Finally, I get back to a weekly schedule. And the next chapter is more than half finished (it might be a double chapter).
By Dawn Natelle, edited by Eric
So far: Kyle’s Rube Goldberg invention is a huge hit, Alison’s tormentors are punished, and Mark makes a new friend in the Toronto police force. Finally, the northern expedition is a huge success … until they return to Stone Ledge.
Rod reached the tree first, and Ria was amazed when he seemed to run up the trunk in a display that was equal to those parkour moves she had seen on the Internet. But Rod had never before done anything like that, nor had he even been that athletic. But within a few seconds he was lying along the branch that the rope was attached to, and had his knife out, trying to cut through the rope. By then the two boys had reached the tree, and were standing on either side of the girl, planning to catch her when the rope broke.
“It’s Ginny Audette,” the one boy said.
“Yeah. I haven’t seen her for months. I heard that she got sick or something, and she didn’t finish the term. She was in my class,” the other said, and then the rope parted and the two boys lowered the girl to the ground.
This left Rod up a tree, literally. The adrenaline that had got him up was gone, and he slowly inched his way back to the trunk, and then slowly made his way down, jumping the last eight feet or so. When he was down, he saw that the others had left, and the two boys, and Ria and Shelly were carrying the girl to the river, urged on by Marilyn.
When he caught up to them the girl was lying three-quarters in the water, with her head on the bank. Marilyn was fully in the river, kneeling at the girls’ feet. She looked up to Rod and somberly announced. “She is dead. We weren’t in time.”
“But we saw her moving,” Rod insisted.
“She was pregnant,” Marilyn said. “Six or seven months, I would say. And the reason she was moving is … this.” She scooped her hands into the water and pulled up a tiny baby, unbreathing. She rapped on the infant’s back and suddenly it started to cry weakly.
Rod jumped into the water and used his knife to cut the umbilical cord connected to the body. He felt knowledge about how to do it flow into his mind from the river, and this led him to tie off the remaining cord professionally. Then he was amazed to see that Marilyn had pulled up her top and bra, and offered her breast to the child. And astonishingly, the tiny child started to suckle, slowly at first, and then faster.
Rod looked away. Marilyn’s back was to the bank, but the boys were still staring, aware of what was happening even though they couldn’t see much. “You boys head back to the reserve, and let people know what has happened. One of you go to her parents’ home first. I’ll go pick up the bags, if that is all right.” He directed the last statement to Marilyn.
Marilyn nodded thankfully. She was more comfortable with only Ria and her sister with her.
“He is so tiny,” Shelly gushed as she watched the premature baby nurse. She reached around and unsnapped the bra from Marilyn’s neck, and was able to help her take it off with only a few seconds interruption of the nursing.
“Thanks,” Marilyn said. “And it is a she, not a he. She is way premature, and normally couldn’t survive outside of a big hospital. But the river is helping. I can feel its power flow through my body and to her through my breasts. I can feel her tiny, undeveloped organs being completed.”
“This is why your boobs were sore the other day,” Shelly said in realization.
“Yes, I think so,” Marilyn said. She remained kneeling in the river as people started running in from the reserve. The body was identified as Ginny Audette, the only daughter of a couple who weren’t yet there. Several of the women gathered up the body and brought in up on the bank some distance from the river. Many were crying.
Rod came back, and Ria went up to him. “I failed,” he said miserably. “My mission was to cut down on teen suicides and the first reserve I go to, there is a suicide days later. Some Prophet I am.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Ria tried to console him. “You did what you were supposed to. I guess that sometimes things just go wrong.”
“Maybe I didn’t do enough, say the right things. I certainly didn’t help that girl.”
“Why don’t you go stand in the river for a while,” Ria suggested. “It might be able to help you understand.” She pointed to a spot some distance from Marilyn, and he slumped as he walked towards it. Ria saw that Shelly was tending to Marilyn and the baby, so she walked up to the crowd around the body. The native women were clearly undertaking some type of ritual.
“That’s her aunt,” one of the boys from the trip explained. “She married Ginny’s father’s brother. Ginny used to spend a lot of time with them when things got tense at home.”
Just then a smallish man of about 40 appeared, and wailed when he saw the body, throwing himself on it in a display of grief.
“Her parents,” the boy told Ria. “Her dad is okay, I guess, but her mom rules in their house, and she is a real bit… character,” he said, deciding not to finish the word he was thinking.
“Where is the mother?” Ria asked.
“I told her and she just said ‘good riddance’,” the boy said. “She thinks she is better than the rest of us. Her husband works in the mines in Sudbury, and only gets home a few weeks a year. She uses the money he makes so that her house can be better than anyone else’s and her clothes better than the other women.”
“Did she really say that?” Ria asked in amazement. Perhaps it was shock at her daughter’s death that was behind the callous statement.
“Yeah. It figures. If Ginny was pregnant, then her mom would have gone ballistic. She kept her out of school since March, and Ginny failed grade eight. She would have been going to high school with the rest of us.”
“Who was the baby’s father?” Ria asked.
“Hmm, good question,” the boy said. “She wasn’t going out with anybody. Wait … she was running around with one of the high school boys at Christmas time. He came back for a visit on March break.”
“Is that boy around? See if you can find him,” Ria said.
Just then Rod came back from his session in the river. “You were right,” he said. “It was not my fault. The girl wasn’t at the session we had with the young people.”
“But you asked that everyone attend. She should have been there!”
“Apparently her mom is a real special case. She felt letting people know that her daughter was pregnant somehow would diminish her status on the reserve. She kept the girl locked up for months, alone in the house. The father was more loving to his daughter, but he was weak, and intimidated by his wife. The girl escaped earlier today, and eventually made her way to that tree, with a rope.” Rod choked up a bit. “If we had only been sooner.”
“Not our fault,” Ria repeated. “Not your fault. It sounds like the mother is nuts. Apparently she said ‘good riddance’ when the boys said Ginny was dead. She still hasn’t shown up. It is an aunt who is leading the women.”
“What do we do now?” Rod asked.
“Well, we will have to notify the police. And probably Children’s Aid.”
“I don’t think we are going to be able to pry that baby away from Marilyn,” Rod replied glancing over to the river, where Shelly was protectively standing over her sister and the infant.
“I don’t think the baby would survive without her,” Ria noted. “She is very premature, but Marilyn says that the river is helping keep her alive.”
It was late in the evening when the canoes finally left the reserve to head down river. Marilyn held onto the tiny baby. Her father had come to see the child, sobbing that the little girl was all that he had left of his daughter. His sister in law, and many others on the reserve came to see the baby as well, with most certain that the tiny child could not live through the night. The baby’s father also appeared. He had no idea that he had gotten Ginny pregnant. He jumped at the chance to assign his parental rights to Marilyn. He still had a year of high school to finish, and had hopes of going on to university. Looking after a baby was not on his current priority list.
Rod also got permission from Ginny’s father for Marilyn to take the child, much to the dismay of the Children’s Aid worker who arrived in from Sudbury at about 6 p.m. The lady wanted to take custody of the child immediately, and make Marilyn go through the normal adoption process, which would have nearly no chance of success as a single, unemployed, First Nations woman. But the permissions from the father and grandfather trumped her right to take the child without a court order, so Marilyn was able to leave with the child.
Ginny’s mother did practically nothing through the entire day. She had not even wanted to speak to the police officer until she was told that silence was not an option. She refused to look at her granddaughter, and insisted that the baby was not her kin.
The progression down the river was bigger, with five canoes instead of just two. Three of the canoe builders in the Stone Ledge band wanted their boats to be considered by River for sale though the Red Door brand. These were paddled by young boys and girls from Stone Ledge who wanted to attend the high school in St. Mary’s in the fall, and wanted to check out the school and the town.
Thus neither Marilyn nor Shelly needed to paddle a canoe, with the two boys who had joined them on the hike up to Ice Spring providing the manpower as they sat in Ben Stormcloud’s largest canoe. Women from the reserve had provided a good supply of cloth diapers for the baby, who looked much healthier at the end of her first day than at the beginning. Marilyn was continually either nursing the baby or holding it as it slept. Between her and Shelly the sisters learned how to change a diaper in a moving canoe.
Whenever Marilyn was nursing, she held the baby to her breast with one hand, while the other trailed in the water outside the canoe, allowing the river to feed the child through her. None of those on the trip slept that night. They would dip an arm in the river whenever they felt tired, and immediately were refreshed. This allowed them to paddle through the night.
The next morning River was in a good mood as she walked in the dark towards the river. Yesterday Connie had shown up for work at the store. Apparently, the Bay had a buyout plan going, and were quite willing to accept her resignation. What’s more, they preferred that she use up her vacation days instead of giving notice. They didn’t want to have to pay out for so many days. Between the buyout and the vacation days, an excited Connie was back at the store eager to get started. The store was opened but a grand opening needed to be planned. Online sales continued steadily, with the store starting to get a reputation due to the viral videos of the totem pole and now the Rube Goldberg device.
When River stepped into the water she was shocked to learn that the expedition was on the way back, and should return by early afternoon, over a week early. The river did not explain all that went on at Stone Ledge, but did say that five canoes were working their way down river, paddling through the night, with an estimated time of arrival of 4 p.m. River knew that something was happening, but didn’t know what. The river told that more than a half dozen students from the smaller reservation were in the flotilla and River was glad that she would have a chance to meet some of her future classmates.
Once the sun was up River was chatting with Wayne when Nick drove up. He announced that he was planning to make another trip to Toronto to check on the sale of the two houses.
“Is it urgent?” River asked.
“Not really, why? I wanted to get it done before Marilyn gets back next week.”
“Well, there is a bit of news,” River said. “They are coming back today. They should bet back by 4 p.m.”
“Great,” Nick said excitedly, a smile exploding across his face as he thought about his girlfriend returning early. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, exactly. The river is being close about it. Something happened, but I don’t know what. I do know that all the people are well and returning, as well as quite a few new people from Stone Ledge. Mostly students who want to start school here in the fall instead of going to one of the cities.”
“I wonder if the school will be ready for them,” Nick said. “We should head down and talk to the principal again. Are Rod and the girls going to be going to many more reservations?”
“Yes. But not by canoe. They will go by truck. Those were the only two other reservations on the river. The others are on other lakes and rivers, and are best accessed by road. Edith and Harold have made up a list of reservations within a couple hours drive. Stone Ledge is only an hour away by road, but we felt the traditional method of travel would be more effective for a first trip. It also allowed the team a chance to bond.”
“So how many reservations will they hit before school starts?”
“They will do two a week, so four before the first week of school, and two others before the cutoff dates for changing schools.”
“So if there are four students from each reserve, including the two reserves already visited, that would make 32 additional students. That’s another class, and another teacher. The school will need to be ready,” Nick said.
“Actually,” River said, “I think there are a lot more than four per reserve. The river said that there were eight coming down from Stone Ledge. But the other reserves may be smaller, or have fewer kids coming to high school. Part of Rod’s job is to give the kids hope, and part of that is staying in school. I hope that there are at least one or two kids from every reserve that planned on not going to high school who decide to come after listening to him.”
“It looks like you have a mission again,” Wayne said. “I’ve got to get ready for the JR crew. I’ll leave you with Nick.”
At nine Nick and River returned to the high school, where River had been registered last week. At first Hugh Tweed thought that there were problems with the registration and was relieved when Nick said that they were just there to give advance warning of the potential for new students.
“That’s fine,” the principal said cheerily. “A few more students are good for the school. We are underutilized, and a few more students will help keep the numbers up for the next four years, if they all stay till graduation.”
“That is the thing,” Nick explained. “It might be 30 or 40 more, not just a few.”
River explained Rod’s mission, and noted that there would be six or eight students coming down in the evening to check out the school. An appointment was set up to allow Mr. Tweed to show off his school to the prospective students.
“I can take on eight or even 10 more grade nines,” he said. “But if there are 30 or 40 I will need a new class. That means a new teacher. I have a pile of resumes from people down south who want a job, but I don’t know if we can get any of them in just two weeks. Actually, teachers are expected next week, even though classes are not until later.”
“Here’s an idea,” Nick said. “I happened to give a ride to Patrick George last week. He said he was a retired school teacher who taught in Thunder Bay for years.”
“Oh,” River said excitedly, “if you hire one of the people, perhaps you could offer classes in Ojibwe language and culture. I know that some of the city schools that cater to kids from the reserve do that, and it entices kids to go to those schools.”
“Hmmm,” the principal pondered. “There is official curriculum in Ojibwe, although I’m not familiar with it, as we have never had a teacher who could teach it. That might work out well. Do have your friend contact me, today if possible.”
Nick left to find Patrick, and drive him back to the school. River went to the store, to find that Connie had everything in hand. At lunch Nick reported back that Patrick and the principal had hit it off, with Patrick excited at the opportunity to teach children from his own reserve, and Mr. Tweed happy to have a teacher he could call on if needed. The contract he offered Patrick was contingent on at least 28 new students before the first day of school.
At about three people started congregating at the meeting place at the river. River was there, and as soon as she entered the water the river told her that the others were less than an hour away. Nick stood nervously on the bank, waiting for Marilyn to return. His hands fingered the small velvet-covered box he held in his pocket. He knew what he planned to do, but wasn’t sure if he should do it here, in front of all the people, or later in private.
Carla and Liesl entered the river a few minutes later, and started to sing the welcoming song that was traditionally sung for hunters or warriors returning home. They interspersed it with other songs, until on a cue from River they returned to that song. Soon they could hear singing from up the river, and seconds later all the people on the bank also started singing.
Then the first canoe came around the bend, paddled by two young boys who were new to the people. Then another strange canoe came, paddled by a boy and a girl. Finally Nick could see Ben’s canoe, with Shelly right behind the front paddler, another stranger. At first he couldn’t see Marilyn, then he noticed that she was bent over, looking down at something. Finally she looked up and scanned the bank, eventually noticing Nick. Her face smiled, and then she bent down again.
It was less than three minutes, but it seemed like an eternity to Nick before the canoe reached him. Marilyn handed something over to Shelly, and then took Nick’s hand as he pulled her out of the canoe and into a long and passionate kiss. They paid no attention as the others got out of the canoe, but then Marilyn broke free.
“I have someone I want you to meet,” she said, turning to Shelly who handed her a small bundle. “This is my new love.”
Nick stared at the tiny body who nestled into Marilyn and started to nurse. As the flotilla had appeared, the river recounted everything that happened to River, and she came over to the baby, with Carla and Liesl following, with both girls pronouncing an ‘aaah’ in harmony. Ben and Helen, Marilyn’s parents also moved in close as well. “She is so tiny,” Carla noted.
“She is premature,” Shelly explained. “Her mother died just before she was born, and the river, and Marilyn, have been keeping her alive.”
“Am I a grandmother?” Helen asked. Marilyn nodded yes.
“Then I’m an aunt,” Liesl squealed.
Then Nick stood and took the baby from Marilyn’s breast, much to its annoyance. He held the baby high and announced: “I swear that I shall treat this child as my own; to provide for her, and to nurture her as a father should.” He quickly handed the babe back to Marilyn, for she was wriggling and twisting to get back to the breast that was keeping her alive.
“Does she have a name?” River asked.
“I have just been calling her Luv,” Marilyn said with a maternal smile.
“The river suggests that we name her Beloved,” River said. Marilyn and Nick both nodded. “With a middle name of Virginia to honor her late mother.”
Nick then dropped to one knee, fishing the box from his pocket. He held the box out to Marilyn. “Would you make me the happiest man in the world?”
“I will,” she said, grasping the rising man, kissing him even as the tiny child continued to suckle on her breast.
“I pronounce you a family of the people,” River said. “Mr. and Mrs. Nick Summerstorm and Beloved Virginia Summerstorm. Cheers and applause erupted from across the riverbank.
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