A run-in with a rock sets Charmian off on an odd quest...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 13: Misses & Hits"
View From The Top
THE OLD WOMAN stood at the entrance to the tree and stared up at the tall rock with a critical look. A tiny shape perched atop it, staring back. It lowered itself over the edge and began climbing down; she shielded her eyes to watch it in puzzlement. It was actually making pretty good progress, until, almost at the bottom, it slipped and fell the rest of the way and landed on its back like a helpless turtle. All this she saw through the trees and shrubbery even though, from the little shape's vantage point, her tree would have no longer been visible.
She shook her head in annoyance and stepped back inside. "Stupid girl," she muttered, and closed the entrance behind her.
* * * * *
The makeshift litter bumped against a rock, and Charmian winced. "Ow!" The two Ocryxes transporting her picked up their pace and jostled the litter between them up and down, resulting in a potpourri of whines. "Ow ow ow ow ow..."
Shadow Water walked beside the litter, her hand on the edge of it to keep it as steady as possible. X'aaru's tail curled under the front end of it, and Khiieta held the back end in her teeth, giving Charmian a sympathetic look. When X'aaru stumbled and nearly dropped the litter, Charmian started whimpering again. "Ow ow ow!"
"What were you doing out there?" Shadow Water asked with a confused look. "Were you attacked by Wolves?"
Charmian grimaced. She was tempted to say yes, but had never been good at lying. "Actually...I fell off that big rock...and thought it'd be better if I didn't move too much. Ow!"
"I'm sorry, Charmian," X'aaru called. "This path is bumpy."
"It's okay, X...I know you don't m-OW!"
"You fell off of the rock?" Shadow Water echoed. Her eyes grew. "What were you doing on top of it?"
"Checking out the view. Owie!! I was looking for somebody and thought maybe I could get a better view from up th-OW!" She squirmed and wished the fall hadn't been so hard, if only so she wouldn't be whining so much. Life on the mainland must have made her soft; surely Shadow Water herself had dealt her harsher blows than this.
"You could have asked me, Charmian," X'aaru said in a hurt voice. "I would have flown you over the Island if you wanted me to!"
"I could have, too," Khiieta said, or at least, that was what Charmian assumed she said, as it came out as a nearly unintelligible murmur because of the litter she carried in her mouth.
Charmian sighed. "I know...I just didn't want to bother either of you. It doesn't matter much, anyway...I didn't find much...what's that rock called, anyway, Shadow-OW Water?"
They crested a rise, then made their way down a long, smooth trail. "Your people sometimes call it Chimney Rock," she said, steering the litter slightly to the side to avoid a root. "But my people know it as Sunset Rock."
"I've never even seen it there before."
"It's difficult to find, unless one is looking for it. You said you fell down the side...?"
"Yeah, but only a little way...I was just trying to climb down because..." she made gestures with her hands in the air "...I saw this funky bent-looking tree..."
Shadow Water's hand slipped from the side of the litter and the two Ocryxes went on without her. She stared after them with furrowed brow, and murmured to herself.
"A crooked tree...?"
* * * * *
Charmian made every face possible as Silver Eagle Feather applied as much moss as she could to every bruise and scratch on her body. She felt lucky that the two demons had been carrying her after all, else all the people of the tribe would have mobbed the litter as it entered the camp; with the Ocryxes present, everybody stood their ground at various points in the clearing, watching with wide eyes. Charmian hadn't been encouraged to see that some prejudices died hard.
Silver Eagle Feather paid the ring of faces crowding the doorway no attention as she did her tasks. Most of them were children, not yet conditioned to fear the demons half as well as their elders. Charmian sighed. X'aaru's fur behind her back was soft enough, but she couldn't get comfortable with how everything ached.
"I haven't even been here a week yet and already I have Wolves trying to eat me and GeeBees doing the same thing and falls from really big rocks," she said, hating that the comment wasn't grammatically cohesive.
Silver Eagle Feather put away the rest of the moss and stood. "You should try to keep awake, so you don't lose consciousness," she said, and pointed at her head. Charmian nodded.
"I guess that would be a good idea. Can I get something to eat?"
"There should be soup cooking in the middle of the camp. If you ask for some, they'll give it to you."
Charmian nodded and pushed herself up with a wince. X'aaru placed his tail against her leg to steady her as she got to her feet, and rose to accompany her as she slowly made her way to the doorflap. Instantly the ring of faces disappeared and she pushed her way out unobstructed as the children ran off in every direction. X'aaru squeezed out behind her and she rubbed her eyes, blinking at the sunlight.
Life had resumed as normal--at least, as much as possible--outside the wigwam, and she stretched before heading for the pot suspended in the middle of the clearing. No one was tending to it at the moment, so she felt free to pick up a small wooden bowl and ladle some soup inside it. She did the same for X'aaru, who busily sniffed at the pot until she handed him his own serving. They stood by the pot, sipping at the soup while the rest of the natives walked about, keeping their distance. Charmian both resented and appreciated the semi-privacy.
A few of the women standing near the edge of the woods turned and started whispering to each other, glancing over their shoulders. Charmian paused to look at them before peering in the same direction. She saw Black Elk Horn heading their way, and pretended to be absorbed in the soup. X'aaru did the same and he walked past without saying a word, heading in the direction of the trail.
He's going to see Stick-In-The-Dirt, I bet, X'aaru said, and his voice startled Charmian as she wasn't used to the demon using telepathy. She wasn't certain if she could control her own thoughts so Black Elk Horn couldn't hear them, so didn't reply.
The women near the woods hushed and now a group of men appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, before the trail. Charmian lifted her head and frowned as Black Elk Horn came to a stop, glancing from one to the next. The serious looks on their faces gave her an uncomfortable feeling, and she could tell X'aaru was feeling the same thing. She put a hand against his shoulder to keep him still.
The man in front looked mildly uncomfortable, then spoke. "Brother Elk Horn," he said in a stiff voice. "We know that Grandfather Yellow Turtle spoke with you before he passed over. We know what he spoke to you about."
He paused, as if gathering the silent agreement of the others standing behind him. They nodded a little bit, their feathers swaying in the breeze. The leader held up his hands, and only now did Charmian notice that he was holding something in them. She squinted at it, but couldn't tell exactly what it was. It appeared to be a beaded scarf or band. X'aaru's reaction was to lift his head with wide eyes, and the women watching did the same.
The man held it out toward Black Elk Horn, the fringed edges dangling over his hands. "We wish for you to accept," he said. "To take this and watch over it as you will watch over us. Grandfather Yellow Turtle saw in you the same things we do. We know that you are the best choice."
He held the beaded band out again, and fell silent. Nobody else said a word. Charmian stood still and watched as Black Elk Horn stared at the belt for a long while before tentatively reaching out and taking it. On one dangling end, Charmian could see some designs--a turtle here, a blue wavy patch there, a large dark shape with glowing eyes and falling trees in the corner. The men seemed to relax as soon as he took hold of it, though from what she could see of Black Elk Horn's face, Charmian would have guessed he was reluctant to accept it. The men bowed their heads respectfully and then dispersed, back toward the camp. The women did the same, murmuring and whispering and shooting glances back at him as they went. X'aaru sat up and Charmian's brow furrowed.
"What was that all about?" she asked. "What did they give him?"
"A wampum belt," X'aaru said with awe. "It's the history of our people--the Island's people. Do you see?--the turtle is the Island, and there's Father, on the corner of it. Grandfather Yellow Turtle took care of it before." He paused, as if just realizing what this meant. Realization began to dawn on Charmian as well as she stared at the belt and its new owner.
"Black Elk Horn," she murmured. "They just made him their chief."
Black Elk Horn turned around, and Charmian and X'aaru hurried to pretend to not be looking at him. They sipped at their soup as he folded the belt and came back their way, not noticing them staring from the corners of their eyes. Instead of heading off into the woods, he went back toward the main lodge, walking not quite as quickly as he had been before. Charmian lowered her bowl and frowned.
"He doesn't seem very happy about it."
X'aaru stood. "Maybe I should speak with him?" He started to move forward, but Charmian grabbed his tail. He turned his head and cocked an ear. Charmian shook her head.
"I think I know why...we should probably just leave him alone. Maybe Silver Eagle Feather will talk with him."
"You're sure?" X'aaru asked, uncertainly. Charmian nodded and the demon reluctantly obeyed. She let out a sigh and replaced her bowl, and the two of them went back toward the woods.
"Why do you think he's so sad about being chosen ogimah?" X'aaru asked as Charmian brushed sapling branches out of their way.
"I don't think this is why he's sad...I think it's just what it reminds him of."
"What does it remind him of?"
Charmian couldn't bring herself to answer for some reason. X'aaru seemed to understand anyway, for his ears and head lowered. "Oh," he said, and they walked in silence for a short ways. "I suppose it is sad," he said, finally, then, "Why are you sad, Charmian? Do you miss him, too?"
"I guess." It was all Charmian could bring herself to say. Her eyes stung a little, and she bit the inside of her mouth to keep them dry. X'aaru was silent again for a moment, then bounded into the trail ahead of her, wagging his tail and grinning.
"I just know Grandfather Yellow Turtle will have made it along the Spirit Road. He's always been wise. He'll know to keep out of danger. And he'll belong in the Spirit Land. He was always nice to me." His wings then drooped, and his head lowered almost to the ground. Charmian halted when he sat down in the middle of the trail with a soft whimper, and hurried to put her arm around his shoulders, stroking his fur. X'aaru whined.
"When I came back to look...to look for Mother," he sniffled, "he was one of the people who asked them to let me live here. Even th...even though I'm not like the rest of them. That didn't matter to him."
He trailed off in a stream of whimpering and Charmian ruffled the fur behind his ears. "I'm sure he made it there, too," she said in as confident a voice as she could muster. "If anybody deserved to make it it's him. Anybody who can see somebody for who they really are deserves it." She put her hands under the demon's head and lifted it so she looked him in the eyes. X'aaru sniffled, his eyes glimmering. Charmian sighed and rubbed his cheek.
"I'll be all right," X'aaru said after a moment, and he pulled his head free. He stared at the ground as if ashamed of himself and Charmian didn't question him further. She spotted Shadow Water, Khiieta now beside her, still waiting for them on the trail, and wondered why she never seemed interested in entering the camp.
"Shadow Water," she said, just remembering. "When we came in here you said something...right after I was talking about that tree. Have you seen one like it before?"
Shadow Water scratched Khiieta's nape. "I've heard of it," she said quietly. "But I've never seen it."
"So it has a name? The bent tree I saw?"
"It's called a crooked tree. I could not tell you much about it; the medicine men know more. It's sacred; no one goes there." She paused, then added, "I didn't know the Island even had one."
"Well, if what I saw is the same thing, then it sure does. I saw it from on top of Chimney Rock. Maybe that's why you've never seen it? It was pretty well hidden by grass and other trees and stuff..." Charmian shifted her backpack out of habit, and winced at a pain which stabbed through her shoulder. She wondered if anything was broken. "Why doesn't anybody ever go there?"
"They say that a powerful manitou lives there, or nearby. And that lesser manitous and spirits gather there at certain times. People like the Maemaegawaese, and the Michinimakinong."
Charmian tilted her head in puzzlement. "Who are those?"
"Mother Shadow Water?" X'aaru interrupted, rising and walking past her. Charmian stepped aside as he and Khiieta took to the trail. "We want to go look at that cave again. Is it all right if we go?"
Shadow Water nodded and the two demons wandered off into the woods. Charmian watched them before striking her hand with her fist, startling the woman.
"I know! If a powerful manitou really lives in that tree then maybe it knows something about these Shadow Wolves and everything. I've found that if you want to figure something out, manitous are usually the best people to ask. Right?"
Shadow Water's brow furrowed. "I don't know if it would be wise..."
"It can't be any worse than anything else I've faced yet, can it? All I have to do is see if I can find that place again. I knew there was something weird about that tree."
"I could take you there," Shadow Water said, albeit reluctantly.
"To the tree?"
"No, to the rock. I've never seen the tree...perhaps you could show it to me. Though I don't think it would be wise to go too close to it..."
"It's not that far from Devil's Lake--where you live!" Charmian exclaimed, too excited at the prospect of seeing the rock again to much heed advice. She took several steps into the woods, waving. "You know a shortcut there? Because I was just walking all over the place and ran right into it. I bet we could find it a lot faster together!"
She walked briskly off among the trees, leaving Shadow Water behind. Shadow Water let out a long sigh before following, and the ferns and brush closed up behind them.
* * * * *
Their watcher's yellow eyes narrowed as he stared at this new development with mild displeasure.
"The girl seeks too much."
* * * * *
Evening was coming on by the time the two of them emerged, scraped and damp, from the woods, near the base of Chimney Rock. Charmian glanced up into the treetops to see their upper leaves bathed in orange as they rustled in the cool breeze off Lake Huron, and wished the wind reached further down inland. She sighed and swept one hand across her sweaty forehead, leaving a smudge of earth.
"I think somebody should take to this place with a weed whacker. Talk about overgrown. No wonder nobody can find this rock."
"If it's as close to the tree as you say it is, then it's probably best that few people ever come here."
"Jeez, you sure are leery of this tree, and you haven't even seen it yet. It was in this direction over here." Charmian found her bearings and pointed ahead of them. "Just on the other side of a little bitty hollow. I bet the rest of the trees give it good cover so we can't see it from here. If we walk straight, we should hit it before it gets too dark. Please?"
Shadow Water looked skeptical but followed anyway. Charmian pushed aside the tall weeds blocking the path...or rather, where a path should have been...and hissed whenever she got a face full of pine needles, but trudged on without slowing. She felt the ground begin to slant very slightly downward and knew they must be getting close to the tiny hollow. The appearance of a bank of green just below lifted her spirits, and she waved at Shadow Water.
"There it is! The hollow. The grass is still kinda tall but I just know it's right over...there!"
She pushed her way out of the underbrush and nearly stumbled into the hollow itself, Shadow Water bumping into her. And stared in confusion at the bush-studded rise ahead of her. Its top was crowned with a few stray saplings here and there, the larger trees holding their ground just beyond it, but aside from that...no crooked tree.
Charmian's face twisted up. "Huh? I know it was here earlier!"
Shadow Water stepped down beside her. "Are you sure? We might have wandered a little to the side, with all of the plants in the way."
Charmian shook her head. "I'm positive. We went straight. The sunlight's coming from the same direction, see?" She pointed upwards, then lowered her arm, her confusion growing. "I know I saw it here...at least...I'm pretty sure...that looks like the same hollow..."
Shadow Water touched her arm. "Perhaps it's only a story," she said. "Maybe there is no tree after all."
"I KNOW there was one!" Charmian shook her arm loose and scowled, more at herself than at anything else. "I saw it from right up on the rock. How could I have imagined it? I didn't even know about the crooked tree until you told me, remember?" She craned her neck to look back over her shoulder. "I'm going back to Chimney Rock," she muttered, and turned to stomp away. "Maybe if I trace my path again I can find it. Maybe we did take a wrong turn somewhere, but I won't do that again."
"Charmian!" Shadow Water hastened after her. "It's growing dark--it's never good to be out here this late at night, with the GeeBees nearby!"
"That's no problem; you can just call Ocryx to take care of them, can't you?"
Shadow Water halted. "What does that mean?" she exclaimed in an offended tone. Charmian winced and waved at her once more.
"Sorry! Sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I bet you could scare them off too, if you wanted." She bit her tongue as hard as she dared, knowing the response hadn't come out as intended. Shadow Water's look didn't change, but at least she followed again.
They came out at the base of the tall rock once more. Charmian glanced up at it, then turned about, placing her back against it. She stuck out one foot and mentally traced a path through the trees.
"If we go between that clump of weeds and that maple on the right, we should be headed straight."
"That's the way we took the last time," Shadow Water said.
"Even if it is, I'm going to keep a closer eye on everything until I get there. Just to make sure."
Shadow Water sighed. "How about you stay here until I find something?" Charmian asked. "It's not too far away that you shouldn't hear me yelling, is it?"
"All right. But be quick; the GeeBees come out at night."
"You don't have to tell me twice." Charmian put her foot down and walked once more into the woods, taking close note of the length of the shadows and the patterns the dying sunlight made on the tops of the trees. These grew dimmer the further she went, and she felt a trace of anxiety in her stomach when the wind picked up a bit, but held her course. She ended up in the same little hollow as before, this time perhaps two or three feet to the side of where she had previously emerged; yet there was still no crooked tree.
Charmian flung up her hands. "I GIVE UP!"
She stomped back to the rock, batting every stray sapling out of the way. Shadow Water still waited where she'd been left. "There IS no stupid tree!" Charmian snapped. "I guess I did just imagine the whole dumb thing!"
"Charmian--" Shadow Water started.
"I can't think of WHY I would imagine something I didn't even know was there, but who knows, stranger things have happened around here!"
"Charmian," Shadow Water said again. "You didn't imagine the tree."
Charmian opened her mouth to continue her ranting, then closed it and gave Shadow Water a confused look. Shadow Water pointed up at the rock and then turned back to her.
"I went to the top while you were gone. To see if there was a trail we missed. There wasn't; you were going the right way. But there was also a crooked tree at the end of it, on the other side of the hollow, just as you said."
"Huh?" Charmian's brow furrowed. "But I just came back from there and there was no tree."
Shadow Water wrung her hands. "Maybe you can only see it from atop the rock."
"That still doesn't make sense. You just said it's right where the hollow is, but I can't see it when I should be right on top of it."
"That isn't what I meant." Charmian took note now of the anxious look on Shadow Water's face and attempted to calm herself. The woman pointed at the rock again. "The rock itself is said to have powers, too. Just like the crooked tree. Maybe you can only see one with the help of the other."
"Oh." Charmian looked up at the rock thoughtfully, then back toward the hollow. "I think I get it. That tree...maybe it's kind of like the Island itself. You can't see it unless you're at a certain point, and only that certain point...otherwise it's not even there."
Shadow Water nodded, then reached out to take her arm. "Maybe we should go back now. The air is getting chilly."
"Hold on." Charmian gestured upwards. "If you saw it, and I saw it, that means it really is there. And I want to go see it in person!"
"You said you went up there, right?" Charmian touched the rock and grimaced at the thought of climbing it again.
Shadow Water sighed. "Yes..."
"Can you carry me up there? I don't think I could handle another climb like the first one." She made her voice as pleading as she could. "Please?"
Shadow Water didn't seem to like the idea, but complied anyway. Charmian shielded her eyes when the woman shapeshifted into her Ocryx form, great wings rising from her tawny back. She leaned down so Charmian could climb atop her, settling behind her wings and grasping at the thick fur of her nape.
"Am I too heavy?" Charmian asked. "You're not quite as big as X or any of the others..."
"No, you're not." Shadow Water spread her wings and flapped, pushing off into the air. She rose parallel to the rock's side, her wingbeats rustling the few scrubby plants that grew from its surface as she touched down atop it a moment later. Charmian craned her neck and shielded her eyes from the setting sun, scanning the woods. The familiar shape of the oddly bent tree emerged from among the rest and her face lit up.
"There it is! Just like I said! Do you think we can make it there before the sun sets?"
Shadow Water spread her wings again and swooped down from the rock. The treetops zoomed by below them as they soared toward the tree, which held its place this time. Just as Shadow Water's feet touched the grass of the little hollow Charmian could hear distant cackling and gibbering noises, and knew they had just missed meeting the GeeBees, who had awakened for their nightly prowling. She let out a breath of relief, then eased herself down from the demon's back, rubbing at her cold arms while Shadow Water resumed her normal shape. She started making her way down into the hollow before noticing that no footsteps were following her. She looked back over her shoulder. Shadow Water stood still, again wringing her hands.
"Shadow Water?" Charmian asked. "Aren't you coming?"
Shadow Water glanced up at the tree as if pondering her options, then looked back down at Charmian and shook her head quickly.
Charmian felt a twinge of irritation but suppressed it; the people here had every right to be superstitious, with all the superstitions that turned out to be true. "Okay," she said. "You wait here and I'll go take a look at it. Be right back."
With this, she turned her back on Shadow Water and slid down into the hollow. It seemed bigger now that she was actually crossing it, but she didn't care; the tree loomed up on the other side, and she started picking her way up the opposite slope, toward its base. The going was more difficult than she'd thought it would be, as the grass was slippery and resisted her grip; she tried digging her toes into the earth, but it wouldn't provide any footholds. If she hadn't known any better she would have thought that the hollow didn't want her to reach its other side.
Yeah, right. And I bet grass screams every time it's mowed, too.
Gritting her teeth, she grabbed onto a hunk of weeds, and pulled herself up as far as she could. The level ground was still above her, but she managed to grasp onto the protruding end of one of the tree's roots, and used this to drag herself up toward the top of the slope. A moment later she found herself practically clinging to the tree to avoid falling backwards. She'd had no idea the hollow was so steep.
She dared to pull one hand away from the bark to wipe at her brow. "Sheesh. Remind me to start exercising more once I get home." She listened for a reply, then, when none came, lifted her head. "Shadow Wat..."
Then blinked. There was nobody there.
Charmian stared at the empty bank in growing anxiety. "Shadow Water?" she called out. Had she wandered off into the woods out of fear, after all? She wouldn't be that rude...would she? Charmian found it hard to believe that Shadow Water would just up and abandon her like that, with no way to get back to Chimney Rock, but if she hadn't left on her own, then what had happened to her...?
"Shadow Water?" she yelled, more loudly. Her voice echoed--but not very far. Indeed, it seemed to resonate no further than the little hollow itself, and with a shiver she just now noticed how closed off the area seemed, tall grass and saplings and trees shielding it on three sides, the crooked tree she still clung to blocking the fourth. Unless she wanted to brave whatever lay behind the tree, or try to head back to Chimney Rock on foot...she was trapped here.
Charmian let out a tiny whimper, and told herself it was just a groan of annoyance. Still, her fingers felt numb grasping the rough bark, and she felt herself trembling.
She started to tell herself it was just the cold, when CONK!--something struck her atop the head, and she yelped and let go of the tree, her feet slipping and losing their hold. She skinned her knees before scrabbling at the roots to avoid falling into the hollow; for some reason she had the feeling that if she fell into it, she'd never get back out again. It was a silly idea, yes, but look what had happened so far! Just as she grabbed one of the roots in her left hand, something stung the backs of her knuckles and she cried out again, another clump of weeds saving her at the last minute. She bit her lip and glanced upwards to see what might be causing the trouble, and gasped when a shadowy form loomed over her. It lifted one arm, and with a start Charmian realized it was a person. It balled one hand into a gnarled fist and shook it, and Charmian caught a glimpse of a wrinkled face, graying hair, and glittering eyes before the wooden staff it was holding rapped her hand a second time.
"Foolish child! Let go of my tree!"
"YOUR tree--?" Charmian managed to get out, just in time for the staff to strike her other hand--and only too late did she remember, she had no hands left with which to hold on to anything, and with a scream she fell.
"Part 15: Into The Crooked Tree"
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