2009: Three of us were in the car when the 5 traffic lights at 18 junctions in Bartleby simultaneously turned and stayed red. People jockeyed for position, waved fists. Then all the lights turned green and you could see their faces realize only co-operation undoes gridlock. Some helped folks move in turns, people smiled, waved each other through.
When the lights suddenly returned to orderly duality all the LED in town – Bank Ad with Clock, Town Hall Time and Temperature, Lotto – displayed waves and roses.
“Waddaya know, it’s beginning.”
“Suspension of Newtonian laws. Quantum mechanics gone viral, Mama Earth shouting wake up.”
“Newtonian laws only seem immutable because pushy people agreed to them and tried to beat the rest of us into submission. They’re no longer acceptable because they’ve been used to abuse the Mother.”
“Some people’ve always lived beyond those rules, anyway.”
“Anishinaabeg who understand neural regeneration in chickadees.”
“Dogon diviners who saw stars telescopes are only now revealing.”
“Yoruba medicine people who saw germs without microscopes.”
“Yogis buried alive for a month … hey, even the Albanian Orthodox Church has saints who bi-located like shamans”.
“So – you’re saying Mama hits the Just Say No to more insult & injury button, and all the lights in Bartleby turn red. Pretty funny.”
“Right, remember I told you how Dennis’s teacher showed up when Dennis was sick – everyone saw the old man go into that lodge with us and Dennis’s fever broke – and then the old man sat down to a bowl of chili, I gave it to him myself, and the phone rang and it was that old man calling Dennis to remind him to dig some namenipiniig. So here he is, eating chili in Minnesota, and he’s calling from Arizona.”
“You got that right. Some weren’t sure if he was a show off or a joker, and being polite, rolled on the floor laughing. But he was teaching, always.”
When we got home Robin teased Jodie, praising the way she eased neatly into a parking space, turned off the engine, locked the doors with the push of a button: Newtonian business as usual.
“Hold onto that key, girl, it still works for you.”
2021 – 2052: Seven of us live in a one-room cabin on a pond where Robin used to squat. Kids, bugs, grandkids, dogs, nieces, cats, nephews, mice, and cousins come and go between the cabin and neighboring lodges. We moved here when the laws of physics totally melted. We worked the fluidity, learned to bend light so the cabin with all of us in it went invisible. Eventually no one from Bartleby bothered us anymore, because those who made it back to town told the others how they’d starved with full bellies, shivered in the heat, lost their own selves in broad daylight. We’d learned how to spin confusions, shaking our heads at the necessity. We tried sharing first, salved their soreness and fed them – why did you think their bellies were full? But they just couldn’t make the change. Whatever they saw, they wanted to own, not out of need but from fear.
We had old habits too – take food for instance. For a season or two thought it was something you grow dig pick or catch, cook up, put on your plate. And then, too, when we first got here the land didn’t remember Robin, never knew the rest of us. Before we learned to listen, respectfully co-operate, we almost starved, weak on needle soup from a solitary pine too lonely to give, nauseous on polluted water. We went to town looking for an easier way, were ravaged helpless with anger, with rapes, beatings, murders we escaped but witnessed.
People wandered far and wide for food. Areas that’d been clear-cut grew back so thick with scrawny trees that though most animals became smaller, they’d mostly moved down what used to be the road to what used to be landscaping around houses caved in on their own weighty grandeur. Waabanikwe showed survivors how to thin saplings and build lodges. Animals came back to live among these neighbors – wawashkeshiwag with their flag tails and antlers, mishi-bizhiwag with their unearthly mating screams, makwag – all of them. Mikinaakwag, snapper turtles, say since they never abused the law they have no reason to change, and keep growing: they’re enormous now, ancient. They remind us that beneath change, history lives: the Aazhoomog Crossroads Anishinaabeg lived here before the went to the Great Lakes, and this land itself is a crossroads where old and new met aeons ago, shale and iron deposits to one hand, sand and deep-buried African migis shells to the other.
The dense spindly backwoods around the pond is too tight for even small deer and bear, but we’re finally home, brought the place to peace after long hard years. You can hear gijigaaneshiinzhag sing chicka-dee-dee-dee, a wabooz flash cottontail through underbrush. Amik, an old beaver Robin told me once left in despair, grow cattails, and his lodge is alive with amikoonsag. As family, we eat a share of those cattails, too. Robin’s always liked underbrush, and Waabanikwe says it reminds her of the sloughs back home. We eat more fish and rabbit than deer or bear. We have an agreement with the bears, and Ernesto brings one home from time to time. We tan the hide and render the fat the way Sandy taught Waabanikwe back in Minnesota. We make medicine with it and it heals us. Is it a great life, or what?
2023 – 2028: What’s left of Bartleby is another story: broke down buildings full of bickering people calling each other squatter try to take ownership, can’t get the hang of sharing. They still try to “make things work” according to beliefs from the slimmest skim off the skin of history. Some of them are my cousins. When I left they were in factions and nothing’s changed.
“Progressives” run infirmaries, build windmills, plant community gardens. They call Frederick, my father’s cousin, Juice Director: he’s in charge of keeping windmills going because they believe they need electricity, and Fred, loving his people, will go to any lengths to provide it. It’s a tall order because they’re running out of mined and manufactured substances of every kind: wires, metals, but most especially, grease to keep the wheels spinning.
On the other side is my aunt’s second cousin, Omar, called Big Boss Man, funny because before it all he couldn’t hold a job, can’t stand anyone telling him what to do. I never liked it either way – being told or telling – but I like working with people so I’ve learned to listen. Omar doesn’t have “with” in his vocabulary: he likes working people, period. He’s an old school bully who only feels good about himself by feeling better than somebody else, which means getting them to do for him.
Both sides are into mastery: Fred’s group tries to “master” nature into tame paradise; everyone on Omar’s side works to “master” the others because they believe in survival of the fittest, nature red in tooth and claw. So you have Fred’s idealization of nature, Omar’s vicious notion of nature, and their endless clash. It’s a living hell, Bartleby, either way you slice it.
They both want electricity, grease for the machinery. After we left for the second time they got together and tried to steal or beat our bear fat out of us. I already told you what happened.
Why our fat? Why not hunt? Hah – they’ve never seen a bear, and some think they’re mythical. It’s simple: things no longer answer or appear unless they’re respected. They never asked, and the bears never gave permission. That’s why I call it “our” fat: Robin did ask, and she got her answer.
2053: On the last day of her life Robin sits on the bridge with chickadees at sunrise. I tell her how way back someone told me that little bird is a helper, and later that week it came to my windowsill as I tried to answer my teacher’s question: “Indigenous Peoples often describe all nature as kin or as ‘relations.’ How does this understanding of the ‘essence’ of nature differ from modern scientific approaches that treat natural entities simply as objects for study and classification?” I’d googled chickadee for the answer. Turns out there’s an Anishinaabe story about how gijigaaneshiinzhag amuse themselves by throwing their eyes into the sky, staying perfectly still till they pop back in place, rendered in science-talk as the “fact” that chickadees literally change their view, “allow[ing] neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes.”
“Google! Science! The laws of physics! Remember that?” She laughs so hard she almost falls in the pond. We’re quiet, remembering.
As the sun shows over the trees she remembers out loud how Dennis said his people are supposed to live 130 years, and he would damn well do it. “Old darling, I’d tell him, you’ll be looking for a new wife when you’re a hundred because I won’t make it that long.” Six months later he was dead and now she’s 103.
“When Dennis was dying he told me, ‘If I only had some bear fat salve I could lick this, live 130 years with you, sweetheart.’ I prayed so hard for a bear, that prayer made a path in my mind that kept going when Dennis was gone. Witookawishinaam, makwa makade: help us, black bear.” She’s silent for awhile.
“Each word is important. Maybe if I’d said witookaik, help him, it would’ve ended when he died. But that ‘us’ went on after he passed. He’d been gone near a year when Ernesto gave me that first bear.”
The sun’s directly overhead. Robin’s wrinkles reflect so much light she’s almost blinding, features near impossible to make out until a cloud covers the sun. Then she looks just like a shriveled gold delicious apple haloed with frost on the tree in winter.
The last things she said: “Things happening in other places make our skirmishes over bear fat almost funny. While we’re making salve the whole world could go up in flames.”
Robin sighed. “I can’t remember all the names for family, they come with numbers: one family unit; six family units. But they have ode in them: heart. Ishkode, heart of the ancestors, that’s what fire means. If we don’t get along with our relatives, we’ll become one family in a final fire. Keep re-birthing the lodge so you know what to do.” The sun was setting and we could smell the soup Jodie and Ernesto were cooking.
That’s the way it was, may be, was told to me. Maybe I died in that fire and I’m dreaming this. Maybe Dennis is alive, Robin never died, and they’re sitting together dreaming me. Maybe that old pine had children and they’re dreaming you hear me tell this, maybe it’s all yet to come. We all dream together. If you’re hearing this, part of what happens is up to you.