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Iskigamizige-Giizis Maple Sugar Moon (April) niiwo-giizhigad (4) 2019

                                                        A Chance Meeting

It laid against the asphalt, its eyes closed as in death.

I sped west toward home along Roseau County Road 8, listening to CBC, driving ahead of my headlights, a dim view at best, when I saw what I thought was a small animal’s body laying in my lane. I swerved into the vacant eastbound lane to avoid hitting what I thought was a dead skunk because I didn’t want its stench lingering in the car for days.

I slowed the car, stopped, and then reversed, steering the car using the white line, now on my left illuminated by my backup lights. I backed-up beyond the carcass, returning gradually across the dashed yellow center-line into the westbound lane. Stopping, I drove forward until my headlights shone on the lifeless body. It wasn’t a skunk, it was a feathered body. “Maybe it’s a hawk,” I said aloud as I exited the car. “But this late at night?”

Nudging it with my boot, I saw its clinched talons, and a partially-extended, short, powerful wing. Then I saw its tufted head and its short black, hooked beak.
“It’s a wawenjiganoo!” I said, flabbergasted at the sight.

I couldn’t leave it there to get run over by a passing car. It didn’t seem right to leave it there to be crushed and obliterated into just a bloodstain and scattered feathers. Gently, grasping one of its wings, I pulled it gently from the road onto the gravel shoulder, when I saw its breast move up and down. It was breathing . . . very . . . slowly.

Should I put it out of its misery? But how? Bludgeon it with a Vise-Grip© or ball-pein hammer? My options seemed brutal.

It didn’t seem terribly injured. I didn’t see blood. I remembered that my wife Jackie, had some success reviving small birds that had flown into the windows of the house, and fell to the ground unconscious. She harassed them long enough for them to regain consciousness and fly away.
“That’s what I’d do,” I thought.

So I nudged it with my leather boot into a semblance of a sitting position, all the while saying,
“Wake up! Fly! Go! Git!.’
The wawenjiganoo opened his eyes, then it hunched his shoulders a little and fluffed out its breast.

“Whoa!” I said, surprised the method worked.
I felt helpless. It was regaining consciousness. It blinked.

I called Jackie on the cellphone, noticing I had a weak battery with just a whisper of blue bar remaining. She answered after several rings. This late, she may have just gone on to bed, thinking I was working late.
“Aaniin,” she answered, sleepily. I told her I’d be late getting home as I had found a wawenjiganoo that had been hit by a car then discovered it was alive. I explained all I had done with it and how it had regained consciousness but didn’t try to fly. 

The wawenjiganoo sat in the beam of my headlights, its short height casting a long shadow. Its eyes were fully open now. I took its picture, then another. 

It was rude to use flash, I guess, as perhaps a flash too closely resembled the traumatic event it experienced, suddenly striking the side of a moving vehicle, as it pursued fleeing prey across the road. It had to be the shock of its life. Imagine yourself hurtling forward at night, a foot or two above the contours of the ground with only the light from the stars lighting your way, then suddenly colliding with an invisible pane of heavy glass traveling perpendicular to your flight path.

What injuries had wawenjiganoo suffered? Feathers that had separated from its body, fluttered against the short grass along the highway shoulder acting as though they knew they should be airborne, though their owner was not.

Well, I had done my part, I thought. I had moved it off the road. It probably would soon regain its marbles and fly off like nothing happened, so I got back inside my car and drove the two and a half miles home. I parked the car near the house.

Just as I stopped the car, the headlights still on, a small bird flew from atop a string of old Christmas lights strung over the door toward the car light’s luminance, and hovered there, acting unsure of what to do or where to go, then flew off into the darkness. I had never seen a bird there before, during the day nor during the night.

“What does that mean?” I said to whatever was listening. “What am I to do?” My fatigue was probably playing tricks on my psyche, making me weirdly think the little bird was a messenger or something symbolic to my rare interaction with such a dark mysterious creature such as the

Jackie was sad to think I left it alone to die. She didn’t want it to just sit there vulnerable to any passing coyote, dog or cat--or skunk-- out wandering the county road late at night. I said it was nature’s way, and if I hadn’t stopped to pull it off the road, its fate would’ve been worse. Jackie reiterated that she didn’t want it to die alone, then be ravaged by things unknown. She said I should go back, for as long as it would take. 

So, reconsidering my reasoning-- and the odd little bird that met me-- I took a long drink of water, and grabbed a pair of heavy leather gloves in case I had to move the wawenjiganoo again for some reason, when she said to wait. Taking a baggie out of a kitchen drawer and reaching into the cupboard for some asemaa, she took a pinch from its foil package, put into the baggie, then handed it  to me saying, “Let’s say a prayer for it.”

Learning a little of the Anishinaabe culture since our grandson was born six years ago, we've become conscious of the spirits that are here on the land and heightened our awareness of the Great Mystery, with whom either of us converse day or night, under stars or sun. Spreading tobacco below the nearest tree boughs, we gave our thanks to the Four Directions, and those who came before us, and asked them to help “
Mitakuye-Oyasin" (All my relations), including all creatures great and small. (Wawenjiganoo was one, as we learned later, from the darker side of things; in many indigenous cultures it’s considered ominous.)

I asked for help that night for what to do here. Should I bring it home with me? Should I end its life? Was it my decision to make? Who was I, to do that? Then I sprinkled tobacco around wawenjiganoo, (and a few tiny flakes onto his head as I didn’t think it’d hurt.)

I returned to wawenjiganoo. It sat forlornly where I had left it, the yellowish cast of Beito’s yard light almost reaching its tail feathers. I parked the car a short distance away, its engine still running, to look at wawenjiganoo again for further signs of life. It stared blankly ahead breathing normally, it seemed. I waved my hand back and forth in front of its face, and watched for eye movement to see if it followed its pass., but it wasn’t apparent that it did. I was conscious that wawenjiganoo could maybe suddenly rise to grab my hand, so I was cautious; this while the engine’s idle rose and fell, the radiator fan going off, then on. Tiny bugs darting about the glow of the headlights.

The night was cool but humid. My skin was clammy from a night’s hard work in a hot factory. My energies were winding down. I was sleepy, but I had this one focus I had to be aware of, so I kept a vigil outside with it, once in a while looking east at the landscape, seeing the white headlights of cars going north and south on Highway 89; I could see a faraway yard light.

Removing my cap, I touched wawenjiganoo’s back against the lay of its feathers and passed it around from back to front. Now, it followed the cap with a full turn of its head.
“Oh boy, wawenjiganoo is even wider awake now,” I thought. “Maybe, maybe-- it will try to fly if I leave it alone.”

I got in the car, closed the door, and turned off the headlights, leaving just the parking lights on to mark the vehicle parked there. Turning on the dome light, I searched the backseat for a notebook I always try to keep in one of the cars so I can write down the things I think about. This was one of those times. It’s been months since I’ve written anything ‘off the top,’ an impulse buried by daily routine and responsibility, but wawenjiganoo deserved a story, even if, maybe, it wouldn’t have the ending we had wished. I had to write something about these moments, this progress, this situation.

Glancing up from my writing pad--yes, a handheld writing pen and real college-ruled lined paper. No iPad. It appeared wawenjiganoo had moved from its original position. I wondered if it was just my imagination for it sat still as stone, its shoulders hunched forward, its upright ear tufts buffeted by the wind. It faced west.
“No,” I thought to myself. “It didn’t move.”

Writing again, the window of the driver’s door down, I wrote:
“Coyotes howl across the quarter section. A semi on the highway, a mile or so away, whines past.”
Time passes into a better part of an hour as I wrote, consumed by pen against paper and the words that flow ceaselessly between them. Looking up again, I distinctly see wawenjiganoo has turned south into the wind, the feathers of its mottled breast fluffed by its caress. “Wow, I hadn’t imagined it!”

Paying closer attention now, I watch as wawenjiganoo turned west again and hopped into the short grass along the shoulder. Lowering itself, -- it suddenly bolted upwards, its wings fully extended, trying to fly skyward, only to helplessly flop backwards, onto its back. Throwing my notebook on the passenger seat, I got out of the car fast. I tell wawenjiganoo it can’t lay on its back like that. It has to get up.
“Get up! C’Mon! Up!” I say to an injured wawenjiganoo in the grass along a rural northwestern Minnesota road at night, the oddness of the situation not lost on me.  I was talking to wawenjiganoo.

Using my leather gloves, I helped it onto its feet, but one wing laid awkwardly at an angle. Wawenjiganoo acted dazed. It didn’t react defensively toward me, didn’t try to claw at me with its talons. It didn’t clack its tongue and beak as I know wawenjiganoog will do when threatened. We just happened to be two beings in the grass along a road, and something terrible has happened to the other, in which I had no part. I have no way to know if wawenjiganoo sensed I wasn’t there to harm it. Some people may think I was meant to be there, but I don’t know these things. Others may think it utter foolishness, silly stuff, but they don’t know of such things either. I left wawenjiganoo alone again to gather its strength.

All this action gave me my second wind. I put on a sweatshirt I had in the car to warm my sleeveless arms, then sat down in the car to call Jackie. “You can’t leave him there! Something will eat him, helpless like that! Bring him home with you!” she said in no uncertain terms. We had no way of determining its sex, but she called it ‘he’, so ‘he’ it became, furthering its personification, determining the urgency of rescue she began feeling in every bone of her body.

Gathering some grass along the road I put wawenjiganoo in a Rubbermaid© tub I had brought with me against such contingency. I put on the leather gloves and gathered his wings against his body as gently as I could manage, watching out for his talons that I suspected, should he use to grab me would not be a pleasant ordeal, razor sharp as they looked. He didn’t struggle, weakened as he was. Perhaps his hopes were dashed or he was saving his strength, I was guessing.

Wawenjiganoo took his first ride in a car, I suspect. Again, I was just guessing, maybe it was commonplace for him, I don’t know. These days with all kinds of birds and animals being collared, tagged, clipped, caught and released, or photographed or videotaped or micro-chipped or tattooed, you can’t ever tell. “Wild” anything, may not be so wild anymore, but let’s say, just this one time, this wawenjiganoo had never ridden in a vehicle powered by a combustion engine before that night. If he had been a cat, you would know immediately his reaction to his confinement in a moving vehicle. If he had been a dog, certainly his saliva would’ve laced the car windows with the wind streaming in my open driver’s door window as it did. But him being wawenjiganoo and all, mystery was in play for he uttered not a hoo-hoot, clack, nor tweet all the way home, and I got to thinking maybe he had expired at long last on the road between Grimstad and Palmville.

Not a chance, I discovered, opening the hatch and easing him from the tub onto a flattened cardboard box that Jackie wanted me to place him on, “ ... to protect him from the cold wet ground.” It was only then he clacked at me and tried to grab at me with those black needle-like talons, succeeding to grasp the cardboard and pierce it clean through with one of his quad-clawed feet. He would have nothing of that strange ‘cushion.’ He pushed himself off the box to lay against the ground again, wide-eyed. His breast heaved in short panicked breaths.

We went into the house and turned off the outdoor house light, leaving him to his isolation. I opened a beer and sat down on a kitchen step, but Jackie couldn’t bear the thought of wawenjiganoo dying alone ‘out there,’ and went back out to stand not too faraway, watching him in the soft light from the millions of stars overhead and the Milky Way.

“Come out here quick! ” she hollered in at me, opening the door of the entry then closing it against the onslaught of tiny gnat-like bugs that stormed toward the interior light. “Wawenjiganoo has flopped himself against the wheel of the car! He can’t lay like that!”

I went back outside and found him upside down again, his wings all in a knot, one talon gripping the leading edge of one wing in a steel-like fist. Its tail-feathers were splayed. Its eyes were now closed. I eased him onto its breast. He was too spent to fight though he clacked menacingly at me. It was the first time I noticed the blood on its back; the little scrape on one ankle, a bloody spot in the joint of one wing.
“He must be busted up inside pretty bad.” I said. “Maybe all this flailing has opened up an injury I couldn’t see before. He’s calming down now. I think his end is near.”
“I’m too cold to stay out here now, would you stay with wawenjiganoo until the end?” Jackie asked me. “Should we put him out of his misery? Can you do it?”

Opening the rear car door, I took out a factory jacket I had there and put it on against the coming chill of the night, well past one in the morning. We could see our breath.
“Yeah, guess I’m obligated now,” I said, snugging the high collar up under my bearded chin. “I’ve had to do such things before.”
“He’s cold against that ground. I just know he’ll freeze...” She said, lingering, casting the flashlight off to the side of wawenjiganoo, not shining it on him directly,
“Can you cover him with a sweatshirt or something?”

“Yes, I can do that,” I said, taking her often expressed concern in stride, and went back into the house until I found an old insulated shirt I hadn’t worn for over a year.
“Here’s something.”

Wawenjiganoo looked as though he was tucked into a warm grassy bed, his eyes and beak closed, one tuft out, the other against the ground. I watched him for many long minutes, his breath coming in slow, shallow, inhalations, almost to nothing, knowing the Great Mystery was watching.

A wawenjiganoo hoo-hooted northeast of us, then after long minutes sounded again from the darkness along Mikinaak Creek.


  1. Replies

    1. For some reason, I got tagged as "unknown" on this reply. I assure you, I am JP Savage by any name.

      Marvelous piece of writing, full of deep wisdom of our natural world, and of one of our brothers, and your wise and gentle time with him.
      You mention the “tufts” several times. In a not-so-different scenario with a like-creature, just before I buried him, I gently removed one of the tufts and still cherish it in its place of honor and protection.
      Allow me to comment on a few excerpts from your story.
      “. . . I have no way to know if wawenjiganoo sensed I wasn’t there to harm it. Some people may think I was meant to be there, but I don’t know these things. Others may think it utter foolishness, silly stuff, but they don’t know of such things either.” This beautiful trio of sentences bows to the “Great Mystery” you speak of. The sentences are so open and gentle, allowing the “others” to keep their beliefs, while gently making no judgments, and at the same time, leaving no doubt about the deeper truth.
      And later,:
      “. . . consumed by pen against paper and the words that flow ceaselessly between them . . .” Good gracious, I know and feel the deep joy of this experience. That’s why I always write poetry long-hand on a special kind of narrow-lined paper, using my favorite kind of pen to give first life to the writing. The scratch and small-puffs of the pen journeying its story onto the paper – the rush of images and hopefully insights and wisdom – at least in the first draft – and then the slower, more deliberate crafting, inserting better word choices, and sharper images and metaphors. Magical, these words, this writing.
      Now I turn to the following:
      “. . . making me weirdly think the little bird was a messenger or something symbolic to my rare interaction with such a dark mysterious creature such as the wawenjiganoo . . .”
      Not weird whatsoever. Just because small, doesn’t mean there was not a message. We just notice the presence of messages more easily with our larger fellow creatures. Why just this morning, as I was teaching yoga, an inch-long inch worm squiggled its way onto my yoga mat. I had one of my students carry on with what we were doing, while taking a scrap of paper, scooping up the little fellow (gender unknown, if any), and taking it to a live plant in the studio. Message? Uncertain for now. Maybe simply about spinal flexibility and attention thereof.
      As you probably know, in the Native Medicine Wheel, all manner of creatures, plants, stones, and even seasons take their places in the array of beings. People have totem creatures, plants and stones as well. I have studied this in some detail. Would you like me to provide you with some information, and some possible “meanings” of your visitor? I make no claim to be an expert, but I do find value in such worldviews. By the way, my spirit “animal” is Raven. Mitakuye-Oyasin (JP Savage)


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