He travels in the secret places of the land but the land doesn’t want him. The birds and beasts do not like him but he uses them as he pleases. When he makes a place his home the forest becomes sick and the people uneasy as he devours their peace. Traps are shut but empty, fish can float lifeless, marring a lake with their white bellies, and a child can perish in the womb. When he has made a place his home the people are uneasy, fearing everything, then become angry until their anger burns towards one another. He can shout all night from the trees for pleasure and do nothing, or for pleasure whisper dark sayings and shameful secrets into wind. He can chase away the game until there is no sound of birds and nothing to hunt. He can stop the crickets and frogs at night from singing and take pleasure in the silence while men tremble and struggle to keep in their piss. And if they succumb to his entreaties they will do abominable things. He is jealous of the sky and land and is vain, wanting to taint the memories of each generation and is happy when every kind of misfortune is attributed to him.
The wide Negwa flows languidly through a marsh plain surrounded by a gentle rolling evergreen and scrub valley of the northern Ontario lowlands and divides north and south-east where Crees settle and rest, harvesting mid-August sturgeon, waiting for the fall winds to push them north for the caribou migration. Smoke still bearing a faint savour of roasted meat lingers in the still evening air from dying fires and the sounds are subdued and happy. Old Nadie, matriarch of the band, sits cross leg on a mat holding up a leather smock made for a child with simple bead work around the collar, examining it approvingly, then calls out to her grand daughter.
“What is it you want grandmother?” said a young women, her long smooth black hair receiving a soft golden sheen as she emerged from a tent into evening sun.
“It’s done. Look how fine it’s made,” said Nadie as Alawa approached barefoot with a playful frown.
“It is very beautiful grandmother, but you need a child to put inside of it. Do you have one?” asked Alawa looking down with affection and annoyance to Nadie’s deeply wrinkled patient face.
“My time has passed to make children. I’ve made many already. It’s your time to make children now.”
“You’re very hopeful with your handy work.”
“Your husband is impatient for a son. The tent needs the voice of a child.”
“Can I make the wind or the snow? It comes when it will.”
“The Great Spirit makes the wind and the snow. Maybe you’ve displeased Him. Maybe your faith is weak.”
“You taught me. My faith is the same as yours.”
Nadie searched her granddaughters face then picked up a bowl with a dark mash of berries and roots.
“I’m tired of you potions grandmother.”
“And my prayers also?”
“Your prayers don’t taste bitter and burn my stomach.”
The old woman considered her for a moment and looked down to the mash that held her gaze.
“Grandmother?… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Nadie looked up to Alawa but seemed far away, distracted by another matter.
She looked passed Alawa as if searching for something then bent forward and turned around straining against a stiff back, staring behind. Alawa followed her gaze to the river where a large shedding caribou with enormous horns was standing perfectly still in the long grass and soft ground with its head raised looking to their settlement.
“What’s wrong grandmother? It’s just a caribou. It is meat for us. Look how it stands like it’s offering itself. Annibus! Look!” she shouted happily to a young man a couple to tents away known for his passion of the kill.
Annibus looked from Alawa to the caribou and had a rush of hunter’s adrenaline. He was standing beside his father Ashuweteau who was sitting on the ground repairing a fishing spear with two small grand children drawn close to him watching. Annibus leaned down, tapped his fathers shoulder once with the back of his hand and pointed and together they looked to the caribou that held perfectly still. Annibus smiled at the good fortune, swiftly swept up his rifle leaning against a stump by his tent and just as he was mounting it to his shoulder Ashuweteau raised his palm to stop him. He looked to his father with puzzlement and cocked his head while Ashuweteau continued holding up his palm studying the animal that showed no fear of them.
People stood and together looked to the river that was shiny and dark in the evening light, flowing slow through the grassy field, watching the motionless caribou with its gaze fixed on them. Most were amused and curious, looking to one another and to the caribou but grew confused by the serious aspect of Ashuweteau and Nadie. Then the animal began to step forward slow and deliberate and everyone quieted and Ashuweteau stood without looking away.
As it got closer onto firm ground everyone could see something was very unnatural about the animal. It stepped slow like it was forcing its legs against a strong current, occasionally waving its huge horns deeply from side to side in a slow rhythm, moving steadily towards them and the excitement of the small children turned to fear and they hid behind their parents legs peeking around them.
“Move back. Let it pass without disturbing it!” shouted Ashuweteau.
“It is sick!” said Annibus and his father glanced at him as if to say something but kept quiet.
“I could feel it before I saw it,” said Nadie who came and stood by him and he turned looking at her sternly, commanding her silence.
When the strange caribou came to the edge of camp people divided and stepped back quietly making a wide path. All eyes followed as it walked slowly among them, its dark eyes clouded, seeming to be unaware of them, clamping down its’ broad teeth on a swollen tongue hanging from the side of its mouth and they could hear its laboured breath hissing through pulsing nostrils and splintered hoofs hitting the firm ground. Then it stopped and everyone murmured, stepping further back and drawing closer together. It arched its head far back towards the sky and let out an eerie mournful high piercing bellow that filled the valley then stumbled back almost falling on its rear, struggled to right itself, then continued walking until it passed through camp and everyone drew back together as one with their eyes fixed on it, watching it walk over the open field and disappear into the black spruce, balsam and stunted conifers.
“We’ve seen this together,” said Nadie. “We have all seen the same thing. It is for all of us.”
The sun descended behind the trees beyond the marsh and the sky became big with dense bright stars and everyone went to their tents.
“Why are you lighting a fire grandmother? It’s not even cold,” said Alawa from her blankets watching Nadie carrying embers on a flat stone into the tent but she didn’t answer as she knelt and placed them carefully among grass and sticks in a small pit. She bent over low on her palms, her oval face glowing as she puckered her wrinkled mouth and blew red coals into flame then sat cross leg, wrapping her shoulders in a prayer shawl and watched the fire thoughtfully.
“There’s much to do grandmother. You should sleep. Morning is not far away.”
Nadie didn’t answer. She bent around, took up an old worn leather satchel, unfolded it and removed two incense sticks made of tightly bound sweet grass. She held the ends in the fire making two small flames and blew them out leaving smoking red embers. She pressed them into the ground to stand on each side of her, moistened a finger on the end of her tongue, put it into old ash on the edge of the pit and drew a thick dark line above her eyes, pinched both earlobes and rocked gently back and forth, occasionally fanning the embers with a large eagle feather.
“Sleep Alawa, while you can. Never mind me.”
“How can I sleep when you are scaring me.”
“I don’t mean to. Please try to sleep.”
The old woman closed her eyes and began humming quietly.
She hummed a low steady repeating rhythm broken with muttering as she rocked and Alawa laid on her side watching.
“I wish my husband was here. He’ll be back in two days…”
Her grandmother suddenly stopped humming, opening her eyes, still and attentive as if listening to something far off.
“Grandmother? What is it?”
“He’s watching,” she said.
“Whose watching? Everyone is in their tents.”
Annibus woke in perfect darkness to the vast endless shrill calls of frogs filling the stillness and could feel someone was awake.
“Father?” he whispered.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Just an old man being an old man, thinking about days past,” he said quietly.
Annibus drew his warm blanket closer under his chin because the air had chilled and could feel his wife’s hand still on his hip.
“What’s troubling you,” he said sleepily.
“Stories of my parents and grandparents. Things they shared with us when we were young.”
“The caribou is troubling you?”
“Perhaps a little,” he said nodding in the dark.
“What do you think. Was it a message? The old woman looked frightened.”
“Nadie carries many memories. More than the rest of us.”
“If memories cause unrest maybe they should be left in the past eh?”
He heard his father moving about and could just see his dark figure against the stars as he pulled back the flap and left the tent. As Annibus was falling asleep he was startled back by a far off powerful sharp crack! that reverberated through the valley causing his wife and children to stir in their sleep. It was far too loud to be an animal and much different from a gun. He tried to reason what it was and another loud crack issued from a different direction, much closer and he stood from his blankets with the feeling of being threatened but not knowing by what and was ashamed of his fear and drew it back in by sheer will and strength of youth because he was very reasonable and brave.
“What is it Annibus?” said his wife.
“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
“What is that!?”
“The coldness coming from the ground to the trees. It is nothing,” he said and went outside and stood quietly by his fathers dark form. The river was black and the marsh glowed faintly under a moonless sky and the jagged tree line beyond the marsh was black against the stars.
“It is like the trees are being split in two from their foundations,” said Annibus.
Then the cracking seemed to come from everywhere, in waves from all sides until everyone emerged from their tents frightened and stood together with Ashuweteau and Annibus, murmuring with confusion and enquiry and trembling hearts, looking around into the dark tree line not able to see anything moving. Then it went suddenly quiet except for the frogs and everyone listened together but there was nothing.
“This is a fearful thing. We have never heard this before. What does it mean?” someone said.
“We should not be frightened!” said Annibus boldly. “We should not fear just because we don’t understand. In the morning we will see what has happened and laugh at our fear.”
“We have never heard such a thing. It is like the trees are angry with us,” said a young man.
“What do you think Ashuweteau?” said a woman.
But he didn’t answer.
“Father? Tell them. We shouldn’t fear noises in the dark like children,” said Annibus.
When he put his hand on his father’s shoulder to encourage him the quietness was ruptured by a tremendous deep splash, followed by a long shower of falling water that made them gasp and yell with terror, looking to the dark river that seemed strangely undisturbed. Everyone knew what they heard was impossible. There were no hills or mountains for it to fall from. It sounded like a boulder heavier than any group of men could lift had fallen from the sky. Then another splash, and another and another until they were innumerable in quick succession with a deafening roar and some people fell to the ground wailing to the Great Spirit for mercy, others stricken still with terror, and children erupted into crying and it was quiet again save the people’s frightened cries. And amongst the tumult Nadie came from her tent, walking carefully to a pit with embers and began to light a fire and gradually they quieted and watched her in fearful astonishment.
“What are you doing Nadie? We are doomed and you’re making a fire,” said a mournful woman.
“This spirit is very deceitful. We must now gather and pray together and try not to be frightened,” said Nadie sitting and fanning the small flame with the edge of her smock and they looked to Ashuweteau who they had trusted and followed for eighteen winters.
“Listen to the woman,” he said.
They looked about in the darkness, towards the river and trees and came tentatively, standing around the pit looking to each others fearful faces starting to glow in the rising flame, thirty- three in all, four of them small children clutching their mothers.
More wood was gathered and as the fire grew people began taking comfort around it and from being close to one another and Nadie told everyone to sit and they obeyed, even Annibus. But he was angry at the strange things he couldn’t understand, angry at their fear and disappointed with his father who seemed weak when he should be strong.
“Annibus, how brave you are!” came a strange voice and he searched the faces glowing in the flame to know who said it but no one was looking to him.
They watched the old women expectantly. She beckoned for the prayer drum and turned it over and over, tapping it lightly in steady rhythm and began to sing a common prayer and everyone joined, petitioning for blessings of strength and protection. Their song went out into the vast darkness under the stars, small and frail, plaintive, lonely, desperate, hopeful, and courage stirred in them and grew until their voices rose more shrill and confident.
She is a good woman, Ashuweteau thought watching Nadie sing, her wrinkled face glowing brighter across the pit. … she has been good for us. The last of her kind. Wise. She’s never been prideful in her wisdom or tried to shame me before the people. She has been a quiet strength to me…This spirit…it is new to me…Can it be him, the one spoken of by my mother?
And Nadie looked over to him and nodded once as if to warn more was to come.
Then it came from the air above, not from a human voice of flesh but like a snap of electricity.
Everyone stopped singing, gasping with panic or silenced in fearful awe, and they looked to one another then to Nadie who continued playing the prayer drum.
“It’s mocking us Nadie! What do we do?”
“Sing in prayer with me and do not let it trouble you!”
“How can you say such a thing! It is very powerful! It makes the land yell.”
“Are we to be destroyed?” said another.
Annibus looked at them with puzzlement because they had stopped singing suddenly but he couldn’t hear what they were saying, just a dull indistinguishable muffle. He poked both ears vigorously, shook his head then slapped his ears hard with his palms and stood quickly continuing to slap his ears. He had went deaf the moment of the laugh and didn’t hear it and they looked to him in amazement and a woman screamed.
“What’s happening?! What has happened to Annibus?!
The old women stood and took Annibus’s hand, smiling into his face knowingly to calm him and signalled him to sit but he pulled away, continuing to stand then slapped the sides of his head hard.
“We will see morning, all of us,” said Nadia. “But tonight we must be brave.”
Then Annibus ran off into the darkness and his father stood to go after him but Nadie pleaded for him to stay.
“There’s nothing you can do for him now. He has been deafened but only for a time. We must stay together and be strong. This spirit is very deceitful and wants to divide us.”
“I believe your words Nadie but my heart is full of fear.”
“So is mine Ashuweteau. It’s what he wants. We must fight it.”
What followed is remembered differently but it started the same way for everyone. Laughter began to fall as if drifting slowly from above, like delicate bubbles bursting with ancient ethereal mocking laughter all around and over them, continuing until some were brought to the threshold of madness.
I will trust the old woman, thought Ashuweteau, drawing in courage with all his strength, and stood to comfort the people but was stopped suddenly by a strange voice close to his ear calling his name and he looked around to see who was speaking but everyone was consumed by their own fear, wailing, petitioning, drawing away from the circle while the old woman pleaded with them.
“Ashuweteau! I will spare your people gladly. But I require something of you.”
He looked around but knew the voice speaking was not from natural flesh.
“Your people are on the verge of destruction. I know you are a compassionate man and will do your best for them. I will help you.”
He didn’t answer the voice and looked to Nadie and their eyes met and the wise old woman knew something terrible was happening to him but was unable to hear the voice because it was meant only for him.
“I want a child Ashuweteau. Choose one for me. Bring him to the river and toss him in so I can watch him thrash as the river takes him. And I will leave you in peace. It is a small price and I will give you much game for the rest of the season.”
Ashuweteau recoiled with horror and yelled.
“You are not the Great Spirit! Leave us. Leave us evil one!”
“Ha ha ha ha. Are you my judge Ashuweteau?! Are you greater than your parents?”
“I ask you Ashuweteau, are you so great that you can judge me and your parents. Because they gave me a wonderful and honourable offering many years ago.”
“Get away from us!”
“You had a brother you never met! Your mother was wise and gave him to me with her own hands while you were still in her stomach.”
“Liar! Liar, lair…” he yelled over and over and people were going mad around him because they also were being spoken to but the voice spoke of different things to each person but no voice came to Nadie and she looked to Ashuweteau as he shouted at nothing.
“It is no shameful thing and it is a small thing. Do this and it will be over,” said the voice.
And the remaining threads of his resolve began to unravel as he watched the turmoil around him and he wept in anguish that clouded his mind and was hardly aware he was walking, as if propelled forward by an energy that was outside of himself yet still himself, all the time tears streaming and he could hear his own voice saying, No! And a shout came to him through the fog of despair and insanity. Someone shouting his name.
“No Ashuweteau no. Don’t give him blood. We will be bound to him and do evil things!” cried Nadie.
The fog lifted from his mind and before him stood a woman clutching a child and his hands were on the small moving bundle. He looked to her face that was filled with terror and fell to his knees, raising his arms to her pleading for forgiveness.
Annibus sat deaf, despairing in the darkness away from camp and could just make out the people’s confused faintly glowing figures, enveloped in thick silence and through the silence a quiet voice tickled his ear.
“Eh?” he said looking around.
“Annibus, you are blessed!”
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“Come. Stand. Go see.”
“Who are you?”
“The one who will show you the truth. Stand and go to them! It is up to you now.”
He raised himself heavily from the long grass, making his way slowly to camp because it felt like the air was resisting him but the closer he got he began to feel stronger until he was in the glow of the fire standing amongst the turmoil in disbelief. He looked around to people weeping and clutching to one another, some laughing with tears, others wailing to the sky and he could hear none of it.
“What is happening?”
“This is all because of your father. Look at him!”
He looked to his father who was on his knees with his arms stretched up imploringly to a woman holding a child but Annibus could still hear nothing but the voice.
“See how weak he is! You are not weak Annibus. His time has passed like a moth clinging to a damp tent in the morning because it can no longer fly, waiting for death. But you are brave. A man to be admired and respected. Are you not brave?”
“Finish him and take your place. Draw your blade and I will bless it. It is given to you to do this.”
And it seemed to Annibus this was always in his heart but only now revealed, resentment for his father’s slow careful ways, cowardly ways and he drew his knife from his waist and began to walk towards him. Then a bony hand caught his wrist tightly.
“Stop Annibus! It’s a trick!” screamed Nadie and he looked down to her face and blackness and rage swept through his soul.
After two-and-a-half years the commanding officer of the North West Mounted Rifles at Ft. Albany on James Bay still liked to run his post with a good measure of formality. Far away from home, from tailor and butcher shops, brick and mortar buildings, family dinners and the possibility of marriage, professionalism and the certainty of promotion gave him fortitude to endure through to the end of his post. Behind him on a pine wall hung a large picture framed in dark stained wood of a middle aged man with receding wavy hair and a smile that seemed to possess a subtle suggestion of mischief. A small gold plaque on the bottom read, The honourable Sir John. A. MacDonald.
He sat as his desk in a tidy scarlet uniform buttoned snugly to his neck doing a monthly report with open shutters letting in a stream of evening light and a cool summer breeze from the endless bay when there was a brisk knock.
A young corporeal came in and stood formally before the desk.
“Hello Tom. Relax. Back from the wilds already. How are you?” asked the officer.
“Good thank you sir and yourself. Only two months to go.”
“Fifty-six days to be exact,” said the officer sharing a grin. “So is everything okay out there?”
“The usual intrigues. Trade disputes, trapping territory infringements, and the usual griping that’s been going on for a while now but not like what’s going on in the west.”
“Thank God for that Tom.”
“Out there is where all the action is.”
“You can have it. It won’t be long anyways and they’ll deal with that scoundrel Riel… Well I suppose you’ll give me a report with all the details of your doings this week. Is there anything else?”
The young corporeal hesitated.
“Well I did see something unusual yesterday morning that might deserve note. As we paddled the Albany we came across a group of Cree travelling along the river on foot. I’ve never seen them before and they looked very haggard like they haven’t been keeping care of themselves, even a bit malnourished. Hardly looked at me when I hailed them and refused to stop. They just kept a steady pace like they needed to get some where.
“I counted twenty-six. We hit shore and I had to get right in front of the old man leading them before he’d stop and even look at me directly. When he did stop he looked at me queerly, like it took him a moment to realize there was a person before him, and still it was like he was staring straight through me. And all the others had that far off look. It was unsettling. I spoke to him in English but he just stared without a word so I told my young guide Nooteau to ask where they were from. Turns out they were a long way from home, the lower Negwa being their regular summer territory. I told Nooteau to ask what they were doing so far from home. He talked very somberly to Nooteau and Nooteau looked very troubled. I asked what the old man said and he just shook his head. I would say he was terrified. He backed away and refused to look at the old man like he wanted to bolt and I couldn’t get anymore out of him… I wasn’t sure what to do so just let them go on their way… they were odd, certainly but…”
As Tom talked the officer glanced to a framed accommodation on a wall praising their dedication, signed by the prime minster, then looked back to Tom and interrupted him.
“We should know more about this. Go talk to the tracker we use sometimes, Steward. He spends a lot of time with these people and knows every bit of gossip.”
“That’s what I did just before coming here and sure enough he knew of them. Apparently they’ve been wandering for almost three years now in no particular pattern, spotted as far south as Odagaki and west to the Snake River, and they lost a couple on the way. He told me they believe they’re being chased by an evil spirit that won’t let them rest and fear death if they stay anywhere to long. He said the man leading them, Ashuweteau, was once reasonable but driven to madness along with the rest of them. He had a son but no one knows what became of him and they carry the bones of an old woman. Someone that had been important to them. They stay away from others for fear they might share the same fate as them which I guess in its own strange way is commendable.”
“Amazing story Tom. Tragic…” he said and thought quietly for a moment. This lonely band of superstitious lunatics aren’t harming anyone but themselves. Not a threat to the Commonwealth.
“Should I include them in my report?” asked Tom.
About the author: Glen Louttit was relocated from Thorold, Ontario at the tender age of 6 years old when his mother moved their family back to her home town in Northern Ontario. He grew up in Oba, Ontario where the population during his life time never exceeded eighty-five. It was shocking and beautiful and after a short time Glen forgot that he ever lived in southern Ontario. Always a writer, over the last two years Glen has written a collection of short fiction, most of it set in the North. Says the author, “I think some of these stories came out of a longing to be there. At fifty seven years old, living and working in the Sault, I look forward to retirement so I can go back.”