Saturday, April 24, 2010

Award Winning Story

Camas Man

QwaQwai knew something was wrong when he saw a flock of geese migrating to the Southern tribes. The season called for them to come north and stay awhile. Something, however, had scared them away before they had a chance to touch ground.

Several weeks before, when QwaQwai had trekked up and settled onto this mountain, he'd felt the inevitable press of many lives depending on him. Although his new status among the people gave him pride and purpose, he couldn't help but feel inadequate.

Medicine Man was the gift of only a few. Sure, he'd been trained since boyhood for this purpose, but what if the spirits didn't want him. What if it had been the power of the old man, Somkay, that guided him to the spirit world before?

Despite his personal misgivings, QwaQwai sensed the mountain welcoming him as he traversed it, seeming to say he could not fail. He tucked his heavy, fur-lined hide around his shoulders and glided, light as air, between thick patches of Kinnikinnick.

As he settled on the mountain, looking out over the lake and the Qapquape, the sandy place—later to be named Sandpoint by the pale skinned tribes—he felt the crisp alteration of the air on his face. The trees stood like proud warriors around him in vibrant yellows and autumnal browns, preparing for the spirits of winter to inhabit them.

QwaQwai inhaled to help calm his nerves. He had only a short time to speak with the spirits and have them guide his people to their last hunt before the snows came. One wrong step could lead them into the arms of the Siksikas, their fierce scowls penetrating as deeply as their spears.

From under his blanket, he pulled a gourd rattle, the only possession he'd brought with him other than a skin full of water. He chanted over the lake toward the distant mountains, lightly pounding the air with the rattle.

Before long, he felt a subtle bliss, lightheaded waves coming over him. The trees surrounding him blurred; but he knew they were still there because of his feeling their soft-spoken voices touching his back, his face, his hands.

He smelled the deep breath of the earth yawning up from the hole he'd dug two days before, when he'd chosen this spot for his quest. His moccasined feet dangled into the hole where he'd built a small, inconspicuous fire to keep his toes from freezing.

He closed his eyes and let his body sway into realms beyond. He became less and less aware of himself as he sank deeper inside himself, letting go of his insecurities a little at a time.

He sat this way for several days, days that spread into weeks. Hardly was he aware of his heart slowing, his lungs opening.

He began to see visions.

These visions, however, were not the visions he had expected. He had expected to see the faces and violence of the Siksikas coming from the east, their blackened moccasins kicking up dust and snow and arrowheads.

Instead, he saw his people where they had camped along the river several moons ago. They were fishing and digging camas root from the flood plains, laughing together at the antics of his sister's son, swaddled in a woven cradleboard that leaned against a tree. He saw their sharpened digging sticks pierce the ground. He saw a flock of the great honking birds migrating to the Southern tribes.

This was when QwaQwai knew something was wrong. The flock's time to fly south was now, when the cold winds blew in from the north and froze the earth, not at the time of his vision, of the camas harvest. He paid special attention to the speed with which the birds flapped their wings. Something unexpected seemed to drive them away.

The clouds surrounding the flock moved and came together to form a face. QwaQwai recognized this face as that of a great Ani-kituhwagi shaman who'd traveled to their camp along the sandy place when he was small. The shaman had planned to winter over with them, beginning his long journey home with the first thaws of spring. He had instead died by the hands of a Siksika warrior during the last big hunt before the snows fell.

QwaQwai figured this vision must have come from the shaman, from the spirit world where he walked.

QwaQwai saw the vision of his people harvesting camas over and over in his mind, each time its pace quickened, until the hands of the people were nothing but smudges across the ground and their laughter wind between the trees.

Leaves fell from the high deciduous branches. Women and men alike grew creased with age. QwaQwai's nephew grew into a strong man, fishing and practicing throwing his spear by the river, the people laughing, still, at his antics. This one would take his place when he grew too feeble; would become responsible for bringing the people good medicine.

QwaQwai felt himself floating, like a bird riding a summer gale above the mountains. Locked tight within his vision, he didn't realize that he had fallen into his fire pit. He landed in the cold ashes of the long extinguished fire.

His vision continued.

He saw a black ribbon laid out over the surface of the earth, and once this ribbon was in place, he saw himself dancing upon it, shaking his rattle. He watched the sky, the flapping wings, listened to the frantic honking of geese until a movement on the ribbon caught his attention.

Two huge eyes, as bright and glaring as the midday sun, stared at him. The creature moved slowly toward him, honking in a manner much like the geese.

QwaQwai dropped his rattle. He stumbled back until he fell to the side of the ribbon, his breath troubled.

The creature moved passed him, bringing with it a strong wind that fluttered QwaQwai's hair; and a trail of smoke followed it everywhere it went.

Outside QwaQwai's vision, the snows came, accompanied by heavy winds that left him frozen and buried deep within his pit where he stayed for many years.

His vision never left him.

He again saw his people, this time gathered around a fire during a ceremony, but as the creature moved past them, they faded away.

Nothing could have prepared him for this. It was much worse than the Siksikas attacking them during their hunt. There was no direction they could go to avoid the scourge of the creature on the black ribbon. No way to fight back.

Many more years of thaw and freeze came and went while QwaQwai watched these things unfold, curled into a ball at the bottom of his fire pit.

At last, he awoke with the spring sun shining on him. He had no idea how much time had passed, no idea how he had ended up in his pit.

He realized something was amiss when, upon climbing from his earthen bed, he saw spring flowers reaching up to greet him and felt the warm air envelop him. He looked out over the lake, his eyes wide, his jaw set.

The lake looked much larger than it had, covering more land than before. Yet more shocking, across the lake, uniting the shores on either side, lay the black ribbon that he'd seen in his vision. It continued on the land and ran as far as his eyes could see; and upon it, creatures moved on quickly spinning wheels in both directions, their big round eyes apparently shut.

QwaQwai's legs staggered when he tried to walk; they had become atrophied and weak. His whole body shook with an emotion more primal than he could identify. This couldn't be part of the vision still; the vision had felt much different, and in the vision, he hadn't been hungry.

He found at the edge of his fire pit a rock sharp enough to use as a blade—a dull blade, but a blade all the same. He broke a strong yet slender branch from a tree and began to construct a spear for hunting rabbit and grouse and such. When night fell, he would make his way down the mountain to the lake to fill his water skin. When night fell, there would be fewer creatures traveling the black ribbon.

In this way he spent many days and nights on the mountain, taking in the structures that now stood along the Qapquape, the people with pale skin who seemed to have taken the area over. Nowhere did he see the Camas People. Instead of the sturgeon-nosed canoes paddling along the shoreline, he saw the unnatural shine of odd-looking boats buzzing this way and that.

He had concern for his people, but he knew from his vision that searching for them would be fruitless. They had vanished, taking with them his need to find good medicine for them, his purpose. It felt good to know he could have true visions, powerful visions even; but without anyone to share them with, he felt more alone than he knew possible.

To fill his time, QwaQwai gathered bark from the nearby trees and began to construct a small woven basket. The process reminded him of his mother, of the time when he was still a small boy under her protective watch. Young Camas boys would spend mornings helping their mothers with their chores before they wandered off to play.

In QwaQwai's case, the old man Somkay would call to him and they would take long walks through the woods were Somkay would explain medicine, both physical and spiritual.

QwaQwai now found medicine in the easy-minded work of weaving the basket. Although it was supposed to be a woman's work, he saw it beneficial for a man as well.

When the basket was finished, QwaQwai picked it full of thimbleberries and, leaving his campsite for the first time since he awoke from his vision, traversed down the mountain. Along the way, he speared two grouse and carried them along with him by their talons.

He'd watched the pale skinned ones long enough. He understood little of their ways, but wanted to speak with them, to learn from them.

His moccasins remained silent as he walked along the raised portion at the side of the black ribbon. He stopped behind a couple of men lingering outside what looked like a cave in a manmade wall of bricks. A sign hanging from the awning read: barbershop. QuaQwai didn't know how to read English. Even if he had, he wouldn't have known what it meant.

Neither of the men noticed QwaQwai until one of them turned. His face twisted at the site of the Camas man, and he drew his hands from his pockets, where he'd been jingling change. His companion turned in response.

QwaQwai held out the grouse and berries.

The men looked at each other and others started to poke their heads from shop doors and second story windows.

Finally, the man who first saw QwaQwai took the gift and handed it to the other man, who set it on a bench next to him.

"Pend Oreille" was the only word QwaQwai could decipher from the jumbled sounds the men started to make. QwaQwai picked out this word because they said it often. They pointed to the shell earrings dangling from QwaQwai's ears, then pointed to their own, bare earlobes.

"Pend Oreille," they kept saying.

QwaQwai removed his earrings and handed one to each man, and while all the mens’ fingers lingered on the gift together, before QwaQwai had a chance to let go, he was grabbed from behind and torn away.

The men in front of the barbershop returned their hands to their pockets and the faces disappeared from the windows and doorways.

The man who forced QwaQwai away wore a miniature shield made of shiny metal over his heart. He also held a weapon that QwaQwai had never before seen the likes of. It had a handle and a long tubular component that the man kept pressed to QwaQwai's back.

QwaQwai tried to speak to the man in Salish, tried to tell him he came in peace, but his words were lost on him.

The man led him into another structure made of bricks and into a room with cages.

QwaQwai's uneasiness deepened at the site of men in these cages. Never had he seen or heard of such an abomination. He knew now what the man had in mind for him. He knew he must become the warrior he'd never been. All his life he'd devoted to healing. A Medicine Man only fights when he has to, and QwaQwai had very little practice.

Before he could retaliate, however, the man with the shield over his heart pounded the handle of his weapon into QwaQwai's skull.

He awoke slumped in a cell, a bowl with cold mushy grain next to him. For three days he sat in prison, fasting, chanting, and praying for good medicine. On the third evening, two men came who spoke of a reservation.

QwaQwai picked this word out from their conversation, though he didn't know its meaning.

The guard opened his cell and QwaQwai did not hesitate. He'd brought forth everything he knew of fighting as he sat in his meditation. He sprang like a cat, pounding all three men with fists and feet and head.

They hadn't expected such speed, such ferocity from the quiet man who hadn't eaten.

He sent them all to the concrete floor and then knelt to feel for pulses. He was, after all, a Medicine Man. He filched the keys from the guard and released the others in the cells: five men in all.

He then blew as the wind from the pale skinned camp, up to his mountain. There he waited and watched. He stayed in the thick forest and avoided the pale skins with ease.

When the time came for the air to shift and the trees to change color once again, he dug out his fire pit, for it had started to grow over with weeds and brush. He built a small, inconspicuous fire to keep his toes from freezing. Pulling his gourd rattle from under his blanket, he lightly pounded the air with it as he chanted.

He looked out over the lake, sadness overcoming him as he took note of the hollow place within that his people had filled. The world had grown older and was changing, the way a beautiful maiden changes into an old maid. The Camas People seemed to be the youth that she shed.

After some time, he felt bliss, lightheaded waves overcoming him. He closed his eyes and swayed into the next realm where he saw the face of the Ani-kituhwagi shaman in the clouds.

He saw the light skinned tribes growing, building ever more structures along the water's edge, into the mountains even. He saw them moving faster and faster, creating great whirls of smoke around themselves, which began to suffocate them.

QwaQwai didn't realize when he fell into his fire pit. Didn't realize when the snowdrifts covered him and froze.

Many years of thaws and freezes came and went. QwaQwai's visions continued.

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