Author, That Reminds Me
Pre-historic Bison Remains Found in U.S. 71 Extension- Menahga Messenger headline, July 1950
A portion of a human skull was found by persons canoeing on the Crow Wing River near Cottingham Park. They reported their discovery to the Sheriff’s Department, and deputies recovered the remains. Test results determined that the skull was between 600 and 700 years old. - Sebeka Menahga Review Messenger, September 2002
Before the sun opened, the sky was a rubble of clouds the color of summer flowers and autumn maples. A crow announced the birth of day. Young coyotes yelped from faraway woods. Another pack answered. Then it was quiet, still.
Dew-dampened grass quieted a crouching band of hunters. They advanced, one by one, in an arc, each carrying two sapling poles. On the end of the poles, a thong held brilliant feathers and scraps of fur. The hunting party was large – all the men of the village.
Within the arc of hunters, a bull buffalo stood sleeping, his shaggy head drooping to the ground, his horns catching the glint of early morning sun. Cows and calves lay sleeping. The hunting party arced from a creek bed to encircle the sleeping herd. When the arc was complete, the lead hunter Big Bear sprang from the grass. All the hunters stood, waving their poles, running toward the herd, whooping, shrieking, chanting. The buffalo stumbled and scrambled away from the encircling hunters into the creek bed. The mud slowed their advance. The bull, biggest and heaviest, propelled by his speed lunged forward and churned the mud in an attempt to rise. A cow followed. Her calf, lighter and buoyed by clumps of cattails, advanced toward the stream, tripped, and lay tangled and trembling.
The hunters charged the struggling prey, dropped their poles, and brandished flint lances and knives. Big Bear hopped, hummock to hummock, to the bull, straddled him, and drove a knife into his neck.
The bull bolted and bucked, twisting his massive head in a frenzied arc. He forced a front leg forward, kicked with the rear. Big Bear felt the bull’s struggle for survival, felt the bull’s hot muscled body through his leggings, smelled his musky sweat. He grabbed a massive horn in one hand and forced the knife deeper, deeper. His hand was red with the heady intoxicating odor of blood. The bull bucked with his last burst of strength, then lowered his head and trembled his final quakes.
Big Bear twisted the bull’s head and met his dying gaze. He inhaled the final snorts of hot breath, then lay silent, still astraddle the bull. He pulled the bloodied knife from the bull’s neck, raised his bloodied arms and hands, and released the bull’s spirit into the morning sky.
Calves scrambled toward the water and belly-crawled through reeds. Younger hunters followed, hopping from earth clod to clod. Young Bear Paw reached a calf, jumped on his back, and brought him to his belly in mud. Bear Paw arced his knife as his father had instructed and felt the calf surrender. He lifted the calf’s head out of muck as it struggled and gasped, then crawled forward until his head was over the dying animal’s nostrils to breathe its dying breath.
Butchering was quiet and efficient. Hunters dragged the buffaloes from mud to dry ground, skinned and gutted them, and divided the carcasses into transportable-sized chunks. Other men laced the sapling poles together into travois. The hides and flesh were divided among the hunters, and the horns and a shock of hair were cut from the skulls. By the time the sun was high, the hunters formed a procession home, along the creek bed to where it joined the Cat River and along the river to where the Cat joined the larger river known as Raven’s Wing.
Bear Paw and his father assembled a harness of dried buffalo skins, knotted it to the travois, and slipped the straps over their shoulders. One moon and another sun would appear before they returned to the village. They pulled as equals, in lock step, over the path of flattened reeds and grass toward the woods where the sun rose. The procession of hunters was quiet. Their steps, quick and strong; their eyes rotated from the path ahead to the perilous woods. They plodded along the creek bed, the sun at their backs until they arrived at a site where they would camp for the night.
The hunting party set up camp in a circle, carcasses in the center. Renegade tribes of stragglers who had been ousted from their villages prowled the area and wreaked revenge by ambushing a lone hunter and robbing him of his game, or kidnapping a young berry picker who strayed beyond her mother’s view.
When the hunters had built a fire near the heap of carcasses, they impaled strips of buffalo meat on sharpened sticks and roasted them in the flames. While they ate, they talked in low monotones about the leap onto the mired buffalo’s back, the deftness of the swing of the knife, the labored final breath as the spirit escaped the body.
After they ate, the men huddled by the fire in the clear cold night. They filled their pipes with tobacco and smoked. Bear Paw sat behind his father, behind the ring of senior hunters. Big Bear motioned him into the circle and handed him the pipe. Trails of sparks spiraled up to the sky and returned to earth in the form of snowflakes.
In the morning, the ground was white. When Bear Paw peered from under his sleeping robe, other young men fed the fire. The party ate scraps from last night’s meal and broke camp for the final day’s trek to the village. The hunting party became a winding ribbon of men and travois, skirting the Cat River banks. Snow fell and covered the sun. Wind blew from the direction of the setting sun and propelled them toward the village.
When the sun was at its highest point, they stopped. Bear Paw retrieved a handful of dried cranberries from a bag tied to his leggings. He scooped drinking water from the river in a trough of birch bark. The wind blew colder, and ice formed along the shore. From upstream, scattered floes of ice scraped against the shore like flint chipping against flint.
When the sun lowered behind them, they trudged through banks of fresh snow. At intervals, the leaders of the procession would step to the side and pass the chore of breaking fresh snow to the second travois. The party would be at the mouth of the Cat River before the sun disappeared behind the pines. The wind roared and snow blew in circles. The village was a short trek ahead, where the river turned and flowed toward the Bright Star, then rounded a bend and flowed toward the Big River.
Big Bear and Bear Paw finished their rotation at the head of the procession and rested beneath an uprooted pine. The roots lifted the earth and created a shelter for small animals. Fresh rabbit tracks dotted the snow. Bear Paw thought of catching a rabbit and presenting the soft hide to his betrothed as a wedding gift. He told his plan to his father who assented. The profusion of rabbit tracks promised a quick and easy catch. Bear Paw fashioned a snare from strings of raw hide, and placed it where the tracks disappeared in the roots. He climbed atop the root clump and waited.
The hunting party continued the final leg of the trek without them, toward the smell of smoke from the huts and the riverside clearing. Mothers and children would welcome the hunting party. Tonight the aroma of fresh buffalo roasting in the huts would permeate the village. Heroic legends would be created and told for generations – the slaughter of the bull, the young buck’s first kill. Women would unwrap the bulky hides and marvel at the size and warmth they would provide.
Bear Paw and his father waited at the uplifted root. The wind blew and daylight escaped the sky. Big Bear smoked his pipe and felt his son’s eagerness to present a gift to his bride – tanned rabbit skin, large enough to sew for mittens or slippers. The snow dampened all sound except the wind. Bear Paw concentrated on the snare and cocked his arm, awaiting the victim.
A sharp rock whistled over Big Bear and struck Bear Paw on the brow. He fell toward his father and collapsed on the fresh snow. Blood gushed from the wound and dyed the snow a brilliant red, even in fading light. Big Bear lifted his son’s shoulders and dragged him between two fallen logs. A party of three renegades, distracted by the cache of buffalo meat and folded hide bound to the travois, quarreled over the spoils. Big Bear carried his son from the cove of logs toward the river. Snow fell in clumps and softened the ridges of his footprints.
Big Bear knew the custom of renegade bands scalping their victims and brandishing the spoils to gain stature. He knew he could not outfight three men. He knew his son’s body was relaxed and lifeless. He crept blindly through the snow, along the river in the direction of the village. He reached a point on the shore that abutted an island and stepped into the icy water. On the island, he lowered his son’s body in the reeds and righted the broken cattails in his path.
The snow fell. No moon shone. Big Bear heard a dry branch snap. The renegade band had begun the search for their victim. Big Bear could escape their attention and return to the village alone, but he couldn’t carry his lifeless son. He heard another twig snap further down the bank. The renegades were circling and returning.
Big Bear leaned over his son, inhaled his spirit and breathed his blessing into the lifeless body. He dragged his son to open water on the far side of the island and eased him into the stream. The body hesitated, then began a slow float away, gliding with ice floes. Before it disappeared, it was covered with snow, at one with the river making its way to the fast current, past the village where the river turns toward the Bright Star, past the bend, flowing, forever flowing to his grave.
This essay is one of many appearing in Mevissen’s latest book, That Reminds Me, available at www.jerrymevissen.com.