eyes. She found concern there. “No really I’m fine.”
“You grew so quiet. I was afraid you were mad at me.”
“No,” Willow said. “You were right. That was fun.”
“Want to do it again?”
Willow laughed. “Maybe in a bit.”
They continued upriver, making up lost ground and moving on toward the unknown.
Now it was easy to fall overboard and slip beneath the cool surface. Water droplets crystalized the sun and stretched over his skin and hers alike. The mixture of cool relief and radiant warmth sent her waves of pleasure and with their laughter and playing in the water, the afternoon bordered on ecstasy.
There was a time when she had known Little Owl more than she knew anyone. Today she felt like she was getting to know him like that again. Her comfort with him grew by leaps and bounds, coaxed on by the little girl in her, who laughed with Owl, scolded him, and once directed him in play. His presence was familiar, but also new. He had changed, but at the same time remained the same. There was the dark cluster of freckles on his shoulder, the scar on the right side of his upper chest where diving he had hit his grandfather’s canoe. There was the dimple which formed below his left cheek when he smiled.
Like most boys and men in the summer, by midday he shed everything except his breechcloth. Owl was sleek in form, but layered with dense muscle born of the resistance of so much water.
His hair was long. Most warriors she knew cropped their hair to the skin on one side. Owl chose not to, but rather grew his hair to full length on both sides of his head. Owl’s hair grew to the middle of his back. When it was wet, it slicked from his forehead, pressed over his crown, and became a slender cord as it traced down his back.
His eyes were dark, only slightly lighter than his pupils, which were typically wide open, unless resting in direct sunlight. Flecks of blue lay scattered throughout his dark irises, an unusual trait for the Peeyankihšia, but Little Owl was of the Great-horned Owl line and blue eyes ran in that family. He was a direct descendant of Meehšimeelwia, the hero of the people. Her father denied this was anything more than legend. More and more folks were beginning to doubt the truth in the old stories. Somehow, though, she believed Owl was the grandson of their hero. To think, the Great-horned Owl’s blood coursed through his veins. The thought gave her goosebumps.
His eyes reminded Willow of his namesake, the eyes of an Owl, always fully aware of his surroundings, fully conscious. Sometimes she avoided looking too long into them for fear that he might use them to see down into the most guarded parts of her mind.
She had missed him. She knew this now. The day before she had been unaware of this feeling. She had left home at the littlest indication that he might be in danger. Her reasoning seemed sound. It was simple. Her father wouldn’t send someone, so she would go. But would she have done the same for anybody else? Now she wasn’t so sure. She had been so desperate to know that he was safe. It had blindsided her. Before she knew it, she was on the north edge of Peeyankihšionki and on her way to riverside. She had followed the river all morning and into the afternoon running most of the time without the slightest pause. She remembered the moment when he first came into view, paddling upriver. Finally, she fell to the ground, exhausted but relieved beyond all measure. Her tension had flown away from her in that moment. Though she would never admit it to anyone, the sight of him brought tears to her eyes. He was okay, she thought. She might have turned and gone home in the knowledge that he was safe, but watching him disappear around the next turn on his way north, she was compelled to follow him. Curiosity overtook her. What was he like now? How had he changed?
“Willow?” Owl asked. “Are you okay?”
She stirred from her thoughts and found Owl bobbing in the water again. He beckoned her to join him. She shook the memories away. The sun was hot against her skin. Having spent the last couple turns of the river in the boat, she was completely dry. Willow got up and dove in. A moment later she surfaced next to him.
“Isn’t that better?” he asked.
He did love the river. She smiled and then lost her balance and wobbled underwater. She lurched for something solid. Her fingers fell over his outstretched hand. Instinctively, she shifted her hand to the solidity of his shoulder.
“Sorry,” she said. “I lost my balance.”
“That’s okay.” Her eyes found his. In them, she found an openness that was stunning.
“I like it when you lose your balance.”
For the first time in so many years, she knew what it was like to just play. How long had it been? When was the last time she felt like this? Like a child in the presence of an endless summer day? With only the river and her friend to mingle with her thoughts. When? She was sure it had been the last day that she played with this boy. When exactly? She could not remember the particular day. It was lost to her, buried deep in her dreamtime. But it didn’t matter. She had its essence with her now, with Owl. Had it ever ended?
Sharp Knife thrust his blade. His opponent lurched backward, but not quite far enough. The tip of his knife drew blood.
The warrior cursed, dropped his weapon, and frantically gripped his stomach.
Sharp Knife landed in a defensive position, but quickly relaxed when he saw his friend had given up.
“You trying to kill me?”
Sharp Knife shook his head and approached. “I didn’t think I hit that hard,” he said, eyeing the wound. “Let us see.”
His friend lifted his hand from his stomach. Wet blood shone from his palm, but the wound itself was small.
“It’s nothing,” Sharp Knife said, chuckling.
Someone broke from the woods and into the clearing. Everyone turned.
A warrior approached. He strode directly to Sharp Knife.
“Is there some news?” he asked.
“Raging Buffalo sent me to retrieve you,” the messenger said.
“Do you know what is the matter?”
“I shouldn’t say,” the messenger said.
Sharp Knife eyed the messenger, who quickly relented.
“It’s Willow,” he said.
“What about Willow?” Sharp Knife asked, concern creeping into his voice.
“I think our chief would rather say,” he said.
Sharp Knife considered him. He tossed his knife in the air. It flipped several times, before the hilt landed neatly in his palm. “Just say it,” he said suggestively.
The messenger sighed. “She’s gone,” he said.
“What do you mean, she’s gone?” Sharp Knife asked.
“I mean no one can find her,” said the messenger.
“What else do you know?” Sharp Knife asked.
The messenger thought for a moment. Finally, he said, “They were talking about a vision seeker.”
“Miintikwa,” Sharp Knife said contemptuously.
“Miintikwa is seeking vision,” Raging Buffalo said. “Willow wanted me to send a warrior to look out for him. I said no.”
“A wise choice,” Sharp Knife offered. “So you think she followed him?” Sharp Knife asked, surprised.
“I’m afraid so,” Raging Buffalo said. The war chief placed a hand on his shoulder. “Look son. They were friends as children. She is fond of the boy, but I’m sure that’s as far as it goes.”
Sharp Knife nodded.
“Can you track him?” the chief asked.
Sharp Knife nodded. “I’ll need another warrior. That way we can cover both sides of the Wabash.”
“I’ll give you two,” Raging Buffalo said. “I’m postponing our scouting trip,” he said, agitated. “Until my daughter is safe at home.”
Sharp Knife set out right away, traveling upstream. He sent his friend to the other side of the river. They communicated by mimicking animal sounds. They whistled like birds and trilled like insects. Following the river, keeping in mind the custom of going inland for vision seeking, soon they began looking for any signs of Owl leaving the water.
“What do you see?” Owl asked, lifting his paddle from the water.
“Lenipinšia,” Willow said. “There.” She pointed into the lily pads ahead of them.
“Are you sure?” Owl asked.
Willow nodded. Her eyes were wide with awe.
Lenipinšia (Underwater Serpent) was in Peeyankihšia lands only in the sixth world, though very rare, rare enough that the presence of the big serpent was a surprise to Owl and Willow.
There it was, swimming among the lily pads just under the surface of the water. It was at least as long as his canoe and was about to cross their path.
In the prior world, Lenipinšia did exist, but only far to the south. Owl knew this because of their stories. The fifth world was much colder than the present. The great serpent did not like the cold of Myaamia in the fifth world, but Myaamia was much more to its liking now.
Occasionally a fisherman would see this giant snake, which could be a real threat to the people, especially to small children. It was shunned. Soon the whole village would know where it had been spotted and if it was anywhere near town, everyone would join in to drive it away. Most often they were successful without resorting to violence, as it did not like so much attention and would soon disappear.
Lenipinšia was peculiar in that he had a real foothold in the world as this snake, though he was of the underworld. Most of these denizens were regulated to manifestations as part of a vision, not as a living breathing animal. Great-Horned Serpent, Underwater Panther, not so. They came as part of a vision, though even still, Owl could think of no one claiming such visions in the sixth world. Visions involving these powerful beings came only to the heroes among the people. Meehšimeelwia (Great-horned Owl), the hero in their origin stories, was the only one that came to mind. Meehšimeelwia had seen Mishiginebig, a serpent decorated with terrible horns, with a body as thick as a tree, its length a perpetual mystery, for no one, not even Meehšimeelwia had seen its end, as it stretches endlessly through the forest. Meehšimeelwia saw Underwater Panther too. He had conversations with the Great Panther toward the end of the last age. It was Meehšimeelwia who had delivered them from the fifth world and into the sixth, but he only lived a little while in the sixth world, as he was an old man by that time.
“Owl?” Willow said, with a measure of alarm in her voice.
Owl stirred from his pondering.
“Let’s not get too close,” she said.
They had eased a little too far into the lily pads for Willow’s comfort.
He dug the paddle into the water and the bow turned about. Suddenly Lenipinšia roiled, arching above the water in several places. His thick body glistened in the sun, showing off his exquisite patterns. A moment later he was gone, diving down to the riverbed, likely to lie in wait of prey.
Seeing the snake in action, Owl questioned the people relating it to the deity. It looked like any other animal, doing what animals do, moving about, hunting for food, basking in the sun, diving for deep cool water. No one had ever seen Underwater Panther, Great-Horned Serpent, or Thunderbird, or Meteor Man-being. Why should Underwater Serpent exist as an animal in the river and not Underwater Panther? Owl wasn’t one to question the stories, but were they misguided where Lenipinšia and this animal were concerned? Perhaps the renown of this serpent was simply due to its size. It was truly a magnificent creature. There were no other like it. It was a giant among snakes.
Perhaps the water snake might be his totem. It did seem more closely associated with his interests, but he decided against it. In the people’s minds, this snake was a creature of the underworld and not well-suited as a totem for Peeyankihšia. Owl thought of his little panther vision while observing the whirlpool. Lenipinšia was part of the domain of Underwater Panther, both denizens of the underworld. Was it a sign? If it were, he did not yet know what it meant.
“Take us away from shore,” Willow said, brushing her hand toward the center of the river. She had obviously seen enough of the oversized snake today.
A small creek entered the Wabash from the west.
“That makes three,” Owl said.
“Three what?” Willow asked.
“Creeks,” he said.
“Why are you counting them?”
“I’m reading a map,” he said, tapping his temple.
“Jumping Frog showed me this land,” Owl said, sweeping his arm out in front of them. “It was on the hide of a deer which came from the fifth world. They call it a map.”
“The fifth world on a deer skin?”
“The deer was born in the fifth world. They made a map of these lands on the skin. You have to pretend it’s the world.”
“Oh I see,” Willow said.
“I counted the confluences, so that I would know where Waayaahtanonki is.”
“I still think it’s a bad idea, going all the way to the ancient town,” Willow said.
“We’re almost halfway there,” Owl said. “What if there’s nothing at all to the stories? Perhaps it’s safe to return now.”
“So how many more creeks are there?”
The sun set deeply behind the trees but unlike the last evening, the heat of this day lingered. The air was heavy and seemed to hope for a thunderstorm. Fasting did not go well with traveling, Owl decided. He was exhausted. His body racked with hunger pangs, though they did come and go. Owl had figured out that fasting was a matter of persisting through waves of hunger. True, they did seem to grow more intense each time, but if you made it through one, you at least would have some reprieve before the next struck. On any other day, he could have easily paddled another few turns of the river. He had the daylight for it and normally he would have the strength for it. This day though, he was done. Owl steered the canoe to the beach.
From horizon to horizon, the sky flashed on in silence.
Willow laughed uneasily at the display.
Far away thunder rumbled. The threat of a storm made them afraid for their boat. It might get carried away, so they pulled it far off the water. They set about making a shelter, just in case of a downpour later. When they finished, they sat in the sand before their creation and rested.
Dusk settled. They prepared the space again for an offering of tobacco and sage.
“Try some willow bark,” she suggested.
Owl took some of the red willow bark out and nudged it up next to the sage. The sky flickered as the tendrils of smoke rose up.
Owl waved some of the tendrils to his nose. The scent of the red willow was soothing.
“I like it,” he said.
Willow leaned in and did the same. She closed her eyes and inhaled the fragrant smoke of her namesake.
She began to sing. Owl joined her. Their harmonies lifted their spirits to new heights.
When they finished their singing a little light still remained, so they got up and walked along the river. A fallen tree blocked their way, so they stopped and leaned against the old log. Owl found a stone in the sand. He picked it up and tossed it into the water.
The stone made a Ker plunk.
Something about the sound made Willow giggle.
Her laughter reminded him of seasons long gone. Her voice struck him as very familiar, as did her very presence. Of course she had grown and there were many changes. That was evident. Her voice was deeper, and richer, and somewhat hypnotic to him. When she was resting, her legs were sleek, but other times her muscles knotted and flexed powerfully, as when they climbed the hill to the giant rocks. No doubt they were made strong from so many excursions through the forests around Peeyankihšionki. Her facial features were more pronounced. Her lips were full and a deeper red. Her cheeks were sun-kissed and freckled. Her eyes were a kaleidoscope of contrasting ambers and were lined with dark lashes. In one moment, they exuded the intelligence and cunning of a hunter, and in the next an innocent curiosity. Her hair had grown thick and dark, her hips were ample. There were other changes, more subtle. Whether these changes resided in Willow or in him, he wasn’t exactly sure. They affected Owl in ways which made him shy away from pondering them too long. Instead, he directed his thoughts toward how comfortable she made him feel. He settled into it, that same ease he felt in her company so many summers ago. He could go on forever, fasting and paddling through unknown territory, so long as he felt like this. It even had the power to subdue his fear of her father.
Willow searched for a stone. Quickly finding one, she tossed it in. She smiled, but her eyes looked tired.
Something dawned on Owl then. He couldn’t remember seeing her eat anything since she had joined him.
“When did you last eat?”
She shook her head. “I don’t recall,” she said.
“You aren’t eating are you?” Owl guessed.
Willow sighed. “It doesn’t feel right, with you starving,” she admitted.
“You know I’m not starving,” Owl said. “Fasting is part of my seeking vision. But you not eating, that is starving.”
“But if I eat, it will just make things worse for you,” Willow argued.
“It doesn’t matter,” Owl said. “You have to eat.”
Willow nodded. “Fine,” she said. She pulled a bag of ground maize from her pack.
Owl couldn’t help but eye the food. His mouth watered.
“You sure?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” Owl said. “Just do me a favor and eat it over there.”
Willow laughed. “See it is hard for you,” she said.
“It’s supposed to be,” he said.
Owl walked ahead while Willow lagged behind to eat without making it worse for him.
They joined up again at the shelter.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling. “I feel better.”
Owl could tell. The light was already back in her eyes.
“You do have my back after all,” she said.
Owl knew she referred to what he said in anger after the ambush.
“Of course I do,” he said.
Lightening flashed overhead and thunder quickly followed.
“That was close,” Willow said. They began gathering their things. A moment later the rain came pouring down. It cleared the dust from the air and beat at the ground, stirring up the scent of the earth. They quickly tucked under the roof of their lean-to.
The air cooled.
Owl had shed his shirt earlier. The air had still been warm, even at dusk. Relief came with the rainwater streaking over his shoulders and chest and down his back.
“It feels good,” Owl said.
Willow nodded agreement. She turned to him and smiled. They were close, forced together by the tight space of their shelter, nearer to each other than ever before. The sudden coolness of the air made their breath visible. The tips of Willow’s hair channeled the water away from the top of her head. A droplet traced the length of her nose and rippled over her lips. It rested at her chin, then fell to her neck.
“It does feel good,” Willow agreed. Her eyes momentarily locked with his, then they danced over his lips and back to his eyes before turning to settle on the rain outside.
Did she feel that too? He thought so, but he couldn’t say for sure.
Exhaustion soon overwhelmed him. He wrapped his shirt around his shoulders and lay back, relieving his tired arms and legs. Willow pressed up beside him. She sighed contentedly. The heat of their bodies was just enough to ward off the chilly rain outside.
Thunder rumbled. Lightening flashed. Sheets of shimmering silver came tumbling down from the heavens in a resounding roar. The earth soaked it in. The river swelled. The young Peeyankihšia slept.
Owl had seen seventeen years. He learned how to fight from an early age. All Peeyankihšia did, with the Ciipaya an ever-present threat. But Willow knew so much more. Though she was younger than Owl, she could easily best him in a fight. She was after all the daughter of the warrior chief, and spent most of her time training in the art of fighting.
The moon rose above the treetops. Tree frogs and katydid sang from the heights.
“How did you take my knife?” Owl asked. Defensiveness was gone from his voice. His tone was one of curiosity at her skill.
“I didn’t even know it happened,” he said.
“Here,” Willow said. “Let me show you.”
She moved in front of him. She tapped her shoulders. “Put your hands here.”
Her dark hair gleamed in the moonlight and fell over her sleek muscular arms. Willow saw his hesitation. She reached up, gathered her hair together, and pulled it away from her neck.
“Go on,” she said.
Owl touched the top of her shoulders with the tips of his fingers.
Her skin was smooth and warm.
“When you fell on me—” Willow began.
Owl leaned in a little. “You mean when I ambushed you,” he corrected.
“When you fell on me!” Willow insisted, but she flashed him a smile. “I shifted. Like this,” she said, turning to her side. “Remember?”
“Kind of,” Owl said.
“The first thing I saw was the bleached bone of your knife. I reached for it,” she said. “It was pure instinct.”
Owl didn’t have a knife at the moment, so Willow grabbed his hand, then she pulled him toward her. “Your knife was here.” She tugged on his hand, which was pressed between them at his chest.
“We went down like this.” She fell backward and they went down to the ground. The duff blanking the forest floor padded their fall. The pungent scent of the earth struck him.
He was on top of her again, but this time he could see her face clearly rather than a cloaked form.
“Then what did you do?” he asked, slightly tugging at her fingers which enclosed his.
“This is when I took it from you,” she said.
“You were distracted,” Willow said. “I took it right out of your hand.” She pretended she held his knife and yanked her hand down sharply to her waist. Owl teetered over her. Their cheeks touched, suddenly.
“Sorry,” he said, laughing at his awkwardness. “Should I get off now?” he asked, waiting to see what else she might have to say about stealing knives.
Willow shook her head.
Her lips drew him in. They trembled as her breath passed over his neck. Her heartbeat quickened against his chest.
She arched her back, her chin shot up, and her lips parted. They pressed into his and she kissed him hard.
She had crossed his mind like this from time to time in recent years, but the thought of her was subdued enough that he could easily push the images away. Now she was in front of him and in his head and in everything he perceived. Her voice spoke of the smooth surface of the river as it rested above deep pools. Her laughter echoed against the hillsides as the insects trilled at dusk. The scent of her skin mingled with the upturned earth near the base of the oak at his back. At night, as he drifted in and out of sleep, her dark eyes watched him from the heavens among the stars. Struggling against the current with his paddle in hand, the tension of her muscles at the small of her back stood poised in his mind. As he drank from his water vessel, the feel of her lips against his burst and scattered in his mind and filled his chest with a cool tingling feeling.
This must be a dream, he thought, her being here with him all day and all night. The presence of Willow, her body so close all the time, the curve of her hips, the sheen of her legs, was enough to send him over the edge. Owl put his face in his hands and rubbed his cheeks vigorously. He had to shake away these feelings.
“Your father is going to kill me,” he said.
“He’s not,” Willow implored. “Why do you say that?”
Owl stood. He felt dizzy and staggered. Willow put a hand at his back to steady him. “You okay?”
Owl nodded. “Still getting used to not eating.”
Willow laughed. “That’s not something you should ever get used to.”
“Why did you stop coming to the river?” he asked.
“My father stopped me,” Willow said. “He didn’t want me going anymore.”
“It was me, wasn’t it?”
Willow turned away, reluctant to say.
Little Owl took that as a yes. “I thought so,” he said. “But why?”
“It wasn’t exactly you,” she said. “It was circumstances. I was to become a warrior. And there was that thing with your family.” Willow paused and glanced at Owl, hoping the comment hadn’t struck too deeply.
“The Meehšimeelwia line,” he said. “And what happened at Sugar Maple Tree Creek. They wanted to end the war with the Ciipaya and make peace.”
Willow nodded. “Something that my father would never have accepted. No one would accept. It was wrong to suggested it. You know that, don’t you?”
Owl and Willow left the woods, laughing as they splashed on their way back to the canoe.
When the canoe was in sight, they found Sharp Knife standing next to it with arms crossed and frowning. Another warrior stood beside him.
“Sharp Knife?” Willow said, shock registering in her voice. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” Sharp Knife said.
“What about the scouting to the south?”
“Postponed,” Sharp Knife said.
“Why?” she asked, but her voice betrayed a suspicion that her absence had something to do with it.
“You’re father won’t go until he knows you’re safe.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Willow said. “I’m a big girl.”
“You’re beyond the northern boundary,” Sharp Knife pointed out.
“My vision seeking is taking me north,” Owl interjected.
Sharp Knife shot him a contemptuous look.
“Crying Wolf,” he said, addressed his warrior friend and ignoring Owl. “It’s been countless generations since our people have practiced the art of seeking vision in the wilds. But last I knew, it was a solitary endeavor. Am I mistaken? Has the sacred rite of our fathers suddenly changed despite the countless generations of tradition in the fifth age?”
Crying Wolf eyed Little Owl cruelly. He shook his head. “You are not mistaken, my brother,” he said. “Those who seek vision, must do so alone.”
“Willow,” Sharp Knife said, raising his hands in disbelief. “What gives?”
“You know Ciipaya were seen here,” she said flatly, unimpressed with the ironic attitude he was assuming.
Sharp Knife’s gaze remained level. He didn’t seem impressed with her reasoning as to why she had lingered so long with Little Owl. She looked away and then her eyes reflexively met Owl’s. She grew fearful that the situation was teetering toward her leaving him. Her heart reached out to his. Then they both looked at Sharp Knife.
Realization settled upon the warrior’s face.
He turned to Owl. “Have you two bonded?” he asked, disbelieving, a contained rage now evident in his voice.
“No!” Willow exclaimed, trying to sandbag the conversation.
Sharp Knife looked at Owl, questioning him with silence.
Wide-eyed, Owl shook his head. “No,” he said, fearing the implications. “Of course not.”
“Dragging me home isn’t happening,” Willow assured him.
Sharp Knife shook his head. “No,” he said. “I can’t imagine that working. But I can imagine how well your father will receive me, if I come home empty-handed,” Sharp Knife said. “I’m sure you can too.”
She cast her eyes downward. Willow obviously saw his point, but was afraid of what it meant.
“You really leave me no choice,” he said.
Crying Wolf eased up next to Little Owl. Another warrior appeared from the woods. He had been listening the whole time. When he reached the sand, he stopped and crossed his arms, dashing any hopes they had for making a run for it.
“So unless you come with me,” Sharp Knife said. “Things are going to get really bad for your friend here.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Willow said, shock evident in her voice.
“Watch me,” Sharp Knife challenged.
Willow stood defiantly.
There was only the slightest signal from Sharp Knife and Crying Wolf was in motion, spinning and descending sharply toward the ground. The back of his fist struck Owl in the stomach with a force made potent by the spiral motion. Owl made a terrible sound full of pain. He doubled over.
“Stop!” Willow screamed. She ran to Little Owl and eased him down to the sand. She turned on Sharp Knife. “Alright, I’ll go with you.”
“Excellent,” Sharp Knife said, clapping his hands. “I love it when folks can come to a quick agreement.”
She turned back to Owl. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “This is my fault. I should have let you alone.”
Owl shook his head. “Not at all,” he said, fighting against the pain. “I’m glad you joined me.”
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“This?” he said, indicating his stomach. “This is nothing. You go. I’ll tell you all about my adventure later.”
Willow stood and turned away from Owl. As she passed Crying Wolf, with the heel of her foot she stomped on his. He doubled over, gripping his toes. She walked to Sharp Knife. He cringed, not wishing to likewise feel the brunt of her scorn.
“What?” he said. “Willow? What choice did I have?”
“Oh,” she assured him. “You’re going to pay for that.” She passed him and started jogging down the strip of sand that stretched along the river. She didn’t look back.
Dusk had passed, but they were squeezing the last bit of usefulness from the remaining light. Sharp Knife led them. Willow followed. They reached the base of a hill and started up the embankment. Suddenly Sharp Knife stopped. He held up a hand in silence. Long moments passed. The forest was as still as a stone. Sharp Knife moved again, but now his footsteps made no sound.
He returned shortly.
“There is a camp,” Sharp Knife said, though his voice was only the slightest of whispers.
The four of them crept up the hill and down into the shadows of the ravine.
Just below the cliff on the other side, a fire smoldered. Empty mussel shells littered the camp.
“The Dark Ones were here,” Crying Wolf said. “But they are long gone.”
Willow looked furious. “Now tell me that my concern over the Ciipaya is unfounded,” she demanded of Sharp Knife.
The next morning, Willow was gone. There was no trace of her, not the faintest sign of a footprint, or broken twig, or a disturbed leaf or branch.
Crying Wolf returned from the riverbank.
“Anything?” Sharp Knife asked.
“Nothing,” Crying Wolf said. “It’s like she vanished into thin air.”
Sharp Knife shook his head, but couldn’t help his smile. “She’s good,” he said. “And yet her father worries over her like she’s a child.”
“What are you going to do?”
A figure emerged from the woods and stepped onto the beach. For a moment, Owl had no idea who it was. He thought of the ghosts of Waayaahtanonki and a chill crept up his spine. The figure waved and then relief washed over him. He recognized who it was after all.
“Willow!” Owl shouted, laughing. He steered his canoe to the shore. When he reached the sand, he jumped out and pulled the boat in.
“I’m so glad to see you safe,” Willow said, reaching for Owl and hugging him tightly. “Thank the manitou you’re okay.”
“Why so worried about me?” Owl asked. “What happened?”
“We found a camp of the Ciipaya,” she said. “But they were gone.”
“How did you get away from Sharp Knife?” Owl asked.
“I had to wait until after dark,” she said. “I left while they were all sleeping.”
“You are talented,” he said. “Do you think they followed you?”
“Maybe,” she said, instinctively looking downriver. “But I put quite a bit of distance between us. Anyway, let’s get back on the water. Perhaps we can trick them into thinking you went inland.”
Willow helped Owl launch the canoe. They both jumped in and headed north. Owl dug deeply at the water. Once they had several bends of the river behind them, they began to relax again.
It was dusk and time to make camp. They pulled the canoe out of the water and set it carefully in the grass while they brushed their tracks from the sand. Satisfied, Owl stepped into the grass to wait for Willow. She finished concealing her footprints and turned to Owl.
He smiled. “I missed you,” he said.
She laughed. “I was only gone a day,” she said as she stepped lightly over the sand, careful not to make anymore signs of their passing. She walked to Owl, eyeing him with a smile.
“For years, we went without a word between us,” he said, a little sad. “Now I don’t want to go a day without hearing your voice. And your laughter.”
She stepped close to him, her head low, her smile seductive. Then she met his eyes and put a hand against his chest.
“Me either,” she said. “We’re good together. We can’t let them keep us apart anymore.”
Owl touched the small of her back with the palm of his hand and then drew her close. He kissed her, their lips lingering, parting and then pressing together again. For the next few moments, he was immersed in the fullness of her lips, but then Willow finally pulled away.
“We’d better get off the river,” she said.
They planned to make camp far off the river tonight so that they couldn’t be found by Sharp Knife and his friends.
They picked up the canoe and carried it deep into the woods, taking their time, stepping lightly and making sure the boat left no signs of its passing.
They found a nice flat patch of ground nestled at the base of a knoll. It was a good spot for a camp. They backed the canoe against the hill, out of sight and then sat down to rest.
“You should eat something,” Owl said.
Willow shook her head. “I have my rations,” she said.
Owl made a face. “Month old dried meat?” Owl said, looking around. “I have a feeling these woods are ripe for foraging.”
Willow glanced about, seemingly intrigued by Owl’s suggestion. “Alright,” she said, standing up. “I’ll see if I can find something.”
“I’ll help,” Owl offered.
They found the mushrooms under the boughs of a red oak.
“You can eat these,” she said, excitedly.
He shook his head. “Don’t tempt me,” he said. “I can’t.”
“Yes you can,” she insisted. “They’ll help you with your vision seeking.”
She said a quick prayer before gathering them.
They passed a small creek and followed it to a cliff where it trickled onto a smooth stone and then formed a deep pool of clear water. Willow held the mushrooms under the flowing water to cleanse them.
They brought them back to camp. She broke the mushrooms into sections and shook away the insects.
“Let’s sing your vision seeking songs,” Willow said.
They kept their melodic voices low as they sang the songs, at a level just below that of the singing insects around them.
“You don’t think this breaks my fast?”
“No,” Willow said. “I don’t think so. They are for seeking vision, after all.”
Owl took one and popped it into his mouth. It tasted like a chestnut. It was delicious and Owl felt guilty, so he tried not to think of it as food, but rather something akin to burning an offering. He ate three of the mushrooms and handed the rest to Willow.
Willow took the mushrooms. She picked three just as Owl had done and consumed them.
Owl began to feel lightheaded, but unlike the feel of fasting this was pleasant. He leaned back, lay flat against the earth and watched the canopy sway in the remnants of the fading light. He watched as dusk turned to night.
“I want to be alone with you, Miintikwa,” Willow said, but her voice had an ethereal quality that Owl had never heard before.
Owl looked around. “We are alone,” he said, confused. “Aren’t we?”
He turned to Willow and looking at her, he realized she hadn’t actually spoken the words. She looked curiously at him.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said, giggling. He lay back down to watch the leaves again. The light faded further.
“I mean, really alone,” Willow said, again with a strange quality to her voice.
He sat up. “Did you say something?”
“Yes,” she said, casting a glance about. “It doesn’t really feel like we’re alone out here on the water.”
She was speaking out loud now, but Owl still felt confused. “What are you talking about, Willow?” he said. “We’re not on the water anymore. We’re in the woods. Remember? Can’t you see?” He looked around, as if to make sure.
“We’re basically out in the open,” she insisted, though her voice was calm and soothing.
Owl felt awkward.
Suddenly, Willow jumped up. She sprinted away from camp. She turned briefly at its edge. Smiling she said, “Catch me.” And then she disappeared into the trees.
“Hey,” Owl said, propping himself up.
He peered into the woods. She was gone.
He scrambled to his feet and took off after her.
“You remember I’m half starved?” he called out.
Owl sprinted through the woods. For a few fearful moments he was alone, but then he began to catch glimpses of her. She was still sprinting through the forest just out of reach, teasing him with a coaxing smile, a giggle, a trailing foot, or a waving hand, as she disappeared again and again into the duskiness. He ran on like the moon forever chasing the evening star.
The sound of trickling water marked the end of their pursuit. Owl jumped over the creek they found earlier. He stopped when he saw the cliff. It was the waterfall where they cleaned the mushrooms. By the time he reached her, she had shed her clothes, and was now wading into the pool beneath the cliff. Turning, she saw him, smiled and beckoned.
“It’s good,” she said. “We can be alone here.”
Owl rested a moment, looking about, and then he stepped into the water. It was cool against his feet, cooler than the river.
“See,” Willow said. “Come closer.”
Little Owl eased into the water. He moved toward Willow.
The wind tossed the canopy about, repeatedly teasing apart the leaves and spreading the boughs, only to close them again. The night sky caught only glimpses of the pooling spring and its occupants, but the heavens seemed content with the shifting view.
Laughing, Owl and Willow sloshed through the clear water. They drew close, shivering together. Her shoulders glistened in the subtle light of the sky. Goosebumps spread over her body. They met suddenly, pressing skin against wet skin. A moment later their bodies warmed and they ceased trembling. Willow smiled contentedly, her teeth gleaming. She threaded her fingers through his. Her eyes danced over his features and then met his. Her pupils widened and grew dark.
“I really like you, Owl,” she said, her voice mingling with the wind in the leaves.
“I really like you too,” he said.
“It feels right that we should be together,” she said.
A screech owl trilled softly from the nook of a nearby tree, a mellow whinny meant to draw in her mate.
Suddenly, they were kissing fiercely. But it wasn’t enough. Little Owl couldn’t get close enough to her. He felt like he wanted to climb inside of her. She slid her arms under his, around his back and over his shoulders. Kissing him firmly again, she leaped out of the water, wrapping her legs around him at his waist.
“Owl?” she said desperately between breaths. “What’s happening?”
“I have no idea,” he said, trembling and with a little panic in his voice. “But I think it’s good. Really good.”
The next morning, they carried the boat back to the river. The sunlight was already peeking through the trees, brightening the water. Just before stepping into the open, Willow dropped her end of the canoe.
“What’s wrong?” Owl asked, dropping his end.
“Nothing,” she said, but there was a desperate look in her eyes. She walked along the length of the canoe and swept up to Little Owl and kissed him without hesitation. It was a long kiss, which came at him like waves lapping against the riverbank. “I just got a strange feeling,” she said as she turned toward the open river.
She shook her head. “I got a feeling like we’d never be able to do this again,” she said. “It’s nothing.” She kissed him again and then walked back to the tip of the canoe. They picked up the boat and carried it down to the water. Willow climbed into the bow. Owl leaned in, gave it a push, and then jumped inside. They made their way back to the middle of the river and headed upstream.
The riverbank rose high off the water and formed a steep cliff. The forest grew thickly at the top. Owl spied something protruding from the woods. At first he thought it was part of the landscape, but it bobbed independently of the brush around it, as if it responded on its own to some current of air. Owl lifted his oar and let the boat drift. The current quickly brought them to a standstill.
Willow looked toward what had Owl’s attention.
“That’s weird,” she whispered.
“Shall we check it out?” Owl asked.
“I’m up for it,” Willow said.
Soon they were scrambling up the steep embankment for the top. They chose a spot a few paces upriver, so that they wouldn’t come out right under it, but rather could approach it on even ground. Owl fell about half way up, landing on his back. It knocked the wind out of him, but he quickly recovered and started climbing again. Finally they reached the top near the edge of the forest. They could see the strange bobbing as soon as they looked that direction. Something about it made Owl’s scalp tingle. As they approached, it looked more and more like a branch, save the strange motion. Owl was within a few paces. Abruptly, it stopped moving. Now it definitely looked like the branch of a tree.
“I don’t like this,” Willow said.
Owl approached and examined it closely. He didn’t recognize the species.
“Do you know this tree?” Owl asked.
Willow shook her head, eyeing the dark woods for trouble.
Now he could see that the limb belonged to a tree that had fallen. It lay on the ground. The branch that had been bobbing was its tip. It stretched into the dimness of the forest. Owl peered in, but could not make out where it stopped. If he stepped under the canopy, his eyes might adjust, and then he could ascertain what kind of tree it was.
He slipped inside.
“Owl,” Willow whispered. “Why are you going in there? I think we should get back to the boat.”
He waved her to follow without turning around. “Let’s go,” he said.
Inside, away from the sun, the air cooled abruptly. They were at the base of a small cliff. The rock was wet and black. A meager waterfall trickled down from above. Once inside, his eyes adjusted and Owl could see farther. He looked down at the forest floor. From the texture of the bark, he wondered if it was some kind of oak. Out on the river, the tip was as narrow as his finger, but now it was a little bigger than his waist. But how tall was it? He stopped and followed the tree with his eyes. It disappeared around the rocks.
“What is it?” Willow asked, standing next to Owl now.
“I thought it was a tree,” Owl said. “But now I wonder if it’s some kind of root system, by the way it’s hugging the ground.”
“Please. Let’s go back to the river.”
Owl shook his head. “I have to see what this is,” he said and began walking toward the cliff.
It was looking more and more like a vine. It had grown bigger around, but more elongated, its bulky weight causing it to flatten against the earth. Owl imagined it must be attached to some colossal tree up ahead. He climbed around the rocks and reached for the top of the cliff. Expecting to see its source, he was disappointed. The vine snaked along the ridge parallel with the river and then followed a hill back to where they started. Owl couldn’t believe it. He had never seen anything like it. His fascination was growing by leaps and bounds. He trotted down the hill.
“Go on then,” Willow scolded, “I’m going back. You’re crazy.”
“Hey!” Owl said, turning only to find Willow halfway down the rocks. “Why are you so spooked?”
“See you at the boat,” she said.
Owl was perplexed by Willow’s fear, but he would have to question her about it after seeing about this strange vine. He walked along the hill as it sloped down back to the riverbank, downstream from their canoe. It had grown enormous. Sunlight came twinkling through the leaves as he approached the edge of the forest. After being in the dimness under the canopy, the sunlight was blinding. It filled his eyes with stardust.
Just steps away from the open air of the riverbank, an airy sound assaulted Owl. It was so sudden and pervasive and he was so startled by it, that he fell to the ground.
A great rack of antlers scattered the sunlight as it moved across Owl’s field of vision. It lifted up toward the treetops. The lattice work of horns converged onto a very big head. The airy sound issued from the head. Soon it shifted into hissing.
Owl knew immediately what was rising before him. Terror shot through him and before he could stop himself, he screamed out loud. He almost made water. It was Mishiginebig (Great-Horned Serpent) towering over him, his giant head decorated with a huge rack of horns, like that of a deer. It was true. His body was as thick as a tree, as in the stories, his length stretched behind him forever through the forest. But not endlessly, after all! The thought in Owl’s head, despite the horror before him, was that he had just seen its end. That bobbing limb above the river was the end of Mishiginebig’s tail. Something occurred to Owl just then. The tail had been a lure, meant to lead him here. And it had worked.
Owl rolled away and landed on his feet. He crouched, and slowly drew his knife. Then he remembered what happened to people who looked into the Serpent’s eyes. Immediately, he averted his. From his periphery, Owl saw something shining from its head. Then he remembered the story, which told of a pure white stone set between Mishiginebig’s eyes. This is what he saw.
The snake’s body convulsed. It seemed to have transformed. Owl could no longer mistake it for a plant, because of the way it moved. It undulated and a section of it came out of the woods, allowing its head to rise even higher. Owl backed up toward the edge of the heightened riverbank. He peered over its edge. He saw his canoe upstream, but no sign of Willow yet. She had not come out of the trees.
He could jump for it, but he would risk breaking his leg. Owl turned back toward the Serpent.
“Miintikwa,” the Serpent hissed. “Why have you crossed the boundary? Why have you entered the lands that your ancestors willingly abandoned so long ago?”
Owl fought against his fear of speaking to a god. He finally won out, only because it was such a direct question, and he thought he’d better answer it. Even still, he barely got the words out. “I am only seeking vision,” Owl said. “To find my totem and to see if there are game and fish here for the Peeyankihšia.”
“I think you want more than a vision. You serve your own desire. You are following your curious nose into lands where it does not belong.”
“But these lands belong to the people,” Owl said defensively and automatically. “Our stories tell us that eventually we are to heal all the lands of the trauma of the end of the fifth world.”
“The manitou of the north hate all humans for just that reason, even the Peeyankihšia.”
“Why would manitou hate the Peeyankihšia?”
“Because you are human.”
“The lands to the north of Peeyankihšia were always meant to be resettled,” Owl said. “Meehšimeelwia said as much.”
Mishiginebig hissed angrily at the mention of the people’s hero.
“The horned owl?” Mishiginebig questioned, in a tone demeaning their hero. The Serpent reared up. “I am the vision you seek. My warning is your sign. Soon you will be visited by an animal. Take it as your totem spirit and go home Little Owl. And tell your people not to pass the border.”
The serpent shifted toward him. More of its body issued from the forest. Mishiginebig began to fill the ledge. The swelling body pressed up against him. He had seen the way snakes dispose of their prey. The horror of all this serpent flesh sent ice up and down his spine. Suddenly the serpent engulfed him. Owl pushed back, his hands fell over the snakeskin. It was cold. Owl fell to the ground. In desperation, he looked to the sky. Daylight still illuminated the dome with brilliant blue, but for a moment it winked to darkness. Suddenly the firmament appeared as if it were night. Stars filled the sky! Blackness doused out the blue, but then it reappeared. It went out again. The sky shifted like this repeatedly, and the night sky was like clouds passing overhead during a storm. Had Mishiginebig somehow turned day to night and night to day in a matter of moments? It seemed so.
The snake pressed against his face. Owl noticed that the skin wasn’t exactly like a real snake, or entirely serpentine, but rather an amalgam of forest and serpent. Owl smelled the earth. He saw how he had been fooled into thinking it was a tree, then a root, and then a vine, but now something new appeared in the skin. Tiny points of light flickered to life, like starlight reflected off the surface of a pond. It was mesmerizing. A spell, Owl realized. He struggled to free himself of it. There was no more time to observe this mystery. Great-horned Serpent squeezed up against him. The god was going to suffocate him. With all his might, Owl pushed with his legs. It was just enough to free himself from the swelling serpent flesh. Then he leapt backwards off the heightened riverbank and slammed into the sand below, knocking the wind out of him.
Owl fell unconscious.
“Owl?” he heard Willow calling frantically. “Are you okay?”
He opened his eyes and the sky burst into pieces. He was staring straight up and there was Willow above him. He looked across the river and his sight settled down.
“Oh thank the thunderbirds you woke up,” she said.
“What happened? Where am I?” he asked.
“You don’t remember?” she asked.
Owl shook his head.
“You were following that vine through the woods.”
Owl suddenly remembered what had just happened.
Owl struggled to get up.
“What did you say?” Willow asked.
“Where is Great-horned Serpent?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” Willow asked. “You fell out of the woods and off that ledge.” Willow pointed above his head.
“Where is the snake?”
“You mean Lenipinšia?”
“You saw Mishiginebig?” Willow asked, disbelief on her face, falling back onto the beach in front of him.
Owl looked up at the riverbank where he fell. It was empty. He tried to sit up, but immediately felt dizzy. He rubbed his temple.
“I think you hit your head pretty hard,” Willow said.
“I guess I did.”
The sun shone from the center of the sky. It bore down on Owl’s head, which still hurt from the fall. He could barely see straight. His belly felt like it would cave in on itself. Owl couldn’t eat. He was constantly thirsty, so he drank until water seemed it would come out of his ears. This tricked his stomach only so long. It cramped painfully, and his hunger always returned.
Owl grew quick to anger. He felt it rush over him at the slightest annoyance. But the last thing he wanted to do was lash out at Willow, so he pushed it down as deep as he could.
They came to the confluence of Big Pine Creek and the Wabash River. The confluence marked the halfway point between Peeyankihšionki and Waayaahtanonki.
Beaver swam through the swirling waters, emerged onto the shore, and then disappeared into the woods. The beaver lodge was on Big Pine Creek, so Owl and Willow expected him to return. Owl beached the canoe so that they could take a closer look. They were on the lookout for any signs of possible animal totems for Owl. They got out and stretched their legs, walked into the trees a little and watched for Beaver’s return.
A little while later the animal did emerge from the trees. Owl and Willow were hidden. Beaver reached the riverbank, but oddly, he would not go into the water. He stood on his haunches and peered out to the river toward his house, but still refused to go any farther. The animal disappeared again into the woods. They waited to see what would happen next.
Sometime later in the afternoon, there was movement across the river at the lodge. Other beaver were leaving the tangle of logs and swimming toward them. Soon a long line of the little swimmers stretched across the river. It was the whole colony. Owl and Willow continued to watch, hidden behind the trees as more from upriver appeared and joined the others. When they pulled themselves out, they all left the water and followed the same path that the first had earlier.
“What are they doing?” Willow asked.
“I have no idea,” Owl said.
Curious, they followed them. Quietly, they pursued. They all ended up at a place in the middle of the woods, nowhere near any river or creek or stream. The animals seemed spooked. What made them so afraid? Owl and Willow decided they should leave them alone and made their way back to the river.
“This must be it,” Owl said.
“What do you mean?” Willow asked.
“My totem is Beaver, after all,” Owl said.
“But they picked Beaver for you at the Rite,” Willow pointed out. “And you rejected him.”
“But it really makes sense, if you think about it,” Owl argued. “I do spend all my time in the river. Beaver would be a good guardian for me.”
This wasn’t so bad, Owl thought. Five days out and he had found his totem. He thought of his mother’s insistence that he make sure it was right, but this was just too obvious. After all, he had passed on Deer and Lenipinšia. He hadn’t taken the first animal which had crossed his path.
“What changed?” Willow asked. “Ask yourself that,” she demanded.
Owl shook his head. “It’s time to go home,” he declared.
Willow frowned. “I’m not so sure,” she said, pointing in the direction of the beaver. “What they were doing didn’t seem right. It was more of a bad omen than anything, not a sign for you.”
Owl felt a flash of anger. “What could you know about my totem?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “But you really need to consider why you are changing your mind now.”
“I’m going back to the river,” Owl said. Turning, he walked away.
Willow followed after him.
When they arrived at the water, he climbed into his canoe.
“Where are you going?” Willow asked.
“You’ll see,” he said. “Get in.”
Willow sighed, but then stepped into the boat. Owl paddled across the Wabash and up Big Pine Creek toward the beavers’ lodge. Owl rammed the canoe into the tangle of brush and logs. He reached for one of the smaller branches and broke off a piece.
“What are you doing?”
Owl held up the piece of wood and smiled. “I’m going to carve my totem,” he said.
He paddled back to the river and then beached his canoe again.
Owl spent the remainder of the afternoon carving an effigy of his chosen totem. He needed something tangible to show everyone.
When Owl finished, he held up his carving proudly.
“You like it?” he asked Willow.
She didn’t look impressed. “It’s fine,” she said.
“You’re still not convinced?” Owl asked.
Willow shook her head.
“Alright. Let’s go see.” Owl got up and moved toward the trees.
“It’s almost dark,” she said. “I think you’re delirious. How about you sleep on it. And see in the morning.”
Owl shook his head. He turned away from her and moved deeper into the woods.
“He’s lost his mind,” Willow muttered, but she took off after him.
The beaver were gone.
“I don’t understand,” Owl said. “There were so many of them. They were here, right?”
Willow looked about. She nodded. “Yes. This was the place.”
“Where did they go?”
“They moved on,” she said. “Which is what you need to do.”
Owl thought of the conversation with his mother just before leaving. She had said not to settle. But Beaver seemed so right to him now. He recalled his mother’s advice. Owl sat down roughly. He grew quiet and closed his eyes and then looked inside. He tried pushing past all his pain and hunger and frustration.
After a few moments, he moaned, impatiently. He put his hands over his face and rubbed hard. Then he looked to the sky. “I just want to go home!” he shouted into the canopy.
“You’re almost there,” she said. “I can feel it. Just a little while longer.”
“This is ridiculous!” Owl shook his head. “I can’t do it.”
“You can!” Willow implored.
“I didn’t even come here for this,” Owl admitted, angrily. “I don’t care about animal totems. I came to see Waayaahtanonki.” He shook his head. “But this is too much to bear,” he said, looking at Willow. “I’m going home.”
He took off back toward the river. “I have my totem he said, gripping his effigy. This is what they wanted. We’re going home.”
Willow ran after him.
Owl leapt over a fallen tree and then sprinted along the trail in the twilight. His anger quickly dissipated as thoughts of home crossed his mind. His excitement grew with each step. Thoughts of his mother’s cooking consumed him. His mouth watered. It would be another three days before they were home again. Would it be okay to catch a fish on the way back? He desperately wanted to get back to the river before dark. If they could make it to their canoe, they might be able to float downstream into the night and be home even sooner.
“Slow down,” Willow called out. “Please wait. What about your vision seeking songs?”
Owl eased up and finally stopped at the edge of a clearing.
The wind blew sharply along the trail and the canopy danced in the turbulent air, but it subsided as quickly as it had come. The cool air grew still again, seemingly hushed to silence by some bigger will than his.
“You see? This isn’t right,” Willow whispered. They crouched in the shadows and watched as the moon ducked in and out of the clouds, briefly illuminating the clearing again and again. It was an odd night, the clouds racing and yet the air on the forest floor was still with only brief gusts of wind intruding from above.
Owl’s good mood proved tenuous. His heart sank. His scalp began to tingle.
“I feel it too,” he whispered.
A black veil danced chaotically against the trees. It converged on Owl.
“Ciipaya!” Willow shouted.
Owl deflected the attacker just in time to avoid collision, but in so doing lost his balance and slammed into the ground. He instinctively rolled, letting momentum of the attack run its course, using it finally to come to his feet.
The attacker drew a hatchet from the folds of his shirt and rushed at Owl. The weapon came slicing through the air and then careened toward the top of his head, but Owl leapt aside just before it connected. For a brief moment, his attacker was overextended and vulnerable. Owl swept his foot under him and he fell to the ground. Owl drew his knife. The Dark One rolled away and was on his feet. He rushed at Owl again. Owl leapt aside as before, but this time the Ciipaya anticipated his move and knocked his weapon away.
Owl’s knife flew into the bushes.
In a sudden burst of fury, the Ciipaya rushed at him. Owl had never seen one of the Dark Ones up close. Immediately he saw hatred in the Ciipaya’s eyes, hatred for him. It ran through Owl. Despite the chaos of their melee, he wondered how he could be so utterly despised by someone whom he had never before encountered? What was behind such intense ill will? Owl blocked and dodged as best he could, but his fasting had taken its toll.
For the first time, he saw the stark paleness of the Ciipaya’s skin up close. It was truly alien. It reminded Owl of serpent skin, but what struck him most was the familiarity of what lie under it. In their deadly dance, he watched fingers grasp and shift, he saw muscles flex and knuckles strike. Stardust lay embedded in the surface texture. It shimmered in the fading light. Oddly, it reminded him of his Mishiginebig vision. As he slammed into him, the skin of his enemy was warm. For some reason he had expected it to be frigid. His foe countered with a fluidity and ferocity born of grace, all mirrored in his mind by his very own people, the Peeyankihšia warriors. Owl had a peculiar thought in the face of so much violence whirling about him. Ciipaya, corpse of the dead, as a name used to describe his foe, just didn’t fit. In that moment, Owl realized that the name had been born of fear and hatred for the Dark Ones, not from any real characteristic of them. True, the skin was pale and bizarre, but it was a stretch to call them ciipaya. His foe gleamed with life.
His fevered contemplations were cut off.
Willow shouted at him. “Focus!”
She must have perceived his distraction. In her voice, he could sense Willow fearing for his life.
His reserves quickly depleted. His exhaustion left his defenses open a moment too long. He saw the weapon coming for his head, arched his back and twisted, which saved his skull, but left his side wide open. The tip of the hatchet landed bluntly against his ribs.
The force of the blow sent him sailing to the ground. Pain split Owl’s side. Instinctively, he balled up.
Owl struggled to lift his head against the searing pain. It was near to impossible, but he had to get up. He squeezed his side and stood.
His foe smiled devilishly and stepped toward Owl, confidence brewing in his eyes, knowing that he had hurt him badly enough and could now best him. Indeed, Owl was sure that this Ciipaya was too much for him. The opportunity drew near to end his life.
Willow intercepted the Dark One. Ciipaya instantly lunged for her.
Owl saw the fury in her eyes. As the Dark One fell upon Willow, her palm shot forward blindingly quick and into his face, cracking his nose, and knocking him head over heels to the ground.
Owl stumbled back. His chest heaved and burned. At the moment, all he had the energy for was to wait and see.
Impossibly, the Ciipaya lifted his head and then pulled his body up with one arm. And then he slowly stood.
Owl moaned with incomprehension.
The combatants circled each other.
The Dark One struggled to stay standing. His arms hung loosely. Blood dripped from his nose. His eyes spun about, seemingly on the verge of unconsciousness.
Willow lunged for her foe. The Ciipaya dodged. They circled. Willow struck again, knocking him to the ground.
He got up again and this time his face split into a sinister grin, his teeth stained crimson from his own blood.
It was a sight difficult to believe. A second wind? He remembered the stories told by returning warriors of great feats of strength in battle by the Dark Ones. He seemed to be in the midst of a rebirth.
He moved to speak. “Peehtawašiyani,” the Dark One hissed.
Owl was shaken. He speaks my language?
Did Willow know? Owl glanced at her. She didn’t seem as shocked as he was.
The word the Ciipaya used meant deceiver. He had called them deceivers.
“Tell me, where is the Lake Erie talisman?” the Ciipaya said.
“What?” Owl asked. “What talisman?”
The Dark One shook his head, wrung his hands, and settled into a stance, eager to resume the fight.
But before the fight could begin anew, Willow cut it off. Owl had never seen anything like it, an object flying so fast as to bring the moment to an end before it begins. The knife, tumbling blade over handle through the air, ended its flight before he realized what Willow had done. From the folds of her shirt she had produced the sleek weapon. The deadly brilliant white bone whirled through the air. It struck the Ciipaya in the throat. Luckily for the Dark One, only the handle of the weapon hit him. It bounced away to the ground. Almost as quickly, Willow was flying toward her foe, compressing the distance between them. She leapt and then landed feet first onto the Ciipaya’s chest. Her hands wrapped around his neck. With her momentum, he fell straight back and his head struck the ground hard. She was on top of him in the next instant, her triceps flexed, driving her palms into his throat. She was strangling him.
“Stop!” Owl shouted, running to her. The Dark One was out cold, unconscious.
“He’s done,” Owl said.
“So?” Willow snarled.
“That’s enough,” Owl said.
“He tried to kill us!” Willow exclaimed.
“And you stopped him,” he said.
Willow groaned, disapproving of Owl, but knowing he was on the moral high ground, she rolled away. She was back on her feet in an instant.
She and Owl waited.
Somehow he expected their attacker to get up again, but he didn’t move. Owl moved in. Warily, he prodded him once with his foot, gently at first, but then more sharply. The Dark One did not respond.
Had he been the one in the woods spying on Owl and Hare?
The realization suddenly hit him that here before him was one of those responsible for the death of his father, of his grandfather and uncle, and many others among his family. He searched his heart for demands for justice. Surprisingly, he found none. The great war was long ago and many vengeful, reciprocal raids had occurred since. Unconscious and lying flat on his back, their foe was more a boy than a monster. In fact, the longer Owl looked upon him the more he realized the Dark One was likely younger than he or Willow. Owl grew light-headed. He knelt down.
“Hey,” Willow said. “Don’t get too close.”
Owl looked into the features of the Ciipaya and was stunned by what he found. If it weren’t for his strange skin, he could’ve easily passed as Peeyankihšia. Immediately, Owl’s heart changed where the Ciipaya were concerned. All the stories said one thing, but his conscience said another. In one regard it seemed absurd to spare someone who tried to kill him, but in his gut, he knew it was right.
The fight was over.
Exhaustion overcame Owl. Blackness consumed his vision. He fell to the earth and in the next instant lost consciousness.
When he awoke, he found himself in near darkness. Only the faintest light filtered through the canopy. A sliver of the moon hung low on the horizon.
He lay still and listened.
He was alone.
Where is Willow?
He risked a look around.
The shadows had completely consumed the forest floor. He called out to her, but the woods easily absorbed his voice.
Owl staggered down the trail toward the river and his canoe, but soon his battered body protested and he had to stop. He swayed where he stood. He felt dizzy. He went down on one knee.
Finally, he pulled himself up and tried to stand. Owl teetered. He took a step. Sharp pain erupted from his side. He winced and went down again in the blackness of the forest.
Dawn broke from the hills to the east and light winked through the woods and over the water. It played against the sandy shore where Little Owl lay sleeping, but soon fell over his eyelids, and then danced on them mischievously until he stirred. His was a hard and fast sleep which lasted through the night, but still, he was near dead to the world. His stomach ached, but it seemed to have given up on food. It no longer bothered him with hunger pangs.
He stubbornly squinted out the dazzling light. Eventually he relented, to the persistent summer sun and finally awoke. He groaned as he sat up and stretched.
Looking out at the river he marveled at how he could have ended up on its shore. Last he knew, he lay in the woods to the east, though vague impressions passed before his mind of someone propping him up and getting him down to the river. Was it Willow? It must have been Willow.
He raised his arms, and winced at the pain in his left side. The pain might be the reason he felt no hunger at the moment. He gingerly touched his ribs and found a wicked bruise under the skin.
Somehow in the fight, Owl lost his totem, the piece he had fashioned after encountering Beaver, a symbolic representation of the spirit animal. Owl realized now that, as signs go, this was a clear indication he had chosen wrong.
The Wabash eased by. Ripples lapped at the sandy shore below the towering trees. His canoe lay on the shore where they had beached it the previous day in search of beaver. There was no sign of beaver now.
He stepped into the shallows. The cool water relieved his sore feet. He waded toward the center of the river. He imagined the depths where the fish lay, those bottom dwellers that grew as big as a man. He thought of his uncle and their fishing. He wished they were together now. He imagined Nišihsa would lift his spirits.
Little Owl walked until the water rose to his waist. He sunk in and let it rise past his bruised ribs. The coolness felt good and he opened his heart to its healing powers. He eased in, up to his neck. He closed his eyes and felt the embrace of the big river soothe his bruised, battered, and starving body. And prop up his soul.
Willow had disappeared. His heart sank as he recalled the events of last evening and he feared for his friend.
But if she had walked him to the river, she surely was okay.
The events of last evening flashed before his mind. Owl cursed himself for letting that blow through his defenses. Now his confidence was as much battered as his body. Willow had proven herself an exceptional fighter.
Perhaps he had chosen wrong. Perhaps Beaver was not his totem spirit just as Willow had said. He dreaded the thought of resuming his vision quest without her. And where was she? Owl looked about hoping that she might appear. Perhaps she had made it to the canoe.
Owl walked out of the deeper water toward the shore. Before leaving the river, he dipped his hands and splashed the water over his head and then rubbed his face vigorously. He shook the water out of his hair. Then he left the river and made his way to his canoe. He peered inside.
Willow was not there. Her stuff was gone too, so she probably had left willingly.
Owl decided he had to check the area around where the attack occurred. He dreaded going back, but he went anyway.
When he reached the clearing, he found that the Dark One was gone.
Owl spent the rest of the morning scouting around the river. There was no sign of her.
What should he do? Should he go home or go on to Waayaahtanonki? He had no totem. To break vision quest now would be to admit defeat and also a sign that the manitou disapproved of him. The people might make him wapingwatah.
A berry picker!
As a little boy, he had gathered berries, roots, nuts, and firewood along with his mother and aunts. In those days, he had loved gathering. He enjoyed the chance to get away from the safety of the village and into the excitement that the surrounding forests offered. At times they would get caught far away from home at dusk and be forced to make camp. Mostly women and children gathered and farmed. It was a sacred task. He thought of his uncle. He had been Wapingwatah for a time after the war that killed Owl’s father, grandfather, and uncle. That had been expected, but for Owl at his age, it would be humiliating.
Though he found it hard to imagine going on without Willow, he decided he must.
Maybe she was on her way home. But why would she have gone? Then it dawned on Owl. Perhaps she had come to realize that accompanying him on his vision quest was a mistake. She might have seen the attack by Ciipaya as a sign.
Owl trudged back to the river.
Still no Willow. Perhaps it was as he suspected. She knew he must go on to Waayaahtanonki. Willow had come fearing Ciipaya might reach him, which had come to pass. She defended him in his weakened state and fulfilled that purpose. Whatever Owl had to do at Waayaahtanonki, he must do alone, whether to seek a vision or simply to satisfy his curiosity. They would see each other back home.
Or perhaps she left him because she was furious? He shook his head. Owl really had no idea.
He stood by his canoe and looked out to the river. He thought of his insistence that Beaver was his totem and realized suddenly that he had completely lost his mind the night before. A wave of regret washed over him. He wished Willow were here, for many reasons, but mainly so that he could say he was sorry. And to thank her for seeing him through.
Owl crawled into his canoe. Something caught his eye. He hadn’t noticed it before. In the floor of the canoe lay an arrow. Puzzled, Owl reached for it and held it in his hands. It was a very special arrow. It’s shaft was made from the branch of a red willow tree. At its tip the arrowhead, made from crystal quartz, glittered in the morning sunlight. All her things were gone, except the arrow.
Tears streamed down his cheeks. Love for his old friend filled his heart. He felt renewed and suddenly full of resolve for completing his journey to Waayaahtanonki.
Waayaahtanonki (At the Whirlpool)
All morning, with renewed resolve, Owl cut against the river’s current, but soon the absence of Willow began to shadow everything. His uncle had warned him that a girl could do this to a boy.
He remembered his uncle had said, “She will come quietly, settle into your heart, and then steal it away!” Nišihsa chuckled and then his eyes grew distant, and smiling, he seemed to reflect on days gone by.
“What can I do?” Owl asked.
Nišihsa stirred from the past. “Oh no boy! You misunderstand me,” Uncle said. “There’s nothing to do.”
“I don’t understand,” Owl said.
“It’s not meant to be understood,” Nišihsa said. “You have to feel it.” He patted Owl’s shoulder. “One day you will see.”
He had spent the past five days with her with no one else around. His thoughts of Willow alternated between pleasure and pain. In his hunger-induced delirium he would think of something to tell her, excitedly turn to her in the boat only to find her gone. This went on all day, joy wrestling with pain. He grew weary of his mind’s questions for Willow, the back and forth of anticipating her answer and the ache when he found her missing. He tried telling himself to get hold of his scattered thoughts and roiling feelings, but it was no use.
He hadn’t felt this way about anyone, though the river perhaps came close. The water always pulled at him in much the same way as Willow did now, but her tugging on his heart filled him with desperation. Owl missed her terribly.
His mind grew so exhausted at the struggle that it finally turned to thoughts of food. Suddenly a wave of hunger swept over him. At first he fought back the cravings, but in a sense the return of hunger was welcome. He worried that the pain in his ribs had damaged his belly, but with the craving’s return, at least he knew that part of him was still working.
Some of his favorite meals flashed before his mind – fish fried with cornmeal, stew steaming beside the fire, and squash roasting on skewers. He imagined sliding the squash off the stick, squeezing it between fingers and thumb, letting it ooze onto his hand, and then popping it in his mouth. Normally, blackberries were plentiful this time of the summer. He imagined their juice bursting from his lips and dripping down his chin. Pieces of melon cooled the inside of his mouth. Among other delectable fare, these danced in his mind.
His arms labored steadily onward, paddling upstream, but in his daydreaming he was back home by the fire. His mother stoked the flames. Embers glowed red. Sparks rose up around the sizzling fish. Nearby, above the dancing flames, venison roasted on skewers. Owl held the tips of the skewers, slowly turning them. The fire hissed as fat dripped from the venison.
The truth was, harvests of maize and squash had dwindled, berries were scarce, and deer and fish had all but disappeared in recent years. The people of Peeyankihšionki were relying on stores to feed themselves, but they were nearly empty now. The trend couldn’t last much longer.
Owl whispered prayers. Feebly, he sang his songs.
Somehow his mind wrapped around the hunger and quieted the cravings and the tremors of his body. He found strength where he never imagined it to be and won out against fasting. Once again, he reached a reprieve from hunger. His heart still ached for Willow, but he told himself that she was waiting for him back at Peeyankihšionki.
Crow stirred awake. Aching pain throbbed at the bridge of his nose. He recalled the girl breaking his face the night before. He touched his cheek and felt dried blood caked over it and down his neck. He touched his nose lightly and winced in pain. It was surely broken.
The clearing lay empty before him. Around, the woods were black. Stars shown faintly through the trees. The moon was gone and the air was quiet again. The storm had blown over.
Crow thought of the Peeyankihšia. He listened and scanned the trees for any sign of firelight.
There was no sign of them.
He would have to pick up their trail again, he thought.
Crow tried to sit up. Pain shot from his side, so he eased back down.
He took a couple of deep breaths.
How exactly did he end up on the ground? The fight suddenly played through his mind. Come to think of it, why was he still alive? The girl had beat him unconscious. She was a fantastic fighter, definitely his superior in every way. So why didn’t she kill him?
He had a faint recollection of the boy shouting at the girl to call off her attack.
Then a whisper came from the blackness. “It’s time for you to go south, Ciipaya,” a girl’s voice said.
Crow tried to discern her position, but failed. She was well hidden.
“Don’t try to escape,” she said. “I’ll track you. And this time I will kill you.”
“Why not kill me now?” Crow sneered.
Moments passed in silence. He expected she wouldn’t answer.
But she surprised him. “Because my friend wished to spare you,” she said, coming into view. The girl was still only a black figure against a black forest, but now he could see her faintly.
“So what,” Crow said. “You seemed more than eager to end me. And you nearly did. I know you’re a better fighter than me. So why am I still here?”
“He is seeking vision,” she explained. “I won’t cross him while he has one foot in this world and another in the spirit realm.”
Crow understood her thinking now. He nodded, though he doubted she could see anything of him beyond a silhouette.
“Why did your friend spare me?”
“I really have no idea,” Willow said. “I guess he saw something in you.”
Was she peering at him?
“Perhaps he was delirious,” she said finally.
“I did hit him pretty hard,” Crow said, flippantly.
The girl fired back, “Maybe I’ll kill you anyway and risk the spirits’ scorn,” not moving in the slightest. She was dead serious.
Crow suddenly recalled her ferocity and how intent she was on slaying him the night before. He now felt the moment teeter toward a quick end for him. He cleared his throat uneasily.
“So what now?” he asked, struggling to get back to safer ground.
“Simple,” Willow said. “If you want to live, you’ll go south.”
“That easy?” he asked, wondering if she was fool enough to trust that he would leave.
“You won’t see me,” she said, reading his thoughts. “But I’ll be sure you leave my homeland.”
“You’ll abandon your friend?”
“So many questions,” Willow said, in a whisper that was like a whiplash.
“I am sorry,” Crow said. “Affairs tied up with my fate leave me curious.”
Willow eyed him, then she said, “I’ve served my purpose in his vision seeking.”
“And what was that purpose?”
“Keeping you from killing him.”
He felt beaten. His dream of finding the Lake Erie talisman was gone, likely out of reach forever.
Crow knew moving would be excruciating, but he also knew he had to. The bit of patience the girl had where he was concerned was gone. He had to move now.
He forced himself to sit up. Pain shot through his back, but he refused to protest in front of her. He did his best to not show the pain. He got on his feet and stood. And felt dizzy. Crow touched his temple, hoping to steady himself. Vertigo threatened to shut him down. He tried to ignore the nausea welling up, but his body could not. His legs buckled. He bent at his waist and vomited.
When he finished evacuating his stomach, he took a few deep breathes and stood again. This time he succeeded in holding himself up, wavering only very slightly.
“I’m ready,” Crow said.
The girl chuckled. “You look it,” she said mercilessly.
“Walk then,” she commanded, still not moving.
Crow took one step gingerly. He leaned forward and took another. Soon he was walking. With each step, his back and legs grew more numb to the pain. His body wanted to survive this. Thinking of his return home, and the reception he would receive, he wasn’t so sure.
Owl wasn’t sure how far he had come, but he already needed to rest. The pain of the hatchet wound made it tortuous to paddle for very long. He raised his arm and twisted around to examine it. The bruise had deepened, but luckily the skin wasn’t broken. He beached his canoe and lay down in the floor of his boat.
Owl awoke suddenly. Sunlight beamed down upon the top of his head. Strange. He was sure he had only rested a short while, but looking to the sky he could see that the sun was high, which meant the morning had passed. He coughed and his chest rattled. It felt like water had collected in his lungs. He wanted to breathe deeply, but it was excruciating, so he took shallow breaths instead.
He watched the leaves dancing in the treetops.
Was that birch?
He thought so.
Wasn’t there something about birch that could be helpful? He remembered his uncle telling him about it once.
“The bark,” Owl muttered.
But what was it? It seemed important, yet it dangled just at the edge of Owl’s grasp. Then it hit him. In the next moment, he was up and racing toward the tree. When he reached its base he took out his knife. He stopped to catch his breath. He thanked the tree for giving of itself, then he touched the point of his knife to the trunk. He dug in and peeled away a piece of its bark. He whittled away at it to get at the inner bark, and the oil beneath that. Owl had picked a good place on the tree, because the oil oozed out easily. He collected as much as he could and cut away more of the inner bark. It gave off a scent that soothed him and immediately eased his mind. He made his way back to his canoe and climbed in. He dipped some of the oil onto a piece of the bark and popped it into his mouth. He chewed it and sucked at the oil. This is what his uncle had told him. The oil would ease his pain. Owl leaned back in his canoe and gazed again at the dancing leaves. He closed his eyes and then fell asleep.
Owl rose above the river. He saw his canoe below on the beach where he had just collapsed. He viewed the course of the waterway from above like a bird. Owl leaned forward and flew. Now he moved effortlessly upstream. The river passed beneath his dangling feet, leisurely at first but then more quickly. His heart raced. Alarmed by the speed, he willed himself to slow down, but to no avail. Instead, the river rushed by even faster. He looked ahead.
Mostly the landscape consisted of forests and meadows, but strange rivers of stone crisscrossed the land. One came careening from the horizon to the south and passed below him, crossing the Wabash River and stretching to the north. It disappeared over the horizon.
From there, great trees towered high above the earth. As he rushed toward them, he could see they had no branches. They were cut off and flat at the tips. The trees must be dead, he thought. Like standing deadwood, they were covered by fungus and algae. They harbored other plants, small animals, and insects. Black openings spread along the surface of the trees. They were hollow inside.
Owl flew on and came close to one deadwood. It occurred to him that it wasn’t shaped like a tree after all. Up close, he could see that it wasn’t circular as it should be, but rather it was cornered at four points around it, much like their longhouses, but narrow and tall. More like a longhouse tipped up and put on its edge. High though he was, the tree was higher. Hovering above the earth, he watched as it reached into the sky. Suddenly, Owl lurched skyward. He rose higher and higher. The landscape expanded and he could see all the land, farther than any Peeyankihšia had ever seen, even in the fifth age. Then he saw back into the fifth age. The branchless trees were everywhere and they were not black, but filled with white firelight. They covered all the world. He felt dizzy and closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, he was back above the Wabash. He flew again upstream. Owl came to a creek, which snaked below him from the east. It flowed into the river and somehow he knew it was the end of his journey. He also knew of this place from stories he had heard since he was a little boy. He recognized the creek as Pinsiwa Aiymoonwa (Wildcat Cove), the cove of their emergence into the sixth world, when they were led out of the water by Meehšimeelwia (Great-horned Owl). Owl had never seen it in person. No one had. Not since their emergence, because the confluence was here in the northern lands.
Downriver, he saw their ancient abandoned town. It was a village much like Peeyankihšionki, with longhouses and beached canoes, and cooking fires up on the hill. Fields of the Three Sisters grew just beyond their homes. Groves of chestnut, hickory, oak, and walnut lay scattered across the landscape maintained, as the stories told, by their ancestors. They set fire to the forest understory to keep out unwanted trees and undergrowth, leaving the way for fruit and nut bearing trees. Though now the Peeyankihšia were too few in number, once there were enough of his people to form whole legions of gardeners whose task it was to tend to forests which went on in every direction from horizon to horizon.
He saw his ancestors, among them his great-great grandfather, thrust out of the underworld, into the cove, and into the sixth world. They came up out of the water like jumping fish. They landed onto the sandy shore of their river. A colossal beast followed them, landing near them on the sand. It was Underwater Panther. The deity turned toward Owl, opened his mouth and bellowed as only a god can. And then to Owl’s amazement, he saw recognition form on the Panther’s face. The god focused on Owl. Then it spoke to him, but he had no idea what the words meant. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Owl was startled awake. He had a sense that something had crashed in the moments before, but looking around and listening, all was quiet. Owl realized he was breathing more easily with little pain. He had rested well, despite his peculiar dreams. The medicine in the birch bark allowed him to breathe and to sleep peacefully. He took a deep breath and exhaled. He began to cough fitfully, but there was no pain. Gobs of watery phlegm came up out of his chest with his coughing. He spit it out. He coughed again and more came up. He spit again and continued to breathe deeply. Finally, his chest was clear of the stuff.
Owl felt much better, enough so that he decided to get back on the river. He looked skyward, toward the tree. He realized it probably saved his life. Owl pressed his hands together and pointed them toward the forest giant.
“Thank you for giving me your healing bark,” Owl said.
He tucked the remaining bark in his deer skin pack. Then he got back into his canoe and paddled on. Owl thought of his vision of Mishiginebig. He realized that his fear of the serpent had clouded his judgment concerning Beaver. The Great-horned Serpent had deceived him into taking Beaver as totem. Why was this god of the underworld bent on making him fail? He shuddered at the mere thought of being of any concern to a god. Owl searched his heart and did his best to find courage to go on.
On the western shore, just inside the woods at the base of a towering red cedar sat the Great-horned Serpent. Mishiginebig was in full view under the deep green shade of the tree. Owl blinked hard, trying to clear away the vision, but it was no use. The deity of the underworld watched him approach. Before he could look away, the eyes of the Serpent bore into him.
The Serpent exuded menace toward Owl. The grand rack of antlers hovered above the head of the snake. The tip of one of the horns brushed against a cedar branch, causing him to shake his big head. The crystal embedded in its forehead shone with a brilliant white light. Owl trained his eyes forward, fearing that the crystal might take him over. He paddled on quietly.
He began to sing and his courage soon returned. For the time being, he felt safe from the Serpent. Perhaps it was his fasting, or the sweating out of negative energies days ago, or maybe it was his skin which smelled of burnt offerings. His body was steeped in the scent of sage, tobacco, and red willow smoke. Still, he rowed evenly on both sides of his canoe, fighting to stay dead center in the river. He kept his eyes on the creature, which continued to stare back at him. Like the Ciipaya, his gaze held only contempt and hatred. Mishiginebig seemed to wish great harm upon him. Owl tried to imagine what the source of such ill-will could be. He couldn’t say. The Serpent didn’t utter a word, but rather with just his gaze, willed him to turn around and go home.
But Owl held his course upstream and paddled on.
The river turned to the east. The trees grew more sparse. Large meadows appeared bordering each side of the river.
He knew he must be close to the ancient town. Surely it lay just beyond another turn of the river. There was only one more confluence left, the creek coming into the Wabash just beyond the old town. He thought of his vision seeking, his goal was to find his totem animal spirit. These two things were tied together in his mind, his vision seeking and his need to see Waayaahtanonki. He was desperate for a dream, a vision of manitou, a totem to keep close to his heart, and to catch a glimpse of the old town of his ancestors.
As Owl paddled, a ridge grew along the southern shore of the Wabash. It rose high above the river. Then he spied the waters of a creek spilling out into the river on the south side.
The last confluence. It was the seventh! This was it!
Owl looked to the ridge. He thought back to where Jumping Frog’s finger pointed on the map, just west of the creek. The village must have been on the ridge. It made sense. A ridge was the perfect spot for a town.
Owl ran his canoe into the beach.
After he left the river and ducked under the canopy, he could see into the woods again. He gasped at what he saw, but he clamped his mouth shut before giving himself away.
A figure squatted in the forest between two giant trees, an oak and a chestnut. Owl spied its dark form against the lighter shade of undergrowth.
He was confident that the figure had not seen him. He crouched unmoving for quite a long while as he watched. Owl moved again. He crept up on the figure. He wasn’t moving. Rather, he seemed to be sitting, faced away from Owl. He was within a few paces now. The top of his head poked out among a patch of mayapples. Was he wounded?
Then Owl realized this wasn’t a person. Was it manitou? He decided it must be, because it wasn’t like anything else he had ever seen. Owl moved in closer and as he did he saw that it was the color of the rope-like material in the big stones. It stood erect, just to Owl’s waist. What Owl had thought were shoulders, were nothing of the kind. It was a post, but obviously not made from a tree. Owl couldn’t tell what material it was. He supposed it might be some kind of rock. He was afraid to touch it. But his curiosity got the better of him. When he did, he found it to be cool to the touch. It felt rough against his fingers. Tiny flakes came off on his hand, much like the stuff running through the giant stones that he and Willow discovered.
Owl looked about. The forest was quiet. He got the sense that whoever set it here was long gone. There was no sign of anything, no houses, no signs of fire, nor people working. The trees towered above the post. For the first time since arriving on the ridge, it occurred to Owl that the forest here was unusually quiet. There were no birds calling, no bugs trilling. Even the air was deathly still. Suddenly, Owl was overwhelmed by a feeling that the post didn’t belong here, that the forest had no use for the thing. It had already been here a very long time and it would yet remain here for a very long time. Perhaps it was one of the manitou that Nišihsa spoke of that was telling Owl this. He felt distinctly that the spirit was telling him to get rid of it.
He leaned against the post. It didn’t budge. He lunged at it, putting all his weight behind it. It stood unmoving. He stepped back and then with all his might kicked it. His foot cracked and pain shot up his leg. He fell to the ground gripping the sole of his foot. The post stood unshaken.
A little while later, as his pain subsided, it occurred to him that he might have better luck digging it out. He set down his pack, pulled out his knife, and set about digging at the soil around the base of the post.
Soon he had a sizable hole dug out, though there was no sign of the bottom of the post. Now that some of the soil was away from the base, Owl tried moving it again. Still it would not budge.
How deep did it go?
Owl set to digging again.
He grew tired. Now he could almost stand in the hole around the post. He collapsed on the ground and rested. Soon he was at it again, his curiosity fueling his muscles. He dug well into the afternoon. Finally, he heard the crunch of his knife hitting solid rock. Owl paused, gripped the post, and swung back and forth. It still would not move! The rock was strange. It was much like the post. Not wanting to break his knife on the strange stone, Owl carefully used it to carve away the remaining soil. He quickly realized the post was embedded in the rock. He dug around it, then saw that it wasn’t rock after all. It was exactly the same material as the post. As the soil came away, he could see that the embedded post ran along with the earth.
Owl continued to dig until he was breathing heavily and his heart raced. He fell back. His chest heaved. The post in the earth was as big as a tree trunk. His side began to throb with pain. He had pushed his wound too far. Dirt covered him from head to toe. It caked on his chest and his back, spread all over his arms, and his face, and into his hair. Owl realized he had to give up. This task was beyond his abilities. He could not free the post from the earth. He looked around the forest. There was no sign of the old town. Just this stupid post!
He leaned back and gazed into the canopy. “I am so sorry!” he called out to the manitou.
Tears streamed down his cheeks.
Owl collapsed on his knees and stared down at the hole he had dug. Ridiculous, he thought. He still had no idea what it was, but he had to move on.
He smeared the tears away from his cheeks and walked on. He wasn’t twenty paces away from the first when he saw a second post. He gaped in amazement as he passed it. Soon he saw a third and waves of anger flashed through him. They were all likely connected by the trunk running inside the earth. How had such a thing come to be? It was perverse, as if the earth was violated. And he could do nothing.
He climbed the ridge and walked along a flat stretch of ground. About halfway up he paused for a rest. He looked down upon the Wabash. His canoe lay on the beach where he left it. Waves lapped at the shore. The ridge was a good distance above the river, far enough to be an excellent vantage point, but yet close enough for easy access to the water. Still no sign of an ancient town. Owl wasn’t quite to the top, so he kept walking. Perhaps he could spot something from up there.
Soon he reached the edge, but was forced to stop. There was a steep drop-off below. Perhaps at one time the river coursed along the ridge and carved the cliff out of the hill.
Owl turned slowly, surveying the land. So this was it. Waayaahtanonki. He was really here! This was the abandoned town. So long had he wished for this moment, to set foot in the lands of his ancestors and to walk in their footsteps. The thought that they once lived here sent chills through him.
Owl looked about. He turned in every direction. He gazed down the cliff again. He walked along the top of the ridge. He knelt and took some soil in his hands, and filtered it through his fingers.
But then he shook his head. This wasn’t what he expected.
There was no village here. Of course, it had been a long time ago, another age in fact. Owl searched for some sign – refuse, animal bones, a remnant of a house, a fire pit, a maize grindstone. Nothing stood out. Had it been too long ago? Was every last remnant of his people erased from this land? Perhaps so. Owl’s heart sank at the idea. It made him feel insignificant. In a few years when he was gone, would his descendants search for some sign of his existence? Would they find anything? Owl was beginning to believe they would not.
What had he expected?
He hoped for some clue as to why they left. And what happened to them? And what happened to the fifth world? Why does a world end?
There were no answers here.
Owl turned skyward and shouted his questions into the heavens. He screamed until his voice gave out.
When it did, Owl began to spin again. He stood on the ridge and saw all the way to the horizon. It arched in one continuous dome of blue brilliance from the west around to the north and east and on to the south. He stretched out his arms and spun about, watching the horizon with open eyes.
Owl gasped and stomped abruptly to cease his spinning. His spine turned to ice. His arms fell to his sides. His legs buckled. He fell to his knees. He was looking east, upriver.
What in the name of all manitou was that on the horizon?
Little Owl clambered down the ridge as best he could as the pain resurged in his side. He climbed in his canoe and began paddling.
A dark shape poked above the horizon to the east. Soon another joined the first and then there was a cluster of them. He wondered if the dark shapes were dancers. They clustered and spun about an unseen fire, gathering for some dark ceremonial witchery, Owl sensed. As he rowed on, they grew taller. They rose to impossible heights, rivaling the tallest of trees. They were giants.
Owl heard drums. Or did he? Perhaps they were only in his head.
Sitting upon the surface of the water, Owl felt terribly exposed. The wicked dancers continued to rise in the sky as he approached. His apprehension rose with them. Owl felt eyes peering at him. Being in the presence of these giants was like cowering inside his home during storms, cringing against the constant thunderclap and fearing that the next one might come crashing down on him as lightening. There was no reprieve from the deafening crash from above, save the meager tossing of cedar shavings on the fire, until the storm passed. A vision flashed before Owl’s mind, of the dancers converging on him like so many hungry giants. Suddenly he felt desperate to get off the river. He turned to look downstream. How long had it been since he passed the serpent? It had been a few turns of the river, he was sure. Despite his fear that Mishiginebig might see him, he decided to chance it. His mind reeled at the constant sight of the dark giants. He felt desperate to hide, so Owl ran the canoe into the riverbank and stumbled into the woods.
He found a rock ledge and slid into its depths. He pulled the birch bark from his pack, popped a piece in his mouth and chewed away his anxiety. For the longest time Owl cowered in the shadows. He lay as quiet as he could, fearing that Great-Horned Serpent might come upon him or the giant dancers might storm into the forest and root him out of his cave.
He slept through the rest of the afternoon and most of the next morning. Then, as the sun capped the treetops again, Owl ventured a peek from his cave. He peered out. The forest was quiet. There were no lumbering giants coming for him, no immense serpent stretching through the trees. He emerged again into the woods. He walked down to the river and found his canoe. He chanced a look at the source of his nightmare of the previous day. The giants hadn’t moved after all. His nerves quieted.
Their character had changed to something much more benign.
Owl climbed in his boat and paddled upstream.
As he rounded a bend in the river, another of the stone shapes appeared. It was closer than any of the other ones, which had been far off from the river and obscured by the forest. Owl ran his canoe up onto the sand. He rolled out of his boat and then crept over the beach to sit behind a bank covered with brush. Owl peered above a bush.
What lay before him, he had seen in a dream. It was a river of stone. This one spanned the width of the river. He and Willow had seen remnants of one like it. He thought of the giant stones and the strange rope-like pieces embedded within the rock. This one was obviously a bridge. Willow was right! Her admonition that their world was a lot bigger than they thought ran through Owl’s mind.
Now he was sure she was right.
A bridge. It was a giant. What crossed the river here that needed such a huge pathway?
A stone wall emerged from the water and shot straight up until it met the underbelly of the structure. The water lapped against the stone wall. The bridge spanned the width of the river blanketing it like a canopy covering the forest floor.
Owl could not contain his curiosity. He just had to see where it led. He climbed the hill. At the top, the stone met the hill and ran out across the river in one direction. Owl climbed onto its surface. It was covered with forest litter, but just enough of the smooth rock remained to know that it was born of human hands. Owl looked along the stone walkway, away from the river. In the other direction he could see that the stone path continued on. He pondered how far. For a moment, he thought of following it. It did beckon. But then he thought better of it. Perhaps another day. He needed to focus on one diversion from his vision seeking at a time. Owl walked over the bridge.
The ground dropped away and the bridge spanned the river from a dizzying height. Owl stopped several times and peered over the edge at the water below. How on earth was such a colossal structure supported? Owl thought of the ochre colored snake-like material which disappeared into the giant stones downstream. He remembered smashing the big rock against it just to see if he could break it. Was the brown stuff supporting the bridge as it hovered over the river?
About half-way across, Owl came upon a queer looking thing. It was shaped somewhat like a pot, but much of it seemed missing. It consisted of cords of silver that arced around on itself like a snake. The silver snakes curved perfectly, like that of a crescent moon and they reflected light like the surface of a pond. Owl eyed the object carefully as he passed, but it continued to rest benignly at the edge.
He crossed the bridge and followed the rock pathway to a village of stone. The high structures stood all around him now. Like the bridge and the river of stone, they were consumed by the forest. Birds flew in and out of the holes all along their lengths. Thick vines stretched up the walls. Squirrels climbed, fought, and sat eating on their surfaces. They weren’t giants ready to strike him as he passed, but structures that the Peeyankihšia might have fashioned together, given the proper materials and know-how. Owl estimated that the council house at town center, if stood on end might approach the height of these weird forms. Perhaps they were houses of Waayaahtanonki. If so, either he or the mapkeeper had misjudged where the old village was. Maybe it wasn’t on the ridge above the creek after all. Were these dark buildings the ruins that he sought?
Owl stood at the bottom of one of the buildings. It’s base was wider than the widest of trees. Huge holes bore into the walls, exposing its black interior. He followed it as it crept upward. He squinted out the sun and tried to see where it ended. It seemed it might touch the clouds. Earlier, while he had been a good distance away, he had misjudged. This structure before him dwarfed everything that he had ever known about building houses, though he no longer feared it. His fear had transformed into an awe as big as the thing before him. What did his ancestors do? What were they like that they built such things? What on earth were they for? Did they house people? If so, Waayaahtanonki was far more populous than anyone could have possibly imagined. Owl tried to envision a number to represent all the people who must have lived here, in this single building. He thought of his own village, of its one thousand souls, and what it took to support them. True, his town was on the verge of over-capacity, but still the area had provided for them for many generations. It was nowhere near the amount that one of these buildings might support. Owl estimated ten of his own villages could fit into one of these buildings. It must have held a whole sea of people. Truly, the population of Waayaahtanonki must have been like the Big Lake.
How could they rise to the heavens as they did? What did they use to fashion them together? Owl walked near one of them, brushed aside the vines, and tapped at its side. It was made of solid rock, like the giant stones by the river. Like them, this building was perfectly straight as it stretched up. The surface, though covered in algae and vines, was as smooth as the surface of a pond. He thought back to the stories about Waayaahtanonki in the fifth world. Owl ran through as much as he could of the old stories and tried to recall any descriptions that might come close to what stood before him. He could think of none.
Owl came upon the tallest of the towers. He stood at its base, peering upwards, marveling at the dizzying heights of the structure. A crow appeared. Soon a second materialized, and then a third. They slowly drifted away from its tip and circled together against an unwavering blue sky. Owl circled around the fat base of the building. As he completed the loop he came upon a gash in its side. It was big enough to walk through. Owl was feeling especially bold in the noon sun, so he stepped into the darkness.
Something cracked and popped under his feet as he walked. It looked like sheets of ice. He reached down and touched a piece of it. The surface was smooth, but not cold as ice should be, so he decided it wasn’t what he thought it was. He had never seen anything like it. Now as he stepped, he did his best to avoid it. It made too much noise.
Owl came upon a latticework of the red-ochre material. The stuff seemed to crop up more and more all the time. He moved in close and found that it stretched upward, pinched between four walls of stone. Owl leaned in and peered up. The red-ochre lattice-work formed a path upward for as far as he could see. For all he knew, it went all the way to the top. Owl pondered the possibility of going up there. He touched the red rock-like material. Some of it flaked onto the floor. He stepped onto the path. It creaked under his weight, but then fell silent. It was a long path, circling around endlessly. The air within the giant house was very still. For the first time since passing the boundary on the river, Owl thought of the supposed ghosts. If there were any ghosts in Waayaahtanonki, they were surely here. This place felt haunted, inhabited by amorphous beings, seemingly cross about something from their past, or everything. Owl couldn’t say whether it was his imagination running away, but he felt their presence. Once long ago, they walked this path.
Despite the eerie space, Owl’s curiosity about what it was like up there won out. He decided to chance it and began to climb. The lattice of brown, flaking rock creaked with each step. The path was dark. The four stone walls, perfect in their smoothness, were oppressive. From time to time, Owl paused to rest his legs, but also for a reprieve from the creaking noise of his footsteps. He climbed on. The path twisted continuously as it went up. Soon Owl realized that at each turn there was a door. As he climbed, he found some of them open. He paused and peered through. The space within stretched on, deeply shadowed. They were like caves steeped in silence for the most part, pierced occasionally by the call of a bird or other small animal. Their voices echoed from the catacomb walls. At one of the open doors, Owl paused and then stepped inside. Light came in along the sides and dimly illuminated the vast open area. It was deathly quiet. Owl closed his eyes. He sensed that at one time the space was full of people.
A vision flashed before his mind. Somehow it came to him that they didn’t live here, that when they were in this place, they were far away from their families and the homes they loved. Owl tried to focus on what occupied their time while they were here. Images flashed before his mind of their tasks and voices. Other strange sounds came to his ears. He opened his eyes. Ghosts passed before him. For the most part, they seemed reluctant to be here. Some even seemed to suffer and cry out silently for relief. Were they prisoners? Were they slaves?
Owl shuddered. These people were too alien for him to know. He backed away and entered the pathway to the sky again.
Occasionally, he came upon a crack or a hole in the wall, through which he caught glimpses of the view outside, giving him a sense of the distance to the ground. It was unnerving and at the same time exhilarating. He went on like this for the better part of the afternoon. Just as he began to wonder if the path was endless, he circled one last time and came to a stone wall. One last door stood closed. Owl pushed against it, but the door wouldn’t budge. He pressed harder, bearing against it with all his strength. Finally, the door swung open and daylight burst into the dim space. Owl stepped through.
At first, he was blinded. But as his eyes adjusted, he realized that he had climbed to the very tip of the building. He walked out onto a flat surface. He was reminded of his dream, the branchless trees with their tops cut off. His vision had come true. Now he stood upon one. Owl walked on. He eased closer to the edge. He grew anxious as more and more of the ground came into view. From up here, the building looked twice as tall as it did below! Strangely, the edge drew him on. The closer he got, the more he felt like he was falling. What drew him to the edge? Was it the sensation of falling, without the deadly consequences? Owl climbed trees back home for the same reason. He stopped about four paces from the edge. He was close enough to see the ground directly below. It was mesmerizing to see from so far up. Nothing else in the world compared. Owl realized that he had climbed higher than anyone among his people. He looked to the heavens. With both hands, Owl reached up. He closed his eyes and felt the air and imagined he was touching the sky.
A keen sense of what this place was about fell over Owl then. Owl opened his eyes and surveyed the stone village below. His awareness was not so much about its purpose. That was still a mystery. What he sensed was about what happened to it and all its towering companions soaring above paths as straight as arrows. Owl sensed that it had all been overwhelmed by something sinister, incessant, pervasive, and relentless. Something with agency had consumed this town and everything in it, save the stone, and the strange red rock. Then it was abandoned, very suddenly in fact. Owl wasn’t sure how, but he knew without a doubt that it happened just as he imagined.
Owl looked to the horizon and turned about slowly taking in the great circle formed by the four directions. He stopped when he saw the river. He settled into tracing its course with his eyes. He started downstream and made note of each turn, remembering what each was like. He followed it to the point where he left the river, at the bridge. Owl gazed upstream, to unknown territory. For a moment, he felt like he was back at the sweat lodge, reading the map. He traced the river for as far as he could see. On the horizon he found the cove. He recognized it as his destination, Pinsiwa-amootayi, the place of their emergence. From his place in the sky, he could see the destination of his vision seeking. Relief washed over him as he realized that it would soon be over.
A figure emerged from the building directly across from him. Owl ducked into the shadows.
Ciipaya, he thought. Perhaps they had moved from the south to settle here before the Peeyankihšia could.
Owl peered around to get another look at him. He quickly realized this was not one of the Dark Ones. But how could that be? Another human? None existed, he thought, at least in this world. All the people of the last age were destroyed. But who was this man? Was he from Peeyankihšionki? Owl strained to see. He didn’t look anything like the Peeyankihšia. In fact, his features were very different. Owl had a strange thought. He began to wonder if this man were from the fifth world, or perhaps Owl had returned to it himself.
A huge beast emerged from the building. Owl gasped and took a step back, despite the great distance between him and the creature.
The man reached for the strange animal. It did not back away, but rather moved forward. A cord dangled from the animal’s nose. The man reached for it and then called to the beast. Owl realized the rope was fastened on its head so that the man could lead it. Then they both were walking together between the strange buildings.
The creature had a familiarity about it. Owl realized it was like a deer in that it had hooves. It sniffed around the ground as it walked. The man and the deer-like animal crossed into a cluster of grass growing from the stone. The beast stopped and tugged at a tuft of grass, pulled it free, and then began to chew.
The strange man touched the creature on the back, lifted his foot and slid it into a loop near the beast’s belly. Owl hadn’t seen it until now. Then he hoisted himself onto the back of the animal. Owl almost cried out loud. Thankfully he caught himself before it left his lips. The strange man was on top of this creature!
He made a clicking sound and prodded the animal in the ribs. Then it took off running over the stone river with the man on its back.
Owl was thunderstruck. What strange place is this? Perhaps he had passed into another world. Owl looked about at the cavernous towers. Maybe this wasn’t Waayaahtanonki, after all.
The strange man made the hair on his neck prickle. Owl backed off carefully, trying not to make a sound. When he was far enough away, he sprinted for the river. He crossed the bridge and climbed back down the bank and got in his canoe. He paddled on, eyeing the bridge until it was out of sight and far behind him.
Owl’s journey was complete. He found Waayaahtanonki. Though the mystery had only deepened with the discovery, particularly what was this sister town with its strange structures? There was no mention of it in the stories. Though his curiosity burned, he knew it was now time to draw his vision seeking to a close. Today he would find the cove from his dream. He knew it lay just ahead, because he had seen it from the top of the stone tower. At the cove, he would burn sage and tobacco, and sing and dance until he could no longer stand. With luck, he would have the vision he had been seeking. Then he could go home!
Far to the east, in primordial woods untouched by the hand of humankind for a millennium, rainwater trickled from the hills and coalesced into the headwaters of a stream. The entropic waters finally joined together into a creek, which coursed as clear as quartz over bedrock and gravel. It twitched and writhed like a serpent on its way west toward the Wabash River. As it reached the river, it surged into Pinšiwa-amootayi (Wildcat Cove).
Owl walked near the cove. He trudged through the shallows, his feet barely escaping its porous surface. As he made for the confluence, he alternated between sprinting over the wet sand and wading across the final, shallow courses of the creek.
Finally he came upon the source of what had drawn him, the cove where the creek emptied into the Wabash, the place of their emergence.
He looked out over the river. He turned and he traced the swerving creek as it made its way from the forest. This is it, he thought. What a perfect place for his totem spirit to reveal itself, so near the water. Would it be Buffalo Fish? Otter? Might Beaver make another appearance? Perhaps it was not the right place for Beaver before. Or it might be Hawk? Hawk did hunt above the waters. Could it be the river itself? Owl often felt the Wabash did have a presence of its own, a sentience to watch over him. A totem didn’t have to be an animal. It might be a tree! Sycamore loved the river as much as he did.
Owl set up camp. He took his pack from his canoe. Just like he had done with Willow, he cleaned away all the twigs, the rocks, and the fallen leaves from the sand around him. But this time, he took out the arrow that Willow had given him. He set it in front of him. He carefully brushed away the bugs. When the space was clear, he smoothed out the sand and drew a big circle, then he eased down within the circle.
Owl pulled out the two sacred bundles, the sage and the tobacco. He took out flint and kiiphkatwi and struck them together until sparks shot out into the sacred plants. He continued to strike until there was a shower of sparks. When the sage took fire and began to smolder, Owl leaned in and blew on the bundle. Soon the tips glowed red. He nudged the tobacco bundle into the embers as he blew and it took fire too.
With the tendrils of smoke rising to the sky, Owl began to sing. He took up the arrow in his hands and waved it about as he sang. He thanked the manitou for seeing him to Waayaahtanonki. He asked for guidance.
He sang all afternoon and into the evening. When he became sleepy, he began to dance in order to stir his blood. He danced until he collapsed. He rested until he had the energy to stand again. Night had fallen. He sang until the night bugs thrummed all around him. He sang until they grew quiet again. He felt dawn approaching just outside the blackness and he still sang. He couldn’t remember the moment he stopped because in the next instant he was asleep.
The next morning, as soon as he awoke, he walked to the beach and waded into the river. There he washed himself and splashed water on his face. He dove into the water and sank to the riverbed. He opened his eyes and followed the rows of mussels as they stretched into the depths.
He thought about his dream. He had plenty of dreams, but no vision. Owl remembered the red willow bark. Perhaps it would bring his manitou. He decided he would try. Owl surfaced and waded out of the water.
He set up the sage and tobacco. He brought out the arrow Willow gave him. And this time he added the red willow bark. Tendrils of smoke rose up from the beach. The air was heavy. The smoke diffused and hovered. It eased out over the river. The scent of sage, tobacco, and red willow hung on the air.
The waters of the cove began to swirl. Whirlpools began to form all across the river.
This must be the sign he had been waiting for! But whirlpools? Why did it have to be whirlpools?
Owl quickly grew alarmed. He took a step backward. He eyed his canoe, fearing that it might be lost. He was just a moment away from leaping in, paddling out of the cove, and heading straight for home.
The water splashed and rose above the riverbank. It tossed his canoe into a stand of cattails.
Mihšipinšiwa emerged from Pinšiwa-amootayi.
He did so just long enough to make his presence known. Immediately Owl knew. He was stunned, unable to move. He was terrified, but the physical appearance of Underwater Panther burned into his eyes. This was impossible! He knew of no one who had actually seen this creature. Only storytellers described the god. The beast had the arms and legs and head of a giant panther, but all along his back he had scales which shimmered as brilliant copper. On top of his head grew a magnificent pair of antlers, and his tail swished heavily in the water, easily reaching from one bank of the river to the other. After only a few moments, Owl saw steam rise from Mihšipinšiwa’s back. He was quickly gathering fire to him. Seeing this, Owl felt the power of the spirit. Here before him was a creator and destroyer of worlds and he was witness to the workings of gods. Humbled, he grew fearful.
Sensitive to his powers, Mihšipinšiwa submerged again. The waters swept in, filling the space he left behind. After a time, the god of the underworld lifted his head.
He greeted Little Owl.
“Do not be afraid,” the spirit said, now speaking the language of Myaamionki. “I offer you and your people help.”
Owl was mistrustful of the spirit, for he knew that Mihšipinšiwa was a trickster and a very dangerous being who held no great love for his people. Why would Underwater Panther help the Peeyankihšia? Owl found himself wishing he had taken Beaver as totem spirit and gone home.
However, despite his fear, he mustered his courage and questioned the beast.
“Why help us?” he asked directly.
Mihšipinšiwa went down and the top of his head sizzled as it dipped underwater. Owl could hear the Panther growl. Soon the surface of the Wabash trembled.
Owl sat quietly, full of fear, but held onto a hope that Underwater Panther hadn’t decided to end him here and now.
A moment later, the spirit settled down. The water grew calm.
“You have overcome me with your fasting, your singing, and your burnt offerings,” the creature admitted. “Come near. I will not harm you. I sense you are here for answers.”
Owl thought of his conversation with his mother. He felt guilty for only wanting to see the ancient village, and he felt the need to help his people. Would the manitou help them? His mother said it wouldn’t hurt to ask. But to ask Underwater Panther? Likely this thought hadn’t entered his mother’s mind. Owl drew up his courage.
“What question do you have?” Mihšipinšiwa asked. The Panther was proving to be an impatient god.
Owl formed the words, but they stuck in his throat. He tried again, struggling to force them out of his mouth. It was several agonizing moments before he finally blurted out what he so much wanted to say.
“Fish are scarce,” Owl said, much too loudly. “Game are rare,” he stammered on. “Our crops wither. The people go hungry. We know it is time to divide, to form a new village. Should we go south? Or return to the land of our ancestors here in the north?” Owl asked. “Will there be food at Waayaahtanonki?”
“If you do as you have always done, your luck will be the same at Waayaahtanonki. But the answer to your hunger is in the river.”
This was puzzling to Owl. Already it seemed the god was speaking in riddles. “But how can the answer be in the river if the fish are gone?” he protested.
“The fish are not the answer,” the Panther said. “In fact, you must stop eating them. They need time to recover.” He was sizzling again. As he ducked underwater, steam wafted from his nose and along his back.
What would happen if this god remained in the world for long? Owl imagined Mihšipinšiwa pulling himself out onto the bank of the Wabash to sun himself. He shuddered at the thought.
The Panther emerged again.
Owl considered Mihšipinšiwa’s words. He had no idea how the river could provide for them if there was no food in the river.
Mihšipinšiwa lurched backward and settled into the water. Again steam rose skyward.
Owl shouted above the loud sizzling of the water.
“What do you mean the answer is in the river? How can that be?”
“You know better than anyone,” Underwater Panther said. “You have already prepared the way.”
“Me?” Owl asked.
“You,” the Panther said. “Little Owl.”
All at once, without any further coaxing, the solution finally hit him. Relief mixed with trepidation considering the idea of trying to convince the people of what he now knew.
“But they are taboo,” Owl said. “The people have always known they hold bad spirits.”
“It is no longer so,” Mihšipinšiwa said, sinking farther into the water.
“The people have always known them to be poisonous.”
“It is true. They once made people sick, but they finished their purification of the river a generation ago. The river runs pure once again. And now even the mussels are clean,” he added, “The Ciipaya have known this for some time.”
The Ciipaya? Owl was surprised to hear the Panther mention their name. He wondered at this, but decided not to question the spirit on the matter yet.
“How will I convince the people that it is okay to eat them?”
“They will need to adapt,” Mihšipinšiwa said.
Owl thought about it. The Panther was right. Using the mussels as food was genius, if it were true that they were not poisonous. They littered the riverbed. Perhaps they couldn’t subsist on the mussels forever, but they would be enough to see them through the current scarcity of fish. A couple seasons and the drought might end. Eating the mussels would give both game and fish a chance to recover.
Owl nodded. “This makes sense to me now. I understand.” Owl bowed. “Thank you Mihšipinšiwa.”
“Eat the mussels, but leave the fish alone for a while,” the Panther said. “The fish will need to recover, because the mussels need them.”
Owl was curious to hear about his mussels. “Why do they need fish?” Owl asked.
“Every mussel begins its life on the back of a fish. They live a long time and cover the riverbed now, but eventually they will need to repopulate. Fish are like mothers to them while they are small. Without them, the mussels you see in the river now will be the last you see.”
“I had no idea,” Owl said.
The Panther grew restless. Owl expected he might disappear at any moment. He thought of other questions, but one in particular leapt ahead in his mind. He realized he might never get another chance for an answer to his oldest question. He mustered his courage.
“What happened at the end of the last age?” Owl asked.
“I have answered one question already. I have knowledge of the last age, and many before that, but I will only tell you after you do something for me.”
Owl immediately grew wary of what Mihšipinšiwa might ask of him, but the request did seem reasonable. The spirit had already gifted Owl with knowledge about how to stave off the hunger of his people.
“What would you have me do?” he asked.
“A simple thing really,” the Panther said. “There is a man in the ruins.”
Owl thought of the strange figure that he saw emerge from the building. He was surely who the Panther was referring to.
“I am curious about him,” the Panther said. “And what he is up to.”
“I think I saw him,” Owl said.
Mihšipinšiwa leaned in eagerly. “Did you approach him?”
“No,” Owl said. “He was very strange to me. I ran away.”
The Panther leaned back. “He is not welcome here,” he said. “He pokes his nose where he should not. His motive is still hidden from me. I cannot see what he is about as my powers are still weak. He is too far from the water.”
“You want me to spy on this man?” Owl asked.
“I need you to go and find out what he is doing. Then come back here and tell me of it.”
Owl’s mind winced at the thought of prolonging his stay here. It meant more fasting. It meant he couldn’t get home to Willow, or to have his ribs tended to.
But then again, he supposed that if he did this for the Panther, then he would have answers about events long buried, events that no one knew anymore. Knowledge that had died with his father, his grandfather, and his uncle. Owl suspected that it was only known to a select few, the small circle of priests who held the power. Perhaps Mihšipinšiwa had knowledge that would be good for the people to know.
So Owl agreed.
“If I find out what he is up to, then you will tell me all about what happened at the end of the last world?” Owl asked. “About Waayaahtanonki?”
“And you will tell me how we got here?”
“Alright,” Owl said. “Then I will do this for you.”
Owl climbed back into his canoe. His whole body protested, from his toes to the top of his head. It tingled with a resounding no. With dread, Owl paddled back to the middle of the river. He struggled with the sanity of his decision, an intentional return to the village of stone.
Soon he drifted with ease, so he lifted his paddle from the water. The current took him easily downriver. At least he would have a taste of what it was like to drift home, he thought. All this meant that he would finally be done with his vision quest, and have answers to his questions about the last age. Then he could see home and see Willow.
Owl reached the bridge and quietly beached his canoe. He climbed the bank and approached the stone path which led to the stone village.
Soon he was at the place where he hid in the shadows and saw the strange man. Owl rounded the building and stepped down to where the man had climbed up on the creature before it ran off. Owl found the faint trail of the creature’s hooves and set out after them.
Owl had thought the bridge was weird. Now that he was trailing the man through the stone village, he saw what weird really meant. He saw strands of zigzagging material, with surfaces that reflected like that of still waters. He passed them by as quietly as he could.
A crow called from high in the sky. Owl shielded his eyes with his hand and looked skyward. He searched for the bird. It would likely be in the air above him, but the sky was empty.
More crows cawed.
They were in the buildings, near the top. What were they doing? Then it occurred to him that they must be nesting. So, the birds felt safe enough to nest in the strange buildings.
He supposed that whoever built the structures were a people numbering far beyond anything he could imagine. Where were they today? Did they die off? Did disease strike them down? Was there a war? Or did they just pick up and leave? Owl decided they must have either simply left this place or if they had died here, someone would have had to bury their bodies because there were no remains. Otherwise, if it were war, Owl expected he would see the signs of it around him. True, the structures were damaged, but the damage seemed to be more of a slow decay, of the forest’s reclamation. Most of all Owl was amazed by the prevalence of stone. It was everywhere. The buildings were made of it and since leaving the river, Owl’s feet had been on the strange surface the whole time. Not once had he walked on the earth.
Owl walked on for a long while. He had become lost in contemplation when he rounded the corner of a tall building. He was in full view when he found the beast that the man rode. It stood in the shade, again eating a tuft of grass poking out of the stone walkway. It caught sight of him and immediately its head shot up. Startled, it jumped and shifted its weight. It watched Owl warily, as he ducked back into the shadows. Owl hid for a moment out of sight, but then chanced a look around the corner. The strange man had emerged from the building. He was looking directly at Owl, or rather in his direction. Owl ducked back instantly and cursed himself for being so irresponsible. He looked about and saw nowhere to go. If he emerged from the shadows, he would be exposed. He looked up over his shoulder at the building above him. One of the dark holes was just above his head within reach. He could climb up and into the structure. Owl shuddered at the thought of going back inside the belly of one of these giants. He had gotten used to walking outside of them, but going inside was another matter. The beast bellowed. It was a nervous sound. It echoed from the walls of the stone village. Then he heard the hollow clicking sounds of approaching footsteps. If he didn’t move now, he would be caught.
Owl leapt from the shadows, arched up over the ledge and disappeared into the black interior of the giant house.
As he crouched down and waited, he heard the man walk by outside. If he hadn’t moved, he’d be caught now. He listened for any signs that the man entered the building too. Long moments passed and nothing came. Then he heard the sounds of the man walking away.
Owl breathed a sigh of relief. He peered around the interior of the giant. He had thought the outside was strange. Inside was truly otherworldly! There were things innumerable and so bizarre that Owl couldn’t even guess their meaning or purpose.
All was quiet for a long while. The sun had started its descent when Owl decided he should move. He needed to get at why the man was here. To try and figure out what it was that this strange human was up to.
He crept out of the shadows of the building. The strange man had truly left. Owl quietly crossed the sunlit open space. He pressed up against the building where the man had entered. He found a door. Owl closed his eyes, said a prayer of protection, drew a deep breath, and darted into the shadows. He took cover immediately inside. His eyes adjusted to the dimness. He listened. It was very quiet, but soon he heard a faint sound coming from somewhere deep in the bowels of this giant. The man seemed to be working at something. Owl waited a while to make sure the sound was consistent and coming from the same place. Then he followed the sound to its source. He came to a door which had at its top more of the clear mirror-like material he saw on the way here. Owl realized he could see inside through the door, so he peered in.
The man was inside an illuminated room. He held a torch of the most peculiar flame Owl had ever seen. It was bright white, not the familiar yellow, orange, or red of the fires from home. It did not flicker, but remained constant. It was much like how daylight illuminated the world. It was as if this man held daylight in his hands.
He set it down and it bathed the room in light. He picked up a tiny stick and bending over something, began to scratch at its surface with the stick.
Suddenly, the man pulled something from his side. He held it to his head and talked to it briefly. Another voice filled the air, seemingly coming from the thing he held. He put it back at his side, turned to the surface again, and scratched a little bit more. Then he set it down, and moved toward the door. He was coming straight for Owl. He ducked down and shifted to the side. The door flew open, smacking Owl in the knees. He cringed against the pain. Luckily, the strange man hadn’t noticed. He ran out and disappeared the way Owl had come.
The man left his torch. Its light illuminated the ground. Owl was curious. He ducked into the room. He just wanted a quick look at the flame. The torch lay on a table. It shone a brilliant white over its surface. Owl moved in.
He realized that the brilliant white color was not just in the light, but also the color of something on the bench.
Owl saw markings. They were scratched into a white surface lying on the bench. It occurred to Owl that the markings were like those that he saw on their map. They were on some kind of white material. He picked it up. It was impossibly thin. Owl held it up between thumb and finger, puzzling over its perfect shape. It felt as light as a feather. Even the material reminded Owl of the maps that Jumping Frog had shown him. He held it with two hands and stared at the symbols. They had no meaning that he could tell. They weren’t like rivers or confluences or headwaters. He decided it wasn’t a map. As he stared at the symbols, he began to see where the man had made his markings. These were meaningless as well, but Owl suspected they must be important. He had even made a circle around them. If Mihšipinšiwa saw these, he would surely know what the man was doing here. Owl thought of taking it. But it would surely be missed. Owl wanted to leave this place and not be followed. Perhaps he could memorize the signs, or at least some of them. Owl concentrated on the symbols within the circle. He would draw them in the sand to show Mihšipinšiwa. Perhaps he would know what they meant. Maybe it would be enough for him to know what this strange man was up to. Owl studied them for long moments, but the markings were so strange, in the instant he averted his eyes, their shapes escaped him. He continued trying to memorize them.
It was some time later, when Owl’s mind began to wander. What time of day was it? Had the sun reached the top of the sky? He realized he had no idea. Owl decided he had had enough. He would do the best he could in describing them to the Panther. He left the dark room, but as he crept to the entrance, he heard hooves, a great many hooves. He sprinted back into the room. He thought the light might give him away. Instinctively, he grabbed it and slammed it on the bench. It was not hot. The torch wasn’t even warm. The white light flickered all over the room. He hit it again. Owl heard voices now. They were coming his way, speaking a strange language, not in the least bit like his own. He struck the torch again. Something clicked and everything went black.
They were just outside the door. Soon Owl’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. First, he could see shapes. Then as his eyes grew more accustomed to the dim light, he could see almost everything in the room. He thought of the symbols on the bench above his head. Could he see them in this twilight?
Owl shuffled along the bench until he reached the place where the skin with its strange markings lay. He groped at the surface above him, trying to stay hidden, until he found the skin. He pulled it down to the ground. It was impossibly thin and the edges were perfectly shaped. He lifted the surface to his eyes. Faintly, the shapes of the markings came into view. He began to study them again.
Owl waited in the dimness. He waited a long time. The strangers continued talking for what seemed like the rest of the day. They worked somewhere out there. Luckily they hadn’t come back into the place where he hid. Why hadn’t the man retrieved his torch? Perhaps he forgot about it. Maybe he had another.
From time to time, Owl examined the white skin and the strange meaningless markings, and slowly they took hold in his mind, until finally he imagined that he could draw them in the sand.
At times, he thought the people had left, but then one of them would make some noise, either speaking or moving about. His hiding place reminded him of a cave. The lack of forest sounds was deafening. Somewhere out there, frogs croaked among the cattails. Mourning doves cooed and cicadas trilled from the trees. The silence rang in his ears. Again, complete blackness cloaked Owl. He thought of the torch in his hands with its brilliant light. He began toying with it. Suddenly its flame burst forth into the room. Owl cupped it instinctively, then recoiled for fear of it burning him. Repeatedly, the room shifted from blackness to illumination, until Owl realized again that the torch did not burn, even when he covered it with his bare hand. He pressed his palm against it. The room fell dark and stayed that way. Owl held his breath, expecting the people to come crashing in on his hiding place. Moments passed, but they never came. Owl’s pulse eased up. He became aware of the torch pressed against his palm. He lifted his hands and shifted his finger over it. It glowed red. The room glowed in twilight. Owl realized that he could control the level of light. He heard voices again. He waited, but they never came. He used the light in his palm to continue his examination of the markings.
Owl heard a sound at the door. He looked down at the skin in his hands. Perhaps someone was coming for it. Owl rose up on his knees and placed it back where he found it, just in time because a moment later the door opened and light filled the room once again. Owl dropped down and kept still. Footsteps echoed through the room. They were coming his way. Voices called out to one another as they approached Little Owl, loud and peppered with sharp laughter. He heard a shuffling sound just above his head. It was the skin. The man must have come back for it. Owl heard footsteps again, but this time they were fading away, walking back to the door. The room fell into darkness again and Owl breathed a sigh of relief. He chanced a look at the table. The skin with the strange markings was gone. Taking it would have been a bad idea. Owl was glad he put it back.
Much later, he grew weary. He fought to keep his eyes open. Falling asleep in here would be a terrible idea, he decided. The strangers outside seemed to be gone. Perhaps they were asleep.
Owl decided to chance an escape.
He carefully opened the door and crept out of the room.
Still, there was no sign of them. He made for the entrance. When he emerged, he could see that night had fallen. The moon had risen about half-way up in the sky.
Owl left the village of stone. He crossed the bridge, climbed down the riverbank, got in his canoe, and paddled back to Wildcat Cove.
The Panther was nowhere to be found. Owl called out across the waters.
“Mihšipinšiwa!” he shouted.
All was quiet.
He sat down by the creek and rested. He dozed in the moonlight, but soon grew restless. He was anxious to see Underwater Panther, to tell him about what the strange people were doing, and draw the markings in the sand. Perhaps Mihšipinšiwa would know what they meant. Then Owl could finally hear about what happened at the end of the fifth world. He decided perhaps an offering would draw the Panther, so he burned some of the sage.
No luck. He tried tobacco. Still nothing. Then he tried the red willow bark.
The waters stirred. The Panther emerged.
“You really like red willow,” Owl said. He thought of his friend. If it weren’t for her insisting on cutting some of the branches of the plant, the Panther might never have emerged.
“Yes,” Underwater Panther said. The scent is irresistible.”
Owl stood and walked to the water’s edge.
“Did you find him?”
Owl nodded. “I followed the path deep into the stone village.”
“Good,” the Panther said. “Did you see what he was doing?”
“I did. He was inside one of the giant buildings. It was dark inside. Black as night. I had to feel my way in. Then it grew light again, but it was not the sun. The man had a torch that was like daylight.”
Mihšipinšiwa nodded. “Yes. That is one of their creations. Could you see what he was doing?”
“He was bent over looking at things with his strange light,” Owl said, but then he shook his head. “I am sorry. These things are beyond my comprehension.”
Mihšipinšiwa growled. The waters gurgled, but then they quieted quickly. “I understand,” the Panther said. “Indeed, the doings of these people are sometimes a mystery even to me.”
Owl thought of the markings. He felt like he could show them to the Panther.
“I did see signs,” Owl admitted.
“What signs? Can you show me?”
Owl nodded. “I think so,” he said. “I spent the whole day studying the markings that the strange man made on the skin.”
“Markings he made?”
“Good,” the Panther said. “That should tell me what he knows. And what his purpose is.”
Owl said. “There were many of these men in the stone village.”
“How many?” the Panther asked. Owl sensed alarm in his voice.
“Six or so. I think,” he said.
Mihšipinšiwa seemed to relax. “I was afraid perhaps they were here to resettle Waayaahtanonki. Such a small group, they are probably just exploring. Go on,” the Panther said, motioning again.
Owl knelt in the sand. Mihšipinšiwa emerged from the water. For the first time, Owl saw Underwater Panther in his fullness. The copper of his body shimmered and reflected the stars and the moonlight. His great antlers towered above the river. Mihšipinšiwa came fully out of the water and eased up next to Owl. His long tail stretched out over the river. It whipped about as he settled down onto the sand.
The scent of burning metal lingered in the air. Owl feared that Mihšipinšiwa could catch him on fire.
“Won’t you burn me up?” Owl asked.
“Nightfall makes it much easier for me to be in the world,” Mihšipinšiwa said. “You are safe.”
The Panther looked Owl in the eyes and then nodded toward the sand in front of his toes.
“Please show me,” Underwater Panther said.
Owl was thunderstruck by the sublime presence of the god, but he managed to wrestle his concentration back enough for the task at hand, that of remembering the strange markings.
“They were not of anything in particular,” Owl said. “I didn’t see animals, or rivers, or anything. They were simple lines which met together and looped about and crisscrossed.”
Owl took up a stick from the beach and broke it into a manageable size.
Underwater Panther nodded. “I know these markings. They are how they communicate with each other over vast distances and across time.”
The Panther motioned again toward the sand. “Show me,” he said. The tone in the deity’s voice was eager. Owl could tell that he really needed to know what he had seen.
“Then you will tell me of the last age?”
“And how the Peeyankihšia came to be here? And what happened to our brothers?”
“Yes, yes of course.”
Owl pressed the stick into the sand. He closed his eyes and concentrated on what he had seen. And then he drew the markings…
GENEC RESRH ALGAE BLOM HAR V ESTNG
DR STON QUANTU C PUT
LAK ERI TALIS
When Owl completed the last symbol, he drew a circle around all of them, just as the man did. Pleased that he had remembered them correctly, Owl said, “These are the markings that the man made on the skin.”
Mihšipinšiwa’s great head leaned in more closely. He eyed the symbols, seemingly deciphering their meaning. The great orbs blinked heavily. He snorted and puffed air. And Owl suspected that he understood what the strange man wrote. Was he expressing disbelief? The Panther’s breath blew over Owl like a stiff breeze. It smelled of forest fires and the ashen ruins of great cities. The god reared back on his hind legs. His tail twitched with pent up ferocity. His head lifted skyward and he bellowed into the heavens.
“Brother!” he shouted to the sky. “Why did you stop me?”
The Panther’s voice echoed across the banks of the Wabash.
Owl scrambled. He fell and then rolled. He got to his feet, but fell again. Then he pulled his feet under him and leapt into the brush beyond the beach. He cowered in the shadows of a bush. It got really quiet.
Both Owl and the Panther waited for a long while. The god seemingly expected an answer to his question.
There was no answer.
Owl covered his head with his hands.
On the beach, the Panther paced furiously, back and forth. Then he jumped from the sand and took to the air. He arched out over the Wabash. He hovered in the sky, far above the water.
Underwater Panther can fly?
Owl was stunned that the god also had the power of flight.
Finally, Mihšipinšiwa released his grip on the air and plunged into the water. He disappeared into the depths.
It was some time later before the Panther emerged again.
Mihšipinšiwa called out to Owl. His voice was surprisingly calm, as if his rage had left him.
Owl emerged from his hiding place and came out onto the beach.
The Panther eased out onto the sand, but kept half his body in the river.
“I take it you know what that man is up to?” Owl ventured, surprising himself at the ease with which he spoke to the god.
The Panther nodded. “I do,” he said.
“I imagine it would be difficult to explain to me,” Owl said.
“Nearly impossible,” Mihšipinšiwa said.
“I’ll take you at your word.”
“Someday I will explain these markings to you.”
These words sent chills down Owl’s spine. Someday? It was a subtle remark from the god that implied their conversations would continue past today.
Would you like answers to your questions now?” Mihšipinšiwa asked, jarring Owl from his unsettling contemplations.
“Yes please,” he said, eagerly. But on some level, he was surprised to hear that Mihšipinšiwa intended to keep his word. The Panther must have gotten what he was looking for in the markings, though obviously it wasn’t to his liking.
“Well then. Where shall I begin?”
“What happened to the fifth world?” Owl offered.
Mihšipinšiwa nodded. “As good a place as any to begin,” he said. The Panther emerged fully from the water once again. He settled down next to Owl in the moonlight.
“Toward the end of the fifth world,” Mihšipinšiwa began. “A dangerous people nearly destroyed the earth.”
Owl had heard very little about the place from which they came. Most every story that he knew occurred after they formed Peeyankihšionki, only a smattering were attributed to the age before.
“These people were fearful of the earth, of her people, and her manitou. They were so fearful in fact, that they did what they could to keep themselves apart from us. In ancient times, when they first appeared in the world, the spirits looked upon them with amusement, for they were not dangerous then. They were simply misguided in their understanding of the world. For ages, in an isolated far away land, they were a small and pitiful band of people. Pitiful, but clever. No, they were not dangerous in the beginning, but they became so. Much of the time, due to their fear, these people hid themselves away in their houses behind closed doors. They came out onto the land only to hack at the forests, to drive away game, or to make war. Your brothers, the Myaamia, called them, Mihši-maalhsa. When they finally appeared in Myaamionki, they came offering wondrous things – tools, weapons, and food, and even their ideas for trade. Myaamionki, and many of your neighboring peoples were enchanted by these things and they exchanged their own unique gifts for them. The Mihši-maalhsa were especially interested in the furs of animals of Myaamionki. As it turned out, these things were more harmful to you than anything, for your people began to feel they needed them as maize is needed or fish or venison. You had no way of making them yourselves, so you had to go to Mihši-maalhsa. That is the nature of his cleverness. He all but destroyed Myaamionki in this way, and many other people. Only the people, the Peeyankihšia, saved Myaamionki. But you must understand, Mihši-maalhsa were not at war with the Peeyankihšia; they were at war with the earth.”
At war with the earth?
Owl thought of the strange figure in the stone village. Could he have been Mihši-maalhsa? Was this somehow the land of the Mihši-maalhsa? Was the strange man one of them? If so, where were the rest of his people?
This time Owl’s question easily rolled off his tongue. “How did the Peeyankihšia get here?”
Mihšipinšiwa’s lips pulled away from his teeth.
Owl interpreted his expression as a smile, which was an awkward translation. Owl felt himself easing into an accord with the god. He had trouble deciding if it was pleasant.
Underwater Panther said. “I brought you.”
This had to be a trick, Owl thought. The people knew Underwater Panther as a monster who brought misfortune and death. He was known to cause rivers to swell dangerously, to bring terrible storms, and on occasion to tempt people into the water only to drown them. Only rarely in their stories was Underwater Panther in a position of benevolence. And now the Panther claimed to have saved them from the destruction of the last age. From Mihši-maalhsa?
“But how?” Owl asked.
“As the fifth world came to a close, it did so in a violent and destructive manner. I foresaw this and offered shelter and deliverance for the Peeyankihšia.”
Owl couldn’t help but ask. “Why?” he ventured.
“I knew the havoc that Mihši-maalhsa would bring upon the earth many generations before it came to pass.”
“You have visions of the future?” Owl asked. None of their stories about Underwater Panther suggested he had this power. “I didn’t know this about you. None of our stories speak of this.”
Mihšipinšiwa nodded. “So your legends speak of me?” He seemed pleased to hear that the Peeyankihšia tell stories about him.
Owl nodded. “Yes, they do, but not about telling the future.”
“You’re keeping me honest, young Peeyankihšia,” the Panther said. “What I meant to say was, in my vision, I was visited by someone from the future.”
That seemed even more improbable. “How could someone exist in the future and come visiting you? That makes no sense to me.”
“That will surely be more difficult to explain than the meaning of the markings,” he told Owl. “Perhaps another day?”
Owl nodded. “But who was this person who could visit from the future?”
The Panther growled, growing a bit impatient with Owl.
“Persons,” the Panther corrected. “Two people. One was very much like the Peeyankihšia, a cousin to your people, if you will. Being from the future, she had knowledge of how the fifth age would end. She wanted to stop it from happening. She wanted to set things right.” Mihšipinšiwa paused, seemingly contemplating the past. He shook his head. “I’m afraid it didn’t work out the way she had planned. The other visitor … he … is a bit more difficult to explain. Shall I go on with your original question?” Mihšipinšiwa asked.
“Yes, please,” Owl said, puzzled, “This is quite more than I can comprehend.”
Owl thought it might be best to keep more of his questions to himself. Let the god explain what happened at the end of the last age, he thought. Though he was curious about these people who could visit from the future. “I am sorry for interrupting.”
The Panther settled in again. “My vision of the coming devastation of the fifth world told me that the Peeyankihšia, along with all others would be completely destroyed. You must know that for me to maintain a toehold in existence, I need the Peeyankihšia and their dreaming.”
Owl did know that for many spirits, the thoughts and dreams of the people are like food. Underwater Panther was among these, so their destruction would certainly mean his own as well.
“Many years would pass before Mihši-maalhsa would sweep into your land, but still I needed time to prepare. So I immediately set my plan into motion, because the danger of Mihši-maalhsa was so great that the very foundations of our world were in danger of annihilation.”
“But isn’t that what you do?” Owl asked. “Aren’t you a destroyer?”
“Think of me not as destroyer,” Underwater Panther offered. “Think of me as cleanser. When an age’s time has come, I light the world on fire.”
“But that kills everyone?”
“The living do burn, but always the seeds are hidden. The seeds of the next world are always just under the surface, ready to come forth. You must know of how your ancestors tended to the forests by setting fires? What I do is not much different.”
The stories did say as much. Early in the fifth world, the ancestors of the Peeyankihšia did burn the forests undergrowth, then coaxed only those species they wished to grow. As Owl understood it, this practice went on for hundreds of generations. Supposedly, there were those among the Peeyankihšia who still had the knowledge of this practice, but their numbers were still too small to carry it out successfully.
“Now Mihši-maalhsa,” the Panther said. “They are true destroyers.”
“They threaten the seeds themselves. If I hadn’t preempted them, all would have been lost.”
“So I offered your people shelter.”
“Only those at Peeyankihšionki?”
“Yes,” the Panther replied.
“What of the Waayaahtanonki and the Saakiiweeyonki?” Owl asked. These were the tribes of his lost brothers and sisters.
Mihšipinšiwa shook his head. “It took all of my power to save you.”
“Why the Peeyankihšia?” Owl asked, pressing the spirit.
“It is reasonable. You were a small band, split off from the whole. At the time, you were just enough for me to handle.”
It dawned on Owl who they were to the Panther. Mihšipinšiwa was essentially seed saving. Owl wasn’t sure how he felt about this.
“We were the seeds,” Owl said.
Mihšipinšiwa eyed Owl. “Yes, I suppose,” he said. “That’s one way of putting it.”
Owl’s discomfort with this realization seemed apparent to the Panther. “I am sorry,” Owl said. “Please continue.”
Mihšipinšiwa blinked, recalling his place in the story. He picked up where he left off.
“Mihši-maalhsa did not appear in Myaamionki for many generations, but a great sickness preceded them. Your brothers called it meemhkilookinki (small pox). Scores and hundreds of your people died. And for those who survived the illness, great change swept over them. Your way of life was doomed. Long before Mihši-maalhsa destroyed the earth, they removed your brothers from the land. They took Myaamionki for themselves.”
“What happened to Waayaahtanonki?”
“First it was emptied, later it was dug up and pilfered, then utterly destroyed. The Mihši-maalhsa built their own towns over it.”
Underwater Panther’s words stirred Owl into anger. “Why didn’t we stay and fight?” he said with conviction.
“Many did. But ultimately it was to no avail. Let me show you the power of Mihši-maalhsa.”
Mihšipinšiwa took Owl into a vision, so that he could see.
It was in this moment that Owl’s understanding of the world changed. So terrible was the vision, that Owl fell to his knees and wept. Sometime later he was able to pull himself together.
“Why didn’t you destroy them before they gained so much power?” he asked finally.
Mihšipinšiwa shook his head.
“My brother would not let me.”
Owl knew the Panther was speaking of Meteor Man-being, his godly brother.
“My brother didn’t have the vision I had. He wasn’t visited like I was,” Mihšipinšiwa said. “And he doesn’t trust me. If I had taken it upon myself and attempted to destroy Mihši-maalhsa as he set foot in Myaamionki, he would have preempted me before I could gather fire. My brother had to see it for himself, before he would unleash me.”
“When the time came, your people gathered seeds. Not only of the Three Sisters, but also chestnuts, walnuts, hickory, and others. You brought animals too, and skins and totems and other things. It was all necessary in order to recolonize the world.”
“I took you into the underworld and offered shelter until it was over.”
Owl gasped. “The underworld?”
“I see that you disbelieve me,” the Panther said. Owl was alarmed, but then he accepted the intrusion on his thoughts. The Panther was a god after all.
Mihšipinšiwa offered, “I can show you. Would you like to see?”
Owl’s curiosity got the better of him again. “See as you see? Would I see Meehšimeelwia (Great-horned Owl)?” Owl asked.
“I can show you,” Underwater Panther said.
Owl nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I want to see.”
With that, Mihšipinšiwa took Owl into his vision again, but then the Panther fell away. Owl began to see things as if they actually occurred before him rather than through the words of a storyteller. He saw as a god might see.
They could not see all the passings of the moon from their shelter in the underworld. They only aged a few dozen moons. Yes it was hard. They saw many seasons pass without the pressing wind in their hair, or the warmth of the sun on their faces, or the coolness of the rain upon their shoulders. Their children grew up in the shadows. But everyone who entered the underworld did see the sun again. And a new world.
And as time passed, to keep the people appeased, Mihšipinšiwa gave them glimpses of what was happening to the world they left behind. For the most part, the people were content, but many among them showed the effects of life in the underworld. Of course, it was not natural for the Peeyankihšia to go so many years without the sun and stars, their beloved river, the air, and the forests.
They saw the events unfold above. They saw the sickness overcome their brothers, they saw Mihši-maalhsa enter Myaamionki, at first offering many strange and wondrous things to the people, to their mutual benefit, but then they witnessed from afar their brothers quickly beaten down and finally swept away. The Mihši-maalhsa took over the land. The stars grew dim and the sun’s brilliance diminished. The sky was no longer blue. Even the moon was shut out. The forests were leveled and the horizon was flattened in a great circle in all directions. The air grew sick and dark. The Wabash, their beloved river, died. The animals – ayaapia moohswa (white-tailed deer), amehkwa (beaver), miintikwa (owl), and mahkwa (black bear), nalaaohki alenaswa (buffalo), and lenimahwia (coyote), and many others diminished. They faded away and finally left the land all together. Wiihkoowia (whippoorwill) no longer called in midsummer nights.
Mihšipinšiwa addressed the people dwelling in the underworld. “It is done,” he said finally. “Now my Brother sees with his own eyes. When dawn breaks, he will unleash me.”
The next day, Mihšipinšiwa entered the world again. But something caught his attention immediately. Near the passage from the underworld, the Mihši-maalhsa had set a nexus of power. The god sensed immediately that it was a place of great power, power over creation, which the Mihši-maalhsa had obtained in the years since he had sheltered the Peeyankihšia. It was a place of great secrecy, but to Mihšipinšiwa with his sight into creation, it was evident. What he saw there was an attempt by the Mihši-maalhsa to bend creation to their will. Mihšipinšiwa sensed an opportunity. Rather than burn the whole world with fire, he could simply let Mihši-maalhsa pass from this earth at the hand of his own creation. Mihšipinšiwa had only to spin it up a bit. It really amounted to adding exactly what the Mihši-maalhsa desired most – growth. Infinite growth. Their creation would fill all the world. The Panther set to work, but not by force. Instead, since the place of power had been set so close, he could work at the Mihši-maalhsa unseen. His plan worked beautifully. With the Panther’s help, their creation spun out of control. Soon it filled all of Myaamionki. And once it did that, it took very little for creation to double it, and then quadruple it, and so on. Not long after, it filled all the world. Mihši-maalhsa’s world collapsed under the weight of this infinite growth.
Meanwhile, in Mihšipinšiwa’s absence Mishiginebig seized his opportunity. He tempted the people. Though Mishiginebig was Meehšimeelwia’s totem, he had always been careful not to take on the character of the Great-Horned Serpent. But there were those among the Peeyankihšia, having been deeply affected by life in the underworld, that easily succumbed to the influences of the Serpent. To Meehšimeelwia’s horror, they took on the character of Mishiginebig. Soon after their fall, they separated from the people.
In the meantime, as the world spun out of control, the Panther’s brother in the sky began to doubt his resolve. Was it a mistake to loose Mihšipinšiwa? The Mihši-maalhsa had tinkered where they shouldn’t, but the effects of Underwater Panther’s contribution was sweeping around the globe. Finally, Meteor Man-being decided to stop it. Mihši-maalhsa was beaten back severely and surely must be doomed. When Meteor Man-being confronted Mihšipinšiwa, the Panther was furious at the interruption. They battled for many days, but Meteor Man-being eventually prevailed.
Mihšipinšiwa was beaten by his brother. He tucked his tail and returned to the underworld. He was exhausted.
Once again the world was nearly empty of people, but another ten generations would pass before the world would be habitable again.
As the days wore on, the ones who were tempted became more and more of a threat to the people. Mihšipinšiwa eventually had to intervene. He put them down, restricted them, hurt them. For this they blamed the Peeyankihšia. They grew to hate them long before they were able to leave the underworld.
Finally the day grew close when the people could leave. Even Mihšipinšiwa grew anxious for them to go, so that he might sleep.
The day that they emerged was a joyous occasion beyond all measure. The land was empty. The effects of the Mihši-maalhsa were evident, but had at least begun to fade. The scars were there and the earth was still healing. The forests were changed. Most plants and animals that the people were familiar with were gone. Some remained however. New ones had appeared. And they had their seeds to begin to cultivate.
The people were traumatized as well. They had witnessed many of the Mihši-maalhsa ways. Sleepily, Mihšipinšiwa warned Meehšimeelwia (Great-horned Owl) about Mihši-maalhsa ideas.
“Forget you saw them,” he said to Meehšimeelwia. “Tell your people not to speak of what you have witnessed. Let it fade from this world.”
The Panther yawned and closed his eyes.
“It is done,” Mihšipinšiwa said. “I have sheltered your people. Now I must sleep. I will do so for many generations. I have delivered your people into a new world, as promised. When I awaken, I will ask for payment.” Sleepily with a single orb, the Great Panther eyed Meehšimeelwia. “There will be a reckoning.”
At this Meehšimeelwia shuddered. He backed away fearfully, letting the beast rest.
So many seasons in the underworld had dulled their senses, their connectivity to earth, to the sensuality of the soil, to the air and water, to the animals, and to the spirits of the land. They had witnessed their diminishment and with them, a piece of themselves.
The vision ended abruptly. Owl gasped upon his return to reality. His chest heaved. His heart raced. Tears streaked down his face. The vision had strained his mind. He struggled to maintain consciousness. The images imparted to him from the vision continued to flash before his mind. The first thought that came to Owl was about this reckoning. What was the payment? Also, Owl suspected that the information he had just gained was impartial, because his view seemed independent of the Panther. It included things that Owl supposed Mihšipinšiwa might not want him to know.
“When did you wake up?” Owl asked, after he had recovered.
“Just this past spring,” the Panther replied.
Owl thought of his vision of the water bubble panther and how it spoke to him in the river, and again in the sweat lodge. Mihšipinšiwa had communicated to him even then about his awakening.
Was the Panther the reason the animals were behaving so strangely? Then it dawned on him. He was only indirectly responsible. His awakening had stirred Mishiginebig. The Great-Horned Serpent had enjoyed reign over the manitou for the past five generations, and the Ciipaya. Then it struck him. Owl finally put the last piece of the puzzle together. Their attacker, the Dark One’s skin! It was the same as Mishiginebig’s when he saw it on the ridge. The Ciipaya were the ones who were tempted by the Serpent and had taken on the character of Mishiginebig. The Ciipaya were once Peeyankihšia!
Owl had a feeling that the Great-Horned Serpent did not want him to know this. That is why he tried to steer him home, that’s why he tried to kill him above the river. The snake grew desperate to keep him away from Underwater Panther and the knowledge he would impart to Owl.
Something occurred to Little Owl, one more question for the Panther.
“How long were we in the underworld?” he asked.
The Panther seemed to hesitate, in a way that Owl had never seen him do before. He seemed reluctant to say.
Owl waited patiently. Finally, Mihšipinšiwa said, “Forty years.”
Owl knew immediately that wasn’t the whole truth. “No,” he challenged. “That’s how many it seemed to us. What I mean is how long was it to our brothers whom we left behind?” Owl pressed. “How many years passed in the world above?”
The Panther remained silent.
“How many, Mihšipinšiwa?” Owl asked again, more boldly now.
“Three thousand years,” Mihšipinšiwa said finally.
“Three thousand?” Owl gasped. “How could that be?”
For the first time in his life, Owl pondered his place in the present, in the context of the past. Where did he belong? He considered the ramifications of what he just witnessed in the vision. Had the Mihši-maalhsa never come or if Panther hadn’t saved his people, he would have died ages ago. He thought of his ancestors. He felt a prickly feeling in his scalp that quickly filled his spine. Suddenly he felt somehow at the same time, an ancestor of the Peeyankihšia and a descendant. Where did he belong in the lineage of his people? The stories he heard since birth placed the significant events of his life and those of his people at solid points in the breadth of time. Now Owl felt as if he had been ripped out of the world and thrown into the next age. Or was it a past age? His mind reeled at the revelation.
His legs buckled. He went down on his knees. Owl doubled over and his stomach heaved. His fasting and his vision seeking had drawn everything out of him. Owl put his head in his hands and wept.
“I must share something with you now,” the Panther said. “As you were immersed in your vision, I was contemplating what you imparted to me about Mihši-maalhsa and their markings. Given their renewed interest in this place, I believe they are looking for answers. And they know more about what happened to them than I ever imagined was possible. I am afraid they are on the rise again.”
Owl thought of Willow’s concern that the Ciipaya might be fighting a new enemy. Could that enemy be Mihši-maalhsa?
“They have obviously regrouped,” Mihšipinšiwa continued. “They may already have rebuilt a city, somewhere toward the east. All in my absence, while I slept. They have reacquired some of their lost power, which has enabled them to trace the source of what brought ruin upon them. That source is here. The secret to the power I wielded against them is in that building. I fear that they are a threat once again. We have much to do.”
Owl was beyond exhausted. “What you are saying is far beyond me,” he said. “What can I do in the face of such power?”
“You can be my eyes and ears a little longer,” Mihšipinšiwa said.
“What does that mean?” Owl asked suspiciously.
“I will see what you see,” the Panther said. “Hear what you hear.”
“How is that possible?” Owl asked.
“In order to do this, we must enter an accord with each other,” the Panther said. “Come closer.”
“It’s time for me to go home,” Owl said.
“I promise you will be on the river and on your way home before sunset,” the Panther said.
He was too exhausted to protest, Owl realized. He took a step toward Mihšipinšiwa.
“I assure you. You will not be harmed.”
Owl shook his head. “I was okay becoming your spy for a day, but I’m afraid to do this for you.”
“I require nothing of you,” the Panther assured him. “In fact, you will take a bit of me with you.”
“As you know,” the Panther continued. “My presence has been absent from the world above for hundreds of years. I had to draw myself up around the Peeyankihšia to provide a safe space for you.”
“Why do you care so much about us?” Owl asked, still suspicious of the Great Cat.
“You are the cord between the old world and the new, a world that now is little more than a dream. It shines like a distant star against a cold black sky. Again Mihši-maalhsa threatens that cord.”
“What is this cord? What is it about the Peeyankihšia that is so important?”
“The Peeyankihšia are the last vestige of a way of life that once covered the globe, a way of life that is the extension of our living earth. Remember the dreaming? It runs deep, but Mihši-maalhsa nearly snuffed it out with their ill-conceived notions. You are all that is left. The Peeyankihšia are prospering, that is good, but you are still fragile and are again threatened by Mihši-maalhsa. They are powerful, but no longer will my presence be hidden. With your help, the old way will be amplified by my power. Together we will be a force to reckon with. This is all that I ask of you. Together we will ensure that the cord remains sound.”
“How will we do that?”
“The markings that you carved into the sand spoke of a powerful talisman of the fifth world. Soon the Mihši-maalhsa will be searching for it. We need to find it before they do.”
“Why do they want this talisman?” Owl asked. “You say it’s from the fifth world.”
“It holds the potential to restore their former power.”
Owl shook his head. “How would I ever find it?” he asked.
“It is hidden in a ruined city to the east of your home. Another, greater Mihši-maalhsa city.”
After all that he had been through over the past few days, what the Panther was asking seemed an impossible task for Owl to even think of undertaking. He only wanted to go home, eat, and sleep for a week. Maybe two. He knew there was no way he could visit yet another town of the last age. Not any time soon. But still, the words of the Panther intrigued him.
“It must be far,” Owl said. “No one among the Peeyankihšia has ever spoken of a ruined city to the east.”
The Panther nodded. “It is far.”
“How would I ever find it?”
“Oh, it is a simple matter, finding it, really,” the Panther declared. “Follow the Wabash south until you reach the confluence of White River. Follow it northeast. In six or seven days you will come upon the city.”
Owl shook his head. “That’s too far,” he said. “No wonder I’ve never heard of this city. One is sure to run into Ciipaya, following the Wabash south of Sugar Maple Tree Creek.”
“Your great-grandfather carried it for a time,” the Panther offered.
Owl gasped. “What?”
“Oh, does that interest you?” the Panther said.
It did indeed. “Great-horned Owl knew of this talisman?” Miintikwa asked. Owl hadn’t even mentioned that he was Meehšimeelwian. Mihšipinšiwa must have sensed it anyway.
The Panther nodded. “Your great-grandfather has much to do with this talisman. As do the man and woman in my vision of the future, but I can see that it is time for you to rest, Miintikwa. Past time,” the Panther said. “And you have earned it. That is for certain. So we will talk of this talisman later. However, again, there is one last thing that I must ask of you, before you go home.”
The Panther had spoken of some sort of an accord between them. “Did you say I will take a piece of you?”
“A token,” the Panther said. “You can carry it in your sacred pouch.”
Owl’s curiosity grew. And he was inspired by the Panther’s words. He waded into the water and approached Mihšipinšiwa.
“How?” Owl asked with trepidation. “I’m as close as I can get.”
“You can come closer,” Mihšipinšiwa said. “I have seen you dive.”
The Panther’s powers must still be potent, Owl thought, at least to a degree. Otherwise how would he know about his diving? True, Owl’s activities were mostly underwater. He imagined that Mihšipinšiwa’s influence extended more easily, though weakened, as long as it was underwater. Owl’s spine tingled at the thought that the god had been watching him in the river. For how long? Perhaps ever since he awoke.
Owl took a breath and sunk beneath the surface.
He moved close to the Panther’s broadside.
Pierce my side.
Owl gasped. Suddenly, it was as if the Great Cat was in his head. Mihšipinšiwa had spoken, but it was somehow through his thoughts. Owl hesitated.
Do it, the god commanded. Before I lose my resolve.
Owl obeyed. He took in his hands the arrow Willow gave him, gripped it tightly, reared back and plunged the tip into the beast’s side. The arrowhead pierced Mihšipinšiwa. The Panther growled sharply but did not move away.
Now pull it out.
Owl pulled on the arrow, but it was stuck fast. The Panther bellowed in pain and shifted. Owl set his feet against the beast’s side, one on each side of the arrow. He grabbed the arrow and pushed off with his legs. The arrow slipped free.
The god’s blood oozed out. It was not red, but rather a deep purple. It had an odd consistency. It entered the water like maple syrup. Owl scooped up a glob of the syrupy blood, enough to fill his palm.
The arrow had dislodged a scale from the Panther’s side. It lay askew against the others. Suddenly, it fell off. The scale was copper in color. It shimmered as it fell into the depths.
Mihšipinšiwa, You have lost a scale!
Retrieve it, the god said.
Owl dove down to the riverbed. It was deep. The water turned cold. He found it in the murky water resting in the sand. Owl brought it back to the surface.
Owl held the copper scale before the Panther, offering it back to him.
The Panther shook his head. “You keep it,” he told Owl.
“Are you sure? It came off with the arrow.”
“It wasn’t my intention, but we’ll take it as a sign. It is yours now. Keep it as part of this covenant. You and I, we are bound together. Keep this between you and me until I tell you it is okay to share. There will be some among the Peeyankihšia who would covet what is rightfully yours. They would steal it from you. Before you do anything else, make a pouch from the skin of otter, place the covenant within, and do not take it out until I tell you.”
Owl had a terrible thought. Did the Panther need his blood too? “You’re not going to do that to me, are you?” he asked. “Is this a blood oath?”
The thought of a god’s blood coursing through his veins was unnerving.
The Panther shook his head, laughing. “No, Little Owl,” he said. “We won’t mingle my blood with yours. Probably not such a good idea. It will be quite enough to keep it close to you.”
Owl breathed a sigh of relief, but then he had another thought. “Am I to take you as totem?” Owl asked, disbelieving. It was, after all, the reason why he was here. But this Panther was a god of the underworld. Owl knew he was not a good totem for a Peeyankihšia to have at all.
“Yes,” the Panther said. “I am your totem. And because it is so, I will say my secret name. Hold it in your heart. Do not speak of it to anyone.”
Mihšipinšiwa ducked underwater again.
Owl thought of his mother and her advice. He took a moment to quiet his mind, so that his heart could speak. He thought of Underwater Panther.
Is this spirit of the underworld the right totem for me?
Owl looked across the Wabash. The waters pulsed, then rippled, and then tossed about under the influence of a great force from below. Countless whirlpools spun up across the surface from one bank of the river to the other. He could hear them swirling and sucking at the air.
This must be the spirit for me, Owl thought.
The Panther growled and the waters trembled. Just a moment before, the Great Cat was communicating with mere thoughts. Now Mihšipinšiwa was communicating audibly again. But why underwater? Owl could only hear a low rumble and gurgling from the whirlpools. How could he hear anything when the Panther’s head was underwater? Then he remembered what the river sounded like from under its surface. Several seasons ago, he found that the river was full of sounds, at times more clear than those in the air. Mihšipinšiwa meant for Owl to hear from under the surface. Owl took a deep breath and then sunk into the depths.
He heard a chorus of sounds. Rocks popped and clicked as rapids rushed over them. Fish jumped and splashed. Rain struck the placid surface. Other sounds were very human, like songs sung at ceremony. Owl remembered his vision of the singer and dancers as the water drum began to play during the sweat lodge ceremony. Was this amalgam of tones and voices the secret name of Mihšipinšiwa?
For the first time ever, in this age or the last, a Peeyankihšia heard the true name of Underwater Panther. Owl felt a power course through his body. Images danced before his mind. All the stories that he heard from the time of his childhood passed before him. In those moments under their beloved river, Waapaahšiki Siipiiwi, at saakiiweeki of Pinsiwa-amootayi, the dwelling place of the Great Panther, Owl was witness to the workings of a god.
He waded from the waters and stepped onto the beach. Underwater Panther swam close, but remained in the river.
“You hold the covenant now,” Mihšipinšiwa said. “You hold the power.” With that the Panther moved away and then submerged.
He was gone.
Owl looked down at the copper scale and the blood of the Panther. “I have the power?” he said. He wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.
Despite his exhaustion and weakness from hunger, Owl did as the Panther said. He hid the copper scale with the blood resting upon it on a stone beneath a cedar tree. Then he hunted for otter. In other circumstances, it might have taken him several days to trap the animal, but in this case Owl found it that afternoon. He suspected some sort of supernatural aid was present. He was ready for this to be over, so he welcomed it. He killed the animal in the sacred manner, with respect, and then thanked the Otter spirit totem for providing for him and his people. Owl skinned it and set to making the sacred pouch. By midday, he completed his task. He retrieved the copper scale from its hiding place. The syrupy blood still clung to its surface. He tilted the copper piece and let the blood pour into the pouch. He set the copper scale inside the pouch also, and then tucked it all away to keep it safe.
It was over. He had his vision. He saw Beaver for the distraction that it was, his starving had had a voice. But now it was over. He only had to make his way home. He gathered his things and made for the river. He found his canoe and loaded it up. Finally he could let the river carry him home. Surely he could find a fish to eat. But then he remembered, Underwater Panther had said that mussels were no longer taboo. In fact, he said not to eat fish, so that they could recover. Owl looked out to the river and imagined the river bottom, which he knew was layered with a bed of the mussels. He walked into the water and began to gather them. Soon he had more than he could carry. He brought them back to the beach and fashioned a depression in the claylike soil that he could use for boiling. He built a fire, relishing in its bright glow. He gathered rocks and lay them carefully in the coals for heating. He would have his first meal at Waayaahtanonki and it would be made of mussels! A few minutes later he dropped the rocks and the mussels into the clay bowl and cooked his first meal in seven days.
The mussels were delicious, though Owl wondered how much of his enthusiasm was due to his starving. In any case, they were enough to keep him alive. His side began to throb with pain. The bruise deepened. He took the last of the birch bark. Owl desperately needed a healer.
He said goodbye for now to Pinšiwa-amootayi, the place of his vision, crawled into his canoe and paddled for home.
Soon he would see his family. He thought he would like to fish again. Of course now it would be for mussels. He chuckled at the prospect of convincing Nišihsa of that! It seemed like ages ago since he had been on the river with his uncle. Suddenly he felt the sacred bundle at his chest. It was heavier now. Its contents – a feather, a tiny smooth river stone, the crystal core of a geode, an owl-shaped walnut shell, these were light compared to his newly found totem. He wanted to get back to his days on the river. He wanted normal again, but he realized that things likely would never be the same. He had a mission now, to convince the people they could eat mussels. He knew that after recovering from his wounds and fasting, he must return here. He planned to gather a scouting party with the purpose of exploring Waayaahtanonki, to find out more about the Mihši-maalhsa. Perhaps Willow would join him. And eventually, they would make the break from Peeyankihšionki and return to the ridge above the river, and begin the resettlement of Waayaahtanonki.
He approached the bridge which led to the stone city. He eyed the rock which spanned the river. Drops fell from the stone beams above and struck the water around his canoe. They echoed against the rafters. Owl felt like he was in a cave. He held his breath as he passed quietly beneath the bridge.
A distant banging came from above. He could hear it reverberating from the stone walls of the Mihši-maalhsa town, sounding strangely melodic. It echoed among the rafters of the bridge. What was this strange sound? And who was making it? Despite his need to go home, his curiosity won out again. Perhaps he could just take one last peek, before heading home. So he paddled to the edge of the bridge. Lily pads grew in the shallows. There was no beach, only the ever prevalent stone of the Mihši-maalhsa. Waves lapped against the smooth rock, which shot down among the lily pad stems into black water. The underside of the bridge was a perfect place to conceal his boat, so he pulled it onto the stone.
Owl crept up the stone hill which led to the top of the bridge. The musical clanging sound continued.
A cluster of bushes stood along a stone walkway. Sunny ground stretched between the cover of the bridge and the bushes. He sprinted between them. Owl dove behind the brush and crouched as he walked along its length. He continued on under cover of a stretch of sumac trees.
He closed in on the clanging, which grew louder and more haunting. One of the Mihši-maalhsa buildings rose before him. The sound was just around the corner. Owl ran into the shadow of the structure and circled around the building.
He peered around to see.
Two of the Mihši-maalhsa people, a woman and a big man, were gathered around a structure across a courtyard. They were new to Owl. He had not seen them before. Three Ciipaya were bound and kneeling on the ground facing the two of them. The woman seemed to be addressing the Dark Ones. The man was striking at something propped up against the building. This is what had drawn Owl’s attention. The man struck it with a large club, seemingly for no reason at all. It reminded Owl of a drum. He would run at it, rear back and slam his club into it and then jog away and around the Ciipaya, only to walk toward his makeshift drum again. As he watched, Owl began to wonder if the big man had lost his mind. It was unnerving the Ciipaya.
Owl watched from the shadows.
The man struck his drum again, but the woman had had enough. She turned and shouted at him. Owl suspected she meant for him to stop. Then she turned back to the Ciipaya, gesturing wildly. Then Owl realized she was interrogating them.
Suddenly, as the man again arced around the Dark Ones, he raised his club high in the air and swinging it with all his might struck one of them in the back of the head. A plume of blood misted the air briefly. The force of the blow sent the Ciipaya face down. He didn’t move. The Dark One was surely dead.
Owl gasped and withdrew, pressing his palms and his back against the cold stone wall behind him.
Images passed before his mind from his vision of the end of the last age. These people had hated the earth and the Peeyankihšia in the fifth age, he remembered. Obviously, their brutality hadn’t lessened in the centuries since. He squeezed his sacred bundle and had a sinister thought. Did he have the power to destroy them now where they stood? Owl shuddered. He wished they would just go back where they belonged, back to the Dawnland.
Owl peered around the wall again. The woman was staring right at him. She shielded her eyes with a hand against the sun. Again, Owl ducked back into the shadows. Did she see him? He decided he didn’t want to find out. He scrambled to his feet and retreated to the trees. He ran along the stone walkways, heading back to the river.
A sharp and loud sound echoed among the buildings. Owl cringed and reflexively hit the ground. It sounded like thunder. He looked to the sky, but quickly realized it wasn’t from a thunderstorm. The sound came from the place where the Mihši-maalhsa had the Dark Ones. One more time, the thunderous sound came echoing off of the stone. It occurred to Owl, there were two sounds, one for each of the remaining Ciipaya. He suspected they were dead too. Fearing for his own life, he got up and raced back to the Wabash.
Reaching the bridge, he climbed down to the water.
His canoe had dislodged from the stone bridge and drifted along the shore and downstream. He felt desperate to get in the river. Owl jumped into the deep water and swam among the lily pads toward his boat.
Drifting with the current, he easily cleared the bridge. He was going to make it.
Something flashed out of the corner of his eye. He stroked the water, stopped, and then spun about, trying to see what it was. Perhaps it was a big fish. But he saw nothing.
Then something clamped down on his leg. It felt like fire touched his skin. He screamed in pain and something pulled him under. Suddenly, he realized what had his leg. Revulsion and fear welled up in him. It was Underwater Serpent. In the next instant, the snake coiled around his ankle. Owl struggled to find the river bottom with his free foot, but couldn’t. He had to get to the beach. He went down to the bottom in the shallows and dug in the sand, fighting against the snake. He pulled toward dry ground. He was moving. He pulled with all the strength he could gather. Finally, he climbed out onto the beach. But the snake was right behind him. It struck at him and missed, but landed on the beach with him. The snake was a monster. These snakes were big in any case, but Owl had never seen one so fat and long as this one. Still, it was fast in spite of its bulk. The tail, which had wrapped around his leg tightened. It continued wrapping around his leg up to his thigh. Owl knew it wanted to get to his chest.
He felt his strength leave him, as he landed on the ground. The snake took advantage of his weakness and wrapped around his torso. Owl sucked in air, but stopped. He knew what was going to happen as he drew breath. The snake would sense his breathing and would constrict, preventing him from exhaling. If he couldn’t exhale, he couldn’t inhale. Soon he would suffocate. Owl fought to sit up. He raised his head, but a moment later his cheek hit the sand.
His canoe rocked back and forth among the lily pads. It was drifting slowly away.
Owl looked out across the river, to the far bank, and beyond that to a ridge thick with forest. It was Waayaahtanonki.
He realized he might never see home again. If he couldn’t break the grip of this snake, he would die here. Either the snake would kill him or the Mihši-maalhsa would find him. Owl strained to see the ridge. Perhaps there was something he missed, some remnant of his ancestors. There was something there. Something above the spot just on the ridge, just inside the trees. It moved and he recognized what it was. A great rack of antlers poked out from the trees and reflected in the sunlight. Mishiginebig peered out at him from the ridge. Once again, Owl felt the intense hatred coming from the creature of the underworld, but now he also seemed pleased. The Great-horned Serpent sent Lenipinšia to kill him. The snake pinned him in such a way that the serpent god would be the last thing he saw.
Underwater Serpent squeezed at his chest, trying to bring his struggle to a quick end.
In one last effort, Owl shifted his position, so that he could at least die with a clear view of the river upstream, and without a view of Mishiginebig. He landed in the sand again, the fine granules pressing against his closed left eye. Owl looked toward the bridge, to the stone city.
His lungs burned for air. Instinct took hold of Owl, forcing him to suck in air. The breath was welcome relief, but Owl knew it would be his last. Sensing the air passing through him, the snake squeezed again near his lower ribs, forcing him to hold the air in his lungs. Soon it would be spent, but he would be unable to expel it.
Blackness closed in on Owl’s vision. He fought to draw in a tiny bit more air.
Then a figure emerged from the north side of the river, on the bridge. It was the Mihši-maalhsa woman. She was quite a distance away, but Owl thought he saw shock register on her face. She shouted to Owl, but he couldn’t understand her words. She left the bridge and ran toward the riverbank, but then she stopped. Owl had no idea what she was doing. Perhaps looking for the best vantage point to watch him die. Maybe she thought to tell her companion to come see the Peeyankihšia die before he had a chance to stop them. The snake had looped another coil around Owl’s chest.
What a curious thing that the sixth world was inhabited by others besides the Peeyankihšia. Owl was delirious, he realized. The lack of air was clouding his mind. The woman reached over her shoulder and pulled free a long stick. It looked to be some kind of spear. She set one end at her right shoulder and gripped it in the middle with two hands. The other tip she brought around to point directly at Owl. What was she doing now? The woman fiddled with something near her eye.
Another coil gripped him. Owl was finished struggling. He couldn’t draw any more air. The dimness returned to the corners of his vision. It was just as well, because the head of Lenipinšia came around then, most likely to look into the eyes of his prey, to gauge how much struggle was left before he could eat.
Then Owl heard a voice in his head. It was Underwater Panther.
He wasn’t sure if the words were actually spoken then or if he was just remembering them. Owl recalled the sacred bundle. It was attached to his waist. His left arm was near it. He shifted his fingers. He moved them as far as he could. One finger touched the little bag, then three and he had a grip on it. He nudged it into his palm and gripped it tightly.
What should he do now? He remembered a bit of advice that his uncle gave him once – believing in yourself is most of what makes things happen in this world. He decided to give it a try.
Lenipinšia was a denizen of the underworld, beneath Great-horned Serpent, who was beneath Underwater Panther. So if it were true that he was the eyes and ears of the Panther in this world, then it seemed reasonable that Underwater Serpent would obey him. He had only to assume the authority of the Great Cat.
Owl turned the bundle over in his palm and as he did he willed Lenipinšia to loosen his grip.
It didn’t seem to be working.
Owl tried another tactic. He got angry.
In one last effort, he used up what tiny bit of breathing room was left in his chest.
“I am the eyes and ears of Underwater Panther!” he screamed. “I command you to release me!”
Lenipinšia hissed at Owl.
He closed his eyes and dove down deep into his thoughts. I am the eyes and ears of the Underwater Panther, he said to himself. He spun the bundle around in his palm until the opening was easier to get to. Owl stuck his finger into the little bag. He touched the slimy surface of the coagulated blood. He withdrew his finger and smeared it over the snake.
The effect was immediate. Lenipinšia unwound from him.
Owl gasped and sucked in air. He continued laboriously drawing in and expelling air for several moments as the snake slid away.
This time Owl shouted the words.
“I am the eyes and ears of Mihšipinšiwa!”
The snake slithered away from Owl, but then hissed at him again. Then he remembered the Great-horned Serpent. Owl looked across the river to the ridge. Mishiginebig still sat under the tree. He glared at Owl.
Owl took up the sacred bundle, some of which was still smeared on his hand.
He ran into the river, splashing as he went, until he was knee deep in the water. He held up the sacred bundle, taunting the Great-horned Serpent.
Despite Mihšipinšiwa’s warning, he spoke the secret name of Underwater Panther.
Mishiginebig reeled. The Serpent’s great body roiled and then slid along the ridge. It’s head arched back and it faced the sky, hissing to such a degree that it sounded as if the river was boiling. Then Mishiginebig did something Owl thought he’d never see. He bowed to him, under great strain and resistance, but bowed nonetheless. A moment later, the Great-horned Serpent left his place under the tree, turned and disappeared into the forest.
He remembered the Mihši-maalhsa. He had to retrieve his boat and head south. Staggering, Owl took a couple steps, looking downstream for his boat. It was a long way away now. Luckily, it had drifted toward shore again and was now caught by some brush.
Owl left the shallows. Standing on the beach, he looked back to the bridge. The woman was gone. He needed to get out of here, now. He turned downriver.
Before he could take another step, something struck him in the back of the head. In the next instant he hit the sand. He fell unconscious before pain could reach him.
The Dark One stumbled. He was near to exhaustion, but Willow had already learned he would push himself beyond his limit.
“We’ll stop here and rest,” she said, not wanting him to pass out. “One more walk and I’ll leave you to your own.”
Willow steered wide of him, turned and leaned against the base of an oak.
The Ciipaya dosed.
Willow pulled some deer jerky from her pack and chewed quietly.
Her thoughts wandered back to the events of the night the Dark One attacked Owl. For the first time she grew curious about the few words they exchanged between blows.
“What was it that you asked Little Owl?” Willow asked.
He stirred awake, suddenly wide-eyed and looking startled. She felt an unwelcome empathy for him.
“I’m looking for a talisman from the last age,” he confessed.
“A talisman?” Willow said, suddenly curious. She was surprised to hear him give away his purpose so easily. He seemed resigned to his fate now. Perhaps he had given up on whatever scheme he had planned. Or maybe he was just trying to deceive her.
“What is this talisman?”
The Ciipaya suddenly grew fearful. “I cannot speak its name,” he whispered.
“And you supposed that Owl knew of it? What gave you that idea?”
“He is Meehšimeelwian.”
He knows of Owl’s lineage? Willow tried to stay impassive about this realization. “What power does this talisman hold?”
“It’s the only thing that will save my people,” he said.
“From whom?” Willow asked. For a moment, he stared blankly at her, so she answered her own question, “The Peeyankihšia, I assume. You seek a power to destroy us?”
The Ciipaya shook his head. “From the Mihši-maalhsa,” he said.
“The Mihši-maalhsa?” Willow said, not even attempting to hide her dismay.
“Yes,” the Ciipaya said, nodding. “The destroyers have returned.”
“You are out of your mind,” Willow said, leaning back and looking away. “They are a dreamt up people from the fifth world. They exist only in our stories.”
“Not entirely,” he said, contemptuously.
“You’re not such a good fighter, Ciipaya, but you do tell a good story,” Willow scoffed.
His eyes suddenly shown with fire. “My brother bled at their hands,” he shouted. “And many of my friends died.”
She thought of her conversation with Owl about the Ciipaya having another enemy. “You’re telling me that the Ciipaya have met Mihši-maalhsa in battle?” she asked.
The Dark One barely nodded.
“You weren’t going to kill him,” Willow said, realizing for the first time that the Ciipaya was only looking for information. “At least not at first. Why do you think Owl knows where this talisman is?”
“He is descended from Meehšimeelwia,” he said again. “This knowledge is passed down.”
“I have never heard of such a talisman,” Willow said defensively.
He laughed. “You are not of the Meehšimeelwia line.”
“Owl doesn’t know either,” Willow said, leaning in. “You wiped out his entire family at Sugar Maple Tree Creek.”
“I did this?” he said, sarcastically. “I had no idea I possessed such strength.”
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” she told him. “Owl doesn’t have the knowledge of his ancestors.”
The Dark One was silent.
“What could this talisman do against the Mihši-maalhsa?” she asked. “If they exist.”
“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. “But if they find it … they could rule the world once again.”
The door struck the wall with a crash as it shot open. Then it slammed shut again. Footsteps echoed in the cave-like room.
Owl looked around. He was back in the bowels of one of the Mihši-maalhsa buildings. Where could he go? There was no place to hide.
A man walked past the place where Owl crouched. He had a menacing look about him. It was the brute from outside. The one who clubbed the Ciipaya to death with one blow.
Owl shot up and sprinted for the door.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the man reel and heard him curse.
Owl reached the door and pulled. It wouldn’t budge.
The man moved behind him, racing to the door.
Owl pulled hard, but it would not yield.
A hand struck his shoulder, then spun him about, and pushed him back on his heels. Owl staggered away from the door.
The man stood before him. For the first time Owl faced him directly and up close. The brute sneered at Owl. He hadn’t felt such contempt since the Ciipaya attack.
Owl suddenly felt desperate to get away from him.
He spoke. Owl couldn’t understand the strange words, but it was a demand of some kind. Owl guessed it meant, who are you?
He spoke again just above a whisper. The sound of his voice was alien, but Owl suddenly knew the words.
“You understand me now?” the man demanded.
Baffled, Owl backed away. Impossibly, the man spoke Myaamiaatawenki!
It troubled Owl to hear his language spoken by this Mihši-maalhsa. The accent was odd, yet also familiar. Owl had heard it before.
The man stepped forward. “Who are you?”
In the next instant, Owl realized why the accent was familiar. The Ciipaya that attacked him spoke Myaamiaatawenki this way. Did the Ciipaya know these people?
A knife appeared. It was a weapon like no other. It gleamed in the dim light, infinitely sharper than any knife he had seen. The man waved the wicked blade eagerly. Owl looked into the brute’s eyes and saw madness.
He lunged at Owl.
Owl tried to evade, but he was too slow. A thick-knuckled fist struck his jaw. His eyes watered, blinding him. His ears rang. A kick to the knee sent Owl to the floor. Then the brute was above him with the knife. Powerful corded muscles drove the weapon closer to Owl’s chest.
The big man sneered. He was smiling, delighted by how near he was to killing him.
“No!” Owl shouted, his voice echoed through the cave.
The man put a finger to his lips and made a shush sound, as if to say, just give up and die. The knife pressed down. Owl pushed back with everything he had, but with the fasting and everything else that had sapped his energy during his long journey, what little strength he had left vanished. Veins popped out over the Mihši-maalhsa’s arms, his muscles flexed and the knife plummeted. The impossibly sharp point touched Owl’s chest and drew blood.
One last shot of adrenaline coursed through Owl’s veins. The knife lifted briefly. But his arms quaked and gave in again. The point pierced his skin.
It felt like fire. Owl screamed.
To his horror, the man shrieked in delight at the sight of it.
The blade slipped through the upper layers of his skin.
The door burst open. A woman shouted at the brute.
He withdrew the knife and moved off of Owl.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded. “I told you to take him to the lab.”
Who was this woman to command such an animal?
He cowered. “He tried to escape, so I had a go at him.”
“Had a go at him? You were about to kill him!”
Owl collapsed and gripped the place on his chest staying the flow of blood.
“Now pick him up and take him to the lab,” she said.
It was dusk. They were nearly at the border between their peoples’ land.
The Ciipaya waded into the water.
“That’s far enough,” Willow said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” the Ciipaya assured her, reaching into the water. He was fishing for something.
When he came out of the water, she was taken aback by what was in his hands. He was holding an armful of mussels. What were the odds that this Ciipaya would collect mussels, just like Little Owl?
Willow was at a loss for words, but then she asked, “Do you have a name?”
The Ciipaya turned to her, disdainfully. “Of course I have a name.”
Willow shook her head. “What are you going to do with those?” she asked.
“Make dinner,” he said.
He was going to eat them? The thought of consuming the mussels made Willow sick to her stomach.
“That’s disgusting,” she said.
“Nonetheless,” he said. “I will eat them. And I will no longer be hungry.”
“Aren’t they poisonous to you?”
“They once were,” he said. “But now they are clean.” He left the riverbank and walked into the woods.
She followed him from a safe distance.
He set the mussels down and began to gather kindling for firewood.
“I find that hard to believe,” she said.
“Try one and see,” he offered. He reached down and retrieved a fat piece of wood.
“You’d like that wouldn’t you,” she said.
“I’m not trying to poison you,” he said.
“You tried to kill me,” Willow said, trying to keep their conversation in perspective.
He reached for a vine and with a jagged stone he cut a length of it free.
As he walked back to the mussels, he brushed debris from his block of wood.
The Ciipaya sat down. He began to fashion together a fire starter, carving out a groove in the wood with his rock, and making a bow from the strand of vine.
“Laughing Crow,” he said.
Willow blinked. “What did you say?”
“You asked me if I had a name,” he said.
“Your name is Laughing Crow?” she said, smiling slyly. It was the antithesis of everything she thought about the Ciipaya. She couldn’t help but laugh.
“My name is funny to you?” he asked. Crow finished his fire starter. He set the stick against the groove in the wood and began the laborious process of heating it up with friction.
“It’s just not what I expected,” she said.
He bore down against the groove and spun it rapidly. The bow oscillated against the stick, almost sounding like a melody. Soon, he’d have smoke and then a spark enough to catch the leaves on fire.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
“Of course I have a name,” she said, echoing his admonition.
The muscles in Crow’s arms bulged as he bore down against the block of wood, betraying a latent strength she didn’t know he still possessed. The bow spun ferociously. Moments passed and the sound, which had almost become a melody, somehow turned harsh and sinister.
He glanced up at her.
“Never mind my name,” she said, with a bit more animosity than she intended.
The stick whirled violently.
“Are you going to sleep tonight?” he asked.
“That’s not your concern,” she said, anger flaring.
“It’s just that you look really tired,” he said. Obviously, he could tell she was on the verge of collapse.
Smoke issued from the groove. The tender was already beginning to ignite.
She might have dozed off. What was she thinking? Whatever ease she felt while conversing with this Ciipaya quickly evaporated. Sleep would take her though. There was no denying her exhaustion. Despite the threat of panic, Willow calmed herself. She would watch him eat these horrid mussels, wait until dark, and then disappear somewhere close by for a catnap. Perhaps she’d lie in the bough of a big tree. If Crow fled, she’d simply pick up his trail again. He was still in worse shape than her. Or at least she thought he was.
The huge man bound Owl’s arms and they took him to another place within the depths of the building. He shoved him through the threshold. Three tables stood in the room.
Another Ciipaya was stretched out on one table, Owl realized. He was strapped down. His body was bruised and bloody with strange wounds over his arms.
On each of the other two tables lay a body, but they were beyond recognition. They appeared to have died a very long time ago. They were not much more than skeletons, one wrapped in clothes, much like the Mihši-maalhsa. The other seemed to have been naked when he died. Ancient leathery skin wrapped feebly around bone. Strangely, the chest was split open. The white bone of the skull on one side of the head was exposed. It had a section that was cut away in perfect proportions.
Owl’s spine turned cold. He got the feeling that the naked body had been violated and examined after death. He wondered if they were from the fifth world.
The Ciipaya stirred. Still alive! He moaned. Owl thought of the one who attacked him, but quickly realized that this was not him. He blinked heavily, suddenly conscious of where he was. He began to thrash about violently. He struggled against the straps, but they were too strong. The Ciipaya bore his teeth and growled at the Mihši-maalhsa.
“What do you want me to do with him?” the big man asked the woman.
She glanced up. “I have his blood sample. I don’t think he’s going to tell us anything else. We don’t need him anymore,” she said directly. “He’s too dangerous to keep alive. Get rid of him.” The woman turned back to her work.
The big man pulled something from his waist, pointed it at the Ciipaya. Owl immediately realized it was a weapon of some short. He gripped the weapon sharply. Instantly, a wicked flash shot from its tip and the room erupted violently.
Bound at his wrists, Owl reflexively lifted his hands and pressed his fingertips against his ears.
Smoke filled the room.
Owl straightened and looked back at the table. Most of the Ciipaya’s head was gone. Blood and brain matter were splattered everywhere. It dripped from the table.
The woman cringed. “God damn it!” she shouted, suddenly enraged.
Owl’s head felt like he was underwater. He could barely hear her words.
“You idiot!” the woman said. “Why the hell did you do that?”
The big man sneered, pleased with his work despite her protests. He didn’t seem phased by her rage. “I was tired of seeing his face.”
He turned to Owl menacingly. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll use my knife on this one.”
“Not yet you won’t,” she said. “I need his blood. And he may yet talk. Look. I know you hate these people. But God damn it. I need you to keep it together. It’s too dangerous here for you to be firing your weapon at will.”
“Yeah I suppose so,” he said, idly scratching his temple with the tip of his weapon.
“I want to know what the hell these people are doing here,” the woman said.
“Then can I kill him?” he asked.
She held a sinister looking weapon that gleamed in the dim light. She held it up with one hand, briefly examining it. It had a long point as thin as a spider’s thread. She squeezed the weapon and a liquid spurted from its end. She eyed Little Owl.
“Lay him on the table,” she said.
The brute walked to the table with the skeleton and with one sweeping motion of his arm sent it flying to the floor. It struck the wall and broke into pieces. He moved toward Owl, eyeing him evilly.
He gripped Owl by the shoulders.
Owl resisted, but there wasn’t much he could do with his arms bound.
He was thrust onto the table. A moment later, a fist slammed into his face. His cheek numbed. Owl shook his head, struggling to maintain consciousness. Before he knew it, they had him flat on the table, straps fastened to his wrists and legs.
He felt something snag at the nap of his neck and then he heard a loud pop.
It felt like the man had ripped out his heart. Owl thought of the corpse with its chest split open. He blinked heavily, opening his watery eyes. He looked down.
His chest was intact. He looked at the Mihši-maalhsa. Owl’s sacred bundle dangled from his fist. He eyed it lewdly.
“What is this?” he asked.
Instinctively, Owl let out a scream.
“Bring that here,” the woman said, setting her fine weapon down.
“No!” Owl called out.
“He sure seems attached to it,” the man said. “He took the bundle to the woman. She snatched it from him and examined the pouch. Then she teased it open and shook the contents onto the table before her.
The copper scale nearly rolled off onto the floor. The man slammed his palm down on top of it before it left the table.
“Put it down!” the woman shouted suddenly, recognizing the value of the piece.
“Take it easy,” the man said. “I didn’t want it to get away from us.” He lifted his palm. She seized it and then gathered all of Owl’s sacred items together.
Her face screwed up. “What is this?” she said, eyeing the sacrament between Little Owl and Underwater Panther, the congealed blood of the nature god.
“It’s disgusting,” the big man said.
She opened a drawer and fumbled around, finally producing a small stick. She poked at the sacrament.
The relics in his sacred bundle should never see the light of day, he thought, let alone be poked and prodded by strange people. Owl closed his eyes and moaned.
“Jesus,” the woman said, noticing his reaction. “He is attached to this thing.”
She set the stick down and picked up the delicately-pointed weapon. She teased at the sacrament and then rammed it into the congealed blood.
Owl’s head seemed as if it would split open.
She pulled it out and squirted it into a clear vessel, and put the vessel in a case.
The big man moved back to Owl. The woman approached with the needle. She squirt the rest of the bloody liquid on the floor. Owl’s mind reeled. The blood of the Panther was splattered all over the floor, he thought in horror.
As she approached, Owl couldn’t help but watch the thing in her hand. It looked menacing, its point infinitely thin.
Owl struggled against his bonds. He cried out in anguish.
She moved closer. The weapon rose to his arm. She drew it back slightly and just as she was about to plunge it into him, Owl saw a small red dot form at its tip. It was the Panther’s blood. She slammed it into his shoulder.
He screamed in pain. It felt like fire.
“Hold still!” she shouted.
The big man held him down.
Owl looked down at his shoulder and watched in horror as the woman pulled at the weapon and extracted his blood. And that was all. She drew it out of him and then walked away.
Owl’s arm felt like he had stuck it in a beehive.
The big man eased up as well.
He backed away, an evil smirk on his face. This monster really enjoyed seeing people hurt.
The woman sat down again. She set down the thing holding his blood and made marks against the table just like the other Mihši-maalhsa. She put Owl’s blood next to the Panther’s blood. It caused Owl to think of the words of the Panther, some of the last between them. Amused at his fearing a blood oath, Mihšipinšiwa laughed at the notion and supposed it was a bad idea. Had the Mihši-maalhsa inadvertently made he and the god, blood brothers? What was going to happen to him now?
The Mihši-maalhsa were packing things away. He thought in horror, what were they going to do with his blood?
His chest heaved. He drew in air as fast as he could, but it wasn’t enough. He wondered if he were about to lose his mind. Fearful, he struggled against the things on his wrists. They weren’t budging, but he wrestled with them nonetheless. He felt dizzy. The little room was closing in on Owl. It grew dark.
Owl awoke, drearily blinking his eyes. He felt a dreadful thirst. He wondered how long it had been since he had a drink. A day? Probably two. Maybe three. He tried to sit up, but couldn’t. Then he remembered that they had him bound to the table.
“Are you done with him?” the brute asked.
“No. Back off,” she said, and then in her little chair she eased up to Owl’s face. “He may yet give us some answers that the others wouldn’t.”
“Now,” she said to Owl, smiling, and with a quickly summoned patience. “I have some questions. What was that you said back at the river? How did you stop the snake from suffocating you? And who were you talking to across the river?”
Owl wasn’t going to tell her anything. He shook his head.
In a flash, she had a blade in her hand. It was straight and reflective. Without a trace of hesitancy or skittishness, she set its tip at the back of his bound wrist and drew it up his forearm, slicing his skin and leaving a thin trail of blood in its wake.
Owl screamed in pain.
He sat under a chestnut tree and eased his back against the deeply furrowed bark at its trunk.
A longhouse stood nearby, cut from fresh timber. Newly stripped elm bark lined its length. A tendril of smoke issued from the roof. The fragrant smoke drifted among the treetops and finally reached Little Owl at his chestnut tree. The smoke smelled of roasted venison and baked cornbread. A girl emerged from the depths of the great house. She walked over the threshold, carrying a pail. She walked slowly to Owl, smiling contentedly, her hips rocking rhythmically, legs gently gliding above the earth, her approach a sweet eternity. When she reached him, she smiled, but she was silent. Owl motioned to stand, but she waved a hand at him.
“No. I must not disturb your place. Please sit,” she said, as she set the pail down next to him, and from beneath her arm she pulled a clay cup. She handed this to Owl.
“Thank you,” Owl said and he took the cup.
“Drink,” the woman said abruptly and then she got up, turned, and walked back to the house without a word. Suddenly, Owl realized it was their house. They had recently build it. The woman was Willow and she was now his wife and clan mother.
Owl looked into the pail. Tiny ripples jostled above the dark water. The pool within had a deep reddish color, the color of blood. He dipped the clay cup under the water. It was cool and soft against his skin. He drew it out. The water in the cup was clear and clean. He was very thirsty, so he put the cup to his lips and drank deeply.
Owl felt a physical blow to his body that was without pain. He laughed out loud. His body lurched out at the furrowed bark against his back. He reached farther into the soil under the tree and felt its roots as they slid deep into the earth. His body suddenly exploded into the elements. His sense of self leapt from his palms and from his fingertips and from the soles of his feet and out of the crown of his head. It expanded, settling in the scene before him, permeating the trickling water, into the pungent soil, and over the undulation of the fields. He felt his world shift, and at the same time knew it had been this way all along. He just couldn’t see it. His world was really within him or rather he was the earth without. He realized that he had felt this before, on a somewhat different level, but with the same expansion, and loss of that sense of a personal barrier. He had felt this same sensation in the river, underwater.
His mind reached into the soil and then he pushed farther and his mind went on into the layers of bedrock below the surface. He moved down until he came to where the water lay. With his mind, he reached out and touched its glistening surface. It was the river, he realized, only away from its banks and now beneath him. The water embraced his presence. Owl sensed its longing to come up through the layers of rock, to move up into the soil to the roots of the plants and into the air again, to even rise into the sky and soar above the earth as clouds. In the next instant, he knew his power. He knew that he could lift the water if he so chose. He reached out with his arms and his mind and pulled the water up.
“Now are you done?” the brute asked.
She nodded, seemingly distracted. He turned to Owl and laughed. “I think I’ll kill him with my bare hands,” he said.
The woman gathered her things, including Owl’s blood and the Panther’s. She got up and left the room.
The Mihši-maalhsa man grinned eagerly. Roughly, he reached for the bonds at his wrists and released him. Owl sat up and fell to the floor. He saw blood dripping from his forearm and traced it to its source, a series of gashes, partially covered over with scabs. How long have I been here?
“You’re a fast healer,” the man said. “But that won’t matter when I bash your skull.”
Owl closed his eyes and searched inside for any last remnants of strength. He found Willow and their time together on the river. He had to get back to the river, to home, to her.
The brute lunged at Owl. Owl didn’t have the strength to fight. He leapt backward and fell, catching himself with his palms. They hit the floor behind him, unexpectedly splashed into water. The man laughed at his awkwardness.
He closed in on Owl, this time slowly. But then he saw the water around Owl’s wrists. He stopped, puzzling over its sudden appearance.
A deep rumble shook through the big structure. Owl felt the ground shudder under his palms and feet.
“What the hell?” the man blurted. A stronger quake followed. His arms shot out and his stance widened to keep from falling.
A moment later, the woman popped her head back in the room. She looked panicked.
He pointed behind Owl. “There’s water,” he said.
“I know,” she said, fearfully. “There’s more out here. We gotta go. I don’t think this building is stable anymore.”
A cracking sound filled the room. A hairline fissure appeared in the floor. More water issued from below.
The brute looked at Owl, earnestly, fearing his chance to kill him was evaporating.
She looked from him to Owl and back again. “Leave him, you idiot,” she said, fiddling with a torch in her hand, and then she was gone.
The brute sighed and took off.
Owl scrambled to this feet. The light from the woman’s torch was fading fast. The building shook again and dust wafted up and swept through the hall. Owl chased after the dim light, stumbling and fighting against the pain which wracked his body and throbbed at his head. Water filled the way. It was now up to his ankles and still rising.
Finally, he emerged from the structure.
The three Ciipaya lay on the ground, unmoved from the spot where they were executed. Something had visited their bodies in the night.
Owl ran past them and away from the building. Water was spilling out over the stone. The Mihši-maalhsa were running ahead. A terrible crash erupted behind Owl. Owl glanced back at the building. It’s base was enveloped in water. The great house was falling. Ignoring the pain, fighting for survival, Owl ran. He ducked behind a stone wall and collapsed. A deafening crash consumed everything. A huge cloud of dust swept through the streets, blocking out all sight.
It grew quiet. Owl fell unconscious.
He must have passed out, but he couldn’t have been out long. The dust still clouded the air and he could hear the building settling from its collapse. The Mihši-maalhsa woman appeared out of the haze. She was holding her forearm, grimacing. It had a gash along its length. The brute followed her. He was bleeding too, but he ignored his wound. Blood flowed from his hairline. His wound was somewhere on his head. Sweet justice, Owl thought. When the man caught sight of Owl, he lumbered around the woman and came directly at him.
Desperately, Owl fumbled to his feet.
The brute was in a rage. “Did you do that?” he demanded.
The woman called from behind him. “What are you talking about?” she said, shaking her head. “How could he do that?”
The Mihši-maalhsa man spun him about and wrapped his arm around Owl’s neck. His muscles flexed and he squeezed.
Covered in dust, the woman shook her head. “Just shoot him,” she said. “Get it over with.”
“No,” he said, with the agitation of a child denied a toy. “I want the satisfaction of killing him with my bare hands.”
Owl began to choke. He struggled against the brute’s grip, but it was no use. Owl just wasn’t a match for his strength.
The brute lifted Owl clear of the ground and began walking him toward the base of the stone wall.
“I’m going to smash your head,” he told Owl. They were careening toward the stone now.
At the last moment, Owl lifted his legs and pressed against the wall, stopping the brute’s charge. The strength in his legs surprised Owl. All the years of his life he had spent under the river had paid off. They were dense with layers of muscle forged from the resistance of all that water. Perhaps he was a match for the Mihši-maalhsa after all. The brute was foolish to attempt to smash his head against this wall. It gave Owl the leverage he needed.
The man still held him fast, still hoping to choke the resistance out of him. Owl realized he had one chance, so in one swift motion, he leaned back, lifted his legs and pressed the soles of his feet against the stone. He pushed against the wall with all his might, propelling both of them backwards, preempting any chance the man had of maintaining balance. The weight of Owl’s body added to the momentum. Owl wrapped his arms around the man’s arms at his neck, squeezing them to his chest, disallowing him anything to brace his fall. The back of the brute’s head struck the ground. It made a loud pop against the smooth stone.
For a moment, Owl lay on his back over him. The brute’s arm’s went limp.
The Mihši-maalhsa wasn’t moving. Owl tumbled off of him and spun about, looking at him. He was unconscious.
Owl’s first thought was to just flee. He instinctively reached for his totem, but found nothing around his neck. The woman still had it, of course.
She stood nearby, shocked by what he had done to the brute.
Owl thought of the man’s weapon, the one he used to execute the Ciipaya on the table. He knelt and quickly searched him. He found the strange weapon at his side, freed it from his belt, and eyed it carefully. Owl held it like the brute had done. And then leveled it at the woman.
“Where’s my totem?” Owl demanded. “My sacred bundle?” Just to make sure she understood, he tapped the place at his neck where it would normally hang.
She knew what he wanted, but she eyed the weapon in his hand.
“Do you even know how to use that?” she asked.
Owl toyed with the trigger while it was aimed at her.
She was suddenly panicked. “Okay,” she said, holding up her hands. “Okay.”
“Here,” she said, removing the pack from her shoulder. “I have it right here.”
She pulled out Owl’s sacred bundle and set it on the ground. She motioned for him to take it.
He decided he should stay where he was. Instead, he motioned for her to throw it to him.
She picked it up and tossed it his way, but it landed at his feet.
Owl bent to scoop it up.
Suddenly, she rushed at him.
Owl squeezed the trigger and the weapon erupted violently.
It hit the woman in the shoulder and she fell back. She screamed in pain, gripping her shoulder. She fell to the ground.
Holding his sacred bundle, Owl considered her for a moment. Then he turned and ran, leaving her in the cloud of dust.
Was the river this way? He felt like it was. Owl lumbered down the road, until he was running. Was he really going the right way? Or was he putting even more of this alien town between him and the river? Would his boat still be tucked amongst the brush? Hidden from sight. He prayed to the manitou that it would be so.
Owl began to see the telltale signs that the river was close. Sycamores towered above and giant round stones emerged from the earth.
Suddenly, he burst from the trees and found the Wabash.
And there was his boat.
Owl walked back to his canoe, pushed it away from the brambles, and crawled in. The river swept him downstream and away from the bridge. A few moments later he lifted his head above the edge of his canoe and peered upstream toward the bridge. His canoe floated steadily toward the next turn of the Wabash. Owl watched as the great stone houses of the Mihši-maalhsa disappeared behind him.
Owl collapsed into the bottom of his canoe and closed his eyes.
The swift current carried him south. And home.
Despite the steady progress drifting south, Owl began to feel worse. His side ached. It hurt to move at all. The snake bite on his leg turned an angry red and burned. His forearm felt like fire. He lay in his canoe most of the time, barely conscious of his surroundings. Throughout the day his canoe would hit a snag or simply drift from shore to shore. He wasn’t really aware each time it snagged. He could have been stuck for hours, but when he finally realized it, he crawled out of his boat, landing in the water or the sand or in the brush. He pushed with all his strength to free his boat, his only hope of getting home, then hauled himself over the side to collapse again.
In his delirium, among many things, he thought of his last encounter with Mishiginebig and how he had invoked the covenant with his sacred bundle. One thing stood out in his mind. It nagged at him. It felt like he was taken over, or else he took over something, something which had up until now been completely outside his consciousness. It was like he had felt when he entered the sweat lodge for the first time, like he had entered an adjacent realm. But above all that, as soon as he smeared the coagulated blood over his fingers, he felt the presence of Underwater Panther. There was an exchange between them, below thought, and Mihšipinšiwa had asked Owl something. He had asked for permission. Owl accepted, then felt the Great Cat enter his perception in a way like nothing else had. It was at once an exhilarating sensation and a disturbing one. Owl became the Underwater Panther. He acted on the deity’s behalf. True, Little Owl had been in trouble. Lenipinšia was killing him. Owl, as Mihšipinšiwa, commanded Lenipinšia to back down. He suddenly had power over Underwater Serpent. He became aware that the serpent would have done anything that he asked. He remembered the instant he realized this. Owl held the snake under his command for a moment, but then out of exhaustion, released him.
He also thought of his run-in with the Mihši-maalhsa, but it was already getting fuzzy. With each passing moment, his mind seemed to be wrapping each horrible impression in a cloud, so that the more he thought of it, the hazier it grew.
The next morning just before first light, Willow climbed down from the tree and crept back to Crow’s camp. He was gone. She found his trail immediately. He was headed south. She followed the trail to Sugar Maple Tree Creek. He had crossed the waterway without hesitation and drove farther south. She followed him beyond their border. Finally, at the edge of a deep ravine, she stopped. There were signs of his scrambling down the steep slope. A cool breeze wafted up from the dim bottomland. She decided she couldn’t do much more. It appeared that Laughing Crow was headed back, disappearing deep into the territory of his people, the Dark Ones.
“And he didn’t even say goodbye,” she said to herself. She turned and without a sound made her way back across the border. Within a day or two she would be home again. Perhaps Little Owl would be there too.
Every day since Owl left, Nišihsa fished upstream, always with an eye upriver for his nephew. His nets continued to come back empty, though occasionally a mussel or two would find their way into his boat. They reminded him of Little Owl of course. He couldn’t bring himself to cast them away and so he grew a modest collection of the mussels in the bottom of his boat.
A day ago, Willow appeared. He was surprised to see her, but also very pleased. He remembered Owl saying they had drifted apart and were no longer friends. Willow told Nišihsa about her time with Owl. It seemed that their friendship had rekindled. And now here she was keeping vigil with him for Owl. She was charming, full of life, and stunningly beautiful. He was very pleased for his nephew.
They sat together resting among the cattails along the riverbank. They talked of Little Owl. With her keen eyes, Willow spotted it first.
“That’s it,” she said. “That’s Owl’s canoe.”
Somehow he knew the day would come when he would see the boat, but not his nephew. Perhaps it was a dream he had. That day finally came.
Still upstream, it was on the other side of the river. They scrambled to Nišihsa’s boat, climbed inside and made their way across the river.
Owl was nowhere to be seen. It was only his boat. Nišihsa feared the worst and briefly wondered if Willow should have stayed on the riverbank. His heart ached, not knowing if the boy was alive. Why had he encouraged him to take on such a perilous quest? All he could think of was his innocent nephew, his little fishing buddy, turned out alone to face the wilds of the sixth age.
It was racing now, caught by a swift current near some shallows. Briars and the tips of branches from fallen trees reached out and scratched at the side of the canoe as it passed. Nišihsa paddled fiercely to catch it. Willow was at the tip of the boat, ready to snag it at the first opportunity. The canoe seemed determined to pass them. He dug in and matched its speed. They grew near. Where was his nephew? Would there be some clue in the boat? Perhaps something they didn’t want to see. The shell of the old canoe loomed. Nišihsa drew a deep breath and braced himself.
Willow reached for the lip of Owl’s boat and drew it to theirs. She held it fast.
“He’s here!” she shouted, turning to Nišihsa and smiling. It was a feeble smile though, tipping him off that something was terribly wrong.
Owl lay in the bottom of the boat, but his nephew was in dreadful shape. He was nearly naked, stripped down to his lion cloth. Bruises of various severity, ages, and sizes littered his body. One on his left side was nearly black. His leg was swollen at the ankle. It was an animal bite, Nišihsa realized. Little Owl lay on his side, twisted so that he faced the sky. Something had pierced his chest. It was a deep and wicked wound. On his forearm were several long thin wounds that had turned an angry red.
“He’s been tortured,” Nišihsa said, nearly choking on the words. “My boy,” he said, shaking his head. “What have I done?”
For a moment, with a brewing rage Willow could only think of the Ciipaya, but she quickly realized they weren’t likely responsible. The Dark Ones were not known to torture people. Instead, they offered a swift death. Then she thought of something else, another people that Crow had warned her about. They were back, he had said. Had Little Owl run into the Mihši-maalhsa?
“I should never have left him,” she said.
Willow turned to Nišihsa, fearful and unsure what to do next. Then she turned back to Little Owl and jumped into his canoe.
Nišihsa grabbed the boat to keep them together. Tears flowed down his cheeks. He didn’t bother to wipe them away, but reached for his nephew. Nišihsa put a hand at his neck. The boy was chilled, but he could feel his heart beating.
“He’s alive,” he told her. The words buoyed them both with newfound hope.
Willow reached for her old friend and lifted him to her. She held him close, rocking back and forth. She was crying too, tears flowing freely over her cheeks, and leaning in whispering to her friend that everything was going to be okay.
Nišihsa jumped into Owl’s canoe, abandoning his own. He sat down, took up the paddle, dug in and headed for home. He jabbed at the water with his paddle and the river seemed to respond. The current grew stronger and sped them back to Peeyankihšionki.
Later that day, Nišihsa took Owl up into his arms. Lifting him out of the beached canoe, he carried him up the muddy riverbank. Willow led the way. They took him directly to a healer.
They brought Little Owl to a healer, one whom Nišihsa trusted. They took him into the lodge and lay him in bed. The healer immediately lit sage bundles and set them all around Owl. Then he walked around the bed, chanting and talking to the spirits, summoning the help of his own unseen allies. The healer assessed Owl’s condition, his expression grave, but determined.
“At least no bones are broken,” he said, touching the place at his side. “His ribs have seen better days, but they remain intact.”
He pointed to Owl’s leg. “That is a snake bite,” he said, eyeing it more closely. “And by the size of it, I’d say it was Lenipinšia.”
Willow thought of the snake that she and Owl encountered, roiling among the water lilies. She moaned, involuntarily, imagining the horror of being attacked by that creature.
“How he got away from a snake that big is a mystery to me,” he said. “I’ll be anxious to hear of it when he wakes up.”
The healer gently touched the wound at Owl’s chest. He cringed. “It’s deep,” he said. “To the bone. A very clean cut.”
He stepped around Owl and leaned in, puzzling over the marks on his forearm. “These wounds are strange to me,” the healer said, speaking from a lifetime’s experience in treating battle wounds. “The weapon which cut him here—”, he said, looking at Nišihsa and then Willow. Waving a hand, he said, “Pray you never encounter it.”
“Will he be okay?” Willow asked, fearing what answer she might hear.
“He will live,” the healer declared. “But I have much to do.”
The healer immediately set to work. “Now where is my cattail root?” he said, looking about. “Ah. There it is.” Smiling, he reached and grabbed a clay pot and then leaned over Little Owl again.
Curious as to what he was doing, Willow peered around to watch.
He began cleaning the wounds, cleansing them first with water and then dabbing a mixture into them. The mixture was gelatinous. He carefully spread each wound open and packed the gel inside.
He caught Willow looking. “Nothing like it,” he said. “To ease the pain and stave off the bad spirits.”
“We’ll go now,” Nišihsa said, bowing. “Thank you for tending to Little Owl.”
The healer nodded. “It is my honor,” he said.
Nišihsa motioned to Willow. They left the healer’s house, leaving him to do his work.
The priest came to see Owl, the same one who had visited them at the sweat lodge ceremony. As before, Nišihsa greeted the priest. He was cordial and did not object to his checking on the health of his nephew, but he grew ever more suspicious when the priest didn’t emerge right away. In fact, he had been in there way too long.
“What’s going on?” Owl’s mother asked.
Nišihsa shook his head. “Owl’s journey has brought the attention of several of those in power. Now we see to what extent. Keep a close eye,” he told her.
When the priest finally emerged, Nišihsa immediately smelled sabotage. Something had happened.
He and Owl’s mother confronted the priest.
“What did you do?” Nišihsa asked boldly.
“Consulted with the boy,” the priest said, shaking his head. “I have relieved the boy of a great burden.”
Uncle stepped forward.
The warrior who accompanied the priest moved to block him.
“Stand aside fisherman,” the priest said.
Nišihsa didn’t move.
“Return the sacred bundle to Owl,” Uncle said.
In one swift motion the warrior pulled a club that had been hidden in his shirt sleeve and swung it toward Nišihsa’s head. Nišihsa dove out of the way, tumbled to the ground, tucked at the last moment and using his momentum struck the warrior on the leg. The impact brought him to the ground. Like lightening, Uncle’s fist slammed into the warrior’s face. With his other he easily disarmed the man. Bouncing back up, he stood before the priest.
“Now,” he said. “Return to Owl what is rightfully his.”
Wide-eyed, the priest held up his hands. “Please,” he said. “We have no intention of stealing. The boy gave it to me freely, you see. I only wanted to relieve him of this burden.”
Uncle raised the club.
The priest looked to his guard, but the warrior was out cold.
Defeated, he reached into his robe and carefully withdrew the pouch. He tossed it to Nišihsa, scowling.
“I warn you,” the priest said as he walked away. “This is a matter for Meteor Man-being society.”
Nišihsa tucked the sacred bundle into his shirt. “Always remember,” he told the priest. “The manitou bypassed you and your society. He chose Owl. Never forget that.”
The priest turned and walked down the hill.
Nišihsa and Owl’s mother ducked into Owl’s healing lodge.
“Are you okay?” Nišihsa asked.
Owl looked up sleepily. “What happened?”
“The priest took your sacred bundle,” Uncle said.
Owl gasped. He raised himself in his bed. “I didn’t even know. They were here, talking with me. I must have dozed off. Did you get it back?”
Uncle pulled the bundle from his shirt and gently lay it in Owl’s hand.
“Your vision has gained the attention of powerful people,” his uncle said. “We’ll have to be careful from now on.”
“I have something I need to tell you,” Owl said.
“What is it?” Uncle asked, sitting down next to Owl.
“I went to Waayaahtanonki,” Owl confessed.
Uncle nodded. “I suspected as much,” he said. “In the days following your departure, my mind raced. What with the questions you had just before you left, I should have seen it.”
“I’m sorry,” Owl said, now as much to his mother as his uncle. “I should have told you.”
“And we likely would have tried convincing you not to go,” he said. “Perhaps that would not have been best.”
“No need to be sorry,” his mother said. “You have followed your heart. That’s all we ever wanted you to do.”
Owl stared up at the elm bark ceiling of his home. It was midmorning, but he was still in bed. He desperately wanted to get outside, but his mother and uncle insisted that he rest one more day. Owl was bored out of his mind.
He heard some commotion toward the entrance to the longhouse. His mother was speaking with someone. They were silhouetted against the bright opening and he couldn’t quite see who it was. It grew quiet and then someone was walking toward him. It was a girl, he realized.
Willow came into view. When she caught sight of Owl staring at her, she smiled.
“Hi,” she said gingerly.
“Come over,” Owl said, sitting up and motioning her closer.
“How are you doing?” she asked. There was a great amount of hesitancy in her voice.
“Bored beyond all hope,” he said. “Until now.”
This made Willow laugh and her mood briefly lit up. “You look so much better,” she said. “Soon you’ll be back on the river.”
Owl nodded. He imagined spending the whole day on the water, fishing again. This time with Willow. That did sound pretty good, but he wasn’t sure how she would feel about it.
“Hey I’ve been wanting to talk with you about something,” Owl said.
“Just don’t mention it to anyone yet,” Owl said.
“Alright,” she said. “But what is it?”
“I want to go back to Waayaahtanonki.”
“You want to go back?” she asked. “Already?”
“I have to return,” he said. “There really is no choice.”
“Given what you found there, we might be better off taking on the Ciipaya.”
“I disagree,” he said. “Our destiny lies north. But what I wanted to ask you was, will you come with me?”
Willow stood before him, thinking.
Owl feared she would say no. He expected she was about to tell him that she would be joining her father in reigniting the war with the Ciipaya.
“Yes,” she said finally. “Yes I’ll go with you.”
Owl was surprised and then he was relieved.
“I can’t imagine going back there without you,” Owl said. “But honestly I thought you’d say no.”
“I’m glad you asked,” Willow said. “I’m anxious to see the old town. And to see for myself, just to make sure it wasn’t the lack of food that skewed your brain into seeing all those things.”
Owl laughed, but then he quickly grew reflective. “Some of the details are fading. Sometimes I wonder if it was all real.”
They grew quiet. She seemed to grow restless. Something was bothering her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Tell me,” he insisted.
“I shouldn’t have left you alone.”
She knelt next to his bed and reached for his hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said with a pained look on her face. Owl suddenly realized that she was blaming herself for everything that happened since the attack, for the torture he endured.
“Look here, my friend,” Owl said, taking on an authoritative tone. “None of what I went through was your fault. There is no need for you to be sorry. I had to go through all that,” he said. “Uncle was right. The Rite’s choice of totem was all wrong for me. You were right. Remember? You were sure that Beaver was an elusion.”
She nodded. Brushing away an unbidden tear, she smiled.
He laughed, thinking of the moments before the attack. “You knew I lost my mind, after I saw Great-horned Serpent. It was my fault for compelling you to leave,” he said. “You were right. Beaver was obviously not right for me.”
“You really saw him?”
“Who?” he asked.
“Mishiginebig,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he said. “Of that I am sure.”
“You had quite the vision quest,” Willow said, her mood enlivened again. She reflected. “But I didn’t leave because you wanted to take Beaver as totem and go home.”
“Why then?” Owl asked.
“I had to escort Laughing Crow south,” she said.
“Who is Laughing Crow?” he asked, puzzled.
“The Ciipaya,” she said.
Owl was shocked. “He’s still alive?”
“And you escorted him south?”
“I did,” she said.
“Without killing him?”
“Believe me. I wanted to,” she said. “But I honored your wishes.”
“You were protecting me,” he said. “At the same time, leaving me be. So that I could get on with the vision seeking. What was it like, being with Ciipaya?”
“Painful,” she said.
“Willow,” Owl said. “They are no longer our enemy.”
Her brow furrowed. She shook her head, not wanting to hear it. The seeds of this conversation were sown just after the Ciipaya had attacked Owl. “What does that mean?” she asked.
His thoughts turned toward the trauma he suffered and immediately he felt sick to his stomach.
“You were right, Willow,” he said. “We are not alone in the sixth world. There are others, besides the Ciipaya. And the Dark Ones do have a new enemy, as you suspected. So do we.”
“The Mihši-maalhsa,” Willow said, reluctantly.
Owl’s eyes went wide. “How do you know?” he asked and then thought of the council and the Meteor Man-being Society. “Does your father know?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “I don’t think anyone among the Peeyankihšia know. Crow told me. But I didn’t really believe him at the time. Until now.”
“The Mihši-maalhsa are already powerful. We can’t afford to fight the Ciipaya anymore. Even if we can’t make peace with them. We won’t have the resources to fight two wars.”
“Are you sure there will be a war with the Mihši-maalhsa?”
Owl was sure. “Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind. They are a vicious people. They hold no quarter. It’s like Mihšipinšiwa said. They are at war with the earth. How can we avoid standing up to a people like that?”
“Did you see them?” she asked.
Owl nodded. He touched his chest, just above the wound given to him by the Mihši-maalhsa brute. He thought of the woman and her drawing blood out of him. About her disrespect for his sacred bundle.
“They are a brutal and wicked people,” he said.
Willow was silent for a while.
Owl realized he had grown tense. He leaned back and took a deep breath.
“I did learn something from him,” she said. It took a moment for Owl to realize she was talking about the Ciipaya.
“Well, you do know his name, so that says a lot,” Owl said, jokingly. “What else did you learn?”
“Apparently, Ciipaya actually eat those mussels that you’ve been collecting all these years.”
Owl thought of what the Panther said. “So it’s true,” he said. “The Ciipaya have known for a long time.”
“What?” Willow asked.
“They’re no longer poisonous,” Owl told her.
“That’s exactly what he said. I didn’t really believe him. I thought he might be delirious, and expected him to be holding his belly in pain, or dead, the next day. When he didn’t, I attributed it to how different they are from us. What makes you so sure they’re not poisonous for us?”
“Mihšipinšiwa told me,” Owl said. “And I ate them too.”
Willow made a face. They really disgusted her.
“I had to. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it back. They are the answer to our shortages.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying we have to start eating them instead of fish,” he said. “All of us.”
Willow made a face. “No way could I eat those,” she said. “How do you expect to convince anyone to eat them?”
Owl didn’t know the answer. “I don’t know,” he said, honestly.
Suddenly, Willow remembered one thing more that she had learned from the Ciipaya. The most intriguing thing really. “Do you know anything about a talisman?” she asked.
“A talisman?” he said. “What talisman?”
Willow leaned in. “Did your father or grandfather ever speak of a talisman?”
“No, Willow.” He told her, unwanted anger surfacing. Owl had always been sensitive to the subject of what they may have imparted to him and hearing Willow ask of it bothered him. He was surprise at her and himself. She had never asked about them. And so he was never bothered before.
“Your uncle?” she pressed.
Owl shook his head and looked away. But then suddenly, he remembered the Panther speaking of a talisman. Funny, he had almost forgotten about it. Mihšipinšiwa wanted him to find it. It was in a ruined city to the east.
“Wait! Yes,” he said, blinking away his surprise. “I’m sorry, Willow. I had forgotten about it, but yes, Underwater Panther spoke of a talisman from the fifth age. What do you know about it?”
“Not much,” she said. “Crow was looking for it. It’s the reason he attacked us, I think. He thought you would know of it, because you are Meehšimeelwian.”
Little Owl was shocked. “How could he possibly know I’m Meehšimeelwian?”
Willow shook her head.
Little Owl had a sudden and very uncomfortable realization that Crow must have been the one eavesdropping on he and Hare in the woods.
Willow stared down at the floor, seemingly uncomfortable with his sudden excitement. “I’m sorry, Owl,” she said. “I didn’t get enough information out of him. This is all … it’s just too much … too much to think about.”
“It’s okay,” he said, putting a hand over hers. “You’re right. It is too much to think about.”
They grew quiet again.
Owl imagined falling into her. He desperately wanted to kiss her again.
“I enjoyed our time together,” Owl said, breaking the silence. “And the fighting lessons.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, with eyes wide and forcing down a smile. As soon as she met his eyes, it was obvious she knew what he meant, but then she withdrew just a little. She pulled her hand out from under his. “I should leave you be,” she said. “You need to rest.”
“No,” he said. “I’m fine, really.” Now he worried about how she saw their last couple of days alone. Perhaps she felt differently about it. Was she not as drawn to him as he was to her?
She glanced at the entrance. “I should go,” she said.
Oh no. She did feel differently. Owl suddenly thought of Sharp Knife. He imagined, painfully, that they had a reconciliation after he and Willow parted ways.
Willow stood. “I’m glad you’re better,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, doing his best to hide the fact that she was breaking his heart. She turned and waved meekly as she neared the entrance, the sun accenting her silhouette once again.
“Bye, Willow,” he said, thinking that perhaps things were about to return to the way they were before she found him on the river. “Thanks for saving my life.”
She turned and smiled. But then her smile faded as quickly as it had come. Her brow furrowed.
“What’s wrong?” Owl asked, but then he realized that she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking above his bed, at the wall, to the place where he had mounted the red willow arrow.
Willow swept across the room. She moved with ease and grace, like a hunter pursuing game through the forest. She leapt onto Owl’s bed. He fell back. Willow hovered over him. Her eyes had the look of a cat who had just cornered her prey.
“Willow?” he said, wondering what this was all about.
“I see you found my arrow,” she said.
“Yours?” he said, laughing nervously. “I assumed it was a gift.”
“It is mine,” she said defiantly. Owl took in her scent, which filled him with an insistent yearning. Willow’s body pressed against his, reminding him of the first time he felt her skin, all wet and warm, as they lay together in his boat with the undulating river at their backs. Gently, she eased onto him, being careful of all his wounds. Her eyes danced over his features. She leaned even closer, the tips of her hair curling over his chest as she kissed him.
After three days of medicine, Owl was mending.
As soon as he was able, he entered the sweat lodge again with his uncle, Spinning Stick, and the others. They all came, as they were all present for the cleansing that sent Owl off on his vision seeking.
This time, it was less formal. They were among friends and so sat, reflecting, meditating, praying, and finally merely speaking their minds, and simply enjoyed the company.
Owl related how Mishiginebig visited him. He told of how Deer, Beaver, and Lenipinšia appeared exhibiting strange behavior. He described Waayaahtanonki and the strange figures in the forest. How the manitou asked him to take them away, and how he tried digging one out, but could not move it. He described the alien structures he found there, the giant buildings which reached into the sky, of how he went inside one and it was all black and full of strange things. He told of his vision of Underwater Panther and the deity’s asking him to spy on the strange man, who was part of a people called the Mihši-maalhsa, about how they had lived in the fifth world and somehow survived into the sixth. He told them about the strange markings he memorized and how he escaped and returned to Wildcat Cove to impart to Underwater Panther what he had observed the Mihši-maalhsa doing. Then he described the vision of the fifth world. He told of just about everything, except the particulars of the covenant, as the Panther told him not to speak of it. Owl explained what happened just after leaving the cove, of how Great-horned Serpent made one last effort to stop him by sending Underwater Serpent to kill him. The denizen of the underworld had nearly succeeded, but he managed to get away. He told them about his capture and the torture he endured.
“That is terrible,” Spinning Stick. “These people are truly evil.”
Everyone nodded agreement. Heads were bowed out of respect and empathy for Little Owl’s trials.
Suddenly, Cattail asked, “Who is your totem?”
They all turned to Cattail.
He cleared his throat. “What you have described is an extraordinary journey,” he explained. “The things you saw, they are beyond my abilities to comprehend. However, out of all of that, you didn’t tell of your totem.”
Owl decided he would just say the simple truth.
“I did receive it in a vision. I did decide on my totem. But the manitou told me not to speak of it. I would like to tell you, but I must follow the advice of the spirit for now.”
They all nodded their understanding. “Your totem spirit is your personal guide,” Nišihsa said. “If you know in your heart that this is true, and this is what the manitou has said, then you are right to follow the advice of your spirit. I will ask of it no more. When you are ready, my heart and door are open to you and your questions.”
Little Owl bowed and thanked his uncle.
Wiihkoowia Kiilhswa (Whippoorwill Moon, June)
The people eagerly left their longhouses and stretched out onto the land. Together in the warm light, they weaved quillwork and sculpted their earthenware. They fished and hunted, gathered roots and berries, kneaded the soil, and tended their fields of squash, beans, and maize. When the moon was wiihkoowia kiilhswa, the sun lay gently over the land, coaxing the spirits free from the earth. By days end they were exhausted, but thankful. The forest grew dim in the failing light and with an eye on the darkening woods, they finished their chores quickly.
Despite the welcoming earth and lengthening days, Waking Turtle was troubled. The meager harvests of the past few seasons, the empty hands of returning gatherers, fishermen, and hunters, and their dwindling storehouses, weighed heavily on his mind. But beyond all this a threat loomed in the forests surrounding their town. Vague and ill-formed, it had yet to come fully into view, but for Waking Turtle, there were hints enough to know what it was about. He didn’t like worrying. He thought it useless, but he supposed there was a time and place for everything.
Most evenings during Whippoorwill Moon, the people retired to their own longhouses, to rest as they could, but tonight they hurried to the council house near town center. They scurried about with polite urgency, jostling for the best places to hear and to see Waking Turtle tell his tale. They considered him the best storyteller in town. He wasn’t exactly sure why. He supposed they liked his stories because he did his best to make them come alive; he had a way of becoming the people, animals, and spirits in his tales. It was as if the subjects of his telling walked directly into the house and spoke for themselves, so the people said. He had never been chief, and now he was an old warrior, who spent most days close by his house on the hill. He liked being apart from the buzz of the village.
Stories were uncommon in the summer months. Normally they were saved for the grey silence of winter, but change was sweeping through Myaamionki. Almost every day, one person or another returned home distraught after witnessing some strange happening. Fish were scarce and fishermen nearly always came home empty-handed. Whitetail deer ran hill-to-hill and back again from hunters who never appeared. The trees tossed about ominously and river pools bubbled where they should only mirror the moon’s perfection.
Waking Turtle listened as the people passed below his house. He sensed fear in their whispering. Indeed, there was consensus – no one had known the world to be so queer. It was to the elders and their stories that the people looked for guidance, especially during troubling times. Waking Turtle gathered his things, came down from his hill, and walked toward the center of Peeyankihšionki with intent to tell a story that the people had never known. It lay secret for many generations, within the teachings of Meteor Man-being society, spoken in whispers only on occasion among the inner circle, just to keep it alive in the warriors’ minds. It had always been their burden to bear, theirs alone, but Waking Turtle now felt the time had come for the people to know the old story, for the waters tossed and turned again under the influence of an old spirit who slept no more, a spirit who had once delivered the people. Now thanks must be given and respects paid. Once the spirit was appeased, Waking Turtle hoped the people could go on about their lives, but he struggled against a worry which threatened to grow into dread. He feared that these signs meant that terrible change was upon them.
Now as if things couldn’t get worse, there was talk of this boy’s extraordinary vision. Waking Turtle knew the boy’s grandfather and uncle since they were children, and felt for him when most of his family died in battle with Ciipaya so many summers ago. He thought of the impact on the boy. To lose one’s father as well… Waking Turtle shook his head. Many years ago, soon after he entered Meteor Man-being society and learned of certain genealogical secrets, Waking Turtle had kept a close eye on their family. But in recent decades, he let his inclinations toward solitude take over. This was something he should never have let happened, he now realized.
Waking Turtle heard bits from the shaman about the boy’s vision quest. Rumor was he had gone all the way to Pinsiwa Amootayi! If that were indeed true, then it was a sign that Miintikwa’s lineage was more than mere legend.
Today he learned that since the boy’s recovery, he walked about town telling everyone about how mussels were the answer to their food shortage. Mussels! To Waking Turtle and members of Meteor Man-being society who were privy to ancient secrets this was not complete insanity, but he knew the people in general would never accept such a notion. What they didn’t know was that their ancestors had eaten them early in the fifth world. Perhaps there was something to Miintikwa’s idea, but it would take more than brash dialogue to persuade them to break taboo.
Somehow it had all passed without his knowledge. He blamed the priest, who as of late had been keeping secrets, even from members of his own society. Some of these secrets Waking Turtle had managed to pry free recently, but he didn’t yet know what else might be concealed. Indeed, there were many new troubling mysteries. Bah! He said to himself. I should not have grown to be such a hermit. Never again, he thought. Waking Turtle planned to keep Little Owl close in the coming days. He needed to learn exactly what happened and what the boy had seen in his vision.
The night closed in on Peeyankihšionki. Thunder Being threatened the people from the great dome with quiet flashes of lightening and rolling thunder from the horizon. The people converged at town center and crowded into the council house, which quickly filled to capacity. As soon as it was filled, onlookers blocked the entrance, vying for the last available place to view Waking Turtle. Those left outside grew anxious. A tall warrior planted himself at the door and promised to relay the story as best he could. The latecomers settled in just outside the door, determined to persist against a sky which threatened rain.
Owl had to get in. Tonight would be a perfect time to talk to the people about the mussels, with so many together in one place. Since his recovery, he spoke to his neighbors about how the mussels weren’t poisonous. To prove it, he started eating them at every meal. He convinced his mother, his uncle, and some of his neighbors to try them. Others balked at the suggestion. Some were downright hostile. Owl expected as much, but still he held on to the belief that the mussels were the answer. Common sense and reason would prevail. He was sure.
He wasn’t having much luck getting inside the council house. He came too late and there were too many people, but he thought if he could get inside, he might be able to squeeze in somewhere, then wait for a chance to speak and perhaps to demonstrate what he knew. He had a pocket full of the mussels. He was prepared to eat every one of them.
The people were huddling together outside, bracing against the cool, stormy air. One of Owl’s aunts beckoned for him to come sit.
Owl shook his head silently, and then darted for the door. He struggled to see inside of the council house, where Waking Turtle was about to begin his story. There must be a spot for him somewhere inside. He was determined to find out, so he ducked between the legs of one warrior and nearly squeezed past another, but the latter caught him under the arm, spun him about, and sent him flailing into the open air.
“There’s no more room!” the warrior shouted. “Stay out here or go home.”
Suddenly recognition spread over the warrior’s face.
“Little Owl?” the warrior said, startled. “I’m so sorry. I expected you would be inside already.”
“What do you mean? “ Owl asked, startled that the warrior seemed to be on his side. “Do I know you?”
The warrior shook his head. “No,” he said. “But I know your uncle. And I know what you went through trying to help us.” Then he stepped away from the door.
“Stand aside!” he bellowed. Everyone at the door turned.
“Let Miintikwa through,” the warrior said.
The crowd at the doorway parted.
“Thank you,” Owl said to the warrior as he passed. The warrior nodded, but said nothing more.
A moment later, Owl emerged into the warmth of the council house and discretely made his way to an open space on the floor directly in front of where Waking Turtle would stand. He sat down.
A girl called out excitedly.
It was Willow. She squeezed in next to him.
Owl’s blood raced when he saw her. She had only seen her seventeenth Whippoorwill Moon, but she was already an adept hunter and fierce fighter, a fact which she had demonstrated that night in the forest with the Dark One. However, all Owl could think of at the moment was the twinkling of her eyes. The scent of her made his heart stir.
“You’re in my spot,” she said.
Of course. Now it made sense why no one had taken this place. It was reserved for Willow.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.” Owl glanced at Willow’s father, Raging Buffalo. He was glaring at him from council center. Owl started to get up.
“No.” Willow smiled and gripped his arm. “Don’t mind my father. There’s room here for the two of us.”
Owl eased back down, but avoided Raging Buffalo’s eyes.
The source of the warmth was a big open fire set in the floor. The blaze illuminated the interior of the longhouse, popping and hissing. There were perhaps four dozen villagers inside. The Meteor Man-being warriors were present, seven in all, including Raging Buffalo and Waking Turtle. And there was Sharp Knife beside Raging Buffalo, scowling at Owl, most likely because he was sitting with Willow.
The priest appeared with them, the one who tried to take Owl’s sacred bundle. The priest was accompanied by Siipiiwi Iihkonki (River is Deep), chief of the town. Raging Buffalo stood next to the chief. He held no appreciation for the influence that Waking Turtle had on the people. They tended to stand at odds.
“What do you suppose Waking Turtle has to say?” Willow asked Owl.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
Waking Turtle approached the center.
Light from the sky flashed between the elm bark panels and into the council house. Thunder clapped from above. Waking Turtle pulled a pouch from his shirt. He drew out a handful of cedar shavings and tossed them in the fire. It flared up and smoke wafted above their heads on its way to the hole in the ceiling and on to the sky. The cedar smoke was meant to keep lightening from striking them while they spoke.
The crowd grew quiet. Waking Turtle waited. When it was silent, he cleared his throat.
“Good evening,” he said, greeting them with a warm smile. “Thank you for coming.”
He slid his arms behind him and clasped them at his back. His smile faded and his brow furrowed.
“As you know, our stores are almost empty,” he said. “They will not last through the next winter. Our crops are withering as they grow. Now, for the first time since we entered the world, it is time we split our town.”
“Who will go?” someone shouted.
Waking Turtle didn’t immediately answer. He turned to their chief.
The chief spoke up. “Whoever wishes to,” he said.
“Where will we go?” someone called from the crowd. “North or south?”
Waking Turtle said, “My view is that we should go north and resettle Waayaahtanonki, but there are those among us who believe otherwise.”
“And what will we do for food?”
Waking Turtle didn’t have an answer. “We’ll make our way,” he said.
Raging Buffalo stepped forward.
“This talk of resettling the old town is nonsense,” he said, taking advantage of the people’s fear of their spent food supply. “The lands to the north are just as empty of game and fish as here,” he said. “Our future lies south. We will find the Ciipaya and destroy them once and for all, and we will push south to new lands.”
The crowd surged in response. Another great war was just as fear-inducing a prospect as settling into the possessed lands to the north.
Owl took his chance. He stood.
“Little Owl?” Willow asked after him. He felt her hand take his. Owl didn’t turn. He just squeezed her hand and then let it go. He moved toward Waking Turtle and the chiefs. He hoped to steer those who wished to leave to go north.
The council house was in an uproar. He could barely hear over the shouting and rabid conversation.
He mustered all the courage he had. “May I speak?” Owl asked boldly. He couldn’t help but glance at Willow. She looked shocked and her face was pale.
He looked around the room. No one heard him.
He shouted, “May I speak!”
The leaders at the center of the council seemed taken aback by Owl’s intrusion, but Waking Turtle smiled openly. He seemed to recognize Owl, but was surprised that he spoke up. The old sage motioned for Owl to come stand next to him.
“Go on,” Waking Turtle said. “Tell us what is on your mind.”
Owl turned to the people gathered around the council house. It took a few moments before they all quieted and he was able to swallow his fear of speaking.
“I’ll get right to the point,” Owl said finally.
The crowd suddenly seemed very curious about who he was and why he was so bold as to speak at council.
“A few days ago I returned from my vision seeking,” Owl said.
There were whispers. Some spoke his name.
“The manitou told me the solution to our hunger,” he said.
The people murmured, with looks of doubt and suspicion. Now Owl could feel their surprise, anxiety, and displeasure, but he reached into his shirt, and pulled out the mussels anyway.
Immediate and various levels of shock and outrage came from the crowd at the sight of the shells.
“The mussels are no longer poisonous,” Owl declared. “They are clean once again. The bad spirits have left them.”
Waking Turtle’s brow furrowed. “What manitou told you this?” he asked.
The crowd swiftly rose to turmoil. Several among them began shouting before Owl could address Waking Turtle’s question. The people surely had more of an issue with the oysters than Owl imagined.
“They are taboo!” a man shouted.
Owl suddenly feared for his life. He put a hand to his chest, above his sacred bundle tied to his necklace. Secretly, he felt Mihšipinšiwa’s copper scale and just as quickly, he felt calm again.
“They are no longer taboo,” Owl said loudly, challenging the man.
Owl realized the people needed proof after all. He dropped the mussels back into his pocket, save one. This one he peeled apart and split open. The flesh lay in the shell. He took it between his fingers and pulled it free. Then he popped it into his mouth and chewed.
Owl chanced a look at Willow. She held a hand over her mouth, but he could see her smile. She looked amused.
He lifted his lips to show his teeth clinched against the meat. He closed his mouth and then he swallowed. Then he opened his mouth to show it was gone.
This caused the crowd to become more agitated. But Owl ignored them. One after another, he pulled the remaining mussels from his shirt, split them open, and consumed them all.
Little Owl raised his arms. “Tomorrow you will see,” he shouted. “I will be walking about the village and you will see that I am perfectly healthy.” With that he stepped away from the circle to return to Willow.
The people continued shouting their displeasure and astonishment at Owl’s disregard for their law.
Waking Turtle held up his hands.
“Please,” he shouted. “That’s enough.”
Owl risked a look at the chiefs, the priests and the warriors. They glared at him in unison. He hadn’t felt such contempt since last seeing Mishiginebig and the Mihši-maalhsa!
Only Waking Turtle appeared to maintain his composure. Owl thought he almost looked pleased, though the old sage kept his view on the matter to himself.
Then Owl heard one of the townspeople shout something that made his heart sink. It was a man’s voice coming from the back of the room. Owl couldn’t make out who he was. He didn’t recognize the voice. But what he said involved Owl’s worst fear.
“Wapingwatah!” the voice said again.
If it caught on, Owl would be relegated by the people to the fields, to plant maize and beans or to the forests to pick berries. Something that some old men did willingly, but not a vocation for a young man hoping to be among those leading the way to Waayaahtanonki.
Owl moved back to his place next to Willow.
Waking Turtle lifted his hands and circled slowly, trying to calm the crowd. They did subside somewhat.
He approached and for a time regarded the people only in silence. Though he smiled, his expression hinted at sadness.
“We are Peeyankihšia and it is time I tell you exactly how we came to be in the sixth world, to live again beside our beloved Waapaahšiki Siipiwii (Wabash River).”
Owl was thunderstruck. He thought of his vision and suddenly was very curious about what Waking Turtle knew. The circumstances of their emergence into the sixth world had always been shrouded in mystery. Various storytellers had their versions, but the people mostly took them as entertainment and offered morals for the children. The council had always been silent on the matter. Everyone knew that warriors were privy to certain truths that the majority need not and indeed should not know. That Waking Turtle began his story this way was already unprecedented. Did he know about what happened? About the Mihši-maalhsa?
But Owl never got the chance. Raging Buffalo stepped in front of Waking Turtle. This was very disrespectful. Several among the crowd murmured their disapproval.
“Your stories are tales for children,” Buffalo scolded. “Meant to frighten them into staying close by their parents, not to be taken seriously by grown men and women.”
The people turned to Waking Turtle, expecting him to defend himself.
“My stories are meant as lessons and warnings to those who would listen.”
“And what are we to do with these warnings?”
“Simply take them seriously.”
“Nonsense,” Raging Buffalo said.
The audience grew restless. Waking Turtle grew apprehensive.
“Please, I’ve only begun,” Waking Turtle said.
“We’ve heard enough stories old man,” Raging Buffalo said, taking the stage. “Nervous animals are of no concern to me. What we need to decide is what to do about our enemies. The Ciipaya are ominously absent. We have learned from our scouting trip to the south, that lands normally steeped in the Ciipaya, are now empty. Why? I ask you.”
The Ciipaya! Owl remembered his revelation that they had once been Peeyankihšia before succumbing to the Great-horned Serpent.
The people within the longhouse grew tired of waiting to see which direction the meeting would go. They began shouting and jostling for positions that offered an advantage for their own voices to be heard.
Owl had enough. He would have to talk with Waking Turtle later about what he knew. And if the people disregarded his message about the mussels, there was nothing he could do about it. Like the Panther said, it was up to them. They would have to adapt. If they didn’t, what could he do? The plans whirling through his head at the moment were too much of a paradigm shift for the Peeyankihšia. Somehow he might convince them, but it wouldn’t be tonight.
He needed to get out of here. Perhaps he could convince Willow to come too. But without her father and Sharp Knife noticing. But how? They could just leave through the front door, but Sharp Knife would likely rally his warriors to stop him.
Owl had an absurd thought. He remembered the hole dug by the chief’s dog. It was situated along the far side of the longhouse. Owl thought they could fit through. His absurd notion was quickly turning into a plan. Hopefully the hole was still there.
Owl grabbed Willow’s hand.
“Follow me,” he whispered. She nodded. They crouched as they walked among the loud, angry people. They sprinted into the crowd, skirted along the edge, and found the hole.
A moment later they emerged from the council house into the cool night air. It felt good.
Someone just inside called after Willow, likely Sharp Knife. Owl didn’t wait to find out. He pulled Willow around the corner of the building.
They crouched in the shadows along the base of the house. Owl quickly looked about and saw their chance for escape, a cluster of bushes coming close to the house. It was only a short distance to the brush, and the deeper woods were just beyond. If they could make it to the forest, they had a chance to escape.
Moments later Owl and Willow were sprinting through the forest under cover of darkness. The domed night sky flashed furiously, not unlike their first night, huddled together in their lean-to by the river.
Owl awoke to the sound of people gathering. They chattered outside his house. He heard laughter and children playing. He dropped down from his bunk and went to the entrance. He listened for just a moment before stepping into the light.
Outside, groups of people had gathered around cooking fires. He recognized many of them as his close neighbors. He had talked with some of them about the mussels. They jostled around cooking pots. Steam rose from the ground and up around their heads. A scent now familiar to Owl permeated the air. It was the smell of cooking mussels. The village as a whole rejected his vision, but those who knew him had tried them. The idea had taken on a life of its own.
Owl walked among the gathering as they worked preparing breakfast. They were already improvising. Some were using maize as a batter. The scent made Owl’s mouth water. Shells littered the ground. Boys and girls collected them in their arms. They were making trinkets for bracelets and necklaces, just as he had done for so many years. One boy came running up to a little girl and then he offered her one of the shells fashioned into a necklace. The inside was a lovely shade of purple. The girl accepted it with glee. The boy placed it over her head and around her neck. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
“Looks like they listened to you after all,” he heard Willow shout. Her voice came from the hill to the east. Owl squinted as he looked up the hill. She was coming toward him.
“Yes it seems so. I was sure the Peeyankihšia were doomed,” he said, only half kidding. “Perhaps there is hope for them after all.”
When she reached him, she hugged him and then kissed him. They walked together among the people and their new discoveries.
The boy stepped in front of Owl and Willow. He toyed with the shell of a mussel.
Owl bent down. “What is your name?” he asked.
“I am Wiihkoowia (Whippoorwill),” the boy said.
“I just want to thank you,” Whippoorwill said.
“Why are you thanking me?”
“For the mussels.”
Owl smiled. “You’re welcome,” he said. “But really it was no big deal.”
“Also,” Whippoorwill said, stepping closer. “I was wondering if you could tell me what it is like at Waayaahtanonki?”
Suddenly, Owl had a vision of a new village in the lands to the north. He would take them there, those gathered here, and more. He would show them the way and they would build a new life from a reclaimed Waayaahtanonki. The mussels would provide for them while the fish recovered. He saw fields of the Three Sisters along Waapaahšiki Siipiiwi. He saw clusters of longhouses on the ridge above the river. But then a thought clouded his vision. He remembered the Mihši-maalhsa and what seemed like their reclaiming of the old town for themselves. Did they intend to restore their version of Waayaahtanonki? Would they try to resettle? Perhaps his daydream on the river of Waayaahtanonki was a future vision. Maybe he had seen himself by the river and not his great-grandfather emerging from the cove. Then there was Underwater Panther with his abode just to the northeast of Waayaahtanonki at Pinšiwa-amootayi, his totem, his power, always defending the land and the people with ferocity and cunning. Surely no people, bent on the destruction of the earth, could meet the challenge of his cat.
Owl smiled at Whippoorwill.
“I’ll be happy to tell you all about Waayaahtanonki,” he told him.
In the morning light, Owl and Willow and their new friend walked until they found a spot under the shade of a chestnut tree. Others joined them. A small crowd gathered together around Owl and Willow.
Owl heard footsteps approach from behind. They were soft and subtle, but he picked them out.
A humble voice called out. “This looks like a fine group of people. I should like to sit with you.”
Owl turned. The sun outlined the man in a white glow. Owl had trouble seeing who it was. He put a hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes. It was Waking Turtle, smiling at Little Owl.
“May I join you?” he asked.
Owl scoot to the side. “You certainly may,” he said. “Would you like something to eat?”
Little Owl handed a morsel of food to Waking Turtle. It was the half shell of a roasted mussel.
The old sage eyed it carefully. “Looks wonderful. Thank you,” he said and took the mussel. Without missing a beat, he lifted it to his lips, tilted his head back and let the meat slide down his throat. “Delicious,” he said with a smile.
They ate breakfast and laughed together. Soon their talking turned to planning.
Places and People
Aacimwici – storyteller
Akima – chief
Ahsenaamisi Siipiiwi – Sugar Maple Tree River
Ciipaya – the enemy of the people, a mysterious tribe living to the south; ghost, soul of the dead
Mihši-maalhsa – White Man
Mihšihkinaahkwa – Big Pine Creek; enters the Wabash halfway between Peeyankihšionki and Waayaahtanonki
Miteewa – shaman
Myaamionki – place of the Miami
Oonsaalamooni Siipiiwi – Vermillion River
Peeyankihšia –a band of the myaamiaki; the people; splitting off
Peeyankihšionki – the home of the Peeyankihšia; a village at the confluence of the Vermillion and Wabash rivers
Pinšiwa-amootayi – the confluence of Wildcat Creek where it enters the Wabash River; Pouch of the Panther
Saakiiweeki – confluence
Waapaahšiki Siipiiwi – The Wabash River
Waayaahtanonki – abandoned village, uninhabited since the end of the fifth world; At the Whirlpool
Wapingwatah – a man resigned to perform domestic chores
Miintikwa – Little Owl
Neehpikaahkwi – red willow; a sacred plant; branches made into arrow shafts of ceremonial importance and bark used for medicinal purposes
Neehpikaahkwi – Owl’s childhood friend
Nišihsa – Little Owl’s great-uncle
Aahkosihihki Kiinšiwa – Willow’s father; Angry Buffalo
Wiinicia Eemamwici – Waking Turtle; turtle, he wakes up
Spirits and Deities
Ciinkwia – Thunder Being
Meešimeelwia – The cultural hero of the Peeyankihšia who took part in their deliverance into the Sixth World; Great-horned owl
Mihšipinšiwa – most powerful being of the underworld, associated with deep pools and rivers; the face and legs of a cat, horns of a deer, and elongated body and tail covered in copper scales; Underwater Panther
Mishiginebig – a powerful deity; an inhabitant of the underworld; Great-horned Serpent
Lenipinšia – a recent (Sixth World) inhabitant of the Wabash River; underwater serpent
Animals, plants, and items which appear in this book
aacimweekaani – council house
ahkihkwa – drum
ahseema – tobacco used in ceremonies
ahsiimini – pawpaw tree
ahtawaani – standing deadwood
akooka – frog
alakiihkwi – bark
amehkwa – beaver
atahkohkani – bridge
ayaapia moohswa – white-tailed deer
eehsipana – raccoon
kaahkaahkia – katydid; nocturnal insect noted for their loud mating calls in the night
kaakihšaahkatwi – sycamore tree
kiinšiwa – the sun
kihcikami – big lake; one of the Great Lakes of North America
kineepikwa – snake
kinoosaawia – cougar
kinohšamia – otter
kiteepihkwana – buffalo fish
lenimahwia – coyote
mahkihkiwi – sage used in ceremonies
mahkwa – black bear
miintikwa – bird
moohsia – bugs
myaalameekwa – catfish
myaamiaatawenki – the language of the Miami
nalaaohki alenaswa – buffalo
neehpikaahkwi – red willow; a sacred plant; branches made into arrow shafts of ceremonial importance and bark used for medicinal purposes
šinkwaahkwa – cedar tree
noosikaani – sweat lodge
pahkohkwaniši – elm tree
waapeehsa – freshwater mussel
wiihkoowia – whippoorwill
wiipicahseni – flint nodule
wiipica – arrowhead
wiipici – flint used to start a fire
About the Author
Jonathan is a native of southern Indiana, tracing his Hoosier heritage back eight generations. A life-long passion for primary cultures, wild ethics, and visions of first American ancestors are the source for Jonathan’s current project, a far-future mythic fantasy series called American Solace. He is also a landscape painter. Whenever he can, he enjoys packing up the paints and hitting the trail, where he can learn exactly how nature composes the scene.
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“This sweet virginal primitive land will metaphorically breathe a sigh of relief –like a whisper of wind–when we are all and finally gone and the place and its creations can return to their ancient procedures unobserved and undisturbed by the busy, anxious, brooding consciousness of man.” – Edward Abbey American Solace: An Awakening is the first book in a series. The genre is mythic fantasy. The story takes place in an ancient village nestled at the confluence of the Vermillion River where it meets the Wabash and follows the protagonist upstream as he makes his way toward the city of Lafayette in what is present day Indiana. Hopefully not giving too much away, Kirkus Reviews had this to say: “In his debut novel, Cook melds a futuristic post-apocalyptic story with a classic coming-of-age quest tale, adding interest with authentic details from Native American culture, such as herbal healing and arrow-making. Owl and Willow’s young love is fairly standard but warm. Cook depicts the Peeyankihšionki with appreciation for the tribe’s multilayered politics and offers some intriguing future history… delivers a solid coming-of-age adventure.” — Kirkus Reviews A threat loomed in the forests surrounding their town. The trees tossed about ominously and river pools bubbled where they should only mirror the moon’s perfection. Storehouses were dwindling, fishermen were coming home with empty baskets, and for the first time since entering the sixth world, farmers were clearing new fields. And they were finding peculiar artifacts in the soil, though the people had little chance to discern their origin or nature. As quick as they could, the priests would come and snatch them up and hide them away, saying only that the artifacts were from another age, definitely not meant for the layperson’s eyes. Little Owl was content to fish and amuse himself by collecting the shells of freshwater mussels, but a long-held mystery about the end of the last age and their deliverance into the present seemed ready to unfold before his eyes. He breaks taboos, disturbs evil spirits, garners the affection of the war chief’s daughter, and raises the ire of his elders. They say it is time for his Rite of Passage, where he will learn what totem will govern and guide the rest of his life. But his uncle recommends an alternative, a vision quest in which his nephew will discover his true totem. However, it is an ancient practice which no one since the last age has undertaken, so it will likely be more dangerous than the Rite. But at least it will be authentic. Reluctantly, Owl agrees to go. After days of fasting and ceremonial purification, he begins a perilous journey through mysterious forests. Meanwhile, their fearsome enemy is spotted nearby. Aware of Owl’s departure into the wilds, the chief’s daughter pleads with her father to send an escort. He refuses. But Willow is a powerful warrior in her own right, who may just take matters into her own hands. What will she do next? Far from home, Owl gains tantalizing clues about their deliverance into the present world. But the truth surrounding the end of the last age remains shrouded in mystery. An unexpected visitor joins him on his journey. An old friendship is rekindled. They press on, to an ancient village, the subject of Owl’s imaginings for as long as he can remember. The people of the fifth world had abandoned the old town. It was a place to avoid, a place where lingering ghosts and bad spirits were thought to dwell. As they unravel the mystery, the situation grows ever more dangerous.