Lazarus pricked his ears, then hand-signaled to Threadneedle: You circle to the right. I go left.
The two men, father and son, moved quietly, in random patterns to avoid detection, starting and stopping as the leaf trembles in the wind and then falls still.
They rose on either side to flank the den that overlooked the small valley where Cattaraugus Creek went north to Lake Erie and meandered through willow, the color of acidic chartreuse, just before leafing out. Stands of red dogwood counterpointed maple buds swollen red against the sunset in the canopy. The wind, typical of March in these hardwood forests just off the Great Lakes, where cold and warm systems meet, had risen to choreograph a bare-limbed tree limbo, pruning off dead branches as the trees groaned and rubbed against each other, sap stirring in their roots. All this was lit by sunset’s red spectrum, the illusion of warmth just before maple sugaring. Earlier, tiny silver fish the English speakers called smelt ran abundantly from the small streams into the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes.
For several years now, father and son had made a camping trip of it, north to where the westernmost Finger Lake was cut. Out with their torches, they joined both whites and natives helping each other fill their fine nets with the coin-sized fish that could be caught only at night. Their fellow landsmen hung their lanterns high on poles to light the darkness where the creek ran into the lake, a vestige of the great beast of ice a mile high who had raked its claw marks deep into the ground when it receded, its waters contained and tamed for a period, stasis between watersheds holding the larger stasis between ice ages, which their lore told them pulsed, and pulsed, throughout time.
Then and there, at that fish camp, they had made their first overtures to the Seneca who lived on Cattaraugus Reservation. Now, a couple of years later, could this métis family, with their Wolf Clan matron and a legendary lineage, move in permanently with these People who were related distantly through bloodlines? The Montours, it had been made clear, would be welcome. Their clan had given them this ritual to perform on behalf of this band of Seneca, who lived in one of the last places besides Akwesasne itself, in Canada, which hosted wolf dens within its protectorate. When the Regina Coeli principals had moved to Cottage permanently, near Cattaraugus Reservation, Lazarus and Threadneedle had been offered a place at the fire in council. Now they had been given a ritualistic job, a great honor; they were each aware of how much hinged on doing it correctly. Primarily, the First Food was to bear no trace of human handling. The pups needed to know the elements of their world without having to sort out human scent and the information it bore: emotion, sexual development, and overall wellbeing, including a recent history of food consumption. Tobacco, corn, and all matter of cultivated crops were not to be even hinted at for the pups’ First Food. Their clan had asked them: Could the Montours do this for both clan and tribe?
Father and son had camped deep in the woods near the stone cairns that marked important boundaries in the ley lines.
“Let me guess, Katarioniecha,” Lazarus had said, as he and his son, who was still reaching manhood, sat rolling pemmican balls in parchment by a snapping fire, precisely following the instructions they had been given by their Wolf Clan chief. The trees sighed against each other as the warm spring wind met banks of cold snow and frozen ground.
“Guess what, Father?”
“Call me by my real name, son,” his father said in a low voice.
The boy-man flushed. “My Father Kerioniakawida, what would you like to know?” He leapt up lightly and placed a small log across the fire, and then, after consideration, laid another by the side of the one that was burning well. He lifted the first log and placed it down across the second. He was rewarded both by the immediate sight of a gratified fire balanced between fuel and air and by his father’s grunt. Threadneedle wore a headband to hold back his long hair, voluptuous as a river otter’s pelt, to keep it from singeing in the fire.
Threadneedle had been raised in two communities: one, the Haudenosaunee and Lenape community of the Montour bloodline, the other the deeply Quaker family that his mother’s side found themselves a part of when they had immigrated from Europe to establish their reputation as premier producers of silk thread. This enlightened European way-of-life (Quakers were staunchly against war as well as hierarchies of gender and skin color) was balanced uneasily against the traditions of the Montours, with whom the Duladiers had become increasingly involved.
But Christians of all sorts were indelibly missionary; just as the Moravians made inroads with the Lenni Lenape, so too did Quakers offer their liaison skills with an intractable federal government to the Haudenosaunee’s Six Nations, thereby recasting the matrilineal people in lines more agreeable to the patrilineal European Americans. This policy alone almost broke the Haudenosaunee: to cut into the earth with steel plows and then plant in rows led inevitably to disrespecting women and their role as Earthkeepers. This single necessity of abandoning even the appearance of matrilineality—a shocking concept to white men—had been a difficult act to manage: traditional ways suffered. But to bend did not mean to break. This challenge had provided grist for a continuing discussion in both the men’s and the women’s councils since the Europeans had first come to their land.
As the two men sat rolling the balls of pemmican, they listened to the trees, studied the positions of the bright stars, monitored the fire. Lazarus had taught his son how to listen. An owl swooped by on furry wings, its flight punctuated by the squeak of its prey upon meeting those formidable claws.
Lazarus wanted to touch down on something delicate. Tomorrow they would crawl on their bellies to the threshold of a wolf den. Their approach would not go unnoticed. Finally Lazarus could see how to speak.
“I make fear my ally. My death sits on my right shoulder.” He wanted to say his truth, to his son, his only child. “I believe that the hour of our death is written,” he said quietly, making it clear by his tone that this was his belief alone, that he did not expect his son to share it unless Threadneedle’s own experience delivered up a similar certainty.
But Threadneedle was not experienced. Lazarus and Grandmother Marguerite had brought him to the tribe frequently, to be accepted by their clan, to go with the other boys his age to be taught by the elders and chiefs of the Wolf Clan. Threadneedle approached the moment of acceptance into a warrior clan with humility. His native name, Katarioniecha, He Who Breaks to Heal, came with a history to live up to.
More than half of the time, the boy was raised by two women, both his mothers. One native. One white. It was not easy. Even in a progressive Quaker community, many of the inhabitants were strangers to this way-of-life, which was new to them, although the alliance between the two races had been forged for centuries on this continent. To them, Threadneedle was known by a loathsome word: half-breed. He might have been marginalized were it not for one detail: the boy himself. Every young man—Quaker, métis, or full-blood—wanted to emulate Threadneedle; every man and every woman wanted to have their son be like this lad who carried himself with natural grace, assurance, and, most importantly, humility.
Thread rose and unrolled their sleeping skins just so far from the fire. Everything was correct: a small pile of logs near his own sleeping mat for keeping the flame going until morning, moccasins by his head, knife in its sheath with the clasp undone and near his right hand. Next to him, Lazarus kept the fresh pemmican balls in a tin lined with parchment paper, the lid sealed tight with wax.
Thread cleaned up their work area and beat the ground with cedar boughs to erase the smell of meat and fat from their camp. He lit a braid of sweetgrass and smudged the air with its smoke. He banked the fire and then crawled in between his skins and a trade blanket. He calmed his breathing as he looked at the stars. He waited until he heard that his father was also in his bedroll, heard the relaxed circle of his breath.
“Father,” he said. “Kerioniakawida.” He could feel him, aware in the night. “My ancestors speak to me.”
This apparently took Lazarus by surprise, for he made a sound that told his son that it did not go without notice that Thread had said “my ancestors” rather than “our ancestors.”
As Orion wheeled overhead, his sword hilt gleaming, Thread said (and both of them knew this would be his final word for the night), “They know me. And I know them. I am at peace with my fate…whatever it will be.”
Lazarus allowed himself to slip into his dreams, content that his son was not afraid. His last conscious thought was to thank the Mother of All for the man his son was becoming.