Manitou Island: Part 87
Face The Future
THE NEXT FEW days went by in relative ease, despite Charmian's growing misgivings. Though Manabozho had yet to show up again to let her know what might have been on his mind when she'd spied him that night, she puzzled over what his look had meant. He'd seemed both grave and sympathetic at the same time, as if he'd had some bad news to share...so why had he not done so? It was unlike him to keep silent for so long.
Charmian herself told Drake of the strange migration she and X'aaru had seen toward Crack-in-the-Island, but she decided not to tell Tal Natha. The demon did spend much of his time sleeping now; yet at least when he slept he didn't seem to be in much pain. She dared to hope that perhaps he was taking care of himself in his own way.
Dakh and Sikt were another story. Although merely newborns, after the first few days of whining and stumbling blindly about, they took to their feet too well, and often had to be dodged as they darted about the cave, yipping and biting at each other. Charmian found that whenever she offered them her hand it would come back slobbery and chewed, and this made her think of her own dog back at home. She hoped her parents had been feeding him. She missed him when she thought of that, but the two Ocryx pups and their antics made her feel a little better.
"Do they usually grow so fast?" she said to Red Bird one day, as the two tumbled about outside the rock and over the grassy knoll. Tal Natha lay beside Sugar Loaf with his tail curled around him and his head resting against the ground, yet was awake, watching the pups. Red Bird sat nearer the slope with a half-finished basket in her hands. She blinked and gave Charmian a blank look, which she took to mean that the woman had no idea. X'aaru, who occasionally joined in the twins' play-fighting, answered for her.
"Old Mother Manitou tells me that when I was growing up, I spent a lot of my time sleeping, but that she found me when I was eight days old, hanging by my jaws from one of her dried roots!"
"Had a damned time prying him loose, too," Old Mother Manitou, sitting in the doorway, muttered.
"Really?" Charmian couldn't keep herself from smiling at the thought. "You helped take care of him, OMM?"
"This you could say," the old woman said, as X'aaru's ears drooped a bit and he wandered away. Charmian looked after him, puzzled, but thought it might be rude to ask what was going through his mind.
She raised him, a voice said, and she glanced toward Tal Natha. He hadn't moved, except to shift his gaze in her direction. She could tell the thought was for her alone, and none of the others could sense it. The others among my sister's people did not wish him to live with them. And so she brought him to Old Mother Manitou.
Oh, Charmian thought, and her own ears would have drooped if they were able. Sorry I wondered...
It is only natural. The fear of my kind extends to both my sister's people and to yours. He lifted his head and stretched a crick out of his neck. Dakh chose that moment to butt into his sister, sending her tumbling across Red Bird's feet. Red Bird dropped her basket and the little demon immediately snatched it up in his teeth. It must have been twice his size, but it didn't take him long to make off with it, tripping a few times as he ran.
"Oh!" Red Bird cried. She stood and ended up dumping the rest of the reeds to the ground. Sikt spotted them and came her way, chewing and clawing, making Red Bird throw up her hands with another cry. "OH! Look what you did! It took hours to gather that--don't chew on it, you're getting it all wet!" She tried to pull the plants from Sikt's mouth, Dakh trailing the remains of the basket behind him. "Dakh! I worked on that all morning!"
Charmian started laughing, even though she hated doing so at another's misfortune. Tal Natha lifted his head again and stared at the pups as Red Bird futilely tried to get them to behave, and she could tell he was proud of them. Since they had come about, he hadn't seemed to be as preoccupied with his own state...so she hoped that her "test" with Justin had been unnecessary. Perhaps he had merely needed something more to live for...
"Stop that! STOP THAT!" Red Bird was now yelling and turning in circles as the pups latched onto the hem of her dress, clinging to her like terriers. Drake--who had been down further near the woods, doing what Charmian couldn't tell--started to laugh now, as well as X'aaru, and even Old Mother Manitou chuckled. Charmian saw Tal Natha smile and he rested his head against the ground again. Even though she knew there were plenty of problems piling up--including the strange migration she didn't yet feel comfortable telling Tal Natha about--at the moment it felt good to just forget about them for a short while. The fireflies started to emerge, and X'aaru distracted the twins by snatching at them with his teeth as he had before. Within moments the pups were leaping about snapping also, their tiny wings, still too undeveloped for flight, flapping as they did so.
Red Bird returned to the pathetic remains of her basket and made a face as if she didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Charmian started cackling; at first Red Bird gave her a horrified look, her lip trembling and her eyes welling up, but by the time the tears spilled out she was laughing too. She wiped them away and gathered what was left of the scattered reeds.
"I didn't need another basket, anyway."
"Now that you said that, they won't want it either!" Drake retorted, and they laughed hard enough to make what birds remained in the trees rustle with annoyance. Charmian glanced up to see a few of them flutter off noisily. She wiped her own eyes and choked to catch her breath.
"Sorry, Red Bird," she gasped. "I just keep forgetting that you're raising children and not puppies!"
"I keep forgetting that also," Red Bird said; then, "OW!!" when Dakh clamped onto her foot. Charmian had to cover her face or risk humiliating herself entirely.
She had to suck in a breath when she felt someone punch lightly at her arm, and rubbed the tears from her eyes to see Drake crouching beside her. "I think maybe that's for you," he whispered, pointing toward the woods before she could ask what he meant. She glanced in the direction he was pointing. Her giddiness died down as soon as she saw, just as before, a shadowy shape sitting up in one of the trees. She nodded at Drake and he slipped away, back to the others, while she went toward the woods. She didn't know why, but she felt compelled for some reason to make sure nobody noticed her. Tal Natha might have peered in her direction, but she couldn't be certain. She passed out of the circle of light cast by the fire and stood beneath the tree, looking up.
"I didn't think rabbits climbed trees."
"You would be surprised what you can learn," Manabozho replied, and, grabbing onto the branch he'd been resting upon, flipped himself down to the ground. He stood and brushed himself off while Charmian waited impatiently. She tapped her foot.
"Well? I don't think you'd be following me around for no reason."
"I haven't been 'following' you. Merely keeping an eye on things."
"And why is it we would need an eye kept on us? Aren't there bigger things? Like whatever all those Uroona and manitous and Windwalkers were up to..."
"I have just as much idea as you on that matter. You yourself know things haven't been right here in a long time. This is partly why I decided to drop in, but not all of it."
Charmian broke off and stared at him for a moment. He appeared to wither a bit under her scrutiny and started looking around himself. Charmian bit her lip.
"So you do have bad news."
Manabozho met her eyes again with a surprised look. Charmian's face darkened.
"Don't even try passing off some excuse on me! I could tell from the last time I saw you. You can't keep a poker face to save your own life. What is it and why couldn't you tell me before? When maybe I would have had a better chance of doing something about it?"
Now his expression grew offended. "I didn't hold off to decrease your chances of doing anything," he retorted. "I held off only so you could receive the most enjoyment that you can." And with that he fell silent, looking toward the fire. Charmian looked in the same direction, then back at him. Her brow furrowed uncertainly.
"What do you mean...?"
"Exactly as it sounds." He wandered to a fallen tree and pulled himself atop it, folding his legs so his knees almost met his chin. Charmian stopped just below him. He leaned back into the crook of the tree and stared toward the large rock, nodding.
"Cute little things, aren't they?"
"Dakh and Sikt?" Charmian glanced back before a coldness crept up inside her. She turned to Manabozho, her fingers clutching numbly at the air.
"Something's going to happen to them?" she whispered, then took a step forward. "That's why you're here, isn't it. They're in some kind of trouble?"
Manabozho stared at her.
Charmian grasped onto the trunk of the tree, pulling free a hunk of moss. Her fingers crumbled it into tiny bits. "Tell me!" she snapped. "If they're in some kind of trouble, tell me! If anything happens to them, I'll blame it on you!"
"Hold," Manabozho said, holding up one hand with an irritated look. "I never spoke ill of the litter, did I? You jump to conclusions. The two of them will be fine. It is the Island I worry about," he finished, as Charmian finally began to relax.
She tensed up again. "What do you mean? It's been in trouble for a while now. But we'll figure it out. I just have to convince Red Bird..."
"It is not Red Bird that needs convincing." Manabozho swung his legs down off the trunk. "You know this already, that the true one who will save the Island is not Red Bird, though she has brought about that which will save it."
"Dakh and Sikt." Charmian's mouth twitched. "Moon Wolf already told me that. Are the two of you really tighter than you let on?"
"I am 'tight' with no one. Whatever in the heavens that's supposed to mean. I'm merely reminding you of that which you are likely to forget! With all your talk of Red Bird, you forget what truly matters."
"As if she doesn't! You said it yourself, idiot, that she brought about what will help the Island. That's no small role. Why are you even telling me about this? Don't tell me you're changing your mind and now it isn't Dakh and Sikt I have to worry about--?"
"If I changed my mind about anything, it would matter little to the fate of the Island." He narrowed his eyes at her. "Are you truly so stupid today? Even Dakh and Sikt may not matter to the fate of the Island, in the end. If they are even able to assist, at all."
"If?" Charmian gaped at him in an exaggerated fashion, before noticing the somber look in his eyes. Her own irritation faded as her unease grew.
"What do you mean, if? I thought you said that they..."
"What I said was true. It's whether they can or not that is in dispute." He pulled his feet back up beneath him and sighed. "How to say this? Telling you will be difficult enough. I shudder to think of what Red Bird will say, once she hears..."
"What?" Charmian fought down a pang of anxiety. "You said they'd be okay! If--"
"They will be." He cut her off with a gesture of his hand, then paused. He lowered it to his lap. He stared toward the fire for a moment or two, the pups tumbling about, chasing X'aaru as the big demon trotted in circles. Charmian couldn't be certain, but she thought she saw sadness somewhere in his eyes as the fire flickered within them. She too turned toward the fire to watch the goings-on, and wished for a moment that she'd stayed there, rather than come out here.
"If you had to sacrifice something for the Island, what would be that which you hold most dear? What is the greatest thing you would be willing to give up?"
Charmian frowned. She turned to look back at Manabozho, confused.
She paused and thought. "My life?" she said, even as she did so knowing somehow that it wasn't the right answer.
Manabozho pursed his lips, then shook his head. "I do not think this is the thing of greatest importance to you."
"What could be more important than my own life?"
He tilted his head with an appraising look, and one of the feathers he wore cocked the way a rabbit's ear would. "Would you give your life to save another?"
Charmian barely paused before nodding.
"Then does this not mean you would hold their life in greater regard than your own?"
Charmian felt her skin go cold and shivered despite the balmy temperature. She rubbed her arms.
"You mean...sacrifice...somebody else?" She glanced at the two pups rolling around, biting each other's tail, and shivered. "I have to sacrifice them?" she said in a louder voice, unable to believe what she was hearing.
"Not you," Manabozho said, and rather than allay her fears, this only increased them. She lifted her eyes, from the pups playing in the grass, to the two figures beside the rock, one holding a tattered basket, the other resting upon the ground. The firelight played over them, making their shadows rise up and disappear again.
"Red Bird," Charmian whispered. Her eyes stung with sudden tears. She whirled back to Manabozho and would have grabbed at his collar had he had one.
"She just had them! She can't give them up now. They're the reason Tal Natha's still alive! You can't ask her to give them up!" She grabbed onto his rabbit pendant instead and tugged on it to emphasize her point, jerking him forward and back again. He grasped her wrist tight enough to sting and pulled himself free but kept the same neutral look on his face. Charmian lowered her hands, tears spilling down her cheeks. She rubbed at her eyes.
"She can't give them up...not so soon. Things were just starting to look better. They can't die so soon."
"You'll note that I said nothing about dying," Manabozho's voice came to her faintly, and she felt herself struggling back toward reality. He stared at her with a reproachful look. "A sacrifice," he continued. "This is all I said. Not all sacrifice comes about through death. Some of the greatest sacrifice comes about through change."
"Change...?" Charmian's confusion only grew. Manabozho sighed and sat back again.
"Dakh and Sikt are needed if we are to try to save the Island. They cannot die, at least until this is completed. Yet...neither may they be able to complete this task, in the first place."
"What do you mean?" Charmian raised her voice again and Manabozho rubbed his eyes.
"They are mere pups. Powerful in their own right. Yet useless to the fate of the Island."
"And so what should we do?"
He crossed his arms behind his head and gave her a frank look.
"We could wait ten years or so. Until they've grown and acquired their full powers."
"Ten years or so?" Charmian's face fell with dismay. "But Ocryana's already getting control over Tal Natha. We can't wait ten years!"
"I don't believe you or Red Bird would like the alternative."
"What is it?" Charmian tried not to clench her fists. "Remember the point you guys keep making, the Island is supposed to come first. I don't know if I buy that but if you have any ideas--"
Manabozho leaned forward and down and reached out to a small sapling sprouting from the ground. His fingers brushed against the leaves and as Charmian watched, the tiny plant glimmered and grew taller. She took a step back to see it ascend to two feet, three feet, four, until it had changed from a mere sprout into a young tree. Manabozho sat back once more.
"Which has a greater medicine--a sprout or a tree? Which would you turn to if you needed it?"
"A tree," Charmian said without thinking. She frowned, then realization entered her eyes. She glanced at the pups, then at Manabozho.
"And now you see why I hesitated," Manabozho cut in softly. "Even while you may choose a tree over a sprout, you still choose childhood over age."
Charmian felt her legs growing weak. She slumped against the fallen tree and stared ahead at Sugar Loaf and the others occupied outside it. Dakh and Sikt gnawed on each other's ears and tumbled down the slope accompanied by the others' laughter. Her fingers grasped numbly at the moss upon the bark beside her.
"There's no other way...?"
"You know that if there were, I would have told you by now. I like the idea as much as you do."
Charmian looked up at him. "You can undo it later on...can't you?"
Manabozho lifted one eyebrow. In response he held his hand out to the small tree again. Charmian watched it glow as it had before, only instead of shrinking back to a sprout, the leaves began to shrivel and go brown. The trunk desiccated before her eyes and now it did shrink, only not in the way she had hoped it would. The coldness crept up inside her breast once more. Manabozho pulled his hand away.
"You can see it's not a powerful medicine. I've done all that I can." He crossed his arms. "You are not the one to make the decision, though. I told you in good faith. I can tell the one who needs to know, or you can."
"No." Charmian's voice was soft, almost a whisper. She stared at Red Bird now, who smiled and held out her arms as the two pups raced toward her. They leapt up and she hugged them to her, their tiny tongues licking her face. "I'll tell her."
Manabozho paused, then nodded once. He sat back against the tree and faded from her sight. Charmian sought to feel her feet before walking back toward the rock, her body cold. Old Mother Manitou was the first one to notice her approach, and stared at her a moment before calling out to X'aaru and Drake and motioning them inside, as if asking for assistance. They were eager to help, and so disappeared into the rock, leaving Red Bird and Tal Natha outside. Only now did Charmian's resolve begin to waver and she almost stopped in her tracks, until Tal Natha spotted her and lifted his head. There was something in his eyes that hinted to her that perhaps he would understand. She took strength from him and approached the slope, and now Red Bird, still cuddling Dakh and Sikt, saw her and smiled.
"Charmian! I was wondering where you went off to. It's gotten too quiet here! Where did everyone else go...?"
Now that she noticed the serious look on Charmian's face her voice, as well as her smile, faded. Charmian felt her insides twist. Red Bird didn't hesitate long before saying, "What is it?" Her voice hinted at her fear. "What's wrong?"
Charmian's gaze drifted to the wriggling pups and Red Bird's grip on them grew tighter. She pulled them close and her eyes grew wide. She shook her head slowly.
Tal Natha rose to his feet.
Charmian took a step forward. "They're here to help the Island," she said softly. "But they can't do it the way they are right now." She made certain to meet Red Bird's eyes, which by now were brimming with tears. "They'll be all right. I promise. They just..." She trailed off, seeking the right words. "We have to sacrifice some things for the Island," she finished, knowing that no matter what she said, it wouldn't matter. Red Bird stood, hugging Dakh and Sikt so tightly that they squirmed and whimpered. She shook her head and her cheeks glistened.
"I won't let anybody do anything to them. They're just children!"
"That's the problem." Charmian stopped again and dropped her hand. She couldn't think of anything else to say.
Tal Natha approached from the side of the rock, his step slow and his eyes shaded. I had thought of this, several times, he said, and Red Bird looked at him. I had feared that it might be so. Their medicine is weak. Even as they helped you and the Drake, it was their adult spirits doing so. The way that they are, they cannot help the Island.
Charmian let out her breath. She couldn't believe that he was the one to understand her. Still Red Bird shook her head adamantly.
"I won't let anybody do anything to them! They're your children too! And mine!"
"They won't be hurt," Charmian said. "I promise. Have I ever broken a promise to you?"
"This is different." Red Bird backed up the slope a few steps. "You never asked me for so much before. This isn't yours to take or to ask for! It isn't even mine to give! You can't ask them to give this up!"
Red Bird. Tal Natha came to her side and she looked at him. It is not yours to deny, either, he said, and her chest hitched. He nodded at the pups, who still squirmed in protest. They are the only ones who may accept or refuse. You cannot decide for them.
"They're only children," Red Bird whimpered, and Tal Natha rose and pressed his face to hers.
You must let them decide. For the Island.
Red Bird closed her eyes and tears streamed down her face. They stood in silence for a moment, Charmian wishing she could be any place but here right now. After what seemed to be an endless time Red Bird finally opened her eyes and met Charmian's own. Charmian faltered inside at the despair she saw there, yet Red Bird didn't back away.
"You promise...you promise they'll be all right...?"
Charmian nodded. "I promise."
A long pause. Red Bird pulled away from Tal Natha and wiped her eyes against her shoulder, sniffing.
"You've never let me doubt you before...so what will you do now?"
A soft rustle came from behind Charmian. She didn't need to look to tell that Manabozho came forward from the woods, and both Red Bird and Tal Natha lifted their heads to look at him with some surprise. He tipped his head slightly in a gesture of respect and stopped several paces away from them.
"I promise they will not be hurt. Yet I cannot undo what will be done."
Red Bird cried quietly and hugged the pups to her. Tal Natha nuzzled at her neck and they stood in silence for a moment or two more. Dakh and Sikt licked at their mother's tears and at their father's muzzle and she lifted her head to look at them. They wriggled and whimpered; out of the six of them standing there, they were the only ones seemingly unaffected by the seriousness of the situation.
If Charmian hadn't known any better, she'd have said they understood what was happening. Was that even possible?
Red Bird stared into their eyes when they looked at her and they responded by wriggling even more, tails flicking through the air. Her eyes filled with tears again.
"Why must you take their side?" she murmured, and the pups licked at her face again. She sniffled and hugged them, then bent to the ground. Dakh and Sikt tumbled from her arms, bouncing in a circle and yipping. Tal Natha lowered his head and they licked at his muzzle and pulled at his ears. He nudged them and they tumbled toward Charmian, rolling to a stop at her feet before pausing to look up at her. Their tiny glowing eyes made a lump rise in her throat, and she struggled to swallow it down. She couldn't bear to look at Red Bird now.
Instead she took one step aside and gestured at Manabozho. "Go on, he's the one you need to see. Not me."
They stared up at her for a moment more before scurrying to Manabozho. They nipped at his feet a bit before settling down, looking up at him with their little snake tails wagging. Charmian had seen the same look they had on her own dog's face, when he'd been a puppy expecting a treat. Did they really know what they were in for? She started to take a step toward them as Manabozho leaned down and reached out his hand, only to feel a light pressure against her arm. Tal Natha had taken it gently in his jaws, and let go as soon as she looked at him. She still rubbed at it as if he had broken the skin, and glanced back at the pups.
"Do you really think this is the right thing...?"
If it is for the Island, then it is the right thing. Allow them to decide. You know that they know better than to decide foolishly.
Charmian hesitated, then nodded. She relented and stepped back. Dakh and Sikt sat still as Manabozho held his hand over them, and not long after a soft glow emerged. Red Bird let out a strangled sound and took a step forward, holding out her own hand, but was unable to do more. The light grew and enveloped the two pups until they were no longer visible; Manabozho stood and backed away, still holding out his hand palm forward, and the glow grew further, brightening so it filled the entire clearing. Drake and X'aaru appeared at the entrance to the rock, shielding their eyes and blinking in confusion. Tal Natha went to stand beside Red Bird, who held her hands to her eyes and wept. Charmian herself wiped away the tears that had sprung to her eyes, and waited for the glow to die away as she knew it would.
A moment or so passed until it did, and Charmian--and the others, she was certain--lifted their heads to see what awaited them.