Since I didn’t have an interview of a real-life person this week, I thought I’d interview another couple of integral characters from my books, Withershins and Spirit Quest. The two interviewees I had in mind had a major impact on Michelle Langly, Kristen’s mother. I interviewed the two of them a few months ago.
This won’t be the usual sort of interview, however, because in order to interview Owl-Who-Sees-All and Bear-With-Fire-Paw, I had to perform the withershins ritual and travel back to the past. I asked Michelle if I could borrow her talisman and try it. After some hesitation and a bit of meditation, she finally agreed to let me attempt it.
This is less like an interview and more like an adventure, an adventure that took place during the full moon last Sunday night. I had no way of knowing to what time I would be transported, if in fact I actually succeeded in traveling back in time, or if I would get back in time to post the interview. I only knew I wanted to give it the old college try.
Michelle came along to guide me through the process. She’s become a strong elder in the native community and I believe she possesses some of the magic of her ancestors. I hoped it would be enough.
Before heading to the church, she insisted I go through a cleansing ceremony. We stopped at a friend’s property near St. Andrews where a domed-roof lodge had been erected, similar to those used for sweat ceremonies. Her friend had already started a fire in the pit inside the lodge that was normally used for the heated rocks. Michelle indicated for me to sit beside her while she unloaded her medicine bag, including a long clay pipe adorned with an eagle feather. She tossed a pinch of an herb on the fire, causing the flames to spurt and spike. I recognized the scent as sage.
She held a twist of dried sweetgrass over the flames, igniting the ends for a second and waving the smoke over herself. Then, she passed it to me. I waved the smoke over me, as well. Michelle chanted the appropriate prayers and songs. We cleansed ourselves again with the sweetgrass smoke and then she lit the pipe. She sucked in the smoke, holding it in her mouth for a moment before she released it into the air. In English, she expressed her wishes that the spirits assist me in my task. Michelle passed the pipe to me. I brought smoke into my mouth, thought about the time travel journey of which I was about to embark. Then, I slowly blew out the smoke, with the prayer:
“I hope that by performing the withershins, I will be able to write another chapter of Michelle’s story and provide greater understanding about the ancient culture of the First Nations people.”
Michelle sang the final prayer and indicated that we should rise. She led the way out of the lodge down the path to her friend’s house.
“I hope this fits,” she said, holding a long garment bag. “I’m a member of the Historical Society, so was able to borrow this dress for you, as well as a suede jacket, winter moccasins, and a fur cloak. There’s also a pair of wool stockings, mittens, and a scarf.”
Once I changed clothes, we got into her car and headed towards the church. About ten minutes later, we arrived. She found an obscure place to park and we walked back towards the short stone fence. My heart raced, knowing what might happen if we got caught trespassing in the churchyard after dark. Now I understood how Michelle must have felt when she was here with her friends, Jason and Kevin.
As we crawled over the low wall, the moon’s light reflected off the snow like millions of diamond chips.
Michelle checked her watch and said, “It’s almost midnight.”
The chill air was still. Not a breath of wind stirred the naked tree branches. Michelle gave me the arrowhead necklace and I placed it around my neck.
The area around the church seemed to be fairly well-packed so I had no worries about stumbling through deep snow. I peered through the night towards the rectory across the street, afraid I might see lights appear in the window. All remained dark, except for the orange glow of the street light marking the intersection of River and St. Andrews Roads. Michelle touched my shoulder.
It was time.
I took a deep breath, pulling the scarf up over my mouth and nose. I patted the suede pouch tied to my waist, confirming that I still had the ink, stick pen, extra nibs and a pad of paper wrapped in leather with the questions I wanted to ask Bear and Owl when I met them. I also checked for my asthma inhaler, knowing the running I was about to do would most likely bring on an attack. I only hoped I’d have enough breath to accomplish my task.
A snowy owl hooted from its perch high in the old oak tree.
“The spirit guide!” I whispered, excitedly.
Michelle grinned at me and nodded. I took another deep breath, the frosty air strained through the wool strands of my scarf. My spectacles fogged as the warm air beneath my scarf met with the cold glass. I took them off and placed them in their case and then into my pouch. My distance vision isn’t too bad, so I could still see the slightly fuzzy images of the church and trees around me.
I began to run counterclockwise around the church, quickly completing the first circle. As I started the second, I could feel a slight burn in my lungs. It wasn’t too bad, yet, so I initiated the third circle. Half way around, my legs began to feel like jelly. It had been a long time since I’d had so much strenuous exercise and I am no longer the 18 year-old I was when I did this the first time – and then, I never finished!
I rounded the last corner of the church and saw the glow Michelle had described to me. Although I felt a sudden pang of fear, I carried on, plunging into the bone-chilling cold of the swirling vortex. I felt suspended for what seemed like an hour, but must have only been a few seconds, before the ground met my face. I lay there, stunned for a moment, the wind knocked out of me. Turning on my side, I reached into my pouch and brought out my inhaler. After shaking it vigorously, I pressed it against my teeth. I expelled all my breath, then squeezed the plunger and inhaled the vapours. I repeated the action until I felt my bronchial tubes open up and the burn in my lungs ease. I picked up a handful of fresh snow and rinsed out my mouth. A little of the cold liquid drizzled down my esophagus, further cooling my throat and lungs.
Suddenly, a leather-mittened hand was thrust in my face, offering to help me rise. I took it and stood, staring at the chest of a young man. I had to raise my head to see his face, as he was about a foot taller than me.
“You must be Bear,” I said, my voice sounding hoarse and shaky in the darkness.
“I am,” he replied. “Grandfather is waiting for you.”
Bear led me to one of the two horses waiting patiently by a hitching post. He boosted me onto the back of the smaller one. It had been a long time since I’d ridden a horse and I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t fall off the beast. I was glad the skirt of my dress was full enough for me to straddle the animal without it riding up too much, exposing my stocking-covered legs as it was considerably colder than the time from which I’d left.
Once I was a little more confident with my balance, I glanced around me, curiously. The stone church was almost complete, but the window frames remained empty, the stained glass panes still en route to Red River. The original wooden church stood behind the stone structure, much as I had imagined it. I strained to see the landscape, but there really wasn’t much to see. There was only snow and a few scrubby bushes along the river bank, illuminated by the light of the full moon.
“What year is this?” I asked.
“1847,” Bear said.
“January,” Bear answered. “Michelle has only been gone a week, but her disappearance has caused quite a stir.”
“Yes, she told me about the problems she caused, leaving so abruptly,” I said. “She found a notice about it in an old newspaper.”
“Are you here to help dispel the rumours?”
“I’m sorry, no. I don’t think there is anything I could say that would make a difference. I’m only here to document what happened and talk to you and your grandfather.”
“You are a newspaper reporter?”
“No, but I am a writer and want to tell your story as accurately as possible.”
Bear seemed to ponder this for a long time before he spoke again.
“Grandfather said you would help us. I assumed that meant you would save him from his fate, but I must be wrong. Michelle was always worried about the consequences of disrupting the future by changing the past. Maybe the best thing you could do for us, other than changing the inevitable, is simply to tell people about us and how we lived our lives.”
“I hope that will be enough,” I told him. Something nagged at the back of my mind. “Aren’t you supposed to be up north?”
“I was heading north, but Grandfather talked to me in a dream, so I returned to the fort. I knew I was needed here.”
“That explains it,” I mused.
Studying the man riding beside me, I could definitely understand why Michelle was so enthralled with him. He was not just handsome, with a prominent nose and high cheek bones, but he had a depth of wisdom in his dark eyes that seemed well beyond his age. He also seemed quite sad, probably because he had just lost the love of his life. I wondered how this would affect his future, with Michelle gone.
Dawn streaked the sky shades of pink by the time the high stone walls of the fort rose up ahead of us. Before we reached the blacksmith shop just south of the fort, Bear dismounted and assisted me to the ground. We led the horses to a post by the shop and tethered them, then I followed Bear to the west gate. As we entered, I heard a bugle trumpet the tune of Reveille, calling the soldiers to rise with the sun. We followed the shoveled path around the Big House to the southwest corner. Two soldiers stood outside the solid wood door. All the windows of the turret had bars across them.
Bear leaned over and spoke to one of the guards, tossing his head in my direction. He turned and told me to take the writing utensils out of my pouch. When I did so, the guard ushered us inside. It was strange not to see all the museum pieces and information boards I was used to seeing set up in the divided space. Instead, more bars with heavy metal hinges closed off the room on the right. The left-hand side was set up like a dining room with a bench against one wall and a heavy wooden table in front of it. Dishes with half-eaten food still sat on its surface.
The guard unlocked the barred room and let us enter, but locked the door behind us. It wasn’t much warmer inside the turret than it was outside. The single paned windows were not much protection against the frigid winter air and the wood-burning stove in the centre of the room wasn’t throwing much heat.
An elderly native man sat cross-legged on a fur carpet near the stove, his back to us. A low moaning sound emanated from his throat, rising and falling in a quiet prayer song. Bear kneeled behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. The older man finished his song, opened his eyes and smiled at his grandson.
“She . . is here?” he said in a voice barely audible.
Bear took my arm, bringing me around to face him. Then he introduced him to me.
“This is my Grandfather. You may call him Owl.”
I took Owl’s right hand in both of mine and said, “It is such a pleasure to meet you, Owl. You may call me Susan.”
“Susan,” he said slowly, saying my name as though trying on a shoe to see if it fit. He smiled and covered my hands with his left one. “That is a good name.”
“Thank-you. Would you mind if I asked you some questions? I have heard Michelle’s story about her time with you and there are some more things I’d like to know about you. Is that acceptable?”
Bear leaned over to Owl and murmured something in his ear. He looked at me and said, “Since Grandfather’s English is not very good, I will translate.”
He glanced at Owl, who spoke softly.
“He wants you to know that he is just a humble teacher and not worthy of such interest,” Bear told me.
“A man who is so attuned to nature is certainly of interest to me,” I told him. “How did you become the medicine man for your tribe?”
“His mother was the medicine woman and he learned everything from her. When she went to meet the Creator, he was asked by the people to replace her.”
Although Bear was translating, I looked at Owl when I asked my questions. “I would have thought you’d automatically become the medicine man. Is this not so?”
“He was the most qualified of all the people, the most revered. Our Chief respected his visions. Our village prospered when he was consulted. That is why he was chosen to be our medicine man.”
“What about you, Bear? What’s your story?”
“When I was about five years old, Grandfather had his first vision about the future. He discussed it most arduously with our Chief Peguis, so when the Reverend Cochrane came to our encampment, Grandfather knew he was the person to help me learn to speak English and teach me the ways of his people.”
“There is a saying about knowing your enemy. Is that why he wanted you to learn about the Europeans?” I asked Bear.
“Grandfather did not consider them his enemies, despite the fact that the dream he had was about the Europeans and how we would have to adjust to the arrival of more from that part of the world. He did fear that our ways might be lost with the influence of so many. He says that is why he brought Michelle here and why he allowed you to come and talk with us. You can bring our messages back with you.”
“What messages would those be, Bear?”
Owl waved me closer. He grabbed my chin and smiled. His dark eyes were bright, intense. They bore into mine as though he was trying to look into my soul. He released my chin and settled back in his chair. He nodded and spoke to Bear, who in turn translated.
“Grandfather believes you are the one best suited to tell Michelle’s story. Michelle carries the messages. The more people you encourage to learn Michelle’s story, the more you will help spread those messages.”
“I have already written her stories and I am trying to spread the word,” I assured them.
“That,” Owl said, then paused searching for the words, “is all we can ask. Thank-you.”
“Will you speak to the Governor on my grandfather’s behalf?” Bear asked, changing the subject.
“Like I said before, Bear, I don’t know what I could say. No one knows me from Adam. Why would they take my word that he’s innocent of killing Michelle?”
“You could say you have seen her since she left that night with Grandfather.”
“I could do that,” I agree. “If you think it will help, I will talk to the Governor.”
Since this post is already long enough and it is so late in the day, I will post the rest of this story/interview another day. Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride so far. 🙂