An act of kindness leads to discomfort for Niskigwun...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 78: Shelter From The Storm"
THE LUMP OF snow settled before the Fairy Arch quivered and then burst open, sending hunks of white flying every which way. Charmian let out a shriek and nearly fell back, teetering on the slope; Thomas bolted around the Arch as best as he could, considering that the drift came up to his knees. Charmian stared with goggling eyes at the frosty shape which loomed up in front of what used to be the Arch, snow and ice still caking it.
Her eyes widened even more in shock. "NISKIGWUN!!" She waded toward him and frantically started batting the stray hunks of snow and ice away from him. The Michinimakinong merely stood where he'd arisen, clasping his own arms and quaking like a leaf. His teeth chattered so loudly that she could hear them even above the howl of the wind. Little icicles adorned his feathers, which pointed out in every direction.
"What are you doing out here?!" Charmian cried; Thomas joined her and started helping to brush away the ice. "You could've frozen to death!!"
Niskigwun chattered. "I...th-thought...it...would be...best...if I...k-kept watch...over...the...A-Arch..."
Charmian let out a gusty sigh and rolled her eyes. "Look, the Arch will be fine. We're the only ones nuts enough to come out to it! You should've at least gone through to the other side!"
"I d-didn't want to l-leave it unt-tended, and th-thought you might try to p-pass through ag-gain." Niskigwun's chattering finally began to die down and he slowly started to move, rubbing his upper arms. "I didn't think it would be wise to simply leave unannounced."
"So, you thought it would be wise to sit out and get buried in a snowdrift?" Charmian rolled her eyes again and took off her wrap, tossing it over his shoulders. As soon as she did Niskigwun's eyes went as wide as saucers; he stared at her for a moment, as if she'd just said something horrifically scandalous, then his face turned brilliant red. She frowned in puzzlement but he merely lifted the fur wrap off with his fingertips as if afraid of getting it dirty, and handed it back to her. Charmian accepted it in silence and furrowed her brow as he turned back and started digging the snow away from the Arch.
"It's--it's a little bit buried," he stammered, wings flicking, "but I'll have it free in a moment..."
A tromping noise came from higher up on the bluff and a dark shape appeared out of the snow. Mani whistled, lifting his head so his antlers scraped the low branches of the trees. Thomas stepped aside as he came down beside them, cocking his head curiously.
Red Land One to go through Arch again?
Charmian nodded. "That's the plan. Thanks for sending the manitous; I think we'd've fallen over the bluff without them. I also thought you would want to come along, since I have to ask Geezhigo-Quae something, and I don't know what the answer might be."
Mani whistled the affirmative. Thomas nudged Charmian on the arm. "You might want to call the others while he's busy," he murmured, and she blushed a little and nodded.
"Oh. Right." She cleared her throat. "I hope they're not too far off!" She closed her eyes and tried to locate Marten and Manabozho, calling them to come to the Fairy Arch. "Also that they're not in the middle of a spat," she muttered when she opened her eyes, "because 'Bozho's going to have to bring his brothers along with him. This might take a while."
Niskigwun stepped back from the Fairy Arch, its opening now cleared. He waved. "You may go through. I will wait behind and see that they all make it here. In the meantime you can go and speak with Geezhigo-Quae."
Charmian nodded again. "Okay. Thanks." She turned and stepped toward the Arch, Niskigwun stepping back from it and a few paces up the bluff. Thomas and Mani moved close when she put her hand on the rock.
"What was all that about with the wrap?" Charmian asked under her breath. "You'd think I had cooties or something."
Thomas's mouth twitched. "That's what I was going to ask you about." When Mani's ear flicked he explained, "She tried to give the poor fellow a hand, and gave him her fur wrap, but he handed it right back as if it were faux mink or some such. Dreadfully rude."
Mani's brow furrowed a little. Did not put it over him, did you? When Charmian frowned and nodded the manitou opened his mouth and let out a loud blaring whistle, then turned and stepped through the Arch. Thomas cocked his head and put a hand to his ear with his own frown as Mani disappeared.
Charmian turned to him and scowled. "All right, he told you something! I KNOW he was laughing at me! Spill it! What's so funny?"
Thomas blinked and then couldn't stop the grin from spreading across his face. He tried hard to keep from laughing himself, and even put his foot up on the bottom of the Arch and crouched in front of it, ready to plunge through. He glanced back at her.
"He said that it's one of the local customs. When you draped your wrap over Niskigwun's shoulders, you were asking him something."
Charmian's brow furrowed. "Asking him? What was I asking him?"
Thomas started laughing. "You were asking him to be your husband." With that, he turned and vanished through the Arch, the sound of his laughter dying away behind him.
Charmian stood in the snowdrift, eyes goggling again and her face burning as hot as a furnace. She glanced up, to see Niskigwun still standing on the slope above, not looking at her; feeling absolutely mortified, she turned and plunged through the Fairy Arch as fast as she could.
* * * * *
"All right, that was a DIRTY trick! You could've warned me!"
Thomas and Mani laughed and whistled all the way across the great field leading to the Sky Tree. Charmian stalked along behind them, a thundercloud almost visible over her head; she had already stripped off all of her heavy winter clothing, leaving it back at the gateway as the air here was still warm and summery. "It's not as if I knew what that meant," Thomas protested as they went. "Remember, you're the one who's been teaching me all about the people here."
"Still, MANI knew it!" She glared at the manitou. "How come neither you nor anybody else ever told me about that? Like I'm supposed to know that tossing a fur over somebody's shoulders means something!"
Thought Red Land One knew Islander ways, Mani said. Didn't know about the blanket-troth? When Charmian scowled he whistled with laughter again. Best to learn strange ways before coming again. Could end up with a husband.
Charmian ground her teeth and clenched her fists. "VERY funny!" She stormed between them so they hurriedly dodged out of her way as she took the lead. "The next time, it'd be nice if somebody warned me that something so meaningless actually MEANS something here! If I tie my laces in a knot I suppose that means I want to have ten kids!"
Thomas and Mani burst into laughter. Charmian put her hands to her ears and squeezed her eyes shut in humiliation. Even more than how much she'd embarrassed herself, she hated how much she must have embarrassed poor Niskigwun...the look on his face had been absolutely horrified. Had she insulted him? He'd told her already of Michinimakinong ways...it wasn't as if she'd really been proposing to him, and surely he knew that, but...it still must have been a terrible offense. Could he get in trouble for what she'd done...? She bit her lip and opened her eyes, staring at the grass passing by with growing worry. She couldn't let him get in trouble for her own ignorance. As soon as she had the chance to speak with Geezhigo-Quae alone, she'd be sure to let the woman know what had really happened.
Like I'm supposed to know that tossing a blanket is the same thing as a marriage proposal! I hate to think of how many OTHER stupid things I've done that meant something completely different from what they mean back home!
She heard the grass rustling as Thomas hurried to catch up with her. "I didn't mean to laugh about it, really," he said when she turned her nose up in the air. "But you have to admit it was rather funny."
"No it wasn't. Like I'd be proposing to somebody! And a Turtle Fairy at that! I'm only fifteen years old!"
Thomas rolled his eyes. "Oh, here we go with the age thing again...I didn't mean it seriously. It was funny as in, a little child giving a valentine to an adult they have a crush on."
Charmian's face screwed up. "Oh my God...did you actually do that?"
Thomas's mouth twitched. He didn't answer for a very long time, and they merely continued walking through the grass, the Sky Tree looming ever closer.
"It was a big foil heart, which I bought with my own money, and she said thank you for the pretty red leaf decoration," said Thomas.
Charmian nearly died with laughter. She actually had to stop and lean over, grasping at her sides. Thomas and Mani halted as well, sharing a look. "L-leaf?" she cried, and started laughing again.
Thomas looked skyward and gave a great sigh as if dealing with a silly child. "They don't give valentines among the Indians, so she thought it was an aspen leaf." Charmian's laughter grew even louder. "And I wanted her to put it on her door--" Charmian fell over "--but she said her husband might not be too happy with that."
By now Charmian was holding her head and crying. Thomas stood and waited a moment, then stepped forward and took her by the elbow and helped her up. "Come on now," he said, "and let's get this over with. Before I have to tell you anything even more humiliating. I'm starting to run out of stories."
"P-poor Black Elk Horn," Charmian said weakly, wiping at her streaming eyes and still hiccupping with giggles as they went, Mani picking up the rear. "The competition. I mean, a red leaf decoration..."
"It's not like he got her a valentine," Thomas said, and Charmian threatened to burst into laughter again. They reached the base of the Tree and looked up into its massive branches, tilting their heads at the sheer size of it. Charmian remembered what she'd had to go through to get into it before, and finished wiping the tears from her eyes, taking a breath to settle herself.
"Well...the last time, we had a little bit of help," she said.
"I don't exactly relish the thought of climbing the thing," Thomas said. "What say we just wait for him to return? It can't be too long, now."
"I guess," she replied, sighing and sitting down between the roots of the Tree. Thomas sat down off to her side, Mani lying down to rest in front of them; the roots were so large that they all easily fit in the grassy space, with room to spare. A soft breeze drifted about them, stirring the grass; after just a few moments, Charmian found herself twisting a few blades of it between her fingers and tapping her feet together. Thomas and Mani looked at her.
"I'm not used to just sitting and waiting," she admitted, unable to keep herself from fidgeting. A few more moments passed and she jumped to her feet. "I'm going to walk around the Tree!" she announced, as if she were Columbus setting off to discover the New World, and paced away and out of sight. A moment or so later, she was climbing up the other side.
Thomas and Mani stared at her shimmying up the Tree, then turned back to face the little grassy clearing. "She's always like this," Thomas said. "Right?"
Mani flicked an ear and whistled. Best to not ask.
Thomas nodded in agreement and leaned back against the Tree.
* * * * *
Niskigwun chattered miserably, rubbing his arms to try to keep from getting frostbitten. Winter came to the Fairy Realm, certainly, yet it was never this bad, and they were always prepared. Plus winter never came in summer over there. He shifted from foot to foot, having to tap his wings together every so often to keep them from freezing stiff, and wished that the others would hurry.
Marten ran in little circles in front of him. "They'll be here any minute! I KNOW they will! I called them MYSELF!" He stopped and puffed up; every inch of him but his dark eyes and little red cap--even his clothing--had gone snowy white. He flailed his arms. "Anyone can call to the manitous if they know how, and I know how! They said they'd be here as SOON as possible!"
Niskigwun just chattered again and rubbed furiously at his arms. "If they aren't, they can stay and wait here!" he grumbled. "They are hardly needed anyway!"
Marten looked stricken. "But Charmian SAID she needs them!"
Niskigwun scowled. He rubbed his hands together and gave the Mikumwesu a critical look. "Weren't you brown before...?"
Marten puffed up again. "It's WINTER," he said. "I CHANGE in winter, I'll have you know!"
Niskigwun frowned. "I thought you were a marten. Martens don't change their fur. Ermine do."
The little creature bristled and bared his pointy teeth. "I'm HARDLY one of THOSE little vermin!" he exclaimed. "I can change if I WANT to!" He dropped to all fours and scampered off through the drifts. "I'LL wait at the ARCH!"
The Michinimakinong rolled his eyes but thanked the manitous for the privacy, clearing a small space in the snow with his feet and squatting down in it. He shivered so hard that his limbs hurt, and wished he had the time and energy to build at least a small shelter. Overhead, the wind continued its insane howling, the trees groaning in protest beneath the heavy blanket of snow.
I should not even have to wait. If they are so slow, they should make it there on their own. They are lucky I'm so patient. He sighed. Though I wish I had a covering.
He remembered now the fur wrap the mainlander had almost given him, and its warmth filled him with longing, but he flushed a little in embarrassment at the memory. It was obvious she hadn't understood what she was doing...he could tell from the confused look she'd given him, when he'd returned the wrap. He'd watched mainlanders and long knives long enough to know that their customs were much different, and she couldn't have been expected to know what the gesture meant.
Still, his ears grew warm thinking about it, and he huddled in on himself.
She was uncomfortable. I made her feel that way...I should not have acted like that. I should have simply accepted it for what it was, a gift. She did not have to know. Now she thinks I believe she did that on purpose. I embarrassed her...
He sighed again and wrapped his arms around his knees, staring miserably at the snow as it started to drift around his little hollow. It would be best simply not to bring the subject up again. And if she were to bring it up herself, he would act as if he had forgotten, or as if it were long in the past, something not even worth thinking about anymore. That was, after all, all it was.
Why then do I keep thinking of it...?
Niskigwun scowled to himself and batted the snow away. If they did not show up within five more minutes, he would head back to the Arch without them.
Talking noises echoed from the woods, and he sighed once more, standing up and dusting the fresh covering of snow off of himself. It had been too much to hope that they would not arrive. He watched as three shadowy shapes appeared from the trees, and had to bite his tongue. Manabozho and Peepaukawiss were arguing, and Wabasso was trying futilely to mediate, as always. Niskigwun rubbed at his suddenly throbbing head.
"Those were my FAVORITE birds," Manabozho muttered as they came into view.
Puka let out a great sigh. "What was so horrid about what I did--? I redecorated them! They were so very DRAB before! I gave them a MAKEOVER! Anyone else would DIE for a favor like that--!"
"Anyone else would KILL for a 'favor' like that!" Manabozho hissed, reaching out to try to grab hold of Puka by the neck. Wabasso got in the way, holding Manabozho back while Puka cowered behind him. The three of them started yelling at once. Niskigwun cleared his throat, then coughed louder; he then twitched his wings and started pulling at one of his pouches.
"THEY'RE THAT COLOR BECAUSE THAT'S THE COLOR GITCHI MANITOU MADE THEM!!" Manabozho screamed, flailing his arms at Puka's head and managing only to grab hold of Wabasso's feathers.
"And I IMPROVED them!!" Puka cried, holding onto the back of Wabasso's outfit, ducking from side to side. "Who ever said you can't improve on what Gitchi Manitou himself made--? That's called PROGRESS, you know--!"
A shrill screaming whistle cut through the air, and all three of them gaped, mouths falling open, then clapped their hands to their ears, grimacing in pain. Even after the whistle stopped, it echoed through the cold air, making the tree branches heavy with snow quiver. The three brothers were reduced to cowering in the snow, making horrible faces.
Niskigwun brought the flute down from his mouth and gave them a frank look. "The mainlander waits for you at the Sky Tree," he said mildly. "So are you ready to go through now?"
Manabozho and Puka shot him evil looks as they all got to their feet. "She went through the Arch--?" Manabozho asked, rubbing at his ear.
Niskigwun rolled his eyes. "Where else? She said she would wait for you there. All of you are needed." He gestured. "It's this way, if you think you're ready to go now."
"But--wait a minute!" Puka exclaimed, flinging out his arms and looking around them. "Where's Mudji? He hasn't been with us in AGES!"
Wabasso frowned. "Didn't you use some sort of medicine on him...?" he said to Niskigwun; Manabozho stared at the Turtle Fairy as he shrank in on himself a little bit. Puka pointed accusingly.
"That's RIGHT! You said he would return in a few HOURS! What did you do with Big Brother--?"
"You made Mudji disappear?" Manabozho demanded.
Niskigwun's feathers flared. "It was a simple fire medicine! If he is not back, then I have no clue what happened! It SHOULD have been only a few hours!"
Manabozho's eye twitched. "You should have made him disappear for good!"
Wabasso rubbed at his head and Puka's lip started quivering as his eyes welled up. "Perhaps a little too much medicine was used?" Wabasso suggested. "It could happen..."
Niskigwun bristled at the comment, but couldn't think of any other explanation; it wasn't as if he could easily gauge anyone's strength by sight alone. "If that is so, then he should still be appearing sometime soon," he insisted. "The medicine I used was not that powerful. You three and the Mikumwesu can still go through. He will be along shortly, if he hasn't returned already. And then I will direct him to the Arch."
Puka waved his arms. "But how will you know where to find him?" he cried. "Where will he show up? DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHERE TO LOOK FOR HIM?!"
Niskigwun opened his mouth, then shut it. He scowled.
Wabasso's brow furrowed. "Do you have even the slightest idea...?"
The Michinimakinong bristled again. "Look, it could be anywhere upon this whole Island! I can hardly guess where he'll pop up when he returns! He could arrive at Crack-in-the-Island, or on the shore, or on top of Sugar Loaf! For all I know, he'll show up in the stupidest place imaginable!"
The three brothers stared at him, then peered at each other. Puka chewed his lip.
"Where do you think that would be...?" he inquired.
* * * * *
POOF. Mudjikawiss blinked, finding himself staring at a log wall. His brow furrowed in confusion and he turned to look from side to side, utterly baffled. A moment ago he'd been in the woods, yelling at his brothers and at the strange girl. Now...
"Where...?" he managed to get out, just before something large and heavy slammed down on top of his head with a hideous THUNK, making him yelp and throw up his arms to protect himself.
He started running in little circles. A short stout woman armed with a large pan chased after him, waving it as if it were a tomahawk and thunking it against him every chance she got. Mudjikawiss tripped over a little wooden bench and she hit him with the pan over and over, baring her teeth.
"Eera-koy!" she yelled in a fury. It was all Mudjikawiss could do to protect his head as he scrambled across the floor of the cabin and toward the door. The angry woman managed a few more ringing blows before he could yank the door open, but he fell over again and had to pull himself over the threshold and down the steps. She let up long enough for him to do so, and he staggered to his feet, clasping his head in his hands.
"AAAGGHHHH!!" he bellowed, pain seeming to split his skull in two. "DAMN WOMAN! SOMEBODY SHOULD TEACH YOU SOME RESPECT--!"
K-CHAK. All the blood drained from Mudjikawiss's face and he remembered how to use his feet just in time, for a hole blasted open in the ground right beside him, smoke rising out of it. He glanced back over his shoulder as he stumbled across the yard, eyes panicked. The woman stood in the doorway, wielding a huge gun which she quickly reloaded and raised to her shoulder, taking aim. Mudjikawiss almost swallowed his tongue.
"Eera-koy!" she yelled. "Go back to where you came from, stinking dog!"
He opened his mouth to yell that she should learn her place, when--CRACK!--the tree just beside him splintered open--and he decided that it would be best to run while she was busy reloading, rather than stay and give her another chance to shoot. It was absolutely galling that he should be run off by a woman--but then again, she did have a pretty huge gun...
"I hope you get what's coming to you!!" he shouted, his voice cracking as he thudded off through the woods. "I CAN'T IMAGINE WHAT IDIOT WOULD WANT YOU IN HIS HOUSE IN THE FIRST PLACE, YOU DAMNED MADWOMAN!!"
"BIG STUPID BRAINLESS MOOSE!! AT LEAST I HAVE A HOUSE!!" she blared in response, and that was what last rang in Mudjikawiss's ears as he fled from Francois's cabin as fast as his feet would take him.
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