It was just as Awasosak, the Sky Bear, had secretly feared, deep in the core of his being that was the eye of a hurricane. The luminous firelit faces of his beloved Bead Woman and their children, as well as that of his lover, the white-eyes shaman Mary, faded into a darkness that crushed him in its arms and would never let him go. Not a single star glinted in the death sky. Not a hint of light on the horizon, had he been able to detect one.
Where was his faith now?
All sound faded, all the frantic promises that Bead Woman and their children made to him if only he would stay. Their voices were stopped by the velvet silence in his ears, unrelentingly pressing in on him.
He was floating, as if in an ocean, unable to tell which way was up, because there was none. The smell of nothing was in his nostrils; thanks be to Manitou, no longer the stink of rank putrefaction that his lungs had emitted at the end, he unable to escape the taste.
At least, his struggle to breathe was no more. Was he was breathing or not? He could not hear it, could not feel the rise and fall of his chest. But whatever he was doing was easy.
Then it occurred to him that he was not floating exactly, rather rocking. Did he imagine it, or did he hear the painted water lapping at the sides? A warrior in a canoe?
In the darkness, he thought he discerned the outlines of people above him.
Gradually, their faces grew more distinct. There was his silver-haired Great-Grandmother Laughsalot, leaning over him and asking him something, although he could not quite make out the words through her tobacco-stuffed mouth.
He was in the bottom of a boat and they were rowing him up the river.
Struggling to a sitting position, he was overjoyed to see Diving Hawk at the helm, brave Diving Hawk, his body whole and unmarked by the Iroquois axe that had cut him down as he defended the mission on Christmas Day. He smiled and said something that must have been a greeting like “Kway.”
Other boats moved swiftly in the darkness around them, the lapping of their wakes sucking at the bottom of his own, the rowers waving to him.
Dawn tipped the trees with silver. It was a silver world.
Now he was greeting other ancestors of long ago. But Moon Bear was nowhere to be seen. Nor little lost Shell Bead.
Great-Grandmother Laughsalot was holding up a raw-red baby that he had not noticed before. He thought it might be Skinned Child, born as a warning of the wars to come that he’d heard about when he himself was very young. The babe’s colors changed with mood or temperature or new breath — mottled brown, red, blue and pink, nose purple, yellow flat discs for eyes, limbs too fragile for any use, with white fuzz on the head and face. When peace was upon them, the babe would fade to white as a reminder of the white beings who had once slain the land with their hatchets and axes and iron in ignorance of how the water lived. That the babe had not grown surprised Awasosak. Did the young not grow older on this side and develop as they would have on the other, if the gods had not called them to their own fires? That was how the elders told it around the council when he was a child.
Now he was unsure that the babe had not grown, eyes fixed in his and mouth curled in a smile of recognition.
Then it came to him that these were only symbols of beings that he beheld, lest he not recognize their communication from another place entirely. He looked down at his body shadowy in the bottom of the boat. Was it a metaphor from elsewhere, too?
Great-Grandmother Laughsalot offered him a slice of maskwas to eat, birch bark. She didn’t say in so many words that he needed the nourishment for the long journey west, but it was as if he heard it. He’d never really believed that maskwas was all the food they had when they were dead. Who wants to eat birch bark? That was just a tale they told the white-eyes, especially the black robes. It made a better story than their own consumption of their god’s body — stomach, cheeks, thighs, nails, or whatever — and the slaking of their thirst in his blood.
He thanked Great-Grandmother and put the maskwas to his mouth. It tasted like stewed moose tongue, just the way he loved it, and there was enough moisture in it to satisfy his thirst as well. He offered some around to the others, but they laughed and said they had had their fill. There was a mystery here that they weren’t telling him.
They were moving swiftly up the river now, floating past the banks. The smells of the trees once more filled his lungs with the sweet breath of Manitou. The songs of the early morning birds that sang what the black robes called “the hours” welcomed him. The lonely calls of loons warned of danger, and the owls screeched their triumphs over prey. A twig of leaves scraped a caress over his forehead and others combed his hair. They were glad to have him back with them where he belonged.
Every so often his canoe stopped for another passenger, as did the others that accompanied it. Once, an Iroquois warrior with a deep round musket hole in his forehead through which Awasosak could see the sky stepped precariously into the boat, his hand extended to help the little yellow-haired girl at his side in a pink dress stained with her mother’s blood — how did he know that? She looked around bewildered. The Iroquois sat her down beside him and patted her back. She looked up into his eyes, as if to ask “Is it safe?” and he nodded his reassurance. Awasosak sought to read the meaning of this in the faces around him, but they looked on disinterestedly as if it were an ordinary occurrence.
Time passed so pleasantly that Awasosak wasn’t even aware of it. Perhaps there was no time. Perhaps this was the end of it. Above him, nanbosad, the all-night walker that the whites called “moon,” still traveled in its path through the lightening sky. His longings for Bead Women, Mary James, Sorrel Listener, his children and the rest of his tribe seemed to fade. There were things to see, fire mountains in other worlds, deserts of rain, wind caves far beyond the sun, flowers not yet born, old friends to greet after long separation, and others to meet whom he had only heard about.
He was given to understand that there would be time enough to visit his family and the rest of his band on special feast days or when they were in trouble of some sort. Soon enough, crisis would return to the tribe — as it always did. His adopted son, Pomola, as well as Sun Bear and Soaring Eagle would require the counsel of the elders who had gone before them in order to learn which way next. Hill Dancer would be of no use to them then, and Sorrel Listener with an ulcer on her leg like an ever-widening pit was on her way to join them here.
Then would the great conflict erupt anew. Should they flee the white-eyes in order to save what remained of their tribe, thereby ceding their sacred land to the white god and hiding out until the whites all killed each other off and the land was Manitou’s again? This was what Soaring Eagle urged.
Or should they fling up their arms in Pomola’s wild dance of destruction, inflicting death and Hellfire until the last man, woman, and child were lost, Indian as well as white.
And some sagamores would make the first decision and others the second. Or vacillate between.
Then would the old dead ones converge upon the council meeting, sitting behind the young ones (who thought they were alive), ringing the sacred fire — a crowd stretching out all the way to the sunset, if they could but see it. Like breaths of wind, they would whisper through the smoke into ears unaccustomed to their counsel, telling secrets of the enemies down by the river and another army only a few moons away, and giving them direction as to whether to fight or flee, and which way was safer. Their enemies would be mystified by their prescience and assume spies. Spies, certainly, but not clothed in flesh and blood.
Indians had the spirit power that the white-eyes lacked.
But only the visionaries among them would hear, and even they might not heed.
Daughter of the Morning Star
Paperback: 304 pages