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Walking Back to Turtle

by Henry Heavy Shield

edited by Kevin Chong


P.O. BOX 1293

1149 Laurier Place

Edmonton, AB T5H 1P7

Dear Mr. Spotted Plume,

I am writing on behalf of Mr. J. Ahkiskiw, author of the Savage Under Heart series (Plains Romances // Big Sky Press MT). I regret to inform you that Mr. Ahkiskiw is rather upset with your latest review of Savage Under Heart Five: Savage Love on Campus. I am a close friend of the author, and, I must say, he is in pieces over what he feels is a naïve and unfairly biting review. I would like to invite you to meet the author. Please, consider my words a peace offering. Mr. Ahkiskiw and I both admire your publication.

Yours, &c

Mr. Obadiah Miximoo

P.O. Box 25

79 Township Rd S0M 0E0

 

Dear Mr. Miximoo,

We hear at Okskani Quarterly are proud to review the very best and latest Native authored texts from small presses in western Canada and the United States. If you are familiar with our journal, you will understand that our reviews are both fair and critical. I am sorry Mr. Ahkiskiw did not find our review of SUH5 favourable. Our reviewers believe in fostering a strong and vibrant Native literary community. As such, we are not in the business of stroking any author’s ego. However, we look forward to reading and reviewing new material from Mr. Ahkiskiw. Furthermore, due to the nature of managing an (increasingly) understaffed publication, I cannot take the personal time to see Mr. Ahkiskiw. Please feel free to contact our offices by phone at (780) 782-4397. We wish you the best in your future fictional endeavors.

Sincerely,

Michael Spotted Plume

Editor in Chief Okskani Quarterly

 

Dear Mr. Spotted Plume,

The thing is, given the specific nature of the author, you may want to speak to him in person. I have enclosed Mr. Ahkiskiw’s photo. We hope you understand.

Yours, &c

Mr. Obadiah Miximoo

*

It’s a picture of a fucking chicken. A real cheap gag. I’m guessing Mr. Miximoo is the true author of the Savage Under Heart series. A sort of soft-core romance about a plucky and exceptionally well-toned protagonist Lance Under Heart. You’ve probably seen one. Feathers. Muscles. An actual Red Man on the cover. The sort of fiction intended to sate the being-taken-away-by-a-lustful-Indian-type fantasy. The series is Native authored, apparently. Big Sky Press. A small but exclusively Indigenous publishing company out of Montana. I called them before we reviewed the second book: Savage Fire in the City. I didn’t want to waste time on another John Red Corn narrative written by a housewife who claimed her great-grandmother was 1/17th Cherokee. But the team at BS Press assured me that, although they knew very little about Mr. Ahkiskiw, he was a member of the Standing Hill Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. A recluse.

But a chicken? I am forced to call Mr. Miximoo. If he really needed to speak to me, I explain, he could have phoned. I don’t appreciate this kind of humour.

However, Mr. Miximoo does not sound like an author of romance novels. He says that he’s simply a humble chicken farmer. Who just happens to own one special chicken. The true author of the SUH series. Yeah Right. It’s the truth, he says. He even assures me that he’s been sober ten years. Not a drop since his father died in an unfortunate chicken-feed silo explosion.

I tell him not to contact me again.      

He calls again.

So I bite. Or peck. If anything, it’ll make a decent article.

*

Standing Hill Reserve is four hours east of Edmonton. I arrive by noon. Mr. Miximoo’s house is just like any other house you’d find on a reserve. Solitary. Blanket in the window. About fourteen trucks and vans in various states of disrepair. In other words, beautiful.

“Tansi,” Mr. Miximoo waves me in from his porch. I give him a pack of smokes and thank him for inviting me to his farm. “I’ve got lunch inside if you’re hungry. Or, if you want, we can check out the artist.”

Never turn down an Indian who offers you food.

“This bannock is superb,” I say. I take a big gulp of coffee. I’m already anxious about the late drive home.

“My Kookum’s recipe,” he says.

“Well, you’ll have to pass on my thanks.” The bread is thick and warm. I slather it with runny Saskatoon berry jam. Delicious.

“Will do. So you probably thought I was crazy, huh?”

“To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind yet.” Mr. Miximoo’s laugh fills the room. He sounds like a man who makes a living from the land. “I still don’t know if you’re pulling my leg,” I say.

He tears off a piece of bannock and pops it in his mouth. There are crumbs in his whiskers.

“So when did you find out Mr., uhh, Ahkiskiw, could write?” I ask.

“Please. Call him Joe. Mr. Ahkiskiw is his, what-do-you-call-it, pen name. It’s just Cree for ‘prairie chicken.’” He laughs again.

I take out my coil notebook. I jot notes while I finish my bannock and coffee. There is a wood stove. But it doesn’t look like it’s been lit in years. Two cats circle the table. One black. One calico. Mr. Miximoo feeds them pieces of bread. The kitchen is clean. Paired down. Simple in a way that only a man of his age could live. There is a picture of a silver haired woman on the wall. A braid of sweetgrass hangs on the corner of the frame. “Is that your wife?”

“The old ball and chain. Yeah. Miss her to bits though.”

“I’m sorry.”

“She’s been gone two years now. And I’m sure guys like me say this all the time, but I really do think of her every day.” Mr. Miximoo is looking down at his coffee. “She was the one who discovered Joe.”

“How did you find out about him?” I can’t bring myself to say ‘Joe.’

“The old lady was going through our basement one spring. Had me haul off a few boxes to Sally Ann. She wanted to hold onto a box or two, though. Along with an old typewriter. Don’t know whose it was. Coop #3 only had a few birds at the time. So I put the boxes in there. Then when Maggie was done I brought the stuff back in. And that’s when I found Joe just pecking away at the keys. I think he liked the sound of ‘em.”

“Of what?” I ask.

“The keys. On the typewriter. And I showed Maggie what Joe was up to. Of course we never called him Joe back then. But Maggie said wouldn’t it be funny if we put some paper in there. And we did. The reel or whatever you call it was a little dirty. But I put a sheet in and Joe just went right at it. Still got the first page. Did you wanna see it?” Before I say yes or no or ask any questions Mr. Miximoo is up and digging in a drawer.

“Here.” He hands me a somewhat yellowed sheet of paper.

Lance Under Heart was proud of his Cree Heritage. So when his wife fell ill with diphtheria he set out to find a new love . . .

I’ve read drafts from guys at Okskani that had more typos than there were on the manuscript page in front of me.

“And he just kept going?”

“Pretty much. He’d take off for a while and come back to it. I’d say it took him about a month or two to peck out that first book.”

“Peck?”

“Then for the second one maybe a few weeks. He got faster at it.” Mr. Miximoo removes a stack of papers from the same drawer. He places them in front of me. “Fill you up?” he asks.

“Sure.” Mr. Miximoo freshens my coffee. I flip through a few pages. From what I read, the voice is fluid throughout.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” I ask.

“My guest.”

I offer him a smoke and he takes it and puts it to his lips and leans in and I light it. He closes his eyes for that first drag. He takes an ashtray from the counter. The face of a cat at the bottom. “Does he ever write anything else?”

“Gobbledy gook, mostly.”

“I mean. Can you read it?”

“Well he sort of goes into these fits. I don’t know. Something happened to him after that fourth book. I think he just burnt himself out.”

“He stopped writing?” I settle on ‘he’ over ‘it.’

“No. He was pecking away at the machine. Wasted a lot of paper that way. And those ribbons aren’t cheap.”

“Do you have any of those pages?”

“Before Maggie passed, we tried putting him in front of one of the kids’ mactops. Like gravel. Wouldn’t touch it.”

“I thought they ate gravel.”

“I think he hardly got this last one out of him.”

I rest my cigarette in the ashtray. The calico purrs in Mr. Miximoo’s lap. “Is he working on anything now?” I ask.

“I think it was your review that got him. Whenever I see one of his books in the paper or a journal I show it to him. And it does something to that little brain of his. I can just see it.”

I shoo the black cat away. There’s one of those carpeted forts in the corner. She hops into the main fortification and stares back at me. Her eyes are wrinkled for some reason. Like yellow raisins.

“And when I showed him your review he just stopped.”

My allergies are acting up. I feel the liquid around my eyeballs thickening.

“So I thought if I brought you down you could maybe say something to him.”

“Does anyone else know about him? About what he does?” Or the worst is when hair actually gets into your eye and there’s that fibrous slime.

“Just me and Maggie and the folks down at Big Sky Press,” says Mr. Miximoo.

“They think he’s the author?”

“Truth is I’m not sure what they think. Maggie came up with the name and that’s who they make the cheques out to.” Mr. Miximoo reaches for another smoke. “Do you mind?”

“Please.”

“It’s the money from his books that puts food on the table. Apparently there’s a real big demand for them in the states. Mid-west. Montana. Utah.”

“Have you read all of them?”

“I read the first couple. More of a McMurtry man, myself.” Mr. Miximoo enjoys his smoke. “Yeah,” he says. “What I take in from the chicken operation is just a cherry on top.”

*

We go out back. “I’m really hoping that when he sees you he’ll come out of his slump. You should see the stuff he’s doing now. None of it makes any sense.”

“He’s back to writing gibberish?”

“No. It’s English. Just that each line doesn’t go anywhere.”

Coop #3 is a white rectangular building. About the size of a really big shed. Inside, yellow bulbs hang from 2X4s across the ceiling. Shelves with straw line the walls. There aren’t that many chickens. The far end of the coop is lit by several white fluorescent lamps. Dust and shit and feathers hang in the air. Not floating so much as just caught there. Like everything is suspended in gelatin.

“That’s him at the end,” Mr. Miximoo says.

If I had to settle on the coop’s overriding smell: baby puke. Or landscaping fertilizer.

“Joe! You’ve got a visitor.” There’s an old work bench against the wall. Mr. Miximoo’s typewriter is up there. A Hermes Rocket, by the looks of it. There’s only one chicken in this half of the coop. He’s bobbing his head around our knees. “Joe this is the man I told you about. The one who said was going to visit. Remember?” Mr. Miximoo turns to me. “Just give him a minute.” The chicken/Joe tilts his head up and then down.

“Can I see him work his magic?” I ask.

“Well. We can try. He doesn’t look like he’s in the mood today. But I’ll set up the machine.”

I crouch down. “Does he bite?”

“Joe? Never. And the thing is they don’t really bite.”

Did you know chicken tongues are about the size of candy corn? But pink.

“But if you’re not careful you’ll get scratched or nicked. Should see some of these kids the first day they gather eggs.”

There is a bin of grain near the desk. I grab a handful and scatter it on the ground. The rest of the chickens are still clucking. I imagine this is what going crazy sounds like.

“Come here Joe,” says Mr. Miximoo. “Your visitor wants to see what you’re working on.” He picks up the chicken/Joe and puts him on the work bench. “Do you wanna show Mr. Spotted Plume what you’re working on?” I can’t tell if Mr. Miximoo is waiting for a response. “Huh? Or are your shy? Are you being shy?” He looks at me. “I think he’s a little bashful.”

“Come on Joe,” I find myself saying enthusiastically.

Joe/the chicken takes a few hesitant stabs at the keys. Then a few more. Then steadily. At the end of each line Joe bends his head and rams the carriage back with a satisfying ‘ding.’ The first few lines are garbled. Half way down I make out: Abel the chicken was running . . .

Then, near the bottom: Tayo the chicken didn’t sleep well that night . . .

The sound of Joe’s beak against the keys sounds like a mechanical ‘cluck.’

“See. This is what he’s been up to for a while now. None of the lines are connected.”  Mr. Miximoo puts in a fresh sheet of paper.

“They’re from other people,” I say.

“Who?”

“Other books. Sort of. You ever read to him?” The first line of the next page: ‘Mush’ the hunter chicken cried into the wind . . .

“So he’s just ripping other people off?”

“This is fascinating, Mr. Miximoo.” The other chickens try and squawk over the sound of the typewriter’s keys. I know that I must have him.

“Yeah, but I mean, if he’s just copying other books. I can’t sell that can I?”

I don’t answer. Our motto at Okskani is: ‘Taking back our ancestors one word at a time.’ Okskani means ‘bones’ in Blackfoot. I got the idea for our name from that one Thomas King novel. The one that’s supposed to take place on my reserve. There’s an artist who steals the bones of the Old People from museums and returns them to the land. It’s a favourite of mine. I ask Mr. Miximoo if it’s okay to smoke in here.

“Go ahead. Joe doesn’t mind.” Joe returns to typing nonsense. After a few lines Mr. Miximoo slams the table. I nearly drop my lighter. “Damnit, Joe! That’s enough. It’s about time you get back to work.” Joe hops up for a second, flapping. There’s that bubbly sound of wings beating air.

Lance Under Heart normally does his breechcloth laundry on Tuesdays. But he had a vision. It said: dryers at the Laundromat go up 50 cents next week. Act now, my son . . .

“I think you being here is good for him. Look at him.”

But Joe doesn’t last for long. He stops typing. He looks up at me with that sideways look that only birds can do. I see in his beady eyes that he wants to write.

This time Mr. Miximoo swats Joe and there’s a flash of white and feathers jump from the ground. There’s a terrible noise at the other end of the coop. The other chickens appear to respond. Joe settles on the bench and begins typing. I watch. I read. The next great Homecoming Novel of what everyone else calls this post-Reconciliation era:

Before there was Sun and Wind there was Land. Her name was Turtle. Turtle was lonely. Weesigeechak saw how sad and lonely Turtle was. So he made her a friend named Chicken. Chicken was happy to be alive and he was happy to have friends. He wanted to show Turtle how special she was. How much he loved her. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. But Chicken only knew how to peck and he cracked Turtle’s shell. Turtle was hurt and she chased Chicken away. Then she took his wings. He could no longer fly. Turtle said that if Chicken wanted to show he was sorry he would have to learn how to walk. This is about Chicken’s journey home. His journey back to Turtle...

I return in the middle of the night. Mr. Miximoo is asleep. If we were alive two hundred years ago, I would have come to steal his horses. We are enemies, I say, and I am only doing what is natural. I sneak into Coop #3 and I take Joe and his Hermes back to my car. I whisper his name: Ahkiskiw. He is silent. Crawling out of the driveway, I look back at the house. The black cat watches me with her raisin eyes.