The porcupine year, p.10
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       The Porcupine Year, p.10

           Louise Erdrich
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  “How does your mother handle Two Strike?” asked Omakayas.

  Twilight shrugged, but her voice was sad: “I think that Two Strike is her favorite. We depend on her, that’s for sure.”

  Amoosens laughed. “Well, maybe Animikiins will take her off our hands!”

  At the sudden look on Omakayas’s face, she bit her lip and fell silent. Twilight put her arm around Omakayas’s shoulders and shook her gently.

  “You should see your face, my sister, as though you had just seen a wiindigoo!”

  Omakayas, her heart burning hot with fury, turned away. All of a sudden, she knew what she felt, and it was bad, it was awful, nobody would understand! As she beat the sleeping mats, she desperately missed Old Tallow. Old Tallow would slowly nod, smoke her pipe, and squint her eyes. She would fully comprehend what was in Omakayas’s heart right now. And maybe, she hoped, Nokomis would too. But Twilight and Amoosens seemed too young for the feeling that Omakayas grappled with. As she attacked a skin with her fletching tools, as she hauled wood from the bush and chopped away at the frozen haunch of a moose, a blackness rose in her, stark and sickening.

  This feeling she had seemed ancient. It was mean, hot, and vengeful. It was related to the way she felt about Two Strike’s adopted father, LaPautre. If there was a word for it, that word was hatred.

  No, she thought, unhappy with such wretched feelings, there was nobody who would understand what was in her heart.

  “Aaargh! Nnnbbbfff!” Around the corner came Quill, looking dejected and furious.

  “What is it, my little brother?”

  Even though he still drove her crazy sometimes, Omakayas’s heart was close to Quill’s heart after all that had happened that winter.

  “She’s stealing him!”

  “What?” How startling, almost embarrassing, it was to hear her little brother shout what was secretly in her own mind!

  “Animikiins is my hunting partner, my friend, my adopted brother, not Two Strike’s!” Quill glared in the direction the two had disappeared. “She laughs when I try to hunt with them. She tells me to go home and haul water for the women.”

  Quill crossed his eyes and made his voice squeaky as a little boy’s. “Can I haul some water for you?”

  Omakayas had to laugh, and Quill laughed with her. Curious, their cousins drew near. Quill struck a Two Strike pose, head back, lip snarling. “Puuu, the whole world stinks, but I smell so good!” Quill twisted around and looked at his rear end. He spoke to it politely. “Oh, indiy, were you talking to me?”

  He put his hand to his ear as if he were listening.

  “Yes, indiy, I will obey your wishes and let you speak next time you see Two Strike!”

  Now Omakayas and her cousins were laughing so hard they fell down in the snow.

  “Stop, stop!” they pleaded when their bellies started to hurt.

  Quill’s face darkened again. He sat down on a log and suddenly spoke in a voice full of self-pity.

  “So I, poor Quill, must hunt alone!”

  Quill pounded his chest with his fist and looked like he was about to cry.

  “Have you killed anything, my brother?”

  “No,” he sighed. “But I can snare whatever moves. I’ve gotten plenty of waaboozoog. Two Strike says that’s a poor game, not worthy of a great hunter like herself. Or my friend Animikiins!”

  Quill ground his teeth, jumped up ferociously, and glared into his sister’s face. “I’m going out there to shoot something really huge!”

  “Brother, you make me proud,” said Omakayas.

  Quill looked at her with sudden pleasure.

  “And you will have the hide, only you, my dear sister,” he said. Then a sudden thought pricked him. “Maybe you could share it with Amoosens.”

  He bounded off with a grimly excited look and Omakayas was left behind. Yet her heart was oddly soothed, and she was touched by her brother’s feelings, so like her own. As always, he had made her laugh. And he had taken the poison from her heart.


  They could hear Two Strike calling with excitement as she and Animikiins returned that dusk, and the girls ran out to the ice to see that the young hunters bore between them the long, dark, heavy forms of beavers, amikwag. Either their traplines had yielded the animals, or they had broken into their lodges and captured them. Animikiins was quiet as they entered the camp. He merely smiled at the girls and disappeared. But as soon as he was gone, Two Strike threw the animals at the feet of her cousins and ordered them in a loud voice to prepare the meat.

  The girls ignored Two Strike and refused to touch the fur until Auntie Muskrat had admired and praised each amik. Then, with happy eagerness, she invited the other women to join her in preparing the meat for a feast and the valuable furs to sell to a trader. But Two Strike wasn’t satisfied with that.

  “Don’t forget to save every bone,” she cried in a gruff voice full of scorn, looking over Twilight’s shoulder. “The amik spirit regards me very highly, and wouldn’t like it if his bones were not properly respected.

  “And you, Omakayas,” Two Strike continued, “Little Frog girl, bring me a nice, hot cup of tea!”

  Two Strike hadn’t noticed Yellow Kettle or Nokomis, who both came around the corner of the lodge at that instant. They had heard Two Strike’s imperious command.

  “You should properly respect your relatives,” Yellow Kettle said before Omakayas could move. “Your cousins are not here to serve you. Get your own tea.”

  Two Strike faced her aunt belligerently, but her face flushed and she said nothing. She was about to turn away when Muskrat held out a cup of the steaming brew.

  “Here is your tea,” Auntie Muskrat said kindly.

  With a look of fury, Two Strike knocked the cup from her aunt’s hand, spilling it in the snow. She stalked away, calling for Animikiins.

  “You must not let her do that!” said Yellow Kettle to her sister. “Once again, she is beginning to think she runs the world!”

  “We depend on her,” said Muskrat. “She has saved us from starving. She deserves good treatment.”

  “But you are teaching her to disrespect you,” said Nokomis sharply. “Now hear me.”

  When Nokomis spoke like this, everyone paid attention. Deydey came into the camp and she gestured for him to come near. Fishtail and Angeline also appeared.

  “When Old Tallow saved our family by giving her life for the bear’s life, she did it with a humble heart,” said Nokomis. “This is the true way of a warrior. Old Tallow hunted for us all of her life, yet never once did she order me to prepare something for her. Everything I gave her, she received as a gift. Never once did she treat me with disrespect. Nor has my son, Mikwam, or my grandson, Fishtail.”

  Nokomis gestured at the men and nodded. She swept her hands out. “Miskobines and Animikiins also know that kindness is the way of those with true strength! True courage. Two Strike has skill, but her family is good to her only because they need her. What if tomorrow she were helpless? Would anyone allow her this arrogance? It is not good for her to think that her skills are her own. They were given by the Creator, and the Creator can take them away. In time, the Creator takes everything, as we know. Even the best and the kindest, Old Tallow, who gave her life. If anyone had a right to arrogance, she did. And yet…”

  Nokomis fell silent. She could not finish. Muskrat wiped off her knife and put it into its sheath. She was angry and put her fists on her hips.

  “What is it you have come here for, my mother, my sister? Is it your business to tell me how I should raise this child I have taken as my daughter? You have come here poor, hungry, and we share all that we have. All that Two Strike has gathered!”

  “Let me remind you,” said Deydey, his face tight with sudden pride, “we come here poor only because we trusted LaPautre, your husband.”

  “We also come here out of love,” said Yellow Kettle, “for I missed you, my sister. But your words to our mother are rude. Unnatural. Has your heart froz
en this winter, like the heart of Two Strike? Have you stopped loving us, your family? What has happened to you, Muskrat?”

  “Aaiii,” groaned Muskrat. She plopped heavily down on a stump and hid her face in her hands. Everyone waited for her to speak, and at last she sighed. “I am sorry, my mother. What have I become? This winter has been very hard for us, too, without you, our family. And my old husband, ninaabemish…ah, how I loved the old scoundrel. I am sorry I insulted you, Mikwam. I believed that my Albert-ish would stay with us. Even though he was drinking, I allowed him back into our lodge. Again, he stole from us and deserted us. He has hurt Two Strike’s heart, for she adored him and was certain that he would stay by her. How alone I am, nindinawemaganidok, please don’t despise me. Never again shall I trust that devil. Ingii-webinidi-in. I have thrown him away!”

  Deydey walked off a little way, still offended, but trying to control his thoughts. Yellow Kettle and Nokomis drew near to forgive and comfort Muskrat, but then Omakayas saw her mother nudge her grandmother. Their eyes met in understanding and they gave each other a secret little grin. They moved out of the way as Miskobines approached.

  He picked up his step when Nokomis beckoned him to come closer to the women.

  “Take a walk with this nice akiwenzii,” Nokomis said to Muskrat, making way for Miskobines.

  “He’ll take your mind off LaPautre,” she whispered to Mama. They laughed and signaled to the girls to pretend that they didn’t notice when Muskrat took their advice.


  After that day, Two Strike couldn’t seem to boss anyone around, and as a result, everybody’s outlook improved. Except Two Strike’s. She sulked and dragged herself off to hunt only if she could persuade Animikiins to leave Quill and accompany her. But he was less and less eager to do so. He always apologized to Quill if he did, and when Twilight asked Animikiins whether he enjoyed working with his hunting partner, Two Strike, he looked at her as if she were crazy.

  “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” said Twilight, pointedly, to Omakayas. They were gathering armloads of dry branches to haul back to the fire.

  “What do you mean, ‘worry’?” asked Omakayas innocently.

  “I mean,” said Twilight, her gentle face suddenly full of laughter, “that you can’t fool me. You’ve been dragging yourself around, you moony-face! You’ve been trying not to be obvious that you move with elaborate care when you know that Animikiins is looking. Here is how you purse your lips; here is how you touch your hair; here is how you hold yourself up straighter; here is how you walk when you see him approaching the camp.”

  Omakayas watched her cousin in horror. “Do I really do all of those things?” she asked. “How idiotic!”

  “I’m exaggerating a little,” said Twilight kindly. “But anyone can tell that you like him.”

  After this, Omakayas tried to ignore Animikiins and to act normally. But she found that the more normal she tried to act, the more difficult it was. Her actions now felt false. Every gesture a little silly. One night she went to Nokomis, who was sitting alone by the fire.

  “Nookoo, may I ask you something?”

  “Always,” said Nokomis, patting a place on the blanket beside her. Omakayas sat down.

  “Were you shy when you met your husband?”

  “Very shy,” said Nokomis. “It is good. But my child, you are not yet a woman. You do not have to look for a husband. You are still too young!”

  “I know I am, Nookoo, but I have these feelings.”

  “I suppose the time is getting near, my little girl. When you do become a woman, when you do have your moon, I will make your little woman house for you.”

  Omakayas smiled. She was not afraid. She knew she would stay by herself in the house, away from everybody else, and receive instructions and gifts from the older women.

  “Nookoo,” she said. “What about Two Strike? She is older by a winter. Has she become a woman yet?”

  “Yes,” said Nokomis. “But she is unusual, as we know. Your Auntie Muskrat told me that Two Strike refused her woman’s lodge. She went out hunting when she had her first moon. She brought back some ducks that day and claimed that her moon affected nothing. To us, your body has power. That is the way we are taught. When your body is ready to bring life into the world, you are a changed being. Two Strike rejects this.”

  “Did Old Tallow also reject this?”

  Nokomis smiled, remembering her dear friend. “Ah no, my girl. You must remember, Old Tallow was not always as you knew her. Old Tallow was not always rough and fierce. I grew up with her, of course, and once she was as tender as you are. In fact, you remind me of Old Tallow.”

  Then Nokomis added something soft and strange. “I pray every night that the world does not treat you as harshly as it treated my friend Tallow.”

  “Nookoo, what happened to her?”

  But Nokomis merely shook her head and took Omakayas’s hand in hers. She held Omakayas’s hand for a long time and gazed into the fire.

  “Let’s wait up for Quill,” she said. Omakayas lay down and put her head on her grandmother’s lap and dozed as her hair was stroked and smoothed by her grandmother’s fingers.


  A little while later, as they were sleepily banking the fire, Omakayas and Nokomis heard a cracking and banging in the bush just beyond the light.

  “Help!” cried Quill. “I caught something huge!”

  Gasping, he fell into the circle of light. As he fell, Omakayas saw the strangest thing happen to her brother. He began to leak fish. Small silver fish poured from inside his shirt, from the bark basket on his back, from his pants and makizinan. Fish slipped from his sleeves and flopped down under his hood around his ears. Then the blanket he was dragging opened and fish cascaded all around him until they stood in a pool of fish. The sucker run had started and Quill had been to the mouth of the mainland river, where the moving water broke up first in the spring. He had scooped up as many as he could. When the sucker ran, they came so thick they choked the water. Each one of them was small, but taken all together they were, as Quill said, “huge.”

  “Aaiii!” said Mama suddenly. “That was my best blanket, Quill!” She grabbed the blanket Quill had sneaked from her to carry the fish and shook her head sadly as she put her nose to the weave. “I’ll never get the smell of fish from it. But my son, even so, you have made me proud!”



  The sleeping situation was really getting complicated. It hadn’t taken long for Muskrat to decide that Miskobines would make a much better husband than LaPautre. In fact, they were so happy together that they decided to build a small lodge for themselves. However, that left Animikiins uncomfortable, for he could not share a lodge with Muskrat’s daughters. Without his father sleeping in the big lodge with Yellow Kettle and Deydey’s family, he now slept squeezed between Quill and Fishtail.

  One warm March night the family was eating near the outside fire, when the issue came up. Twilight laughed softly and said that Animikiins should make his own lodge and see what happened. This was a bold thing for Twilight to say, and Two Strike glared at her. She decided to be equally bold.

  “Is there something wrong with us?” Two Strike asked him outright.

  Animikiins flushed and looked away. “Well, you’re girls…I mean, except you.”

  Two Strike’s eyes went wide with shock, as though she had been slapped. Her cheeks went dark. Tears splattered from her eyes as she whipped her head away to hide her expression. Her shoulders were hunched as she turned. But she straightened as she walked away and disappeared into the darkness. There was silence. So that was it! Animikiins thought of his hunting partner as another boy—perhaps he’d thought that he was paying Two Strike a compliment. Omakayas was completely unprepared to pity her cousin, and resented the tears that sprang into her own eyes in sympathy. Why should she care if Two Strike felt hurt? She deserved it. Omakayas looked down at her lap to hide her own e

  “What? What’d I say?” Animikiins looked at Quill, who gave a what-can-you-expect shrug.

  Both of the boys held out their makakoon and Auntie Muskrat dished out more stew. They ate, as always, with ravenous intent. Auntie Muskrat’s bannock was charred on the bottom, but light and hot. She was down to the last fifty-pound bag of flour that Two Strike had hauled across the ice from the trader’s. Mean and proud though she was, Two Strike never ceased to work to keep her relatives fed. Omakayas was thankful that her Deydey was not like LaPautre. Two Strike had always been a hard girl, but without her own father to love her, or the adopted one, either, she had been forced to the extreme side of her nature.


  The ice was rotten and could not be crossed. Yet since it had not broken yet, they could not use their canoes. This was a hungry time of year, a time of impatience. Everybody got on one another’s nerves. Two Strike was a caged beast, sullen and furious. She slept outside. She roamed the island like it was a prison. She spent her time breaking sticks and kicking rocks. The snow turned to mush. The ducks and geese had not yet returned. If Quill hadn’t brought back his huge load of fish, things would have been much worse. As it was, the family lived off the dwindling stores of rice and the dried and pounded weyass they’d put away from a moose that Fishtail and Deydey had killed.

  Nokomis ranged the island and dug beneath the snow for wintergreen berries, for the bitter new shoots of spring tonic plants. Bizheens had become a strong little walker, and followed Omakayas everywhere she went. He could even point to what he wanted and talk to her, although sometimes what he said came out in long, babbling, confused sentences. He was always eager and playful. He terrified his family one day by running out onto the ice, which was just strong enough to hold his weight, but too thin for anyone to follow him.

  “Omakayas! Come quickly! Weyweeb!”

  Nokomis and Mama stood onshore begging Bizheens to return, but he edged farther out, enjoying their frightened faces. The more they begged him to return, the more excited he grew. Nokomis had thrown a net out and begged him to catch hold of it. Bizheens merely danced around the links of the net, laughing and throwing up his hands.

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