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photoCopper River

Chapter 1

Henry Meloux, the old Ojibwe Mide, might tell the story this way. 

He might begin by saying that the earth is alive, that all things on it—water, air, plants, rocks, even dead trees—have spirit.  In the absence of wind, the grass still trembles.  On days when the clouds are dense as gray wool, flowers still understand how to track the sun.  Trees, when they bend, whisper to one another.  In such a community of spirits, nothing goes unnoticed.  Would not the forest, therefore, know that a child is about to die?

She is fourteen years, nine months, twenty-seven days old.  She has never had a period, never had a boyfriend, never even had a real date.  She has never eaten in a restaurant more formal than McDonald's.  She has never seen a city larger than Marquette, Michigan.

She cannot remember a night when she wasn't awakened by nightmares, some dreamed, many horribly real.  She cannot remember a day she was happy, although she has always been hopeful that she might find happiness, discover it like a diamond in the dust at her feet.  Through all the horror of her life, she has, miraculously, held to that hope.

Until now.

Now, though she is barely fourteen, she is about to die.  And she knows it.

Somewhere among the trees below her, the man she calls Scorpio is coming for her.

She cringes behind a pile of brush in the middle of a clear-cut hillside studded with stumps like gravestones.  The morning sun has just climbed above the tops of the poplar trees that outline the clearing.  The chill bite of autumn is in the air.  From where she crouches high on the hill, she can see the gleam of Lake Superior miles to the north.  The great inland sea beckons, and she imagines sailing away on all that empty blue, alone on a boat taking her toward a place where someone waits for her and worries, a place she has never been.

She shivers violently.  Before fleeing, she grabbed a thin brown blanket, which she wrapped around her shoulders.  Her feet are bare, gone numb in the long, cold night.  They bleed, wounded during her flight through the woods, but she no longer feels any pain.  They've become stones at the end of her ankles.

In the trees far below, a dog barks, cracking the morning calm.  The girl focuses on a place two hundred yards distant where, half an hour earlier, she'd emerged from the forest and started to climb the logged-over hillside.  An hour after dawn, Scorpio's dog had begun baying.  When she heard the hungry sound, she knew he'd got hold of her scent.  What little hope she'd held to melted instantly.  After that, it was a frantic run trying to stay ahead.

Scorpio steps from the shadow of the trees.  He's like a whip, thin and cruel and electric in the sunlight.  She can see the glint off the blue barrel of the rifle he cradles.  Snatch, his black and tan German shepherd, pads before him, nose to the earth, tracking her through the graveyard of stumps.  Scorpio scans the hillside above.  She thinks she can see him smile, a gash of white.

There is no sense in hiding now.  In a few minutes, Scorpio will be on her.  Grasshopper quick, she pops from the blind of brush and sprints toward the hilltop.  Her  senseless feet thud against the hard earth.  She lets the blanket fall to the ground, leaves it behind her.  Starved for sunlight, the skin of her face and arms looks bleached.  Beneath her thin, dirty T-shirt her breasts are barely formed, but the small, fleshy mounds rise and fall dramatically as she sucks air in desperate gasps.  Behind her, the dog begins a furious barking.  He has seen the prey.

She crests the hill and comes to a dead end.  Before her the ground falls away, a sheer drop two hundred feet to a river that's a rush of white water between jagged rocks.  There is no place left to run.  She casts a frenzied eye back.  Scorpio lopes toward her with Snatch in the lead.  To her left and right, there is only the ragged lip of the cut across the hill. 

Only one way for her to go now:  down.

The face of the cliff below is a rugged profile offering handholds and small ledges.  There are also tufts of brush that cling tenaciously to the stone, rooted in tiny fissures.  She spies a shelf ten feet below, barely wider than her foot, but it is enough.  She kneels and lowers herself over the edge.  Clinging to the brush and the rough knobs of stone that punctuate the cliff, she begins her descent.

The rock scrapes her skin, leaves her arms bleeding.  Her toes stretch for a foothold but, numbed, feel almost nothing.  Weakened by an ordeal that has gone on longer than she can remember, her strength threatens to fail her, but she does not give up.  She has never given up.  Whatever the horror in front of her, she has always faced it and pushed ahead.  This moment is no different.  She wills a place to stand.  Her feet find support, a few inches of flat rock on which she eases herself down.

"Come on, sweet thing.  Come on back up."

Scorpio's voice is reasonable, almost comforting.  She lifts her face.  He's smiling, bone white teeth between thin, bloodless lips.  Beside him, the dog snarls and snaps, foam dripping from his purple gums.

"Hush!" Scorpio orders.  "Sit." 

Snatch obeys.

"Come on, now.  Time to end this foolishness."

He lays down his rifle, bends low, and offers his hand.

In the quiet while she considers, she presses herself to the cliff where the stone still holds the cold of night.  She can hear far below the hiss and roiling of the white water.

"We'll go back to the cabin," Scorpio says.  "Have a little breakfast.  Bet you're hungry.  Now, doesn't that sound better than running over these woods, ruining those pretty little feet, freezing your ass off?"

He bends lower.  His outstretched hand pushes nearer, a hand that has offered only humiliation and pain.  On his wrist is a tattoo, a large black scorpion, the reason for the name she has given him in her thinking.  She eyes his hairy knuckles, then looks into his face, which at the moment appears deceptively human.

"Think about it.  You find a place to perch on that cliff, then what?  It's not so bad out here right now.  Sun's up, air's calm.  But tonight it'll be close to freezing.  That means you, too.  You want to freeze to death?  Hell, it doesn't matter anyway.  I'll just leave old Snatch here to make sure you don't climb back up, go get me some rope, and come down there to get you.  But I guarantee if I have to do that, I won't be in a forgiving mood.  So what do you say?"

Not taking her eyes off him, she seeks a foothold farther down, somewhere out of his reach, but she cannot feel her toes.  Finally, she risks a glance below her.  In that instant, Scorpio's hand locks around her wrist.

"Got you."

He's strong, his grip powerful.  He drags her kicking up the face of the rock.  She struggles, screams as he wraps his arms around her.  The dog dances back from the edge, barking crazily.  Scorpio's breath smells of tobacco and coffee, but there's another smell coming off him, familiar and revolting.  The musk odor of his sex.

"Oh, little darling," he croons, "am I going to make you pay."

She puts all her desperation, all her remaining strength, into one last effort, a violent twist that breaks her loose, sends her tumbling backward over the cliff.

The world spins.  First there is blue sky, then white water, then blue sky again.  She closes her eyes and spreads her arms.  Suddenly she isn't falling but flying.  The wind streams across her skin.  Her held breath fills her like a smooth balloon.  She is weightless. 

For one glorious moment in her short, unhappy life, she is absolutely free.

Meloux would finish gently, pointing out, perhaps, that the fall of the smallest robin is known to the spirits of the earth, that no death goes unnoticed or unmourned, that the river has simply been waiting, and like a mother she has opened wide her arms.


Chapter 2

Renoir DuBois kept his heart in his bedroom closet, hidden in a Nike shoe box.

There was an agate he'd found on the shore of Lake Superior when he was very young, the image of a wolf so clear on its smooth surface that it seemed etched by a purposeful hand.  In the totemic system of the Anishinaabeg, Ren was Ma'iingan, Wolf Clan, and he believed the stone was a sign of some kind whose full meaning he would someday understand.

In the box there was also an eagle feather given to him by his great grandfather who told him this story:  A certain man spent his whole life searching in vain for an eagle feather, which would signify his great wisdom.  He paid no heed to the needs of his family or relatives or other people.  Finally he gave up and said to the Great Spirit, "I have wasted my life searching for the eagle feather.  Now I will spend my time helping others."  As soon as he said this, a beautiful eagle flew overhead and a feather gently drifted down.

There was a small figure of the Marvel Comics character Silver Surfer, one of Ren's all-time favorite superheroes.  His best friend, Charlie, had spotted it at a swapmeet in Marquette and had given it to him for Christmas.

There was the skull of a vole, small, delicate, perfect, that Ren had discovered in the meadow south of the cabins one summer afternoon.  Only the skull, no other bones.  So that it would not be crushed by his other treasures, he kept it in a tiny box that had once held one of his mother's necklaces.  Sometimes he opened the necklace box and spent hours drawing the skull in minute detail, imagining as he did so what kind of world such a small brain and perspective would see.

There was a newspaper article, which his mother did not know he had, cut from the Billings Gazette, about the murder of his father, and also the long, celebratory obituary that had been printed in the Marquette County Courier.

The most precious item in the box was a drawing his father had given him, done on a plain sheet of notepad paper, the kind kept by the phone to write messages.  It had been created on a good day, Ren recalled, an August day.  They'd spent the morning putting a new toilet in one of the cabins, and his father had talked while he worked, offering Ren his understanding about Kitchimanidoo, the Great Spirit, about life, about art.   He'd said, as he put the wax ring in the flush hole and settled the porcelain bowl on top, that life was a reflection of the Great Spirit, and that art was a reflection of life.  All of them were simpler than people imagined.  At lunch in the main cabin, which was called Thor's Lodge, he'd illustrated his point with a pen-and-ink drawing—two long arcs, a few easy loops.  "What is it?" he'd asked Ren.  Though nothing connected in a way that completed the image, Ren saw it was a bear.  "There aren't many clear connections in life.  God, Kitchimanidoo, they're pretty sketchy when you come right down to it.  But you don't need everything spelled out for you, son.  Here"—and he touched Ren's chest above his heart—"here is where it all comes together."  A week later, his father was dead.

All the treasures in his box Ren loved and in loving them found the connections simple and unseen that ran from the outside world deep into the world of his heart, just as his father had promised.

That afternoon, fourteen-year-old Ren was at work on something that would eventually find its way into his box.  He had no idea at the moment of the enormity of the events that would put it there.

"On your knees with your nose in the dirt.  Dude, that's so lame, but so you."

Ren looked up from his work, startled.  Charlie Miller stood above him, her face a narrow mask of disgust.  Her real name was Charlene, but she preferred Charlie.  A lot about her besides her name belied her gender.  She looked like a boy, dressed like a boy, and was the fastest runner in the eighth grade at Bodine Area Middle School.  Her hair was shaved close to her scalp and from a distance appeared to be no more than a dusting of charcoal.  Her left nostril and her lower lip were pierced and sported small silver rings.  She was taller than Ren, more slender, and moved with the quickness and grace of a forest animal.  Also the wariness.

"Get bent," Ren said, and returned to his work.

Charlie knelt beside him.  Ren could smell that she needed a bath. 

"What's up?" she said. 

"Cougar track."

"Bullshit."

Two nights before, rain had turned the ground around the cabins soft.  Ren hadn't discovered the track until the next afternoon; as soon as he did, he set about preserving it.  He was used to seeing tracks in the vicinity of the resort cabins.  Raccoon, bear, even an occasional bobcat.  They came nosing around the trash bins, which Ren's mother kept locked.  At first he'd thought the track was a large bobcat, but when he got out his copy of Peterson's A Field Guide to Animal Tracks he realized it was not.  He'd heard stories of cougars still roaming the woods of the U.P., but he never thought he'd find the evidence.  Using an old paintbrush with soft bristles, he'd gently cleaned debris from the imprint, then sprayed it with clear lacquer.  When that dried, he mixed up a batch of plaster of Paris in an empty Folger's coffee can, and he'd been pouring this into the track when Charlie startled him.

"How do you know it's a cougar?" Charlie asked.

"I looked it up."

"I never heard of a cougar around here."

"They used to be all over the place, but people killed most of them and drove the others away.  I heard there might not be more than twenty on the whole U.P."

"Dude, you're worse than National Geographic." 

She hit him hard on the arm and he dropped the coffee can.

"Goddamn it, Charlie, quit screwing around.  This is important."

"Yeah?  So's this."  She hit him again.

Ren launched into her and they rolled over in the soft dirt.  Charlie easily got the upper hand, straddled him, and pinned him to the ground.

"Say it," she commanded.

"Bite me."

She slapped the side of his head lightly.  "Say it."

"You suck."

She lifted her butt and bounced hard on his stomach so that he grunted.

"Say it."

"All right.  I give."

She sprang off him, raised her hands above her head, and did a victory dance.  Ren got back on his knees and crawled to the cougar track.

Charlie knelt beside him again.  "Cougar.  No shit."

"No shit."

"Sweet," she said.

Ren heard the scrape of pine wood.  He glanced up as the door to the nearest cabin opened. 

The man with the wounded leg stood at the threshold, looking stunned, as if the beautiful afternoon, the evergreen-scented air, the blue autumn sky, the warm sunshine were the most amazing things he'd ever seen.  Or maybe it was just the fact that he was still alive.  After a moment, he fell forward, tumbled down the steps, and lay sprawled facedown in the dirt.

"Jesus."  Ren sprang to his feet and sprinted to the fallen man.

"What happened to him?"

"Somebody shot him yesterday."

The man's pants were bloodstained.  The left leg had been cut off near the crotch, revealing two wounds, one on the outside of his thigh where the bullet had entered and another on the inside where it exited.  The exit wound was larger and open, fitted with a tube and drainage bag that were held in place with surgical tape.  The entrance wound had been stitched, but the stitches were broken and the wound was bleeding.  The man's eyes were closed.  His face had gone slack.

"Is he dead?" Charlie asked.

"God, I hope not.  I was supposed to be watching him."  Ren felt the man's neck.  "He's got a pulse.  We've got to get him back inside.  You take his left arm, I'll take his right.  Let's see if we can lift him."

"Unh-uh," Charlie backed away a step.  "I've tried dragging my old man into bed when he was passed out.  You might as well try lifting a dead horse."

"Come on, damn it, give me a hand."

"All right, but I'm telling you, you're better off just getting a blanket and letting him lie there."

She grasped his arm as Ren had instructed and they tried in vain to bring the man to his feet.

"Like a dead horse, I told you," Charlie grunted as she dropped the arm.

Ren pushed himself up.  "Don't leave him."

"Where are you going?"

He bounded up the steps and ran inside Cabin 3.  The bedding lay on the floor where the man had thrown it.  Ren grabbed the blanket, then another from the closet, and raced back outside.  Charlie was bent over, examining the man's wounds.

"He's been bleeding pretty bad," she said.

Ren spread out one of the blankets on the ground next to the man.

"Could he, like, bleed to death?"

"Mom says it looks worse than it is."

"She sewed him up?"
"Yeah.  Help me here."

Together they rolled him so that he was on the blanket.  Ren stood up.

"I'll be right back."

He made for Thor's Lodge, took the steps in a single bound, shoved open the door, and grabbed the telephone.  He dialed the animal clinic where his mother worked.  Dawn, the receptionist, told him she was out on a call.  He tried her cell phone, got her after three rings.  Her signal was breaking up, but not so badly she didn't understand.  She told him what to do and that she'd be there as soon as she could.

After he hung up, he went to the closet in his mother's bedroom and took her medical bag from the shelf.  He returned to where Charlie sat beside the man.

"You were gone a long time," she said.

"I talked to my mom.  She'll get here as soon as she can."

He checked the tube and bag taped to the man's thigh.

"What is that?" Charlie asked.

"It's called a Penrose drain.  It helps the wound stay clean while it heals."  Ren dug into the medical bag, brought out a pair of latex gloves and Betadine scrub.  He put on the gloves.  "Hold his leg."

Ren cleaned the area around the second wound where the stitches were broken.  The fast flow of blood had subsided into a steady ooze.  He reached into the medical bag again and pulled out a sterile pad, a roll of gauze, tape, and a pair of scissors.  He pressed the pad to the wound, bound it in place by wrapping the gauze tightly several times around the man's thigh, and secured it with the surgical tape.

Charlie watched in silent fascination.  When Ren finished, she looked at him with admiration.  "That was pretty sweet."

"Yeah, well."

"Who is he?"

"Family.  My mom's cousin."

"Has he got a name?"

Ren pulled off the gloves and began to put away the medical things.  He considered a moment before answering her.

"Yeah," he said.  "It's Cork."

 

© William Kent Krueger.