Fort Detroit, Fall, 1817
Cheers from the fort’s crowd drew sixteen-year-old Dorothy Evans to the river’s shore. Two high-ended Algonquin canoes from Lake Erie and a smaller French trapper’s canoe advanced toward them on the Detroit River. With each new shout, more yellow aspen leaves tumbled to the ground, crushed under the feet of soldiers and civilians rushing along the riverbank. The sober clothing of the throng clashed with the riotous colors of the maple trees.
A Chippewa runner had arrived the night before to warn, or rather to assemble the fort’s population for Bishop Pascal’s arrival. Father Sebastian, the Jesuit pastor, rose on his tiptoes to peer down river. Dorothy and her mother stood on either side of the nervous priest. Elizabeth’s short, plump figure advertised her success as the rectory’s cook. Dorothy considered herself a competent but reluctant cook’s helper.
Preparations for meals left little time to think, to read, to dream. She hurried through her daily chores to escape into the priest’s extensive library. For more than a hundred years, the Jesuits at Fort Detroit had collected Europe’s finest literature. The tomes whetted her appetite for adventure and romance.
As Dorothy waited for the Bishop, histories of Florence, its free thinkers, faces of popes and red-garbed cardinals swam in her head. The band of young and seasoned soldiers from the fort held no interest. They smelled, and treated her as the stuck-up cook’s daughter. She was only someone to hand out an extra cookie or two when their buddies weren’t around to tease. But in her secret heart, Dorothy was a mysterious spy, an adventurous temptress, a princess waiting to be rescued.
No hint of cardinal reds were in the approaching crafts, only more drab brown and black clothing. Dorothy sighed, breathed in the cool, tannic-scented air and prayed for patience as the ceremonies began. Her chores awaited and her fingers itched to re-open the Italian history she had set aside.
After the first boat emptied its passengers, a sergeant among the troops yelled, “Attention!”
The thirty or so men lined up, tucked in their shirts and squared their shoulders. The newly arrived, tall, mustached officer with soft gray eyes under menacing bushy eyebrows introduced himself to the sloppy, disgraceful bunch. “Lieutenant C. Louis Cass.” He returned their salute and marched past them taking time to point out an unbuttoned tunic, dusty boots, or straighten a jauntily placed cap. “Where is your commanding officer?”
“Abed.” A young private in the rear yelled without fear of detection.
“This way,” Father Sebastian motioned for the Bishop to follow the troops on the half-mile trek back to the fort.
Dorothy’s mother gestured for her to follow, but Dorothy shook her head. Elizabeth delayed and tidied her hair until Dorothy relented and drew closer for what she thought would be a reprimand. Her mother merely whispered. “They’re going to take more land from the natives. Mark my word.”
“Not again. Where will they let them farm now? Is that why the Bishop came?”
“Father says the seven tribes around the Great Lakes will be affected.” Elizabeth tucked a loose black strand of hair behind Dorothy’s ear. “I guess the Bishop thinks a missionary is needed to persuade the tribes to attend the new treaty powwow.”
Dorothy shook her head. “What chance do the natives have to survive, if they disagree?”
“Hurry back to help me.” Her mother scurried away to catch up to Father Sebastian.
Dorothy wandered closer to the river. Dark clouds threatened to stop the sunshine’s play with the sparkling waves. The second smaller canoe purposefully tread water in order not to be drawn ashore. Dorothy examined its crew. A tall, straight-backed Huron sat in the front of the boat. Behind him a younger native caught her eye. The shifting sunbeams highlighted the man’s blond hair. His face seemed lit from within.
His eyes dreamily swept the shoreline past her, then sharply returned as if he had been startled into remembering something. Something important.
Me, Dorothy thought. He’s looking at me. For a moment her breath seemed to stop.
She couldn’t help rushing forward to mingle among the native men helping the two pull the boat onto the sandy shore. The natives nearly bowed before the tall Huron. He spoke kindly to each. Did he personally know their families? Then he introduced the younger man to them, “My favored son.” The older man inclined his head proudly in the direction of the blond young man, whose ethereal bearing evoked the capability of walking on water.
Noticing Dorothy among the group, the older man said, “They call me Ponthe Walker.”
Dorothy nodded but could not keep her face turned away from the infinitely more interesting younger man.
“And my adopted son, Perish North.”
“I’m…I’m,” Dorothy was sure she’d never remember her own name. “Dorothy Evans. My mother is Elizabeth, the rectory cook.”
Perish stepped forward. “A pious believer then?”
Dorothy gained full use of her tongue. “More of a favorite doubter of the Lord’s. Like Saint Thomas? You know the one who had to put his hand in Jesus’ side before he would believe in the resurrection?”
Ponthe seemed to lose interest, but Perish didn’t move.
“I’ve just returned from my vision quest,” he said.
Dorothy believed he grew an inch before her eyes. She slipped a glance down to his boots to see if he’d stretched up on his toes. As she brought her gaze up, she noted his waist adornments, his broad shoulders covered in buckskin. His light blue eyes seemed bleached by the sun, or his vision.
“The manhood rite,” she said, trying not to check. A stiff breeze lifted her hair, cooling the nervous sweat on her brow.
“You’ve heard of the Midewiwins?” Perish took a step closer.
Dorothy could smell a scent of juniper. “I have, but aren’t you too young?”
A thrill passed through her at the clear, rich tones of his voice.
When his father began to lead the natives back to the Fort Detroit, Dorothy boldly pulled at Perish’s elbow. “Walk with me.”
Perish slowed to stroll beside her.
Dorothy smiled as winningly as she knew how. “Tell me.”
“I can only share Orenda’s vision message with family.” His face was serious but his eyes were friendly.
“Adopt me,” Dorothy said, then raced ahead of the group. Aware of her silliness, she knew her mother would be needing help.
* * * * *
Perish watched the snowy show of petticoats as the dark-headed girl fled toward the stockade. His nostrils flared catching the scent of lilacs.
His father stopped, waiting for Perish to catch up before they continued to the fort. “Her hair is nearly black.”
“Brown eyes.” Perish pulled on one of his blond braids to anchor himself in a suddenly unknown landscape. “But she wasn’t wearing the red-spotted squaw cape.”
“But was she the girl in your vision?” Ponthe asked.
“The vision was taller, older.” Perish moved his hand above his eye level.
“Could have been floating,” Ponthe said. “You haven’t shared your vision with Renault or Kdahoi yet?”
“No.” Perish was still held in the dream world of the girl’s dark eyes. He shook himself to respond in detail to his father. “I wanted to keep my word to meet you at Fort Detroit, before I met with Mother.” He laughed in relief at his good fortune. “Then I ran across your runner’s path.”
“Dorothy Evans might have been less welcoming if she’d seen you when you came into the Bishop’s camp.”
“True.” Perish hadn’t washed for a fortnight and his hair had been dank with sweat and grime. “I hadn’t considered the Bishop’s idea of bathing of much worth, until now.”
“Beauty’s going to have a heyday with your vision.” Ponthe shook his head.
Perish was surprised that even now his father doubted the Great Spirit’s way. “It seems you have a bond with Dorothy Evans.”
“Can’t help liking her courage.” Ponthe said. “Not many parishioners under Jesuit rule voice their doubts in public.”
“She’s still a child.” Perish tried to dismiss his attraction to her bright eyes, her pert smile, that dance of energy.
Ponthe said not a word, only nodded.
“Father.” Perish stopped walking. His stomach attacked him with a great qualm, “I need to see Kdahoi.”
“Of course,” Ponthe said. “Your mother will be waiting. Tell Beauty I will meet with her when she comes to the fort. I’ll make your excuses here.”
Without another word, Perish ran down to the beach and launched his canoe.
* * * * *
Raisin River Camp
An evil wind seemed destined to slow his trip down to the Raisin River’s mouth to his mother’s village. The trip was difficult in the canoe meant for river use instead of slicing the storm waves on Lake Erie.
At the Raisin River camp, the moon’s position told Perish he’d reached Beauty’s isolated wigwam close to midnight. Perish smiled. If need be, he’d be able to find his home blindfolded. He wrapped himself in his blanket outside the entrance and waited for dawn.
“Perish,” Beauty scolded in the morning. “I nearly broke my neck falling over your lazy carcass.”
Perish had missed her laughter. He bowed as men did to their mothers. “I had a vision.”
“I see. First coffee, then symbols.”
After his mother’s breakfast of corn flapjacks, Perish realized a certain tension had left his body. Across the river the Potawatomi village was coming to life. Dogs were barking and familiar cooking sounds marked the morning. “Why is it I can only relax here?”
“You’ve been safe here for many years.” Beauty said. “The world outside is filled with tales of violence.”
“Is it true you told Governor Hull to abandon the fort or you would scalp him yourself?”
“Renault told you that nonsense.” Beauty smoothed her plaited hair down, in her habitual show of vanity, the only one Perish could recall.
“My Copper Harbor dream was a peaceful one.”
“I’m glad.” Beauty cleared away the remnants of their morning meal.
“I stayed in the cleft of rock, where some men leave pictures of their vision guides.” Perish recalled his heightened awareness. “A lightning storm from the west rolled past me but I could still see the islands in Lake Superior. I was wet with the rain, hungry, and cold. Then someone lifted my chin, or I looked up into the pelting rain to the tops of the cliff. A woman in a red-spotted cape drifted on the wind. We were eye-to-eye when she spoke.”
“What did she say?” Beauty couldn’t hold back her curiosity, but she kept her head bowed away from Perish.
Perish tugged on his mother’s buckskin skirt as he had as a child. Still Beauty wouldn’t meet his eyes, so he told her. “She asked me how many generations of children we would beget.”
“A Biblical phrase. To give birth.” As Perish explained the word, his body remembered his initial visceral response to his dream girl at Copper Harbor, which matched his reaction to Dorothy’s appearance at Fort Detroit. Was she the one, his intended mate? He prayed the Lord’s will would be accomplished.
“That was all?” Beauty seemed disappointed. Her green eyes were full upon him now.
Perish dug into his memory to find something more for her. “Hmm. I think I fell asleep then. When I woke up the sun was shining and even my clothes had dried. I must have slept through an entire day.” Perish stood up and stretched as if refreshed from that long nap. “I have enough energy to run all the way to Fort Detroit.”
Beauty insisted he give her more details. “What did she look like? Was she a white-haired, old witch? A young woman? Smiling?”
Perish attended to his bedroll. “I met her at the fort.”
Beauty dropped the coffee pot. “Already?”
The campfire sputtered, too.
“I hope so.” Perish frowned. What if Dorothy wasn’t the same woman as his vision? Where would he start his future if Dorothy wasn’t his intended mate? “Her hair was nearly black and her eyes a dark brown.”
“A native.” Beauty seemed satisfied.
“No.” Perish watched his mother sit down too hard. “Her name is Dorothy Evans. Her mother is the Jesuits’ cook.”
Beauty held her head with both hands. “I know of them. I’ll have to meditate on this. I’ll make more coffee. Did you bring any tobacco?”
Perish was embarrassed now. “Sorry, Mother.” He began to gather the rest of his belongings. “I can barter for some at the fort.”
“Don’t go on my account. ” Beauty flashed angry green eyes at him. “Renault will be here tomorrow.”
“Should I wait to tell him about my vision?” Perish decided to stay with his mother until then. He loved the quietness of their home camp. “I could help you get ready for winter.”
“Will you be gone?” Beauty seemed worried.
“You’ve been without me for three winters now.” Perish accompanied Ponthe when he tended his fur traps throughout the last few winters. The landscape was safer because fewer white men ventured out in the heavy snows.
“I’m getting older.” His mother straightened her back as if a kink had suddenly caused a pain. Not one year of age showed on her face, her eyes were clear, her teeth sound.
“I could bring Dorothy here for you to meet.” Perish refused to think of Beauty as an aging woman. “Or, you can visit with her when we join Ponthe at the fort.”
A bright smile flickered for a second across his mother’s face. “Yes,” she said. “We’ll wait for Renault to join us.”
Beauty retreated into her wigwam and Perish laid down resting his head on his bedroll. “Now that I’m a man, Mother.” Perish tried to choose his words carefully but there was no gracious way of asking. “Where do your green eyes come from?”
“A Chinaman,” she called from inside the wigwam, and then laughed.
The old answer kept its secrets.
Perish said, “I wish you could have seen Ponthe with President Monroe.”
“I know Ponthe was taller.” Beauty exited her rounded abode, straightening from her bowed position. She handed Perish a new porcupine-quill vest. “Why do the whites need more land?”
“White men want to carve a new river out of dry land.” Perish stood and Beauty placed the vest over his head, helping him tie the side trusses. “Wagons will float farther west for settlers to claim more of our land. “Mother, the vest is beautiful.”
Perish picked at one of the beads on his vest.
Beauty slapped at his hand. “Careful you’ll undo a whole string.”
Perish knew the land-grab story was old, only the excuse was new. “They call the new river they want to build the Erie Canal.”
* * * * *
When Ed Renault arrived the next day, his canoe wasn’t filled with beaver pelts. Perish remembered Renault’s stories of when he first came to the new world as a young trapper, when the land was still thick with beaver. The deer hides and a few fox furs bore witness to Renault’s honed and deft trapping skills. In the weeks since he delivered Perish to Copper Harbor, the man had plied his trade well.
At times Perish speculated Renault might be a relative of his mother’s, but she denied any family link other than a long affiliation with their French trapper friend.
Renault’s hair was streaked with gray. Perish couldn’t recollect the gray when they had parted at the slip of the new moon. Had he been so wrapped-up in his own adventure not to notice signs of aging?
“Hard trip, friend?” Perish asked, helping to beach the loaded canoe.
“A bear tried to talk me out of life.” Renault drew up his shirt, where the claw marks of the beast still showed red, ugly welts.
Perish forgot his upbringing and drew the big trapper’s head down in a manly hug. “I’m glad he changed his mind.”
Renault grinned from ear to ear. “Me, too.”
“A few salves will erase most.” Beauty had caught sight of Renault’s raked chest before he could lower his rough blouse. She shook the trapper’s hand, a rare occurrence for them.
A glint of moisture shimmered in the old man’s eyes before Renault’s booming voice told them of other fights with Indians and settlers. The trapper was a peaceful man and Perish chalked up most of the stories to historic bravado in the face of the bear disaster.
Renault finished off another story with a cup of Beauty’s coffee, before asking Perish, “So you’re a man now?”
“And he’s met the woman of his vision.” Beauty teased him. “At the fort, a white girl.”
“When do we leave?” Renault laughed. “Have to check out a new member of this tribe.”
“I’m not sure she was the girl, Mother.” Perish could feel a blush rising as his body started to come alive again. Now that he was a man, he’d hoped to control at least this reddening of face.
* * * * *
Later that week Dorothy’s mother was too busy ordering her helpers around the kitchen to be bothered. So, Dorothy was trapped into taking Bishop Pascal and Father Sebastian a decanter of sherry and glasses into the rectory library. She sat the tray down safely, but her curtsy to the Bishop was clumsy. If she had been more graceful, she could have disappeared without them noticing.
“Bella parva,” Bishop Pascal said.
“Dorothy, let me introduce you.” Father Sebastian pushed her forward. “She has read nearly every book in the library.”
“Lovely,” the Bishop said. “What do you think of Saint Augustine’s conversion?”
“Silly,” she said without thinking.
“I beg your pardon,” the clerics said together.
Dorothy collected her wits. “St. Augustine based his conversion on his mother’s natural worry about his future.” The sober pair remained unconvinced. “On a laundry day among the drying linens.”
“I don’t remember that,” Father Sebastian said.
“Never happened,” Bishop Pascal declared.
Dorothy nodded believing the whole thing was made up so the saint could paint himself as a devoted sinner in order to relive the deeds. “Don’t you think he dwelt on his errors more than he needed to?” It seemed an innocent question to her.
“Of course not.” Bishop Pascal was obviously scandalized. “Father, I think you need to review the studies of your pupil more closely.”
Father Sebastian scratched the remaining hair on his balding head. “She reads Latin and has read the Old Testament four times, the New Testament eight.” He turned to Dorothy a proud smile on his face. “Isn’t that true?”
“Yes,” she said. “Every morning I wake with a hundred doubts, read all day and put them to rest before I can sleep.”
“Doubts?” the Bishop asked in a warning tone.
Undeterred, Dorothy continued. “I think the book of Ecclesiastes says it best when it rightly names belief in a Supreme Being as our vanity’s willingness to find the best in ourselves.”
“Dorothy!” Father Sebastian seemed embarrassed.
“A lot of work is needed, Father.” The Bishop ignored Dorothy so she slipped out into the hall, careful to eavesdrop. “That child could infect a whole nation of natives. Correct her before it’s too late.”
“She reads everything,” Father Sebastian tried to explain.
“Lock this room up and allow her only texts that will illuminate her belief.”
“But the Bible?”
“Needs careful interpretation.” Bishop Pascal raised his voice to stop further debate. “The laity is ill-equipped.”
“I can see that.” Father Sebastian acquiesced to his superior. “I’ll make sure she is forbidden to enter the room.”
Dorothy was devastated. The library was lost to her? Life wouldn’t be worth living. Where would her mind go to find solace? Her stomach hurt and angry tears burned her cheeks. She ran to the kitchen. Mother would fix it.