Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Away from the Great Water

Plains Cree Fishing Village, Great Water
December, 1748

The night's storms had blown away, and the morning dawned bright and clear and cold. There was just a gentle breeze over the Great Water, a gentle breeze that rippled the surface and pushed the canoe up against the grinding ice that piled up along the shore. In the canoe were the bodies of three young men.

After a time one of the bodies stirred. Moaning softly, Black Egret wrenched himself up to a sitting position and half-staggered, half-fell out of the boat, landing on all fours in the icy water. For a moment he stayed there, chest and stomach heaving, and then he slowly got back to his feet.

Ice had formed on the front of the canoe, so it was slippery and cut his hands as he dragged it out of the water halfway up onto the frozen shore. He crouched over the bodies of his brothers, ear against their lips, for a long time. He did not cry; he had spent himself in the storm last night.

At last he put his hands under Far Osprey's armpits and dragged him out of the canoe and onto the sand. Carefully he crouched down, loaded his brother's body onto his back, and grunted as he stood. He turned away from the Great Water, looking for a good place to bury him.

Three fishermen were standing there. They were dressed in furs and carried nets and fishing spears, and were standing about a hundred yards away. They were just watching.

At this point, Black Egret did not care if they killed him or not. He stood staring at them a while, to see what they would do.

"Who are you?" said one at last, in the trade language. It wasn't the trade language Black Egret had grown up with, but he'd picked up a few words in his travels the last few months.

"Black Egret," he said. "I come from the west."

There was more silence. The three men looked at each other. One of them turned and jogged back into the trees.

"Is that one dead?" asked one of the men.

"Yes," said Black Egret. "Sickness."

Another pause. Far Osprey was getting heavy. "I am burying him," said Black Egret.

The men nodded. "Follow me," said one of them. He walked across Black Egret's path and up the snowy slope, and Black Egret followed in his footsteps. They went over the rise and down into a narrow gully choked with woody brambles, and then up a steep hill, at the top of which was a lone bare aspen.

The man pointed at the ground there under the tree. As Black Egret labored up the hill under his brother's body, the man backed away, keeping at least fifty feet between them at all times. Black Egret lay Far Osprey's body down in the snow, stood, and smelled the air. From here, he could see woodlands stretching away north, south, and east, and the Great Water filling the horizon to the west. The way home. It was a good, clean place.

He began digging into the snow and earth with his hands. The man watched a short time, and then went away.

Not long afterwards, about three dozen people came and stood at the foot of the hill, men, women, and children. The man who had led him there brought a long sturdy shovel, apparently made of bison bone, and laid it halfway up the hill, and went back down again. Black Egret went down and took it, waving his thanks, and then went back up and began digging in earnest.

When he had buried Far Osprey, he walked back down to the Great Water and drank. Then he took Small Heron in his arms -- he was much smaller than Far Osprey -- and carried him up to the top of the hill, and began digging his grave.

As he dug, he did not look at the body. The sickness had covered his brother's skin with small pus-filled lumps, so that he was hardly recognizable. Black Osprey's own skin was covered with the same lumps, but they were beginning to disappear now. They left terrible scars. He did not think about it. His world was the mud and snow and frozen earth, the wind and his hot breath, the cold sun and the open sky and the lone aspen.

At last the work was done. Black Egret sat with has back to the tree for a while, allowing his body to cool, watching the play of the sunlight on the Great Water, the last and mightiest of the five lakes. After a while he took his knife and scrawled a two signs in the bark of the tree: two signs known only to himself, for, though unable to read, he had devised his own code based on the strange marks in the Russian journal.

The journal. He forced himself to stand again, and looked down the hill, and saw all the people still there, watching him.

He went back to the canoe and took from it his pack, his tools and his blankets, and then returned to the hill. It took him some time. When he got back the people were gone; but they had left him supplies: more blankets, cooking pots, dry firewood, salted meat and fish and bird, nuts and grains and dried fruit, an excellently crafted tent made of hide, weapons and boots and...

Far more than he could carry, even though they had piled it on a sledge. But next to the sledge, tied to a stake in the ground, were two healthy dogs.

He sat next to the dogs for a while, and cried; and then he fed them, and made friends with them. Then he made a fire and pitched the tent and crawled inside to sleep.

"I am sorry about your brothers," said Anna.

"Let me be," whispered Black Egret into the silent darkness. "For this night, of all nights, let me be."

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