Return To Manitou Island: Part 19
The Bear's Den
A WHILE HAD passed, and nothing else attempted to make its way through the gate, but still Niskigwun sat on the large rock off to the side and stared at the stone arch which lay partly obscured by undergrowth.
It had been blocked, not long ago. Yet the large boulder that had clogged up the hole in the arch now lay on the ground in ruins. The arch itself yawned openly, yet showed nothing other than more weeds behind it. Niskigwun stared.
At the very least he had untensed enough to set down his bow and arrows beside him, since it was obvious nothing was coming through anymore. Perhaps he'd frightened it off. He decided to stay and wait to see if it should try again before attempting anything else. He felt a pressing need to report back to the giant tree, but didn't feel comfortable leaving the arch behind. What if...whatever it was...tried to get through while he was away? He didn't have anyone around him to keep watch while he was gone...
He would wait another hour or so, and if nothing had happened by then, he would go back and seek more medicine to block the gate.
What he couldn't figure out was what had happened on the other side. That gateway had been shattered long ago. Who could have fixed it? Certainly not one of the Islanders...they didn't have that power. He knew it must have been a powerful sandling or stoneling medicine, to do something like that.
Yet he could have sworn that the face that had peeked through the newly opened gate had been that of a young girl...and not an Islander, at that...
Niskigwun drummed his fingers on his knee and chewed on the inside of his cheek. One more hour. If nothing had happened by then, he would head back.
Charmian's gaze went up, up, up, and she felt perhaps the smallest she had ever felt, staring up into the tiny glittering eyes of an immense white bear.
A fragment of a memory flashed into her head. When she was little, her parents had taken her to the zoo. She'd loved seeing all the animals there in their carefully reconstructed environments. Her favorites had been the otters in their tank, though she had also liked the talking crow even if it only knew one word. One of the last exhibits had been the bears. On her way to see them, skipping ahead of her parents, she had overheard two other visitors talking to each other as they'd passed by. They had been discussing an animal attack not far from the area. Apparently, some bears had raided a campsite. She hadn't heard all the details, but the ones she'd caught were gruesome enough, for a child's mind. Now Charmian had never been particularly cowardly of anything--she wasn't prone to shrieking whenever she saw snakes or spiders or anything, at least, and she had a big dog of her own, so they were nothing to be feared--but as soon as she and her parents had reached the bear exhibit with its resident black bears, all she could think of was those massive mouths crunching into human bones. Who cared that the zoo bears had merely rooted around their area and gazed at the onlookers as if expecting handouts; all she had been able to do was stand and stare at them mutely as everybody else oohed and ahhed and waved. She hadn't spoken the rest of the way home, not even to yammer about the otters and the amazing talking crow, and she hadn't slept a single bit that night. Every shadow outside her window looked like a bear. The very next morning she had even taken her teddy bear and carried it upstairs and stashed it away in the attic. Her parents never found out what had become of it, and had bought her a stuffed dog to replace it. She hadn't slept with the stuffed dog in years, but it still sat guarding her room from her dresser, and the teddy bear was still hidden away out of sight.
Charmian had completely forgotten about that entire episode, until now.
Those black bears had been much smaller than this creature.
Charmian felt her arm start to shake. The branch had seemed like a good enough idea before, when she thought she was facing another Shadow Wolf, but it seemed rather pathetic, now.
The bear started to lower itself down closer to her. She squinched her eyes shut and gritted her teeth and began talking rapidly under her breath.
"Black bear, fight it off. Grizzly bear, play dead...they never said what to do if it's a WHITE bear...!!"
She felt a blast of hot air, and tentatively opened one eye. The bear was now down on all fours, staring directly at her as if to offer a challenge. Charmian raised the stick as much as she could--a few more inches--and tried pointing it at the bear's nose, but with the way her arms were shaking it pointed pretty much all over the woods. She shut her eyes again and murmured as loudly as she dared.
"C-careful...I'm...I'm r-ready to f-fight if I h-have to..."
She heard the bear's breath rasping out of its nose, then heard a clicking sound she assumed must be its teeth. She opened one eye just long enough to see what looked like row after row of fangs, when the bear ROARED directly in her face, the bellowing sound going on and on until she thought her eardrums would burst. It echoed from the treetops and bounced back to hit her again from every side until she could feel her bones vibrating, and her teeth chattered from the noise. By the time it finally ended, the echo continued bouncing around the woods for a moment or two until fading into even fainter echoes, and then into nothing. The bear stood staring at Charmian, who stood frozen several inches away from it.
The stick dropped from her numb hands. She could see her reflection in those little eyes and saw that her face had gone as white as the bear's fur. That couldn't be good.
"I think..." she murmured, "...I'd rather...play dead."
The bear continued staring. Charmian's knees wobbled, then gave out. She sank to the ground as if in slow motion, and then fell over with a thud.
Stick-In-The-Dirt's head bobbed up and he gasped, eyes shooting open.
He darted a glance up the slope from Arch Rock, toward the top of the bluff. Nothing was there...but he could have sworn...
He shook his head to clear it of a daze, and then remembered what had just happened. A vision. A vision! That was right...he hadn't really seen anything at all. At least, nothing that was really there. But that made him even more anxious. He could think of no reason why he would have seen a vision of the mainlander girl, Charmian, riding unconscious atop a fireball as it drifted through the woods.
Still, he'd seen it...and it hadn't felt like any normal dream. He glanced down now at his own little drawings upon the rock, sketches of turtles and otters mostly, with the occasional deer and hawk here and there. His eyes focused immediately on the bear image, and his anxiety grew.
He picked up his stick and slung it over his shoulder, along with his pack, starting to scramble up the slope. He halted as he grasped onto the rocky surface, however, and looked back over his shoulder.
The four-day vigil. Four complete days had not passed yet in his watch over Yellow Turtle's ascension of the Spirit Road. He was supposed to stay here for four days, as long as the journey took, to make certain the old chief reached the Spirit Land safely.
Stick-In-The-Dirt bit his lip, suddenly filled with indecision. He imagined Yellow Turtle stranded on the Spirit Road, or worse yet, falling off it into the turbulent waters or threatening woods which bordered its edges. He imagined, worst of all, the old man confronted by Pauguk, the gruesome Flying Skeleton with the burning eyes who kept watch over the path. He looked back up the bluff, and again thought of the strange vision he'd just seen, the fireball carrying the mainlander away into the woods. He shuffled his foot against the rock in frustration, uncertain what to do.
Then he thought of what had happened the last time the girl had come here--the one who was able to quell two demons, one of which he himself had released, something that none of the rest of them had ever been able to do...and made up his mind.
Stick-In-The-Dirt cast a final regretful look back at Arch Rock as he reached the top of the bluff, then hurried off into the woods, his step swift and silent.
A fireball carrying a human did not traverse the Island, but something else did. Charmian's head lolled to the side, her eyes closed; her hands would have dragged against the ground had not the one carrying her been so big. The great white bear plodded its way through the woods, snorting as it went. Anyone who would have seen it would have wondered how Charmian managed to stay on its back without rolling off due to her unconscious state.
Anyone except for the one who was watching. Stick-In-The-Dirt followed the noises into the woods until he spotted the bear making its way among the trees, then gasped and ducked down behind a boulder. His heart hammered in his throat and his hands shook; he gripped his knees to still them, then swallowed and made himself turn slowly around and peer over the rock. He spotted the hind end of the bear disappearing down the trail. He chewed on his lip almost until it bled, but crawled over the boulder anyway. He set foot on the ground and started jogging silently up the trail, cringing the entire way.
"A makwamosa. She no sooner than sets foot upon the Island when she is carried off by a makwamosa! Her luck is worse even than mine!"
He had to hurry to keep up with the bear, even though it walked at a leisurely pace. He hated the way the mainlander lay limp upon its back. Had she been struck down? Some sort of medicine used? He wouldn't have doubted it, but then again he wasn't sure what he could do about it, either.
The woods began to grow darker, and he clutched at the little turtle totem hanging around his neck, teeth chattering. If there was anything as bad as the Devil's Lake, it was the deep woods. At least the bear hadn't noticed it was being followed. The medicine man trailed after it even as the trees grew larger and closer together, ferns and pine needles carpeting the forest floor and stilling the sounds of their progress. The only sounds to be heard were a bird calling somewhere far off, and the occasional moan of the wind high in the branches. Stick-In-The-Dirt swore he saw a GeeBee flit about overhead, and ducked under a log; he reemerged only when he was in danger of losing the bear. It took everything he had to keep following the thing all the way to the heart of the woods.
From a rise in the ground jutted a large slab of rock, its top littered with dead leaves and moss. A tree had grown atop it long ago and its roots curled around the edges as if holding it in place. A cavernous opening yawned beneath the stone roof, and within, as they approached, Stick-In-The-Dirt could just barely make out a wigwam built seemingly into the cave itself. His brow furrowed and he crept down behind another one of the large mossy trees to look at it as the bear entered the clearing before it. He knew the Island well, but even he had never seen this spot. Of course, he hadn't gone looking for it before, either.
The white bear stopped in the clearing and, leaning sideways, allowed Charmian to roll off its back. She fell to the ground with a thud that made Stick-In-The-Dirt wince. Charmian, for her part, let out a groan and put a hand to her head. She rolled onto her stomach and pushed herself up onto her knees, rubbing her forehead and peering at the open space before her with a confused look. She saw the wigwam in the cave and her brow furrowed.
She froze, her shoulders hunching; if she'd had hackles, Stick-In-The-Dirt assumed they would have risen by now. She slowly turned her head to look over her shoulder and spotted the great bear. It padded toward her, snorting and grumbling; her face went even whiter than its fur and her eyes looked ready to pop from their sockets.
Thunk! Just as it reached her, the bear jerked its head up and grumbled even louder, a stone plunking off the side of its head. Charmian's head whirled to the side to see Stick-In-The-Dirt leap out from behind the tree. He brought his stick up in a threatening gesture; as the bear took a surprised step back he took advantage of the opening to step up beside Charmian, still brandishing the stick in shaking hands. She stared up at him in bewilderment.
Stick-In-The-Dirt managed to keep his eyes focused on those of the bear, although his arms trembled. The bear's muzzle wrinkled and it bared its teeth in an ugly look, growling; he dug his toes into the soft earth and stood his ground.
"You won't take her," he said, his voice quavery but clear enough.
Charmian continued staring at him, then looked at the bear, then back at the medicine man. "What's...what's going on?"
"He was carrying you." Stick-In-The-Dirt didn't take his eyes off the beast as it growled at him menacingly. "He must have come upon you and caught you offguard, or something. He was taking you back to his wigwam; but you can't have her!" These last words he aimed at the bear itself, which just continued growling.
Charmian's brow furrowed. "Huh...?" She frowned and put a hand to her head as if thinking. "That's not what happened...I think I passed out. I saw him, and then I passed out. He must've...picked me up." She gave the bear an odd look.
"Either way he was bringing you back here when I found him." He lifted the stick a little higher and swayed it a bit. "I don't know what you planned to do, but you'll have to find someone else, or fight me instead."
"Stick--" Charmian pushed herself up to her feet, rubbing soil from her arms. "Why are you talking to it like that--?"
Stick-In-The-Dirt turned his head to look at her. "It's a makwamosa."
His answer was interrupted by a brilliant flare of light. The two of them gasped and threw their arms up to shield their eyes. The bear rose up onto its hind legs as it seemed to burst into flames before them; they managed to peer out long enough to see its size decrease, shrinking down in height and breadth until the light flared again and faded away. A little whirl of leaves danced around the clearing before settling in the dust and they found themselves staring not at a bear but at a man, tall and with long white hair and a long crooked stick. Stick-In-The-Dirt saw surprised recognition flit across Charmian's face. The old man just stared at them with what seemed to be annoyance.
Stick-In-The-Dirt brought his own stick back up before him, pointed at the man's chest. The old man turned his head to look at him now, and he had to call upon everything he had not to start shaking wildly.
"You can't take her."
The old man stared at him for a moment before turning back to Charmian. She blinked when she noticed she was the subject of his attention, and then he spoke.
"You wished to speak to a wabano."
Charmian's eyes widened. Then something passed through them--perhaps it was understanding, or realization, or something else--but her shoulders relaxed. Stick-In-The-Dirt frowned on seeing the look, glanced at both of them in turn, then brought his stick up between them, moving to stand in a more conspicuous spot. He scowled at the old man, who looked at him once more.
"I said no! Fight another medicine man if you must, but you won't touch a mainlander girl!"
"It's okay, Stick."
Stick-In-The-Dirt blinked; Charmian put her hand upon his stick and gently pushed it down and out of the way. He stared at her in disbelief as she took a few steps toward the old man, looking up at him. She seemed to be entranced; Stick-In-The-Dirt gasped and pressed the head of the stick against her chest, nudging her back.
"No! Don't go closer!"
"I'm fine. He wasn't hurting me, really."
"He's used some medicine on you. You can't resist his will. Stay away from him!"
Charmian blinked again and turned to look at him. He saw that her eyes were clear, not foggy at all like they'd been a moment ago. He frowned in confusion.
"I'm okay. Really." She offered a smile, and he didn't resist when she gently pushed the stick away again. "I want to talk with him. That's all, I promise."
The medicine man bit his lip, then scowled. He stepped back and pulled the stick along with him.
"I'm staying here. If he attempts anything, I will be right here to try to stop it." He shot the old man a dark look, knowing full well which one of them was more powerful yet taking the chance anyway. The old man barely dignified him with even a glance before turning and heading toward the wigwam, pushing aside the doorflap and stepping inside so the cloth swung back behind him. Stick-In-The-Dirt climbed atop a gnarled root and drew his feet up under him, resting the stick upon his knee as Charmian turned to follow the old man into the cave. He didn't realize how tensed up he was until he heard her calling him, the sound of his own name startling him out of his thoughts.
He blinked a few times and looked down at her. Charmian offered another small smile.
"Thanks for looking out for me."
Stick-In-The-Dirt could only stare at her in surprise for a moment or two before gathering his senses. He swallowed, then coughed, then nodded. Her smile grew, then she lifted the doorflap and vanished inside.
Stick-In-The-Dirt stared at the doorflap now, and settled back against the giant tree. He didn't take his eyes off of the wigwam even once.
Charmian hesitantly pushed up the doorflap of the wigwam and peered inside. Nothing leapt out at her, so she stepped in, making certain it closed behind her. She stood at the entrance and looked around the room.
So far, this was probably the biggest wigwam she'd been in yet. It was bigger even than the lodge of the council of elders of Stick-In-The-Dirt's tribe. She supposed its odd location--centered in a cave--accounted for its odd construction. It was one large room of roughly circular shape, with a great pole in the middle; looking up she saw it led out through a hole in the bare rock, but couldn't see what lay above. The floor was that of the cave, covered in moist soil and moss; she didn't want to pay too close attention to the numerous things hanging around from the beams. Her eyes fell on a large skull hanging on the far wall, paint and feathers decorating it, and it took her a moment or two to place why it made her feel so uneasy, since she'd never seen a bear skull before.
"You have lost your tongue?"
Charmian gave a little jump. She swallowed and pondered what to say to the old man as he set his walking stick against the wall and retrieved something from a niche. As he turned around and walked toward the central pole he solved that problem for her.
"Your friend is rather protective."
"He's just worried about me," Charmian said.
"You remind him of his daughters. That's why."
Charmian blinked. "How do you know?" she asked with some surprise. Then, more to herself, "He never told me that..."
"This is because he does not know himself." The old man set down a small pot on some wood piled near the pole, then waved his hand. Charmian gasped and jumped again when the wood instantly caught on fire, flames shooting up around the pot and momentarily hiding it from sight before settling back down. She stared at the fire while he continued tending to different things around the room. She had to swallow again before she could speak.
"I'm guessing you're the one they call Snow Bear."
"I have been called by this name," he said, not bothering to turn around.
Charmian gnawed on the inside of her cheek, then took a step forward. "I was told to look for a wabano so I could ask some questions," she said. "You're the only wabano anyone seems to know."
"I know why you came."
"Did you kill that Shadow Wolf?" Charmian asked, not certain why she wanted to know that first off. She waited for a moment or two but he didn't answer; she fiddled her fingers a bit and thought. "Okay...well, I had a couple of other questions."
She waited again for him to answer. It was a long time before she got anything.
"You'll be talking to the air, if you don't learn to speak up."
Charmian stared. "Sorry," she said, confused, and fell silent once more.
Well, obviously I have to do all the smalltalking myself.
"Okay," she said a second time. "Well...I guess I'll ask about the Shadow Wolves first. I need to find out where they came from and why they're so hard to fight. And what they want. Somebody told me something I don't really get. She said they're both of the Island, and not of the Island, and...well, that just doesn't make any sense."
"And why not?" Snow Bear turned around with a bowl this time, and went to the pot to ladle something into it. She stood and watched as he sat down on some furs not far from the fire and blew on the soup. She felt a bit miffed that he hadn't offered her any; not that she was hungry, but still...
"Well, something is either one thing or it's another," she answered. "It can't be both."
"Not everything is black or white, as your people like to put it."
Charmian's brow furrowed. "But some things are. How can something be both OF the Island and NOT of the Island? It doesn't make sense. Either the Wolves were always here, or they just came; it can't be both."
"And why not?"
"Because it's impossible."
Snow Bear took a sip of soup. "Your kind thinks too literally."
Charmian got a cross look and sighed. "Fine, then. The Wolves both are and aren't. Whatever. What are they here for? If they attack only Islanders, why do they come after me, and why does the Island protect them?"
"You should spend more time finding this out for yourself rather than running away from Wolves," Snow Bear said.
Charmian felt ready to tear out her hair. "If I KNEW where to find it out, I wouldn't be here, would I?"
Another sip. "Actually you run the most from the one who can tell you the most."
She had to settle for raking her fingers down her face instead, suppressing a growl. "FINE. Be oblique. I think maybe Stick was right!"
"I already told you," Snow Bear said. "If you wish to know what they want, then ask them."
"Gee, I would, if they weren't always so intent on RIPPING MY HEAD OFF!"
"Perhaps your head is what they want?" He finally met her eyes over the edge of the bowl, and she opened her mouth to retort but nothing came out. She shut it again and fumed.
"Change of subject. Since apparently you don't know anything about the Wolves." She paced to the other side of the room. "There's this weird guy who's also chasing me, and the thing is I can't sense a thing about him--somebody suggested he's dead, which makes no sense--"
"You seem to think very few things make sense," Snow Bear interrupted. "If the Island makes so little sense to you, then why did you come in the first place?"
Charmian halted in her pacing, surprised. "Why--?" She blinked a few times, then drew herself up. "Because I care about it here. That's why. I helped get rid of Ocryana the last time I was here, in case you didn't notice."
"She's still about," Snow Bear replied. "Only sleeping."
Charmian scowled. "Yeah, so? Like you would have done any better." She bit the inside of her mouth and took a breath, remembering everything Manabozho and Stick-In-The-Dirt had told her about wabanos. "Sorry. I don't mean to be rude..."
"Yet you are." Charmian seethed but said nothing as he leaned forward to ladle more soup into the bowl. "For one who claims to care about the Island so much, there's much you don't yet know about it. If you came here seeking all the answers, then you wasted both our time."
She gaped. "Then how come you didn't tell me when I first came in that you wouldn't help me?" she cried in disbelief.
Snow Bear lifted one shoulder and tipped the bowl to his mouth. "You didn't ask."
Gah I want to KILL HIM!! Charmian clenched her fists instead and forced herself to take a breath and let it out. She was surprised by how shuddery it sounded, and let her fingers go loose. "Fine," she said. "I had only one more question anyway. That fire thingie you just did..."
Snow Bear lifted his hand, and flames started dancing above his fingertips. "That," Charmian said, nodding. "I used to be able to do something like that...but when I was using it on the Wolves, it just stopped. Like it...broke or something. Somebody told me maybe I'd offended a manitou, but I don't know how I did or why..."
"Turn something upon itself, and it will of course be offended," Snow Bear said.
Charmian's face screwed up. "What?"
Snow Bear waved his hand and the fire flickered away. He finished his soup and pushed himself to his feet. "You ask the wrong questions," he said. "Hold up your hand, and do whatever it is that you do to make fire."
"But it doesn't work any--"
"Hold up your hand and do it."
Charmian scowled at him but obeyed. She lifted her hand and spread her fingers. "Fire," she said, then gave him a look which said, "See? Told you!"
--Only to gasp when flames appeared over her hand, exactly as they had with Snow Bear's. The sight so startled her that she jumped back and waved her hand lest it really was on fire, thinking maybe the medicine man had done it. He was busy ladling another bowl of soup, however, and she could tell from the strange tingling feeling in her arm that she had in fact called up the fire.
What's...what's going on? Why is it working now...?
"I don't get it," she protested. "It didn't work before! Honest! I even tried it several times and it didn't work!"
He waved his hand dismissively. "You worry about the wrong things," he said. "Fire isn't what will beat down a Shadow Wolf anyway."
"It worked just fine for you."
"This is because you and I have different ways of doing things." He paused to hold up his hand, and again the fire appeared. "You do it again."
Charmian lifted her hand. "Fire," she said, and again the flames emerged. She stared at them until they went out, then looked back at him. "I don't get it."
"Simple. You ask. I do not."
She was ready to ask him what that meant, when she realized the difference between what they had both done.
He didn't say a word when he did it. I said, "Fire." I always say fire...even if I can't say it out loud, I at least think it...is that what he meant? By asking?
"Then if I ask, and you don't..." She frowned. "Then that means you just take." She blinked, then gave him an annoyed look. "You can't do that! You don't just take things!"
"And why not?" He seemed far more interested in the soup than in her.
Charmian clenched her fists. "Because that's stealing! Maybe I haven't been grateful enough, or whatever, but at least I don't just go taking power from others!"
"These 'others' you speak of are manitous. They're here to serve us when we wish." He finally held out a bowl toward her. She looked at it and shook her head.
"No thank you. And that's not right! That's not what the manitous are here for...it's the other way around...we respect them. They don't have to respect us. Especially not if we just take whenever we want!"
Snow Bear shrugged and waved his hand to dispense with the fire. He picked up the pot without burning his hands and turned away.
"This is the difference between your sort of medicine, and that of a wabano. If the manitous simply decide one day not to honor your requests anymore, then you will have to live with it."
Charmian stared at his back as he started putting things away, and her shoulders sank. No real answers seemed to be coming here, so she began to turn toward the doorway. It looked like Stick-In-The-Dirt and Manabozho had been right after all; there was no free advice to be found under this roof.
"You still failed to ask the right question, Mainlander."
Charmian halted. She looked over her shoulder with a frown, then turned around again.
"And what question is that?"
"I already told you." He reached up to hang the pot on a hook and dusted his hands. "Fire is not the way to beat down a Shadow Wolf. Not in the way of the Island, at least. You cannot kill them if you wish to appease the Island."
"So how do I fight them if I can't kill them?" Charmian asked in annoyance. "If fire doesn't work, then what do I use?"
Snow Bear turned his head, and finally met her eyes for more than a few seconds. Charmian stared at him as he came her way, then looked at his hand as he lifted it in the air. She had just enough time to blurt out, "What--" before he halted and held his hand up palm flat, a burst of blinding light cutting off her words as it exploded from her chest.