First she was small. She was very, very small, and that was good because no one could see her. Only Grandma could see her.
No, go farther back than that.
First she was born. She was a seed inside a pod that split open and spilled its contents. Or she was a puppy in a belly, and the long tunnel opened, and she wiggled down it and came into the cold air. Or she was an egg in a circlet of bog cotton, and she tap-tapped until the dome of her prison shattered and she struggled out, wet and ugly, into the blinding light. She lifted her wings. She rode the wind. She was not eaten.
Or she was swept down a river of fire, heard screams, and fell through space pulling her twisting cord after her, until she landed in wrinkled brown hands, and a face with eyes as old as God pressed against her own unknown face and kissed her and cried.
Downwind from the reserve was the cabin where she came into the world and lived with Grandma. There she grew, and there, too, she first saw her own face in the reflection on the kettle or recognized herself in a puddle of rain water and began to know herself a little. Grandma called her Oginiwâbigon, which is the name of the wild roses that grew behind the outhouse. Grandma’s name was Oldmary Rabbit, which some white people thought was funny because they did not know how beautiful it sounded in the Ojibwe tongue—MariWâbos.
Grandma was like a rock that could not be moved. She made a solid place in the great movements of the seasons always wheeling around their home, which was the center of the world. A few other things stayed the same, though imperfectly. There was the water, though its moods were many. And the wind, which had a bad temper. The trees, which simply grew, sighing sometimes, singing sometimes, sleeping sometimes. The sun itself, though it was not dependable. And the moon, which changed its shape. The cabin, though falling apart, was always there and always had been.
But Ogini did not remain the same. Her toes sprouted out of the black rubber shoes with the flapping sole, and her pink calico dress grew shorter and shorter until it tickled her knees.
“Little girls grow”, Oldmary would say, shaking her head.
“When do they stop growing, Grandma?” Ogini would ask.
“When they are finished”, Oldmary would reply, for she was full of knowledge.
“When do they start?”
“They start when they are baby birds.”
“Was I a baby bird?”
“Yes, you were once a bineshi, a tiny silver bird”, Grandma would say, while scrubbing Rose with a soapy rag as she sat in a washtub beside the woodstove.
“Is that how I started?” asked Ogini, dragging her eyes away from Thisdog (the black puppy with white spots) and Thatdog (the white puppy with black spots), who pierced each other’s ears with their needle teeth and wrestled over a bone.
“Yes, that is how you started.”
“When was that?”
“A long time ago.”
“How long ago?”
“Six years ago, in January, when the lake cracked like gun shots, and the land was dreaming under the snow. Makwa the bear and Amik the beaver slept in their dens.”
“And then what happened?”
“Then Mang the loon awoke and flew up into the night; high, high he flew and warbled to Gissis the moon until she was filled with delight. He begged a piece of silver from her. But being wise she said, ‘I would like to give you my silver, but it is a piece of my heart. It is a big thing to give away a piece of my heart. What do you want it for?’
“And Mang said, ‘I want it because I come from a dark land that is cold for half of the year, and because we need light.’
“ ‘How will you care for my light?’ asked Gissis. ‘I must know, for she is my daughter, this little piece of my heart.’
“ ‘I will guard her and feed her,’ he answered, ‘and I will teach her to look up to your face. She will look to you, and your light will shine on her, and she will spread you among the ones who live in the winter and the shadow of winter.’
“ ‘Did you not know’, said Gissis, ‘that even my light is a reflection?’
“ ‘I did not know’, said Mang, ashamed.
“So the moon, seeing the loon’s humility, fashioned from her heart a tiny bird of silver and blew into its mouth, and it opened its eyes and ruffled its feathers. ‘See, I have made you,’ said the moon, ‘and I send you down into the cold dark land to bring it light.’ But though she understood the moon’s meaning, the tiny bird did not yet know how to make words.
“ ‘Go, now,’ said the moon, ‘to be what you were meant to be.’
“The little bird shivered and lifted its wings, but could not fly.
“ ‘You must carry her’, said Gissis to Mang, ‘until she is able to fly.’
“Then the loon put the tiny bird on his back.
“ ‘Where should I take her?’ he asked.
“ ‘Take her to Mary Wâbos by Threefinger Lake in the Land of Little Trees. There she will grow, and there she will shine her light.’
“ ‘And what shall we call her?’
“ ‘She will be called Oginiwâbigon, which is Rose-flower, and she will call me Ningâ, which is my mother.’
“And so the loon flew down carrying the tiny silver bird who is called Rose. She held tightly to his necklace of diamonds, the nâbikawâgan, but faster and faster he flew until his wings cut through the night leaving shimmering curtains of green in the black northern sky, and the diamonds of his neck fell away, and thus was made the tchibekana, the river of stars which the white people call the river of milk.
“When the loon came down to the cabin of Mary Wâbos, he tapped on the window pane with his long beak until the old woman awoke. He put the tiny bird on her doorstep and flew away. And when Mary Wâbos opened the door, there was a baby girl.”
“Named Ogini! Named Rose!” cried Ogini, giggling and squirming and splashing the sudsy water. “Then you took me into your cabin!”
“Then I took you in,” said Oldmary.
“And you became my grandma!”
“Yes, I became your grandma.”
“You will always be my grandma!”
“I will always be your grandma.”
“You will always be here!”
Then Oldmary paused. She pulled Ogini onto her lap and wrapped her in a towel and buried the child in her chest, which smelled like smoked fish and tobacco, spruce tea and moose hide.
“You will always be here!” Ogini insisted.
“Sometime, many years from now, I’m going up there”, Oldmary pointed. “Into the loon’s necklace.”
“I’ll go too”, Ogini said. “No, you’ll come later.”
“I don’t want to go later. I want to go with you.”
“You can’t. You have work to do here.”
“I would be alone.”
“No, you would have light.”
“If you went up there,” the girl pointed, “if you left me here, I wouldn’t have any light.”
“You will always have light”, the old woman whispered.
When she was seven, Grandma told her about Youngmary-the-mother-of-her-flesh, the one who had brought her into this world. During the early years she didn’t know anything about her mother, because Youngmary went away after she was born and left her in the cabin with Grandma and never returned. She could not make a picture of her mother in her mind, even when she sat on the picture-making rock at the lake and squinted her eyes up into the sky that was as blue as Our Lady’s dress. When a small cloud appeared out of the south and glided over the lake, it would not change into a mother’s face bending over a cradle. Holes opened in it like mouths aching to say the right words, but the branches of vapor that might have become embraces dissolved, and the wind pulled away what was left to other places, leaving Ogini clutching her ankles, chin on knees, staring at the lapping water, beneath which rocks swelled and shrank and flowed, as if everything, everything, were liquid.
Grandma told many stories, on cold mornings and hot nights, sometimes when Ogini picked blueberries, kaplunking, kaplunking into tin cans (she ate more than she saved), or sometimes in the dark when she was frightened of things that cannot be seen. The stories were best on the mountain called the skull, where Grandma sat on a blanket and stared at the rotting trunk of a once-giant tree.
“I saw that pine burn when I was your age, Rose.
“In the autumn of the year when the century turned, after the gathering of mânowim the wild rice, and during the time when wêwe the wild goose begins to travel south, a thunderstorm tore a path across the bushlands. Some of the white people said it was the edge of a hurricane, but there was not enough wind to confirm this. The destroyer was the Great-Cloud, the thundercloud that is larger and heavier than all the lesser thunderclouds. It rumbled over the villages and camps like waves of coming retribution, or revelation, spitting down lightning to set off many forest fires, then quenching them with much rain as if to show its powers.
“The children shook in fear,” said Grandma with her slow voice, her eyes squinting with memory, “among them a little girl known as Mary Wâbos—”
“That was you?” Rose interrupted.
“That was me when I was your age. We children shook with fear in the cabin doors as the green light rolled in. We had never seen such fury, roaring and barking as it tried to snap its chains, though the old people remembered storms that had torn up the big camp tents and thrown them into the lake or sent canoes flying into a heap.
“Toward the end of the day there came a lull in the wind, and the sky broke open to reveal a streak of blue, as blue as the feathers of ogishkimanissi the kingfisher. Then it closed over again as a cloud of great darkness moved toward the village. People said later they felt the weight of the air suddenly drop and cold seep into the afternoon like death. The religious ones said it was like the coming of Dibakonige-gijigad, the Day of Judgment. First the hail, then the rain again. Then a snake of lightning reached down and struck this old pine. It burned like a torch for a few minutes, lighting up the bush and the clouds, then was doused by the waters that emptied from the heavens.
“When the storm was over, many people came out to see this tree. They stared at the split down the middle, watched the gum go bubbling down the trunk, and heard the branches hissing. As the elders stood around, pointing and commenting, little Mary Wâbos stepped forward and sniffed the hot sap. It smelled like funeral incense.
“ ‘It is a church tree’, she said aloud.
“A young boy named Kinoje burst out laughing and mocked her, crying ‘Io! See the rabbit licking the priest’s feet.’
“Some people found this amusing, though most disapproved, for a dying thing deserved respect. A few old men shook their heads, for they had seen themselves in this tallest of trees, this solitary one, and would long lament it.”
Grandma sighed and glanced at the stump. “A few more years and it will crumble into the earth. No one will remember it. No one will know it lived here for hundreds of years.”
“You will remember it.”
“Soon I too will be part of the soil.”
“Then I will remember it”, Rose said solemnly.
Grandma smiled and stroked the hair back from the girl’s forehead.
Their cabin stood in a little clearing in the pines, beside a creek that spilled into Crazyman River. The river was only a short walk down the hill. It flowed into the great waters of Three-finger Lake, which was connected to the distant sea by many routes and vast unthinkable spaces. In all places the waters were full of fish, for water was a home to them as land was a home to people and air was a home to flying things and the black water above the earth was home to the stars and the sun and the moon.
Minnows swelled into big fish that gasped and lashed in the net Rose helped Grandma to pull from the roaring narrows where Crazyman River gushed into Threefinger Lake. With a hatchet she chopped off their heads and split them from the button hole to the pink throat and pulled the guts out. She threw the guts to Thisdog and Thatdog. They tripped all over each other, gulping down the throwaway parts, crunching the fish heads in their wide mouths, whining and waggling their string tails, and yelping with ecstasy. The flesh of majamegoss the trout (they were fat and made of aluminum) and the flesh of kinoje the jackfish (they were lean and black and their jaws were evil) split equally under the saw-toothed knife and hung like clothes pegs on the drying racks above the willow fire.
And because of this, when the blizzards returned and beat against the log walls and wailed in the chimney, Rose sat with Grandma on the two chairs by the woodstove and held small, salty, golden shards of dry-fish in her mouth and felt them dissolve on her tongue. She tried not to gulp the fried bannock that shone with melting streams of lard and the raspberry jam from a tin that was for Sundays. She chewed it slowly with smiles, and she drank Fort Garry tea with sugar. Grandma let her tear the month-paper from the trading post calendar with the picture of the Parliament buildings and the year numbers, 1944, then 1945, then 1946, because years flowed like water, and because it was her job to measure them.
On a rainy day Rose used her fingers to draw faces in the foggy glass. Later, she scratched pictures of tiny birds flitting in the crystal forests of window frost. She rolled snow and packed and trimmed it into the shapes of bears and wolves and fish. A flaming twig that she pulled from the fire and extinguished in the snow became a charcoal finger that etched waves and wild-flowers onto the log walls. Once, before bedtime, she built a house of twigs under a canopy of yellow kerosene light, and with scraps of cloth and thread she made little people to live in it.
When Rose was tired, she saw bad faces in gnarled firewood, and sometimes when she was sick she saw them floating in the air above her bed. She was not sick very often, but when she was, Grandma sat beside her bed, her big black beads clicking through her fingers, her lips whispering, and the faces went away.
Grandma read aloud from a book about a big flood when all the animals went into a boat and were saved with some people, and about a snake that tricked people and made them die, and about a man named Jesus who came from a place far beyond the loon’s necklace. He died too, then he came back to life, then went away again, like the geese. But he sent a white bird that spoke words difficult to hear, and the words took the shape of tongues of fire, Grandma said.
That kind of fire did not hurt you, she said.
His name was Winijishid-Manito, Holy Ghost God in the white people’s tongue, Grandma said.
Sometimes on Sunday, if the weather was good, Grandma would put on her go-to-town parka and her clean rubber boots and pick up her walking stick, and she and Rose would follow the trail through the woods to the reserve, a mile to the east. There, splitting the two dozen cabins, was a dirt road that led farther on around the south rim of the lake to the village where white people lived among the brown people. Usness and them-ness mixed together. It was a big place with a hundred cabins and, most amazing of all, a red and white airplane rocking on pontoons in front of a fur trader’s store on the rocky shore. That was where Grandma exchanged her beaded moccasins for tea, flour, sugar, jam, packets of tiny colored beads, needles, white duffel cloth, and tobacco for her pipe, which she smoked only on Sundays, Christmas, and Easter. Also in that village were a nurse, a policeman, a teacher, a weatherman with balloons and a radio, and a man who built a log chapel with a bell on top. He built it on the stones of an old church that had burned thirty years before.
He was not Jesus, Grandma said. He was a mekatewikwanaie, a priest of Jesus. They called him Father Andrei. During the Holy Anamessikewin, Rose sat in the back row behind the pump organ, which was the place she liked best, because there she was very, very small and could not be seen, though she could see everything. She could hear the words which Jesus sent by the messenger bird. And as she listened to its words, she felt the opening petals of fire that does not hurt.
Rose did not go to Mass every Sunday because sometimes Grandma’s back was sore, and she could not get out of bed. At those times Rose brought her cups of tea and broke stale bannock into small portions and soaked them in the tea and popped them into Grandma’s mouth because she had no teeth.