Excerpt from Chapter 1
“It is a full scholarship,” said Seven Trees pausing to take a puff from the decorated pipe being passed about the council circle. Her old voice was still strong in the dim, smoky room. “So… there will be no financial burden on the tribe. Not to mention a huge opportunity for our little Silver.”
Elk whistle accepted the pipe from her with a chuckle. “You should look again, Seven Trees. Our Sooneawa is not so little anymore. She is a grown woman.”
“Not yet,” snapped the sullen voice of Cold Heart of the Mountain. “She is still only seventeen. And until that time all decisions of her fate are ours to make. And I say she stays here.”
“Daki’inde!” exclaimed Seven Trees. “How can you ask that of her? She dreams of being a vet and here is her chance, her only chance I might add, to go to University to become one and you want her to throw it away? When was the last time one of the people were extended such generosity?”
“Exactly,” she harrumphed, jabbing the air with a bony finger. “When? Why now, eh? What good ever came of what the white man has to offer?” She shook her head, sending the wooden beads adorning her braid wraps rattling. “No. It is for her own good we keep her here. She is a magic child. We cannot allow the white world to corrupt her or steal her from us.”
“She may be magic, Daki,” came the calm voice of chief Falling Elk, “but she cannot make magic. As such, her absence will be no hardship to the tribe. Her return, however, will bring us great things.”
Cold Heart turned to the old chief. “Not what I have seen,” she sniffed imperiously. “Great tragedy will befall if she leaves the protection of Silver Rose Mountain. She will suffer at the hands of those white devils, be tainted by them.”
The chief, to her surprise, nodded. “Lizard has visited me too, Daki’inde. He brought me powerful dreams and I tell you this, if you ask her in ten years if it was all worth it, she will answer unequivocally yes. Either way, it is her choice to make.”
“She is my niece, old man,” she growled, desperation beginning to mar her judgement. “Don’t you forget that. As her only living relative….”
“Don’t argue with me, old woman,” he said with a calm voice that nevertheless cut her off as sharply as if he had snapped. “You gave up the right to do so ten years ago when your sister died. You decided then that you did not want to deal with a child and surrendered her to the tribe for raising, even though that meant you would not inherit her property. If the girl wishes to go to this Cordel University, then I say she should be allowed.”
“The girl is a Speaker, Falling Elk,” she said. “We cannot allow the whites to find out we still possess magic. She is too valuable, I tell you!”
At this, another woman spoke, this one older than them all. Her hair was so white it was almost translucent, and her braids fell in coils on the floor. Behind her on a short perch stood a raven easily three feet tall with an ancient gleam in his fierce black eye. Her own eyes were nearly solid white, clouded over by cataracts she refused to have removed. “The child a Speaker may be, but she is not a Memory. As such, it matters not if she leaves us because she can never leave us.”
Seven Trees frowned, passing the pipe to the older woman with a small bow. “How can that be, Spider?”
The old hands reached for the pipe, found it without error though she never turned her face. Only the raven’s head moved to watch. “Think about the girl’s name, child,” she said, took a long puff of the pipe, let the smoke slowly curl up and around her head, making strange shapes in the air which the bird watched intently. “She will take us with her wherever she goes. She will always be in the ‘shadow of the mountain’.”
“Just because her name loosely translates to Silver Rose Mountain, and I mean loosely, does not…,” Cold Heart tried.
“Loosely,” Spider said. “Which places her in the shadow of the thing.”
Cold Heart tried one last argument. “What about her Niijii Manidoo? It is unlikely that the school will let her bring a pet. It is not safe for her to go without him,” she added with finality.
“Actually,” grinned Elk Whistle, his eyes dancing, “I have read these pamphlets. One of the six dormitories is encouraging the students to bring a pet, something small and undisruptive. There is a group of graduate students running an experiment on the campus, testing the theory that students allowed animals will be calmer and more receptive to study and thus get higher grades. Gaganan will not be a problem.”
“I still say….”
Spider had had enough. “Cease your prattle, girl. You make my head ache. You have lost. Accept this with grace.”
“We are agreed then, all but Daki’inde?” asked the chief.
Everyone nodded, even old Pipestone, who had sat swaying silently, listening to some tune only he could hear throughout the whole argument. “Then the child will be allowed to accept the scholarship.” Cold Heart silently fumed, refusing the pipe when it was passed to her. “Now we sit and smoke,” said Falling Elk accepting the pipe. “Mmmm, good tobacco, brother. Some of your best I’d say.”
“That’s the deer tongue,” nodded Elk Whistle.
Seven Trees tossed another small braid of dried sweetgrass into the fire, watched the fragrant smoke curl towards the hole in the domed roof. No one acted as if they noticed when Cold Heart of the Mountain stormed out of the council chamber, slamming the ‘flap’ closed, except for Pipestone, who only half turned his head before holding out his hand for the pipe.
Outside, Sooneawa waited with two of her friends. Tuwe and Memenqwa were seated on the fence just outside the stone wigwam where the council met. Most of the official buildings on the Silver Rose Mountain Reservation were made of modern materials, but shaped to resemble native dwellings. Sooneawa leaned back against the fence post, fiddling nervously with the feathers adorning her braid wraps. She stood as the door opened, watched her aunt storm out in a black mood and her heart leapt. She waited until her aunt had passed out of earshot before turning to her friends.
“Ninoshenh Daki’ is furious,” she said, barely able to contain her excitement. “That can only mean one thing!”
“You’re being allowed to go!” Memenqwa finished for her, hopping off the fence and throwing her arms around her friend with a squeal.
“Congrats! You are coming back for the wedding, right?” queried Tuwe.
Memenqwa looked up at him, stunned. Recovering quickly, she hit his knee. “What the hell kinda proposal is that?”
He blinked, “You mean I haven’t asked you yet?”
“NO!” she growled, her fists on her hips.
“Damn that Lizard…. I’ve got my dreaming and reality mixed up again.”
She jumped him, knocking both of them backwards over the fence, rolling in the grass. “I’ll show you reality!”
A large cat, possibly of the Maine Coon variety, mostly white with uneven black markings that covered most of his back and head, walked up and sat down next to Sooneawa. He peered over the bottom rail at the tussle. *At it again are they?* he purred.
Sooneawa nodded, setting a foot on the fence and resting her arms on the top rail. “Yup.”
*What’d he forget this time?*
*To ask her to marry him. Thought he had already asked her,* she mewled.
The cat sighed, looked up at her. The white point that aimed up from his nose almost bisected his face, leaving the black cap looking more like a mask or cowl. He blinked his green-gold eyes at her. *So when are we leaving?*
The undecipherable argument from the couple in the grass was becoming more frequently punctuated by giggles as they rolled closer to the underbrush.
“Haven’t been told officially yet. So I don’t know.”
He hopped up onto the fence post. His bulk made the process look much more precarious than it was. *I saw your aunt. Heard her fume. Convinced you are going to run off with some white man and get your heart broken.*
She snorted. *More like afraid I am going to dilute the bloodline farther.*
*I don’t think she likes you very much,* he observed.
*Resents me more like.*
Tuwe, having finally pinned his girlfriend, sat straddling her hips, holding her arms down. “Well? Will you marry me or not, woman?”
“What did Lizard tell you?” she growled. “Makwa Zoongi!” she chanted in Ojibwe. Her strength spiking, she threw him off despite his leverage, sent him flying into the brush. “What do you think?” she added, throwing herself in after him with a growl. Both of them disappeared into the foliage.
The cat climbed into Sooneawa’s arms and the two of them walked off. *Oh, there they go again. There’ll be kittens by Spring,* he muttered.
Sooneawa crossed the fence into the pasture some distance from the council house and found an oak with broad spreading limbs to sit beneath and think. Gaganan, the cat, hopped into the grass at her side. It was high summer, so she was wearing a calico sundress that had been her mother’s and he spread out a fold of her skirt and curled up on it. Together they watched the dragonflies zooming through the air like flying jewels. She buried her hand in his fur, massaging the wiry muscles beneath the loose skin.
Johnny Southbend walked past on his appaloosa and paused, sighting her under the tree. “So, Nea. Are you going or staying?”
“They haven’t told me yet,” she smiled. “Though I believe they have made their decision.”
“Well, good luck! You’ll be the first to go beyond junior college in 60 years. Maybe you’ll bring a little prosperity back with you, eh?”
She laughed. “Oh, I intend to open my practice on the mountain. Got my eye on a place just off the reservation proper, so the traffic doesn’t spoil the peace around here.”
“Sounds good. Say, have you seen my nephew around? I got that bracelet he wanted me to pick up in town. You know, the one he wanted engraved?” he said with a knowing wink.
Gaganan laughed, covered his nose with his tail. *A little late for a wedding band,* he snickered.
She tried to keep a straight face. “You won’t find him right now, but… in a little while,… he might reappear across from the council building.”
He hung his head. “That boy get lost in his dreaming again?”
She chuckled. “Tuwe never gets lost in his dreams. It’s reality that tends to confuse him. Needs more attention from the dragonflies.”
“I’ll get him later then. Good luck,” he waved, nudging the horse onward.
*Speaking of dreams….*
*Yes?* she purred, turning to the cat.
*Take a nap.*
*Look at your mocc,* he said flicking his tail towards her shoe. There was a lizard perched on the upper ridge of the beading, basking in a fragment of sunlight.
“Oh,” she said. She settled herself back against the tree, finding a more comfortable position without disturbing the lizard. “Fine,” she sighed and closed her eyes.
Sleep did not attempt to elude her. The buzzing of happy insects combined with the still warmth of the high summer sun lulled her quite easily. She was unaware of the transition, even when she opened her eyes to a sound near her. She was still lying against the oak tree waiting for the elders to come and inform her of their decision. As a tribal orphan, when her aunt refused to accept her, she became a ward of the tribe and unlike other Mainganoden children who only had to get permission from two parents, she had to acquire the permission of the whole council.
She reached down without looking to take comfort in the warm fur body beside her only to find cool scales instead. She looked, saw a large yellow snake with eyes like sapphires curled up in the grass in the cat’s place. She froze, having wisdom enough not to jerk away. The snake raised its head, part of its upper coils easing across her lap, the thick, scaled body gliding smoothly beneath her hand. Their eyes locked, the fanged mouth opened, venom dripping from the pointed tips.
Just out of sight, a horse screamed and the snake turned. Sooneawa looked up to see a white horse with black markings on his flanks, chest, ears and the crown of his head rearing over her. He had one deep blue eye and one brown and brought his full weight crashing down on the snake, just missing her. The snake turned on him, striking but its fangs only grazed the leg.
Sooneawa started to move, to ease away from the fight, but the snake turned again, seizing hold of her arm with its tail. The horse continued to trample the serpent, his hooves striking with grace and precision even when the snake tried to tighten its hold upon her.
Soon the snake lay dead and the horse took it in his teeth and tossed the carcass away. She reached out to touch the thin line of blood marring the horse’s snow-white limb and noticed the blood on her own arm. She looked down and saw that she was splattered in the snake’s blood but there was not a mark on her.
The horse nudged her cheek, nuzzled at her neck. She stroked the underside of the great head, but the animal kept pushing at her. Finally, he purred in her ear.
She woke with a start, turned to see Gaganan’s face by hers, his paws on her shoulder. *Well?* he asked expectantly.
*That was… disturbing,* she rumbled, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him into a hug. He did not resist, rather began licking whatever part of her he could reach. *Apparently you are going to rescue me from a snake.*
*Oh I am, am I?*
“Well, I think it’s you. It was a black and white horse… a medicine hat. And you are my black and white medicine. My spirit guide and guardian. What else could it mean?”
“Could mean quite a bit,” said Chief Falling Elk.
Sooneawa looked up at the grey-haired man leaning on the fence rail, gazed into his strong, chiselled face with a start and scrambled to her feet. “Yes, Grandfather?”
He looked her over a long moment. “Walk with me,” he said then turned and began walking towards the stream that cut through the reservation.
She ducked through the fence and fell into step with him. The cat followed at a respectful distance, eagerly observing all around him.
“Tell me about this dream,” he said.
While she really wanted official confirmation whether or not she was being allowed to go, she obeyed, describing everything in as vivid detail as she could remember. She quickly found that the only parts of the world that had been truly clear to her were the horse, the snake and the oak at her back. Everything else had been somewhat fuzzy.
The chief took it all in, nodding sagely. “So you think the horse is Gaganan?”
“Well,” she said, thinking about it. “Yes, I am almost certain. That the horse was a medicine hat kind of cinched it, his being a guardian and all. That and being black and white, not red. Most Medicine Hats I’ve ever seen were red, brown or blonde. What concerns me most is the snake. They are healing medicine, and though this was a constrictor, it had venomous fangs and it was definitely a threat.”
“You are certain it was a constrictor?”
“Yes. The head wasn’t broad enough. It looked a lot like that albino python Tuwe’s brother has. Except that I saw the venom. It wasn’t a real snake. I am concerned that the medical training I seek….”
“Will somehow try to harm you?”
“My child, knowledge itself cannot harm one. It is how we gain it and what we do with it that can bring harm. If you go anywhere you expose yourself to danger. This walk we are on right now exposes us to snake bite, to falling, to mountain lion if we travel far enough. In your dream, you were not harmed, though the hooves of your protector struck close.”
“It clipped me once, I felt the sharp edge of the hoof, but it didn’t hurt. And I was covered in the snake’s blood when it was done.”
“Which probably means you will not emerge unscathed, only unharmed.”
“Oh, I forgot. The horse’s eyes were mismatched. Brown and blue.”
“Ah, well then it cannot be Gaganan, as his eyes are green and gold. But you want to know about our decision and not your dreams, ...unless they change your mind about going?”
She stopped. “I can go then?”
He smiled. “Yes, granddaughter, you can.”
“There is a condition!” came a cracked voice from across the stream. They looked to see Spider Yellowbuck, in her worn leathers adorned with bird skulls and beads, leaning heavily upon a gnarled walking stick. Her raven was in a tree nearby.
“It is a little late to impose conditions, Memory,” frowned Falling Elk.
“Listen to me, you young rip,” she growled. “I shall impose what I please when I please as the spirits insist. And this condition Eagle sets.”
Sooneawa felt her heart tighten. Eagle was the far-sighted spirit, the giver of Vision Quest and the connection to the Great Spirit and his plan. He was the one who chose the Memory’s successor. Sooneawa had a good mind and decent recall, but she had been eternally relieved when she had failed Spider’s test years ago. The last thing she wanted to be was the Memory’s apprentice, to lose herself in the history of the tribe. Not that she wasn’t curious to see things the way the old one did, to know first hand the stories of their lives. She was just unwilling to pay the price, to lose herself in the tribal memory.
“What condition, Yellowbuck?” he sighed.
“The condition,” she began, turning her blind eyes to Sooneawa, “is that when all is said and done …you will know the time… you return to us. That you return to us what is ours. What is mine.”
Without another word or an explanation, she turned and hobbled away, the raven soaring on an updraught and hovering above her like a giant black kite. A tiny breeze blew up, whisking past her face and she watched a single black feather float through the air and land in the stream. The feather sailed along the current until it snared on a rock at her feet. She felt she had no choice but to pick it up. She stood there, fingers trembling as she turned the blue-black feather over. She felt the chief put his hand on her shoulder.
“Do not fear, granddaughter. You are not the Memory, nor will you be. She has told us this. You are not pure enough.”
She gave a choked laugh. “Of blood? If that is one of the criteria then soon we will have no Memory. Our pure blood numbers are dwindling, and if my aunt has her way we will be more inbred than the royal families of old Europe before long.”
“No, of mind,” he corrected. “Your impurity lies here,” he said, touching her forehead, “and here,” touching her heart. “You are about to go out into the white world, to learn white medicine. That taints you, but only for her purposes. We do need you back,” he smiled with a chuckle, “but go with our blessing.”
She hugged him, making him laugh. “Yes, I know what this means to you, to learn the healing of the animals. But do not forget our ways of healing too. You must also remember not to allow them to know your gift or your true worth. There are some who will not take it well, or who would seek to abuse it. Let the magic regrow in their own kind first, before we reveal what we have never lost. Now if you go see Seven Trees, she is getting some money to buy you what you will need for school.”
*Great: shopping,* Gaganan growled. *I think I’ll stick around here, thank you, ...go chase some frogs.*
“Suit yourself!” she laughed as she danced off.
The old chief sat down beside the cat next to the stream, stroked the large, black head. The cat let him, closing his eyes. “I know you understand me, Gagaanwaanikwe. I know you cannot answer me, but heed me. You are going to be limited where you can follow her. You who are her bridge to the spirits, you may be able to ask spirits to watch over her for you. ...I have dreamed terrible things for her.”
The cat looked up at him, meowed something he could not understand, but guessed at its intent. “I know that, on the whole, she will look back on them without regret, so I do not fear letting her go. She will need these events to grow and find her way. As you are her bridge to the spirit world, she will be our bridge to the outside world. We need her. Bring her back to us.”
The cat sagely nodded, then turned to eye a frog swimming near the edge of the stream.