Return To Manitou Island: Part 67
Land Of The Bear
CHARMIAN, WABASSO, MARTEN, and Peepaukawiss stared upward at the sky as it exploded in a multitude of colored flame, the fire extending in giant arches overhead. A zzzzzhhhhheeeeeewwwwww sound filled the air, stinging their ears. Smaller puffs of smoke started bursting here and there as if forming a giant bouquet in the sky.
Charmian's brow furrowed in confusion. "Fireworks?" she had to yell over the noise. "Your big joke was fireworks?"
Puka's enthusiasm dimmed a little bit when he looked at her. "You mean...you've seen all this before...?"
Charmian snorted. "Where I come from they blow up more stuff than this every single year! It's called Fourth of July!"
They all gave her a puzzled look. "The fourth what of July?" Marten asked, and, anticipating the question, Charmian just shook her head.
"Never mind." She pointed upwards. "So, okay, that's the big joke...now what?"
Puka started hopping up and down again, clasping his hands. "We just follow it back to its source! Which should be..." He craned his neck and scanned the tops of the mountains, the main column of the plumes extending far beyond them. "...Somewhere over there!"
"On the other side of the mountains," Charmian said, then sighed. "Great."
Wabasso rubbed at his neck. "Well, it shouldn't be too difficult...Puka and I can change into birds, or some such..."
"I can turn into a bird too!" Marten exclaimed, and with a pop changed into a red-headed woodpecker. They glanced up at the mountaintops, then turned back when Charmian cleared her throat. She held out her arms and gave them a dirty look.
"Um, hello? I can't exactly change!"
Puka pursed his lips, then peered at Wabasso sideways. "What sort of girl is she again, exactly...?"
"Maybe one of you could carry me or something?" Charmian asked, feeling like an idiot. Wabasso and Puka looked uncertain; when she glanced at Marten he popped back into his normal form and scowled.
"I can't carry you! You're too heavy!"
"You mean you can't turn into some kind of giant bird, like that giant wolverine you turned into--?"
Puka clapped his hands. "I know! Surely there are some more manitous dwelling about in this area...? Perhaps they would be so lovely as to offer a ride for our little struggling group? Those ones below were quite helpful..."
"I feel kind of bad asking them for something like that again..." Charmian murmured, but Wabasso waved it off and pulled out his flute.
"It's little matter. The manitous around here are sure to be different from those below. This will be the first favor we've asked of them, if they should decide to come out." He put the flute to his mouth, then lowered it a bit. "You might want to cover your ears," he said to Charmian.
She obeyed, and Wabasso piped a few strains which drifted upward around the rock. Puka and Marten craned their necks to look around. When he stopped playing Charmian lowered her hands and followed their example, scanning the rocks surrounding them. Nothing moved.
Puka tilted his head. "Perhaps they're rude."
"Maybe you smell funny!" Marten suggested to Charmian.
She bristled. "I SPIRIT-BONDED with a manitou, I'll have you know! And I just RODE one all the way up here! Why is it that I smell so funny NOW--?"
Marten started hopping from foot to foot and pointed at the mountain. "Maybe you smell different to different noses!"
Charmian clenched her fists and shook one at him. "I'll smell different to your nose once I FLATTEN it--!" She happened to look up at what he was pointing at and then jumped with a yelp. A face had appeared out of the wall of rock, and it was staring right at them.
Wabasso tentatively stepped forward, Puka and Marten peering at it in curiosity as Charmian regained her senses. The face was clearly manitou, with its deerlike features and the trace of antlers just peeking out from the rock, yet it was somewhat different as well. It was entirely an ashen gray just like the rock, even its eyes, though they had a blue sheen; and its ears were smaller and its muzzle was more blunted, making it look vaguely simian. The others formed a semicircle to look at it as it stared back, and a few more faces emerged, their eyes shifting from side to side.
"Are they friendly...?" Charmian murmured.
"Most manitous who live in tribes are," Wabasso said quietly, as if their watchers were a flock of wild birds. "I have yet to meet any who are more than merely cautious."
Charmian shifted a little. "Yeah, well, you have yet to visit Devil's Lake." She looked from one manitou to the next and cleared her throat before whistling a little. She noticed their eyes all turn toward her, and, feeling a bit encouraged, whistled a little louder; yet she trailed off when she saw the odd looks Wabasso and Puka were giving her. "What--? Am I that bad?"
"Well..." Puka scratched his head. "No...not if you meant to ask them where you might barter for some rice and red cloth..."
Charmian looked stung. "Well--at least I formed a coherent sentence!"
Wabasso took a step forward and played the flute. The manitous' eyes shifted toward him as he did so, and Charmian nearly slumped over before remembering to cover her ears again. When he stopped the first manitou whistled something, then the faces vanished.
Wabasso rubbed at his head again. "That was odd," he said.
"What...?" Charmian uncovered her ears and squinted at the rock. "Did they just leave us? What kind of manitous are those--?"
"They are the mountain manitous, of course...they guard this area. They said they will not carry us across, but if we really must go, we can try our luck with the rock manitous." He turned and pointed. "They live over in that direction, just a little way up the slope."
"Well that was rude!" Charmian frowned at the now barren rock face and stuck out her tongue. "Be that way, then! So much for asking nicely!"
"I don't know..." They started walking again up a narrow path leading to their left. Wabasso glanced up at the mountainside every so often. "That was only part of what he truly said...from what I gathered, they do not grant assistance to any who attempt to cross this part of the mountains. I suspect there is something they wish people to keep away from."
"Like the Fairy Arch?" Charmian chewed on her thumbnail. "I suppose it would make sense, since Mani did the same thing even with me...he didn't want to go over there because he thought it would be disrespectful to Geezhigo-Quae." Her face lit up and she glanced up at the top of the mountain. "That means something powerful's GOT to be over there! Maybe they're guarding Mudjikawiss!"
Puka pursed his lips. "Mudji never seemed like one to surround himself with a bunch of manitous! He always liked fending for himself first off."
"Well, what else would you suggest?"
"The rock manitous are not of the mountains themselves," Wabasso said. "They merely inhabit the rocks which have fallen over the years. Somewhat like the way a..." He paused and started gesturing with his hands.
Marten hopped up and down. "Oo! Charades! I'm great at this!" The other three stopped and watched as Wabasso spread his arms and started touching his fingers to his thumbs as if grasping at the air, then huddled his arms over his head and curled in on himself, then repeated the odd gesture with his hands.
"Oo! I know that one!" Marten exclaimed. "That's a crab!"
Wabasso dropped his arms and straightened up and they resumed their walking, Charmian's brow furrowing. "Somewhat like the way a crab will move into an abandoned shell," he finished, and Marten and Puka nodded as if he made much sense. Charmian just stared at the path as they walked.
"Did we just play charades...?"
"And so they do not have an obligation to guard the mountain," Wabasso said. "They might be more inclined to help us across."
"Well, I still think it's rather rude to just deny us passage; I mean, we're practically stranded here, and it was their friends who brought us here..." Charmian drifted off into incoherent mumbling and wiped a hand across her brow. She understood the manitous' reasoning, but after coming so far to just be turned down...it seemed a little anticlimactic.
The path forked between two large boulders and they halted in a smallish clearing which dropped off slightly to the left and sloped upward on the right. A few more boulders littered the ground and they looked around themselves. Wabasso pulled out his flute and played a few notes while Charmian covered her ears, then they waited again.
"This is like trying to get a cab in Detroit," she said after a few moments.
Puka shielded his eyes and glanced around. "Maybe they're busy...? I assume manitous have LOTS of more important things to do with their time, after all..."
Marten hopped up and down again. "Hey! I think I see one! I'm sure of it!" He pointed at another pair of boulders sitting side by side, and once Charmian squinted she thought she saw small blue eyes peering out from between them. Her face lit up and she waved; after a brief hesitation several manitous started to appear, stepping out of the rocks and walking in wary circles around them. They whistled and flicked their ears.
Charmian sighed. "FINALLY!" She pursed her lips to whistle again but Puka made a face and waved his arms.
"Eh, maybe Wabasso can do better! If you try again you'll probably have them direct us to the best place to fish for sturgeon or something..."
Charmian scowled. "I'm NOT that bad! Maybe those other ones spoke a different language, did you ever think of that?"
"All manitous talk the same language," Puka objected. Charmian felt like asking him what did he know, when she remembered what Old Mother Manitou had told her, and shut up, scowling. She covered her ears once more as Wabasso played his flute, and chewed on her lip as the manitous conversed with each other.
That's right...manitous talk only one language. How many times is that now that this has happened...? With Mani and the Wolves, and Crooked Creek, and Old Mother Manitou, and now this...? I know how to talk manitou...so how come I'm forgetting it so easily...?
The manitous seemed to reach an agreement, and came forward, bending down on one knee. Wabasso waved at the others.
"They say they will take us just over to the other side. There is a large camp there, and they do not wish to intrude in it."
"That sounds like it might be the place anyway," Charmian said. "Since it's where the light is coming from." She gave Puka a cross look. "If your joke messed up our chances of getting over this mountain in just the SLIGHTEST way, I know where you can shove your NEXT joke!"
Puka swallowed nervously. They climbed atop the manitous' backs and again started upward, much more quickly this time; Charmian was used to riding, yet not over mountains, as Manitou Island lacked such steep features--so far such places as Chimney Rock and Tal Natha's cave were the highest she had ever been, aside from the Sky Tree. As such, she dug her fingers as deeply as she could into her own manitou's fur as they ascended in quick bursts, the creatures jumping from ledge to ledge as ably as any mountain goats. The air started to grow chill and thin until Charmian found herself huddling against the manitou and chattering, sucking in her breath.
"H-how h-high is this th-thing, anyw-way?" she stammered, not really wanting to know.
"If it gets any higher maybe we'll touch the SKY!" Marten exclaimed with great enthusiasm. He flung his arms up as he said this, and had to be rescued by Puka before he could go tumbling back down the mountain.
Just as Charmian's head started swimming and she was certain she would pass out at any minute, the manitous leapt up and landed almost level, pulling themselves up by their hooves and trotting in circles. Their riders lifted their heads, shivering and rubbing their freezing hands; Charmian's nose was running, and she wiped at it in mild embarrassment. Only Marten and the manitous seemed unaffected by the cold, and the former started hopping up and down in excitement.
"Ooooo! Take a look down THERE!"
The other three automatically looked in the direction of his pointing finger. Charmian almost fell from her manitou's back when she saw what lay below.
This side of the mountain was not nearly as far down as the opposite, and led down to a small plateau which seemed to be almost carved out of the mountain's side. A thick covering of grass filled the small plain formed here, two-thirds of it surrounded by the natural stone walls of the mountain range they'd just climbed and the remaining third open to the rest of the descent into a distant valley. The plateau was littered with oddly shaped wigwams from which smoke was ascending, and small figures moved to and fro between them. They had to stare at these figures for a while before noticing that something was strange about them.
They climbed down from the manitous, which turned and vanished into the rocks. Charmian's brow furrowed and she squinted to try to get a better look. Puka and Wabasso came up on her sides, shielding their eyes and staring in silence.
Charmian couldn't shake her confusion. "Are they Bearwalkers...?"
The question made sense, seeing as every single person on the plateau below wore a thick fur covering over their shoulders and tied at their front, as well as what seemed to be mitts and boots with heavy claws; some even bore large blunt ears ringed with fur. The children which ran about tumbled over each other just like bear cubs, and several people were standing in a nearby mountain stream, fishing with their hands. Everyone looked like nothing more than a strange half-bear, half-person.
Wabasso was the one to answer. "I do not think so...Makwamosa look like normal people. But these people..."
"These people look like bears!" Marten filled in.
They fell silent again, still staring. After a moment or two Puka let out a cry and jumped up and down, clasping his hands. They looked at him and he pointed just as Marten had, grinning gleefully.
"OH, look, look! Right over THERE! This IS the place we were seeking! What did I TELL you--?"
They turned their heads and saw what they'd somehow missed. The great trail of sparks and colored flames in the sky descended just to the other side of the plateau, and its base seemed to vanish into a great outcropping of rock which jutted upwards in jagged pinnacles. Charmian stood on tiptoe, bit her lip, then waved at Marten. "Climb up on my shoulders and see if you can make out anything!"
Marten frowned. "I'm not supposed to get on your shoulders," he said.
Charmian bared her teeth. "I'm ASKING YOU this time! Now just DO IT!"
The Mikumwesu hesitated only briefly before obeying, scuttling up to stand on her shoulders, craning his neck. A smile split his face and he waved his arms as if the others couldn't see him.
"Oh! I see it! There's a cave or something over there! That light thingie goes right into it!"
Puka hopped again, clapping. "Ohhhh it WORKED! It worked perfectly! Come on, I know he must be dying to see us!" He jumped off a little ledge and went bobbing and weaving his way down the slope, hopping from rock to rock. Charmian nearly dropped Marten as she hurried to try to catch up with him.
"WAIT A MINUTE! Hold on--!"
Puka was already far ahead. Charmian wasn't as quick on her feet as he was, and tripped and would have fallen over, had not Wabasso appeared and grabbed hold of her vest. She let him keep hold of her arm all the way down, feeling rather stupid that of the four of them, she was the only one who couldn't navigate a mountainside very well at all. Of course, they were all either part manitou, or Mikumwesu...whatever that was...but it was still inconvenient, and rather humbling. As they reached the bottom Puka was already running across the green, and by now they had attracted the attention of everyone in the camp.
"I told him to WAIT!" Charmian muttered between gritted teeth. "We don't even know who these people are, whether they're friendly, or what!"
Wabasso slowed his step and she did the same, Marten hopping in circles around them, though Puka went right on running. Several of the bigger men came forward wielding spears, and Charmian bit her fingernails, imagining what he would look like as a giant pincushion. Yet they simply stood aside and watched as he ran straight through, looking as puzzled as anything. They then turned to look at the others, and lifted their spears again.
"Oh, come on!" Charmian cried. "How come HE gets to go right through and WE get the trouble--?"
"Maybe they're not hostile," Wabasso suggested. His feathers twitched as they came closer and surrounded the little group, and Marten hopped up into Charmian's arms.
"Then again maybe they are!" he cried.
Charmian cringed when the strange bear people closed in on all sides, but all they did then was start poking at the three, touching their clothing and sniffing at them and handling their necklaces and pouches. Charmian's muscles tensed to bat one away but a thought suddenly made its way into her head.
If you push one of them away, it will be disrespectful. If one of them desires something you carry, then let them have it.
Charmian bit her lip. But what if it's something... Just as she thought this, a small group of the bear people started poking in her backpack, and drew out the bundle which held her dreamcatcher; Charmian's eyes went wide with panic. ...IMPORTANT!
Wabasso didn't answer her. Charmian chewed on her lip hard enough to hurt, but after unwrapping and looking the dreamcatcher over they lost interest in it and dropped it to the ground; Marten promptly snatched it up and clutched it to his breast, and she let out her breath. It was probably the best move the Mikumwesu had ever made. Meanwhile the bear people started poking in her pockets, murmuring to themselves.
You do not carry anything too important in your vest, do you? Wabasso asked.
Charmian frowned. Not that I can think of. Just my cowrie shell around my neck, but they don't seem to-- She gasped when one of the bear people drew something from her pocket and held it up to get a better look at it. "Nothing except THAT!" she yelled.
One of the bear people held up Nokomis's pinecone. He turned it this way and that, talking more loudly, and the others crowded around him, talking just as loudly as he did. Charmian's hands twitched to grab the little carving back yet she somehow refrained--It's not LIFE OR DEATH important, I can do without it if I have to--but just the thought of them making off with her property, without a second thought, made her steam.
"What do they want with a little pinecone, anyway...?" she muttered to Wabasso.
"I..." He let out an odd little yelping sound and her head jerked back to look over her shoulder. They had taken his flute and were looking it over and exclaiming in the same way as they had over Charmian's pinecone, and when Marten let out a cry she glanced down to see that they had taken one of his necklaces with the same kind of interest. They sniffed these objects as they held them, and passed them around.
"That's MINE!" Marten cried. He dropped the dreamcatcher and Charmian snatched both of them up at the same time, the Mikumwesu wriggling in her hands. "They can't do that, I just GOT that!"
"I do not know how to speak the manitou tongue without my flute," Wabasso said in a considerably calmer, yet no less dismayed voice.
Charmian's brow furrowed in confusion. "But...I don't get it! I understand them taking your flute...but why my pinecone? And why Marten's necklace? If they were after the most powerful things we're carrying, then they'd take Marten's cap, and my dreamcatcher...this doesn't make any sense. What can they possibly get out of a pinecone that finds trees, or a dinky little necklace...?"
The bear people started parting from around them, still holding and chattering over the confiscated objects. As soon as a break formed in the group they nudged Charmian and Wabasso in the back and they stumbled forward, Charmian darting an angry glance over her shoulder.
"It's best to just obey them," Wabasso murmured, and when they nudged at Charmian again she bit her tongue and started walking. This seemed to be what the people wanted, for they cleared a path and started following behind and off to the sides, talking the entire way.
Another group of them stood ahead. As they reached them Charmian saw Puka in the midst of them, a distressed look on his face. "They just SURROUNDED me!" he wailed. "I had nowhere to turn! How oppressive can one be--?!"
"This is YOUR fault for just running into their camp!" Charmian snapped as they all started walking together. "If you'd just WAIT a minute and think..."
"I can't take time for such trivialities as THINKING!"
Marten clung to Charmian's neck. "They smell funny!"
Charmian rolled her eyes. "You say that about everyth-OW!!" She flicked her fingers at Marten's hind leg and he yelped and jumped to Wabasso's shoulder. "Dig your claws into someone who doesn't have breasts!!"
"They're taking us to the cave," Wabasso said, his brow furrowing slightly. Charmian looked up to see that the mouth of the great cavern yawned before them, and now that they were close it was much bigger than she'd thought. It had faded somewhat, but the pillar of light still flickered and arched in the sky, and its base vanished deep into the cave opening before them.
"I just thought of something," Puka said. They looked at him and he fiddled his fingers. "Mudji actually had two or three different quivers he used...and it was quite a while ago..."
Charmian's face slowly shifted to a deep shade of red. "If you're even saying...what I THINK you're saying..."
Puka bared his teeth in a panicked attempt at a smile. "Well--he WAS rather vain now and then, and--tended to replace his equipment every so often--and maybe...well...he does have LOVELY quivers, so maybe if he happened to, oh, say, abandon one one day..."
Charmian whirled around and started striking him with her fists, several of the bear people dragging her back. "IF THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED YOU ARE SO DEAD ONCE WE GET BACK!!"
"They're taking us in!!" Marten cried, and burrowed his face against Wabasso's neck. "I don't like this!"
The bear people surrounded them again, escorting them into the cave. Their chattering began to die down, and Charmian saw the three who had taken her pinecone, Wabasso's flute, and Marten's necklace, in the lead. She racked her brain trying to think of why they would steal such odd belongings, when a thought struck her out of the blue.
The pinecone--Noko gave that to me. And the necklace--I think that's the one Marten got from Manabozho. And Wabasso is just...
That's what's connecting them all! Manabozho!
Charmian sucked in her breath and turned to look at Wabasso. "I think I know what's going on--!" she managed to get out, before they abruptly halted, the crowd parting in front of them. She and the others all looked ahead into the great cavern, where a large fire burned, throwing shadows and light upon all the walls. Something came forward from near the fire, and the closer it came the bigger it got, until it practically towered over all of them, seeming almost as big as Mitchi Manitou himself. Charmian suddenly felt very tiny and insignificant, and her voice died in her throat.
The fire flared up and she caught a blue glint in the giant figure's eyes before they narrowed, and when it spoke, its voice was as deep as thunder and echoed all throughout the cave.
"YOU did this."