Witchy Winter – Snippet 06
“I’m just a man who has seen his manidoo.”
In the darkness, Ma’iingan lost the healer.
He had followed the four young men easily at first; they were on horseback, after all, and had been drinking. The combination of horse and ordinary night noises with the dulling of their senses would have let twenty Anishinaabe walk behind them on the trail in single file.
One reasonably skilled hunter had it easy.
Ma’iingan carried his loaded German gun ready, just in case, but the four Zhaaganaashii never saw him.
He wasn’t worried only about the Zhaaganaashii; there were also the Irish. The Irish were a new people to Ma’iingan. Most of them spoke English, but they had another tongue, an older language of their own, so they were a different people. They seemed to have come in under the feet of the Zhaaganaashii, but had never advanced far inland. Here, in what Ma’iingan had learned was called Johnsland, after an old Zhaaganaashii king in their original homeland named John Churchill, the Irish planted and harvested on land owned by the great Zhaaganaashii lords. Apparently, there were also Irish in the big cities of the Turtle Kingdom, such as New Orleans and New Amsterdam.
A Cherokee teamster had confided to Ma’iingan over a cup of coffee that in the cities the Irish had mostly become Anama’e, like the French, the Dutch, and most of the Zhaaganaashii. Here, many of them were something else, something the muleskinner called druid. Ma’iingan had never heard of druid before, but he was far from home and learning many new things. But since druid apparently sacrificed people to their manidoo, Ma’iingan slept by his loaded gun.
When the young chief George had sent the healer Nathaniel and Landon, the unruly warrior who teased Nathaniel too much, toward the pig sty to sleep with a druid moon woman, though, Ma’iingan had immediately recognized a prank. A good teller of jokes could spot the jokes of others.
Even when those others’ jokes were cruel and petty.
When George had fired his guns into the air, summoning the Irish farmers from their hut, Ma’iingan had crept deeper into the forest to hide. When he’d emerged, Nathaniel and Landon had disappeared.
“Wiinuk,” Ma’iingan cursed.
He skirted the confusion of the two Irish farmers squabbling as they reloaded their gun and the two Zhaaganaashii, still on horseback and now arguing. Charles was angry, but he was holding back his rage because George was his chief.
“He’ll make his way back to his sty,” George said.
“He’s just a boy,” Charles said. “They’re both just boys, George.”
Abruptly, a naked man loomed up in the darkness. With no moon, for a moment he looked enormous, pale and covered in raw earth, and Ma’iingan almost took him for a manidoo of some sort, and raised his rifle — but then smelled the sour reek of animal droppings.
The naked man was Landon, and he screamed.
“Stop, please.” Ma’iingan lowered his rifle and spoke in his clearest Zhaaganaashii. “You surprised me, I am not at war with you. You see, na?” He held his arms wide to show peaceful intentions. “My name is “Ma’iingan, and I’m a friend.”
Landon screamed again and charged.
Ma’iingan just dodged. He didn’t want to hurt the boy, and he also didn’t want to touch him, given his foul reek. Landon clawed at Ma’iingan’s face twice, and then tried to punch him, but finally gave up and ran away into the forest.
Leaving Ma’iingan alone.
He was a man whose family never went hungry for lack of game. On a night with no moon, though, he wasn’t going to be able to see any indications on the ground. He stood silent and listened awhile, considering.
The sounds of the Zhaaganaashii exploded in yelling, and then faded away in three different directions. Landon: shamed and fleeing? George: returning to the big house in satisfied triumph? Charles: perhaps looking for Nathaniel?
But Charles had quickly gone too far, unless Nathaniel was running away from the pigsty at a full sprint and in a straight line.
Silence descended again. Had Nathaniel run so far away he couldn’t be heard? Was he dead? With a heavy heart, Ma’iingan picked a crooked pine between two chest-high spikes of rock. It was distinctive enough to be a landmark, and he kept his eye on it.
Then he began slowly spiraling outward around it.
In daylight, he’d have looked at the ground, seeking tracks. Instead, he looked for hiding places and peered into them: beneath fallen logs, behind boulders, up trees, within thickets. Nathaniel may have escaped by concealing himself, but Ma’iingan was a keen-eyed finder of hidden things.
As it happened, he was so focused on peering into the shadows that he almost walked past Nathaniel.
The boy’s incoherent moan gave away his location, at the base of a short, steep slope. When he heard the sound, Ma’iingan had to look twice to spot the boy, because he lay in the shadow of a thick pine tree. The starlight was enough to let Ma’iingan see his blood, oozing from multiple injuries.
Ma’iingan shuddered. His manidoo had understated the case; the boy Nathaniel didn’t need to be raised from a sickbed, he needed his life saved.
By feel as much as by sight, Ma’iingan examined the young man. There was a lot of blood, but it flowed from many small wounds, rather than from a severed artery. Nathaniel’s skull was intact, and although he had cuts on his chest and back, he wasn’t pierced through the body. He had a broken rib. His breathing wasn’t as regular as Ma’iingan would have liked.
Mercifully, the boy was unconscious.
Ma’iingan began by laying his wool blanket out beside Nathaniel, and then carefully dragging the boy onto it. The bleeding immediately got worse; he took the boy’s shirt off, tearing it into strips. He bound Nathaniel’s wounds with the cloth, slowing the bleeding and then watching in satisfaction as the worst of the wounds, in one of the boy’s arms, finally clotted.
Ma’iingan started a fire.
He kept it small, drilling flame with a firebow into a dried piece of wood, then feeding it chips and twigs until it could breathe on its own. Finally, he took his axe and collected large dead branches from the nearby pines, feeding the limbs one at a time into the fire.
He found a stream nearby. With rolled strips of birch bark he fashioned a pot, filled it, and then boiled the water on his small fire. Deep in the night as dawn began to pale the sky in the east, he cleaned Nathaniel’s injuries with boiled water. That started the blood flowing again in some of the wounds, but this time the flow stanched easier. Ma’iingan bound the wounds again with new strips of cloth.
As the sun rose, he helped Nathaniel into a sitting position for a few moments. The boy was only half-conscious, but he was lucid enough to sip at the edge of the birch-bark pot and drink the now-cooled water. Ma’iingan kept pouring water into his mouth until he turned his head away and coughed, and then he laid the boy down.
Nathaniel’s forehead was hot, and he was beginning to sweat.
“Gichi-Manidoo,” Ma’iingan muttered, dropping into an unintended prayer. “Help this boy. I need this boy to bring my son Giimoodaapi into the People. I need this boy to arise from his sick bed and become the great healer my manidoo promised me he would be, so that Giimoodaapi may eat and grow strong. Heal him, Gichi-Manidoo. Knit his flesh, restore his blood, revive his spirit. Give me the wisdom to help him heal himself.”
If anything, Nathaniel’s fever burned hotter.
Ma’iingan rose and began to search the hillside in the early morning light for anything he might make into a tea.
Nathaniel opened his eyes.
Overhead, he saw the skeletal branches of a dead and barkless ash tree, and beyond it, pale sky.
~The boy is not dead.~
~He is not dead yet.~
“Not dead yet.”
His mouth tasted tangy, acidic. Like pine needles, or a nettle soup, or maybe wild berries.
He smelled fire. He smelled . . . the intimate smell of another person, as if he were wearing someone else’s clothes. Not a bad smell, just the smell of a stranger.
Realizing he lay on his back, he tried to raise his head to look down at himself. A bolt of lightning split his skull and he collapsed backward again. His ears rang with high-pitched whining.
“You must feel great pain,” a voice said. He didn’t know the accent, but the person’s speech was deliberate, slow. “The dogwood brought your fever down, but you’ve been seriously wounded.”
~Release me, o thou earth!~
Nathaniel mouthed the words, but he was too weak to pronounce them.