By Dawn Natelle
So far: Jerome the yearling wolf has died, but two new wolves have joined the people. One of them decides that Moonie can atone for his sins, and over time the river cleanses his soul. The story of Moonie was told, both before the time of this tale, and after.
As River and Wayne walked back to the Waters’ campsite, River continued to tease the big man. She reached up and stroked his chest, marvelling at the muscles she could feel.
“Just checking to see if there were any boobs growing,” she giggled.
“What? No! Just because the river made you a girl, it doesn’t mean that it wants to do it to me too,” he claimed.
“Are you sure?” Giggle.
“Yes. It has given other gifts to people. It made your parents look younger, and your brother and his friend taller. It healed many of the elders and made my sisters better singers.”
“Yet it hasn’t given you any gift at all,” River noted glumly.
“I don’t know,” Wayne said, pulling River close to his body. “Perhaps you are my gift.”
For a moment time seemed to stand still for the pair. River looked up, and Wayne looked down, and for a moment it felt like they would kiss. Then, suddenly they both broke apart, and stood looking at each other and breathing heavily.
“I’m sorry,” Wayne said. “You are too young, and you are the Rivertalker. I shouldn’t …”
“I shouldn’t have teased you,” River said, completely off kilter from the emotions and sensations coursing through her body. “You will be going off to Western to the university in a few weeks, and I will be staying up here. We should just be friends.”
“Yes, just friends,” Wayne echoed, although his mind was crying out that if she were only a few years older, or he a few younger … He never finished that thought as they walked back to the campsite, keeping several feet between them.
Wayne left her and headed back to the JR camp, and River found her parents watching the embers of a dying fire. River explained what had happened after the funeral ceremony was over, and how Moonie was to build a sweat lodge.
“Where do you get all of this,” Dale asked. “I barely remember reading about sweat lodges when I was in school, and yet you come up with all this native lore.”
“The river gives it to me, and so much more,” River said.
“Well, it certainly has matured you,” Alison said. “You seem more like an adult than a child. Was that ceremony for the dog your idea?”
“He was not a dog, Mom. He was a wolf. And the ceremony was partly from the river, and partly from the traditions of the people.”
“Sorry,” Alison said. “They are so friendly I keep forgetting that they are wild animals. But these people, your people now, I guess; I really like them. To come together and grieve over an animal.”
“He was more than an animal, Mom. He was a friend.”
“A good friend. Do you know where the other wolf is? The big one?”
“Night? I haven’t seen him for a while. Why?”
“He is in the boys’ tent, lying out between the two of them. They were pretty shaken up by the death of Jerome and didn’t want to go to bed. Then Night just sauntered into the camp and herded them off to their tent, lying down with them. They have slept peacefully since then. Your Dad and I stayed up in case they had nightmares or anything. But the dog, I mean wolf, seems to have things in hand.”
“What are your plans for tomorrow?” River asked.
“Well, I am going to the construction site,” Dale said. “I want to get the men working on the walls of the second house, and we have to figure out the truss system for the first house … well, for all of them, eventually. But the first house is a priority, if we want to move out of these tents when the weather gets cold.”
“And I’m going to put on my new power suit, and canvass the town merchants and managers,” Alison said. “It is almost criminal that a town of this size doesn’t have a bank branch, and I hope to be able to convince my bosses to let me open a small one up here. What are your plans, honey?”
“Busy for me too,” River said. “I need to spend some time with the people of the reservation. They have been so good to me, and I hardly know more than a few families. Edith has promised to take me around tomorrow, and Liesl will come with me on the other days of the week. And of course I need to visit the river in the morning.”
“Well, it is late, and we all have busy days tomorrow, so let’s turn in,” Dale announced, pulling his youthful looking wife up and kissing her. River smiled at the PDA, and then headed off to her tent, at the JR camp, glad that she would be out of sound range in case the kiss led to something else.
River had come into the JR tent with both other girls sleeping, and got up a few hours later without them knowing she had been there. She wondered if she would need to find another place to sleep now that she was no longer working for the JR crew. Something to ask Wayne the next time she saw him. She walked in darkness to the river, aware of all the night animals in the trees and on the ground about her.
She spent several hours in the water of the river, soaking up its strength and energy, as well as the knowledge it could give her. When the sun came up she got out, as the first of the animals came out to drink. She smiled and waved at them, and could feel them smiling back at her in their unique animal ways. They felt safe when she was around. But River was on a mission, and not entirely sure where to start it. She walked downstream for a bit, and luck brought her to the person she was looking for, but not expecting to see for several hours.
She could see the man standing at Jerome’s grave, hunched over a bit. Beside him was Silver, the new wolf in the local pack. River walked up to them so silently that she was only a few feet away before even the wolf turned to look at her. Rod didn’t hear her at all, and jumped a little when she put her arm around him.
“Sorry to disturb you,” she said sadly. “Couldn’t sleep?”
“A bit,” he said. “He was such a good friend. I will miss him. I can’t believe it was only a week that I had with him.”
“Yes,” River said. There was a long pause. “Again, this might be too soon, but the river and I had a long conversation this morning, and you were a part of it. Are you up for a challenge?”
Rod was quiet for a bit before speaking. “You know, I think I am. I think I’ve grown up a bit over the last day, and if the river needs me I am ready. What do you want?”
“You know how we had that ceremony last week, where all the people were taught the language and the history by the river? Since then the young people seem to be more focussed, and the older ones are no longer crippled by alcohol. People are proud to be Ojibwe, and I think the reservation is a better place for it.”
“I know,” Rod said. “I’ve heard many of the elders commenting. They give you the credit. They say you are the best thing to happen in their memories.”
River blushed. “It is not me. It is the river. It speaks to me, and I relay that to the people.” She shrugged. “But what we need now is to spread the message. There are dozens and dozens of little bands and reservations across the north, and we need to help them. The children in those communities are committing suicide at an alarming rate. I think we have stopped the causes here, but up there it will be harder, especially in the more remote places. I cannot go to them. I can’t leave the river. There are a couple of reservations on the river, but beyond that I can do nothing. I want you to be The Prophet, and go to those communities. Tell the people there of the history of the Ojibwe. Have those close enough to the river come and let it teach them the language. For those farther away, make it seem that a pilgrimage to the river should be a key part of every youngster’s life, so that they can stand in the river and learn.”
“Wow,” Rod said. “That is huge. I was thinking you wanted me to do something easy, like build a skyscraper out of Shield stone.”
River smiled. If nothing else, the idea seemed to have restored some of Rod’s sense of humor.
“I think it is too much for one man,” he finally said.
“Of course it is,” River smiled. “That is why I am sending women with you.”
“Definitely Ria,” River said. “Especially since I also want Wayne’s sisters Shelly and Marilyn to join you. You can even have this young fellow go along, although I doubt I could keep him away.” She reached down and stroked Silver between his ears. “When you approach a band and they see that you are wolf-friends, you will gain instant credibility. Shelly and Marilyn will sing the songs of the people. Once they get away from the river reservations, they will have to alternate verses in English and Ojibwe, but that will help the people pick up some of the language.”
“Where do we start?”
“Upriver at first. You can canoe up as far as Stone Ledge Reservation. It will be best to arrive by traditional means. Flying in is the way of the white man, and I think your message will work best with more of the traditional ways. You can travel in jeans, but take your pow-wow costumes to speak to the people in. After Stone Ledge the river is too small and shallow for canoes, so you will have to hike until you get to Ice Spring Reservation. The river assures me that if you lead the people into the waters, even if it is only ankle deep, it will be able to teach the people. It will give you confidence knowing that the river is right there. If you don’t know what to say, or what to do, just step into the river. The water will be cold, but bearable, and you will gain the knowledge you need.”
“That is a relief.”
“Also, I want you to do more than teach the people. I need you to find the ‘diamonds’. Those are the painters, the sculptors, the seamstresses, the craftsmen and the builders. I know the people on those reservations live mainly from hunting, fishing, and what little crops they can eke out of the stones. They rely on welfare for everything else. I want to find out what they can produce that we can sell to the white people. Every dollar that they earn of their own efforts adds to their pride and strength as Ojibwe men and women.”
Rod seemed energized by his new mission. He headed off to see Ria, before she headed to her waitressing job. She would have to leave that. Hopefully another one of the band girls would get it, River thought as she wandered over to the Stormcloud home, hoping to see Shelly and Marilyn. Both of these girls also needed a mission in life, to help them forget their recent past.
The girls were up and getting breakfast with their mom, Helen. River didn’t need breakfast, but Helen wouldn’t take no for an answer, and the blonde girl soon had a plate of eggs and sausage in front of her. River wondered if it was even possible for her to get fat if she overate. Would the river compensate? Another question to ask.
Once Ben got up, River outlined the project to the four of them, as Liesl looked after feeding the smaller ones. The girls were instantly in favor of going on the adventure, but the parents required more convincing. Finally it was decided that they could go with Ria and Rod on the first trip up the river, and then a decision would be made as to future trips. Ben almost vetoed the entire trip, but then Helen reminded him what had happened the last times he had done that. Both Marilyn, and later Shelly, had fled to Sault Ste. Marie.
“I don’t know what the world is coming to,” he said. “Young people today never mind their elders.”
Helen smiled. “I remember a young boy who wooed me many years ago, in spite of our parents saying we were too young. I think you have selective memory loss.”
“Papa,” Shelly said. “If you insist we not go, we will not. We did run away once, but that turned out horribly and we just want to forget it. This trip, canoeing through the Shield, meeting new bands, I think it will help us.” Marilyn nodded in agreement.
“My daughters have learned some wisdom,” Ben said. “I give my blessing to your trip … if you take my best canoes. I won’t have you out on the river in something shoddy.”
With that done, River thanked the family for breakfast and headed off to find Edith. They had a roster of people to visit today, and River hoped that during the rest of the week she would be able to visit with all of the people of the river.
“Do you have any preferences?” Edith asked as she met the new Rivertalker outside her house. “We have three different ways to go … unless we are to go wading in the river.”
“Been there, done that,” River giggled. “Actually, I was astounded when I saw the canoes and snowshoes that Ben Stormcloud makes. I want to meet any more craftsmen, artists, weavers, seamstresses, painters, or sculptors amongst the people. And if there are any computer experts about, that would help too. I hope we can use the Internet to sell some of the beautiful things the people make.”
“What a wonderful idea,” Edith said. “I know just the person for the last case, but we should leave him for the end. Colin is not an early riser. But let’s go see Carl Bluelake. He is a wonderful painter.”
Carl was a couple years older than Wayne, but nothing like him, River noticed. Carl was very tall, and very thin, almost reed-like. He had a nervous twitch about him, and seemed jumpy when his mother called him after River and Edith arrived.
“River would like to see some of your paintings,” Edith said. Carl protested that the works were not done, not ready to be seen, and could he please have some time to clean up his studio.
River took hold of the youth’s arm, and almost instantly he calmed down, staring down at the pretty young girl.
“Okay,” he said, leading them off to his studio, the converted bedroom of an older brother who had married and left the family home.
The studio was a mess, and Carl started getting nervous again until River spoke again, calming him. Then her eyes caught sight of a familiar scene. A large canvas … no, it was painted on a coil of birchbark stretched on a wooden frame … showed her precious river, meandering around a curve. It was a point on the river she recognized, not too far from Jerome’s resting place. Then she looked closer at the painting. In the distance, she saw many people standing on the banks of the river, and even though they were only a half-inch tall on the painting, she could recognize faces.
River gasped. She had followed the sightlines of the people on the bank, and saw they were all intently focused on a small blonde figure standing in mid-stream. “That’s me! The first river ceremony?”
“Yes,” Carl said. “It isn’t finished yet, but it will be soon.”
“How much would it cost to buy it?” River asked.
“I’m sorry,” the tall man said. “It is already promised. And I don’t sell my paintings. I give them away.”
“What?” River protested. “The store doesn’t give away its food and clothes to you, does it? You need to get paid fairly for your work.”
“But it isn’t work,” Carl protested. “I do my paintings from the love in my heart.”
“Manitou has given you a talent,” River replied. “It is important that you honor him by using it. Soon you will have a family to raise, and will need to make money for them. To stop painting and go to work in another job would be ridiculous. You have a gift, and you need to start to sell your paintings.”
“They aren’t that good,” Carl said.
“Yes they are. Can I look at these others?” River pointed to another stack of frames and started to flip through, seeing one masterpiece after another. Many of paintings were landscapes, showing the beauty of the natural wonderland that the river flowed through. The river itself was in more than half of those. There were a few paintings of the people as well, some showing the rickety houses and yards. There was a gorgeous painting of a wolf. River didn’t recognize it as one of the band wolves, and asked about it.
“That one is from a couple years ago,” Carl said. “The wolf came up quite close to me. Well, close for that time. It was probably 50 yards away, and just sat there staring at me as I sketched it. I know the band pack come closer to us now, but at that time it seemed a miracle that he came so close, and then waited so long before running off. I tracked the pack for several days later to get the colors right.”
River gasped. “It is the Alpha male! He looks so young in that painting.”
“It was before he became Alpha. Look, the scar over his eye is not there yet. I think he got that when he finally challenged the old Alpha.
River flipped to the next picture, and gasped again. It was a large frame, nearly a yard high and 20 inches wide. And it blazed with the color yellow. It was a painting of a young girl, with long blonde braids that almost merged with the sun behind her. “Is that me?” River said in a whisper.
“Yes it is,” Carl said. “It was the first painting I did after I met you at the ceremony. I was pretty consumed by it, and worked long into the nights on it. I make most of my paints myself, from natural materials, but yellow like that could only be bought. I ordered a tube from Sault. That is why the picture of the river has everyone so small. I had to tear open the tube and scrape out the remnants of the paint to get enough yellow to do that small figure.”
“She’s beautiful,” River was still whispering.
“You are beautiful,” Carl protested.
“I am not, am I?” River looked at Edith for confirmation.
“Yes, dear. It is a very close likeness. I don’t know if any of the other artists of the band could have captured you so well.”
River just stared at the image. She hadn’t really looked at herself, except in the waters of the river, and that was always a moving image, with waves, and at an awkward angle. Even during the shopping expeditions in town and in the Sault, she hadn’t bought much, so hadn’t looked into mirrors. Now to see how perfect this image was, she had to flip it over to break the hold it held on her. There were no more pictures behind.
“I want to sell these pictures for you,” she said. “I need you to go through the paintings and tell me how long it took you to paint each one, roughly if need be. I think that your kind of talent should be worth $100 an hour.”
Carl choked at the figure. “The wolf picture took 35 or 40 hours to sketch and then paint, not counting the time I spend tracking the pack to get the colors right. Do you really think that anyone would pay $4000 for that painting?”
“I do,” River insisted. “And you need to include the time you spent tracking. I would price that painting at $10,000 and accept nothing less.”
“How many hours were spent painting the river ceremony painting?” Edith asked.
“That was mostly done before River came to us,” Carl said. “I only spent a day adding River and the people on the bank. I guess that I had spent 30 or 40 hours before on the original scene.”
“I know that you gifted the painting to the band council,” Edith said. “But I am going to ask that they pay you a $1000 honorarium for it at the next meeting. A few will object, but when I point out that it is a $4000 painting, they will all fall in line.”
“A painting of me will be in the council offices?” River said in amazement.
“It is not just a painting of you, my dear,” Edith said. “It is a record of one of the most important events of our lifetime, for this band at least. It shows the river, you, and the time when the people regained their sense of purpose, learned their language, and began to remember their history. How can we not commemorate this?”
River was in a bit of a daze after they left Carl’s studio. Edith seemed to feel River wanted to see more artists, so they visited five more before late afternoon. Three of these were good, good enough for their work to be sold. The other two were younger teens, and River could see real promise in their works, and suggested that they meet with Carl and the other three, to learn new styles and techniques from the experts in the band.
It was nearly four when they arrived at Colin RedHawk’s home. His mother let them in, and chatted with Edith while River went to Colin’s room. Colin was only 16, and for a moment River thought him impossibly young, until she realized that he was two years older than her. She had spent so much of her time with adults lately, she had forgotten that she was still only 14.
Colin was proof that ‘nerd’ is not restricted to any one race or culture. The boy was short and thin, with a somewhat oversized head. His face was afflicted by severe acne, almost to the point where River had to work not to stare at the sores and scars. The poor boy had a scruffy beard, too thin to cover the acne, but he probably let it grow to allow him to not have to shave over the sores.
She explained her goals to Colin. She wanted a website built that would allow the artists and craftspeople of the reservation to sell their goods to the Toronto market. That was about all she needed to say, as Colin went into a spiel where he talked about banner ads, search engine optimization, bandwidth, URLs and URIs, pay pals and e-commerce and much, much more. When he finally wound down River was pretty sure that Colin could do what she wanted, but she really didn’t understand any of the questions he had asked, or any of the terms he had used. She needed help.
“Edith, Mrs. RedHawk, Colin and I are going for a little walk down by the river,” River said as they walked out the door.
“Don’t you go into the river, Colin,” his mother warned. “You know it is too cold for you.”
“Maybe just a bit,” River said, and then the two slipped out before she could repeat her warning.
At the river, she led the boy into the water, and then out into the middle of the river. Colin was surprised to find that the water was quite comfortable when he was close to River. And soon the river and Colin started to piece together what was needed for the website. Apparently Colin had a satellite dish that enabled him fast access to the Internet, since only dialup service was available to most of the community. The river was somehow technologically aware, and was able to feed Colin some new knowledge to sharpen his understanding of the Internet protocols and technologies. River only picked up a fraction of what Colin learned, but now understood the basics of the Internet, and was able to understand about half of what Colin had told her earlier.
After about a half hour they emerged from the water, their clothes completely dry again. River looked at Colin, and gasped. His acne was completely gone. His beard was gone as well, although the river told her that he would probably have to shave once a week or so, like most 16-year-old boys.
“What,” Colin said, as she stared at his face. He immediately reddened, thinking she was staring at his acne, but when he put his hand to his face, he found only smooth skin. “What happened?”
“Sometimes the river will give people a gift,” River explained. “I think it has cleared up your complexion for you. You look quite handsome now”
“Wow. Do I?” Colin said, rushing back to the house to look in a mirror. “All the kids at school teased me last year. I was crater face, or pizza puss.”
“Well this year I don’t think that will happen. I’ll bet the girls, at least, will be happy to see the new you.”
Colin rushed into the house, and his mother didn’t recognize her son as he rushed past her towards the bathroom mirror. “Colin,” she said. “Is that you? What happened to your face?” She followed her son to the bathroom as Edith and River left the house and walked back to the campsite, where River hoped she would be in time to join her family for dinner. Edith declined to join her, and headed to her son’s home to dine with her own clan.
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