Joseph Crow walked the woods nearly every night of his adult life.
Some nights he hunted. Some nights he simply worked out his demons – and he had a few - under the canopy of leaves, following trails he, his neighbors and time had carved out of the vine-covered ground. He rarely met anyone, especially if he walked after midnight or on rainy nights. He preferred it that way.
Tonight, however, was a clear night, a starry night, the first night of the new moon. He found Billy Johns up along the ridge. Billy had been with his woman earlier in the evening
and from the violence with which Billy walked, Joseph guessed that things had not gone well. He could imagine the stones and dirt kicked up and the branches broken or snapped clean off in the wake of Billy’s angry and impatient gait.
“Hey,” the two men called to each other. They stood only a moment, Joseph’s eyes searching his friend’s face and Billy’s reflecting his hot irritation. Joseph lowered his gaze to the dogs milling about at their feet. Together, the men turned onto a smaller trail and walked silently.
Up ahead, where the ridge came to its crest, the dogs sniffed the ground. Chena, Joseph’s dog, had blood hound genes mixed with some, probably many, other unknown species. No one could be sure about Billy’s dog. He’d found her as a pup, deserted under a derelict barn one winter’s day. Nose down, Chena began to run at an angle, off to the south. Billy’s dog followed, sniffing the ground behind Chena as if wanting to identify the scent for herself.
When the land dipped, into a shallow valley, the dogs disappeared from sight. Neither man worried, their dogs knew these woods intimately. They would find the dogs again, or the dogs would find them. They paused, listening for the dog’s yelp to announce a find. They heard only the still of the night, the soft whisper of the wind in the trees.
“You and Angel have it out?” asked Joseph.
Billy kicked at a stump, and kept walking towards where the dogs had disappeared. Whatever had happened, he wasn’t in a talking mood. Joseph nodded in acceptance and followed him.
Then the dogs scuttled back out of the valley, their shoulders hunched, their heads down in a posture their owners recognized: submission and fear. Joseph crouched down and reached out a hand to Chena, beckoning her to him. Billy slapped his leg to call his dog. But before either could speak or examine their dog for injury or scent or some indication of what had happened, a soft glow lined the ridge.
The men watched as a sphere of pulsing light rose upwards over the treetops and paused not more than 100 feet away. The men took some steps back. The dogs whined. The light pulsated slowly, rhythmically. Then men and dogs turned and ran, not stopping until the trail reached the road. Joseph and Billy stopped for a breath and both looked back over their shoulders. The light, throbbing like a living, round heart over the rise in the trail, had not moved.
Joseph Crow and Billy Johns looked at each other, mutely debating whether they should tell anyone. Just as silently, they agreed to say nothing. Slowly, their feet heavy as if encased in spring mud after the rains, they crossed the stream and returned to the village.
They did not discuss the events of the night.
Weeks later, when the lights had been seen by many of their friends and neighbors, Billy and Joseph still kept silent. They had seen the light and they ran away. Running away was not honorable. Billy, in particular, did not need to give Angel one more thing to throw at him when they argued. And Joseph had enough demons as his daily companions to take on any more.
The old men all knew, and told, that this light was the work of the great water spirit amasKagahi (a-ma-s-Ka-ga-hi). The village bowed their heads and shifted nervously on their feet. They had moved with the times and growing skepticism of the “old way” to some extent, but the traditions and superstitions of the elders remained deep within the people. They knew that to even mention amasKagahi’s name was to ask for trouble. The one thing all in the village would agree on was that they didn’t need that kind, or any kind, of trouble.
Still, mothers began keeping their children indoors. Most of the fishermen stopped their nighttime trawling of the river for catfish, and then only on the far side of the island, towards a stone quay nobody remembered building and nobody dared tie up to. The men hunted to the east, far from the river.
One week after the old men made their declaration, three dead deer were found in the woods. A few days later, a village child became ill and, just hours later, died. Official cause was unknown fever, but the villagers knew the river spirit had claimed his first kills.
The general anxiety only grew and wound like a great snake around the village’s thoughts after two more deaths in the area. The fact that the latest victims were a man and wife whose car had run into a ditch did not deter most people from lumping their deaths together with the one of the fevered child. The river spirit, they said in their own thoughts, was strong. Still no one spoke these thoughts out loud. amasKagahi would hear, and things could get worse.
Along the ridge, the pulsing light became a nightly terror. When Joseph Crow and Billy Johns had met the light, it troubled the area only occasionally, and mostly to no ill effect.
A gentle reminder, the old men said. The spirit did not need to nag like a woman. But within a week of the last death, the nightly illumination remained, constant, watching, and, some said, listening.
Three days after the village constable had confirmed the constancy of the ligh,; four schoolboys sneaked out past midnight and crossed the river to the island on a dare. The boys had become ill within twenty-four hours, like the first child who had died. Doctors in the nearest hospital were baffled. They did all their examinations: all the poking, and prodding and measuring the boy’s temperatures, heart rates and blood pressure. They weighed the boys, checked their scalps and their privates. Specialists were called in, but still the hospital had no access to the intrusive examinations – MRIs and CAT-scans and other things known only by initial letters, so the doctors had no answers either to the cause or treatment for the sickness. And the boys died just as quickly.
The people of Grand River had known many hardships: winters cold enough to freeze the blood; flooding rains one year, the next so dry and hot nothing that would sustain or heal and little that had color or comforting scent wanted to grow; and sometimes, just for “fun” some said, a windstorm that tore off roofs and uprooted trees.
And there was always the soul-grinding poverty and the vague sense that the world beyond the village, the Others, didn’t give a hearty damn whether Grand River lived or died.
Even their geography sustained this separation. The only road in or out of the village was to the south, over a small bridge over the Tower Island Chute. And this route was often impassable due to high water. Because of this, or in spite of it, the village formed a tight group, a family protective of each other and their traditional ways, and, very often, particularly to outsiders, secretive.
When a man in the dark suit of the Others emerged one afternoon from a car which labeled him a government man, since it was too new to belong in the village, as many of the
people as could hurried their children inside and closed their doors. The government man had had to go door to door and knock.
“Seen nothing, and knew nothing” were the words those who bothered to open their doors to the man.
He next tried the presumed open doors of the grocery, on the pretext of feeling a bit “peckish”. The grocer sold the man a bottle of pop and some chips. The government man asked his questions.
“Lights,” the grocer had said, trying to look thoughtful. “I saw the heat lightin’, and that ain’t nothing new.”
The grocer later told the village that, “The fella was plenty darn mad. He looked like he wanted to jump across my counter and bite me.” That earned him a general chuckle.
After another hour or two of doors and mouths closed tight, the government man ate venison stew and squaw bread at Bitty’s Café. He seemed to grow tired of being watched by a village pretending not to watch, not to care. His belly finally full of it all, the stranger had downed three whiskeys at the village’s only legal bar. He disappeared into his new car and drove away.
Once his tail light had cleared the bridge at the end of the village, the people started coming out of their houses.
“Forget this,” Elder Twofeathers said to the assembled village. He motioned to the other elders to come into Bitty’s Café to meet.
There was no need to say anymore. People milled restlessly about outside the café, no one saying much and few knowing what to say. After what felt like a few tense minutes, one of the elders came outside and whispered something to a young man, who hurried off towards the forest.
The elders had decided. They had no other choice. They needed the Shaman, the young one, who lived in the wood. The old Shaman had become ill with arthritis. He went on his way by wheel chair, but he would never be able to traverse the woods. Besides, a Shaman needed strength to deal with the river spirits.
They needed the young Shaman.