Charmian and the others set out for the Sky Tree, and the magic portal...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 49: Preparation"
MANABOZHO WASN'T THE easiest person on the Island to find. Checking at the wigwam in the woods brought no luck. The Crooked Tree wasn't of much use either, as Nokomis had not seen him in some time. Charmian had to leave the old woman's Tree in defeat, staring at the ground as she walked through the little hollow back to Moon Wolf and Mani, who waited on the other side.
"He is not here, either?" Moon Wolf asked.
Charmian shook her head. "I have no clue where he might be. He always likes to wander around..." As she said this she happened to lift her head, and far off spotted the top of Chimney Rock, just barely visible above the trees. She stared at it for a moment, then waved at the two beside her.
"I think I might have an idea after all."
The others shared a look, but didn't protest or ask questions. They followed silently as she made her way through the trees to the base of the tall rock overlooking the western lakeshore. There, however, she turned to them and gestured again.
"Just wait here a sec, all right? I'll be down in a minute."
Moon Wolf and Mani stood and watched her carefully ascend the rock. It was several minutes before she made it to the top, scratched and sweaty as usual, but when she at last pulled herself over the edge she saw that her efforts had paid off. A solitary figure sat huddled at the other edge of the rock, staring out at the water far below. The sun was low in the sky, hovering over the horizon; Charmian almost felt like looking for the Mackinac Bridge before realizing it would not be there. She stood up and dusted herself off.
One of the feathers on the huddled figure's head flicked to the side like a rabbit's ear. "What're you doing here?" Manabozho asked in a sullen voice.
"I thought you might be here," Charmian said, simply. She stretched the aches out of her arms as she approached, and looked down at the water. "You weren't at home, or anywhere else...this just seemed like the most likely spot."
He lifted his head and looked at her over his shoulder with an expression that plainly disbelieved what she was saying. "It's the highest and closest spot to the west," Charmian explained, and at that his look grew dark and he turned away again.
"Your reasoning is flawed. I just like the view."
"Okay," Charmian said, deciding not to pursue it. She waited a moment before speaking again. "I wanted to ask you if you'd like to come with me somewhere. I thought you might be useful to have along."
"Why not ask one of your other friends? The Wendigo boy, or that Wolf person? Since he is your teacher, after all."
"You were both my teacher," Charmian protested. "Somebody can have more than one teacher. And sure Thomas is my friend but that doesn't mean I don't like you, too."
"Well, you seem to do just fine now without me."
"That's not true. I've asked for your help a lot since I got here." She paused again and unconsciously fiddled with the cowrie shell. "Geezhigo-Quae thinks she knows a way we might be able to defeat Chakenapok," she finally ventured, "but we have to look for someone else to help us. He lives really far away. I'd really like you to come along with us. She even has a shortcut, through her Tree--"
"What?" His head whirled around now to glare at her, feathers flaring out to both sides. "Through that Arch again? Are you mad? I'm not going back there!"
"I need your help, Manabozho! It's the only way we can get through to Chakenapok. I already tried, and I know he's still in there. That's not him doing all these things. He's sorry about what happened to Wenonah. It's someone else making him do this--"
Manabozho jumped up so abruptly that she gasped and teetered back, almost losing her balance. He bared his teeth at her with a very unpleasant look.
"As if I should care or believe anything he says! What makes you think I have even the slightest interest in 'getting through' to him? If this person you want so badly to find can just kill him and be done with it, then good luck. Otherwise, I'm not interested. And I'm not setting foot through that Arch."
"Chakenapok's not the one you should be angry with!" Charmian shot back. "And neither are the Michinimakinong!"
"You don't know anything about the Michinimakinong!"
Charmian stomped her foot against the rock. "I KNOW ENOUGH!"
Manabozho's eyes flared and he clenched his fists. "We are through talking!" He turned around to face the shore again, crossing his arms, and though he stood stiffly as if unconcerned, she could tell from the way his feathers continued flicking this way and that that he was still upset. She forced herself to take a breath and let it out, then realized she was gripping the cowrie shell almost tight enough to break. She dropped it back against her chest and took a step toward him.
"Manabozho..." She had to take a breath again. "I know you have every reason to hate Chakenapok. But he's not the one who hurt you. And you have every reason to hate the Michinimakinong, but they're not the ones who hurt you either. Not all of them." She paused, trying to think of the right thing to say, and found that she had to take hold of the shell again as if to draw strength from it. "If you hate Chakenapok, then that means you hate a part of your family. You both have the same mother. She's a part of him, too. I know you can't hate Wenonah."
Manabozho's feathers kept flicking.
"And you have every reason to be mad at the Michinimakinong, but you can't hate all of them. I know that you don't. You don't hate your daughter."
The feathers stopped moving. Manabozho slowly turned to look at her over his shoulder, and she could tell from the look on his face that he hadn't known she knew. Charmian drew on this look and continued talking.
"I saw how you were with her," she said softly. "How much you care about her. She's part of their world. If you hate all of them, it means you'd hate a part of her. I know that you can't feel that way. If you have to be angry with one, then go ahead, but you can't hate all of them because of that. It was just one who hurt you."
"Because of their 'customs'!" Manabozho snapped. "This is the only reason why it happened!"
Well, at least he's still talking. "Then maybe she did it for her own good," Charmian suggested.
Manabozho's eyes actually flashed blue, and she gasped and hopped back. "I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CARED FOR HER!" he bellowed. "Do not talk to me about 'good'! It was that foolish custom that caused all of this--THEIR custom! Every one of them! If not for that, she would not have been abandoned! Her mother did not even tell me about her--I had to find out myself! Abandoning someone because of some custom is not GOOD! GOOD people should NEVER leave anyone behind!"
During this tirade he had stalked closer to her until he was practically yelling in her face. Charmian stood and took it in silence, although she had to bite the inside of her mouth to keep from running away from him, she'd never seen him so furious. When he finally stopped screaming she opened her eyes and silently stood straight again, looking him in the face.
"Are you talking about her mother or about yours?" she asked quietly.
Manabozho's mouth opened as if in surprise, his eyes growing wide. Then they glittered blue again and she steeled herself for his next barrage, but there was none. Instead he clenched his teeth shut and whirled away, stomping back toward the other edge of the rock without so much as a word. This struck her as being even worse than his yelling, and she took another step forward herself.
"If you won't help, then you should say goodbye to me!"
The desperate note to her voice seemed to catch his attention--he could tell she wasn't merely asking for a farewell. He turned to look at her once more and Charmian held her hand up to her chest. Her spirit stone started glowing and she saw the look on his face change. He slowly came back toward her, leaning forward and peering at the glow with his brow furrowed. Charmian tried hard to keep the tears in her eyes from falling, and met his own eyes again when he looked up at her.
"Chakenapok did this," she said. "If I don't come up with some way to defeat him, then it'll get worse, and I'll become just like him."
Manabozho stared at her silently, his face troubled. He looked down at her spirit stone again.
"I won't ask you to forgive him," she went on. She pulled her hand away, and the glow faded. "But I need your help."
Her voice was plaintive, begging. Manabozho stood, still looking at her chest as if the spirit stone still showed itself. One feather twitched and she could see the conflict in his eyes.
"What is it that I could even do to help you?" he finally asked.
Charmian swallowed her tears as best as she could. "You can come with me to the Sky Tree," she said. "You can help us find this person, and if you talk to him, maybe he'll help us. But even if he won't, Chakenapok's still a part of you. Out of everybody, you can help me most of all. I'm sorry about how I treated you. But I need you, Manabozho. Please help me."
Manabozho said nothing. The silence between them seemed to stretch on forever, and she began to feel that he wouldn't answer. She let her gaze drift to the ground and rolled the cowrie shell between her fingers, though it didn't bring her any comfort by now. After a long time she heard Manabozho sigh, and lifted her head to see him staring off toward the west. The sun had just reached the horizon by now and the sky had gone deep orange, the waves of Lake Huron shushing against the shore below. The wind ruffled the feathers on his head.
Charmian let the shell drop and started to turn back to the far side of the rock. She gasped when Manabozho walked past her first and stopped at the edge, looking back at her. When she hesitated he looked irritated and waved.
"Well? I suppose you want me to carry you down?"
Charmian just stared at him blankly. He let out a gusty sigh this time and rolled his eyes.
"That stupid Arch is all the way over on the other side of the Island! First you climb down, then you take one step, then another. That's usually how one gets somewhere."
A big smile spread across Charmian's face. She jogged to the edge of the rock and started lowering herself over it. Manabozho crouched to climb down himself and she tilted her head back to look up at him.
He lifted his eyes to meet hers. Charmian's eyes were still wet but she managed another smile.
She could have sworn she saw his face go a little bit red, but maybe it was just the sunset. "Go on, hurry up," he grumbled, and she complied, carefully making her way back down to the ground.
When she reached it, she jumped down the last foot or so and dusted off her arms. Manabozho descended a moment after her and jumped down the last several feet. Charmian had to pause to rub at her chest, as her heart still felt heavy and she was even a little short of breath. He stood and stared at her as she did so.
"After what you said he did," he said, and she looked at him, "why don't you hate him, too?"
Charmian paused. She had to think a moment before realizing she already had the answer.
"Because he's not the one to blame. And even if he was, hating him doesn't accomplish anything."
He seemed somewhat perplexed by her answer, but didn't ask anything further, and she didn't clarify. Instead they both turned to the woods and set off for the east side of the Island.
* * * * *
Dusk settled over the Island after the sun had set, though enough light remained in the sky for Charmian, Manabozho, Mani, and Moon Wolf to see their way. Even so, the going grew a little difficult for Charmian and Moon Wolf, who had only normal eyesight; Manabozho rolled his eyes at their difficulty, while Mani whistled every time they threatened to wander off the trail or trip over roots. Charmian gritted her teeth nearly the entire time, swatting at the mosquitoes that swarmed around her.
"Why are they after ME? Why not YOU guys? With all the times I've lost blood, I think they'd go after YOU guys first!!"
"You don't know how to keep them away," Manabozho said simply.
Charmian scowled. "What's THAT supposed to mean--?" She heard Mani's whistle a little too late, and gasped and tripped; Moon Wolf grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back to her feet, at which she commenced swatting at herself again. "Stupid things!!"
"Tell me," Manabozho said, "if your spirit animal had turned out to be a mosquito--what would you do?"
"Be quiet! Bats eat mosquitoes, so there." She flew into a fit of waving and swinging her arms every which way, causing Mani and Moon Wolf to back away from her. "At least they're SUPPOSED to!!"
It was very dim by the time they at last reached the East Bluff and started cautiously making their way down toward the shore. The going was much more difficult in the dimness, and only now did Charmian realize how poor she was at making her way around when she couldn't see well. Everything seemed so foreign in darkness. Eventually she gave up trying to climb down on her own and had to have Mani help her out, and felt somewhat jealous of Manabozho's and Moon Wolf's ease in descending. There wasn't even so much as a breeze on this side of the Island, and she shivered at the near-total silence. Only the faint trickling of hidden springs, the quiet lapping of the waves at the shore, and the distant sound of crickets broke the stillness.
"I think I prefer the west side," she mumbled as they made their way down. "This side is too creepy after dark."
"I don't see the difference," said Manabozho.
"You would say that."
Something jumped out of the side bushes and let out a weird strangled rattling sound. Manabozho, Moon Wolf, and Mani simply froze, but Charmian let out a shriek and would have tumbled the rest of the way down had not Mani's antler caught her. She saw that it was Pakwa who had emerged and hissed and threw a stick at his head. It bounced off his ear and he rubbed at it with a blank look.
"Don't DO that!!" Charmian yelled.
"We must be near the Arch," Moon Wolf said, turning and cutting through the bushes Pakwa had just appeared from. The others followed and soon enough reached the rock formation. Thomas sat off to the side, Cloud standing nearby and grazing. Thomas smiled and waved.
"I was starting to think you'd all gotten lost."
"I didn't even get to prepare myself and it's already dark," Charmian complained.
Thomas stood and patted at a pack that he himself wore. "Don't worry. I kind of figured you'd be preoccupied." He gestured at Cloud, and Charmian could see that the horse bore saddlebags. "There should be enough for two days there and back, for the four of us..." He glanced at Mani and Pakwa. "Although I'm afraid I don't know what manitous eat, and as for him, well...they don't make a pack nearly big enough for him."
"I think they should be okay," Charmian said, looking at the two. "Mani can find what he needs, and Pakwa..." She trailed off. "Well...what you said," she finished.
Pakwa's ear flicked.
"Come on," Manabozho muttered, heading toward the Arch. "Let's just get it over with. The less time we spend in there, the better." He ducked and hopped through the Arch before any of them could speak up, and for a brief moment they stood staring at the spot where he'd disappeared.
Thomas turned to Charmian. "You've never properly introduced us," he said.
Charmian's face flushed. "Oh. Well...that's Manabozho. I think you'd know him better as that mean little rabbit."
Thomas just stared at her. Finally he spoke.
"You know, any other time I would say I find that odd." With that he took Cloud's reins and went through the Arch, the horse also climbing through.
Charmian stared after him, brow furrowed. Mani turned to her and whistled.
She waved. "Go on. I'll be right through. You're sure you want to come? Last I knew you didn't like even going near this place."
Turtle Ones said to stay away. But if Sky One says Red Land One can pass, then Mani will pass.
Charmian shrugged. "All right. I'll be right along."
The manitou turned back to the Arch and carefully walked through. Charmian and Moon Wolf watched as he vanished from sight, then stood there in silence for a moment or two. Charmian looked up at the medicine man.
"You don't like this place, do you?"
Moon Wolf looked at her. "You didn't even go through it the last time," Charmian said, and he glanced back at the rock.
"Manitous live here."
"They live pretty much everywhere, don't they?"
"Yes. But this is different...these ones...they are more like us."
Charmian continued staring at him, not quite certain what he meant. At last she reached out to touch his arm.
"Geezhigo-Quae says it's okay for us to go through. That means you too. I asked you to come along."
He looked down at her again. Charmian pulled her hand away and climbed up toward the Arch and made her way through. The air around the opening seemed to ripple, then she was gone. Moon Wolf stared at the space for a long while before even bothering to make his way up to it. Then he stared at it a little longer, and tentatively reached his hand forward as he had before. This time his fingertips met with some sort of surface, and he saw the air around them ripple like water before he pulled his hand back. He rubbed his fingers together as if they were wet and stared at them pensively, then sighed and lifted his head. He steeled himself, then clambered up and through the Arch and disappeared from sight.
* * * * *
Niskigwun and several of his men were waiting on the other side when Charmian and the others fell through the rock, rolling down the slope and landing at the bottom. Charmian herself flew out and felt something grab her arm before she could fall too far, and noticed that it was Niskigwun himself who had caught her. Moon Wolf appeared last and let out a yell of surprise when he tumbled past. At the bottom of the slope, Pakwa, Cloud, and Mani were shaking themselves off, and both Thomas and Manabozho were dusting at their clothes and looking rather mussed and peeved. Moon Wolf rolled to a stop at their feet and sat up, shaking his head dazedly. Meanwhile Niskigwun spread his wings and lowered Charmian carefully to the ground. She stared at the others, feeling her face grow warm.
"Sorry about that," was all she could say.
"You are expected at the Sky Tree," Niskigwun said, drawing her attention. He gestured, although it wasn't necessary; everyone instinctively looked toward the most prominent part of the landscape, and Charmian noticed how Mani's and Moon Wolf's eyes widened, as the two among them who had so far not seen the Tree yet. The Michinimakinong turned and started walking toward it through the tall grass. "Follow, and we will escort you to the top."
Thomas helped Moon Wolf up and they all followed. Charmian walked just slightly behind and to the side of Niskigwun, the rest of the Michinimakinong taking up the rear; after several moments of walking she peered over her shoulder at those behind her, then looked forward again, her brow furrowing.
I just realized...I'm surrounded by guys.
She felt her face flush again.
The walk to the Sky Tree took a short while, and when they reached its base different Michinimakinong took hold of everyone but Pakwa--who floated up on his own--and Manabozho, who yanked his arm away with a scowl and changed into a bird--and fluttered up into the air. Mani and Cloud both snorted and struggled at first before their legs went stiff and they endured the rest of the trip upward in silence. Moon Wolf and Thomas both looked down at the ground. Niskigwun took Charmian by the arms and lifted her as if she were a feather. As the opalescent leaves flitted past she realized that ever since she'd come through, he'd been attending to her personally. She frowned in puzzlement but said nothing.
When they reached the main branch where Manabozho and Pakwa already waited they were carefully set down, and the rest of the Michinimakinong dispersed and vanished from sight. Niskigwun gestured and they followed him into the trunk. The first few paths they took seemed familiar to Charmian, but then they grew foreign as she assumed they must not be heading for Geezhigo-Quae's central quarters after all. Eventually they entered a small hallway lined with numerous doors and she at last recognized the hall leading to the door room. They had merely taken an alternate entrance through one of the doors in the right-hand side.
At the end of the hall Niskigwun raised his hand and the hidden doorway emerged, through which they entered into the round room. Everyone, even Thomas, looked around in curiosity. Geezhigo-Quae stood near the door with the blue-green cabochon and as soon as they noticed her all eyes turned in her direction. Charmian glanced at Moon Wolf and saw that his face had gone pale. Manabozho averted his eyes and Pakwa merely scratched his ear indifferently. Mani's reaction was the oddest of the group; he took a few steps toward her, whistled loudly, and then lowered himself onto one knee so his antlers scraped the floor. Geezhigo-Quae looked at him with seeming surprise before her face softened and she reached out to place her hand upon his head.
"I recognize you, as one of us...Brother Woodling...you have incurred no offense. You are more than welcome in this Tree."
She lifted her hand and Mani raised his head, stepping back to rejoin the group. Charmian looked at him until Geezhigo-Quae spoke to her.
"Mainlander." Charmian turned back to her. "You are finished with your preparations?"
Charmian nodded. "I'm ready to go through."
Geezhigo-Quae looked briefly at the others with her. "These are the ones you wish to accompany you?"
Charmian nodded again.
"Very well." The old woman turned and pressed her hand to the cabochon, and the door receded. She stepped back as Charmian and the others moved forward. Charmian paused at the doorway and peered back over her shoulder.
The Michinimakinong focused on her immediately, seeming puzzled to hear his name. Charmian tilted her head.
"Do you want to come with us?"
Niskigwun blinked. Charmian saw Geezhigo-Quae raise an eyebrow and look at him from the corner of her eye, but he didn't seem to notice her reaction. Instead he stared at Charmian for a moment before flushing and quickly averting his eyes, bringing his spear up to stand beside him.
"I must stay and guard the gateway."
"Okay." Charmian paused until he peered up at her again, and she offered a smile. "I know it's safe with you around."
She saw how wide his eyes and how red his face got before turning away again. The doorway gaped before her, only instead of the sunny grassy landscape from earlier, a darkened, dusk-covered land of shadows spread out ahead. She shivered when a breeze of cool salt-tinged air swept over her, and gripped the strap of her pack. She glanced at the others waiting just behind.
"Here goes," she murmured...and plunged through the open doorway.
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