Singing Cedars becomes Charmian's reluctant guide, and she learns his issue with okis...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 48: Oki's Advice"
CHARMIAN SAT BEFORE the fire in Snowy Pine's section of the longhouse, a blanket wrapped around her and a hot bowl of--something--clasped in her hands. It looked rather like creamed corn. She stared disconsolately into the flames; Snowy Pine and Singing Cedars sat with her, Walks-On-The-Shore awake again and huddled on the fire's other side, occasionally wincing and rubbing at his bandaged wound. Every once in a while someone would pass by the room and peer in at them in curiosity, but aside from that they were left alone.
"I can't believe I was so stupid," Charmian murmured.
"You thought you had seen a spirit," Snowy Pine said, poking at the fire, "and you thought you could trust its advice. There's little that's stupid in this."
Charmian shut her eyes and shook her head. "But...it was so obvious from the start that it was a setup. That oki WANTED me dead!" She shivered and opened her eyes again. "It knew Wabun's name--what we call Wabun--even though that's not what YOUR people call him! If it was a real oki, it would've called him the East Wind, or by the name that you guys use. Its eyes probably should've been blue. And it was just way too convenient to show up right then when I needed it, and show me EXACTLY what I'm looking for. I knew it was way too easy to be true." She huddled into her blanket. "But I fell for it anyway because I wanted to find him so much! I can't believe I was so stupid!" She glanced at Singing Cedars and made a face. "If you hadn't shown up when you had...I'd probably be dead by now!"
Singing Cedars lowered his head to stare into the fire. "And so," Walks-On-The-Shore said, wincing and pressing a hand against his shoulder, "this oki that you claim to have talked to, did it show itself--? And actually speak--?"
Charmian cast him a dark look. "Of COURSE it did! It looked like a young moose! And it sounded just like the manitous do, too!"
"Doo-da-ta-doo-too-doo," Walks-On-The-Shore said. "You've obviously never dealt with real okis. Real okis look much like your manitous, with only small differences. They do not normally go about looking like moose and they hardly go lying to people, either."
"There are no okis," Singing Cedars growled.
"Cedars!" Snowy Pine exclaimed, making him duck his head again. He stirred almost angrily at the substance in his own bowl and started eating it as if he were tearing an animal apart with his teeth.
Charmian stared at the fire again. "Just like manitous...?" Her brow furrowed. "Then what was that thing I saw? It talked to me like a manitou..."
Then again...it was rather well spoken...even Mani talks in kind of fractured sentences. And it never did send me any mental pictures...
And it called Wabun by his Islander name! What sort of thing was that...?
"Megissogwun," she said, and everyone looked up at her. "He said he would be watching us the whole way," she murmured. "We didn't know how...so far he's using manitous and Mishupishus...why not a pretend oki, too? For all we know...he created it..." She shivered, then lifted her head to give Snowy Pine a pleading look. "I told that thing EVERYTHING about what I was doing! Now Megissogwun knows exactly what I'm doing!" She set her bowl down and glanced around, locating her pack. "I have to start looking for Wabun before he can stop me! Maybe that moose-thing hasn't had time to return to him yet. It's the only chance I have! I have to get to him before Megissogwun can stop me!"
Singing Cedars got up now and grasped her arm as she started trying to put her pack on; her own shoulder still stung, and she winced. "Hold on! You think you're going to just go running off into the dark like that--?" He threw up his free hand. "Do you even remember where you ARE?"
Charmian pulled her arm free. "You have any better suggestions--?"
"Girl," Snowy Pine said, "you seek the East Wind? What do you know of him already? Could you tell me?"
Charmian glanced at her, then frowned back at the fire. "Not much...all I know is he's one of the younger Winds, and he isn't very social, and he's really touchy. And...he lives in the east," she finished, lamely. "Even his own sister doesn't have a clue where exactly to find him--and after going through that passage, I don't know if I'm even READY to face him!" She blinked, then met Snowy Pine's eyes again. "Do your people know anything about him?"
"We do not have many stories about the Winds," Snowy Pine said apologetically. She rubbed her chin. "But what that false oki told you piques my interest."
"How so?" Singing Cedars asked. "You really don't mean to say you've heard of where the Wind is supposed to live...?"
"Well," Snowy Pine said, "we have old stories about everything. But this was a story my great-grandfather told me himself. What that oki told you may not be too far from the truth. I was told the East Wind lives deep within the rock, behind a wall of water."
The other three stared at her mutely. "A wall of water?" Charmian finally echoed, perplexed.
Snowy Pine nodded and poked at the fire. "The only catch is, Great-Grandfather told me he lived to the west."
"West?" Charmian and Singing Cedars both blurted out at once.
"Why would he be living to the west?" Singing Cedars asked in an incredulous voice.
Snowy Pine shrugged. "All I can say is that this is the story my grandfather told me. You want to find the wall of water, you go west and then south along the river."
"I came too far east...?" Charmian said, then let out a huge sigh and shrank into her blankets. "This is so TYPICAL!" She shrugged the blanket off and chewed on her lip. "Is it very far west...?"
"I have to admit that I've never traveled far from here," Snowy Pine said. "Including along the river. I'm guessing this was not the way you came..."
"Well..." Charmian started slipping her pack on, Snowy Pine and Singing Cedars giving her disapproving looks, "I guess I can walk along a river without getting lost. My shoulder really does feel a little better."
Singing Cedars stood up now and glared at her. "What about those bears you claim you saw?" he shot out.
Charmian glared at him in return. "You don't even believe in them! And I've dealt with wabanos before. All I have to do is keep out of their way. They're pretty obvious; they look like big balls of fire!" She adjusted her pack as Walks-On-The-Shore slowly got to his feet. "As long as we stick near the river we'll find our way there, right--?" she asked Snowy Pine; the old woman nodded, and she turned to the main aisle. "Then that's what we'll do. Wabun is behind this wall of water, then we should find him. A wall of water can't be too hard to miss."
Singing Cedars hurried in front of her and blocked her way; she scowled at him and he returned the look. "You're safe as long as you're here," he insisted. "If you head off on your own your safety isn't guaranteed! Especially with him in your company!" he added, nodding at Walks-On-The-Shore; Walks-On-The-Shore got a rather sour look himself. "You expect me to just let you go off on your own like that?"
Charmian threw up her hands. "I can't exactly stick around! I promised I would find Wabun with or without the others. I have to head west anyway if I'm supposed to run into them. They were on a river, so maybe it's the same river? In any case, it's the best chance I've got of finding them and of finding Wabun. You can't rightfully stop me from doing that!"
Singing Cedars turned to entreat Snowy Pine. "Grandmother!" When the old woman merely shrugged he huffed and turned back to Charmian, giving her a look fit to rival anything Black Elk Horn could summon up. "If you get killed--then I'll kill you myself!!" he snapped.
Charmian rolled her eyes. "Wow, I'll make sure to remember that!" She held up the little sprig of cedar. "You're sure you don't want this back--?"
Singing Cedars threw up his own hands. "YOU'RE IMPOSSIBLE! KEEP the stupid thing! I already told you a hundred times I DON'T NEED IT!" He turned his back on her. "And go get killed! See if I care! When they cut you up and roast you alive! They DO that around here, you know!"
"Goodbye to you, too," Charmian said, not even caring to argue anymore. "I hope you get that stick out of your butt sometime!" He glanced over his shoulder and behind himself as if expecting to find something; when he saw her looking at him he bared his teeth and clenched his fists, but she just turned back to where Walks-On-The-Shore was waiting and started again for the aisle.
"You know," Snowy Pine said as she went, "Cedars here has wandered around a bit--never too far, but still further than I have--so perhaps he would find it within himself to escort you along the river."
Charmian halted. She turned back to see Singing Cedars staring at his grandmother with his mouth hanging open. He glanced at her with just as much of an incredulous look, and his mouth started moving, but no words came out. His face started going red.
"Would you?" Charmian asked, and the color immediately drained from his face, and he let out his breath in a whoosh. He blinked a few times, confused, then his jaw snapped shut and he started silently fuming. He glared at Snowy Pine, then started stalking toward Charmian; she gasped a little and hopped out of his way, expecting a tirade, but all that he did was storm past her and out into the aisle.
"If you fall and drown," he snapped, "then don't come whining to me about it!"
Charmian and Walks-On-The-Shore watched him stomp away down the main aisle, then she turned back to Snowy Pine. Snowy Pine gave her that squinty smile which made her relax, and made a shooing gesture.
"Don't worry about him," she reassured her. "He likes to complain...but after he's finished, he'll do just about anything for someone he looks up to."
Looks up to--? Charmian felt her ears grow warm, and nodded. "Thanks, Snowy Pine." Her face fell. "I wish I had something to give you..."
Snowy Pine's smile grew. "Don't worry, girl; you've already given us much more than you think!"
Charmian puzzled over that, but something tugged on her arm and she turned to see Walks-On-The-Shore waving at her. "You know," he said conversationally, "they do roast people around here, and..."
"Oh, for cripes' sakes, ALL RIGHT already," Charmian exclaimed with a gusty sigh, and started after him. "Though I don't think I'd mind a roast if it made you SHUT UP!"
They made their way down the aisle and out of the longhouse. By now, night had fully fallen, and Charmian wondered whether they should just stay the night in the camp; Singing Cedars was already well ahead of them, however, and she hurried to catch up with him as he was walking remarkably fast, taking great strides. She slowed a bit when she reached his side, and peered up at him; he was scowling. Walks-On-The-Shore walked behind them as they started wandering into the dimness just outside the woods.
"If I'm bothering you too much," she said, "then you really don't have to go. I'm sure if you just point the river out to me, I could take it from there..."
"If you get lost or killed, then it's on my head," Singing Cedars retorted without looking at her. "I hardly need yet ANOTHER thing like that on my shoulders! I'll take you to that river, and walk you up to the wall of water, and then that's it. Everything after that, you're on your own. Don't expect me to coddle you every step of the way!"
Charmian rolled her eyes; his grousing was beginning to make her think of Manabozho. She felt a pang when she realized how long it had been since she'd last seen him, and slowed her step a bit. It took her a moment to notice that Singing Cedars had done the same, apparently so she wouldn't fall behind; this told her that his complaining was more of a bluff than anything, as if she had fully believed it in the first place.
"So where do you plan on us staying the night?" she asked. "Since apparently staying overnight isn't an option..."
"I thought you were fine with the woods," Singing Cedars grumbled.
"Of course I am, but they're not the best for sleeping in--"
He glared at her. "Do you want to go back or what--?"
She glared right back. "HARDLY! Like I'm going to go back looking like a COWARD!"
He clenched his fists. "LIKE I'LL DO THE SAME!!" They both flounced around to face straight ahead and started stomping so loudly that the ground thumped. Walks-On-The-Shore peered from one to the other, rolled his eyes, then started walking backwards. Crickets chirped in the deep woods and the trees started blotting out the stars.
"Besides," Singing Cedars grumbled after a long while, "you didn't try to kill Grandmother."
Charmian's face screwed up. "Huh? Where the heck did THAT come from?"
"She called you 'girl'!" He scowled at her. "I called you that once. You nearly killed me!"
Charmian rolled her eyes. "You called me little girl. She just called me 'girl'! There's a difference. Plus, she wasn't exactly insulting me when she said it! I seem to remember you telling me that I was all talk and no action!"
Now he rolled his eyes. "And I seem to remember you nearly breaking my arm! Which was ALREADY wounded!"
"It's not MY fault you got hit by an arrow!"
"As I seem to remember it, you apologized for that, which rather makes it seem like you felt guilty."
"As I seem to remember it, I SAVED YOU FROM GETTING YOUR SCALP CUT OFF, so you think a LITTLE thank you would be warranted!!"
"Twins," Walks-On-The-Shore said, and started walking on his hands. They both gawked at him in seeming horror, then looked at each other, then flushed and turned away, walking more quickly.
"A branch of the river is just ahead!!" Singing Cedars said in a flustered voice. "We can stop THERE and figure out what to do afterwards!"
"Fine!" Charmian straightened her pack--not that it was crooked--and they walked in silence again for what felt like ages. She started glancing over her shoulders once in a while, expecting to see fireballs or evil moose following them, yet all that she kept seeing was Walks-On-The-Shore sticking out his tongue or doing cartwheels, and that got tiring after a while so she stopped looking. Apparently the wabanos--or whatever they were--had gone.
She bit the inside of her mouth and her brow furrowed, troubled. Had they simply gone into hiding, or had they already reached Megissogwun? Were they on their way to Wabun to intercept her even as she walked?
True to Singing Cedars's word, the rushing sound of water eventually came, and they slowed their step when the small but fast-flowing stream of the riverbranch showed itself under the glint of starlight. Charmian stared up at the sky and wondered if it looked like that in modern New York...or wherever this was.
Walks-On-The-Shore did a cartwheel right past them and tumbled down into the water. They both halted to look at him as he lifted his head and sputtered, shaking water from his feathers and making faces. "Fire," he said, and Charmian almost expected flames to shoot out of his fingers. He clambered to his feet and made his way back up the slope and past them, sticking his tongue out and wringing out what there was of his hair, since most of it was shaved off. "You need wood to make a fire," he said, "at least, if all those years of being told that you need wood to make fire were true. And so, I go get wood, to make the fire." He got onto his hands and walked away.
Charmian rolled her eyes. "Whatever!" She made her way down the slope and sat down, drawing her knees up toward her chest and settling her pack beside her. After a moment Singing Cedars joined her and sat down off to her left, and they both stared at the water for a few moments.
"I really didn't mean to put you out of your way," Charmian said after a while.
Singing Cedars's lip started to stick out. "I'm not out of my way! Grandmother asked me to take you, so I'm taking you. It's not like it's anything horribly burdensome or anything."
It sure FEELS like it is, Charmian thought, but decided not to pursue it. She dug in her pack and pulled out a pair of chocolate bars that had escaped Pakwa and Marten so far, and held one out to him. "Chocolate?" He frowned but took it, looking the Hershey's wrapper over in puzzlement until she tore hers open; then he blushed a little and made a face as if to say, "I knew that," and followed suit. He frowned again at the chocolate as she started eating.
"It looks like mud," he said.
"Doesn't taste like it though," Charmian said around her mouthful. "If you don't want it I can leave it for an oki."
Singing Cedars grumbled under his breath and bit into the bar.
"Do you really believe there aren't any?" she asked after swallowing.
He let out a gusty sigh. "I've never seen any! So why think that they're there? It's rather silly to believe in things that never show themselves, isn't it?"
"All the people on the Island believe in Gitchi Manitou," Charmian said. "And I've never seen him, and I don't know anyone who has."
"That's different. That's the Island."
"Why do you think the Island is such an exception to everything?"
He gave her an odd look. "It is, isn't it?"
Charmian opened her mouth, then shut it. She sighed and rubbed at one eye. "Tell me something," Singing Cedars said. "Do you ever see any of those weird manitou-okis where you come from? The 'mainland' or whatever it is? I never hear you talk about having to deal with anything like that back at your home."
Charmian blushed. "Just because I don't see them doesn't mean they're not there!"
"Well--" he took a bite of chocolate "--I guess that's where we differ."
"Would you change your mind if you did see an oki?" Charmian asked.
He made a sour face as if the candy tasted bad. "It won't happen because there ARE none!"
"Just humor me, okay? Would you?"
Another sigh. He apparently understood the meaning of the foil wrapper, for he wrapped it back around the candy bar and set it aside. "It would have to be pretty convincing!" he said. "Not like that moose we ran into back there!"
"Then you must have pretty weird moose around here, to be offering directions and talking and everything," Charmian groused.
"Perhaps you ate some bad shokolutt."
Charmian ground her teeth but again brushed the comment off; by now she was starting to think that he was saying things merely to try to peeve her. "How come you didn't go for another vision?" she said instead; when he started looking remarkably grouchy she shrugged. "I'm serious. You're the only person I've heard of who wasn't really interested."
"The first one was a waste of time," Singing Cedars retorted. "Sitting for nearly a week without eating and then seeing SINGING TREES! Do you think I like going around with such a stupid name--?"
Charmian furrowed her brow. "I think Singing Cedars is a nice name."
"For a girl, maybe," Singing Cedars said. "In our camp there is a Gray Bobcat, and an Eagle Claw, and a Mountain's-Top, and then...Singing Cedars." He made an odd pfffttting noise and picked up the candy bar, tore it open, and resumed eating it in great bites.
"Did those other guys ever make fun of you because of it?"
"Take a wild guess."
Charmian winced and rubbed her chilly arms. "Sorry." She paused. "If it helps any, they aren't remarkably nice where I come from. The kids at my school--um--camp--think you're weird if you study a lot, and my name isn't exactly common where I come from either. Can you imagine the stupid jokes they can make about a name like 'Charmian'?" She made a face. "Can you imagine how many times they've called me by a name of toilet paper--?" Singing Cedars gave her such a look that she knew he had no clue what that was, and she sighed. "Something you wipe yourself with," she clarified, and his eyes went wide and his mouth fell open; a moment later he was trying not to laugh. "See what I mean?"
"At least they don't tell you you're a silly tree trying to sing medicine songs when you don't even want the okis around you," Singing Cedars managed to gasp out; he couldn't help it then and started laughing out loud, though Charmian only stared at him with a puzzled frown. After a moment or two his laughter began to die down and he wiped at his eyes, blinking them clear and looking at her. "What...? What is it?"
Charmian tilted her head. "You don't call okis because you're afraid of them--?" she asked.
Singing Cedars blinked, then his scowl returned in full force. He got up, strode along the bank several steps, and sat down again, glowering across the water.
Charmian scrambled to her feet and hurried after him. "Hold on! I didn't mean anything by it!" She dropped to her knees next to him. "I was just asking, is all! Is that the reason why you didn't go for another vision--?"
"You talk too much," Singing Cedars grumbled.
"Oh, come on, you can do better than that!" Charmian sat down. "I'm serious. You know I wouldn't make fun of you about something like that, right? Have I ever made fun of you like that?" She tilted her head forward but he didn't meet her eyes. "So...is that it?"
Singing Cedars huddled. "Why don't you learn to stop asking questions! I'm not a coward like everybody says I am. I just don't like strange things like that! You can keep your fireballs and talking deer to yourself!"
Charmian fought a laugh. "Listen to you! You think I just said, 'Oh, okay,' the first time a manitou talked to me? And that I learned to throw a fireball overnight? For your information it took both Moon Wolf and Manabozho weeks to teach me all I know, and I still keep messing up. We ran into a bunch of manitous back west and all I could seem to do was piss them off! It's not like I talk to everything and it's as easy as pie. Um...as easy as corn soup," she said when he gave her an odd look, though that clarification didn't seem to help any. He turned away again and lowered his head to rest his chin on his arms; after a few moments when he didn't speak up, she sighed and followed suit, and they stared at the little stream of the river.
"This is all I know," Singing Cedars said after a brief silence. "Rivers, and valleys, and trees. You know, I could tell you the name of any river or tree within walking distance of our valley, and I could go in any one of the four directions for the same distance and not get lost? No matter how dark it is or how hard it's raining. That's what I know. Okis, and fireballs, and talking deer, I don't know that, and I'd rather not know it."
"But why not?" Charmian asked. "Just because your vision didn't help you? Why not give it another chance?"
"Because I don't want to go around using medicine," Singing Cedars insisted.
"But why not?"
He crooked his fingers and looked skyward as if he wanted to wring her neck. "Do I need a reason?" When she stared at him he started huffing. "FINE! I AM afraid of okis! Are you happy now? They appear out of nowhere, and disappear, and do things that nobody else can do, and they LOOK strange! If they're anything like those manitous of yours!" He turned a bit and gave her an earnest look. "Just think about it! According to what Grandmother says, everything around us right now is just FILLED with these things. Doesn't that make you want to run back to the longhouse and hide under the bunk? EVERYWHERE! That's where these things are supposed to be! Watching every single little thing we do--"
"I don't find that scary," Charmian said. "I think I find that comforting! At least we're never alone if they're around."
A hard look entered his eyes and he drew back in on himself again. "If that's so, then how come they never show themselves or do anything--like they're SUPPOSED to?"
She frowned at him; but he said nothing, so she assumed that she hadn't been meant to answer the question. "This is about your dad, isn't it?" she asked. "Cedars, they can't do everything. And sometimes people are just meant to die. That doesn't mean they're not there. I bet they've always been right near you."
"It certainly didn't feel like they were right near me after that wife of his left," Singing Cedars grumbled.
Charmian felt like saying something, but faltered, then sighed and resumed sitting as he was. "You're right in a way," she said, and saw him peer at her from the corner of his eye. "Even if they are all around...you can't always feel them," she said. "And I know that even if something's there, if it doesn't show itself, then it doesn't help much when you're really hurting. When I got back home and no manitous would answer me...I can't explain how lonely I felt. I've been wanting to go back to the Island forever and I haven't even been gone that long. I know there are manitous where I come from, but they're just so...quiet. It makes me wonder if I'm doing something wrong or if they don't like me."
Singing Cedars stared at her for a moment, then turned back to the stream. "How can you tell that that isn't so?" he asked softly. "Or that they just aren't there in the first place?"
Charmian shrugged a little. "I try telling myself that the Island is still out there," she said. "Even if I can't see it, it's still always been there every time I've gone back. And all the people on it who I like to see again. It doesn't help all the time...but it helps a little." She picked at the strap on her pack. "If an entire Island is out there all the time, even when I can't see it, then surely a manitou or so isn't that much of a stretch."
Singing Cedars was silent for a moment more. "I don't have an Island to believe in," he murmured, and lowered his head.
Charmian turned to peer at him. It was dark, but she could just barely make out his eyes; they seemed distant, sad, as if they'd left the valley already. Without thinking, she blurted out, "You can use mine." When he frowned at her she hastened to clarify. "My Island. It's not mine...but you get the point. You've been there, and you know I've been there, so you know it's always around. You can believe in that if you want."
Singing Cedars stared at her with what looked to be surprise, and she thought she saw his eyes go glassy. He blinked, and turned away once more--"You can keep your stupid Island"--but this time the comment made her mouth twitch, as she could see the look on his face when he said it. A moment later she started giggling, then heard him trying not to laugh as well; it was only rustling noises from the woods that made them stop, and they glanced back to see Walks-On-The-Shore coming out of the trees, hopping on one foot with a bundle of sticks balanced atop his head. Singing Cedars and Charmian started clambering to their feet.
"You should try to fetch a few boughs if you can reach them," Singing Cedars suggested, "and make a pallet. It will probably get cold here tonight and I get the feeling you're not used to sleeping out in the open, no offense."
"None taken," Charmian said, and turned toward the woods. "So you two'll get started on the fire then?" He nodded. "I'll see if I can make some S'mores," she said, ignoring his puzzled look--"Don't worry, you'll like them"--and heading into the woods to scout out some lower boughs.
Singing Cedars shrugged and turned back to where Walks-On-The-Shore was dumping the wood. "Just make sure to keep your eyes open for strange bears, Little Sister."
Charmian halted abruptly, and turned to peer at him over her shoulder. Her brow furrowed. "What did you just call me...?" she asked, uncertain if she'd heard right.
Singing Cedars looked back at her. He hesitated, then fiddled his fingers together. "You don't like being called that...?"
Charmian stared at him for a moment, then slowly shook her head. "It's not that...it's just...nobody's ever called me that before."
He frowned. "You have no brothers or sisters where you come from?"
Charmian shook her head. "Not really...just me."
Singing Cedars rubbed at his neck and looked a little foolish. "I won't use it, then..."
"No," Charmian said, a little abruptly; when he looked at her she paused, tilting her head. "Actually," she said after a moment, "I think I kind of like it." A faint smile came to her face, and it was true; she hadn't even thought of it until now, but the way that the two of them had been bickering with each other had felt just like what she'd thought having a brother would feel like. Even Walks-On-The-Shore had noticed. "Big Brother," she said, just to try it out; Singing Cedars blinked, then she saw his face flush slightly, but the way that he quickly ducked his head and went walking back to where Walks-On-The-Shore was arranging the wood told her that he'd liked the name too.
She smiled outright now, and turned back to the woods, keeping her eyes open for bears just like he'd advised.
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