River 39 -- Death

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River

By Dawn Natelle, edited by Eric

Chapter 39 – Death

So far: Many of the residents of the area were updated on their winter activities, while a new and ominous character was introduced into the story.

Spring came on March 20 that year, although most people still considered March 21 to be the official date. Manitou seemed to prefer the second date, since the ice on the river broke up early in the morning and River and Mark went out at 2 a.m. to find the river filled with ice chunks flowing downstream.

“We can’t go out in that, can we?” Mark asked.

“I haven’t been in the river for months, and I certainly will at least try,” River said, stepping into a space that opened up near the bank. Once she was in the river, the ice chunks seemed to avoid her, and she reported back to her brother that the water was warm around her. Mark eased into another open spot, and found that the river also accommodated him.

“Oh, this feels so good,” River enthused as they edged their way into the middle of the stream, with the ice veering to the left and right of them as it flowed towards the lake. She had been standing on the ice most mornings through the winter, but that seemed as if there was a filter between her and the river. This – direct contact – just seemed all the more powerful.

The two Waters children were largely quiet as they spent the early morning in the river. Once, for about an hour, they submerged, and were amazed to see the ice flow over their heads as they sat on the river floor. When it was time to stand again, Mark rose first, so that any ice chunks would hit him rather than his smaller sister. But as he stood, the ice above again parted and flowed around him as he stood. River was also able to stand a second later.

When dawn came, the two refreshed and revitalized students headed off to their respective schools (it was a Wednesday). By the time Sunday services rolled along, there were only a few small chunks of ice flowing down to the mouth of the river. The lake was still frozen over at the St. Mary’s harbor, but somehow the river ice slid under the lake ice, so that no damage was done to the docks and boats there.

Service Sunday was finished as normal, and River found three visitors to the reserve who wanted to learn the Ojibwe language and history, so she resumed her sessions again, taking the people into the river and singing the history and language into them. She announced that she would only be doing this on weekends now, both Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m. and over the next few weeks larger and larger crowds started to come, since Rod and the girls had been spreading the word to other communities in the area all winter on their mission. When First Nations people heard the river was open again, many families came to experience it for themselves. They returned to their reserves, and told their friends there, and more and more came to the river.

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It was a Tuesday in early May when River and Mark were in the river. Term was nearly over for River, who expected to be exempted from nearly all her high school exams, thus getting out of school a week early. Mark had a few more weeks to go after high school ended finishing up at the end of June, so he actually had some homework to do. As well, he was writing a new story with the help of the river, based on the life of Pontiac, a famous First Nations warrior who was partly Ojibwe. As with his story of Roundstones, he was fed background information from Manitou, and then told the story to River who typed it into her laptop while they both sat at the bottom of the river.

They had just gotten started on the third part of the story when there was a sudden cooling of the water. “Get out,” the river shouted at both of them. “Danger, danger. Get out now.” With that the river turned ice cold and River and Mark immediately stood up and waded quickly to the bank as the cold water seemed to attack their legs.

“What was that?” Mark said as he lay shivering on the riverbank.

“I don’t know. Look, our clothes are soaked. That never happens. The computer … it is fried, I think. Look,” she pointed down the river. An oily slick was floating down towards them. “There is something in the river.”

They stood and watched, and slowly the slick approached them, and crept past. They started to see dead animals and fish in the water. She found it disgusting to see something like that, but amplified even more when she recognized dead otters that she once played with.

“Oh my God. Dear Manitou. What caused this?” River said, and then she fell to the ground in a heap, screaming.

Mark knew what had happened to her. He also was staggered. The river had died. His connection to it was not as strong as River’s, but he felt the loss. He could no longer see in the dark. Luckily the moon was nearing full, so he could still see a bit, but not as clearly as when Manitou had been enhancing his vision.

“It … it … it is dead,” River gasped. “Last year it just stopped talking to me for a few days, but now … the river is dead.” She wailed.

“We have to warn the others,” Mark said. “Our water supply. The town’s. And the animals that come here to drink. We have to act.”

“Yes,” River agreed, but was still unable to stand. Mark pulled her up and started to carry her towards their house. She seemed heavier now, and Mark realized that the river was no longer amplifying his strength. “Put me down,” River insisted, and she tried to stagger on her own. “You run ahead. Tell Nick and Dad, and let them alert the others. I can follow on alone.”

Mark stopped and looked at his sister. She did not look like she could make it to the house alone, but he realized it was important to get the word out. River staggered a few more steps, and then Mark turned and started to run towards the new houses. River made several more steps, and then collapsed into a cold, sodden huddle.

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That was how Alison found her daughter 15 minutes later. Mark had come to the house and roused them from their sleep, and Dale and he had then headed over to the Summerstorm house next door to get Nick. Alison had waited a few minutes for River, and then went out to search for her with a flashlight, finally finding the sobbing girl slowly crawling towards the house.

“River,” Alison called out as she saw her.

“Momma. It is dead. The river is dead. I saw it. I felt it. It just snapped. One minute it was fine and strong. Then it weakened. It knew it was dying, and warned Mark and me. And then it died. The connection just snapped. It died, just like that,” she broke down in her mother’s arms.

“Come, honey,” Alison said. “You are cold and wet. We need to get you to the house. Can you walk?”

“I’ll try,” River said. “But I don’t know if it matters. With the river gone, what is there to live for?”

“River,” he mother shouted. “Don’t talk like that. Come. We are going home.”

Alison nearly carried River along until they neared the house. They were about to go inside when River heard something. “What is that?” she asked.

Alison stopped and listened. “It just sounds like Luv, crying, next door. Come on in.”

“No, we have to go to her,” River said.

“You aren’t going anywhere until you get dry clothes on,” her mother ordered, and then hauled her into the house. River ran to her room while Alison went to make some hot chocolate. She had half finished when she heard the door slam shut. She turned off the stove, and then went to follow River, who was running over to the Summerstorms.

“River!” exclaimed a panicky Marilyn, who was trying to calm an agitated Luv. The baby was screaming. “I don’t know what is wrong.”

River took the baby into her arms as Alison reached the house. Luv immediately stopped screaming, but now was making huge, wracking sobs as River held her to her chest.

“What happened?” Marilyn said. “She stopped screaming as soon as you touched her.”

“It is the river,” River said. “It died. Someone has killed it. Mark and I were there, and we saw the stuff they used to do it, floating down on the water. Luv must feel like I do. She was born in the river, and the river nurtured her and kept her alive. You fed her, but it was with sustenance from the river itself. I’ve only known the river for less than a year, but it had been a part of her entire life. I can only imagine what she is feeling.”

“Oh my God,” Marilyn said. “I had just finished feeding her, and was trying to burp her. I thought I had hit her too hard or something because she just started to wail. It got Nick up, and then Dale and Mark came by and took off. I didn’t know what to do. Luv has never been sick or colicky.”

“That is because the river has always been feeding her. Not physically, but emotionally she was still connected to it. When I took her, she realized that I was also mourning the river, and maybe that’s why the screaming stopped. But she is still hurting inside in a way that she has never felt before. It might be a long time before she smiles again. I know it will be for me.”

“But you now have a reason to live,” Alison said. “You need to be here, and to be strong for Luv. Give her a reason to live as well.”

“Yes mother,” River said. “But I … I’m really tired. The river isn’t feeding me. I need to sleep. But I don’t want to leave Luv. She needs me.”

“I think she needs sleep too,” Marilyn said. “Why don’t you two curl up in our guest bedroom. Your Mom and I will wake you if there is any need.”

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Mark went to the Stormcloud house to alert Wayne, recently back from college in London. He told the events to Wayne and his father Ben. Wayne’s initial reaction was to go to River, but both Ben and Mark said that they had to alert the reserve. They went door to door in the moonlight, rousing all the men, and as many of the women as possible. Even teens got into the act, and soon there were natives all up and down both banks of the river, preventing any animals from coming to drink at dawn.

Nick and Dale headed into town, waking the man who ran the town waterworks, getting it shut down before the tainted water got to the inlet.

By the time they were back at the reserve, there were several hundred people of the First Nations along the river, keeping any animals from approaching the river. There was a stench to the once clear water, which hopefully would keep animals from drinking it, but the people didn’t want to take any chances. They stood guard until well after dawn. The high school students left to go to class, along with any middle school students like Mark that had been out.

The high school students were back an hour later. The school was closed due to lack of water in the building. The middle school wasn’t affected, since Terrace Bay had a different water system, using lake water.

At 10 a.m. the slick on the river was starting to ease a bit, with much of the pollution already out into the lake. The river still stank though, with dead fish and small mammals like otter and beaver befouling the banks. There was still an oily sheen on the grasses around the banks, at it was starting to kill the grass and reeds growing there.

Most of the people had left, but Wayne, Nick, Ben and Dale were standing besides the bank when a car with a Ministry of the Environment decal on the door drove up. “What’s happened here,” a small, balding man of about 45 years of age asked. His nametag identified him as Colin Westerbrook, MoE Field Agent.

“Something has polluted the river,” Nick said.

“That is something I will decide,” the man said officiously. He walked over to the river and looked over the bank, down at two dead beavers and several trout tangled in the decaying reeds.

“Yes, it looks polluted,” he decreed. “When did this start?”

“This morning,” Nick said. “About 2:30 a.m. We managed to contact the town water plant and get them to shut down before it got to them.”

“What?” the man shouted. “You can’t do that. You don’t have the authority. Only a MoE Field Agent can order a water plant shut. I’ll have to call the plant.”

He took out his cell and managed to get a connection, since he was near enough the highway that coverage still existed. It was clear that he was talking to the manager of the water plant. All four men were astonished when he ordered the plant manager to reopen the plant, until he could come by later and officially close it.

Nick snatched the phone out of Westerbrook’s hand. “Bob, Nick Summerstorm here. I just wanted to ask you … do you have the ability to close the plant off if you see a potential problem?” There was a pause as the man answered. “Good. I thought so. You did see a problem, right?” Another pause. “So the plant can be left closed until your MoE fellow comes down and confirms that the water is polluted?” Another pause. “He’ll be down shortly, I think.” He handed the phone back to the agent.

“That phone is government property,” Agent Westerbrook fumed. “You had no right to take it from me. I’ll be checking the regulations, and you may well be charged with something. You better get a lawyer.”

“I am a lawyer,” Nick said. “And if you had Bob open the plant up again, then all that pollution would have gotten into it and there would have been a massive delay in cleaning it once the river is cleaned up again. It would have added weeks to the time we are without water.”

“You are probably going to be without water for several months, based on what I see here,” the agent said. “I will need to take samples, and get them back to the lab in Thunder Bay. Is there a FedEx depot here?”

“No, but we have a local courier here. Hank RedBear can take your samples to the city,” Ben said.

“No, no, no. The Ministry only contracts with FedEx, Purolator, or UPS. Are any of those here?”

“Sorry, no. RedBear is the only local service,” Ben said.

“That won’t do. That won’t do at all. I’ll have to phone FedEx to get a truck up here immediately. I need to get samples from here to the labs as quickly as possible.”

“We were just talking about walking upriver for a bit, to see if we can tell where the pollution started,” Nick said. “Do you want to come with us?”

“No, no, no. I have to take samples at the treatment plant, and then come back here and take some samples here. I won’t be able to get upriver for some time. Besides, how could you know where the pollution starts? You aren’t trained to do that, are you?”

“No, we aren’t,” Nick said. “But you will notice that there is a lot of oil slick still at the edge of the bank. I suspect that when we get to an area where there is no more oil on the bank, we will be close to where the pollution entered the river.”

The agent harrumphed. “Perhaps. But I don’t want amateurs messing with my investigation.”

“You know,” Wayne suggested, “you could save some time if you took your samples here right now, and then got the ones from the plant, rather than the other way around.”

“No, no, no. There are policies that have to be followed. I need to sample the plant first, and then the source areas. It is in the manual.”

With that the little man left, and the four from the reserve had a good chuckle about government bureaucracy as they walked up the river, examining the destruction to the once pristine environment.

“This is worse than it was before River and the junior rangers cleaned things up,” Wayne noted. “And I certainly don’t want her touching those animals in another cleanup.”

“I’m sure the manual explains how to do the cleanup,” Ben joked. “I suppose it will have to be done from canoes, although I’d never want one of my canoes in that water. It is a shame. I just want to find out how this happened.”

Then men walked for several miles until they were near the edge of the reservation. Suddenly, the oil slick was gone. They investigated the area, and Ben, who had decent tracking skills, came across an area where it appeared that a pickup truck had backed up to the bank, with several sets of footprints around it. Nick warned the others not to get close and contaminate the scene.

“We should call Constable Sloot at the OPP and get him up here before that little MoE fool comes. If the manual doesn’t say to keep away from a crime scene, he probably will walk all through these tracks.”

“I don’t think Const. Sloot is back to work yet,” Ben noted. “What about that lady cop that was up here when the miners were causing problems? She seemed pretty sharp and fair. Sandra Harper: I think that was her name.”

“Okay, let’s head back and call from the first house that has a phone,” Nick said. “There is no cell coverage this far out.”

Wayne was looking at the nearby mill. “I think I know where that filth came from. We should head over there and let them know what we think.”

“No,” Nick cautioned. “They can just deny it. We need proof. Photos and perhaps casts of those footprints might help. We’ll call April Audette in for pictures. She might be able to get good shots of the prints.”

The men only had to walk a few minutes until they came to a cabin with a phone, and called both the OPP and the photographer. They continued back to the area near their homes, and found the MoE car there, with the agent taking samples of the water in the river with a long stick. They waited until he finished, and packed the samples in a travel box, along with some other samples, presumably from the treatment plant.

“Now I have to wait for the FedEx truck,” Agent Westerbrook said.

“That could be your truck now,” Wayne said as he saw Hank RedBear drive up with his truck.

“You have a package for me?” Hank said as he got out of the cab.

“No, no, no,” the agent said. “I can only deal with FedEx, Purolator, or UPS. It’s in the manual.”

“I am FedEx,” Hank said. “The Thunder Bay office called a few minutes ago and said there would be an urgent pickup here. I am an agent for them. For Purolator too. I haven’t got hooked up with UPS yet, but I’m working on it.”

The agent insisted on seeing Hank’s FedEx identification tag, and examined it for nearly a minute before deciding that he could release the package to Hank, who immediately tore off towards Thunder Bay.

“Most unusual,” the agent muttered. “Now what?” An OPP cruiser was driving towards the men.

A young blonde female officer got out of the cruiser and approached. “One of you is Nick? Called about a possible dumping of chemicals into the river?”

“That would be me,” Nick said. “We walked up the river and think we found the spot where the chemicals were dumped.”

“No, no, no,” the agent said. “You can’t call the OPP in on this. This is my investigation.”

“If the chemicals were dumped illegally, then it is an OPP matter, isn’t it?” Nick asked.

“Yes. But I am the one who contacts them. I’m not to that point in my investigation. She has to leave. You can’t just call in the police. It is in the manual.”

“Well, she’s here now, so there is no reason why she shouldn’t look at the scene is there?”

“It’s not in the manual.”

“Good,” Nick said, assuming that meant yes, even though the agent thought it meant no. “Do you want one of us to ride with you to the spot we saw?” he asked the constable.

“That would be helpful,” Constable Harper said. Nick got into her car, after tossing his keys to his father. Nick’s pickup was the closest vehicle to them. Wayne, Dale and Ben followed the cruiser down the road, while the MoE agent stood there sputtering. He eventually got into his car and followed, wondering what else these people would do that was against the manual.

Nick directed the constable to stop a few hundred feet from the spot the men had found, and Ben pulled his truck up another hundred yards farther on, twisting the pickup so that it blocked the road completely, causing Agent Westerbrook to have to stop even further back. Then another car appeared. It was April Audette, and she got out of her car with a camera.

“No press, no press,” the little man said as she approached. “All press enquiries have to go through the divisional office in Sudbury.” April looked at him as though he was slightly insane, and then shouldered her way past to the four men, who were standing back as Const. Harper looked at the tracks. She came back to them.

“It does look like this is where the truck dumped the chemicals,” she said. She looked at April. “Who are you?”

“April is the band photographer,” Ben said. “We thought you might want some pictures. If it rains tonight, those tracks will be gone.”

“Good idea,” the constable said. She took April over to the tracks, and started directing her to take various shots, often looking at the images in the screen on April’s camera to ensure that she got what was needed. After 15 or 20 minutes, they came back.

“I have a camera. I should be taking the official pictures,” the agent said.

“You can take some now,” Const. Harper said, “If you come up with anything we missed we’ll be glad to use that.” The agent ran back to his car, and reappeared with a much smaller camera than the one April had used. He went and took pictures of the scene.

“Try to not step on the tracks,” Const. Harper admonished him. He had already stepped on prints and tracks several times.

“Thanks for calling me first, and bringing April along,” she told Nick quietly, so the agent couldn’t hear. That man is completely ruining the scene. Do you have any idea who might have done this?”

Nick pointed at the mill. “They make pulp for papermaking there, and there are a lot of chemicals in the treatment. I understood that they disposed of it safely at the facility in Sault, but management has changed at the mill recently. But we have no proof. I was thinking that we could have four or five men from the band stake this area out tonight to see if they come back again. Maybe we could catch them in the act. April may come. A photo or two of the truck would probably be helpful in building your case.”

“That’s right,” Const. Harper said, “you’re a lawyer. Well, if you want to try that tonight then I won’t approach the plant yet. It would just alert them to our suspicions. These men won’t be armed, will they?”

Nick smiled. “Well, they will have wolves close at hand. And they may have bows.”

Const. Harper returned his smile. “Ah yes. Like with the miners. Well, nobody got badly hurt then. Your guys are good. But I have to officially warn you not to bring firearms or any other weapons, including bow and arrow to your stakeout. If you do, you can be charged.”

“We have been officially warned,” Nick agreed. Both of them knew that the people would carry their bows.

The agent had finished taking his pictures, or tramping over all the tracks, whichever had been his goal, and came up to the others.

“Officer Harper,” he said, “I would like to officially ask the OPP to join into my investigation of this alleged crime. I will be contacting you tomorrow to let you know the results of my samples, and we can coordinate our activities further.”

“Noted,” the officer said, and she then got into her cruiser and drove off. The agent got into his car and followed her, not thinking to offer to take one of the other four. The manual probably prohibited politeness. Luckily, Nick drove a club cab, and Wayne was able to sit in the rear seat as they drove back to the houses. Now that the excitement was over, he was suddenly very concerned about River.



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