1543, The Season of Berries
The cold and damp of early morning hunched over the mirror-calm lake. The sun had risen high enough above the pines on the opposite lakeshore to begin dissolving the tendrils of fog.
Being careful not to look at her reflection on the water, a girl of fourteen summers gutted her catch of fish in the lake. A child’s voice called, “Raspberry Face, Raspberry Face.”
She ignored the child, as she did whenever one of the children or adults called out the words, words which had driven her to the fringes of the village. She had learned to feign indifference, but her nature was too sensitive not to be hurt.
“Raspberry Face, Raspberry Face.” The voice was now close enough to reveal it was her niece.
The fish needed to be gutted and taken to share with the village. It had been a good catch. She was good at fishing, one of those tasks done by both the women and men of the village, not that she was yet a woman.
Niece found her and in childhood petulance said, “Grandmother calls you to come to her wigwam.”
“When fish are ready.”
“Tell Stepmother I will bring her a best fish.”
Niece was enjoying her pout.
“Run off and tell Grandmother.” She said the words kindly. She did not blame Niece. Niece was imitating those older than herself.
Who should she blame?
She placed the cleaned fish in a birch bark basket and carried them up into the center of the village. She gave a fish to each wigwam near her own, receiving no thanks, nor did she expect any. She was doing what everyone in the village did. All was shared—food, grief, joy, stories, tools, work, firewood, birch bark—all the things that gave them life.
The largest fish she carried into the wigwam of her stepmother, the only mother she had known. Stepmother treated her the same as she did her other surviving children, three of whom she bore for her first husband and one she bore to the girl’s father.
Stepmother said, “It has been fourteen summers since you were born. Soon you must be given as Wife.”
Fourteen summers since her mother died giving birth to her; eleven summers since she had fallen into the fire, the pain of which she remembered. Would a man want her this way? She ran her marred left hand over the scars on the left side of her face. She touched the eyelid which dropped over the undamaged eye. The physical pain was only memory. The stigma of being damaged would never be gone. The stigma was the reason she walked, played, worked, ate, and dreamed her visions on the fringes of the village, where she escaped as much taunting as she could. Everyone in the village had a difficult life, making the people of the village both hard and generous. When the girl’s mother died, the village wives had shared their milk, most coming from a wife whose child had died soon after its birth. The wives, who did not think she would survive, had named her Sky Fawn for the mottled color of her skin those first few days.
Stepmother watched Sky Fawn touch her scar. “You are asking if a man will take you.”
“You can still bear sons. A man will be found who will take you as Second Wife to help older First Wife. Your father will send your step-brothers and two cousins to other villages to tell about you.”
Sky Fawn wanted to say that every village around them knew about her and her face. The villages often came together or encountered each other in their migrations. Her raspberry scar was known to all in the region.
“In our village everyone is of your blood. We will seek first for a man in another village. Until that man is found, you can still fish and hunt with the young men. Remember you must save yourself for Husband we find. Then you will become a woman and do the work of a woman in your new village.”
Sky Fawn left the birch bark wigwam. She knew the taunting would continue in a new village, continue until she grew old enough to be worthy of respect, when she herself was Grandmother. Too well Sky Fawn knew how wives found pleasure in making fun of the faults of everyone, especially their husbands. Sky Fawn touched the scars again. She could feel that her scars were bumpy like a raspberry. They must be red, but she had never looked at herself in the water.
The children were playing below the bluff down by the lake. If Little Sister saw Sky Fawn, she would want to follow. Sky Fawn looked out at the two islands that gave this village site its name. Two High Islands. The village had been here for several seasons. It was a prized site among the tribe. Beneath their tall white pines the islands were rich in rabbits. In the winter when they could cross on the ice, deer were easy to hunt on the islands. Sky Fawn planned this afternoon to paddle out to the islands in the canoe that Old One had helped her build. She would take Little Sister with her to hunt rabbits. Little Sister could learn to provide for the family and village.
Sky Fawn slipped into the brush to climb up higher to a small glade. She looked around her to be sure she was alone beside the two large charred stumps. Inside the stumps were her treasures, her secret treasures: a few small clay dishes and pots formed by her hand as Old One had taught her, baked in a fire beside Old One’s wigwam, which sat several strides away from the village’s interfering men and snooping wives. Only Old One accepted her without comment on her raspberry scar. Sky Fawn asked him once what was his name before he became Old One. He told her he did not remember. The village shaman had named him Old One when he was still a boy. Old One, Shaman, and two old respected wives were the keepers of the tribal stories. Sky Fawn had learned many of them before Old One died last winter. “All has its purpose,” he had reminded Sky Fawn as he was dying. “The purpose of winter is to free the village of those who can no longer carry their own burdens.”
After Old One died, Sky Fawn was left with no friend, but before he died he had taught her the secret of marking rocks, a skill only males were allowed to practice. Women could decorate clothing, pots, and baskets but not paint rocks or canoes. However, because no boys or young men showed the interest or the skill of hand and because Sky Fawn was as skilled a hunter and as daring with a canoe as any male, Old One had secretly taught her what he knew, in the course of which he discovered her overpowering urge to make what their language could not name—art. Old One taught her to treasure her skill in secret until she could teach it to her son. The marking of the rocks was a vital part of what made the tribe a single people sharing geography and spiritual practices.
She pulled from one of the stumps a dish and two hand-sized flat stones. Off to the hidden center of a thick copse of balsams she carried them. If she had known the concept, she would have called this her studio. She thought of it as her safe place. She returned to the stump for a few piece of charcoal. In her safe place she crushed the charcoal into a fine powder between the stones and placed the powder in the dish. With her damaged left hand and her love of the task it took her an hour. She used a sumac stick to puncture the sacs of balsam sap and mix it into the charcoal.
Hidden under the balsams and weighed down by stones were several pieces of birch bark. She took out four pieces, on two of which she had already practiced. She needed but did not have the word sketch. One of her previous drawings was of a male figure, which she had drawn from memory. Old One had paddled her several miles away to where he had marked a rock wall with the figure and with other symbols. He had told her that the figure represented a man hidden among the stars who was greater than men. The movement of Star Man across the skies over a full year told the tribe of the approaching seasons. Star Man promised them each year that the killing winter would end and summer would return. Old One taught Sky Fawn how to see Star Man in the night sky.
Every clear night before going to bed in the wigwam of Father, Sky Fawn found Star Man. The secret she kept. Men, not women, were star gazers. The night that Old One died, Sky Fawn had seen one of her visions, her best vision so far. In the stars beside Star Man she saw the figure of a fawn. The fawn was leaping up towards Star That Never Moves. But humans did not find figures in the stars. They were taught to see the figures, not to discover new ones. Her vision had terrified her and still did. She had wanted to tell Old One, but by then he was in his wigwam sleeping himself off into the stars. Every clear night since then, the sky fawn had reappeared.
Now, because of Stepmother’s words, she was ready to overcome her fears and draw the sky fawn on the birch bark next to Star Man. Because her pointed alder stick carried very little pigment at one time, it took many applications to complete the drawing, which ruined her first attempt. Also, she knew her left hand was her better hand, but the damaged fingers could not grip the small stick. After several practices with her right hand, she formed an image she could paint on the rock wall which she had already chosen for her two figures. It was a rock wall which plunged down into the water, as was the rock wall where Old One had painted his Star Man. On the shortest night of the year, Star Man rose in the sky directly over the wall. To the left of the rock wall a stream flowed out of the lake over a shallow rapids and a few hundred yards to another lake, an important route for the tribe. Only Sky Fawn, with her light body and deft paddling skills despite her maimed hand, could canoe over the rapids. Near the stream two years ago she had killed her first deer, a fawn driven into the lake by the village men and boys. She had paddled beside the fawn and lanced it to death. The Shaman had pronounced that her name was an omen and her totem was the fawn.
How much time did she have before she was wived into another village? She guessed at least ten days. Tomorrow she would begin preparing her pigments as Old One had taught her.
Back in the village she found Little Sister to take her rabbit hunting on the island. She would miss Little Sister, despite her teasing. She would miss Father and Stepmother. Mostly she would miss this area, which was her home ground, where she could find the fringes on which to live. Perhaps in the new village she would find places of beauty, if First Wife would let her. As the two girls stalked rabbits, Sky Fawn listened to a voice vision, as Old One had taught her to do. Yes, before she was given for a only few small pelts, she would leave her mark, declare to all who came after that she, Sky Fawn, had been here.
Eight days later she had her pigment pots ready, leaving out, as Old One had taught her, only one ingredient to be added to the pots at the last minute.
An hour before dawn, she awoke, called by a voice vision. Her father heard her creep out of his wigwam. He was pleased she was going out as she often did to gather meat or fish or berries or roots. He would miss the skins and food she added to the family and village commonweal. He would miss her for herself, but Wife was correct; Sky Fawn needed to be out of his wigwam. He would not be given much in return. If only, if only he had paid more attention that day she fell in the fire.
The effort of paddling the four miles to her rock wall kept Sky Fawn warm. Along the way she drank much water from the lake. Her pots and sticks rested safely in the bottom of the canoe, gathered from the stumps in the scant moonlight. The lake was calm; the only wrinkles came from her paddle. She needed the lake to be calm to sit in the canoe against the rock wall and apply the pigment. The sun arose before she reached the wall. It needed to be higher for her to see the wall now in the shadows. Excited and afraid for the moment to come, she paddled in circles to stay warm. Then the sun became ready for her to add the last ingredient to the pots, her own urine, a delicate operation in a small canoe.
It took her an hour to paint Star Man. It must be done correctly. It was a spiritual act, to be done in joyful reverence at what had been created for the tribe. Her Star Man was not perfect. Rock was harder to paint than birch bark. But she was pleased. The image was good enough, she was sure, to please real Star Man, sleeping now during the day. Tonight he would see it. The sky fawn was done more easily, the results giving her joy. It was the best hour of her life.
She paddled out a few canoe lengths to see it as a whole. Those who came after would see and understand. The water remained still, giving the canoe only a slight rise and fall. She was so caught up that she forgot not to look down at the water. She saw her raspberry scar. She had been marked, Old One had told her, to do the great task of teaching the sacred skill to her sons. Did the mark have to be the opposite of beauty?
She looked up at her rock painting, down at her face, up at the image of herself on the stone as the sky fawn, back down at her face on the water. The village was wrong in their choice of a teasing name for her. Raspberries were of beauty; her face was not. What sort of a man would take her, even as Second Wife? Not a man of beauty.
She paddled back to the rock wall one canoe length to the right of her two figures. Against the rock wall she hurled her pots of pigment to shatter on the granite. Blotches of her colors hung on the wall and dripped down towards the water.
She turned her back and paddled to where the stream slipped out of the lake and over the rocks and into the forest. She could go down the stream and escape First Wife and Husband.
She would not last long on her own, lacking as she did many vital skills, such as knapping flint into knives and points.
Her pots and pigments were gone; the knowledge and skill would last forever. As she stared at the river, she received a voice vision of another skill she had learned from the fringes of the village. Some wives ruled husbands; she knew what it took. She would be passive Second Wife until she had a child inside. That would be her leverage against Husband and even First Wife. She would not listen to them; she would just do. Her birch bark baskets she would paint. She would practice her skill, and one day she would, as she had promised Old One, teach her sons. She, Sky Fawn, would also teach her daughters.
She turned and paddled back to the camp at Two High Islands.
“Just around this corner is what we want to show you,” spoke a disembodied man’s voice across a wilderness lake.
Two canoes came into view, one paddled by a mother and a eleven-year old boy, the other paddled by a father and a thirteen-year-old girl. The canoes drifted to a stop in front of a rock wall plunging down into the lake. The wall was awash with the mid-afternoon sun.“Do you see it?” asked Father, an eager tone in his voice.
“See what?” Daughter asked with little interest.
“Look at the rock wall right at your eye level,” the more patient Mother told the children.
“See what exactly?” asked Daughter, still stretching her tired back.
“Oh, I see, like something painted on the rock!” said Son, leaning forward to get a better look.
“Petroglyphs,” announced Father.
“Rock paintings,” translated Mother. “Many are scattered across the BWCA.”
“Who painted ’em?” asked Son at the same time as Daughter asked, “What’s this one a painting of?”
“The Indians, I guess the Chippewa,” Father answered his son. He asked Daughter, “What does it look like to you?”
“I don’t know,”she answered, but she did lean forward to look more closely.
Son’s interest was keen. “So some Indian guy paddled up to this rock wall and painted this, like thousands of years ago?”
“The experts think he did it a few hundred years ago,” Mother explained. “I don’t think they are sure how old it is. There is a man to the right.” She pointed. “Maybe a God, something from their myths.”
“It doesn’t look much like a man,” said Daughter.
“Well, you have to use your imagination,” Father told her. “He didn’t exactly go to art school.”
“Is that like an animal next to him?” asked Daughter.
“Some think it’s a caribou; some think it’s a fish,” Mother answered.
“Why did he bother to paint it?” asked Daughter.
“No one seems to know,” Father told her. “Maybe this was a place to worship that god. Maybe it is a sign post to guide Indians to somewhere. Maybe he was just fulfilling an artistic urge.”
“Wait!” Son shouted. “Isn’t there more paint right over there.”
They paddled the two canoes a few feet to the right. “I think it’s just stains on the rock,” Mother said. “Could be paint . . . it does not look like a figure or any animal.”
Back paddling his canoe from the wall, Father said, “We had better get moving to our campsite at Twin Islands.”
“Can we come back and look again?” asked Son. “I think I’d like to be an artist, but we don’t get much art in school.”
“I want to be a singer,” announced Daughter. As they paddle on, she began to sing. “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock . . .”
The other three joined in “Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock. We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight . . .”
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017