As they feared, the lake began to heave and buck that day. They had come to the lair of those unspeakable things that lived below the surface of the world. The shamans described the beasts of the underworld which prowled the bottom of the lakes. Among them was the dark shadow which Ogaa had glimpsed in his dream, and the most fearsome was Misshinahmaygway, a fish monster with a body that was half snake and half fish, yet with a human head. The size of a small island, Misshinahmaygway was a thing of legends which no one had seen in many years, and Ogaa gave it no credence, for it seemed an unlikely tale meant to frighten children.
Yet many of the Anishinaabek had seen Misshipeshu, the water panther, which was said to have the head of a lynx and the notched tail of a reptile. Misshipeshu stirred the depths with his tail, raising vast waves and whirlpools. He raised the summer squalls which had taken the lives of many generations of Ojibwe fishermen. It was also well known that giant snakes prowled the waters of the deep lakes, sometimes gliding beneath canoes to devour the upended paddlers.
Far away, lightning struck the water as the storm came on and with it, the eternal battle of titans. Often around their winter fires, the Anishinaabek told tales of the thunderbird, Animiki, mortal enemy of the water creatures, which have battled for all time in the war between the sky and the underworld. Although they could not see him through the clouds, Ma’linganbawi and his men knew that Animiki was hurling his lightning bolts at the monsters below and cracking thunder with the clap of his wings.
Even Ogaa had heard of the great tree of life that rose from the underworld to the land of the living, and from there to the sky where the thunderbird flew, and from there the tree grew even further to the path of stars leading to the spirit land.
As an inductee, Animi-ma’lingan had permission to examine the birch scrolls which told the story of the Ojibwe in pictures. There were hundreds of scrolls packed along the log shelves of the lodge, containing all of the secrets of the Ojibwe; their medicine, magic and deeds of war. The shamans had also recorded messages from spirits and animals, legends, and records of times that had been both good and bad. Eya, Animi-ma’lingan also found maps of canoe routes through all of the Great Turtle Islands leading to every direction: from the maze of lakes to the north to the salt waters far to the east and south and across the western plains to the wall of purple mountains. All this going back to the time of the Old Ones, the Great Flood and perhaps even beyond to the time when men had married the animals and learned the secrets of survival.
The scrolls were fashioned of long strips of birch bark, longer than the height of a tall man and as wide as a forearm, stitched together with basswood slats.
One scroll, held most sacred, was so worn with age that its pictographs had faded to shadows.
“What does it mean?” Animi-ma’lingan asked the eldest Mide among them, said to have lived the span of nearly three generations. The old one was Wabeno, Man of the Dawn Sky, an interpreter of dreams. Since his childhood, Wabeno had often heard the voices of manitos speaking in his thoughts, and even the voice of Kitchi Manito, a frightening encounter. His face was as wrinkled and puckered as a withered crabapple.
The old priest sucked at his pipe and squinted at the scroll as if it would unravel its secrets on its own. “Once, it is claimed, many strings of lives ago, the Ojibwe, the Odaawaa and the Potawatomi were all one people united as the Anishinaabek,” Wabeno said. “The pictures tell us that they lived in a town far to the east of the salt water. It was a large town, larger than one could see across from a high hill, and filled with thousands of our people.” The priest paused and relit his pipe with a pine splinter, his mind wandering elsewhere. Then, he ran a finger as thin as that of a child’s below the pictures scribed in the bark and began again. “But sickness overwhelmed them and Kitchi Manito sent our uncle Manabozho to lead them west,” he said. “A great shining shell, a Mide shell, arose in the west, guiding them to their new home.
“The Anishinaabek gathered by the river which drains the big lakes to the sea and established a new Mide-wi-win lodge. Yet, once again they were destroyed by an illness that blew from the east. Again the Mide shell appeared in the sky to the west and they moved to the great falls of Kitchi-gaugeedjwung. Yet again came sickness and war and one more time the magical shell of the Mide appeared in the sky, this time leading us to Boweting.” Wabeno pulled at his pipe, lost in some private memory of the past before returning to his story. “Each time, many hands erected a Mide-wi-win lodge so that we might remember the old ways which had been lost in the move,” he said. “The old rites were spoken aloud once again and the Anishinaabek were made pure, whole. And my son, that is why you and I and the People are here today.”
“But what next, father?” Animi-ma’lingan asked. “Will we be driven west again?”
Wabeno nodded and hummed. “Oh yes, yes, I think it will be. One more time, though you may not see the Mide shell in your lifetime.” Wabeno patted the young shaman’s shoulder and struggled to his feet. “You can keep looking,” he said, gesturing for Animi-ma’lingan to keep reading the pictures without him. But the scrolls were not easily read without the aid of an elder who knew what each picture meant. So Animi-ma’lingan carefully put the scroll back in its cover of deer hide for safe keeping.
These excerpts from “Windigo Moon: A Novel of Native America” by Robert Downes were reprinted with permission of the publisher, Blank Slate Press, an imprint of Amphorae Publishing Group, St. Louis, Missouri. Robert Downes is the author of three books, including his most recent release, “Windigo Moon.” The first chapter of “Windigo Moon” won first prize in the 2014 Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition. He lives in Traverse City with his wife.