A tale of fantasy told in traditional Anishinaabe narrative style.
The story I am about to tell is not mine. Let me be clear from the very beginning that I am telling a tale that was told to me by an old woman. Of course, she wasn’t always old. In fact, in her youth I am sure she was probably quite different from what I knew her to be …but that was way before my time. To me, she was always old.
The old woman was my grandmother or. That’s Anishinaabe for grandmother. I called her Noko for short.
She was a woman of slight build, wrinkled face, long gray hair always woven into a loose braid down her back and brown eyes so dark it was hard to tell where the iris ended and the pupil began. For a woman of small stature, she had big hands. Her fingers were straight and strong with a nice rounding at the ends. Her nails were short and sometimes cracked with dirt around the edges and underneath.
Most of my memories of her may not be mine either but borrowed from older brothers and sisters who would laugh together at shared recollections. One of my favorite Noko stories was an incident that occurred years before my time. My two brothers, John and Al, spent a summer catching and releasing a huge, and I mean huge, bull frog from a stream in front of our house. They often fought over the poor fellow like it was actually a possession one had the right to own. One day John decided to hide the frog from Al by putting it where he was unlikely to ever look…in the freezer. John forgot about the frog. A couple days later Noko came to visit. She was retrieving something out of the freezer, opened the door, and screamed like a woman possessed. The bullfrog was frozen, poor thing, with its bulging frog eyes wide open and staring at Noko. I can imagine it was a tremendous fright for Noko and for the frog as well, if he weren’t a frogsicle. Of course, he survived; being an amphibian, his body temperature could fall and rise with the change of seasons. John and Al released the frog and, even though from the frog’s perspective what they did seemed quite cruel, they were not suspended from further catch and release games. As for Noko, I am quite sure she never looked at my brothers, frogs, or freezers again without anticipating the potential for a second or two of terror.
Nokomis would also tell stories. I am not saying she liked to talk. In fact, she rarely spoke and when she did, we would often look at each other as if to ask “what did she say”? When dad wasn’t around to translate, we had a hard time trying to figure out what Noko said because her words were somewhere between Anishinaabe and English and more the former than the latter. I think I remember a little smirk when we would look at each other and have no idea how to respond to her. Looking back, I think she liked the way she would confuse us. After all, one can only say “pardon” and “what was that Noko” so many times before one felt completely foolish.
Her little house was high on a hill overlooking Lake Nipissing. A simple little home with plywood walls that were clean but aged to the yellowish side of white. There was no washroom in the house. Basic biological functions were conducted in the privacy of the little white-washed house out back. Drinking and cooking water was collected using a tin bucket that sat on the floor just inside the kitchen door. The hand pump for the well was outside and squeaked loudly when the handle was pushed up and down. With both hands and all of my weight pulling down on the handle, I couldn’t make it move. But Noko could. She may have been little, but she was strong.
Beyond the wood stove in the kitchen, simple hand-made wooden cloth-covered chairs furnished the living room. The largest and newest piece of furniture in the living room was a plaid couch against the far wall with a knitted afghan folded over the back. But Noko never sat on the couch as she preferred her wooden rocking chair. Over the front door, which no one ever used, was a plain wooden cross, a symbol of the Roman Catholic influence in Noko’s life. Tied at the centre of the cross was a tiny wooden carving of a girl.
During the cold days of winter, when darkness took over the early afternoons, Noko would sit in her chair and rock, smoke her pipe, and enjoy her thoughts. Without warning or obvious cause, she would burst into laughter at a memory that brought her joy. Or sometimes she would smile, frown, shake her head, or murmur. During those moments we kids were forgotten and in Noko’s mind the tiny living room would be transformed into another place and another time. Occasionally she would bring voice to her memories. Whether the telling was for our benefit or hers, I’m not really sure.
One bitterly cold late afternoon when the wind picked up energy as it travelled across the lake, Nokomis proceeded to share a tale of her first meeting with the spirits of the woods. I will share the tale with you now and attempt to hold true to Noko’s words.
“It was early spring and we were moving to the sugar bush. Momma, dad, brothers, sisters, granny, and, of course, me. I was small, about five or six. Winter was changing quickly into spring and we were hungry. Warmer days made the snow soft and walking tough. My feet were always wet and my nose running. The sleeves of my coat covered with snot from wiping my nose.
Walking to the sugar bush was slow. One of us was always helping Granny stay upright. We all had packs to carry. Mamma would encourage us to sing as we walked. We sang for her sake but who wants to sing when you are wet, chilled, carrying a heavy pack and hungry.
We arrived at the small shack surrounded by maple trees. Don’t know who originally built the shack. It was always there; probably still there if you know where to look. That shack would be home for the next month or so while we made and ate syrup.
My family had been going to that shack for many springs. Granny remembers going to that same sugar bush and maybe even that same shack when she was my age. The maple trees were a lot smaller then.
This time was different. Everyone knows that you clean up a place before you leave it but when dad opened the door, we found the shack a mess. There were dried goods, like flour, sugar, coffee, tea and salt, knocked over and contents on the floor. Anyone could have made the mess. The shack didn’t have a lock.
After cleaning the shack up and eating supper, we all went to sleep. I was squeezed in between Margaret my oldest sister and Granny. I don’t like sleeping with Granny; she snores and farts all night. Margaret held me and kept me warm.
Even though we were all tired from the walk, the night was still quite young when everyone awoke to the sounds of scratching and movement. Everyone but Granny that is, she sleeps through anything.
Mice? Monsters? Boogeyman?
Dad got up to see what caused the noise while the rest of us watched him from our warm mats and blankets. No hydro at the shack. There was some light from the slow burning embers in the fire. The door was partially open and moonlight spilled in creating a trail of light. A small shadow was quickly leaving through the half-opened door and running into the maple woods. Dad opened the door enough to step onto the old wooden plank that served as a step and peered into the maple woods. Everyone was silent. Dad turned to us, said everything was alright and went back to his mat leaving the door slightly ajar.
Alright? How can everything be all right? Sigh. I had so many questions. Who left? Why were they in the shack? Why was dad okay with someone being in the shack while we were sleeping? Why were they so little? Why did dad leave the door open? Sigh. Why was everyone going back to sleep? Should I try to sleep or stay up to make sure we are safe?
Even with all the questions in my head, I too slept.
While stirring the three spoons of sugar into his second cup of coffee and dipping the last of his fry bread into the grease from the fried eggs on his plate, Dad calmly stated the little people visited during the night. He explained that this maple sugar bush was known to be inhabited by little Anishinaabe. The little ones were the keepers of the bush and only came in contact with the larger Anishinaabe when food was scarce. Being a man of few words Dad got up and left the shack to start a day of cutting firewood and tapping trees. I, with my mind full of questions, followed.
Even though I asked many questions, I got few answers. Dad wouldn’t say anymore about the little people. Momma would murmur one-word answers and change the subject hoping I would be distracted. I asked Granny and she would simply say that we do not talk about the little people; that just made me want to ask more questions. Why can’t we talk about the little people? Who are the little people? Sigh.
Even though we didn’t talk about the little people each night mother left food out and the door slightly open. In the morning, the food was gone and the door was closed.
Days were getting warmer. Snow was melting and soon we would be leaving the sugar bush for the shack by the lake where we would spend the summer fishing and visiting with family.
All I could think about were the little people. I wanted to see one so badly. When everyone else was asleep, I would try to stay awake and catch a glimpse of one eating our food or warming by the fire. When I was collecting sap or exploring around the shack, I would be on the lookout for the little people. Once I saw movement on the other side of some rocks by the stream but it turned out to be a mink looking for dinner. Sigh.
Our last morning in the sugar bush had arrived. We had a great maple run. The sap was plentiful and the syrup sweeter than ever. Momma, Margaret, and Granny were filling the packs with all we would need at the lake. I was out at the fire pit sitting on my favorite log poking the cold black embers with a stick when Margaret called me to pick up my pack. I threw my poking stick and it landed beside the lean-to where the pails, boiling pots, and other syrup supplies were stored. That’s when I noticed her. On top of a pile of sap pails was a small whittled wood carving of a girl. I picked it up and it nestled easily in my small hand. The carving was intricate in its details; she was smiling, with big eyes, and one long loosely woven braid down her back.
I looked around and saw no one. I knew the tiny doll was for me.
Margaret yelled again. I started to head towards the shack, but stopped, turned around walked back to the lean-to. I pulled my multi coloured scarf from around my neck and placed it on the pile of sap pails. I looked around one last time for little people. Nothing. Sigh. I headed back to the shack.”
Noko ended her story by stating the maple syrup that spring was the sweetest and best in memory. Once in awhile she thought she had a glimpse of the little people but, quick as a wink, they were gone.
I asked Noko about the little carving; did she still have it?
Wordlessly she nodded her head gesturing with her chin to the cross above the front door. Tied in the centre of the cross was the old, well-worn, well-loved tiny carving of a little girl.