The porcupine year, p.6
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       The Porcupine Year, p.6

           Louise Erdrich
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  “They would not release Animikiins,” Old Tallow said softly.

  Everyone was silent.

  “Fishtail?” asked Angeline weakly.

  “He returns,” said Old Tallow. “Here is how it went.” She settled herself and her dogs. Nokomis gave her a makak of water and some pemmican. “We trailed them all the way to their camp out in the flat world, the Plains,” continued Old Tallow. “Your Deydey walked up to the enemy camp alone. Howah! His courage astounded the Bwaanag, and the council chief who had called the war party came forward.”

  Nokomis, Mama, Angeline, and Omakayas sat down to listen to Old Tallow. Zahn took his little sister and Bizheens away—he was very good at amusing them, and he was even beginning to learn some of the Anishinabe language.


  The chief and Deydey agreed to have peaceful talks, and then the rest of us appeared. I don’t think they could tell that I was a woman, because when I sat down they didn’t flinch away. They were interested to see me.

  The chief and Deydey smoked the pipe. It was found that the Bwaanag were not out for war. They were searching for a captive to replace the chief’s son. He had been lost one year ago, to our people.

  “When we first saw this boy with the porcupine on his head,” said the chief, “we were mystified. We watched him for a long time, and then decided that his medicine must be very great. He was hard to capture. His porcupine fought with him. Our warriors were covered with his arrows.”

  “Yes,” said Deydey to the Bwaan. Deydey was the only one of us who spoke their language, so he translated what the Bwaan chief said. His eyes lighted with pride at his son’s strength. As for me, I was caught between pride and laughter, even in that dangerous situation. I could not help but think of Quill’s great battle—his porcupine swiping at the Bwaanag warriors from the top of his master’s head. Deydey continued to speak. “I can see that you are brokenhearted, and that my people are responsible. But if you take my son or the son of Miskobines, then we will be brokenhearted.”

  “Why should that matter to us?” asked the chief, with scorn.

  “Because it will cause us to raise a war party and someone in your village will surely die.”

  “Yes, that is true, but we are not afraid.”

  “See into my fatherly heart,” said Deydey, “and know that I have never hurt one of your people. I have never made war against your people. I have traded with and admired you. I do not want to kill you and I do not want you to kill my sons, or me, or my party here. I think we can find another way.”

  “What way is that?” said the chief.

  The two smoked their pipes and were lost in contemplation for quite some time. Nobody thought they would come to a solution. Then Deydey said, “We will adopt each other. We will become brothers. We will enter your clan, and you will enter ours. We will bring gifts to you, and honor you. For one year, you will have me, my son, and his medicine animal to console you. The next year, my son and I will return to our family.”

  I could tell how deeply it hurt him to make this offer. I could see that tears shone in his eyes. But he spoke clearly, and said, “We could do more, at peace.”

  The war chief was impressed with this offer, and called his council. While they talked, however, Miskobines came forward and raised his arm, and then he spoke, and Deydey translated.

  “Hear me, hear me, all of you! My son is named for the thunders, and he is a fine son. I love him more than I love my own life. My son, Animikiins, has offered to be the son of the chief instead of Quill. He says that Quill is not yet old enough, nor is the porcupine upon his head.”

  The chief smiled in spite of himself.

  “Animikiins, named for the thunders, has said that he will take his place. For my part, as his father, I offer to adopt you also. I offer to live for one year as the hunter in a family who has lost a man. I am still strong, I can still draw a bow, and I have the wisdom of these gray hairs. I am not done with my existence yet! I will live here for a year only to help the Bwaanag. Then my son and I will return to our people.”

  “Why,” said the chief, “if I take a liking to this boy, and he looks like a fine, strong boy, should I agree to let him go?”

  Then Animikiins turned bold. He spoke.

  “Because,” he said, holding up the red beads that someone had given him, “I promised to return these to a girl!”

  When this was translated to the Bwaanag, they burst out laughing and slapped Animikiins on the back and made jokes. And then we had a great feast and they gave the men new sets of clothing—they figured me out and gave me a dress, which I saved for Nokomis here—and after quite a few more days of getting to know one another we took our leave of those people. They were surprisingly good people. Sisseton and Wahpeton, they call themselves. Very generous, though still fearsome.

  Old Tallow reached into her pack and shook out a beautiful dress made of white doeskin. The skin was fluffy and light as cloth, beaded blue and orange across the yoke. It had deep fringe and was created with admirably tiny stitches.

  “Hmmph,” said Nokomis, “their women can sew.” She accepted the dress and held it in her arms. “But they can’t have our boy, and they can’t have the old man, either!”

  Still, it was a great relief to know that the men were alive, and everyone slept more soundly than they had for an entire moon.

  When Deydey, Fishtail, and Quill arrived, everyone gathered around, hugging them, amazed and tearful. Angeline was almost faint with relief, and all of her love showed in her face, increasing her beauty to such a degree that she seemed to blaze in the fresh light. From her pack, she drew Fishtail’s wedding vest. At once, he put it on and then the two stared into each other’s eyes. Feeling much older, but still in love, they stood holding each other in gratitude.

  Yellow Kettle always confused her affection with anger, and even as she put her head against Deydey’s chest, she gave a furious shake of her hand at Quill and cuffed at him before he darted away. The porcupine tumbled off his head, and Nokomis took the opportunity to grab Quill in a hug, so there was nothing he could do but hug her back. Omakayas stood aside and tried not to feel anything but the happiness of seeing her father and brother, but part of her was bereft. She missed Animikiins and Miskobines. She wondered if she’d ever see the boy who seemed to understand her, or the old man with his great sense of thoughtful dignity.

  “They will return,” said Deydey, as if he knew what she was thinking. “The Bwaan chief promised that they would be back by next spring.”

  Omakayas turned her head shyly, in confusion that her feelings were noticed, and when she did she stared directly into the eyes of the chimookoman boy. Zahn stood motionless with his little sister, watching the reunion. There was no doubt that he, too, was happy to see Deydey and Quill. But in his face there was also an intense longing—for his own parents, surely. Omakayas instantly felt a pang of grief for him. She walked over, put her arms around his shoulders, and said that he was a brave boy. He didn’t yet understand enough of the Ojibwe language to reply, but he seemed to know that she cared for him. His hand tightened on her wrist.



  Deydey and Quill lifted the canoe that belonged to Miskobines and Animikiins up into a tree, where it wouldn’t rot, and where Miskobines and his son would find it when they returned from the Bwaanag. As the family traveled, they suffered from the loss of two hunters. Old Miskobines had the wily patience of age, and Animikiins had great strength and endurance. The family moved north. The area they passed through was well hunted, and as the birds and geese were now moving south it was increasingly hard to find meat. But it was a good rice year, and great stands of manoomin fed them along the way. They reached the south shore of Miskwaagamiiwi, or Red Lake, and with great relief traveled along its edge, making a good distance every day, and stuffing themselves with fish. The days were long and perfectly warm, but at night there was a chill. In the morning, there was a fresh vigor to the air.
  Soon, too soon, the leaves would fall. Already, Omakayas could see the first signs of dagwaaging, autumn, in the initial flags of red, orange, and yellow in the maples and birch.

  Old Tallow had her dogs, Nokomis, and the white children in her small canoe. Deydey and Mama traveled with Omakayas and Bizheens. Fishtail, Angeline, and Quill paddled a new canoe, which they had just made as best they could. They were all wedged in surrounded by packs of furs and bark packs of manoomin, bags of weyass, dried meat, or pemmican, pots, tanned skins, and bundles of their blankets. All summer, they had added to their store of goods, which they planned to trade for new traps, heavy blankets, ammunition. They had never been loaded with such wealth, and were very careful not to wet the packs of furs and hides. There would be so much to carry once they reached the northern tip of Red Lake that they worried about how they would make it across the great stretch of waabashkiki, or swampland, that still lay between the little family and the great lake where Muskrat lived.

  “We have come at the right time,” said Deydey, “before the rains begin. But we must hurry, or we will have to wait until freeze-up to cross the sloughs and bogs.”

  Every day they paddled the loaded canoes for as long as they could. When they camped onshore at night, they sometimes put up lean-tos of leafy branches. Other nights, they dug comfortable beds in the sand and slept curled in their blankets. Most of the mosquitoes and flies were gone now, and the peaceful waves curled all night at their feet.

  The little porcupine had grown into a fat waddling creature and often wandered away at night. But every morning, when Quill awakened, his medicine animal would be crouched beside his blanket, snoring softly. When he rose, the porcupine would follow him to the fire and sit beside him. Quill would share his first food of the day—some wild rice, a bit of stew, whatever he had. The porcupine especially liked tea now that the weather was getting cool. Nokomis prepared rich swamp tea from a shiny leaf with a dull brown underside and added a little maple sugar to the tin cup everybody shared. The porcupine always got the sweet dregs. It would sit, balanced on its threatening tail, and hold the cup in its plump dark paws. Quill had taught it to drink the tea, and after it drank the sweetness it always gave a tiny sigh of happiness. Then it would throw the cup down and waddle away.

  Mama said that it wouldn’t be long before the porcupine did not return, and that made Omakayas feel sad about the passing of things. Not only that, but since Quill had returned from the Bwaanag, he had become surprisingly quiet and serious, and he avoided Omakayas the way boys, as they grew older, avoided their sisters. She was surprised that she missed his teasing ways, but she did, and often looked over at him paddling with Fishtail and wished that he would make a face at her or splash her or even laugh at her. So she felt an unexpected happiness when he woke her one morning with an insult.

  “What’s this old root that drifted up last night?” he said, kicking at her foot.

  She kicked back at him, sleepily, and sat up rubbing the sleep off her face.

  “It’s your sister,” she said, “the one you have forgotten.”

  “It is you,” said Quill slowly, “who will soon forget me.”

  They looked at each other for a moment, upset at their own feelings, then Quill bugged his eyes out, stretched his lips with his fingers, made a horrible cackling noise, and began to pelt her with leaves and sticks. Omakayas felt better immediately and jumped up to start the day, which, as it happened, would be one that she’d long remember.


  It began with a hearty boozhoo from the woods as they were settling their packs and kettles into their canoes. Omakayas was helping Old Tallow pack her canoe, and she had just settled Zahn and Zozed in among the goods that they would carry. All of the canoes were pulled just barely ashore, ready at any moment to shove off, when the boozhoo sounded again.

  “I know that voice,” said Old Tallow. “And I don’t like it.”

  Soon the leaves parted and none other than Albert LaPautre appeared, the husband of Auntie Muskrat and father of Omakayas’s cousins. He was round as a barrel, with tiny eyes sharp with greed, and wore his hair in two long braids. LaPautre was vain about his clothing and always had to have the nattiest vests and fanciest silver pins and armbands. However, this day, although he looked to have dressed himself in what he considered finery, there was something wretched about his appearance. Strings of tattered ribbon hung from his shirt, and his pants were held up with a sash that shone with grease. The family hadn’t seen him since they had all left the island together. After only a few days, Albert LaPautre had persuaded Auntie Muskrat to take a different route north.

  Although Old Tallow held herself still and her dogs growled suspiciously, Omakayas was happy to see her uncle because it meant, she hoped, that her cousins would be near. But Albert LaPautre appeared to be alone. She dropped the bundle she was carrying and went forward to greet her uncle.

  Deydey also approached Albert and asked about the rest of the family.

  “I am surprised to see you here,” added Mama, who was holding Bizheens by the hand. She had just put most of her cooking equipment into the canoe she would paddle with Deydey. “Where is my sister?” she asked.

  “Where is my daughter?” echoed Nokomis.

  “Where are my cousins?” said Quill and Omakayas together.

  Fishtail and Angeline, who had just finished packing their canoe, left it barely touching the sand and walked over to Albert, also curious.

  Albert disregarded their questions. His eyes darted with great interest to the family’s packs of furs and hides and manoomin, but then he narrowed his eyes, pretending indifference. He looked away and put a pleasant, eager expression on his face. Omakayas could see that there was something wrong. He seemed jittery, his voice was pinched.

  “You have been hard at work, I see. Are you on your way to the trader’s?” He gave a hollow, jolly laugh.

  Old Tallow and her dogs stepped closer, next to Deydey.

  “Are your ears shut? Let me ask you again,” she said in a menacing voice. “Where is your family?” “Oh, ah, they are all very well, doing very well, ah yes, up in Lac du Bois, up there in the islands. Good hunting, fishing. Yes, they are fine.”

  Sweat popped out on Albert LaPautre’s big shiny face and his eyes darted from side to side, shifty and strange. One of Old Tallow’s dogs growled at the bushes behind Albert, and Old Tallow raised her hatchet.

  “Who is with you?” said Deydey.

  “Eh, nobody.” Albert opened his mouth in an oily grin and stepped closer. Omakayas noticed that he’d lost several teeth. All of a sudden, he lunged, caught Old Tallow around the middle, and knocked her to the ground. At once, the dogs were on top of him, growling and tearing at his arms and legs. Another dog darted into the bushes, a cry of pain was heard, and then a gun fired. Deydey was wearing his cloth turban, and it flew off as he fell backward.

  Omakayas threw herself on the ground and crawled to her father. Fishtail and Quill ran forward to meet two other men, scrawny and desperate, who leaped from the undergrowth. Nokomis unsheathed her knife and ran at one man, but Yellow Kettle got to him first. She grabbed a rice knocker and began to lambast him while Angeline used a paddle to beat him from behind. When yet another man reached from the bush and grabbed Omakayas’s foot, she slashed his hand with her knife and scrambled to her father’s side.

  LaPautre saw his chance and tried to escape. Running at him with a fierce war yell, Quill tripped on a root. As he fell, his pet porcupine lost its grip on his head and went flying, a prickly cannonball, straight into LaPautre’s face. Now LaPautre’s cry went up, a bizarre and shocked howl. Plucking madly at his cheeks and neck, he ran smack into a tree. He staggered away, lolling crazily from side to side, then gained his balance and dived into the brush. By the time Quill had picked himself up, all of the attackers were gone.

  “Howah,” Quill said to his porcupine, gently rubbing its nose, “you are a brave warrior.”

  Omakayas crad
led her father’s head. His face was torn and bleeding, but he was talking and gesturing with his hands. Nokomis and Yellow Kettle bent over him and traced how the bullet from the gun had creased his scalp. There were black powder burns all around his eyes and he couldn’t open them.

  “Help, help!” It was Zahn, yelling from the canoe as he tried to fight off the men, who had sneaked around along the shore. Omakayas turned to see them—four ragged Anishinabeg and mixed-bloods and one white man. They had leaped into the canoes and were trying to shove off. LaPautre, still popping with quills, was desperately trying to join his fellow thieves.

  There was a fierce yell from Fishtail.

  “Get them!”

  Old Tallow ran to the shore along with Omakayas and Quill. The attackers had taken advantage of the family’s fear over Deydey and managed to shove off with everything, including Zahn and Zozed, with their furs, their skins, their blankets, their kettles, except for the one Mama had grabbed to swing at the head of one of the attackers. Nokomis yelled, “Go!” Fishtail, Angeline, Yellow Kettle, Quill, and Omakayas flung themselves into the lake and swam as hard as they could. Zahn struggled with the attackers and Omakayas saw one of them strike the boy, who fell into the bottom of the canoe. They swam with mad energy, but the wind was with the paddlers and they slowly outdistanced even Angeline, the fastest swimmer.

  At last, they were left treading water. Everything was gone. The canoes were quickly vanishing and only Zozed’s thin wail could be heard. The sound of that little cry struck them all to their hearts. Omakayas shouted over and over to Zahn, but there was no answer. The canoes were only black dots. Turning to one another, swimming back in shock, the family saw that in one instant they had gone from having everything they needed, to having nothing.

  And worse than that, Deydey was blinded by the flash of powder from the gun.

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