The following is an un-edited excerpt from the forthcoming historical novel, Wanders Far, due out in 2019. The book is set in the 1100's, which is to say pre-Columbian times.
Bear Fat was unusually excited. She couldn’t wait to share the experience of summer in the mountains with her mother, Gentle Breeze. For years they had talked about bringing her, and for years there always seemed to be a reason she needed to stay behind in the village. Every year when Bear Fat and her family would return, telling stories of the summer, Gentle Breeze would listen, entranced, and wistfully wish she could go too. Then every spring, something always seemed to prevent her from joining her family.
They had to hike a significant distance to get to the primary waterway. Gentle Breeze was a physically fit, 61-year-old great-grandmother, and she kept a decent pace. The boys, Wanders Far and Dandelion led the procession up the trail, followed by Bear Fat, then Gentle Breeze. Big Canoe brought up the rear. They weren’t in a big hurry and stopped whenever someone thought a break might be nice. In past years, the family had made the hundred-mile trek in four days. Nobody minded the slower pace, and they spent six nights on the way to Moose River.
Near the river bank, there were two canoes hidden in a thicket, a short distance from the established path, just where they had been left at the end of the previous summer. The boys took the smaller canoe, Dandelion in the stern, and Wanders Far at the bow. Dandelion had a very strong chest, and well developed, muscular arms, whereas Wanders Far had strong legs, but not much upper body strength, so it was difficult for them to synchronize to a comfortable pace, however that made it easier for the second canoe to keep up with the first. Big Canoe took the stern of the large canoe, and Bear Fat paddled from the front. Gentle Breeze and most of the gear rode in the middle.
A series of rivers, ponds, and lakes took them most of the distance from south to north. They could have summered anywhere along the way and found a bounty of resources. Other, shorter mountains had plenty of bear, deer, trout, and birch trees, but tradition prevented anybody in the family from considering or suggesting going anywhere other than what they called, Perfect Pond. It was nice to look at other places along the way, but there was no place else they wanted to be, most of the time. Perfect Pond was their utopia.
Gentle Breeze enjoyed every second of the trip, soaking in the beauty of the scenery along the way, gazing off into the woods with wide-eyed wonderment. Whenever she could, she would reach over the edge of the canoe, and drag her hand or feet in the water. Big Canoe and Bear Fat shifted their balance to compensate and prevent the canoe from flipping over as Gentle Breeze flopped about. Every time Gentle Breeze would say something like, “Oh my,” or “look, look, look,” Big Canoe and Bear Fat would exchange a glance, and a grin, it was like they were seeing everything along the way for the first time, too. In all her years, Gentle Breeze rarely had cause to leave her village, spending most of her time within the palisade walls.
After a fairly leisurely five days and ninety miles of paddling, they reached the end of their waterway. They set up camp along a medium-sized lake and hid the canoes in their customary hiding place. The next morning, they put the packs back on their backs, and hiked the final fifteen miles to their summer residence.
Their camp was exactly how they left it the previous fall. It was a much smaller version of their Garoga Creek longhouse, with plenty of room for two families. They had rebuilt the camp two summers previous. It was sturdy, and tightly enclosed. They were glad not to find raccoons, opossums, skunks, or other nuisance animals residing in their shelter. Gentle Breeze squealed with delight when she saw it. “How cute,” she raved. Though it was pretty tidy, she set to cleaning the house with a pine bough, then she cleaned the outdoor area between the house and a fire pit, just like she did at home in their village. Big Canoe and the boys gathered wood, twigs, and bark. Bear Fat started a fire and it wasn’t long before she had a nice, warm, crackling, twig and pine needle fire blazing on a bed of dried moss. It felt nice, and warm against her skin. She added larger twigs, then more substantial sized chopped logs they had left behind at the end of the previous summer. When that fire was established, Bear Fat started another, smaller fire in the hearth inside, at the center of the tiny house. Just enough so that the fire would keep them comfortable in bearskin robes on their bunks.
Back at the bigger fire outdoors, Bear Fat set up a large clay pot, filled it with stream water, and provisions from the parfleche pouches she brought with her to make a stew. She added some bear fat to make the stew hearty.
When there was more than enough wood, twigs, and branches to last several weeks, they all gathered around the fire, happy to be facing each other after days of sitting single file, in canoes. The hot meal was pleasant, and there was plenty of it. They laughed, and talked, smiled, and made plans. After wintering in a house with fifty people, they enjoyed the intimate solitude and warmth of their time together at camp. There was lots of work to do in the summer to provide for their enormously extended family during the winter, yet summer at the camp on the little pond provided leisure and relaxation as well. Gentle Breeze was overcome with emotion, tears in her eyes, radiating gratitude for the opportunity to experience summer with her oldest daughter’s family.
Wasting no time, the next morning Big Canoe and Dandelion set out in full pursuit of bears. They carried weapons, and sufficient provisions to be gone a week. It usually didn’t take that long. Big Canoe knew exactly where to look, after a lifetime of experience.
Perfect Pond was situated at the foot of an enormous mountain. Sometimes, even in the summer the top of the mountain would have snow, and often, even on cloudless days, the very top of the mountain would be lost within a cloud. Big Canoe knew all the nooks, crannies, and rocky outcrops on the mountain, and they trekked from one to the other until they found an area they liked.
Back at camp, Bear Fat got everything ready for the work that would come. She prepared racks for drying meat at the fire and got stakes ready for stretching the hides. When the hides were stretched taut, she would have work to do, scraping and curing them for use by her family, or for trading for other things they would need. There were hundreds of tasks to tend to at camp, and she scurried around, humming, and every once in a while, inhaling the scent of the nearby cedars.
Wanders Far kept his grandmother busy, showing her everything there was to see. He taught her how to catch fish in the nearby river, which seemed to delight her. Whenever she caught a fish, she seemed so surprised, it was as if she thought there had been next to no chances of actually catching a fish. Yet one after another, she pulled them in, giggling when they flopped in her hands, as if the fish were intentionally tickling her palms. She kept Wanders Far busy, removing the fish from the bone hooks on her string, and knocking them on the head with a rock.
On one side of Perfect Pond was a ledge, about twenty feet above the water’s surface. Jumping into the pond from the ledge was an exhilarating feeling, and almost as much fun for adults as for children. Gentle Breeze watched Wanders Far jump in a couple of times. Whenever he jumped, she felt a dropping, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, almost as if she were jumping herself. Every time he got out of the pond, dripping wet, she praised him. “Nice jump,” or “good job,” she would say, as grandmothers do. Then she made the mistake of saying, “I wish I could do that!”
Wanders Far took her by the hand and led her up the trail to the top ledge rock. “It really isn’t a big jump,” he assured her, “you can do this. You are a great swimmer, and I’m here for you,” he added, as if he were an adult, and she were a little girl.
Gentle Breeze giggled, squeamishly, amused by her grandson. She thought, since I’ve been here, I actually feel like a little girl again. She had no complaints about her own childhood, but on the other hand, she hadn’t known what she was missing. She said to her grandson, “You know what, yes! I think I will. I am going to do it. You think I can? All I have to do is jump, and then swim for the top once I land in the water?” It took her several minutes to tiptoe up to the edge. Then she leaned forward slightly, and peeked over the slightly rounded, convex rock beneath her. It took five seconds and one massive push from her grandson to send her flying out over the edge. Her arms and legs flailed in all different directions as she went over the edge, and she gulped for breath before she hit the surface.
Bear Fat watched from camp where she was busy fashioning a new basket. She thought her mother would go up with Wanders Far, and watch HIM jump from there, then walk back down the path. She never expected HER to jump, and she never expected Wanders Far to push her. It was so unlike him to do such a thing. If she hadn’t seen it for herself, she wouldn’t have believed it. Perhaps what made it seem so funny was how unexpected it was. She was doubled over with laughter as her mother got out of the pond, all dripping wet, and jumping up and down with excitement.
“I know,” Bear Fat hollered to her mother from across the pond, “refreshing, isn’t it?”
Wanders Far was right behind her. He couldn’t wait to congratulate her on her big jump. Bear Fat thought she should admonish her son for pushing his grandmother off a cliff, but just the thought of scolding him set her off into another fit of laughter. Before she was done, her mother was back up the trail, on her way to the edge of the cliff again. No hesitation the second time, she jumped right in as if she’d done it hundreds of times. Every time she jumped in that summer, she giggled and radiated just the same as she did after her first trip over the edge.
Stay tuned for more excerpts from the forthcoming book, Wanders Far.