Skish, skish. Skish, skish. Skish, skish, shkizzz. He strained his leg muscles against the fine layer of ice that glazed the snow. On powder, balance was easier, but on ice, he was able to glide further with each push. His aunties laughed at him. Skis were for white boys. Natives snowshoed. His mother hushed their taunts. She was proud that he felt such connection to the land, and to the fish who gave their bodies to nourish people during the cold and hungry depths of winter. In the abyss of morning, the spruce and birch that surrounded him were a wall of black against the purple sky. The crest of the sun was breaching the horizon at his back, its blood red light granting the trail a faint sheen that allowed him to read the contours of the path ahead. Nearing on the frozen lake, the land fell, bowing to the water, and speed came to Grayson. He bent his knees and tucked his poles against his ribs, giving himself over to gravity, the cold bite of February finding his cheeks and lips despite the wool mask covering his face. Breath fogged his goggles with every exhale, and so it was that the snow covered mass in the center of the trail was invisible until he couldn’t possibly avoid it.
Grayson cut his hips hard to the right, his skis, instantly perpendicular to the trail, hit the frozen lump broadside, throwing the weight of his upper body forward while his feet were launched high into the air. Hitting the ground with a great release of wind, Grayson landed on his neck and shoulders, his poles rocketing from his hands. Momentum sent his legs tumbling after him, and his skis hit the Earth with a tangled mess of sound, plastic and metal clattering and echoing in the vacuum of dawn.
“Goddammit!” He yelled.
Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! The forest air teased back.
Grayson lie motionless but for the large huffs of air he sucked and released through the moist fabric covering his mouth. The sky overhead was still deepwater blue, and through the glass shielding his eyes, pinpricks of remaining starlight hushed his mind and slowed his heart. He sat up carefully, unwinding his legs until he could release his thick boots from their skis. After shaking his arms free of his pack straps, he was able to stand. Brushing the snow from his limbs, Grayson silently cursed the forest service for leaving a downed tree across a ski trail. He stomped back to the buried obstruction to collect his poles, and bending to retrieve them, he froze. His chest was a steady bellows, lifting and dropping his shoulders, pumping long draughts of smoke from his face. Grayson fell forward onto his knees, ripping his goggles from his head. The crash had broken loose some of the frozen snow that otherwise shrouded the mass. Reaching towards the object with his thick black glove, Grayson’s two forefingers delicately brushed away snow where a few thin strands of red hair now danced on the wind. Dropping his hand, he looked into the window he had made, and was hypnotized by the icy emerald eye that was staring back at him.
Someone gave him coffee from a thermos. A detective called him “bud.” Twice he was asked to relive his morning from the time he woke up. An EMT asked if he was alright. A ranger asked to see his fishing license. Investigators strung yellow tape around what they all called “the scene.” The medical examiner’s man took pictures when her blanket of snow had been brushed away, and the sun had fully risen. The news lady from Duluth asked, “how did you feel when you found the pregnant girl?”
Sleep was uneasy the first week. Then again the following week, too. He fell into dreaming well enough, only to meet her again, and again, and again. The red haired girl with her enormous belly, but no jacket, and no hat, and no gloves, out there in the cold dark. Sometimes she spoke. Sometimes she sang. Sometimes with nothing but a wicked grin, she told him that the baby was his. Always she was there. Between him and the lake. Between him and the place of fish and rice. Death where the world gave life. Haunting his restless nights. Haunting his tired days.
“This is Detective Lancaster.”
“Hi, this is Grayson Bearheart.”
“How can I help you?”
“You gave me your card and said to call you if anything came up.”
“I’ve been leaving messages.”
“For what case number?”
“I, I don’t know. I’m the guy who found the pregnant girl in the Fon Du Lac.”
“Oh, right. Bearheart. How can I help you, bud?”
“I was just wondering if there is any information about her. If you guys found out who she is yet?”
“Nope. She’s still a Jane Doe.”
“So you don’t know why she was out there?”
“No idea. Medical examiner is calling it a suicide.”
“Nature of the scene. Finding her coat and scarf abandoned at the trailhead. On a negative ten degree day, no one who wants to live does that.”
“But why would she want to die? She was about to have a baby.”
“You know I gave you my card in case you had information for me, right? That’s how detecting works. People bring me clues. Not the other way around.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just…it’s been hard for me. I keep thinking about her. I can’t get her face out of my head.”
“Listen bud, this is hard stuff. Real hard. If you have any heart at all, seeing this kind of thing, it’s gonna hurt.”
“Even when you don’t know their names?”
“Especially when I don’t know their names.”
Spring came with its bounty of green grass and yellow blooms. Songbirds returned to northern Minnesota to nest in the high branches of white birch trees, and the ice bid farewell to the lake, but Grayson could not bring himself to be in the forest. He worked overtime at the casino, hiding under the ceaseless electric light and the mad repetition of digital sound wailing from the mouths of video poker machines. “Sorry bud, I got nothing new for you.”
All summer his canoe remained upright against the peeling paint on the side of the house. On the wall of the garage, rod and reel slept in the whirling dust, hooks rusting at the end of line. His mother saw the pink in his eyes and the extra fat under his shirt. She said nothing about the number of beer cans in the trash when she brought him food on Saturdays. “Bud, I tell you what, if I ever get her name, I’ll call you. I promise.”
The wrenches clinked and clanked, banging against each other in the tool bag as he walked up the steps to his mother’s house. Without knocking, Grayson turned the handle and stepped through the foyer into the wood paneled living room. On the couch, his two aging aunties were looking up at him, their eyes disappearing into brown folds of skin as they smiled wide. “Hello, son,” his mother called to him from across the counter top in the kitchen. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Sure, I’ll have a cup. Hi aunties.”
The room smelled of cinnamon. A plate of cookies was on the coffee table. His mother crossed the floor with a blue mug in her hand, taking careful steps so that the scalding liquid wouldn’t overtop the rim. Instead of handing him the coffee, she set it on the table, and pulled her son into a deep embrace. “I love you, Waaseyaa.”
“I love you too, mom.” Grayson let his mother hold him, and with his free arm he pulled her in. When she slowly relaxed, letting her hands fall away from his sides, he looked back to his aunties who were both nodding, still smiling. “Is everything OK?” he asked.
“Let me take this from you.” His mother relieved him of his tool bag, setting it in the foyer.
“Don’t you need me to fix the sink?”
“No, son. The sink is fine. Have a seat.”
“What’s this about?”
“Have a seat, please.” His mother guided him to a waiting recliner. The springs in the weathered chair creaked under his weight. His mother handed him the blue mug and a cookie. Grayson sipped the coffee as she made her way to the couch, where she wedged herself between her two sisters.
“It’s manoominike giizis,” she said plainly.
He dropped his eyes. “I know.”
“Then why aren’t you on the lake with your uncle? You haven’t missed a rice season since you were a boy.”
“I’m just really busy this year.”
The aunties were shaking their heads. They looked to each other, and their heads shook even more.
“Son. Don’t tell me lies.”
The women’s eyes were all on him. There was no shame or judgment in any of their faces, but Grayson trembled nonetheless.
“I know you’re hurting. We all know. We see it plainly. You cannot hide your pain from your family. And you shouldn’t try. We love you, Waaseyaa. We are here to help you.”
His eyes burned with salt. He set his mug on the little wooden table next to him, and laid the cookie on top of it. With a hard sigh, he brought the balls of his hands to his eyes, wearing his fingers like great, bony lashes.
“I see that girl, mom. All the time, I see her. At night I dream about her face. During the day, I’ll think I see a redhead out of the corner of my eye.” His hands floated in front of him and he sent his words past his mother, out of the house entirely. “Her ghost is following me! I can’t go into the woods. I can’t go to the lake.”
“There are many lakes, son.”
“And she haunts them all! You don’t understand! I saw her nimaamaa! She was dead! And with a baby in her belly! She wanted to die, nimaamaa! And she came to our land to do it! Why would she do that? Why would she bring her poison to us? The land is cursed, now! Maybe not for you, maybe not for uncle Eddie, maybe not for anyone else, but it is for me! I don’t feel life in the forest anymore! I feel only death!
The aunties' heads shook again, this time with pity. They looked to each other, and then back to Grayson.
“It’s up to you to heal the land then, son. Don’t you see? You have been given a special task. You have been called because you love the forest. The land chose you. Don’t you see? That girl, her sadness swallowed her. She had nothing left but her pain. And she brought it like a seed, but the seed could not grow in the ice. It was trapped. Now you carry it, but it isn’t yours. You have to take it to the water, son. Only you can set your spirit free, and bring peace back into your heart.”
The aunties were nodding.
Shissh. Shissh. Shissh. The bow of the canoe pushed through the dense green stalks that broke the surface of the lake to dance in the afternoon air. In the stern seat, his uncle wore a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses, his strong arms pushing the vessel forward through the water with a long, heavy pole. Grayson reached out and gripped a fistful of grass that was like hair in his hand. He bent the magenta seed heads towards him, and with his left hand, he used his bawa’iganaakoog to knock loose the grains, which rained all about his feet. The floor of the canoe was covered in a soft carpet of rice. The seeds that fell beyond the gunwale floated on the surface of the lake until they were fat with moisture, and then they swam slowly downward, away from the beaming sun until they found the slippery mud. To avoid the pole that pushed the shadowy craft along, yellow perch cut and arced, their billowing fins tossing clouds of soil that landed like a blanket on the fine grains of rice, warming them, planting them in a womb of clay. At the edge of the lake, they dragged the heavy canoe back onto dry land. While his uncle loaded gear into the truck, Grayson crouched on one knee and broke open a cigarette, whispering a prayer as the tobacco made a tiny mound before his boot. Behind him a cardinal sang in a birch tree. When he stood up, the red bird took to the wind and flew off over the water. Grayson wished her a safe journey.