It’s cold. Much too cold to step out of the stalled tram and into the blowing wind of February in Saint Paul. She’s been tasked with transporting a child, her twin sister’s kid in fact, to the dentist. Apparently the boy has an extra tooth that two dentists and one oral hygienist have already tried to remove, to no avail. The boy is determined to kick at inappropriate intervals when his mother is present, so a third party, a caring but distant aunt, has been chosen as better suited to the task.
A rumor ripples through the tram that the jolt they’d all felt before stopping was the impact of the train with a body. Who would try to end it all by hurling himself at a hunkering tram was lost on Laney. She tried to imagine his face, his name. Imagine how someone could do such a thing.
A tug at her sleeve reminds her of the wide-eyed panic at her side. The strange little boy with the mouth too full of teeth is terrified. She pulls out her phone and steps out of the tram, his hot moist hand in hers at Victoria St. Station. “Isn’t that fitting? This stop is named after your mom. Come, we need to call the dentist.”
The sounds of the sidewalk chatter and crunching snow are scarcely quieter than the foggy panic within the stationary tram. By the time the Dr. V answers in his musical tone, she is shouting and covering her exposed ear. “Yes, we’re on our way, but what? Excuse me, I can’t hear you. I’m sorry, the tram is stalled. My nephew and I will be late.” Her breath dissipates in a cloud and she looks back to the frightened child who will soon have another large rubber gloved hand in his face, cutting furiously at the roof of his mouth while he screams uselessly, out of range of his protective brothers in the suburbs.
She steals a glance at the front of the train, making sure the boy is facing the other way. Emergency workers are carrying off a long, large body that is too twisted to come back to life. She doesn’t see his face, but she catches a glimpse of the soles of his shoes. They’re worn thin by someone who’s known either great hardship or great passion, walking with purpose for centuries, since before shoes existed. She decides to give the dead man a name.
“Let’s go sit in the warm train until it’s ready to move again. It’s too far to walk. Come, I’ll tell you a story.” Laney presses the button to slide open the tram door and locates an empty seat. The boy doesn’t know he’s been the one holding her up.
The Last Ronnongwetowanca
The great Ni-k’o is a giant and he is dying. Only the shaman could save him now, but Ni-k’o is himself the shaman. The medicine man cannot save himself if he wants to be remembered by the smaller people around him. He must die and push away for the momentum to pull him back.
Ni-k’o has a great, powerful head, with three markings so that all will recognize him long after he is gone. He wears all the colors of the universe on the side of his head, mixed into a stripe of white, the wind in his hair. There’s a crack in the center of his forehead. It’s healed over, but still light shines through. He can see without his eyes. He has more teeth than all the small-boned people to make them believe he will be here longer, to remind them that he will need to eat when he is reborn again and again.
Ni-k’o is dying and he sends his children to the new world so they can call it old. They will forget him, but find their way back to the old and call it new, long after he is buried near the water. They will touch the waters of Mni-Tonka and know they are home. They will run on hills that are their father. His body will be built up to a mound, his giant frame growing larger, then weathered down by the wind and rebuilt a thousand times. The ground is now Ni-k’o and Ni-k’o is now the ground. When his ancestors return, they will see the ground is breathing.
La-n’i has carried the baskets of dirt with her sisters to bury her beloved shaman. High and proud, Ni-k’o grows taller and wider. He will rise up so the red people can brace their feet a thousand moons later on his great mound. They will not know him, but they will see him in the silver flying off Mni-Tonka. He is scattered now and giving life to more souls than the lights in the sky. La-n’i carries hope in her belly, over the great river Ma’xe-eʼometaaʼe on a grapevine that will snap behind her, leaving her sisters to build Ni-k’o higher until she can return.
One day, a daughter of a daughter of a thousand daughters ago of La-n’i will have three sons. One will be born with the wind in his hair. The second will cut an eye on his forehead and see into souls. The third will have a tooth where others have none. They will come back to walk on the hills of Ni-k’o. And they will know they are home.