A The Ones Who Call story
Start at the beginning of The Ones Who Call series
Jenny knew that something was wrong even before she reached the house.
For one thing, there were too many vehicles parked in the long gravel driveway. They were crowded so close together that Jenny wondered how the drivers had managed to open their doors far enough to get out. Even more disturbingly, she recognized each one as belonging to a member of her family. There was Alex's new truck, complete with the Indian Power sticker and the pin-up girl mudflaps, and over by the pond was Cousin Joe's old beater, held together with duct tape and dirt.
Jenny stopped, glaring distrustfully at the brightly lit kitchen windows. Why was Alex here? He never came back to the rez unless someone died. And Joe? Her mom had banished Joe from her house two years ago after he'd hidden some pot in her spice containers! (Though, to be fair, that had been the best meatloaf her mom had ever made…)
Something was wrong. Something had to be very wrong to get the whole Sîpisis family in one room together. And, considering the cryptic message to "come home right now, we need to talk to you," that her mother had left on her phone, Jenny knew that she was the reason for this gathering. She racked her brain, trying to think of what she could have done to warrant a talking-to from the whole family, and couldn't think of a single thing. Her grades were good, she never drank, and there was no way on earth that she was pregnant, so that ruled out all of the things that a girl on the rez usually got into trouble for.
Despite having nothing to feel guilty for, Jenny could feel the anxiety settle into a knot just above her shoulders. She paced up and down the gravel driveway, hands stuffed deep into her pockets, and considered going back to her friend Deena's house. She could pretend that she hadn't gotten her mother's message and might be able to stay over there and hide out until it was time for school tomorrow. Deena would even cover for her if her mom called and say that she was too sick to walk back home.
But, she realized with a sigh, if her mom was really that serious about wanting to talk to her, then she would just drive over Deena's place and get her. That was the last thing Jenny wanted. No, it was better to just get this over with. Besides, she thought as she kicked at the mailbox, she hadn't done anything wrong.
"Jenny?" Her mother's voice called out from the kitchen window. "Is that you, my girl? Come on inside, everyone's waiting for you."
Jenny winced, knowing that she had no choice now. She dragged her heels up the weed-strewn gravel drive, still desperately trying to think of what she could have done wrong. Her Auntie Sparrow, a small, plump bustling woman, opened the back door for her as she made her way up the rickety wooden steps.
"There you are, dear," Auntie Sparrow said, taking Jenny by the shoulder and kissing her on the cheek. "Come in, come in. Are you hungry? There's leftover soup on the stove. Your mom's just heating it up."
Jenny said that she was not hungry and shooed her aunt away so that she could take off her shoes in the tiny landing by the backdoor. Visitors came in the front door by the living room, but Jenny always came in the backdoor largely so that she could dart down to her room in the basement without having to see anyone. However, with her aunt still hovering protectively by the door and her mom clattering around only a few steps away at the stove, there would be no escape. Jenny mustered her courage, kicked off her shoes and walked into the kitchen.
The comforting hum of conversation died as eighteen tense faces turned to stare at her, with expressions ranging from Aunt Valerie's look of solemn dignity to Alex's look of mild horror at finding himself at a family gathering. Jenny stared back at all of them, folding her arms across her chest. A long, heavy silence settled over the kitchen, interrupted only by the creaking floor as Jenny's mother padded over to lay a hand on her daughter's shoulder.
"Jenny—" Her mother began, but Jenny cut her off.
"Look, I don't know what you think I did, but I didn't do it, okay?" She ducked away from her mother's hand and glared up at her, hoping to prove her innocence before anyone had to accuse her of anything.
"Is this about drugs? Or sex? Cause I didn't do either and I'm not stupid. I went to the Youth Empowerment camp last summer. They taught us all about preparing for our future. I don't drink or do stupid things like that 'cause I don't want to hurt my chances of getting into University!"
The assembled faces now took on a slightly sorrowful cast. Her mother and aunt traded a very long, very significant look. Jenny's anger drained away, only to be replaced by a feeling of growing dread.
"Did… Did someone die?" She asked.
She gasped, putting a hand to her mouth in horror. A familiar face was missing from the gathering. "It… It wasn't Kohkum Agnes, was it?"
Her mother laughed nervously and glanced at the floor. "No, no. She's here. She's ok."
"Is that Jenny I hear?" Anges' thin, reedy voice called out from the bathroom. There was a flush and the frantic sound of an old woman wresting with her many skirts. "You all just wait to tell her anything until I'm done in here, ok? That muskeg tea works too good on an old lady like me, you know, an' I had two whole cups!"
Her cousin Joe laughed loudly, earning himself a smack across the knuckles from his mother, Aunt Valerie. He was still sucking on his stinging hand when Kohkum Agnes shuffled out of the bathroom, adjusting her shawl. The family waited until she'd pushed her way through the throng of adults to her favorite chair by the window, eased herself down, and had finished settling her skirts.
"H'okay." Agnes said, resting her bony elbows on the table and leaning forward to peer at Jenny though the thick round glasses that made her tiny eyes seem huge and watery. "I'm here now. The whole family is in one place, just like it should be. We can start now. Jenny? Maybe you want to sit down or something, hmm?"
Jenny bit her lip to keep the smart reply from spilling out. She was getting very frustrated with the way people kept sneaking glances at each other when they thought she wasn't looking, and with the way her mother and aunts were treating her so very delicately. It looked less and less like she was in trouble, and more like they had some bad news to break to her but weren't sure how to go about it.
"Look," Jenny said, running her hand through her hair and staring at her shoes. "You're all freaking me out. If something bad happened, just tell me about it, ok? I can handle it. I'm not a little kid anymore."
"No. No you're not. You've gone and grown up on me, my girl. Fifteen already..." Noreen, Jenny's mother, tentatively rested her hand on Jenny's shoulder again, and this time Jenny didn't shrug it off. With the other hand, Noreen toyed with her turquoise ring, turning it around and around her finger. She only did this when she was very, very upset.
"Jenny," She said, voice distressingly soft. "We gathered together here, all of us, because we figured that you're old enough now that you should know…"
"Know what?" Jenny snapped, suspicious.
"The family secret." Noreen said. "You see, Jenny. We're… Um. How do I put this…?"
"We're fairies!" Kohkum Agnes said, slapping her hand down on the table.
Jenny smiled soothingly at her grandmother. Kohkum Agnes was getting a little senile, so an outburst like this wasn't unusual.
"No, no. She's right." Noreen said, biting at her lip. "I... oh, my, I don't really know how to explain this. It all sounds a little crazy." She chuckled.
Jenny stared back at her, wondering if her whole family was in on some elaborate prank at her expense. Her mother gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Jenny, look." She met Jenny's gaze and then, using the quiet, stern tone she usually reserved for lecturing her daughter about unfinished homework, she tried to explain.
"It's really important that you listen right now, ok? Your Kohkum is going to tell you the story of where our people come from, and you don't have to believe what she says right away, but you do need to listen really carefully." She bit her lip, thinking for a moment, and then continued. "There's a lot about our family that we haven't told you, and maybe we should have, but I wanted to wait until you were old enough."
"If you ask me," Aunt Valerie interrupted. "You waited too long."
"Val, we're not discussing this right now." Her mother replied, and her voice had the tight, irritated tone to it that Jenny knew well. Jenny couldn't help but smile, since Aunt Valerie's visits often ended with her and Noreen at each other's throats. Some things, at least, never changed.
"This is going to be very difficult for you to hear." Noreen continued, turning her back on her cousin. "Not only does it sound, well, pretty darn crazy, but it means that life is going to be different for you from now on. Those plans you had for University and going traveling. They, umm... They won't be possible."
Jenny frowned, staring up at her mother in utter confusion. Was there some problem with money? The government usually had funding set aside for people from the reserve to go to University, but maybe they had stopped? That shouldn't be a problem, because Jenny had good grades and could probably get a scholarship. So why was her mother making such a big deal about it?
"Mom, I—" She began, but her mother shook her head.
"No, my girl, let me finish or I'll never be able to get through it. That thing your Kohkum said earlier, about us being fairies… Well, it's true. I mean, we're not like, fairy fairies, with the little wings and magic wands and stuff. We're more like Water Spirits, or the Little People who look after the trees in the old stories."
Jenny stared at her, and her mother looked so serious that Jenny couldn't help but laugh. It started out as a giggle at first, but grew into the sort of hysterical laugh that she'd previously only heard in movies. A few of her cousins joined in, though their laughter didn't have the same giddy relief as hers. She held her side, waving a hand to ward off the sight of her mother's panicked face.
"Oh, oh my god, your face..." She managed to splutter out. Her mother's frown deepened, and Jenny found that even more hilarious. "Ok, ok, you got me." She said after a moment, when she could breathe again. "But that was a pretty dumb joke. You didn't expect me to believe that, did you? I mean, come on, Mom! Fairies?"
"Jennifer Isadora Sîpisis!" Her grandmother's voice cut through the hilarity of the situation. The tiny woman had raised herself out of her chair and was standing unnaturally tall as she pointed at her granddaughter. A noise like shrieking voices mixed with the churning of rapids flowed through the kitchen, making Jenny's ears ring. Her cousins scrambled out of the old woman's way, though Jenny was not aware of anything but the look of roiling anger in her grandmother's face.
As her Kohkum's eyes met hers, Jenny saw a change come over the old woman. The color drained out of the woman's eyes, leaving them a deep, bottomless black. Her white hair became ragged and green and began to move about her head like weeds caught in a strong current. And the familiar, kindly features of her beloved grandmother slipped away to be replaced by something that looked like it had been crudely carved out of stone. Her nose was almost entirely gone, with only small slits where it had been, and the wrinkled mouth was now filled with a million tiny, needle-like teeth.
Jenny tried to scream, but found herself entranced by the nightmare eyes. She could no longer see the peeling floral wallpaper of the kitchen or the faces of her family gathered around the long wooden table. She saw only those terrible eyes, and through them, a world of cold, lifeless mud and deep, black water. She could feel the weight of the water pressing down on her, crushing the last precious breath of air out of her lungs, and knew that as soon as she opened her mouth to scream, the entire lake would flood into her and through her, and she would be forever lost under the dark, endless waters.
And then her grandmother was by her side, and she could feel her mother's arms holding her upright. Kohkum Agnes reached towards her with bony fingers and she flinched away, nearly tearing herself from her mother's grasp.
"Hold her." Her grandmother ordered, waving for one of the bigger boys to come and help Noreen support her.
"D… Don't touch me." Jenny whispered, turning away from her Kohkum and burying herself against her mother's chest. Her mother held her tight, stroking her hair and whispering softly just as she'd done to soothe her daughter's nightmares when she'd been young. Jenny was surprised to find herself shuddering with deep, racking sobs and clinging tightly to her mother, something she hadn't done since she was six and had gotten lost in the crowds at the pow wow. But, when she closed her eyes, she could still feel the depths calling out to her.
Gentle hands began to rub Jenny's back and stroke her hair. Jenny could feel her Auntie Sparrow's tiny fingers combing her hair, her cousin Andrea rubbing her shoulders, and even Alex reluctantly took her hand and squeezed it tight. The quiet murmur of voices told her not to be afraid, that no one was going to hurt her, and urged her to be strong. Slowly, warmth and life crept back into her mind and she was able to look up.
She found herself on the floor, cradled in her mother's lap. All around them, her family had gathered to reassure her. Someone passed over a blanket and her mother draped it around her shoulders, hugging her tight.
"Oh, my girl. I wish you didn't have to find out that way." Jenny couldn't see her mother's face, but she could tell from her voice that she was crying, too.
"What was that?" Jenny asked, glancing fearfully at her grandmother. The old woman looked entirely normal once again, and was smiling sadly at her from her seat by the window.
"That was what we are, nosim." Kohkum Agnes said. "What we really are, underneath all of the disguises and magic that make us look just like everyone else."
Jenny was roused from the floor and brought over to a chair by her grandmother's side. Her family remained clustered around her, and her mother's hand never left her shoulder. The old woman set a teacup and saucer before her, and motioned for someone to pour her a cup of tea. Auntie Sparrow obliged and passed the chipped blue china cup to Jenny. She sipped at it, even though she thought she heard an echo of the strange, wailing voice in the tiny pool of brown liquid. It called more softly to her this time, brushing at the edges of her mind before fading away. The voice seemed less strange this time, and the brief melody it had sung was comforting.
"Are you ready to listen now?" Her grandmother asked, folding her hands on her lap.
Jenny was still too shocked to know what to think, but she nodded anyway and sipped again at her tea, relishing the warmth.
"Ok then. Sit down, sit down, unless you want to stand through the whole story. Noreen, you can stay there." Kohkum Agnes waved her hands and called out more orders, and there were a few moments of chairs scraping and people excusing themselves as they squeezed nearly twenty people around a table made for ten. The barely-restrained chaos was familiar and made Jenny smile.
Her mother, who hadn't left her side, looked around as everyone settled in, and then nodded to Kohkum Agnes. "I think we're ready."
The old woman nodded and took a sip of her tea, then sat up straighter in her chair.
"A long time ago..." Kohkum Agnes cleared her throat and started again, her voice falling into the slow storytelling cadence that she'd lulled her grandchildren to sleep with when they were younger. But this time, there was a tone of quiet reverence to the old woman's words that sent shivers up Jenny's spine.
"A long time ago," She repeated, "Our people lived in the waters of this very valley. The Cree people called us the Memegwaysiwuk, the Ones Who Call, and they were very careful to leave offerings out for us whenever they passed nearby, because we loved to play tricks on the unwary.
"One of our ancestor's favourite tricks was to call out to those who travelled by canoe in the voice of one of their friends. We would call, 'Help me, help me my friend! I am lost out here by the water!' Then the poor traveller would paddle all over the place, looking for his friend while our people laughed at him from below the waters.
"We would also lure pretty young maidens into the river to bathe by soothing the waters into a calm, gentle mood. Then, when she was in the middle of the river, we would surround her with the fiercest rapids and make her sing sweet songs to us while we danced and feasted.
"And, if a cruel man walked near our waters, we would call to him in the voices of those who he had hurt, and lure him down to our realm to drown. We would then take his body to Mishipizhiw, the fearsome Water God, to devour so that his soul would never go back to torment his people.
"These were good tricks, and we were very proud of them, for they kept a balance in the world. We did not play tricks on everyone who passed our way, for we could be kind to the people who were kind to us. A mother who prayed to us and gave us many gifts would never lose her children to the river, no matter how fast-flowing, and a warrior who honoured us could lose his foes simply by jumping into our waters and asking for aid.
"But there was one time that our tricks got us into big trouble.
"A very powerful shaman came into our valley one day. He was from a long way away, and was coming to marry the daughter of a great Chief who lived nearby. However, he did not leave us an offering, as his people did not know the stories of our valley. Our people took this as a great insult, and danced and sang a war song against this man.
"Soon, the calm waters of lake turned stormy, and a great fog rose up off the waters. The shaman lost his way, and could barely keep his canoe from capsizing as the great waves crashed against him. He called out to his bride through the storm, promising her that he would find his way to her even if he died.
"But our people now knew the name of the woman he loved. Angry, the warriors of our tribe sped through the waters to the village where she lived. They rose up out of the river while she was preparing herself to be wed and crept into her tent. There, they stabbed her again and again with their magic spears. These spears did not draw blood, but they did carry the full power of the Water Spirits' curse. Soon, the woman's blood began to feel as though it was boiling, and a great thirst came upon her.
"'Help me, help me, I am burning!' She screamed, and ran to the river to cool herself.
"She threw herself into the angry river and was swept away. But before she died, she called out one last time for her husband-to-be to save her.
"Our people carried her cries down the river, and her final screams echoed about the valley, tormenting the shaman. His heart broken, he used his remaining strength to curse our kind to the last of the generations, saying that the evil we wrought on his beloved should be returned to us if we ever left the valley. Then his canoe was smashed against the rocks and he was dragged below the waves to join his love in death.
"Our leaders got together and tried to break this curse, but the shaman's medicine was strong, even stronger than ours. We asked for help from the other Spirits, but they laughed at us and said that we had brought on this misfortune ourselves with our love of playing tricks.
"This is why, even after so many generations, our family still remains cursed because of the Memegwaysiwuk blood that flows through our veins. None of us can leave the valley, and those who try are felled by the same curse that we sent against the shaman's wife, all those years ago."
Kohkum Agnes stopped talking then, and a long silence filled the kitchen. Even Cousin Joe looked unusually somber, something that he'd never been able to manage even at funerals. Jenny felt as though something deeply ceremonial had just taken place, and knew without being told that this was a story that had been passed on to everyone in the room.
She sat for a moment, turning the story over and over in her mind. Then, because she knew what was expected of her if this truly was a ceremony, she stood and kissed her grandmother on the cheek.
"Thank you for that story, Kohkum. I will remember it."
The old woman looked up at her with her big, wet eyes, and Jenny saw tears fogging the thick glasses. Kohkum Agnes reached up and gently patted her cheek.
"You're a good girl, Jenny. I'm sorry I had to scare you."
Jenny smiled at her grandmother, and then looked around the table at all of the familiar faces gathered there. Everyone looked expectantly back at her, except for Joe, who kept glancing at the door. He caught her looking at him and grinned sheepishly from under his battered Cleveland Indians cap.
"C'n we go now?" He asked, looking to Kohkum Agnes. "I kinda got other stuff to do."
Aunt Valerie made a horrified tutting noise at her son's poor manners, but Kohkum nodded her approval. "Yeah, the important stuff is finished. Noreen and I will stay here and answer Jenny's questions."
Jenny sipped her tea as she watched her family file out of the kitchen, laughing and joking with one another. Every once in a while, she caught a glimpse of their real selves—a flicker of silver skin against brown, a braid that seemed to have shells and fish scales woven into it, or a flash of eyes too dark and black to be human. Oddly, she found that these glimpses didn't scare her as her first glimpse of her Kohkum had.
She had always felt that her family was pretty odd, even for a group of people who'd been screwed up by the residential schools. The kids at school always joked that the Sîpisis clan was a little bit crazy. Her older brother, Fox, had always embraced that moniker, and had become a local legend as a shit-disturber. (Which, Jenny reflected, was probably why he hadn't been here this evening. Fox was cocky enough to ignore a summons even from Kohkum Agnes.) But for Jenny, who had always been a bit too shy and too smart for her own good, her family's reputation had always been an embarrassment.
Now, she wasn't sure what to think. There was something exciting about having a secret, even one that happened to come with a dangerous curse. She had so many questions about the Memegwaysiwuk. (Her people, she reminded herself.) How had they survived so long in secret? Why had they left the lakes and rivers and moved into crappy rez housing? And was this why her Uncle Petey had always called her 'his little mermaid' whenever he'd rocked her on his knee?
She let herself be led into the living room and sat with her mother and grandmother late into the night, talking out all of her questions, fears, and frustrations.
The next morning, Jenny sat on the swing by the pond, still reflecting over everything she'd experienced. Her mother had notified the school that she was 'sick', so she had the rest of the day to herself to try and sort through things. She'd been very grateful for her mother's foresight, but she supposed that she had been through the same thing when she was young.
She kicked her feet idly, noting distractedly that she was almost too tall for this swing. Each kick sent a little trickle of dirt down the bank into the pond, and she could remember a time that she'd needed a boost just to get onto the swing. Even the pond seemed smaller now, though it was swollen with the spring melt. Had she really nearly drowned here when she'd been five? The murky waters looked like they'd barely go up to her knee.
Suddenly, she leapt off of the swing and dashed into the water. The cold water filled her sneakers and soaked into her jeans, but she ignored the feeling as she stooped and felt around in the pond with her hands. There had been something in the center of the pond, something strange and shining that had first lured her away from her mother's side and into the dirty water. After a moment, and just as her hands were starting to go numb from the icy water, she brushed up against something that felt warm and smooth.
She groped around in the mud until she found the edges, and then dug her fingers in and pulled.
The door opened slowly, though it didn't seem to be resisting the weight of water atop it. It merely seemed old and heavy. Jenny swung it all the way open and was stared at the deep tunnel that stretched down into the earth. It looked a little like a well, but Jenny knew somehow that it would not lead to a dead-end.
She glanced around to make sure that no one was watching, and then stepped into the tunnel and sank below the waters.
This time, as the water flowed over her head, it felt like returning home. Through the dark passageway, she could hear her people calling to her from the lake, and she felt her way through the tunnel to join them.
Story by Alina Pete, Copyright 2011
Image by Tara Willett, Copyright 2011