The porcupine year, p.7
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       The Porcupine Year, p.7

           Louise Erdrich
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  “Hold still,” said Nokomis impatiently. She was bathing Deydey’s face and eyes with warm tea brewed from the needles and roots of balsam trees. They had made camp on the north shore of the big lake. Now there was no question that they would have to wait until freeze-up to cross the great waabashkiki, the swamp that stretched before them. It was terrible to see Deydey stumbling about, his eyes wrapped, or hanging on to the arm of Yellow Kettle. He still could not see, but Nokomis made him lie still as often as she could, bathed his eyes, and counseled him to have patience.

  During the robbery, Fishtail had grabbed his gun, but had little ammunition. The women still had their knives. Omakayas had been rolling up her blanket, so she had something to keep her warm, which she now shared with Bizheens. Mama had her one kettle and a rice knocker. Old Tallow had her dogs. At that moment, Old Tallow and her dogs were out hunting with a spear she’d made by tying her knife to a heavy stick. She was determined to bring down a bear for its meat and fur. Old Tallow missed the coat that became her blanket, her shelter once the wind grew cold. That coat had been made of furs and velvets, calico patches, and patterned wool blankets. It had been Old Tallow’s favorite possession and she vowed that if she ever found Albert LaPautre she would skin him alive and add his pelt to her collection.

  Omakayas knew she actually meant that. She shuddered but felt in her own heart there was no revenge harsh enough for what LaPautre had done.

  “What will they do with Zahn, with Zozed?” she asked every day.

  Everyone had a different idea. Deydey was sure that LaPautre would try to ransom them off to a trader and say that he had rescued them. Fishtail had whispered his fear that they would be sold, as servants, to some farm family. Nokomis believed that they would be rescued somehow. Everyone had a conflicting opinion, but their hearts were wrenched. Angeline, especially, had grown fond of the children. She and Fishtail had planned to adopt them in a ceremony once they reached a new home place.

  “At least,” said Angeline, “if they were sold to a trader or a priest, they would not starve.” Right now, that was a distinct possibility for them all. They had faced starvation before, but never without their guns and traps. Omakayas could not imagine what would happen to them if Deydey’s eyes did not heal. His cheeks were still blackened, his forehead still bruised green and dark yellow. The worst thing was, the question “Why?” had no answer. LaPautre had been ridiculous, pompous, and an embarrassment sometimes. He’d neglected his family and believed himself a famous medicine man, he’d been known to steal a dried fish or two, but he had never been cruel.

  “Perhaps the ishkodewaaboo has destroyed his heart,” Yellow Kettle said.

  “And I’ll be sure to destroy the rest of him,” said Old Tallow.

  Omakayas finished weaving a length of basswood twine and set out into the low-growing woods around their camp to set rabbit snares. She wasn’t having much luck, and the sight of fat rabbits running here and there, not cooking in their one remaining stew pot, infuriated her. There were lots of rabbits this year, but could she catch one? It appeared not.

  She bent over, looking closely at the ground for rabbit tracks or droppings. Quill, who now wore the raggedest of skins and old makizinan, passed her without a laugh. He didn’t even tease her about her lack of skill. She figured things must be pretty bad if Quill didn’t even laugh at her.

  “Aren’t you even going to make fun of my snares?” she asked.

  Quill crouched next to her and examined her work, but said nothing. He smelled better now that his porcupine was too big to stay on top of his head. The quilling of LaPautre’s face had been its last valiant act.

  “Where is your warrior animal?” asked Omakayas.

  “Recovering its strength,” said Quill in a sad voice.

  The porcupine had not been the same since it was flung through the air. It was still in shock, and didn’t want to leave its human beings. The porcupine stayed in camp munching the soft inner bark of aspen that Quill gathered for it every morning. As it ate, he stroked its nose and murmured words of praise.

  “I’m going to catch a beaver,” said Quill, still refusing to criticize Omakayas’s work. He was turning into a very good hunter and had fashioned a limber bow and swift arrows to replace those that were stolen. He already had taken four beaver pelts, and Omakayas had stretched them. They were making a coat for Old Tallow. If Omakayas could snare some rabbits, she’d make a rabbit blanket for Nokomis. It was already getting cold at night and snow was in the air.

  With freezing hands, Omakayas set ten snares, just where she hoped rabbits would jump. Then she gathered some highbush cranberries. They would be good with venison, if only Fishtail could get a deer.

  Such were their lives now! They had planned to reach Auntie Muskrat’s camp rich with furs, their packs bursting with manoomin and dried weyass, pemmican, and seeds. Now they were reduced to scratching for survival.


  When Nokomis realized that her medicines and her garden had been stolen, she had actually cried. The seeds were her life’s work—each was selected over the years from the corn or potato or squash with the vigorous qualities Nokomis coveted. There was no replacing such a treasure. Omakayas had never seen her grandmother weep before. Old Tallow’s face had boiled into a thundercloud, for she so loved Nokomis. Old Tallow had stomped from the camp to deal with her anger. For a time, she could be heard thrashing around and growling in the bush.

  “Granddaughter,” said Nokomis one morning, “come with me and gather. At least we have everything we need right here.”

  She gestured at the swamp before them. “What you see before you is a great medicine bundle.” She and Omakayas walked out into the waabashkiki and set to work then, assembling all the medicines that they would need for the winter.

  They gathered baakwaanatig, the staghorn sumac, whose furry red berries made a strengthening drink when added to water. Nokomis dried great clumps of these berries as well, for they would stop bleeding. They picked bagizowim, mugwort, which was a good heart medicine. They dug the roots of ininiwa’inzh, milkweed, and collected the leaves of oja’cidji’bik, which they would use to heal bruises, and the roots that cured boils. They collected wiishkobi-mashkosi, sweetgrass, and wiikenh, sweet flag, for colds and coughs, toothaches, cramps, fevers. They brought back great armfuls of reeds for Angeline to use in weaving mats.

  Omakayas spent each day of that moon in the great medicine swamp with Nokomis. In her later years, she would realize that this was when she had received the greatest part of her education. She learned all that Nokomis knew. This was how she became a healer.


  There was frost on the ground in the mornings now. One day, Omakayas walked out into the swamp to check her snares and saw that Quill was gently adjusting each one of them.

  He was helping her without telling her!

  Omakayas turned away, not sure whether to be grateful or ashamed. Later on, when she checked the rabbit snares, she saw that Quill’s adjustments had been smart, and two rabbits, waaboozoog, were caught.

  Omakayas pulled the loops off each waabooz, reset the snares trying to copy Quill’s method, and brought the animals home to Mama.

  “Howah!” Bizheens was adventurous and tumbled everywhere around the camp. Yellow Kettle worried constantly that he would walk into the fire, or fall into deep water. As often as she could, she gave him some little task, but he was lively as a kitten and slipped away whenever he could to inspect his surroundings. Fishtail was using every one of his bullets wisely. He’d brought home a deer and a runty moose, and Mama had made a new set of skin clothes for Bizheens, as well as makizinan lined with rabbit fur. He, at least, had warm clothing.

  Mama took the rabbits gratefully from Omakayas. Her temper had remarkably improved during this crisis. It seemed that she was firmer with herself and more in control when her little family was in danger. And she was very worried about Dey
dey. She nursed him with tenderness.

  “I didn’t catch the waaboozoog. It was Quill,” said Omakayas. “He followed me, reset my snares, and the rabbits hopped right in. Why is he so good at it?”

  “Maybe his porcupine told him a few things,” said Mama jokingly.

  Omakayas wondered if there wasn’t something to what Mama said. She walked over to the porcupine, who was, as usual, sitting in the corner of the camp clearing with a pile of bark before him. He was looking fat and worried. Omakayas sat down on the ground near him.

  “Gaag,” she said, “what is my brother’s secret?”

  The porcupine looked at her with sympathetic, shining black eyes, but of course said nothing. Omakayas touched its nose and it sniffed at her gently.

  “Why don’t you ask your brother his secret?” asked Mama. But the very thought of asking Quill for his advice was…well, it was just impossible! She was the older sister. She could hardly ask for her younger brother’s help. She was supposed to be the one with the knowledge.

  Omakayas kept setting her snares every morning, and during the day, she was sure, her brother went out and made his clever adjustments. Now there were always a few rabbits caught. Omakayas thought that she would learn by looking at exactly what he had done in her absence, but once the rabbit had struggled in the loop it was hard to tell how Quill had set it.

  She went to Deydey. As he rested, in darkness, he liked to have her come and talk to him and sing to him. He was using his knife to carve out a new wooden chess set. His old one, much treasured, had been one of those things stolen. He was carving by feel, and doing a good job of it. Little horses, towers, pawns, and robed bishops were lined up next to his bed of springy fir boughs. He reached his hand out and Omakayas held it as she sat beside him.

  “Deydey, can you help me snare rabbits as well as my brother? Can you give me your knowledge?”

  “You must think like a rabbit,” he said.

  Omakayas was silent. What did this mean?

  “My daughter,” said Deydey, “I have had a great deal of time to reflect as I lie here. One of the things that I regret most, stolen from us by LaPautre, was my medicine bag. I was keeping your feathers in that bag. Also, the stone pipe that belonged to my father and his father before him. I will have to make a new pipe. I will have to travel to the land of the Bwaanag in order to trade for their stone, or I will have to use the black stone that we find farther north. I miss that pipe of my fathers very greatly. And I also miss the four feathers that you gave me. You were so brave in taking them. I meant to use those in a ceremony.”

  “What ceremony?” asked Omakayas.

  “A ceremony that would honor my daughter when she became a young woman,” said Deydey.

  “But Angeline has already…,” Omakayas began. Then she realized that Deydey was talking about his younger daughter. Her face grew warm and she couldn’t speak. Deydey sounded sad when he spoke again.

  “My girl, if I do not recover, I want you to live a strong life.”

  “Don’t talk that way,” said Nokomis, walking into the birchbark house. “You are going to get well if you just lie still!”

  “I am growing weak here!” said Deydey irritably.

  “You are allowing your face and eyes to heal.”

  Deydey sighed, and as Nokomis unwrapped the cloth and the medicines from his face, he said grumpily, “You’re going to dose me again, I suppose.”

  “Yes,” said Nokomis, “now lie still while I wash your eyes with my balsam tea.”

  “Balsam tea, balsam tea, that’s all I hear. Your great cure-all!”

  Nokomis tenderly poured the warm tea from a clean birchbark makak that she made each time she prepared new tea. Deydey quietly bore her ministrations.

  “Bekaa,” he said, blinking as she lifted the cup away. “Bekaa, Nookoo!”

  “What is it?”

  “Nookoo,” Deydey said softly, blinking harder, “I can see a little light!”

  The leaves fell off the trees in great windy gusts, and the days were cold, but with Quill’s help rabbits continued to be caught in the snares. If there was nothing else to eat, there was always rabbit soup. Omakayas and Nokomis dug cattail roots and Mama boiled them and mashed them into the stew. Every day, they added one more item to their store of survival goods. At night, as they sat together around the fire, they were closer than ever in their determination.

  “Old LaPautre will not undo us,” said Yellow Kettle, “but it worries me. What did he do to those children? And what about my sister, Muskrat?”

  “If he harmed one hair, I’ll have his whole head,” said Old Tallow grimly, gulping at her soup.

  She looked ferociously at the spoon she’d carved and smiled. Omakayas thought she’d bite the round part off just to prove her rage.

  “I plan to hunt him down one day,” said Quill.

  The cold nerve in his voice chilled Omakayas. It was as if her brother was becoming a different person.

  “LaPautre will undo himself,” said Nokomis. “Nothing that you could do, any of you, could possibly be as evil as the spirit of the rum he drinks.”

  They fell silent, knowing this was true.

  Angeline passed around a basket of nuts—she was very smart about watching where squirrels and mice put their caches, and she raided them.

  “The poor mice!” said Fishtail, teasing her.

  “Poor mice!” said Angeline. “We are in no position to feel sorry for them! We are just one skinny rabbit away from starving!”

  But they’d banked their birchbark house well with earth and leaves, and their stomachs were full—for now. They all slept well, even though that night it snowed for the first time and when they woke, the earth was shining and white.



  The snow fell early, long, and deep. Five days passed and there was nothing to eat. Deydey sang his spirit songs until he was hoarse, hoping to conjure an animal near or at least pluck up their courage. Nokomis and Angeline ranged the woods for dried berries, more squirrel caches. Omakayas swallowed her pride and asked Quill to help her set snares. But it seemed some magic was upon the land, making animals scarce as ghosts. The porcupine had gone to sleep in a hollow log, a place that only Quill knew about. He was suspicious of Old Tallow, who had joked once about eating his medicine animal. He would not reveal where it slept. Instead, he took his bow and arrows out each morning, though his clothing was now too thin for the harsh wind. Quill bravely went out hunting with Fishtail, and each night they returned, famished, empty-handed, hoping that the women had managed to find something. Anything.

  This was usually the time of year when they had wild rice, fish, dried pemmican, stores from the summer to rely upon. This was the time of year when they could count on the bale of dried fish, the stash of mushrooms and nuts, the sacks of fat and berries, even some bits of last spring’s maple sugar. All of this had been stolen.

  Old Tallow ranged far with her dogs and her spear. Her dogs needed to eat, too. They had to have meat to live. They caught mice, flipped them in the air, and crunched their bones. As they weakened, she weakened, though she rose fierce as ever and made her way out into the biting wind. She was on the trail of a bear, she said, with bigger tracks than any she had ever seen. It had not yet gone in to hibernate, but was still fattening itself. On what?

  One day, Old Tallow came back with a handful of mice, which she threw at Mama’s feet.

  “I return,” she cried with the air of a great hunter.

  In spite of their dizzy pain, everyone laughed, even Quill, who suffered terribly from his worst nightmare—nothing to eat. Mama put the mice in the stew pot with some bits of leather, and the whole family choked down the mice-leather stew for strength.

  Day by day, Omakayas could feel everyone growing weaker. Bizheens’s cries, so shrill at first when he suffered hunger pains, had dulled to a whimper. They all smoked kinnikinnick to dull the stabs in their guts. There were days when she hadn’t the strength t
o move and lay still in her blanket, sick and listless. Every night, she tried to dream of an animal, a place to hunt. But even her dream animals had deserted her. Yet always, Old Tallow would rise and spend her day hunting. Wearing only her thin dress and a ragged deer hide, she would drag herself and her spear out the door with a growl and call her dogs, who would always come even though they suffered too. Sometimes she looked like an old oak tree, bent crooked. But as she strained to the hunt she grew lithe and limber as when she was young.

  “Aaargh,” she would say when she returned each night, warming her hands at the fire. “I can stand the hunger, it is the cold I hate! Somewhere around here, a huge bear is wearing my coat. I mean to have it, tomorrow!”

  Each day, too, Deydey tried to rise. Sometimes he got past Nokomis and stumbled out into the snow, but then he stood, bewildered and discouraged. Although with each day, each dose of balsam tea, his vision recovered just a little, he could still only distinguish the shadows of things. And in this time of aching hunger, he despaired.

  “LaPautre and his big belly would feed us all for a moon!” he said. “I could eat him alive!”

  “Saa! Don’t talk like that!” said Yellow Kettle.

  The dreadful cannibal spirit of the wiindigoo was on the land, the spirit that drove people mad with hunger as it hid the animals and put the fish to sleep. They could all feel its bitter breath.

  That night, Omakayas dreamed at last. In her dream the bear woman, her helper, came to visit her. The bear woman was powerful, with a strange face that was both bear and human. She wore beautiful buckskin clothing. Her paws were silky with long, powerful, curved black claws.

  “I must take one of you,” she said, “but the rest I will allow to live.”

  Omakayas woke in the dark, dizzy and frightened. She could not rise, nor could she compel herself to do so the next morning. It was as though the bear woman had frozen her. She listened to the others in the wigwam. Fishtail was too famished and weak to go out. Yellow Kettle tried to comfort the whimpering Bizheens by giving him one of her makizinan to chew. Deydey was silent and Nokomis could barely drag herself about to keep the fire going. Omakayas managed, at last, to help her grandmother brew swamp tea and balsam tea with melted snow. It was all they had. At least, along with the kinnikinnick, it helped with their stomach cramps. Hours passed, and Omakayas thought perhaps she would describe her dream, but her mind was invaded by dread. Who would the bear woman take? She tried to fall asleep again and find her spirit, tried to offer herself, but now her sleep again was black.

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