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Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 189

(This is the seventh in a series of posts that chronicle my year-long writing project. I'm writing fiction to explore how wolves and the legalization of wolf hunting and trapping affect residents in northern Minnesota. This post includes a the beginning of an early draft of a story in progress. For more information about this project, please scroll down to Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 1, or click here.)

Medicine Man

Henry’s shoulders itched. Sweat soaked his T-shirt. If the snow weren’t so deep he and his niece, Sundog, could have skied instead of snowshoed to their cabin on Turtle Back Lake. He hadn’t been back since they put Grandpa to rest ten years ago. They buried him where the loggers left the white pines standing for fear of upsetting the living if they trespassed over the roots that curled around the dead Indians buried there.

At the age of twelve, Sundog was a real trooper. Hardly a complaint out of her since they’d left the truck in the parking lot at the end of Broadax Trail, the entrance to the Boundary Waters. It’d been three hours since Henry led her across the snow-crusted plain of Broadax Lake, then the long hilly portage through forests and over bogs to Turtle Back Lake. Henry and Sundog would weather the storm for a day or two in the shelter where he’d spent his summers as a child before enlisting with the United States Marine Corps. If Child Protection Services had the guts and the gall to stick it out waiting for them at his mother’s house, they’d have to fight all six-four, 250 pounds of him. Court order or not, they weren’t taking Sundog away from her family and putting her back in that foster home in Duluth.

Henry stopped and readjusted the harness to the sled that held their sleeping bags, blankets, stove, fishing gear, cook kit and enough nuts, dried fruit and jerky to last if the trout weren’t biting. A raven flew up to the top of a nearby red pine and bobbed as it cawed in a throated rhythm. Raven, bearer of magic, messenger of the cosmos. It had followed them ever since the parking lot, appearing and disappearing.

If child protection services brought the sheriff with them, that would be another story. Henry would have no choice.

“How much farther?” Sundog asked. Her eyes squinted into two black slits as she blocked the sun with her mittened hand. Two crystal rainbows framed the sun on each side as it crawled along the southern edge of the January sky. Sundog looked and acted just like her grandma, with warm brown skin and questioning, always questioning. “I’m tired.” So much for no complaints. Her jacket was tied around her waist and a red scarf hung off her neck like an elder’s shawl, loose and free. She squatted and sat back on the ends of her snowshoes.

“See that cliff up ahead?” Henry pointed to a rusty-colored rock wall rising from the edge of the lake snow. “That’s where Medicine Man is. We’ll rest there.” Henry traipsed ahead, breaking a trail of waffle-like prints in the snow followed by four parallel lines streaking behind the sled. He didn’t look back.

When he reached the cliffs, he unhitched the sled, removed his snowshoes and leaned against the stone wall. Snow frosted the ledges and falls of ice cascaded down one end between two black-stained faces of granite. He waited. Sundog methodically followed his tracks across the brilliant, sun-dazzled snow. Her brown cheeks had turned red with exertion. Her scarf had joined the jacket at her hips. After she pulled off her stocking cap, shocks of black hair stuck out every which way like a wet muskrat. It was a shame the foster mother had cut her hair. It would take another year before it grew to fall past her shoulders again. On the cusp of womanhood, and she looked like a boy.

“Water?” Henry passed his bottle to Sundog. She pulled the stopper with her teeth and sucked greedily at the bottle like a newborn fawn. She wiped the drips off her mouth with her sleeve and passed the bottle back to him. “You’re not much for words today,” he said.

Sundog smiled and shrugged her shoulders. With all the screwed up events in her short life so far, she was surprisingly easy going. Maybe a little too much so. Or maybe she was just shy around him. He could intimidate people with his stature and the military stoicism he just couldn’t shake after 20 years—that and his slate-blue eyes that could see into a person’s soul. Or so he’d been told. Like his mother and his grandfather and his fathers before him, Henry was raised 100 percent Indian. It was his father’s Norwegian blood that startled people when they met him for the first time expecting to see what they imagined an Indian should look like. And even then, when they knew he was Indian, white people treated him like he were one of them. But Sundog? She didn’t have his complexion of protection, and after three court appeals all ruling in favor of his mother to care for Sundog, Child Protection Services was still determined to strip Sundog of her Native family and make her a white girl. It’s no different, his mother had said, than when they put me in the boarding school.

Henry passed the water bottle with Sundog until they emptied its icy contents. He climbed to a ledge on the cliff, sat down in the snow and leaned up against the rock. Sundog removed the snowshoes from her hot-pink boots and followed. She sat beside him, copying the way he dangled his legs over the ledge. The sun hit his face full on. It felt good. No wind, just stillness. Blue sky from horizon to horizon with a zipper line of snowshoe tracks bisecting the white plain of snow on the lake. Sundog put her scarf back on. Henry shivered and put on his jacket. He closed his eyes and the sun made a blood orange of his eyelids. A shadow flickered across. The raven flew over and lit in the spruce boughs above them. It clacked its beak, ruffled its feathers and walked about like a big-footed clown poking its nose into the branches flicking chunks of snow down upon Henry’s head.

“So where is Medicine Man?” Sundog said with her face to the sun and her eyes closed.

Henry brushed the snow from his hair and stood. The raven hopped deeper into the tree boughs and disappeared. “Right here.” He pointed a few feet above her head. “You walked right past him.”

She stood. Eye-to-eye with a cluster of iron-red figures taking up no more space on the stone than half a snowshoe, she pulled off her mitten. “Hello, Medicine Man,” she said, and traced his uplifted arms and five-fingered hands. Her finger fell to the perfect silhouette of a bull moose, antlers, beard and all then behind it, a wolf with a long bushy tail. She underlined the scene as her finger tracked a horizon line streaking below the three beings.

“Cool, huh?” Henry smiled.

“Yeah, cool.” Sundog smiled back, her crooked teeth gleaming. “One, two, three,” she counted the canoes hovering over the beings. “One, two, three, four, five, six,” she counted the hash marks beside the canoes. Then she reached up over her head and pressed her hand to a red, wind-blown cross high above the scene. “What’s the story?”

“Nobody knows.”

“Who painted these?”

“Nobody knows, but whoever did was here before our people.”

“The Anishanabee. First People. That’s what Grandma calls us.”

“Remember, someone always walks the path before us, before you and me, Grandma, great grandpa, before the Indian villages on Sucker Bay, Balsam Island and Pillow Rock Portage. Before the miners, the loggers, the Voyageurs and the French fur traders. Before Columbus, the Vikings…”

“Before Medicine Man?”

“And before Medicine Man, yes,” Henry said. “There were others.” ...


Wendy Skinner is a fiscal year 2014 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.