A trip to buy some clothes for school
results in a very different kind of trip for Tor.
My name’s Tor—you know, like the Viking god—most people think it’s spelled with an ‘h’ in it, but that’s mostly for English translations of the myths and sagas. At least that’s what my Grandpa used to say before he died, and I guess he’d know about stuff like that since he wrote papers for journals on those things in his spare time. Gram says he was famous, but that was forty years ago and we can’t take that into town to buy anything—even our most basic needs.
See, that was only a hobby, though it did earn him a few royalties when an article would be printed, or his book would sell a copy or two…but his main thing was the family farm. Our family has lived here from time out of mind, through good times and bad, and I guess things can’t get much worse than they are now. People think farm families are big with lots of kids, but that isn’t always true—at least not in mine for a generation or two now. Dad—Inge Haraldsson—had only one brother who died in the War, and his sister Helga is a widow with no kids of her own living in New York City. There’s supposed to be an uncle on Mom’s side, but I’ve never met him, so I don’t know if he has kids or not.
So what about my generation? There’s only me…now. There were complications when my brother should have been born, and he died, along with Mom. So, it’s only me, Gram and Dad on the farm, and like most in our area it’s only about a hundred and fifty acres—small enough to support our food needs, but not large enough for any major income to give us more than meager savings. We got a small insurance settlement when Mom died, but Dad said it was to be used for my college education, so it didn’t help in day-to-day living. Gram has her husband’s pension from his time in the Forestry Service, and Dad has his job there along with the farm’s income, but even so we don’t have much extra laying around. I don’t want to leave the farm, so I guess it’s Forestry for me too after college.
So what does all that have to do with this story? Not much on the surface, but it’s why I found myself in the situation I’m in now: see, I think I’m losing my mind, and I’m only a month shy of turning seventeen years old. Kinda young for that, isn’t it? I guess you need a few more facts before you make up your own minds….
Over the summer I did my usual chores on the farm, and odd jobs for neighbors when they needed it. A few weeks were spent working with some of the campsites on the islands in the Lake, but most of those went to the kids living in town who were closer than I was out on the forest’s edge. We’re located in the Adirondack Nature Preserve, which limits what we can do on our farm: it can’t be sold or developed into housing lots, and that also limits how our town works too. Indian Lake depends on tourism for a lot of its income from camping, fishing and boating. Other small towns died when the logging was stopped, but we hung on thanks to being on the lake shore.
Anyhow, what with chores and the jobs I could scrape up, I missed the fact that I had had a growth spurt until Gram pointed it out when I came in for lunch one hot day. She pointed at a couple inches of socks showing around my ankles, and the tightness of the shirt I was wearing mostly unbuttoned. “Can you even button that thing all the way without losing them? And those pants can’t be let out any more….”
I must have looked like an idiot since I just stood there and looked down at my ankles and my rolled-up sleeves. I had farmer’s muscles which came from hard work, but I hadn’t figured they’d affected my clothes much…but Gram’s words said it was more than that now. “I still have a few things that fit…” I began, not wanting to add to the family’s expenses any more than necessary. “School’s still a month away, so I can earn more to get some things in town.”
Gram shook her head with a small smile. “I want you to go upstairs and try on everything you’ve got that was for school last year…I’ll bet you a dollar that they’ll be your work clothes in another month or two.” I was going to protest, but she cut me off with a wave of her wooden ladle that had been stirring the stew pot for supper.
“Tor, we can afford school clothes for you…we’re not destitute. Now, you do as I say and tomorrow, you’ll run into town and look in the stores—even run over to Sears if you can’t find anything locally.”
And that’s how I found myself in Miss Genny’s the next day, and on the verge of insanity a few days later….
◊ ◊ ◊
In bigger towns, the store would have been called a thrift shop, or even a junk shop if the customer was unkind, but here it was the place where you could get bargains on almost anything you could think of from furniture to appliances to clothes. Her only rule was that the item was in good condition and worked if it was mechanical, and the gods protect anyone who tried to palm off things that didn’t meet her standards; she was tough and had the ear of every important person for miles around, and if you tried cheating her customers, then word got around fast…and your reputation was ruined. After the first few people had tried donating such things to her shop and found no one willing to do any sort of business with them after, the lesson had been learned.
Genny knew me, and smiled when I came in. “Clothes are on the racks in the rear left corner…figured you might be in soon. A late bloomer, just like your Dad.” I checked out the racks, but found only a couple shirts and one pair of grey jeans. Not enough for the coming school year. I took them up to the counter and gave her my saddest hang-dog look.
“Guess I’m outta luck, Miss Genny…that’s all you had out that I could fit in and not outgrow in a couple months…” For added emphasis, I shoved my hands in my pockets and scuffed the toe of my sneaker on the wooden floor. “Other kids been through already?”
“Yep, Tor…the season ain’t what it was in the 60s, despite that still being played a lot, so kids look here first. Most of them went on over to Sears where the selection’s bigger. Maybe things’ll pick up once Jimmy Carter wins the election in November.”
She took the hangers off the clothes I found and put them in a pile behind her to be reused later, then began writing out my bill. “Stupid pen, I just got it yesterday and now it won’t write…” A few scribbles confirmed her words, and she tossed it in the trash can under the counter. “Be right back, I got another one in the office.”
Finding a new pen took longer than I thought it should, but I liked talking to her and listening to her stories about the Depression, so I kept an eye on the front door in case other customers walked in. If she was in the stock room all the way in back, she didn’t always hear the bell fastened on the door, but you mentioned that to her at your own risk. Miss Genny might be nearly seventy, but her mind—and tongue—were still sharp as a woman’s half her age.
“You come over here, and see what I found…” She set two cardboard boxes on the display counter next to the register with a grin. “I got these boxes in a couple weeks ago and I haven’t priced the contents yet, but I think you might find things to fit you with any luck.”
When I opened the first one I couldn’t help but be surprised; all the items were neatly folded and packed with care—jeans, dress pants, short- and long-sleeved shirts—every item appeared to be new or nearly so. I looked at Genny and tried to figure out why such things had wound up in her store. A quick look at some of the labels said that these were from good makers like the best Sears carried or even one of the big stores like Macy’s. “So what do you think…will these fit you?” the old woman asked. “You can try on a couple in the back room—I won’t peek—promise!”
From her stories of her youth, we all knew Miss Genny had been ‘a caution’ in her day, and she’d lost none of that live-for-the-moment attitude. It was stupid, but I blushed a deep scarlet and it was only more noticeable due to my light complexion and blond hair. I took one of the shirts and a pair of the jeans toward the back room and made a show of watching her out of the corner of my eye as I opened the stock room’s paneled door. Miss Genny laughed and waved me on inside.
I came out a few minutes later in one of the shirts and the jeans. They felt good on me, and I thought I could easily fit into them for the next year. I wasn’t sure how much more I’d grow, but my Dad and Grandpa had only been a couple inches taller than I am now, so chances were good I’d top out the same. Miss Genny had me turn around a few times, having me move my arms and legs to check the fit…and she even patted my butt in approval. “If only you were thirty years older, and I was thirty younger…”
I told her I’d change and be right back, but she stopped me before I took a step. “Open the other box now…there might be other things to try on.”
The second box was heavier, but I couldn’t tell why when I glanced inside. Tee-shirts, some with designs on them, walking shorts with lots of pockets and others meant for running with none at all, some short-sleeved three-button shirts like you’d use for tennis…I didn’t play but I’d seen campers wear them earlier in the summer. I also saw packages of grey or white athletic socks and a few pairs of dark dress ones that would go with the pants from the first carton.
“Everything here except a suit and tie,” I exclaimed. I didn’t know how true that was until I got to the bottom layer and found out why this one was so heavy: two pairs of shoes lay there—one black penny-loafers and the other a blue pair of Puma sneakers with their cat-head logo.
“I think there’s a jacket in the first box, but no ties—the lady who brought these in said her nephew hated wearing the things.” Miss Genny’s smile had gone, and her eyes had a sad look that didn’t suit her personality at all.
“She told me all this had been bought for his next school year—the one starting in September—but he died before he could wear them. He’d have been a junior over toward Seneca Lake, so he was the same age as you, or maybe a few months either way….”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about these clothes now—I wasn’t afraid they might be haunted or anything—just really sad that he’d probably helped his aunt pick them out and then not gotten the chance to enjoy them. Maybe if I knew more about him I’d feel better…sort of like getting them from a friend?
“Did she tell you his name or anything about him?” My voice was hushed as a sign of respect for his memory. Most kids probably don’t think about stuff like that, but with my family’s connection with old legends and myths I had a lot more awareness of the people who’d gone before us than other kids my age.
Genny cocked her head to one side and tapped her teeth with the pen she held in one hand. “I think she said his name was Dave…he liked hiking and camping…that’s about all—except that he spent most summers with his great-grandfather.”
That helped me some, but I still wanted to know more. “Sounds like we had some interests in common…um…was she able to say how he died?”
If possible, Genny’s expression became even more somber. “It was a car accident from what the Patrol could find out. Went off the road in the fog late at night, and the car burned when it finally stopped at the base of the cliff. His wallet was in the glove box, which is the only way they could identify him.”
Accidents happened a lot on the twisty roads in the Adirondacks, most involving wild animals being hit or drunks losing control after too much partying during their vacations. Something itched in the back of my head, but I couldn’t place it…like I’d heard this story before. I’d ask Gram if she knew anything about it since she read the paper every week. Maybe she mentioned it over dinner, and I’d only half listened.
I dug in the first box for the jacket Miss Genny mentioned, and found it wrapped in tissue paper. I’d been expecting a sports coat, or maybe a blazer for semi-formal occasions, but that wasn’t what I found. This was a well-worn leather bomber jacket! I had to try it on right away, so I carefully unwrapped it and slipped my arms into the sleeves. It settled on my shoulders like an old friend, and the cuffs fell just about to the middle of the back of my hands. I could wear this for years to come even if my growth spurt lasted a bit longer than my Dad’s had done.
The only odd thing about it was the bottom edge—instead of the more usual cloth that gathered the hem closer to the waist, this had beadwork on it…a pattern of squares and pine trees. I knew it had something to do with the Indians, but that was about it. I’d have to ask Dad or look up things in the library. Was Dave an Indian?
There were five tribes that lived in our part of New England—the Iroquois Confederacy was what the colonists called them, and they even spread up into parts of Canada. Nowadays, they were scattered across several states westward and some into lands in Ontario and Quebec. Sure, some where still on their local lands…what hadn’t been lost or stolen by treaties. Dave could have been one of any of the five tribes: Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga or Cayuga. I only knew this much from visits to a Native American museum nearby and a little reading in history class. Dad would know more. Of course, his jacket having beadwork on it didn’t have to mean he was an Indian, but the thought stirred my imagination.
Grandpa always said imagination was a good thing, and being descendants of the Norse Vikings, he said we had a ‘built-in’ connection with myths…I’d tramped in the hills and forests pretending I was an explorer searching out new lands for loot or plunder, but Gramps had rebuked me more than once saying that our ancestors were also traders and artists just like any other people in history. Our sagas painted us as bold seafarers and explorers while Europeans called us raiders or butchers. In those days, they could write and guess whose stories were believed by later generations?
It didn’t help that we remained ‘heathens’ centuries after everybody else became Christians. I had read about Leif Ericsson’s voyages to Greenland and Vinland, and I was thrilled when archaeologists turned up the Viking settlement in Newfoundland that dated to his time…Up yours, Columbus—we were here first—and hit the mainland and not some stupid island! The Italians squawked, but you couldn’t deny evidence, and more was turning up all the time. If Dave was an Indian, then I could feel even more sympathy for him as a victim of other peoples’ history.
It took some bargaining—Miss Genny wanted to give me the two boxes since she hadn’t put them out yet, and hadn’t paid anything for them—but I felt like I’d be cheating her if I did that, so she finally accepted half of what I’d planned to spend on things at Sears. What with the quality of the clothes in the two boxes, I still felt that $25 wasn’t enough…but that’s all Genny’d let me pay. Told you she was stubborn.
◊ ◊ ◊
Two nights later I had my first dream.
I’ve had dreams before—who hasn’t—but this wasn’t like the usual naked in school or falling or running dreams…it wasn’t even like my lurid visions of sword fights against those who dared defy our long-ship’s raiding parties. No, this one was just a sort of feeling like being watched. It came and went, and I was never able to figure out who or what might be doing it…just a prickle at the back of my neck that had me looking around or over my shoulder a lot. I wasn’t even in any location I could identify, but most dreams are like that for me, just some formless place that wasn’t strong enough to leave any memories once I woke up.
I’d asked Gram and Dad about the wreck Genny mentioned, and it wasn’t until I mentioned the name David that I got some answers. A friend of Dad’s had seen the smoke from a fire-watch tower and called it in, but that was all the Forestry Service knew about it. Gran gave a few more details from her reading of the local paper.
“It was a boy from Seneca Lake who came up to live with his Aunt a couple years ago when his parents died. The boy’s grandfather lived nearby, but was thought too old to care for a thirteen-year-old, so the Aunt took him in…” She went on to tell us how the boy spent a lot of time with his grandfather who kept many of their Indian ancestors’ traditions, even taking him up into the hills to his cabin during summers. Once the boy could drive, he went off by himself, and the Patrol figured it was on one of these trips to the cabin that the accident happened. People in town said they’d seen him buying supplies earlier that day, so that seemed to fit the story.
I knew that some parts of the hills around here held places you could get to only by hiking, and if this place was a sort of retreat to learn about his culture, then this wouldn’t have been one of the easy-to-get-to tourist cabins. Something else didn’t seem to fit either, and it took me a minute to put it into words. “If he went to that cabin a lot, he’d know the roads…so going off the road even in the dark doesn’t make sense.”
Dad snorted and gave me a sad grin. “Wait until you get a little more experience behind the wheel, Tor. You can know every turn and twist, but fog can change everything so it’s all strange…and who knows, maybe some animal darted across the road?” I’d seen plenty of possums and skunks by the side of the road to know this was true, and I’d heard of more than one car that had had a close call with a deer or even an errant moose. Hell, it didn’t even have to be foggy for things like that to happen.
I asked Dad about the beading on the bomber jacket, and he said it was definitely symbolic of the Five Nations that formed what most people called the Iroquois Confederacy…but that there wasn’t an actual ‘Iroquois’ tribe. The four squares divided by a pine tree represented the five tribes who had united under the Great Peacemaker before the Europeans came, and they had been both allies and enemies since the Dutch first arrived in the 1600s. Some had worked with the British during the Revolutionary War, and those had moved mostly up to Canada when the Colonies won, and those who had fought with us mostly stayed put until displaced by land-hungry settlers forced them into moving.
The upshot was that those still left had mostly adopted ‘White Man’s’ ways, though a few still passed down the old customs like Dave’s grandfather had done. Like my Viking ancestors, they had a long oral tradition and those who preserved it were held in great respect, but with the Indians, that also included their religious traditions and beliefs. For us, most of that had been lost except for our myths…and that made me feel even closer to Dave’s people.
“Do you think I could find someone to teach me about their traditions,” I asked Dad later that same day. Dad had looked at me for a long time without saying anything, then shrugged his shoulders.
“I doubt it, son. A lot of them don’t trust us after all we’ve done to them…and you might be able to learn a few things, but not the ceremonies involved—those are highly personal things not shared with outsiders.” He got up and went into Grandpa’s old office, coming back with an old book I’d not seen before. “This was given to my dad by an old friend of his…it talks about Native beliefs and some of their myths…but there’s a chapter about a few of the more common rites for festivals and quests.”
Quests! The word set my imagination afire, and I wanted to run upstairs and start reading it right away, but Dad laid a hand on my shoulder to hold me back. “Not so fast, hotshot. Are your chores done? Does Gram need anything from the store? I have to do the midnight watch tonight, so I’m going to get a few hours sleep before dinner, and that means any errands are up to you.”
I checked with Gram and she mentioned it might be nice to have a few fish for dinner, which means going out to our stream to try catching a few, so I grabbed my pole and tackle box and set off toward the back of our property. We could catch trout or pike on a good day, and I kept my fingers crossed as I set up my gear by the fast-running water. All the clothes I’d bought from Miss Genny fit great, so those were in my dresser and closet, but the shoes needed some breaking in…so I was wearing the Puma sneakers for the first time.
I didn’t want to get them dirty, so as I got ready to set up my pole, I took them off and set them on the rock next to where I was standing. If I had to get my feet wet reeling in a fish, at least my new shoes would be high and dry. I’d seen a lot of campers wearing waders to fish, but I had to content myself with casting from the bank which meant the job would be harder and more time-consuming. More than once I found my thoughts drifting off to nothingness, and like in my dream the night before, I thought I could feel myself being watched. I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head…the only thing watching me might be a squirrel in one of the nearby trees at the forest edge, but that wasn’t anything to worry about.
I felt a jerk on my pole and the line began to unreel as I let the fish get a solid bite, then I braked it and gave a jerk which should set the hook…then it was down to a battle of wills—mine wanting to get the fish, and the fish’s to get away. The pole was bending, and it took more than a few minutes, but before long I had the brook trout scooped up in my net and tossed back onto shore, where it flopped madly for a while then lay still. I cut the line—I’d get the hook later—and retied a new lure before turning back to the stream.
For just a second, I thought I saw a dark-haired figure staring at me from the water—but that wasn’t possible because he’d have to be standing where my sneakers sat on the rock I’d just been next to….I shook my head, and the image was gone. It took a while, but I caught two more trout before deciding to head home. I thought about what I’d seen, then put it out of my head as my over-active imagination at work again…it was all this talk about Dave and his accident, I was sure. I’d ‘seen’ Vikings while out in the woods, so why not an Indian now that I was thinking about reading the book Dad had loaned me a few hours ago.
I didn’t mention what happened over dinner because Gram was praising me for the good job I’d done on cleaning the trout, and Dad was talking about how another rain or two wouldn’t hurt the harvest, as long as it didn’t come down too hard. The corn was greening and growing nicely, as were the beans…even the melons looked like they’d be a bumper crop this year. “Though the strains are different, those are nearly the same things the local Indians grew before we arrived…and they taught us how to farm them too when some of the crops we brought over didn’t do as well.”
Even then, I didn’t mention seeing a ‘dark figure’ by the stream…it was my imagination, and with just the single flash I’d had, I couldn’t swear it was an Indian, and certainly not Dave since I had no idea what he looked like. Maybe there was a way I could find that out… “Gram, was there a picture of Dave in that article you saw?”
“You’d have to check the library for a copy, dear; I don’t remember, but there usually is one for obituaries and things. Why all this sudden interest?” Her eyes widened a bit before she went on in a more concerned tone. “You’re not worried about wearing those new clothes are you? If that’s it, we can take them back to Miss Genny and she’ll give you your money back….”
I shook my head ‘no’ and gave her and Dad a sad smile. “It’s not that—you know I love the old stories and stuff—it’s just that this is the first time I might be able to learn about them first-hand. You know, rather than from books.” I went on quickly to say that Grandpa had made our sagas and myths real to me because he told them to me before I could read, and now I might be able to talk to local tribesmen about their own stories. Dad repeated his warning about not being able to find someone to do that, but I wanted to try anyway.
I did the dishes as usual, and then went up to my room to look at the book Dad loaned me, but the first chapters were fairly dry, being about the slanted view most historians gave of Native Peoples’ history, and then gave some accounts from their own view where it could be gleaned from family traditions and early diaries. From the start things had been aimed at exploiting the natives, first for their trade goods, then food and finally slaves…then robbing them of their souls by converting them to the Jesuits’ version of Christianity. Very few gave accurate accounts of them, even calling their clothing into question as barbaric and inferior to that of Europeans.
Before I put the book aside, I read a bit about their beliefs: the Great Spirit seemed in control of things, but other spirits also had some power…at least from what I could make out. Like the ‘Three Sisters’ who were the spirits of Corn, Beans and Squash…and that spirits could live in almost anything from rocks to plants and animals, to places. I got lost in the welter of names and got the impression that their ‘nature’ religion had a lot in common with the pagan practices of Europeans and Norse before Christianity drove those underground, and then into extinction.
Dad was setting off about 10:00 for his shift, and since it was a warm August night, I decided to go to one of my favorite spots—a hillside where I could look up at the stars wheeling overhead and listen to the chirrups of crickets and the distant ribbits of frogs where our stream fed into a shallow pond. I kept an old quilt on the back porch for just such an expedition, and grabbed it on my way out the door. The moon was heading toward full, so there was plenty of light for me to trace my path.
The Sun and Moon were pulled by chariots according to the Vikings, and pursued by wolves, so that might be why I had them on my mind as the moonlight shone down on me…but the most famous chariot was that of Freya, which was drawn by two cats rather than the usual horses. The myths said Freya and her brother Frey were fertility deities, and nothing was rowdier than a cat in heat, so maybe that’s why my ancestors put the two together? Especially if the stories were made up by bored teenage boys. I must have dozed off somewhere along this train of thought, because I had another of those dreams….
This time the sense of being watched wasn’t some vague notion…I could almost feel eyes upon me, staring…like they were looking into my soul…weighing it—or me—for some purpose I didn’t yet know. Then I caught the faintest whiff of something burning, and that caused me to sit up straight—the dream gone except for the yowl of a distant cat.
I turned my head in various directions, trying to catch that scent again, but without success. Everybody knows what woodsmoke smells like, and this wasn’t what I dreamt…but it was something natural rather than what went into our trash barrels. It just wouldn’t come to me, but I knew I’d smelled it before, but couldn’t remember when.
Then there was that caterwauling; had it been real, or a last remnant of my dream? There were a few wildcats in the Adirondacks even today, but it was rare to hear one, and rarer still to see one…so maybe it was some farm cats getting it on instead? It was hard to judge distances in the hills, so it could have been either one. I decided to go home and get under the covers where I felt safe. Dad or Gram would say it was unlikely to be a wild animal since they had plenty of prey without coming down to our farm…but I’d rather not be the unlucky exception that found out.
I didn’t look at the book that night.
◊ ◊ ◊
The next day I was in town getting some stuff for Gram. She wasn’t in a hurry, so I took time to stop at the library and see if I could find a copy of Dave’s obituary. I knew it was about two months ago at the start of summer, but that was about it, so I began with the paper from the third week of May. School was still in session, so I knew it wasn’t likely to be in that one, but it wouldn’t hurt to be sure. The death of a local boy would make the front page, but I also checked the Obits section and the Fire Department Runs. That section listed even minor house calls, so a big wreck would definitely be there if it missed the front page deadline.
I found it in the paper for the second week of June, just a few days after kids got their final grades for the year and seniors had graduated. It was brief, and that made me even sadder to see how little time he’d had to do things in life…still a year short of finishing high school.
David Lake…17, resident of Seneca Lake and a member of the Class of 1977 at Seneca High…survived by his Aunt and paternal Grandfather, an Elder of The Seneca Nation…died when his car went off the road late Tuesday night in the hills east of Indian Lake. Visiting hours…Closed coffin…
And that was it. Plus a picture taken from his school’s year-book. It wasn’t a great picture—who ever had a good one in those—but I could tell he wasn’t what I expected an Indian to look like. I’d seen photos of Indians in the museum, and even on the streets of our own town and the others in our part of New York State, but the only thing I could tell from the black-and-white picture was that he had curly hair that seemed to be lighter than the more common straight black. He did have high cheek-bones, but I couldn’t tell if he had the darker skin or eyes to go with his heritage.
He did have a killer smile which made me think he laughed a lot. I don’t know why, but I thought we could have been friends if we’d met when he was alive, and that made me feel cheated somehow. I left the library with a more downcast look than I’d had going in…and I forgot half the things Gram wanted from the grocery store, so I had to make a second trip. She was doing her roasted chicken tonight, so I had a time searching the spice aisle for just the right seasonings her stuffing called for. I knew the basics like salt, pepper, cinnamon and cloves…but the only thing I knew about rosemary and sage was that they were mentioned in one of a decade ago.
Why did the sage remind me of something I’d smelled recently? As I spooned some stuffing onto my plate, I knew the sage was what I’d smelled last night when I woke from my dream under the stars. Not burning pine or oak which were abundant in the Nature Preserve where we lived. I don’t know how long I sat, but it took Gram’s nudge to bring me back to the present, and I began to eat again, though I left most of the stuffing which would normally have been the first to vanish from my plate. To show I was okay, I ate everything else, then asked if I could go on up to bed…I wanted to read Dad’s book tonight—maybe it would help me put some things together, or at least make me see how crazy my imagination could be.
I skipped past the history section and the part of the religion section about the myths of the Native Americans, and leafed through another part about Indian culture, but this wasn’t what I sought either…it did mention some festivals that dealt with the growing season which were interesting—but I still wanted something else even if I couldn’t put a name to it. One of the last chapters was titled ‘Ceremonies & Practices’, and I felt a tingle at the back of my neck that I tried rubbing away with no luck.
I was absorbed right away, even though the descriptions had to be fairly generic to cover the widest range of peoples and eras…but it was the best I’d found so far. Births were important, but of more significance was the Naming Day when a boy took on his adult name which could be a nick-name, refer to some physical trait, or some feat the man had accomplished. In some cultures, if he was a chief or elder, he could take the name of a famous leader of the past, but that was more rare. Another important rite was that of joining a Clan or Tribe. Some, like the local tribes, would take captives in battle to adopt into their own tribe to replace members who had died…these went through some trials that could be pretty severe, but if you passed, you became a full member of the group…and it didn’t matter if you had no Indian blood at all…your children would be as much Indian as those born of two full-blooded parents.
The local tribes had adopted the occasional European child or adult since the Dutch settled the area, or so Grandpa said…and it wasn’t unknown for some of the oldest families to have mingled with the native tribes at some point. Not all of the early settlers who went missing could be presumed dead…and some families had married Indian women because no European ones were available. Since Dave apparently had curly lighter hair, I wondered which of these scenarios had happened in his family.
When I came to a section about ‘Vision Quests’ I perked up. This was a way for a young man to determine who or what his ‘spirit guide’ or ‘guardian’ would be, and it was different for each person. Some tribes or clans had specific names which might indicate a general guardian for the group, but I couldn’t tell if that affected an individual’s spirit. Many of the local tribes had the same clans such as Bear or Wolf or Turtle, and some added ones like the Heron…but only the tribal elders or clan mothers could unravel their relationships. That’s where I got another surprise—the ‘Iroquois’ put almost all power into the hands of their women rather than warrior chiefs.
The book said these quests were usually done during a period of fasting, often up to a week, and in a special place that ‘called’ the seeker—or at least that’s what I thought the words meant. Maybe it was a place sacred to the tribe or clan…maybe the writer was trying to hide parts of the ceremony? That made more sense if I went by what my father had told me. Then I got a clue that might help me sort things out in my head…sage was one of the herbs that could be used to purify a place or person for an important ritual….
The last practice I read about was one that was meant to appease the spirits of the dead, and it could take up to a year in some cultures. I wondered if anybody had done this Condolence Ceremony for David Lake. It was only a few months since his death, so I had my doubts, but I didn’t know if it was just one big final rite at the end of a year, or if it had to be done in stages. It sounded like this stuff was important to Dave, so I hoped it was being done…but how could I find out?
That night the dream was stronger. I could feel eyes on me, but I also got the sense that they wanted something more…like seeing me wasn’t enough. I didn’t know what would be enough, but the fear of finding out kept me tossing and turning most of the night. In the morning I felt like I hadn’t slept at all, but farm chores can’t be put off for long, so I set about doing them despite my fatigue.
The only place I could think of where I might find answers to my questions about Indian ceremonies was the local museum, so I drove there after a quick snack. This was a small place and I didn’t know how much help they could be, but it would be a start. I brought Dave’s bomber jacket with me hoping it wouldn’t make me look like a complete idiot or nut case. I only know that it was confirmed as authentic beading made some time in the last fifty years based on the jacket’s age, but pinning it down to a specific tribe or artist would be almost impossible. I said the last owner had been a Seneca boy named David Lake, and that was when I got the curator’s full attention.
“Ah, that’s a sad story—to be lost before he could reach his full potential…” The elderly lady shook her head slowly. “His family dates back more than two centuries to the great leader Handsome Lake who combined Quaker and Indian beliefs into a new religion that is still strong today. His great-grandfather was training him in the old ways before he died last year….”
Hold the phone—what? Something didn’t add up. “The paper said—“
The snort I got for that comment wasn’t lady-like at all. “Son, the only truths you’ll find about Indians come from Indians, and only then if they think you need to know. I might be crazy, but I think you’re trying to figure something out, and I can’t help if you don’t tell me the whole story. Now—my name’s Miriam Brant—and I’m an Indian. Who are you?”
I laughed and began my story, but got interrupted almost right away. “Haraldsson? Any relation to Arne?” When I said he was my grandfather, she opened up even more, saying he was a great friend to the native tribes of the Northeast and Canada and a spiritual man in his own right, if from a different culture. “Go on…”
So I told her about growing up listening to the tales my grandfather told about my own ancestors, and how I felt a connection with the local tribes, particularly once I’d bought the clothes David’s aunt had donated to Miss Genny’s store. That got another snort of what I now recognized as contempt.
“You can’t really call that woman an Indian—she turned her back on anything to do with our culture or traditions, just like her father did; David’s father felt lost without that tie to his people, and he resolved that his son would know everything he could—and that’s why he brought David up here every summer to learn the old ways from his great-grandfather.”
“But why am I having these odd dreams,” I asked, and told her about the feeling of being watched, and how that had changed into me thinking I needed to do something, or worse, that I was supposed to be part of something that still had to be done. In the end, I told her about seeing a figure that might have been David standing next to where I’d been fishing a few days ago. Then I asked her about the Condolence Ceremony, and whether anyone had done it for David.
Before she could gather herself, I mentioned lying out on my hill and having a dream about cats, and smelling burning sage when I woke up and heard what sounded like a feline wailing off in the distance. I thought about hesitating before asking my next question, but since she said I had to tell her all of it, I asked if that was what was called a Vision Quest.
I waited for what seemed like ages for her to reply, and I began to fidget anxiously in my seat, wondering if I’d somehow broached some topic I wasn’t supposed to know about. Would she tell me anything more if I had, no matter how badly I thought I needed to know?
“Let’s see if we can make this whole situation a little easier to understand. I think you’re trying to separate things which are all tied together. That’s a European way to look at it…take it one step at a time…but this involves native beliefs, and you can’t pick them apart—it’s all or nothing.”
She poured us a cup of tea before we got to our talk in-depth; well, her talk to be honest since I mostly listened and gave what few details I could. The tea was some sort of herbal mix rather than the Lipton’s I was used to, and I was feeling more relaxed as she spoke. The part I played in her story was mostly guess-work since we’d only just met, but from what she knew about my grandfather, she thought I might have some of the spiritual gifts of my own people, and that had been quiet until I came into contact with some items that belonged to David. She gestured to the jacket in my lap when she said that, and I pulled it closer as if she might take it away. She patted my arm to ease my fears. “That’s yours now, not just because you paid for it, but because it’s part of your connection with David…”
The next part, about my feelings of being watched, seeing the figure by the stream…and even hearing the cat…wasn’t a vision quest as such since I hadn’t done any of the preparations—she thought it more likely to be my own spirit trying to make some sense of the new things around it, latching onto David as the spark which had begun all of this. I’m not sure I believed this part—Dave was dead, so how could I have a real spiritual connection with him? I couldn’t put it into words, but I felt something was missing, or maybe that her words didn’t cover all of what I felt inside.
What Ms. Brant told me next seemed to belie what she’d just said, and that confused me even more. “If there’s something that still needs to be done in a person’s life, then that task can seek out another person to finish it before the spirit can join the ancestors in the Sky World. We can’t know for certain, but I think David might have been going into the hills to finish his great-grandfather’s Condolence Ceremony. If he didn’t get a chance to do that, then that could explain your feeling that something still needs to be done.”
I sat up straighter in my chair, full of questions, but I settled on what seemed the most important one for now. “Why me—why not one of his relatives or another tribe member?”
Once more, she pointed to the leather jacket in my lap and its beaded hem. “You have the physical connection…but even more important is the fact that his closest ties to his people were already dead—his parents some years before, and most recently the man who was his spirit guide. His blood-kin rejected everything he was learning to believe, so who else could his task fall to?”
I thought about this for a while, trying to sort it out in my head, but gave up and embraced it in my heart, where it seemed to settle with no qualms. In the end, I’d do whatever it was because it was the right thing to do, and that was enough for me. I gave her a small nod. “Okay. Tell me what I need to do…I’m not one of you, but I’ll do the best I can and just hope it’s enough to help David.”
It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, though the first part meant I’d have to fast for a day or two. If the cat was Dave’s spirit animal, then I needed to contact it so I could find his sacred place and finish the Condolence Ceremony. This was almost a Vision Quest, so I needed to follow some steps she told me about…mostly to fast and to purify the spot I chose to do it using some herbs she gave me in a leather pouch. I could tell sage was one of them. The other thing was to clear my head and offer up a prayer for guidance while burning a pinch of another herb mix. The old book told me this would mainly consist of tobacco, but some tribes added other things that helped free your mind of day-to-day worries. I didn’t ask what else might be in the second pouch. Native people had been doing this for thousands of years, so I figured a little bit just this once wouldn’t hurt me.
At least I wouldn’t be ‘toking’ just to get a buzz like other kids in school.
After a few more questions, we agreed I’d try the ceremony tomorrow night when the moon was almost full…I just had to stop eating until afterward. I thought that would be the hardest part since I’d had a light breakfast this morning, and I’d missed lunch. I knew where I’d do it too—my camping spot down by the creek upstream from my fishing spot; it had a nice little clearing for a sleeping bag, and a fire ring I’d made years ago surrounded by stones to keep the fire contained.
“Wait—we know this is going to be where their cabin was, so why go to all this trouble about special spots? Isn’t his cabin the best place?” I frowned when she laughed at me, but there wasn’t anything mean in her tone.
She led me out of her office and into another room in the small museum. It had a lot of shelves on the walls, some with books, others holding boxes or even bits of pottery gathered over the years and donated by many locals with an interest in history or Indian culture. “I’m going to reveal to you one of the deepest secrets of Indian magic…” Her voice was full of mystery and I felt a chill run down my spine as she pulled down a very large, dusty hard-bound book. At a guess, the pages were at least a foot wide, and nearly half again that in length. “Behold…”
A Historical Atlas of New York, Vermont and Parts of British
Canada: Collated from Dutch Charts, Royal Surveys
and Writings of Various Expeditions Up To
The Revolutionary War…
I only caught brief glimpses as she leafed through the earliest pages, but I could tell that they mostly showed parts of rivers, a few features like lakes or large hills. Later ones began including villages and towns, all widely scattered and almost lost in slowly increasing details of the surrounding landscape. She got to the last page which showed a lot of towns I recognized, and others with names that had since changed or disappeared after the date of the map. Indian Lake was there, if not the town itself, and she pointed to a section east of it where all that could be seen were forests and rocky ridges and streams. “That area hasn’t changed much…most of it is still wild country most of the way to the Hudson River. The Adirondacks weren’t settled much by the local tribes, though all hunted in it—mostly the Mohawk and Algonquin from up in Canada. Since the Park was created, no new building could be done, but private holdings could stay as long as the family still owned them…like your farm.”
From the back of the book, she pulled out a folded modern surveyor’s map and oriented it so the major features lined up…then she pointed to a spot more than half-way up a small stream that fed into the eastern side of Indian Lake. “That’s where you’ll find the cabin—three hours hard hike following the stream, then another two miles north. No roads, but you can hike along the stream—or to save some of the trouble, take a canoe up to the landing on the north bank.”
I couldn’t tell how large the property was, in the mix of contour lines for elevation changes and water courses. “How big is this place…” If the cabin wouldn’t do for the ceremony, then I’d have a hard time finding the right spot, even with some sort of supernatural cat guiding me.
She pursed her lips a moment. “I haven’t been up there since Joseph’s wife died fifteen years ago…but I think it’s about the size of most farms around here…maybe two hundred acres? Most of it’s still forest except for the bit near the house. Annie needed space for her garden, and from what Dave’s father told me, Joseph kept it planted as if she would be by to visit it again. I’m guessing David helped him do that along with his learning the old ways these past few years.”
“Okay, I think I’ve got it. All I have to do is find the place with the help of a ghost cat, perform a purification ritual and then offer up prayers for Joseph’s spirit to rest at last in the Sky World…” This all sounded too easy if you knew all the right words, but I didn’t. And from my few experiences in church, didn’t a ceremony have certain requirements to work? I said as much, and Ms. Brant nodded…but I was only partly right.
“The purpose of any ceremony is to focus the thoughts on the desired goal—in this case, to send a man’s spirit to his final rest. He’s gone through the hard part in the past year with occasional prayers, so now it’s more like a big ‘send off’ party to celebrate the end of his journey. The words of the prayers are secondary to the feelings behind them…well-wishing and happiness for a life full of good and honorable actions will see him to his place with the Great Spirit.” She told me I should take enough food for a large meal, and enough drink to make everyone feel satisfied—even if it’s only me doing the celebrating. A little meat for the cat wouldn’t hurt either since it was part of the ritual.
Just before I left, she gave me a box with a few more items: several pottery bowls that would hold the herbs for the two ceremonies, an eagle feather to wave the resulting smoke around the area where I would perform the ‘summoning’ and the Condolence Ceremonies, and a plate and cup to serve Joseph’s spirit his final meal. “If you can cook them at the site before the ceremony, that would be best; simple things like succotash, a loaf of bread that you can do at home, and a chicken will be fine. These are all things Joseph would have eaten most of his life, and our people have known for centuries. For the drink, I’d think some natural juices like apple or berry—even water will be fine. Our tribes had no real tradition of alcohol before the Dutch came, so I’d avoid that.” She broke into a mischievous grin. “Besides, I know he was a life-long teetotaler.”
As we left the building for my truck, she put a hand on my back and gave it a pat. “You’ll do fine, Tor Haraldsson. Don’t be surprised if you and the cat part ways after you call him…when you get to the property, he’ll be there to guide you. A man’s ‘spirit guide’ is something we tend to keep to ourselves, but from what you’ve said, I think the cat is another common bond between you and Dave.”
I had to smile at that because I’d always been fond of cats, and the ones around the farm would often let me pet them when they took a break from their job of mouse-hunting. I was pretty sure the occasional squirt of milk right from the source didn’t hurt either as I did my daily milking. They never came inside the house, but more often than not I’d find one outside the kitchen door every time I went out to do something even if it wasn’t one of my chores.
“I wish you were going with me,” I said as I climbed behind the wheel of the old Dodge that just never seemed to give up even though it was over twenty years old. “Maybe you could explain all this to my Dad and Gram so they won’t think I’m losing my marbles….”
“Get a move on, you’ve got fasting to do,” she laughed heartily. “Just tell your family that Miriam Brant said this is something that has to be done, and they’ll understand…and as for going along, I’m almost eighty and don’t get around as good as I used to. Ask your grandmother about our little Charleston competition some time!”
I knew the Charleston was a popular dance from the Twenties, but had no idea my Gram had ever done it. She was more settled now, like a grandma should be, though she still had a keen sense of humor. I can sort of remember her and Grandpa going out once in a while before my Mom died, so did they do any dancing those times? Maybe my coming quest and talking with Ms. Brant would have other consequences than sending Joseph Lake on to the Sky World….
◊ ◊ ◊
Surprisingly, when I got home things were easier than I thought they’d be. I went through the feelings I’d had in the past few days and the dreams, and that last bit caused some concern until I mentioned going to the museum and talking with Ms. Brant. It was like I’d said some sort of magic word from the way Gram and Dad reacted—see, they both knew the elderly woman, and respected her insights a great deal. Gram even laughed when I mentioned the Charleston contest, and that sent her into a chain of memories from her younger days. Seems Miriam could have been my grandmother if things had gone differently. Gram was blushing when she said she won because Arne felt a special spark with her that he didn’t with Miriam.
Dad gave me some advice about preparing for the cat-ceremony tomorrow, but it was mostly like what I’d read in the old book he loaned me and repeating some of Miriam’s advice. I couldn’t eat until afterwards, but he said drinking a little water would help me keep from starving to death in those twenty-four hours. He talked about the cat being a connection between me and Dave—that was unusual for both our cultures, but a man had no choice in who his spirit guide would be. Even though I hadn’t done my own vision quest, being able to contact Dave’s guide hinted that mine might also be a cat.
“Tomorrow night, before you start all this, I’ll help you put the canoe in the back of the truck along with a few supplies. Gram will take charge of the food and drink, but you’ll probably need some blankets and a few tools to set up for the ceremony at the cabin. It’d be a shame to get there and have no way to chop wood for the fire, or have to sleep on the ground.”
I told both of them the steps Miriam said I should do for purifying myself and the sites, and of using the tobacco for the prayers. “Don’t you go getting the ‘habit’, son,” Gram admonished me with a wagging finger. “I know kids think smoking makes them look big, but all it really does is waste your money and make you cough.”
I knew better than to tell her there might be more than tobacco in that particular herb bag. I was sixteen and not stupid, so I was more aware of the world around me than kids had been in her day…and this was one time my head agreed with my innate survival instinct to keep some things quiet. Pot was all over the summer campgrounds, and I’d smelled it once or twice on kids coming back to classes after lunch at school, but hadn’t tried it yet myself. I had drunk a beer once at a party, but they didn’t need to hear about that either. Tasted like crap, by the way.
My stomach was growling when I went to bed that night…but the only feeling I could remember in the morning was one of anticipation. I put it down to the ceremony tonight rather than the emptiness of my stomach and how good food would taste again. Gram and Dad went easy on me and just had toast and coffee for breakfast while I had water. Yum…. Sip and repeat for lunch…and dinner. Dad helped me set up the fire at my campsite at dusk while I got the bowls and herbs ready that Miriam had given me. I lit the fire and sat on my blanket next to it, waiting for the moon-rise and for a few coals I could scavenge as the fire burned.
I put a few pinches of sage-mix in one bowl, then added a small coal, blowing on it to set things going, then used the feather to wave the smoke in a circle around the fire ring and over my body and blanket. I kept my mind on thinking of the cat, and wanting its help in leading me to Joseph’s sacred spot. I did the same with the tobacco blend, and tried to radiate a feeling of welcome and waiting that I hoped the spirit guide would hear and answer.
I don’t know how long I was sitting because I think I fell asleep. I thought I must have missed the cat showing up, then heard a soft mewl off to my right. It sure looked like a wildcat you’d find locally with the brown fur…but whoever heard of one with vivid blue eyes? It sat staring at me, like I’d seen our own cats do, but this one seemed to have an almost human intelligence behind that stare. I wasn’t sure if I could project my thoughts clearly enough for it to understand, so I whispered the words as I tried sending them mentally too.
“Thank you for coming tonight. I know there’s a task to do tomorrow, so I’ll need your help with that. I can find the cabin alright, but you’ll have to show me the special place where Joseph and Dave talked with the Great Spirit and their ancestors. I have the supplies to aid them on their journey. If you’ll help bring us together, then I can cook a feast for us all…” I tried picturing the dock Miriam had mentioned, but I don’t know how well that worked, so I went on.
“I’ll come up the river about noon tomorrow and I hope you’ll meet me at the dock to guide me where I need to go.” I put a piece of Gram’s roast beef in front of where the cat was sitting, then repeated my thanks.
I’m not sure if this was a dream or actual events because the next thing I knew I was staring up at the Moon that was now high in the sky, and the cat was gone…along with the beef. I hoped that was an agreement for tomorrow, but I wouldn’t know until I got to the cabin. I doused the dying fire and trudged back to the house where I fell into bed fully clothed, lost in sleep to the world around me.
Dad let me off chores the next morning, partly because I hadn’t eaten the day before, but also because it would take me a while to get up to the cabin Miriam had shown me on the survey map. “The changes in elevation aren’t too bad for half your trip, but there are parts that are almost like rapids. Paddling by yourself is going to be rough, but at those parts you might have to get out and pull the canoe behind you…sometimes in the water itself if the shore is too steep to reach the top.”
Great—at least it was late August and the waters would be at their warmest right now despite coming from some of the highest points in the entire Park. Guess I won’t be wearing my new sneakers. Or my work jeans which would be a big hassle when they got soaked by the stream’s water. So it was cut-offs and a tee and my oldest sneakers. I thought about skipping underwear or socks, but I knew they’d prevent blisters on my feet or chafing on my more tender parts. I cheered up a little when I realized it wouldn’t hurt or weigh much to carry a change of clothes for when I got there.
We left the paved road east of town and made our way along a graveled one until we came to a place where you could put small boats into the lake. There were no other cars there, but it was only 8:00 and most people went to the spots on the western side of Indian Lake that were closer to the campgrounds. Dad reminded me how far down the stream was that I wanted, and said he’d come back to pick me up the same time tomorrow morning. I pointed to a lonely phone booth off to the side of the lot where the road had come in. “I’ll go see if that works…” It did, so I ran back to the truck and we began unloading my stuff. My spare clothes and blankets were in a water-proof container, and the food supplies and tools were in another. Yep, I’d be pulling this sucker because there was no way I could get it ashore without emptying it.
With the canoe tethered to the dock, I gave my Dad a long hug. I almost asked him to go with me, but this was something I had to do by myself. He stayed until I was out on the lake and headed south toward the stream that would take me on my adventure. I turned on the seat in the rear of my canoe and waved, then set about the chore of paddling. I warmed up pretty fast from the mild exertion, and hoped that the way upstream would be shaded by overhanging trees. Temperatures would be in the lower 70s for the next few days with no rain, but the direct sun would make that seem a lot hotter if it reflected back off the water too. Thank the gods I was tanned by this point of the summer!
Now, living near Indian Lake, I wasn’t a stranger to canoeing or boating, but that was almost entirely on the calm waters of the lake or tourist rivers that had little or no changes in elevation. Plus I was by myself rather than sharing the work with another guy who sat in the front to do half the job. Farm work develops a lot of muscles, particularly doing haying in early summer and autumn, but this upstream journey against the current was showing me I had missed more than one area that I’d thought was in good condition until today.
And that was only the twisting and pivoting from left to right that I had to do almost constantly to keep a straight course—with two people one could do the left side and the other concentrate on the right…then switch at intervals to relieve the boredom. Let’s just say, I seriously began thinking that hiking might have been the better option for my adopted quest. If I’d been less busy with paddling, I’d have seen the tangle of undergrowth and rocky terrain that would have proved me wrong before I’d gone two miles.
Before the first hour was up, and I’d just entered the stream I wanted, I had discovered two items that I sorely regretted not bringing—a hat, and sunglasses. I couldn’t do anything about the latter, but I could come up with a make-shift hat by using the spare tee-shirt I’d packed. I slipped my head into the neck-hole and let it hang down in back so my head and neck were protected from the glare of the sun, sort of like an extra-long bandana. That felt a little better, so all I had to do now was squint a bit to ease my eyes. Crap—aspirin would have been nice too for the head- and muscle-aches I’d have before I was at the cabin.
Dad was right about there being a couple places where the current was too strong and I had to get into the water and pull the canoe behind me with a rope. I knew that if this was on land it’d be called a portage—but did that work if it was in the water too? I was both right and wrong about this part of the trip: the bank was too steep at each spot to tow the canoe like one of the old canal boat mules, but the water cooled me down enough that I felt like a new man as I waded along to calmer waters. I nearly tipped the canoe over the first time I got out, and getting back in at the next slow current, but I got the hang of it. Except for when I tripped on a slippery rock and went under. At least I held onto the rope…but being soaked from head to toe meant I turned into steamed Viking once I was back and paddling.
About 10:30, I was tired and sore and came upon a shallow area about a foot or so deep, and I said ‘Screw it’ and tied the rope to a low-hanging branch and ate a sandwich Gram had packed while I sat in the cool water. I’d probably have some mud on my ass since this was where all the dirt from the rapids settled out, but I didn’t care…my old shoes were toast, and the shorts were nearly too small for me, and I had more pairs of tube socks at home. I had also swallowed more than one gulp of water so far today, but there weren’t any farms along this particular stream so I figured I’d be safe. It hadn’t killed me the times I’d done it at home, though I was careful to only do it upstream from our fields.
I hadn’t heard anything but birds and insects and the sounds of the stream all morning, or seen another person. I thought there might have been other cabins up here, but I didn’t see any docks either, even old decayed ones…so the first sign I had that I was near my destination was spotting a lessening of undergrowth to my left, and then the end of a short narrow pier after a small bend in the stream.
Knowing Dave’s great-grandfather was a traditional man, I wasn’t sure what I expected—maybe a few wooden pilings connected to the bank by planks running perpendicular to the stream, but that wasn’t what I found. Sure the posts were timber, but they were a foot thick and coated in creosote and sunk into concrete footings, and their cross-bars supported two more thick timbers that ran back to the shore. These joists supported 2x6 planking with a tiny space between each so rain and snow-melt could drip into the water rather than stand and rot out the wood. All these planks were stained and varnished a deep reddish brown.
A cleared trail began at the far end of the dock about ten feet away, and that was where I had my first sight of Dave’s spirit-cat. I aimed for the downstream side of the dock and tossed one end of the rope around one of the posts then tied it off. That gave me enough stability to stand up and put my two containers on the dock before jumping up myself. All this time I could feel blue eyes watching me, and I could smell sage on the soft breeze. I wasn’t sure how big a wild-cat was, but this one looked big to me—and those eyes sure didn’t fit the pictures I’d seen on television or in books.
I was wet from head to foot, and my sneakers squelched from the few steps I’d taken. My spare shirt was also wet since I’d used it to make my hat, but I had another pair of dry shorts and stuff in one of my two containers. Thank goodness I wasn’t shy, though the novelty of a nearby ghost was a little eerie. I toed off my sneakers and began peeling off my clothes one soggy piece at a time. The first thing I did was grab the towel from the dry stuff and wipe myself down until I was as clean as I could get…then I pulled on new underwear and shorts, followed by fresh socks. In order to help with the spiritual connection I’d need, I’d brought the blue Pumas and bomber jacket. I sat down to tie the sneakers but left the jacket in the box for now—it was way too hot to wear it until nightfall at the earliest.
I spread my wet things out on the dock, then picked up the box with the food and tools before turning to face my companion/partner for the next part of the day’s events. Since he was already here, I didn’t think I needed the sage or tobacco pouches yet. Just like the night before, I sent my thoughts along with words so he’d understand. “Please lead me to where we need to go…I’ve brought food and drink so the ceremony can be completed.”
The path was about six feet wide bordered by undergrowth that had been cut back but was otherwise intact. The slope wasn’t too bad, but it was steady, and the cat seemed to float effortlessly along it. I guess that made sense if he was a real ghost, but he sure looked real. Miriam had been right about the only clear area being near the cabin…and it sure felt like two miles from the river before I got to it.
I could see it had been neatly tended until fairly recently, though some of the flower beds had been weeded. Other parts were obviously wildflowers that grew wherever sunlight could get through the forest canopy; I saw no sign of vegetables, so maybe that part was behind the cabin itself. One name for the five local tribes was ‘The People of The Long House’, and I think that was what I expected to see after hearing Joseph was an Elder of the Seneca, but this was nothing like that.
A porch ran along the front of the cabin, which was made of closely-fitted squared logs. The roof was heavy slate, and I could see a rough-stone chimney rising at the right end of the single-story structure. Like the dock, this place was built to last for generations, and it gave off an aura of solidity and permanence. The path ran up to granite steps to the porch, and also around the left side to continue on behind the cabin’s mass. A heavy oak door was flanked by two multi-paned windows that could be closed by solid shutters in winter.
I was starting around the path to the back when I saw the cat mount the steps and stand next to the door. I was confused because I thought sacred places had to be outside, and nothing I’d seen in the old book or what Miriam told me made me think any different. Still, he was the spirit guide and not me. I hesitated for a minute or two, and that must have been enough to irk him, because he gave a soft growl and walked right through the closed door! To make his meaning perfectly clear, I saw his head pop back out and stare at me with near-human impatience.
Okay, I didn’t need a ton of bricks to fall on my head to get the idea. I went up the steps and reached for the door’s iron handle. I thought it would be locked, but I was wrong. The lever gave under my thumb and I heard a click that let me push the door open. I wasn’t happy going into somebody’s house uninvited, but since I was led here by someone who ‘knew’ the owner…I guessed it would be okay. If this was where the Condolence Ceremony had to be done, then I’d listen to the cat.
It was mostly one big room with the fireplace on the right end and a ‘kitchen’ at the other…at least there were some bins and shelving that held various dishes, and a large black century-old wood stove. In between was open space with a trestle table close to the cabinets, and a sofa and chairs closer to the stone hearth. Two doors were on the back wall, one of them open, and another to my left near the huge stove. That one had to lead outside, probably to a side porch or wood shed.
I set the box of food and other supplies on the table, and the cat waited just a moment before heading for the open door at the back, giving a soft yowl. Again, I could smell sage in the cabin’s still air, and something less pleasant. Holy Shit! Had Joseph Lake died in here and not been buried after all….
Some things you know just can’t be true, but having seen the ghost-cat, I was no longer sure of anything. The man had died over a year ago, and David had come up to perform his send-off, so of course he was buried…right? I didn’t even give my other thought a chance to take root—David was most definitely buried.
That’s when I heard the voice. “Hë:es…”
The spirit-guide’s ears pricked up and the tawny head turned to face into the open door behind it. It gave a mew, almost like a purr, then turned in my direction again. That was clearly where I was supposed to go, but I wasn’t sure I had the courage. The cat took a step toward me and this time it gave vent to a growl before stepping back and into the other room. Dead guys don’t speak…I thought to myself in a near vain attempt at reassurance. The first step toward that room and disembodied voice was the hardest thing I’d done so far in my nearly seventeen years.
I saw the end of a bed first, with legs of a light coppery hue on it, one elevated and obviously swollen despite an attempt at bandaging it. On the floor lay a pair of dirty blue Puma sneakers…worn, but a match for the new ones on my own feet. As I got closer I could see more—hips in denim cut-offs and then a sweaty smooth torso that held my eyes for more than a few seconds…then I saw the face, propped up on a pillow. Curly but matted medium-brown hair…and eyes of a blue that was a twin for those of the spirit cat.
“Sgë:nö’…” It took a minute for the eyes to focus on me after the tentative greeting, then the voice came again, almost inaudibly. “Nya:wëh…” I knew who this was, and that told me he was probably speaking in his own Seneca language, but I couldn’t understand it though he sounded grateful.
The smell in the room was coming from the sheen of sweat on his body and a covered bucket next to the bed—a mix of urine and more solid things for who knew how long. A First-Aid kit lay open on the table closest to the bed, along with a pitcher of water and some now-empty packages of crackers. It was clear he’d been here for more than a day or two…but definitely not the two months since his reputed death.
If he was too feverish, could he speak English? “Sorry, I don’t understand; I’m here to help, but I don’t know what you said.” Just a second passed before I added the most obvious question of all: “You are David Lake, right?”
Though weak, the smile that got was a twin to the one from his picture in the newspaper that said he was dead. He licked his lips, and I cursed myself for being an idiot and went to check his water pitcher—it was empty. ‘Be right back…don’t go anywhere,” I blurted.
I filled the pitcher from the sink in the kitchen and grabbed one of the left over sandwiches Gram had sent with me, then helped David to sit up a bit more so he could take little bits of what I offered him. I knew from Scouting that you needed to do this slowly after not eating for a while, so I didn’t let him over-do it. It was maybe five minutes before he could get enough energy to speak again, but I saved him some of his questions by going first.
“My name’s Tor—like the Viking god but without the ‘h’—and I got called here by your spirit-guide. We can hash that out later, after we get you fed, then I can take you downstream in my canoe so your leg can be fixed up….”
His voice was a little stronger thanks to the water and food, but I still didn’t let him take too much at once. “You saved my life, Tor. I was getting ready to leave five days ago when I fell and twisted my ankle. I managed to get set up here, but then it swelled up really bad and I couldn’t walk on it…and it’s a long hike back down to my car.”
“Um…yeah—that’s a long story I can swap with you while you recover at the hospital—and you can tell me how we share the same animal guardian despite being from two different cultures.”
The rest of the evening was spent cleaning him up and changing his bandages, then I made a nice supper out of the food I’d brought for the Condolence Ceremony that he’d actually completed a month ago. As he slept, I got the cabin closed up so all we’d have to do in the morning was lock the door. One thing I did before stretching out on the couch was to set out some meat for the cat.
Just after dawn we set off, with me half-carrying Dave down to the dock. The cat stopped at the end of the trail and watched as I packed up the canoe, then settled my spirit-brother into the front where he would have the easiest job, that of passenger. He was wearing one of his ratty blue sneakers and carrying the other, and he pointed at my newer ones.
“Good taste in shoes, man….”
I laughed. “Of course—we’re ‘sole mates’!”
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This story was written based on the picture Empty Shoes at the IOMFATS site.
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