Winner of The "Jade Ring" Prize in Adult Fiction.
Loon cries echoed in the dark. He shivered beneath the star-splattered sky that Binaakwe-giizis, the “Falling Leaves Moon” of the Ojibwe, would soon dominate. He lingered on the dew wet riverbank, staring up at Orion’s shining star belt and breathing in the marsh-grassy, lily-paddy odor of the river. Soon, Binaakwe-giizis would be full. Magic would ride the wind.
Recollection nudged. When was it? The last time all the family was alive together? He couldn’t recall. Too many years had passed away since he was a young boy, full of hope, basking in the loving warmth of family. But it was long ago, before he was an orphan, before he turned into the old man he now was, before he came here to die in these remote forested acres that lay inside the La Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation in Northern Wisconsin.
All dead, but he saw them last night as he sat at the campfire beside his cabin. Flames lapped cold air, sending smoke and red sparks twirling skyward, hot sparks that dimmed to yellow, then faded to nothing. The old folks had appeared in shadows gathered at the farthest reach of firelight where it merged with night-shrouded trees. Shy, the old folks eluded the glare, not wishing to intrude, yet wanting to see him. Acrid pine laden smoke assailed his nostrils and stung his eyes making him lose their images, but then they reappeared, each looking the same as when he’d seen them last; all except his father who appeared as a young man with well combed dark hair and a self-deprecating smile. Fire flash danced in black eyes as his father grinned and beckoned, “Come.”
He’d put down his glass, vodka sloshing against the rim, ice-cubes clacking in the stillness as he leaned forward, seeking a clearer view, a better look. But the images shimmered and disappeared, seeping away into darkness like the mist from the river where, according to his grandfather’s stories, evil spirits lurked and searched out the souls of young boys. There skulked the shape-shifter Wiindigoo, biding its time, dreaming of human souls and, sometimes, human flesh.
“Come.” A lonely idea hanging in calm air under a starlit sky that waited for the rising of Binaakwe-giizis. He shivered at the memory, remembered that the Wiindigoo’s power increased when full moons hung in the sky.
It had been the booze, he now told himself as tonight’s moon edged above the trees in the cold eastern sky, casting its yellow light upon the earth, turning the river into a golden pathway. Was it a coming pathway, or a going one? Did it lead in or out?
A sudden gust of wind rushed up the river and stirred fallen leaves on the riverbank, the raspy sounds mingling with the tannic scent of summer’s end. Leaves whirled against one another and scratched the trees; the red, gold, and brown of fall’s colors now pale monochromatic in the moonlight.
Morning sun glared through narrow cabin windows, lighting up dust motes riding cool air in the rustic one room cabin Gramp had built eighty-seven years ago. Insistent light stirred him awake and he lay gazing at the pine-sheathed ceiling, remembering where he was and why he was here.
He slid out of bed, in a hurry to pull on his flannel-lined jeans and his gray wool sweater. Thick socks soon encased his cold feet and he laced his boots, carefully pulling the rawhide ties around the brass hooks, tightening them until his fingers hurt, then double knotting the stiff laces. He eyed his cell phone lying on the rickety bedside table that was marred by burns from the days he still smoked cigarettes.
His gun leaned in the corner by the chipped, white enameled propane stove where his grandmother had cooked so many meals. The air by the stove shimmered and he saw her faint image holding her biggest cast iron skillet, stirring up a mound of scrambled eggs and bacon. The phantom odor of bacon made his stomach growl. Then the sight and smell were gone and there was nothing, only empty air and undead memories. He shrugged and coughed in the sun-splashed room, his visible breath swirling dust motes into crazy rhythms. The booze, he thought, but knew he hadn’t drunk that much. It was more complex than alcohol.
His rifle gleamed in the light, its oiled walnut stock and gunmetal blue barrel claimed his attention. As he pulled the gun away from the wall, a dark spider scurried across its web, dropping to the floor as the rifle tore away the flimsy gossamer. He smashed the spider, telling himself it might be a Brown Recluse.
He hefted the rifle, rubbing his palm against the smooth wood of the Remington 700 CDL, loaded with one hundred forty grain, soft point cartridges. These would exit the rifle’s twenty-six inch barrel with a muzzle velocity of over twenty-seven hundred feet per second, more than enough to knock down a deer.
A sharp whiff of gun-oil took him back to the day Gramp had shown him how to clean a rifle--the same day he’d killed his first deer. Now, it was deer season again and he’d brought this new rifle.
He should already be out in the woods. A hunter needed to leave before dawn, quietly slide through brush and hanging tree branches, take his position, and await a big buck with a wide pointed rack of horns. But he hadn’t gone. The mystery of the spark of life was on his mind.
The spark of life: that mysterious something that converted dust to life, that animated random collections of minerals, amino acids, water, and whatnot. Was the spark of life in the deer different from that in the man? Or the spider?
His cell phone rang.
“Daddy,” said his daughter’s anxious voice, “where are you?”
Annie. Sweet little Annie, the blessing of earlier years, now a mother herself with two rambunctious boys that ganged up on him when he knelt down on the carpet to wrestle, pummeling him with tiny fists, yelling that they would teach him a lesson he’d never forget. And they did, and he didn’t. But now it was too late.
“I’m at the office.” Poor reception made his voice echo.
“No, you’re not. I called there. Margaret said you’d left four days ago.”
“Well, I’m out to lunch.”
“Daddy…I…” She began to weep, long ragged sobs he knew she was trying to stifle as she had always done when she was little and ashamed to let him see her cry. “Daddy, you’re up at the cabin, aren’t you?”
“It’s Mommy’s birthday. You always go there on her birthday.”
“Yes, but she’s dead now.”
“I know Daddy. Won’t you come here? Won’t you be with us?”
“You shouldn’t be alone.”
“I’m alright Annie. Sweet Annie. I’m fine.”
“No you’re not. I hear it in your voice. What did the doctors say?”
“I’ve got to go now Annie. Say hi to Joe. And my little buddies, tell them I’ll win the next match, that I’ll…”
He shut off the phone as the stabbing pain cut through his lungs like icy revenge. He let it slash its way through him until it finally dissipated, leaving him breathless and weak like the old man he’d become.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
Robinson Jeffers wrote the lines, but he knew they applied to him as much as anyone. He was an arrogant man; had been that is. He could not expect mercy and there was no point in asking for it. Cancer. It was going to suck at his essence until it quenched the spark within him, until it left him as dead as that dark crushed spider over in the corner of the cabin.
Mid-morning produced hard-driven rain, accompanied by pounding thunder and lightning intermittently flashing up the room. He loved this violence that seized the earth, making his pulse throb, vibrating his heart to the rhythm of high sky booming.
The rain stopped in the afternoon and he pulled on his parka with the white fur-lined hood, picked up his Remington, and started for the deep woods. The sun illuminated thousands of crystal rain beads clinging to the bare branches of hardwoods and to the green fronds of pine and cedar. They resembled diamonds that could be picked like fruit and strung in the long flowing hair of a beautiful girl, like the girl his wife had been when they were young and first came here.
He shoved into the forest, his heart sad and his breathing labored and panting; stamping over long fallen dead trees and pushing through winter bare underbrush until he reached his hill, a hummock rising ten feet over the surrounding elevation. He’d found arrow heads there, left by the Ojibwe when they’d hunted food or fought Sioux for the rights to the land and the wild rice that grew in the river.
He hunkered down, leaning his back against the red granite boulder dominating the hilltop. The rock was hard and cold against his back. The rifle clicked metallic loading sounds as he worked the bolt, chambering a pointed, soft tip bullet. He watched the clearing in front of him, knowing the deer trail crossed it still, as it had always done.
This had been Ojibwe Indian land, a part of the reservation when his granddad bought it. The Ojibwe had controlled this place since the late seventeen hundreds when they finally chased away the Sioux with whom they had contested ownership for three hundred years.
He shifted his position against the rock that had grown colder and harder against his spine. He should have brought a pad. He massaged his stiffened legs, wiped snot from his nose onto the sleeve of his parka where it left a shiny snail trail. The wind flared, knocking a shower off nearby pine branches and the cold water splashed his face, then trickled down his neck. Hell! It’s stupid being out here. And hunting. For what?
His thoughts choked away when he saw the massive buck. It appeared between eye blinks, poised at the edge of the clearing, its nostrils quivering, testing the air. But he was downwind from the buck and soon the deer paced softly into the clearing. He rubbed his eyes and tried to breathe softly, to be as still as death. Twelve points. A prize buck.
He raised his rifle, laying his unshaven cheek against the cold wood, sighting along the barrel over open iron sights. Easy shot. Easy squeezy. His finger gently tightened on the trigger.
But he couldn’t do it. Knocking out that spark of life was more than he could stand. The idea of the buck lying dead, no longer a proud and perfect specimen of its race, burned his mind. He clapped his hands, the sharp sound echoing off the trees and across the clearing, and the buck bounded into the woods and out of sight, leaving only the fading sounds of flight.
He stood on trembling legs, his muscles aching and uncooperative, then followed his own trail back to the cabin, toting the gun over his shoulder even though he knew he would never kill another animal with it. But it had other uses.
There was no electricity. Gramp had refused to put it in, preferring to light the cabin with kerosene lamps. He now struck a large kitchen match against the rough wall and it snapped to life emitting sulfurous smoke as it flared. Soon yellow kerosene flame lit the cabin, yet the far corners of the room clung to their darkness. He spied the cell phone he’d left on the table and ignored it.
He opened a can of stew, heated it on the propane stove, and spooned it onto a paper plate he’d found in the cabinet. He ate at the small round table where, as kids, he and his cousins had played canasta and rummy with Gram and Gramp. He poured a drink from his bottle of vodka and paused to remember the cousins, almost all dead now.
Shaking his head, he sopped up the last of the stew’s gravy with a piece of bread and dumped the paper plate into the black plastic garbage bag he’d hung on the rusty nail next to the stove, just then noticing the plate was festive with colorful birthday balloons from some forgotten party. As he turned away, the movement made him dizzy. A spiked fist squeezed his lungs and he had to sit down. It hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. He pulled his pills from his shirt pocket, swallowing two with a slug of vodka. His age-spotted hands gripped the edges of the table as he waited.
When the pills and vodka kicked in, he let himself slide into the fuzzy wonder of painlessness. Washed up. Face it. Maybe he should have an accident: mixing too many pills with too much booze. Ride this foggy flow into eternity.
He tilted the glass bottle of clear liquid against his lips and took a long pull, then glanced around the ancient cabin, seeing visions of the past that reached for him. His barely focused gaze fell upon the cell phone lying on the table. He tried to pick it up, but it skittered away across the scarred wooden surface. When he managed to retrieve it, he saw he’d missed six calls, all from Annie. He thumbed the key for voice mail.
Annie’s voice was controlled, “Daddy, we’re coming up there. Day after tomorrow, we’ll be there. Someone wants to say hello.”
Then the two boys, their high voices laced with childish adoration, “Hi Gramp. Hi, hi, hi. See you soon. We’ll catch fireflies. Yeah. Ha, ha, ha. Kick your butt…”
Annie interrupted with a giggling, “Boys, watch your language.”
Shrill childish laughter. “Kick it good. Yeah, yeah, you bet.”
Late the next morning, he shoved his red canoe into the river and climbed in. He kept the craft tied to the rickety wood dock by a thirty-foot rope and he lay on his back in the canoe bottom, his rifle beside him, watching skittering gray clouds race across the pale sky. The current pulled the canoe downstream until, at the end of his rope, the canoe jerked to a halt and yawed back and forth, stern high, in the powerful stream. The steady undulation was hypnotic, as soothing as being in his mother’s lap as she sat on the porch in the oak rocking chair. But the sleek rifle dug into his side, forcing him to acknowledge its presence, its purpose. He lifted it and stared into the black hole of its muzzle. How fast is twenty-seven hundred feet per second? Pretty damn fast, that’s what. Hell, if he sat up, put the muzzle to his ear, and pulled the trigger it would all be over. Would he hear the bang? What’s the speed of sound? What’s the sound of helplessness?
But he couldn’t do it. He had Annie to consider and the boys even more. He couldn’t hang the rotting albatross corpse of their Grandpa’s suicide around the kid’s necks for the rest of their lifetimes. Thinking of them eased his mood. Funny little guys they were; aged six and four, and so open, so unaffected, so new. His fishing buddies, his shipmates. The ones who pulled their punches even at this age as they pummeled him in their roughhousing, teaching him lessons he would never forget.
And beyond all that. Wasn’t there some obligation to the spark of life itself? Some duty to preserve that invisible, untouchable, unreachable essence of existence?
Depends on circumstances.
He held the gun across his chest and watched the clouds as the canoe rocked him in the gentle arms of time. He dozed an old man’s nap and, when he woke, sat up and looked around. Sadness, then defiance seized him. He stood in the precarious canoe, raising a gnarled fist, “John! My name is John,” he shouted out to nothing, to everything. “I’m John...I’m John.”
He knelt and tugged on the rope, pulling the canoe to the dock. He smiled as he muttered, “I guess every rope has two ends.”
That night Binaakwe-giizis floated with full-moon glory above the horizon and he stood by a wide-spread oak watching, holding his rifle. He shivered from his memory of Gramp’s tales about Indian ghosts dancing beneath full moons. He’d told those same stories to Annie and to his grandsons so that someday they would pass them on to their grandchildren. Gramp to Gramp to Gramp, down the rolling years.
Nights like this were prime prowling times for ghosts and the Wiindigoo. The notion of a soul-stealing, shape-shifting, flesh-eater pumped fear, like electric snow, into his blood. He shivered, shook it away. Silly bastard. The Wiindigoo is already inside you, eating your flesh. What do you have to worry about?
A twinkling light flashed down by the dock, making him peer through the darkness, trying to discern what it was. He walked toward it--closer…closer. Then he stopped, raising his gun, pointing it at the apparition of an Indian in full Ojibwe regalia: face streaked red and black, long-fringed buckskins, spiked hair with feathers sticking straight up and some hanging down along his prominent cheeks. Black eyes watched as compulsion seized him and he cocked his gun and fired, the muzzle-flash lighting up the trees and the boom of the shot reverberating in the night.
The apparition emitted a deep rolling laugh and said, “Missed.”
“My God! I didn’t mean to shoot,” John called as he rushed to the river.
The Ojibwe’s smile was a crooked leer and he stood at the riverbank, regarding John with knowing eyes. An aura of faint light sheathed the Indian. Cold darkness enfolded John. The two figures stared at one another as an owl hooted and something big splashed in the river.
“How could I have missed?”
“Maybe you didn’t.”
“Who are you?”
“I have many names, all of them secret. John is your name.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I have always known your name, as I knew your father’s name and your grandfather’s name, as I know your daughter’s name. Annie. She will come in the morning. Also, your grandsons and your son-in-law, Joe. All.”
“Have you seen me before?”
“Many times. I saw you yesterday when I walked into the clearing and you didn’t shoot.”
John said nothing, knowing it was true, knowing who this was. Bright moonlight revealed the Ojibwe’s colorfully embroidered buckskins and flashed on the red, white, and turquoise beads of his moccasins. The Indian extended his arm with its up-facing closed fist. Light filtered through clenched fingers.
Wind whistled in the trees and whipped moon-flecked ripples on the river. Primal fear laced frigid air as John struggled to work his lungs. But he realized he was beyond terror’s reach, and the knowledge calmed him.
John stared at the light, entranced as the Ojibwe slowly opened his fist revealing a yellow, glowing softball shape of brightness that writhed, straining against its own edges.
The light hit the Indian’s face, deepening the furrows at the corners of his mouth, darkening his eye sockets. A broad smile revealed sharp teeth.
“W iindigoo,” John whispered. “You are Wiindigoo.”
“And you are holding souls in your hand.”
“These are sparks of life.”
A deep bayonet-stab of agony pierced John’s chest and his knees gave away. He slumped to the wet ground, transfixed by the glowing orb that was now held out towards him. A bright tendril of yellow light left the brightness in the Wiindigoo’s hand and weaved towards John. A red reciprocal light oozed from John’s chest to meet the yellow light. The yellow absorbed the red that flowed and flowed from John.
Darkness seeped into John’s mind, pulling him down into a black, empty place and John’s last sight was the Wiindigoo’s grinning face with its white sharp teeth.
Annie, Joe, and the boys arrived at sun-up, driving down the long dirt road winding through the woods to the cabin. Strong morning sunbeams filtered through the trees like multiple yellow searchlights.
“I hope he’s okay,” said Annie. “He was so pale and full of pain when we saw him two weeks ago.”
Joe replied, “He’s a tough old bird.”
The boys laughed with glee. “Ha. Ha. Ha. Tweet. Tweet. Tough old bird. Ha. Ha.”
The bright morning did nothing to ease the dark sense of dread within Annie or the cold fear that had possessed her heart since the last phone call with her father. Please, please, let him be okay. Please.
Their red Ford Explorer crested the last rise and the small lonely cabin was finally in sight. Stillness ruled the clearing. Nothing moved until Joe stopped the car and Annie burst from her door and ran to the cabin, her high-topped leather boots scattering the morning dew. The door was ajar and no one inside.
Panicked, she rushed out into the daylight, her wide blue eyes casting anxious glances. She stumbled through the dying camp-fire, strewing bright sparking embers that quickly died.
She looked toward the river and saw it.
An odd, motionless form on the dock.
Oh, God. Oh, God. Please. Please.
She ran to it, calling, “Daddy! Daddy!”
He put down the rifle and turned his smiling face upon her. He stood tall and straight, his skin smooth and glowing with health. Two eagle feathers were wound into his gray hair and he wore red, white, and turquoise beaded moccasins.