A Green Place for Dying
Chapter 1A loon called from across the lake in the hushed stillness of the rising moon. Its silvery path rippled across the water to where we sat on a grassy knoll. Skirting the ridge of the distant shore the blinking lights of a passing plane wrenched me momentarily back to this century.
Above the rhythmic beating of a solitary drum, I could hear the uneasy breathing of the other women and the girls, as we sat cross-legged, holding hands, waiting for the ceremony to begin. I glanced around the circle at their faces partially revealed in the pale glow of the crackling fire. Most had their eyes downcast, lost in their own thoughts. One or two met my gaze, before dropping their eyes back to the ground. I dropped mine too.
On my right, I felt the comforting warmth of Teht'aa's hand in my own. While on my left, my neighbour's hand seemed forebodingly cold. I tried to put life into it with a gentle squeeze but the hand remained indifferent.
My feet were growing numb. I wanted to stretch out my legs but was afraid to disrupt the silence. I didn't want to remind the others of my presence. After all I, Meg Harris, an escapee from Toronto, was the outsider, the stranger in this sacred circle of Algonquin women. No, not entirely Algonquin.
The two women sitting across the circle were Cree from a James Bay reserve a thousand kilometres or more due north from where we were sitting on the shore of Lake Nigig in the Migiskan Anishinabeg First Nations Reserve. The two women were sisters. The younger, prettier one in a blowsy sort of way was the mother of Becky. She was gripping her sister's hand as if her life depended on it. And perhaps it did.
The limp hand resting in mine belonged to the other outsider, although technically she wasn't since she was married to an Algonquin and lived on the reserve. In fact she probably made more effort to follow the traditional ways than any other woman on the reserve, apart from the elders. She was Marie-Claude, the French-Canadian mother of Fleur.
I squeezed her lifeless hand again more as a show of support than anything else. She was obviously numb with worry. I certainly would be, given the situation.
A sudden spark of flame at the far end of the circle lit up the broad, wizened face of the elder leading tonight's ceremony. Although her official name was Elizabeth Amik, she preferred to use her spirit name, Summer Grass Woman. Many out of respect for her position as an esteemed elder, called her Grandmother Elizabeth. She bent over the almost flat ceramic bowl resting on the ground in front of her and ignited its contents, which judging by the scent was dried cedar. She fanned the flame with a slender white-tipped eagle feather until it disappeared, leaving a glimmer of burning embers.
With the smoke swirling upwards into the night, she raised the bowl heavenward. Chanting in Algonquin, she offered the smudge to the four directions of the medicine wheel; east, south, west, and north. She set it back down on the ground beside her medicine bundle, a disparate collection of items sacred to her, both natural and man-made. These were laid out on a piece of felt.
Apart from the red, yellow, white and black flags marking the four corners of the felt, the predominant colour of her regalia was green. Like the items, this colour was sacred to her. This she'd explained to me on my first visit to her healing wigwam, a visit Teht'aa had suggested during one of my particularly low moments after breaking-up with her father.
Summer Grass Woman had gone on to tell me that the smooth piece of jade had been found by her long dead husband near his family's traditional trapline. The piece of lime green checked cotton came from the baptismal dress of her first granddaughter and the palm leaf, she'd pointed out with a soft chuckle, had been brought back by a favourite niece from the land of the Mayan in Mexico. She said it reminded her of her friend, a Mayan elder she'd met at one of the annual Circle of All Nations gatherings. And of course there was the sheath of dried summer grass kept in place by a leather tie intricately decorated with dark green beads. Even the felt was green, a rich emerald green.
Pleading that tonight the pain of her arthritis kept her from coming to us as tradition required, she asked instead that we to come to her for our ritual cleansing. One-by-one, we unscrambled our cramped legs and stamped our feet to get the circulation moving. Then each of us in turn walked over to her following a clock-wise direction, which she, as its elder, had established when we first entered the circle.
Since making my home at Three Deer Point, the wilderness property I'd inherited from my Great-aunt Agatha, I'd attended enough smudging ceremonies to become sufficiently familiar with their etiquette. I remembered the first one I attended, when I'd started walking in the wrong direction before Eric, its elder, hurriedly corrected me. It had been a dark moonless night. The mood had been warlike and boastful, unlike tonight's somber tone. It had been a ceremony meant to embolden rather than to seek guidance as tonight's ceremony was intended to do.
As I became more involved in the neighbouring Migiskin community, initially because of Eric, who in addition to being my then friend and lover was the reserve's band chief, and since because many community members had become my friends, I'd had the honour of attending many more. But even though I enjoyed the ceremonies and found they imbued me with a sense of inner peace, no matter how fleeting, I couldn't quite rid myself of the feeling that I would always be an outsider wistfully watching from the sidelines. Summer Grass Woman smiled as I approached her.
"Good. You come. Grandmother Moon help you," she said in her soft measured old woman's voice.
Although I didn't believe it, I did what politeness dictated and smiled in return.
She gently fanned the smoke around me with her feather, while I performed the hand motions of the ritual washing. My nostrils twitched with the cleansing scent of the smoldering cedar. And as often happened, I felt the beginnings of an inner quietness, a settling of my jittery nerves. I wondered if the smudge was having the same affect on the two mothers, for surely their nerves were jangling.
Although Teht'aa occasionally attended these monthly ceremonies to honour Grandmother Moon, this was the first one I'd been invited to. Grandmother Moon was considered a powerful teacher for women, since she controlled many aspects of a woman's life. It was believed that she provided women with a special connection to the grandmothers that had passed into the spirit world. Her teachings would help them to become better mothers in their sacred role as life-givers.
But being better mothers wasn't the purpose of tonight's ceremony. No, it was to seek Grandmother Moon's guidance and insight on quite a different matter.
Fleur and Becky, the daughters of Marie-Claude and the woman from James Bay, were missing. They had vanished without a trace sometime in mid-July, a little over a month and a half ago. Nothing had been heard or seen of them since. Tonight the two mothers were seeking a sign from Grandmother Moon that their daughters were safe and would return home soon.
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