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.<