Writer Jennifer Fox Bennett showed up at our first Native Spring Spoken Word event and proceeded to bring the house down with her reading of the following story. Part of it was the great Canadian accent and mannerisms she used when reading the character Jeff. Part of it is the shared experience many indigenous people have of bizarre accidents and life on the reserve. A lot of it is just plain talent. Clearly she comes from a great storytelling tradition.
Jennifer is an Ojibway/Odawa Band member of the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on the ethereal Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada. She has lived in many places between two oceans: a suburban wasteland in Florida, the menacing halls of Cornell University (where she received her B.S.), and the dirt roads and boréal forests of her Reserve. She now finds herself in the lovely Bay Area where she has performed her poetry at multiple open mic’s and venues.
She has been published in the anthology and zines, RESIST!: A Grassroots Collection of Stories, Poetry, Photos and Analyses from the Québec City FTAA Protests and Beyond (AK Press Inc.), Third Space, and They Called Her A Firebrand. The author’s first chapbook Left to Shatter (Monkey Book Press), is currently out-of-print. She will have an essay published in the upcoming Issue #5 of Other Magazine (www.othermag.org). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Great Horned Sturgeon
I was bored. Well, I guess the truth is, I knew I was going to be bored. There was a dance tonight at the hockey arena—but I was just at the bar last night. I mean, I’m sure that it being Halloween and all, it might have been a bit more interesting. The thing is, I just didn’t think that many people would be in costume. There’s just too much apathy going around—kind of like gossip. I already knew what I was going to hear tonight if I went to the dance: every speck of gossip I heard last night.
I decided to drive over to my zhaagnaash friend’s place over on Minnow Lake for a change of scenery. Jeff’s place was originally a summer cabin that his parents built three decades ago. He has a really beautiful piece of land—you know, lake-front property and a few acres of sugar bush. Jeff has managed to live out there for years with no electricity or running water. I like hanging out with him because he likes to talk about more than just gossip. He went to Carleton University for three years but pulled out from a back injury he got while walking home drunk from the bar one night. He didn’t realize that he’d walked out into the middle of an intersection while the light was still green and got hit by a car. I used to think that the rez was uncannily plagued with tragedies. All sorts of strange things happen to people on the rez: strange deaths, strange diseases. But, I’m starting to wonder if it’s begun to affect the zhaagnaasheg who live near us, too.
When I pulled out on to Route 6, just on the other side of Manitowaning, I noticed a faint, dark crimson cloud in the sky up by Cassiopeia. I bet that might sound impressive, that I know where Cassiopeia is. To be truthful, though, I only know three constellations in the sky. Jeff knows a lot of constellations. He’s showed me a couple, like Pegasus and Scorpio or something, but I’ve forgotten where they are.
At first, I thought the cloud was just a reflection of the sodium lights on some thin clouds. Only, when I drove into the blackness of the highway and looked up, it was still there. I pulled over and rolled down the window to get a better look and noticed that the sky was clear. That red was still in the sky, only it was moving, like sunlight shimmering on water; and then, I thought that it had to be them. I’d only seen them once before—I grew up in Toronto where I could hardly see any stars—so I wasn’t completely sure. It looked like them, but I thought they were green—not red. I thought Jeff would know, so I pulled back on the road and sped off towards his cabin.
When I got to his house, I ran inside where he was lying on the couch, reading a book by a propane lantern, and said, “Come look! Come check it out! I think you can see the northern lights!”
“Really?” he asked as he rolled off of the couch. “No kidding.”
I ran down toward the lake to get a better look just as the lower ones were turning green. God, it was so beautiful! I watched great spires of green ice flare up into the zenith only to shimmer away into a star-speckled void seconds later. They left this ghostly green where it had been so bright before. Their color reminded me of spring, you know, that bright, yellowish jade of new leaves uncurling from cracked, grey branches. The light kept dancing like it had something to say, or that it was trying to impress somebody. We decided to start a fire so that we could keep warm while watching them.
There was a little layer of snow on the ground, but the fire pit near the edge of the lake was empty of snow from Jeff’s frequent use of it. He threw what seemed the better part of a sapling and some dried cedar branches into a pile up to my waist and lit the bottom. The dried limbs caught and I celebrated by cracking open a Moosehead with my keychain. Jeff cracked open a Moosehead with his lighter.
Then, he asked me, “So, did you hear about Zeemo’s accident last week?”
“What?” I asked. God, they plague this place. “No. What happened?”
Jeff’s body weight shifted and he assumed a trace of authority. Then, he said to me, “Well, he was comin’ over Biddy Road near the old school by Bass Lodge. You know where that is, right?” He looked at me while he pulled off of his duMaurier.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, he got up right to the top of the hill and some truck goin’ the other way was over in his lane,” Jeff said. He stopped to take a swig of his Moosehead, then added, “And poor Zeemo just smashed right into him.” He pulled on his duMaurier for dramatic effect and exhaled breathily while he said, “Totalled the front end of the truck.”
“Well, is he OK?” I asked. It seemed like the most important thing to the story, but I should have known better. Jeff looked at the sky and took another swig of his Moosehead.
“Oh, he’s fine,” he answered. “Just the engine’s shot.”
Jeff was a bit older than me, but he was already turning into one of the old zhaagnaash men in The Whitefish, men who could only talk about the weather, fishing and hunting. In a minute, if I didn’t stop him, he would try to pawn off on me one of his ten favorite stories that he’s told me a dozen times before. When he first met me, he and Matt were really excited to have a set of virgin ears who had never heard their life’s funniest highlights. It didn’t take too many Mooseheads with them before they ran out of stories and the stories began to yellow like tattered, romance novels in the window of a pawnshop. Trying not to appear bored, I looked up at the transparent green flames in the sky. I couldn’t help but think it looked like the mothership was landing beyond the trees on the north end of the lake.
I needed to fill the silence. I kept looking at the tops of the silhouetted trees and said, “You know, I read once that the Ojibwes out west believed the northern lights are actually ancestors-passed having a powwow.”
“Oh, yeah? Hmm.” He looked out west over the indigo-black water of the lake that hadn’t yet begun to mirror the faded green in the sky at the north end.
“Yeah,” I replied. “What I found really interesting was their version of The Great Horned Sturgeon. They believe that there’s some other thing just like it, though. I think it’s a horned serpent… I can’t remember exactly.” I could feel that I was losing his interest. I swallowed down a gulp of my beer before starting again, “You know about The Great Horned Sturgeon, right?” I asked. “It lives under the water—“
“Have you ever seen one of those things?” he asked abruptly.
“Talk about prehistoric, man! They look like they’re wearing plates of armor.”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t actually ever seen one. But, I hear they’re pretty scary lookin’.”
“Yeah, wait ‘til you’re out on the water and one of those things comes up to your boat. They’re huge! And they’re uglier’n fuck, man.”
“Well,” I said, “The Great Horned Sturgeon is supposed to be a monster of a fish. They say—we say that it lives on the bottom of the Great Lakes. If you’re a bad person, it’ll come up from the bottom of the lake when you’re out on the open water and try to knock your boat over. If you fall in, it will take you down to the bottom with it and your spirit will be stuck in some kinda purgatory or somethin’. Like what happens when you drown. It’s supposed to be so persistent, that if you’re not careful on the ice, it will try to come get you, then, too. You know, it’ll wait until you get to a thin patch and bump the ice with its head ‘til it makes a hole.”
“You know who Jozep Wabose is, right?” he asked me.
“He lives out on Wabose Island Road near your grandparents’ place. He’s got that blue house with the fishing nets all over it.”
“Yeah, he used to be a fisherman out on the lake,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jeff said, “caught all kinds of stuff. Whitefish, trout, muskies, bass.”
“Yeah, I know the place you’re talkin’ about. The house that’s supposed to have a black roof, but, it’s white from all the seagull shit.”
“Yeah, that’s the one,” he said. He looked at me and smiled a big, straight-toothed grin. “He caught a big 20-foot sturgeon in his nets once. I think he caught that thing you’re talking about.”
“Oh,” I said. I smiled politely and took another drink of my beer. As I lifted the bottom end of my beer into the sky, I turned away to look at the northern green sky so he couldn’t see my smile fade. I watched another lime-colored pillar flare towards the top of the night sky and I decided to leave for the dance.