Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Messengers

This week's post is an entry in a short fiction contest, and it's longer than I would usually post here. I'll be talking more about it in upcoming weeks, but for now all you need to know is that The Messengers is best accompanied by a cozy seat and a piping hot mug of tea.

            Laura knew as soon as she saw the smoke that the Americans were coming, but it was the birds that brought her the news first. She had ended her noonday rest early, intent on putting as many new sweet potatoes into the ground as she could before the swift dusk of early March overtook her. The sun had been high; intent as she was on the tubers and the rough-edged furrow opening at her feet, she hadn’t noticed the silence for several seconds. Then she knew, suddenly, not so much hearing it as feeling it in her bones, that something was amiss.

            Her thoughts flew first to the baby, but Lena was with her cousins, napping under Mrs. Bechtel’s watchful eye. Besides, it hadn't been a cry of alarm that had brought on this sudden quiet. Laura straightened up, listening with her whole body, tense and still. She could hear the chatter of Schneider Creek hurling itself through the millrace—Jonathan had been there all day, working through the noon hour so as to join her later in planting the family plot. She heard the Ebys’ cow low softly, then the heavy clink of her bell. A goat bleated somewhere. And then the first alarm sounded, a cardinal’s sharp ‘tink!’, and then another, and then the robin that nested in the southernmost pecan tree let out a whinny, then fell silent, then whinnied again. Laura counted seconds silently, praying for a hawk, a cat, something ordinary, but the birds’ jumbled warnings told her that something extraordinary was afoot. Then she tasted it on the breeze: the faintest scent of smoke. 

            She dropped her hoe and hurried into the road. Someone was riding toward her along Queen Street, riding fast, down the long, smooth slope from St. Mary’s. Above the low dormitories of the hospital, south and west from where she stood shading her eyes against the sun, hung the tiny plume of grey that marked the end of the life she had known. 

            Laura crossed the street in a few swift strides and entered the house she and Jonathan and Lena shared with two other Mennonite families, those of Jonathan’s brother and cousin. She gave the radio three sharp cranks, ignoring Elisa Bechtel’s shushings as a couple of the children started to wake. Laura threw the switch: static, as she’d expected. They were jamming all frequencies. She switched it off and reached for her jacket, returning Mrs. Bechtel’s question with a curt “They’re here,” and nothing more. She cast a quick glance over little Lena, still sleeping, and willed herself out of the house and across the yard as briskly as she’d come. 

            Re-crossing Queen Street, she passed Emilio Eby and his son standing in the road and looking uphill toward the hospital. The rider was closer; she could see now it was a child riding bareback. Passing the Ebys without a word, she hurried on through the fruit trees to where the creek re-emerged from its dive under the road. Picking her way slowly now over the tussocks and buckled concrete that lined the bank, she came to a stand of young willows whose long tresses trailed in the current. She drew aside the curtain of budding tendrils and saw what she had come for: the canoe. 

            Its hull was sun-bleached fiberglass, streaked with black where careful hands had smoothed over the cracks with pine pitch. Jonathan had carved new crosspieces as a wedding present: the yoke to fit her slender shoulders,  the seats of woven cattail from the pond on her parents’ farm where she’d played as a girl. She grasped the gunnel now and sidestepped carefully into the current, feeling the cool water fill her shoes and tug at the hem of her dress. Then she paused and drew a slow breath, willing her racing mind to be present, fully and simply, in the moment that now hung before her. “Father, protect them,” she murmured, casting her eyes upward. Then, bending and reaching into the stream to touch the soft earth of the riverbed, “Mother, lend me speed.” She rose, swung into the boat, and took up her paddle. “Go to the Warriors,” she said to it, and with one long, smooth stroke she cut the clear water and was off. 

            “Go to the Warriors,” Jonathan had said, “that’s what we need to do.” They’d been lying awake together discussing it while the spring rains hammered on the thatched roof, drowning any sound that might have carried to the families in the adjoining rooms. The house was old, older than the town of Neuberlin itself. Jonathan Erb’s family had lived in it, died in it, ate, slept, and quarreled in it, enlarged it, demolished or burnt parts of it, moved its walls around, and generally called it home for seven generations. It had been built, an even longer span of years before that, by the very first white settlers of what would become Neuberlin County. It had outlasted many things in its four hundred years, and there seemed no reason to doubt it would outlast the present argument as well. 

            “But the Greater Toronto Dominion…” Laura began. 

            “It won’t work,” Jonathan cut in. “Neuberlin’s good land, but the GTD isn’t going to get into a pitched battle with the Union of American States over us. They administer half a million people—we’re a mote in their eye. As long as Toronto controls the Welland canal—and it’ll be a cold day in Houston before any Union army cracks Fort George—they can sail their ironclads up the coast of Lake Erie, no problem, and cut the American supply lines whenever they want. Detroit controls the shipping routes to the Midwest, Toronto to the East; that’s just the way it is, and a land invasion won’t change it. Why anyone in the States thought it would be a good idea to play empire in our direction is beyond me, but we’ll pay the price before the big boys in the GTD get tired of Detroit’s games.” 

            Laura said nothing at first. She was tired from the day’s work, and she wasn’t interested in arguing politics and military tactics with Jonathan. After an interval of rain hammering on the thatch, she said, “Then you don’t think Ezekiel’s mission will help us.” 

            “No,” said Jonathan. More hammering. 

            “Well,” said Laura at last, “it’s about time that old barnacle learned not to expect that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

            Jonathan laughed out loud. Ezekiel Eby, the patriarch of the neighbouring Eby family, had originally prepared to journey to Toronto in order to get help with what he called “Neuberlin’s Native Problem”. Haudenosaunee hunters had been appearing more and more frequently in recent years in Victoria Wood, the town Commons, which happened to border the Erb and Eby properties, and Ezekiel was determined to do something about it. He said he’d found an old, old deed from the nineteenth century that proved the Commons had originally belonged to an ancestor of his; he said a later ancestor had ceded the land for public use, and that he was more than happy to do the same—but not for outsiders and riff-raff. By the time he’d prepared his case and hitched his buggy, word had arrived that London had fallen to an American army marching up the old high road from Detroit, and so his mission had taken on a new purpose and urgency. 

            “Ezekiel doesn’t understand what he’s asking for,” Jonathan chuckled. “We might not be worth the GTD’s getting its hands dirty in direct combat with the Union Army, but it’s only a matter of time before they absorb us in their own easygoing way. We’ll be just another vassal of the Dominion then. We’ve had it too good for too long, living our nonresistant little lives here in the Grand Valley while others keep the bayonets at bay.” 

            “So you think we should fight?” Laura asked. 

            “Us and what army?” He sounded bitter, she thought. “We have one gun, for which we’d be barred from church and Commons if anyone found out. One gun isn’t enough to stop the Union Army, but it’s more than enough to destroy whatever chance concerted nonresistance might give us. We learned that lesson too painfully during the Dark Valley Years, and the town fathers haven’t forgotten.” 

            “We’ll surrender then, and accept admission into the Union of American States.” 

            “Not likely. We’ll be occupied, plundered, used and discarded. The same terrible old story, played out again here in our own hearths and homes. Laura, you know the histories. You know what the Americans do to people they occupy.” 

            Secretly Laura doubted that the Americans were as awful as the histories made them sound, but again, it wasn’t a point she was particularly interested in proving. Amid the steady drumbeat of the rain she could hear Lena sighing and squirming in her sleep. Turning onto her side so she could watch her only daughters’ crib as she formed the words, Laura returned to where the conversation had begun. “Then we’ll go to the Warriors.” 

            “Yes,” said Jonathan. She could feel the excitement in his voice now. “What the GTD and the UAS have both chosen to forget is that there’s a third power in their midst, a power that’s waited a long, long time to take back its own. Ezekiel Eby can’t see the long game. He’s going to Toronto for help with the Haudenosaunee problem when he should be doing the opposite. This whole valley belongs to the People of the Longhouse, the Six Nations of the Grand River. The Eby family might have title to the land from the 1800’s or they might not, but the Haudenosaunee have the Haldimand Proclamation of 1784: six miles on either side of the Grand from source to mouth, theirs to enjoy and their descendants after them, forever. What’s a few centuries to a collective memory like that? Ezekiel might as well go on to Ottawa if he wants to make a legal argument; he’ll get about as much help there.” 

            Laura smiled at the joke and rolled over to kiss her husband playfully on the cheek. “So you’ll carry our message south to the Haudenosaunee Warrior’s Society, begging them to return to their ancestral lands and save us from the American and Torontonian scourges.” 

            “Whichever of us gets away first,” he replied. “It’ll have to be a message of immediate danger, a direct request for intervention. We have no horse and no one will lend us one once we’ve explained why we want it, so we’ll have to go by water. Take Schneider Creek to the Grand River, follow it south and east to Kanonhstaton. It won’t be fast, but it’ll be quicker and less risky than walking down the road with an invading army on the loose. Less risky than cutting through the bush in coywolf country, too.” 

            “Schneider Creek?” Laura retorted. “Even in spring it’s hardly more than a trickle. Though this rain might do us some good.” 

            “It’ll have to be good enough,” said Jonathan. He propped himself up on one elbow and looked into her face. “Laura, think what this could mean for us. Toronto runs on steam from Appalachian brown coal; the UAS uses plantation labour to keep the cogs turning, but the Haudenosaunee…! They had wind farms when we were still sucking oil like overgrown infants, and they skipped over most of the hard weaning we had to go through. If we integrate with them, a few decades from now we could be refrigerating with grid power. Power is money, Laura, and grid power…just think!” 

            She gazed into his deep brown eyes and smiled. Jonathan Erb was a dreamer—that’s why she’d married him. It was an Erb family legend that one of Jonathan’s ancestors had been the very last man in Neuberlin to fell the hydro poles on his property for firewood, which made him either the most forward-thinking or the most backward man in town, depending on which member of the Erb clan was telling the story. Jonathan was a blacksmith by trade like his father and grandfather before him, a long family tradition interrupted only by the few generations who had enjoyed the general affluence of the Age of Destruction. But ever since becoming chair of the local millers’ co-op he had spent more and more time at the old brick building that stood where Victoria Lake squeezed itself into Schneider Creek. He’d salvaged tungsten and copper wire and fixed up the Erbs’ house with rudimentary electric lighting, crafting a simple generator that could be driven by the water wheel at nighttime, when the mill wasn’t needed to process grain. 

            The neighbours disapproved, of course (overstepping the natural order of things, they said, a slippery slope—besides, a body needed darkness now and then!) but Laura encouraged her husband’s ambitions. She enjoyed watching Jonathan’s restless mind at work, so long as it didn’t keep his hands from their work. She believed he could coax some of his less wild ideas into something profitable if he kept with them long enough, and a bit more profit in their household would certainly not be unwelcome. Before Lena had come along Laura had brought in some money teaching English and German down the road at Schumacher Elementary, but now she worked around the house every hour of the day that she wasn’t resting or sleeping, exhausted. 

            She went along with her husband now, even as she fought to keep a yawn from creeping into her voice. “If by ‘integrating with them’ you mean accepting the rule of a more powerful, armed nation with a centuries-old score to settle with our kind, then your plan seems flawless to me.” 

            “Our kind…score to settle…you sound like Ezekiel Eby,” Jonathan teased. “The way I see it, Neuberlin’s escaped outside attention for too long. If we don’t choose now whose company we’ll keep, the choice will be made for us. I’d sooner choose our neighbours downstream and their wind farms than the barrel-scraping cutthroats in Toronto or Detroit. Besides, don’t you remember the Two Row? I’d say that’s something worth hoping for.” 

            Laura thought back to the previous fall and the day she’d heard those words for the first time. She’d just walked out of the bakehouse, wiping sweat from her eyes, when a red-winged blackbird’s alarm whistle had startled her out of her thoughts. She turned toward the maple saplings that crowded the edge of the Commons, and there, leaning against the fence, was a young man. He smiled and showed her his palms, then made the whistle again, a descending cheer that would have signalled a hawk or other predator. Nothing in his face or dress gave any clue that he was from somewhere other than Neuberlin County, but she knew it in a heartbeat by the long ash bow hanging across his back, and by the arrows, fletched with wild turkey feathers, clearly visible over his right shoulder. None of her neighbours owned weapons, not even for hunting. 

            He reached into his pocket, drew out something tiny—an ornament of some kind?—and mimed an underhand tossing motion. She nodded and reached out to catch the object he threw to her. It was a small bracelet or charm, beautifully beaded with two long purple stripes on a white field. “The Clan Mothers send their greetings,” he said to her from where he stood, “along with a token of friendship. Do you recognize it?” She shook her head. “It’s the Two Row Wampum, an agreement made between our people and the Dutch when they were new to this land. See the purple stripes?” She nodded. “They signify two vessels travelling on a river: one is the canoe our people travel in; the other is the boat that carries your people. They travel the same river in peace and friendship, but their paths never cross. They do not interfere with one another’s journey. Does that seem good to you?” She nodded again. He spoke so gravely, so formally, she thought. Did all Natives talk this way? As though he was reciting a message…but of course, she realized, of course he was reciting a message. He was an ambassador. 

            “The Two Row will be six hundred years old next summer,” he said. “Many things change and pass away, but we don’t forget our promises. We're still here, still extending the hand of peace and friendship to those who will clasp it as our sister or brother. Not as parent and child, but sisters and brothers on the journey.” 

            She looked at the beadwork again, noticing how skilfully it had been done. She was about to speak when she heard old Mrs. Eby coming around the corner of the house, talking in a seamless stream of Spanish, then Low German, then Spanish again. Laura turned to face her as she approached. 

            Laow-ra,” said Mrs. Eby, “it’s your goat again, how many times do I have to tell you? What’s that you’ve got?” 

            “It’s nothing,” said Laura, tucking it into her apron pocket. She glanced toward the woods again, but the young man had vanished. “We’ll see about that goat, shall we Mrs. Eby? And this time we’ll chain the creature if she’s jumped the fence again.” 

            Now, as she knelt in the stern of the canoe, she looked again at the band of beads fastened around her left wrist. It was something worth hoping for, but first she had to cover the eighty kilometres between Neuberlin and Kanonhstaton with the Union Army behind her, and quite possibly ahead of her as well. It was five days since London had fallen, three since they’d lain awake together forming their plan, and two hours since she’d launched out into Schneider Creek. She saw now that they’d been lucky, first with the rain and now that it was she who had escaped. She was almost at Doon Village but already she’d had to get out five or six times and walk the canoe through a shallow stretch. With Jonathan’s weight the canoe would have been lower and the first leg of the journey even slower. She knew she was close now to the broader, deeper waters of the Grand, but how close? 

            She steered for the left bank and climbed out and over the low rise that blocked her view. Pushing through the buckthorn that plucked at her dress and scratched her bare forearms, she saw below her the broad, grey sweep of the Grand River. It was fifty metres wide here and moving fast. She didn’t know, and couldn’t know, whether Doon had been taken, but she and Jonathan had guessed the Americans would come here too, marching up the old high road from London and taking up a flanking position on the river. If that was the case, she needed the cover of darkness to move any further. 

            Laura returned to the canoe and lifted out first the satchel that held her food and next a long oilskin bag. This she opened and reached into carefully, drawing out the object it contained with a mixture of trepidation and resolve. It was the long-barrelled flintlock she and Jonathan had acquired and kept in secrecy, hoping they would never have cause to use it, now primed and loaded and heavy in her hands. She slung it across her back with the satchel, hoisted the canoe onto her shoulders, and started up the steep bank, breathing slowly and deeply. Near the top of the rise she slipped and nearly fell, the canoe lurching forward as she two-stepped to get beneath its weight again. Steady, she told herself, steady. A single misplaced step and it could all be over. She crested the rise and made her way carefully down to the shaded bank of the Grand. Now she had only to wait. 

            Evening came on and the shadows lengthened. She was far enough from the village that she couldn’t hear any human sounds, whether of peace or of war, only the birds making their last rounds and preparing to roost. There was a wetland near here that was famous for the abundance of its bird life, a place her father had taken her to see when she was young and first learning their strange and complex languages. People of the past had made the wetland, diverting the river’s flood and piping water from their own homes and gardens into its wide, still pools. It wasn’t clear why they had done so; perhaps, her father had told her, they had a great reverence for the birds, and wanted to create a sanctuary for them here, downriver from the bustle of Old Berlin. 

            As she watched the sky’s colour deepen, shade by shade, a pair of red-winged blackbirds swooped past her face in a storm of wings, an older male chasing a younger one, his scolding “chak-ak-AK-ak-ak” ringing over the water. What did it matter, Laura thought to herself, that the race of the two-leggeds had once flared up bright and fierce, devouring all in its path before burning down into coals? What did it matter that mountains had been moved, and mighty waters, and even the seasons themselves, so long as the winged people had lived to scold and chase one another on the banks of an ancient river grown young again with spring? And what did it matter to the winged messengers that the embers of the two-leggeds were stirring again, as the winds of change fanned them to new life and fresh uncertainty? 

            Three starlings appeared on the bank, chuckling and rattling as they ruffled their iridescent plumage in the dying light. Starlings were the same as she was: settlers, brought in boats from the far side of the world mere centuries ago. And like her own people, the race of starlings had not been kind to those who had dwelt in this land before them for millenia unnumbered: the swallows, bluebirds, and martins, whose homes they took by force and by sheer numbers. Yet the swallows, bluebirds, and martins had not vanished, nor had time stood still for them as the land they shared changed and changed again. “The past is always before us,” Laura murmured, “the future is already within us.” 

            It was dark now, and time for her to move. She slipped the canoe quietly into the water and made for the far bank, where she hoped the little lights from the village wouldn’t reach her. The waning moon had not yet risen, but she couldn’t be too careful. The sound of troubled water reached her ears, and then the standing stones loomed before her in the starlight, mighty sentinels that marked the place where the old high road had strewn its rubble in the riverbed. She picked a passageway between two columns and prayed that neither rocks nor American guns guarded it. A flash of white water, a quick turn of her paddle, and she was through, just in time to hear a gunshot shatter the darkness on her left. 

            She bent low and paddled for all she was worth. Would they follow? A shout went up, and then another. Would they follow? She paddled, leaning deep into each stroke, expecting with every breath for a bullet to slam into her ribs and end her mad quest. After two hundred metres she dared a backward glance. She couldn’t see anything but the stone giants looming against the stars. Would they have a patrol boat ready? She might be able to make it to Galt before they caught her—had they taken Galt too? Jonathan had thought not. But there was no knowing. There was only the smooth, dark water and the paddle in her hands. 

            After three quarters of an hour’s hard labour she saw the lights of Galt before her. She’d heard no sound of pursuit, but that only added to her growing dread of what lay ahead. If all was well, people would be awake still and finishing their evening chores; if not, no amount of stealth could get her through the millrace and the narrows without being captured. She set her paddle across the gunnels and drifted, watching the lights draw nearer. The town began to slip past and she heard the soft lowing of cows being milked, doors opening and closing, voices greeting each other with the casual gruffness of a long day’s work done. She slumped across her paddle and breathed deeply, knowing now that that particular danger was past. She thought of climbing out and greeting the good people of Galt, of stretching her aching limbs and embracing the first person she met, but she knew she had no time to spare. 

            “Who’s there?” a voice called out. She hadn’t noticed the barge anchored mid-stream until she was almost upon it. Two riflemen were standing there, soldiers of the Galt Highlanders’ Militia, God bless them. 

            “Laura Erb, late of Neuberlin,” she called in reply, back-paddling carefully even as the current urged her onward. “They’ve taken Doon and they’re holding the river at the old high road.” 

            “Hard news, Laura of Neuberlin. You’ll find safe refuge here.” 

            “Bless you, Highlanders, bless you. Where can I take out?” 

            “Just down a bit on your left, you’ll see the pier.” 

            “Thank you, and stand strong, Highlanders.” 

            She let the current carry her past, and when she reached the pier she cast a quick glance over her shoulder before taking up her paddle and continuing, stroke after long, smooth stroke, out of the town of Galt and into the country darkness. 

            Now the stars shone clean and bright on her flashing paddle, and she thanked her luck again that it was a moonless night but a clear one. She’d needed darkness at the standing stones, but now she was thankful to have enough light to steer by, barely. Another hour passed before the current slowed and she came upon a place she’d heard about, but never seen before by night or day: the Glen Morris Bog, more often known as the Lake of Folly. 

            It was a huge wetland, bigger by far than the bird sanctuary at Doon but just as rich in wildlife, or so she’d heard. It too had been made by humans in centuries past, but beneath its layers of peat lay a much darker story. Now Laura wished for more light, much more, as she strained to discern a path. She lost another hour winding slowly through the heather and sphagnum moss, finally ramming the bow up onto a soft bank and stepping out of the canoe. 

            Her foot sank instantly into the bog, sucking at her upper calf but no farther. She took another step, then another, each one sinking a little less deep than the one before. As she shouldered aside the clinging shrubs, pulling the canoe behind her, a hot, acrid stench rose to her nostrils, a stench that she knew with every fibre of her being was as unnatural as it was possible to be. Staggering forward through the reeking muck she spat the word out of her mouth: “Canada.” 

            It was an old and bitter story, of a nation that had flung itself from sea to shining sea, first with railroads, then with paved high roads, then with oil pipelines radiating from the continent’s dark heart. Line Nine had been one of those pipelines, pushed beyond its capacity by the mad greedy fools who operated it, and not far upstream from where Laura now stood it had burst and spilled its oily bitumen and toxic benzene gas into the Grand River. 

            The Lake of Folly was what came afterward, as the governments of the time evacuated the poisoned populace of Glen Morris and threw up a concrete dam just below the village. Oil floated but bitumen sank, and the dredgers appeared, then disappeared, as the oil company responsible for the spill collapsed under the mounting costs of two major clean-up operations in less than a decade. Next the governments took on the dirty job, but they too ran out of funds for dredging as the Age of Destruction wound down by fits and starts to its bitter end, and the Dark Valley Days began. Some of the histories claimed that the Line Nine spill had been a tipping point for Old Berlin County, and that much more of the old world, things that had been good and worth saving, could have been brought through the Valley if not for the time and energy that had been poured into the Lake of Folly and lost. Finally, in her slow and patient way, nature had begun to repair what people had wrought. The Bog grew and spread over the acidified land and water, filtering and cleansing the river. The people of Glen Morris gave up hope of ever returning home. Time rolled on, and Canada itself dissolved into the twilight of the great powers. It had turned out to be no more than a transcontinental pipe dream, and now Laura was wading through the muck of it. 

            At last she reached the lip of the Glen Morris dam and slid the canoe gratefully back into the water, washing her legs and dress and the bottom of the boat as thoroughly as she could before paddling onward. She passed the rapids at Paris without incident around midnight and stopped a little farther downstream to eat a bit of her dry bread and cheese, hauling up at the foot of another set of standing stones. 

            By now the moon was rising over Brantford, and she wondered if she would find welcome there or more American bullets. It was possible, just possible, that the Union Army had dispatched a third force along the high road upon whose ruins she was now sitting and eating her supper, but where would they have crossed the river? She’d encountered no enemy-held bridges or fords since Doon, but she didn’t know what might lie ahead on the eastward stretch of the river. There was, after all, only one way to find out for sure. 

            A breeze had picked up and the sky was clouding over. Soon it was too dark for her to see the next standing stone, let alone paddle onward. She decided to snatch a few hours of sleep before sunrise, here where the waters of the Grand cast protective arms around her. There were coywolves about, and she could hear their spine-tingling howls on both sides of the river. With a long yawn she slid under the crosspieces of the canoe, wrapped her coat around her, and fell asleep. 

            She was awake with the dawn chorus, as every bird in creation announced its existence to the world. Laura was stiff and sore as she’d never known before in a lifetime of hard work. There was mist on the river now, which was a danger, but it gave her a chance of eluding whatever eyes might be watching from the shore. Brantford was a mingling place, as much Haudenosaunee as not; if it had fallen then there couldn’t be much hope for the rest of Six Nations, but even so, she put caution first. Her ultimate goal was beyond Brantford and just before Caledonia, a town famous for its peacemakers and legacy of tolerance. Near the south bank this side of Caledonia, where a white pine towered over the Reclamation Site of the early Haudenosaunee Resurgence, was Kanonhstaton, the Protected Place, where the Haudenosaunee Warriors had their headquarters. 

            She edged off the rocks and left the standing stones behind. It took half an hour to reach Brantford and less time to glide past it through the mist. She was clear and away, and as she cast a glance behind her she let out an inward sigh of relief—then froze. A boat was following. She rubbed her eyes, looked again—yes, a small boat, moving fast and eating up the space between them. 

            Laura lost not a moment more. She threw herself forward, lunging and heaving on the paddle with all the strength that was in her. Soon, very soon, there was a portage on the right bank, a place where she and Jonathan had planned to cut off a long oxbow that lay to the northeast. Somehow she would lose them on the trail, would set an ambush and—her gun. Suddenly it seemed exceedingly heavy, lying on the floor of the canoe in its watertight bag like so much ballast. She glanced behind her and saw that her pursuer was armed as well, his weapon protruding over his right shoulder as he leaned into his paddle strokes. She set her jaw and forged on. 

            The portage landing appeared and she leaped out of the canoe, unfastening the oilskin and lifting the gun, her hands trembling with haste. No, she couldn’t stand and fight here, not in the open with more pursuers likely behind this one. Cursing her slowness, she slung the gun across her back and lifted the canoe, staggering a little as its weight settled on her weary shoulders. Up the trail, over the ridge, find a place to take cover and shoot from, she told herself. But now she was too frightened to set the canoe down, frightened that she would lose her only chance of escape. She bumped down the far slope, skidding toward the water, and suddenly her foot turned on a loose stone and she fell, tumbling down the slope with the canoe on top of her, sliding past her, landing with a heavy splash halfway into the water. 

            She pulled herself up, gasping at the stabbing agony in her ankle. The muscles of her back were contorted with pain where she had landed on the gun; her knees and palms were bleeding. She felt around for her paddle and leaned on it as she hauled herself to her feet and hobbled the remaining few metres to the shore. The canoe was right-side up, and she lowered herself into it and pushed off, looking behind her up the path as she did so. Her enemy was at the top of the ridge, already lowering his weapon and turning to run back for his own canoe. 

            Laura grasped her paddle and pulled at the water. Her ankle cried out in agony; it was almost impossible to brace herself without putting unbearable strain on it. She laid her paddle down and drew a long, steadying breath. Now it had come to it. She reached over her shoulder for the gun with one hand, ruddered the canoe clumsily around with the paddle in her other hand, and then set down the paddle and lifted the gun to her shoulder. There he was, coming over the ridge with his canoe over his head. Now was the moment. Now or never. 

            But it was too late. With a sudden shock she realized that the roaring in her ears was the sound of whitewater, and that she had turned herself broadside into a rapid. She threw the gun onto the floor of the canoe just as the first wave took her and she spilled over the gunnel into the water. 

            She sank, rose, floundered, sank again. The current was strong, and she was in no condition to resist it. Water poured into her mouth, her nose, her eyes, and she could think of nothing but the pain and the sweet, fierce taste of air. Fighting upward, she broke the surface again and lunged for the canoe—had it righted itself so quickly?—and felt it flip again, this time over her head. She sank, and this time would have kept sinking had not a hand reached down and pulled her once more toward the light. She saw the upturned canoe before her and seized it, coughing and retching. The hand was still holding her firmly by her upper arm, and as she turned to look at the person clinging to the capsized canoe beside her she felt the sodden feathers of a wild turkey brush her face. It was the young man who’d appeared at her fence all those months ago. She heaved and spewed river water all over him.

            He shook his head and blinked the water out of his eyes. "Now that we see one another a little better, let's stop trying to kill each other, shall we?" Then he grinned, and added, as if to himself, “I guess we’re in the same boat now.” She leaned her head back and croaked out her laughter.

            Several hours later they arrived at the place the Haudenosaunee call Kanonhstaton, the Protected Place. Sitting upright and dignified in their respective canoes once more, one towing the other, they saw the Two Row Bridge of Caledonia coming into view, and far away on their right the white pine towering over the fields. As they approached the south bank a woman walked down the slope to meet them, calling and gesturing to her male companion. Around her neck hung a pair of field glasses, and from her shoulder hung a gun with an enormous curved clip. Laura leaned forward to grasp her outstretched hand, and as she did so she knew that her mission had succeeded.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Good Omens

On the day I started this blog, I was heading out the back of my building about mid-morning when a hawk appeared on my right, swooped across the street in front of me, and disappeared behind the row of apartments on my left. Now, any beginning student of ancient Greek divination will tell you that seeing a bird of prey on your right is a good omen, but what followed was even better, because hot on the heels of that hawk was a crow.

Crows are the biggest, boldest, loudest, and most intelligent of the perching birds here in Southern Ontario, and one of the easiest marks for beginning birdwatchers. Though their raucous calls don't fit the usual patterns of bird language, crows do provide one very useful service to the bird community: they harry hawks. In a kind of unpaid 'neighbourhood watch' capacity, crows will gang up on an incoming red-tail, shrieking and dive-bombing it until it moves on to somewhere it can hunt in relative peace. You may recall that Princess Buttercup, in the famous film The Princess Bride, boasts at one point that her fiancĂ© Prince Humperdinck could track a falcon on a cloudy day; as it turns out, this isn't difficult, provided there are crows around.

On this sunny Tuesday morning three weeks ago I decided to track the hawk. Rounding the row houses I stopped, scanned the trees, and listened. I couldn't see or hear my crow ally, but I did notice a robin high in the tree on my left letting out a short, sharp "peak! peak! diddle diddle peak!" I crossed the next street at a low run and headed for the copse of sheltering trees where I have my sit spot. Sure enough, the crow was there, raising a righteous racket, and as I ran up I saw the hawk drop out of one of the spruces at the back of the lot and continue on up the hill.

My progress was slower; by the time I had jogged up and around the corner the crow had found a new station in a tall maple behind some townhouses. As I stood there craning my neck for a glimpse of our common quarry, a human friend happened to walk by and ask what I was doing, as well he might have. The conversation that followed was well worth shifting my attention away from the birds, but it meant that by the time I had wished my friend a good day they had moved out of earshot. I gave up the chase and went home to make some notes in my bird journal.

Crows can make good allies. I got started in birdwatching by following the hordes of crows that return from the landfill each day, about an hour before sunset, to roost by the thousands in Waterloo Park. As you might guess, these noisy multitudes are not exactly following natural baseline behaviour, so I've since moved on to a closer study of the songbirds in and around my sit spot in downtown Kitchener. I've been getting a lot of help with this from a book by Jon Young called What The Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.

what-the-robin-knows-coverYoung is a lifelong student of bird language and tracking, and he distinguishes five categories of vocalizations common to all songbirds:
1) song, used by males to mark territorial boundaries and proclaim their fitness to potential mates;
2) male to male aggression, which occurs when those boundaries are transgressed;
3) companion calls, which keep pairs or families in verbal contact while feeding;
4) adolescent begging (translation: "food! now! food!"); and finally
5) alarms, which signal to anyone within earshot that all is not well in the neighbourhood.

I had the good fortune this morning of being visited at my sit spot by a pair of black-capped chickadees in a relaxed mood. Their song, a descending "DEE DEE," and their flocking call, "chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee," are well-known, but as this pair hopped casually from branch to branch just a few feet above my head, gleaning the branches for small insects, I overheard the gentle "pip. pip." of their companion calls. This brought me immense satisfaction. What it told me, in a backhanded compliment kind of way, was that I wasn't particularly worthy of their consideration. After weeks of regular visits to this couple's home, I had succeeded in becoming, so to speak, part of the furniture. On this occasion I'd been sitting still for nearly forty minutes.

Jon Young explains that while companion calls can be the most rewarding vocalizations to experience, alarms are the most complex, and carry the most nuances of meaning. You can tell, if you know your stuff, what kind of predator is coming through the forest by bird alarms alone. Returning to my earlier story of the hawk and the crow, I've been wondering just what that robin meant by "peak! peak! diddle diddle peak!" According to Young's useful online audio library, intended to accompany the book, this is a typical robin alarm, but not the one associated with an aerial predator. And why was the robin high in the tree rather than low down to escape the hawk? Was there something in this scene I was in too much of a hurry to notice? Or was the robin sounding the alarm because of me? I might never know, but these questions will guide me as I sit out in the woods listening for the robins. Any guesses or clues from my readers are welcome.

-    -    -

As you may have guessed already, a central project of this blog will be telling stories. Having interesting information at hand, about bird language or magic spells or world events, is one thing, but being able to put it into a meaningful story is what makes mere data into something thinkable. Stories turn knowledge into understanding. Often our own experience is the story that opens us to new thoughts, as with the experiences I've related above. But we can also gain new understanding from the stories of others, which is of course one reason for retelling my experiences on this blog.

Even a story that's purely fictional (especially a story that's purely fictional, I think) can open us to new understanding, because new stories make new information thinkable; alternatively, they make old information thinkable in new ways. Without new stories to think with, all we can do is try to fit new information into old stories, whose plots may have worn thin with too many retellings, or which may have been intended for a different audience. What follows from stories poorly chosen to suit the data or experiences at hand is not understanding, but the illusion of understanding. And illusion, cleverly handled, is the bread and butter of dark wizards. Even worse, I've heard one wizard say, is knowing only one story, and therefore being able to think in only one way.

If this sounds like more magical mumbo-jumbo to you, fret not, for it's only a feckless apprentice's idle venture into literary theory. All I've been getting around to saying is that in the spirit of making new thoughts thinkable (and of Defence Against the Dark Arts!) I'm going to take a sharp turn into the land of story with next week's post, and see if I can't conjure up a tale to set your mental cogs clicking and whizzing with delight and, perhaps, dismay. All that and more on next week's A Wizard of Earth.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Warnings From Above

The gold of the dwarf Andvari, it is said, was cursed by its master before he died. Knowing that many would desire the treasure after he was gone, Andvari foretold with his last breath that anyone who dared to possess it would be twisted by it, and finally meet their doom because of it.

This indeed befell the dwarf Fafnir, who had killed his own father for the sake of Andvari's gold and then hoarded it in a deep cave. As the years passed and Fafnir brooded over the treasure, he changed into a terrible dragon, foul and hideous, breathing poison whenever he ventured forth to drink from the stream outside his lair.

Now Fafnir had a brother named Regin, who wanted revenge for the murder of their father. Regin was neither strong nor brave, but he was clever. He made a special sword for his foster-son Sigurd and told him of the famous treasure. Sigurd was a human, strong and very brave, but not as clever as he might have been. He took the sword and, on Regin's advice, dug himself a pit beneath the entrance to Fafnir's lair and crouched there, waiting.

When Fafnir emerged to drink from the stream, Sigurd surged upward as the dragon passed overhead and pierced him to the hilts of his sword, letting the hot blood gush into the pit. As Fafnir died he looked on his killer and laughed, repeating to the young man Andvari's curse: that all who took the treasure would themselves die of it.

But Regin rejoiced when he saw what was done, and told Sigurd to cut out Fafnir's heart and roast it over a slow fire. As the flames burned down into embers Sigurd touched the smoking heart with the tip of his finger to see if it was cooked.  He burned himself, of course, and stuck his finger into his mouth to cool it. As soon as he did so he heard a small voice coming from somewhere above his head.

"Poor Sigurd," said the voice. "What he doesn't know will kill him sooner than what he does know." Sigurd looked up, and saw that the voice belonged to a small bird perched on the branch above him. "Poor Sigurd," came the voice of a second bird, perched higher on the branch. "He has Regin's sword but not Regin's reward. Look, already the dwarf is plotting to kill him and take the treasure for himself." Sigurd looked at Regin. Regin was looking into the cave and fingering his knife.

Sigurd was strong and brave and getting cleverer by the minute. Now that he had tasted dragon's blood he could understand the language of the birds, and he could see that they spoke the truth. He took the sword Regin had made him, cut off his foster-father's head, and claimed Andvari's gold for himself. And thus was Sigurd saved by overhearing the conversation of the birds- for the moment, at least.

That blood-soaked bit of mischief is from the old Norse sagas, and I like to think that my Germanic ancestors would have wrung from it every bit of gory glee that they could while telling it over the remains of a great feast, or while sitting around a fire as the northern stars blazed bright and cold and fierce above them. I came across it first in a collection of stories and legends for children (yes, they did use to expose kids to such things, and yes, we turned out alright). What stayed with me years afterward, aside from the dragon, of course, was the sudden insight Sigurd receives the second he tastes the dragon's blood and becomes aware of what the birds are saying right beside him- almost like a light going on above his head.

As I learned later on in my studies of ancient European societies, birds have very often been associated with enlightenment- think of the owl perched on the shoulder of wise Athena, or the ravens bringing news to one-eyed Odin. But it's only in my more recent studies, with mentors steeped in earth lore of a more timeless and also more immediate nature, that I've started to understand why.

When you step into a wooded area, as I have countless times in my striding, brow-furrowed, unenlightened way, a number of events precede you, perhaps without your noticing at all. First, ears have heard you coming, ears far more sensitive and alive to the world than yours or mine, and the owners of those ears have already calculated your mood and intent- relaxed, agitated, stealthy, or maybe just thinking really hard about something other than what's under your nose. Second, eyes are watching you, eyes that can track a beetle fifty feet away and see beyond the spectrum of light and colour that we can, and the owners of those eyes are appraising you as only those intimate with life and death can.

Third- and this is most important- messages about you have already spread through the forest like ripples on a pond, and everyone who thinks it's in their best interest to do so has had ample time to fade into the foliage, out of sight and out of mind. (I haven't even taken scent into account, which, depending on the wind and local topography, can also give you away). By the time you come striding along, whether still absorbed in your thought or by now hoping to spot some woodland wildlife, everybody in the neighbourhood has received advance warning of your approach. Who has accomplished all this before you've taken two steps into their domain? The birds, of course.

Because birds are engaged with each other at all times through what we perceive as song, but what they perceive as highly nuanced communication, other animals listen carefully and continuously to what the birds are saying- or, as the case may be when I come shuffling through the leaf-litter, whether the birds have fallen silent. We can learn to be one of those listening animals if we're willing to put in the time and the necessary silence, and that's what has me so excited this spring to see birds returning and taking up residence in trees, shrubs, and buildings around my neighbourhood.

And that's one of the greatest secrets to this secret- although I used a forest for the purpose of illustration, bird language happens everywhere there are birds, and there are enough and plenty inside the city. The mentors I mentioned earlier, whom I've connected with through The PINE Project in Toronto, have a lot of fun taking this stuff pretty seriously. PINE is a non-profit dedicated to teaching and promoting nature connection in urban landscapes. I admire their approach so much that I've chosen to train with them through their Wild Deer program, six intensive weekends in Toronto and the surrounding area, running from this past January to this coming June. A lot of what I'll be writing about concerning birds and life outdoors in general is either inspired or directly taught by folks at PINE and Sticks and Stones Wilderness School, so I want to acknowledge them as well as send a wave of gratitude their way.

Before wrapping up this post I want to sketch out the basics of bird language practice for those feeling a call to join me as apprentices in this art. Whether your habitat is forest, field, or urban backyard, you've probably got a number of bird neighbours, and if so they definitely have things to say for those with ears to hear. Find a comfortable sit spot (mine is a vacant lot behind my apartment building) and visit it as often as you can, with the intent to hold still and silent until the shock of your arrival has worn off and your neighbours have gone back to singing, or whatever it is they do. What you're listening for at this stage (and what I'll freely admit I haven't yet grasped in my own sit spot) is the baseline, the basic, normal pattern of conversation in your neck of the woods, whose interruption indicates a new arrival on the scene. We'll talk about birdsong baseline and the various bird vocalizations that could come up, along with their meanings, next week.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Practice of Wizardry

This week I want to delve a little deeper into what a wizard is, and to do that I want to look at what a wizard does- in other words, the practice of wizardry. My aim is not to describe what I already am or do, but to sketch out a few key attributes that I (as well as those of my readers who take an interest) can aspire to. Or, to put it another way, things I want to practice, with the hope of learning and improving my (currently limited) knowledge in these fields.

To start with, these writings are my way of practicing the magic of language. This I don't intend to get right right away, nor do I expect to be right all the time, though of course that would be nice. Practicing wordcraft is not like practicing medicine or engineering; a writer's slip-ups don't generally lead to bodily injury. But they can lead to more insidious harm if said writer has set him- or herself up as an all-knowing sage possessed of magical powers of intellect. To ward off such danger I'll now invoke a useful spell I learned from a lawyer one time, one I call 'The Doctrine of Wizardly Fallibility' or just 'The Disclaimer': take it from me, you can't believe everything you read on the internet.

In historical times, of course, a wizard had certain practices that marked him as a lifelong student of the Art Magic. The wizards I'm referring to are those that first emerged during the long period of decentralization and re-localization in Europe known retrospectively as the Middle Ages, and whose vocation it was to keep alive the intellectual treasures of the classical world that was coming to pieces around them. Since the slant of medieval European society admitted mostly men into this profession, I'm going to use the masculine pronoun from here on, though of course there very probably were (and could certainly now be) female or genderqueer wizards as well.

To start with, a wizard spent a lot of time reading books. In the medieval world this in itself would make him seem magical and mysterious to his neighbours. At a time when written words were jammed all together on a page in order to save parchment, somethinglikethis, reading was a matter of sounding out the long strings of syllables in a murmured half-voice that would have sounded much like the muttering of incantations. (One fourth-century archbishop of Milan was renowned for his uncanny ability to read silently, in his head- imagine that!) All the better if the book were written in a foreign or dead language; better still if it concerned an arcane subject like alchemy, history, theology (whether orthodox or heretical), or something which had fallen out of everyday use, like formal logic. In the course of these writings I intend to touch on each of these subjects, among others, thereby creating a pretext to spend more time with such books.

In addition a wizard had to have practical knowledge and skills. The great mages may have been free to absorb themselves in matters of abstract spellcraft, but your local village wizard had to have a few useful tricks up his sleeve if he expected to stay relevant to his neighbours, not to mention putting food on the table. What was the use of keeping around someone well-versed in natural philosophy, after all, if he couldn't tell which formulae made for good compost and which amounted to a heap of dung? A wizard had to stay current in a number of practical fields, including but not limited to gardening, astrology, animal husbandry, rhetoric, herbal medicine, and the refinement of base elements (such as children) through the twelve gradations of alchemical enlightenment into gold, or its spiritual equivalent. By this latter I am referring of course to teaching, a dubious branch of the Art Magic and frequent source of income for wizards everywhere. (More on that later, perhaps).

What set the village wizard apart from his neighbours, all of whom were contributing members of society each in their own way, was that he was expected to apply the broad perspective gained through his book-learning to the practical problems at hand. For instance: 'Wizard, why all this rain?' 'Well, the influence of Neptune on the other heavenly bodies is particularly strong this spring. Nothing to do but drain the fields as best we can and wait.' Or, 'Wizard, why does my stomach hurt?' 'Well, your humours are out of balance. Take a bit of vinegar before bed and call on me in the morning.' And so forth.

The way I see it, as more and more young people these days invest more and more of their time in book-learning, we should begin to see more and more would-be wizards cropping up. This sounds like a pretty great thing to me. Maybe one day we will have a League of Young Wizards, all pooling their knowledge, skills, and efforts for the continued well-being of their village communities. The test, of course, is whether a wizard can actually work magic: whether his or her words can illuminate reality in a new and powerful way, and whether the projects she or he takes on make a meaningful difference in the real world.

To that end I've taken up a practice every apprentice needs to have some grounding in: learning the language of birds. Yes, this is real, and yes, it is magical. If you want to join this wizard's game, keep an ear open as you go about your neighbourhood this week, because spring has arrived and there's a lot going on in the trees and hedges around us. And yes, it all means something. We'll dive into the mysteries of bird language next week.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

An Opening Invocation

The great wizard Sparrowhawk, in his youth, apprenticed with the most famous mage of all Gont, a land which was itself famous for wizards. The apprenticeship that would start him on the long road to mastery of the Art Magic began not with the study of spells or ancient books of lore, but with a walk in the woods.

From the tiny village that had been the boy Sparrowhawk's whole world, up through the steep forests that mantle the mighty shoulders of Gont Mountain, master and student walked day after day, lodging in the huts of strangers where they passed through villages, sleeping outdoors where there were none. The master walked in silence and the apprentice followed in silence, watching hungrily for his first lesson in magic.

But no magic came. They walked, that was all, the mage keeping his easy silence and the boy growing day by day more disappointed. His master worked no wonders and spoke only when it was needful to speak, even then saying nothing particularly wise. When they stopped for the night he didn't even cast a simple spell to keep the rain off- instead he lay down under a fir tree and fell asleep, smiling at the downpour.

Finally Sparrowhawk could hold in his frustration no longer. One day he burst out: "Why haven't I learned anything yet?"

The master halted and regarded him mildly. "Because you haven't found out what I am teaching," he said. Then he pointed to a small plant growing beside the path and asked its name.

The boy did not know. "What is its use, master?"

"None I know of," replied the mage. "But when you know it in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?" After another half mile or so he added, "To hear, one must be silent."

This story comes to us from Ursula K. Le Guin's famous novel A Wizard of Earthsea, from which this blog gratefully takes its name. The story of the young Sparrowhawk and his master is the seed from which the whole tale takes root and grows, and there are good reasons it's considered a classic. If you haven't already, I highly recommend seeking out a copy next time you're in the mood for fine fantastical yarn-spinning at its best. It concerns the deeds of Sparrowhawk the Wizard, the ambition that leads him to great recklessness in his youth, and the long and arduous unlearning he must go through in order to understand himself and his place in the world.

What I like most about the story of the boy and his master is what it says about what a wizard is. There's something about the master falling asleep in the rain with a smile on his face that just tickles me. A wizard is someone who listens more than they speak, a person of power who refrains, most of the time, from using power; most of all a wizard is someone who gets wet.

As for "A Wizard of Earth"? For a long time I've been wanting a place to record and share my thoughts, observations, and attempts at explaining what I see happening around me. For my friends and relatives who have seen me striding along with brow furrowed in concentration, or gazing out a window with a distant look on my face, these writings will be a window onto my inner conversation with myself, a conversation you are more than welcome to join by adding your comments and thoughts below. For those who have come across this blog by chance, welcome as well, and by all means make yourself at home.

Nature is my theme; both the magic of nature and the nature of magic. To be a wizard, I think, would be very grand, but to call the Earth my home and myself a simple apprentice is enough for me. Earth is my origin and my destiny, the only place in the universe I truly belong. To spend a lifetime, or thereabouts, as a student of nature- listening, learning, getting wet- seems to me a delightful prospect, and to pass on that delight by whatever means I can would enrich the experience considerably. And so I begin, under a new moon, on a day sacred to fools and all that is solemnly playful, and we'll see what comes of it.