On the morning my father sent me away, I could smell the good wood smoke from the cook fires. The sounds of the old women sweeping and singing morning songs to themselves, while dogs yelped and babies squealed, came to me. I saw the people making ready for another day in our life as a tribe, the Turtle Clan. My father said that I had seen twelve summers, enough time to grow. He said I was ready to go to the forest alone. I was not to eat. I was to spend my time praying and seeking the spirit who would guide me.
I had been to the edges of the forest with a few friends, boys my own age. I had never dared to go beyond the edges. We boys knew that in the forest were Matekanis, little demons the size of small children. The Matekanis were tricksters who meant no harm, we were told, but who liked to play pranks on those who came too far into the woods. We wanted to stay far from them.
“The Creator gave us four gods, one for each direction: one where the sun rises, one where it sets, one toward the cold country, and one to the warm. They will protect you,” my father said.
“But, I am frightened,” I told him. “I do not know my way in the forest and beyond.”
“My son,” my father said,” you will come back to us in a short time. You will be stronger without having eaten. You will be wiser even without listening to the elders. You will know more who you are.”
He handed me a small medicine pouch, turned me toward the woods and gently pushed me toward them: woods that would darken as the sun set, woods that held demons and gods, who could harm or protect me. I thought of the little Matekanis who would tease and play pranks--unless I did something to upset them. Then, they would not be so playful.
As I walked into the woods, my father said, “Find your spirit. Find your way. The keepers of the earth will guide you.”
I took a step into the woods and turned to look back and plead to stay with the tribe, but my father was gone. Soon the sounds and smells of our camp were gone.
I was ashamed to be afraid, but I was afraid. Since summer began, the Iroquois and Mingo tribes had attacked us. The wise men said the attacks came from jealousy that we are the original people. We descended from the First Woman, who dropped from heaven and was saved by Turtle. From his hard shell, the earth grew and the people sprang from First Woman. Now, if the Iroquois would find me, they would kill me or make me a slave, as would the Mingo. Why would my father send me alone into such a dangerous world? How could he know I would find my spirit? How would I know if my spirit was good or evil? An evil spirit could fool me into thinking it was good, leaving me to take evil back to the people.
Tonight in our camp, the people would eat meat cooked on a large fire. Berries would be gathered and shared. They would have corn raised in our field. I would not share tonight. I would not hear the stories told after the meal or listen to the music, songs sung by the women. I would be in a strange place I had yet to find. I would be hungry because I must fast. And, I would be alone.
I carried these thoughts with me as I walked away. In the stories told by the old men, the people came from the Father of Waters and walked toward the rising sun until they came to this land. I, too, would walk toward the rising sun, but I would walk alone.
The forest in late summer smelled of earth and greenness and the great white flowers that grew on some of the trees. I looked around me and walked carefully. I did not wish to startle a cougar or a wolf. It was quiet in the forest, as if the animals were watching, waiting to see if I meant them harm. I did not, and I prayed to Mesingw, the spirit who watches over all animals, to let him know I was not hunting, and that I meant no harm to any of his creatures. I was becoming hungry and would have happily killed a rabbit and put it on a spit to roast, but I was not to eat. The animals were safe from me.
The sun moved to the west and came to lower itself in the sky behind me as I walked. The forest was becoming darker. I came upon a small pond as the day lengthened, and I reached the edge of the trees. I stopped. In the water at the edge of the pond was a large heron. The great bird’s back was to me as he looked down at the water for a meal of small fish or frog. He was concentrating on the water. I thought, “I cannot eat, but I can test my skills as a hunter and creep close enough to touch him as he eats. That would be something to tell my father.”
I left the protection of the trees and slowly and silently made my way to the pond. Every few steps, I stopped and made sure the heron did not hear me. He still did not seem to sense me when I reached the edge of the pond. One more step and I would touch his back.
I reached, and as I reached, the great bird spread his wings and brought them powerfully down as he took flight. I was so sure I would touch him that his sudden movement and the touch of the air from his wings thrusting, shocked me. I fell face first into the pond. I sat up in the shallow water and watched him disappear over the far end of the pond.
Tired, hungry, and wet, I gathered some dry twigs and larger pieces of wood and built a small fire to dry and to warm myself in the evening. The fire soon burned bright. I leaned against the trunk of a tree. I hoped the fire did not attract our enemies or a cougar. The sun moved to the west and came to lower itself in the sky behind me as I sat at the fire. The forest was becoming darker. I addressed the Matekanis and said, “Little spirits, I am alone and hungry in your forest. I am growing cold and have lit this fire for warmth as I sleep. Please do me no harm, for I mean you none.”
I slept against the tree and Kisux, the sun, awoke me as he rose and warmed me. I dreamt I touched the heron, and he shared his meal with me. Thinking of the dream reminded me of my hunger, so I made sure the fire was cold and began the second day of my journey.
My walking took me by peach trees that were heavy with their fruit. Some had fallen to the ground, and I could see that animals had enjoyed them. Their smell filled me with hunger that made me move on and quicken my pace.
I knelt beside a small, cold stream and drank from it. It was delicious. I could not eat as I searched for my vision, but I could drink. I was very grateful for that little stream. I saw young trout in a pool in the stream. I was sure I could sharpen a stick and spear one, but it would have been wasteful because I could not eat it. “Little fish,” I said, “you are fortunate I cannot eat, or you would make a tasty meal for me.”
My hunger was taking all my thoughts. I reminded myself this was an important journey. My father had sent me out of our community to prepare to become a man, to seek my vision, and to teach me. I should not take this time to think about food. I should think about the journey and keep aware to find my spirit vision.
Songs would take my mind from worrying about food, I thought. Singing the song of the Duck, the Wolf, and other animals, I walked the giving earth as the sun traveled up and over , and then, began to fall behind me. The woods had thinned to fields and the land was open. I could see the circle of the earth around me. Were there Matekanis out here in the open ground or did they live only in the forest?
I was thirsty and began to look for a stream or a pond. I walked until the light began to fade, and I came to the edge of a small river. It might have been large after the winter rains, but late summer had dried it and made it shallow. I stepped into the river and water came up to my knees. I bent and drank, then sat and washed myself, welcoming the cool water after a day walking in the sun.
This, I thought, would be a fine place to camp. I again gathered twigs and branches from the brush along the river and made a fire. In the morning, I would cross over in the shallows, but for now, I was tired. I sang a song to the night and slept.
Mesingw visited me that night. The spirit guard of all the animals came to me. He was riding a large buck deer. The spread of its antlers seemed larger than the spread of my arms, finger tip to finger tip. Mesingw woke me with the thunder of the buck’s hooves. He rode in a circle around me, narrowing the circle until he was so close, I feared the deer would crush me. Mesingw’s face was fearful looking in its red and black paint. He suddenly stopped his circling in front of me. The buck was breathing hard. Mesingw was red and black and powerful. He fixed his eyes on me, afraid to move by my little fire. With the growl of the bear, he pointed to the place where the sun rises. He then pointed at me and rode away, crashing through the river in the direction of the sun that would soon rise. I watched as he rode away. Twice, he spun the large deer back to look at me then turned again to the rising sun. The sound of the hooves on the ground faded, and he was gone.
The rising of the sun would not come for some time. Night was still full. Mesingw had come to me, though. I had my vision, and I was directed toward the sun rise. When the night air came from that direction, I could feel and smell a change. The earthy smell of the forest was gone, as well as the smell of fruit and flowering trees. The air now smelled changed. Fish? Salt? Something different was in my path. On this the third day of my journey, I prayed, may I go where Mesingw has directed and see Kisux rise to the sky.
Hurriedly, I began in darkness. I walked and swam across the river. There were some patches of trees but most of the land was open fields with some tempting bushes fat with berries. But, I could not eat, and it was not long before the soft feel of earth under my feet changed. The soil took on a gritty feel between my toes. The new smell that had come in the night became stronger. I quickened my pace when the light that foretells the coming of the sun began to show ahead of me. Now, I could hear a rushing sound of water, rhythmically coming, then quiet, then the rush again. I made my pace match the rhythm of the new sound.
There now—Kisux showed his upper tip, slowly rising, and I saw the source of the sound—the great waters. No longer was there any earthy feel beneath my feet, only the grit of the sand that I could see appeared in the growing light to line the water as far as I could see in either direction.
The old men in the Turtle Clan told stories of waters so immense one could not see across. These were the waters, surely, that Turtle had risen from to make a landing and home for First Woman. My heart was beating more rapidly than the waves that struck the shore. I thought that I must thank Mesingw and the spirits who brought me safely to this wonder, and as I sat in the sand to marvel and pray my thanksgiving, I thought that my father was right. These three days had changed me.
I sat in prayer and wonder as Kisux warmed my face and made the day full with light and warmth. I stayed there for a long time, long enough that great Kisux was almost above me, and I thought I must leave soon to tell my father and mother and the community how much I had seen, how clear my vision of Mesingw had been.
So deep in wonder had I been, that the thing moving up the waters, along the shoreline, had gone unnoticed until I stood to stretch and to turn and make my return to my village. There it was. I thought it must be another vision. Could I be so blessed to receive two visions where I thought I would have none? It was out in the water but making its way toward me. Closer, closer, and I could see men on it. They were wearing strange headdress, and some of them were pointing at me, shouting something I could not understand. The men were standing on an enormous canoe. The canoe could have held our whole village. I could see no one paddling it, yet it was moving across the water. The canoe had wings! The white wings were puffed up and stood on poles above it.
My wonder became alarm. Who were they? How could there be a canoe so large? Still, the men waved and shouted strange things to me. Now, there was great activity on the big canoe. A large hook dropped from the front of the canoe into the water. Men quickly climbed the poles and made the wings disappear. I could see the men more clearly and could see their skin appeared to be white. They were different from my people. If we are the original people, who are these? Smaller canoes were dropped into the water, and these rapidly filled with men climbing down the side of the great canoe. They paddled toward shore, toward me, and made beckoning movements now, as if I should come to them.
Was this a second vision or was it real? The canoes were coming closer. If I would run, it must be now. My father must know of this second vision, if, indeed, it was a vision. I turned and began running toward my father, my mother, and my clan.
Joseph L. Crossen, a faculty member in the Wilmington University College of Education, has published short fiction in The Broadkill Review, The Fox Chase Review, The Cape Henlopen Anthology, The Beach House, and The Boardwalk, all collections of short stories by local writers. His story “The Artist’s Stain” took first place in the 2014 competition. He lives in Dover, DE with his wife, Sharon. They have four adult children and two grandsons, Luke and Leo.