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North Spirit - excerpt
by Paulette Jiles

A TWIN OTTER MOVES THROUGH THE UNCERTAIN AIR OF FEBRUARY, PRESSING THROUGH low clouds freighted with snow. It is flying at an: altitude of 1,500 feet and the pilot is watching the landscape unreel beneath him, keeping his plane and passengers over the Pipestone River, feeling his way from landmark to landmark, toward the village of Muskrat Dam. At the horizon line, an immense being waits at the entrance to the upper world.

The Twin Otter is loaded with actors and sets. The actors and 1, the writer, smoke and stare out of frosted windows with subdued fright. Nobody really trusts the air but the pilot. The pilot is named Gary Kakekeyash. Kakekeyash means Forever Seagull. The air is a sort of material in rough weaves, we-are in its textures. Tall, draining columns of snow-squalls are marching across the world in spectral steps without noise or any other indication of their passing. Forever Seagull and the copilot are handling the aircraft with all four arms; they look like Hindu spider dancers. We are flying over a landscape without roads, without railroads or towns. These are the endless, uncut forests of one of the last great wildernesses of the world.

One of the actors is named Graham Greene. He's Oneida, from the Six Nations reserve near Toronto. He has glossy black hair down to the middle of his back and is wrapped up in a red Hudson's Bay Company blanket-coat.

He says, "What are you writing, Jiles? That's not the script, is it? You're not writing in new stuff on that script, are you?"

"No, no, it's my journal."

"It better not be the script."

I swear. Look. J-0-U-R-N-A-L."

"If it's any of my parts in that script you're dead."

The stage manager has to yell over the noise of the engines. He's near the front. He shouts, "Hey, Doris? Do we get white cake in this place or what?" Doris Linklater, one of the actors, is a young Ojibway woman with a thin, taut body and black-brown hair in a heavy braid.

Doris yells back, "Spork. Spork steak."

Doug Rodgers says, "Hey, Doris? How do you say 'projectile vomiting' in Ojibway?"

Doug Rodgers is a red -headed white guy from Hamilton, Ontario. He is an amiable man whose character in the play is a ranting bureaucrat. He plays the part in a three-piece suit and toe rubbers; he performs it with juicy relish.

"If I ever have another piece of Spork I'll throw up onstage."

Spork is a Spam-like substance. It is bright pink, comes in Spam-can-shaped cans, and as a food it is slightly better than United Nations emergency relief stuff like tofu. It is full of pork fat. Just the sort of food you need when your body is emptying itself of vital energy in the deep cold and you don't have anything else to cat. It is cheap and it is everywhere. It is welfare food. I never travel without it.

Doris says, "You say bleccchhhh." She is tired of translating for people who don't speak Ojibway. Doris is from Manitoulin Island, that grand, graceful island in a blue inland sea 600 miles southeast of here.

They have been to four villages so far this tour. It is the middle of February 198 1, and the temperatures would jell whisky. We are flying over Anishinabe-Aski, the Indian Nation. It is the country of the northern Ojibway and the Cree peoples, who call themselves Anishinabek, which means the Spontaneously Created People. Somewhere to the southeast, in the skyjust below the edge of dark, a great being outlined in stars is lifting his sparkling paddle and plunging it into galaxies and nebulae, they foam up like rapids.

THE CREE and Ojibway of remote northern Ontario, inland from the great Bays, remain on their ancestral homelands. It is a country of extreme temperatures and frosted tundras, black-spruce forests dense as fur, where poplars shine lemon-yellow in the fall over old bums and the Canadian Shield granites are overwritten with glacial scarring that resembles wiring diagrams.

The Spontaneously Created People have never been pressured out of their country by white populations. They have been here for 11,000 years, they have been here since the tall cliffs of the Wisconsin glaciers melted back in ice- water floods. For all practical purposes God made them right here on the premises, 600 miles north of Minneapolis. The Great Spirit spontaneously created them in a moment of joy and enthusiasm for life, at this particular latitude of Turtle Island, and so they arose, and put on their snowshoes, and began to argue about which way to go, and nobody could make anybody else see reason, and so they stayed here.

Here is where everything important happened that ever happened to people. Here is where the Thunderbirds foam up into spectacular cumuli in the spring, and send down bolts of lightning to electrify the earth into pincherry blossoms, here is where Wolverine was blinded and made his way to the salt water, here is where Wiskejac killed a beaver big as a boxcar and its blood runs yet in brilliant streams on the stones of the Vermilion River. Here, in this country. It is a country of stories, myths, and legends. The legends, like the blue gems of landfast ice, are alive in subtle ways. It is a land of tales. It is a word-of-mouth imaginative planet, where stories will be told about the hero Kahyana as well as you, if you stay long enough to establish a sort of stage presence. The Twin Otter rises and falls on the stiff columns of subzero air, drawn forward by its double propellers; it is like being dragged over railroad ties. The interior is blue with smoke. White-knuckled people gaze out of frosted portholes, longing for mother earth.

I am jammed in a rear seat with a packet of Players, a knapsack full of notebooks, a nightgown in flowered lawn, tiny binoculars, a leather writing case with a fountain pen and rag paper. I am travelling with the theatre group because I wrote the play. We're an ad hoc invention, a native theatre in search of a native writer. I wrote this thing because there wasn't a native playwright immediately available. I wrote it just to have a play to play. They say everything will happen in good time. I have been in the north five years now and things do happen, though not always in good time. It depends on what a person means by time.

I am 38 and I like to think of myself as an old maid. I have a little book light that clips on book covers and runs on batteries. I take this with me when I travel into the villages north of the rail lines. Then I can sit up late in my sleeping bag and read, and listen to the tinkling noises as the fire dies down, and then the cold, the pure, transparent cold, like a personality from the legends, comes stalking up out of the floors and through the little eight-paned windows to crisp the nail heads in the logs and settle down onto the pages of my book. Sometimes I write things down in the blank front pages of the paperbacks that later turn into poems.

That's how I wrote this play. It's not much of a play, however. It doesn't have plane crashes or murders in it. There are no piercing emotions or losses. It is light and amusing, a little goofy.

Keith Turnbull and Jerry Wootton, the producer and the director, are in a sleep like a coma, their loose bodies jiggling in the rough air, packed in army-surplus parkas.

Forever Seagull has been watching the landscape below intently. We have left the Pipestone River and picked up the broad river-lake called the Severn River. He suddenly straightens up and pulls himself loose from his intense searching. He turns and looks back at the passengers, he motley crew of actors and sets.

"No puking," he says. "Did I hear somebody talking about puking? Not allowed."

"How long are we going to be in the air?" asks Graham. "Maybe we should break up the sets and set them afire for tea."

"We need more quarters," says Forever Seagull. "Your time has run out."

The quarters joke only gets a mild laugh. The sets are another matter. They were put together in Sioux Lookout and must be unbolted, loaded, unloaded at the new villages, and then bolted together again.

They are, like the little theatre company itself, constructed with the minimum amount of expense and the maximum amount of skill and hope. The sets have been specially constructed to fit on a Twin Otter, although they have been crammed into a Beechcraft and have banged around in the big cargo spaces of a DC 3. The props sometimes get confused with their equivalent objects in real life. For instance, the fake papier-mache caribou hindquarter and the real moose hindquarter. The actors have been lugging the real hindquarter along from village to village on this tour in order to have moose steaks. They saw off great frosty chunks with a hacksaw. Several times they have lost the hacksaw.

They all accuse one another in fierce voices of having lost it.

Then someone finds it. The fiddler looks the other way and sighs. He is a thin, pale man, a strict vegetarian, and is wasting away in the northern cold on a diet of oatmeal and canned peas. The Indian actors have tried to deprogram him with frankfurters and Spork but nothing works. They don't want to lose him. His rousing rendition of "Ste. Anne's Reel" brings down the house every night.

Scattered around the smoky interior of the Twin Otter are copies of the Wawatay News. Normally, I work for the newspaper. It is the only bilingual Ojibway-English newspaper in the world, and it is printed in two different scripts. I have a long chronicle of stories about flying on bush planes in search of news. I love to astonish people with them when I am safe on the ground, but when I am in the air I don't like being astonished. This is why I am sitting as far to the rear as I can manage. But if anything untoward happens, here we are with a load of unsecured cargo. By now the actors are bored with my stories. By now they have plenty of their own.

I didn't put any of these stories in the play and now I am regretting it. The Thunderbirds and their cosmic artillery that can explode tents and people; bush planes running into radio towers in the dim, snowy air; the charged hatreds that simmer in a bad marriage in a trap-line camp; the loss of a child; gambling tales and heroic rescues; the dense, fictional tapestry of the legends. The more I think about the play, the sillier it is.

"Graham, there's a lot better stories up here than what I have in this script."

"If you change one word, you go out the cargo door."

"But look, what if you took all the maps of the migration routes. Migrations of caribou and the geese, it would make a kind of pattern."

"That's a thought." Graham looks back over his seat back, considering. "But that's a wall decoration, not a script."

"There'd be a story in it."

"What story? Name one."

"It would make a pattern. There'd be stories about the roads where things happened."

',Story roads." He lights a cigarette and pours smoke on his window and defrosts a hole. "The pattern would make a face. Crazy Horse. Wovoka. Chief Joseph. Almighty Voice."

"So you could make a set with the pattern on it."

"Not this script, Jiles. You changed it too much already."

Keith comes awake out of his dreams or stupor.

"Is she changing something?" he cries, alarmed.

"Nah," says Graham. "We were just having a serious philosophical conversation. You wouldn't understand."

Doris says, "Asha!" Now. Already.

Below us, appearing and disappearing beneath breathy rags of clouds like airborne frost, is the peninsula of Muskrat Dam. The village is down there; I see one house, a wisp of smoke, another house, a snowmobile crawling across the lake. Forever Seagull and the copilot let themselves go into the mechanical demands of an earth fall. It is as if they were being absorbed by their instruments, servants of flight. The tune of the propellers becomes coarse and the whine of their pitch changes.

I wrench out a copy of the script in order to take my mind off the landing process. Don't think about it. You, the reader, are on this story road as well. You may wonder what got you into this, this journey into the temples of snow. You may be in search of wise elders, the ancient mysteries of shamans, but here you are, in an unforgiving climate, suspended in a flight machine that is pouring itself in a deep slant toward snow packed ice.

They told you there were ancient secrets here, and healing mysteries. But you realize that you are going to have to sleep on a plank floor, carry water from a hole in the ice, lay an ax into the iron surfaces of frozen green birch. They said, you have never seen anything like the cotton grass in the spring, fields of it, or the poppies flooding out over the tundra, or the aurora and its midnight light shows. How, you ask yourself, did I get into this? We jam through veil after veil of flying snow, we are caught between the two engines in a polyrhythmic crossfire of thunders.

But don't worry; I wit I make smooth the way; we will get down in one piece. There is a vessel larger than all our imagining moving through the deep song of time, and at its stem the immense being plunges his paddle again and again into the river of stars.

We are now grinding with blunt determination on a downward slant toward the snow packed ice in front of the village. Muskrat Dam is on a long peninsula that thrusts out into the Severn River, which at this place is miles across. It is a sort of lake, white as marble.

I think madly about changes. For instance, I could have the protagonist suffering from an incurable disease, which he reveals to the female lead at the last moment. I could write it in right now, as a matter of fact.

"What are you doing with the script? Eh?" says Keith. He's alert.

"You're changing something."

"What if Graham's character had an incurable disease?" I say.

"I'll slash my wrists," says Keith.

We descend out of the blue dusk in a long glide. Landing on snow pack in white weather is a kind of fainting out of the air. We sink into the foaming ground-blow, and then touch, batter and jerk, and then charge toward the village on skis.

Reprinted from North Spirit @ Paulette Jiles, 1995. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Doubleday Canada Ltd, to be published on May 1, 1995.


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