Congratulations to Maureen Curry, who placed 3rd in the Adult Fiction category.

Birdsong, written by Maureen Curry, inspired by Arrival of Spring

I awoke in that interval that precedes the dawn. I recognized the songs of blackbirds and thrushes as they greeted the Maker and prepared to honour Brother Sun. Feeling content in the knowledge that I had a few moments until morning light, I snuggled down into the warmth of the furs that covered my sleeping platform.

    Smoke arose from the dying embers of the communal fire and snaked upwards to the smoke hole in the roof of the longhouse. Even though I could not see them, I knew that strings of corn hung from the rafters. We had experienced a summer of fair weather and the women had picked a bountiful harvest.

    I experienced a thrill of pride when I recalled the past spring. Grandmother, the matron of our clan, had invited me to join the Society of Women Planters. This group shared the responsibility for sowing and caring for the crops for our entire village. Grandmother herself took on the task of tutoring me in the knowledge required to belong to such an important group.

    “Child, when Brother Sun warms the earth, we will prepare the ground. You will then join the other women to plant kernels of corn in mounds. As the season progresses, you will add seeds of beans and squash.” Grandmother paused to make certain that I was attending to her every word. “We call these plants the Three Sisters. Just as they depend on one another for their growth, we in turn depend upon them for our survival.”

    During the summer, I watched as the Bean Sister twined around the Corn Maiden for support and the Squash Sister spread along the ground. Her act discouraged weeds from choking her siblings and kept moisture in the soil.

    As I lay contemplating the success of my first season as a Woman Planter, hammering sounds brought me to full consciousness. I sighed. Mother had started her chores for the day.

I threw off my covers and sat up. I reached for my long sleeved tunic and my leggings before pulling on my moccasins. The chill of that morning reminded me that autumn had arrived in my homeland. Turtle Island is the name my people have bestowed upon this wondrous place of sparkling blue waters and towering forests.

    “Thump! Thump! Thump!”

    I lifted the skin that covered the doorway and welcomed the embrace of Brother Sun. A gentle breeze kissed my cheek and the nearby river gurgled a greeting. Mother held a wooden pestle in her hands and pounded kernels of dried corn in a hollowed out log. Grandmother squatted beside the fire, feeding it with slim logs of pine. Hungry flames licked the bottom of a large pot that hung from a tripod. Water bubbled in readiness for cooking the first meal of the day.

    “Hurry, Birdsong! I require your assistance,” Mother said.

    I joined her with my own special tool. It was slightly shorter than Mother’s pestle. Father had carved it especially for me from the remains of an old maple tree. Together Mother and I worked until we had enough flour for the day. Throughout the village the other women joined in producing a satisfying racket.

    “Who is disturbing my sleep with their drumming?”

    Father stood in the doorway, making an exaggerated effort at covering his ears. I laughed. This was a joke we shared each morning. I continued to postpone the day when I would confess that I was now too old for such games.

    “Lone Wolf, go and meet with Wanageeska,” Mother said. “On your return, your meal will be ready.”

    Father waved a hand in farewell and headed toward Wanageeska’s lodge. Each morning Father, as sachem of the village, conferred with the old man, seeking his guidance. No one knew the exact age of the shaman, but the wisdom he had acquired was legendary.

    Grandmother collected the cornmeal we had readied and poured it into a large clay bowl. Next, she added water and stirred. To this mixture she added nuts and berries or cooked beans before forming it into little cakes. I joined her for my favourite part of the morning ritual. With care, I dropped the little cakes into the water and waited with impatience for the little loaves to bob to the surface. My next task was to scoop them out with a long wooden spoon and place them into a waiting pot.

    “Mother, where is Katsi?” I asked.

    “She has gone to the river to get water.”

    I nodded. I was sure that Mother realized that the older girls of the village met at the river to exchange gossip, but I would not be the one to disclose that information. I did not wish to be considered a bearer of tales, but I must confess to a certain amount of resentment toward my older sister. At fifteen summers, she possessed only two years more than I, but she refused to allow me to accompany her on these morning expeditions.

    “We discuss subjects that are beyond your understanding,” Katsi confided, swinging her long black braids away from her face. “We speak of secret things. Wait until you are older.”

    I scowled at the memory. Her superior big sister attitude only served to intensify my longing to be included in these “adult” excursions. I did not wish to wait. I decided that I would discover for myself just what kept the friends talking for such long periods of time. But first I helped Mother to chop vegetables and meat for the day’s main meal. Then with Grandmother’s approval, I wolfed down two of the delicious cakes and headed off to spy on Katsi and her friends.

    I skipped through the village and walked through the opening in the tall palisades that surrounded the village. Sunflowers bloomed beyond the wooden wall and a few corn stalks stood as souvenirs of the summer that had just ended. Brother Sun warmed the back of my neck and tall grasses tickled my ankles. The pathway began its descent to the river. Lush trees bowed over the trail and tiny stones scrambled down the hill ahead of me.

    Laughter rose on the morning air. I crept ahead with caution. Among the bushes, I discovered a spot of concealment that allowed a clear view of the four young women assembled below. Magena, my mother’s youngest sister, knelt beside the water. She appeared to be engrossed in the study of her reflection in the depths of a quiet pool. From time to time, she smiled in the direction of her friends. Katsi and two of her friends seemed engrossed in their discussion and were not aware of my presence. Wisps of conversation drifted toward me.    “Petrun is so strong and athletic. He can run to the next village without breaking into a sweat.” I recognized the voice of my sister. She sat by the river, trailing her fingers through the water. The jug she had brought sat forgotten on the shore.

    “But Otetiani is a wonderful hunter.” Kahente stood to emphasize what she had to say. Hand motions were always a favoured addition to her stories. “After his vision quest, Otetiani stalked a deer, shot it and brought it back to the village.”

    I crept closer. Ojistah sat on a large rock. She ran her fingers around the neck of her water jar. “Have you heard Kariwase play the water drum?” she asked. “He has wonderful rhythm. I am sure his performance at the Harvest Festival will be exceptional.”

    The girls continued to chatter. I had expected to overhear confidences that were taboo in nature. Instead, their dialogue centred on the exploits of the various braves of the village! As my disappointment grew, so did my restlessness. My legs cramped. My attention drifted. I would return to the village. A twig snapped.

    I froze. I listened. No bird twittered. No squirrel rustled. Only the murmur of the river and the voices of the girls broke the silence. Something was not right.

    A flash of movement caught my eye. On the opposite side of the river, something slithered through the underbrush.

    “Whoo! Whoo!”

    This was no bird that I had ever heard. The haunting wail trembled on the air. Across the water, a brave rose from the shadows. He cupped his hands to his mouth and responded in kind.

    My stomach clenched. My heartbeat accelerated. I opened my mouth. Before I could shout a warning, five scouts emerged from the trees. They wore dark coloured tunics and bright war paint streaked their faces. With raised weapons and fierce expressions, they surrounded the young women. They stuffed gags into the girls’ mouths and restrained their arms and feet. Before I could react, the warriors lifted their victims and vanished into the forest.

    I stood, paralysed with fear. I could not move. I could not think. I could not accept what I had witnessed. I have no recollection of the number of heartbeats that followed before sanity returned. As I pondered the situation, I realized that there was no time to summon help. The warriors would leave no trace of their passing. I felt relief in the fact that I had noted the direction in which the war party had headed. I was certain that they would not travel on any of the pathways that linked the villages related to my tribe. In all likelihood, they had hidden their canoe downriver. They would travel some distance by water before heading inland.I experienced a sudden sense of calm. I must rescue the girls.

    I hurried along the shore. At a bend in the river, I approached a mound of decaying matter. I cast moss and branches aside. The scents of dust and mold caused my eyes to water, but I continued with my efforts until, at last, I uncovered an old canoe. Many moons had passed since Father had carved it from a single tree. I pushed the dugout into the flowing water and leapt into the bow. I glanced at the sky. A hawk circled above me. I sensed his power and prayed that he would lend his protection and guidance to my quest.

    “Oh Guardian of my Mother’s band

Safeguard us all from wicked hands.”

    Then I raised a paddle and steered into the rushing current.

    I hugged the shore to avoid detection. Hawk continued to soar in ever-widening circles. I felt the reassurance of his presence. He would guide me to find my sister and her friends.

    The light in the afternoon sky began to darken. I must hurry. I scanned the banks on both sides of the river for signs of encampment. There! I saw it. In their haste, the braves had left the bow of their canoe exposed.

    My canoe made little noise as it glided through the rushes and reached the shore. All was quiet. I pulled the tiny boat up onto the grassy slope. Darkness would soon hide its presence.

I entered the forest.

    I drank in the crisp autumn air. The setting sun filtered through the yellowing foliage and I savoured the velvet touch of a scarlet leaf. It was muted voices close by that reminded me to exercise caution. I crept forward. Soft pine needles muffled my steps.

    Five strangers lounged around a blazing fire that discharged coils of smoke high above the treetops. I could not help but smile at their lack of concern with discovery. But where were the girls? I was relieved to see that they were huddled together, away from the fire. From my hiding place, I could see that their eyes were filled with fear, but they appeared to be unharmed.

I returned my attention to their captors.

    They had shaved their heads so that a single row of hair ran down the middle. Four eagle feathers adorned the crown. I soon discovered that their language was similar to mine. I listened and learned of their plans.

    “The Chief will be happy!” said the nearest brave. He wiped his face and spread his war paint across his nose.

    “That is so,” said another. He snorted and pointed toward the girls. “We will be able to trade these girls for our captured warriors.”

    The other men joined in the laughter.

    Up to this point, I was unsure of how to attempt a rescue. I decided to wait until the men relaxed their guard and fell asleep.

    I must have dozed. Swirls of blue and pink and gold played across my eyelids. I sat up and blinked. The entire clearing was filled with light. A vortex of constantly changing colour moved across the space. I covered my face, but felt compelled to watch. The figure of a woman emerged from the maelstrom. Her long black hair flowed freely and a cape of white feathers covered her form. She smiled and gestured toward me.

    I awoke to the sound of birdsong. Memories of the previous night forced me to look around. No one sat by the fire. I jumped to my feet and ran to the girls. Many questions raced through my mind. “Where are the men?” I asked Magena. I pulled the gag from her mouth and untied her. She ran to help the others.

    “We do not know,” said Katsi. “They must have seen something. They started to yell and raced into the forest.”

    “Did you witness anything?” I asked.

    The young women shook their heads. I looked toward the sky and whispered a prayer of thanks.


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