Father Jacob had
followed the river’s silver path so long it was part of him. His heart beat in
time to the rise and fall of canoe paddles as his lungs filled with the clean
air skimming the cool currents. The music of ripples and riffles gladdened his
ears more than plain chant ever could. Clad in leather vestments over his black
robes, he offered Mass at every village along the way, whether or not anyone joined
him. A slight, balding man with a ready smile and a gentle disposition, Jacob
was welcome wherever he went. Other than Latin and the tribal tongues, Jacob’s
language was his hands. Word by word, the Old Country’s speech left him.
The red men called
Jacob Blackrobe because he was the
only one they knew. He’d lost a few toes to frostbite and his body bore the
scars of torture from early in his career among the people. But he never once
considered returning to civilization, where far worse tortures happened—like
hanging, drawing, and quartering. Although in his middle years Blackrobe had abandoned
piracy—following youthful rebellion against his farmer father in the land of
his birth—he had no desire to chance ‘white man’s justice.’ The last of his
booty purchased his place in the seminary after he witnessed a whipping and
impalement in the cruciform position aboard ship. The executed lad had been
caught stealing a single gold doubloon.
Thanks to his love
of the river, Blackrobe did not miss the sea. His life at sea had not been
without rewards, and he knew he had children (and, no doubt, grandchildren) in
many of the various ports where his share of plunder had purchased pleasure. He
prayed for those children—some of them begotten on captives—for their mothers,
and for the repose of the souls he’d severed from bodies in his foolish prime.
thought he had a prayer life, and didn’t even realize his life had become
a prayer. His faith was
continually tested, despite this, although usually in very small ways…until he
found himself one perfect day in a village he had never seen before, beside a
lake at the foot of a misty falls.
Tired and hungry,
the priest pulled his canoe ashore in the hush of mid-day, surprised to find no
other canoes there. Not even a fussy baby disturbed the hour of rest in the
village of red, black, and white-painted tents. The largest tent sat in the
center of the place, and before it bubbled a pot of stew. Seeing no one present
to stop him, Blackrobe planned to dip his tin sailor’s cup into the concoction
as soon as he had offered Mass. His nose detected a delectable blend of fish,
venison, rabbit, sweet grass, and wild herbs. Aaah! Dear Lord, thank you for already blessing this food…and a special blessing upon the generous family
providing it to your starving servant.
vested for Mass. He used the waist-high stump of a large fallen tree at the
edge of the village closest to the falls for an altar, placing upon it the
relics of Father Martin, a martyred priest who had trained with him in the
seminary. His back was to the village, and the thunderous falls almost drowned
out his prayers. But he continued, facing the falls the whole while. At the
Lord’s Prayer, Blackrobe had just finished, “forgive us our trespasses,” when a
rainbow in the falls and a light touch on his arm interrupted him. Aha, I’ve
got their attention!
to behold a group of copper-skinned youngsters in their finest regalia. The
girl who had touched him looked to be about twelve, and the rest not much
older. He was shocked to see that, despite her tender age, she was quite pregnant,
as she backed away shyly to stand before a tall, handsome youth, who put his
arms around her from behind with a proud air of ownership. He must be the baby’s
father and their leader, thought Blackrobe. This
one’s stern, wary look said he meant business. Identical youths, a head taller
than the girl and with smaller versions of her huge brown eyes, squinted at
Blackrobe. Their eyes gleamed with humor, but not with the intelligence of the leader.
Two nondescript young males stood stoically with arms around their own sturdy, less
pregnant mates, neither possessing the delicate beauty of the girl blessed with
the face of a Madonna.
Most surprising of
all was the plump maiden astride a cougar, her hands buried in its golden fur.
She spoke first, saying simply, “You woke us up with your conversation, but we
don’t see or hear the other person.” She dismounted from her unlikely steed,
and the cougar settled, huge paws neatly tucked.
The priest bowed
to her and said, “Thank you. I’m happy to be among you. We will talk together
after I finish my talk with the Great Spirit, Who welcomes you to His table.”
“We can wait to
visit, and ask His pardon for interrupting such an important talk,” said she.
“He doesn’t mind the
interruption, especially if you will join us in this feast of remembrance,”
said Blackrobe. The priest returned to his prayers and, giving the youngsters
all a blessing instead of Holy Communion, noted how patiently they waited until
he chanted the dismissal. Neither did they depart, but hunkered down in a respectful
circle around him to watch him pack his sacred gear.
Blackrobe passed small,
hand-carved crucifixes to each of the youngsters, which they looked at
curiously. They sniffed and rubbed the wood, even licked it, and then shrugged
“Those are my
gifts to you for sharing your stew with me,” explained Blackrobe.
“Why thank us when
we haven’t yet partaken of your
funeral fare, pale-faced Spirit Talker?” came the tall youth’s odd reply. His
words sent a shiver down the priest’s back. Blackrobe recalled the executed
cabin boy and empathy overcame fear. He smiled at the young father.
“My name is Father
Jacob, but please call me Blackrobe,
and I certainly don’t remember dying.”
“None of us
remembers dying either. Yet here we are, ready to share what your death has
provided for all of us—fresh fare from our people,” said the small mother, her
hands now over those of her young man. “My name is Butterfly and my mate is
Coyote Call. Our baby-to-be is Lightfoot.”
One by one, the
youngsters introduced themselves, starting with Weasel Tail, the girl with the
cougar she had named Sun Stalker. Her sister was Meadow Lark. Meadow Lark’s
female friend was Night Bird.
brothers grinned, pointed at each other, and said: “Brown Bear,” “Black Bear.”
The two quiet
young men stepped forward and gave their names: “Rain Cloud, mate of Meadow
Lark” and “Night Hawk, mate of Night Bird.”
“I am pleased to
meet all of you,” said Blackrobe, “but where is everyone else?”
falls…in a village that looks exactly like this one,” replied Coyote Call,
still solemn. “And your body is there with them. They’re probably walking away
from the farewell feast below your platform even as we speak. That’s why you can
partake of the stew they left for you at the sacred site. The drums will beat
all night to honor you, even though we can’t hear them from here.”
“But the river
brought me alive to this village,”
objected the priest.
Blackrobe. We had to wander around in the rocks beyond the falls before we
could come to our new home…and who knows where we will go once we have learned
enough to move on? Maybe the Great Spirit sent you here to show us how. I am a
shaman’s son, and often listened to my father speak of the Lost, but never
realized how vital such knowledge is. If only I had paid more attention!”
Butterfly spoke up,
“Coyote Call was quite the rake before we united, always up to mischief and eager
to impress everyone. Lightfoot was the result of his pretending to be Woods
Whistler to scare me.”
“Then he got us
all lost beyond the falls, where I was not about to let Butterfly’s brothers be
eaten, piece by piece, by Sun Stalker here,” added Weasel Tail. She patted the purring
cougar, saying, “We’re best friends now, aren’t we, boy?” In answer, Sun
Stalker rolled onto his back to have his belly rubbed.
Brown Bear complained,
“Why pet Sun Stalker? He doesn’t deserve it. What if he had eaten you first? He
was rough with us. Can you imagine waking up in the dark, covered with dirt and
Black Bear continued,
“And then—once you dig out from under—you stagger around dizzy and fall into a
slimy pit, only to be trapped there as the rain fills it up and almost drowns
you? Some rescue!”
“If you two hadn’t
been so fat, you could have clawed your way to freedom, instead of forcing Sun
Stalker and I to pull you out,” retorted Weasel Tail. The cougar growled and
hissed. “See, Sun Stalker sides with me. Thanks to you, he remembers his
long soak in that smelly pit.”
“The cougar didn’t
try to eat us after we climbed down
from the rock,” said Butterfly softly.
“We lay there exhausted
for some time,” said Coyote Call, “and our stew was cold by then…what little
Sun Stalker left for us. Why didn’t you bite his other ear too, to stop
his gorging, Weasel Tail?”
“He earned his
stew,” said Weasel Tail. “Besides, one good bite is all it takes, right
Butterfly?” She winked, and grinned wickedly at Butterfly’s wink of agreement,
which Coyote Call pretended not to see.
“Be at peace, my
children,” said Blackrobe. “The fire under the stew has died, and our food grows
cold. Forgive and forget to move on. That’s what those crosses I gave you mean.
The Great Spirit’s loving arms can take you back, no matter what you’ve done.
You have only to desire it with all your heart and do your best in your present
circumstances. I think I am here to learn something valuable from you also.”
“We had a
difficult time until Meadow Lark came back into the waste and told us what she
had found beyond the falls. She saw the platforms with our bodies. She and the
other three carried our feast food, although by the time they returned a lot
had spilled,” said Weasel Tail. “We try to tell our families we are past our
worst trials, but can only reach them in their dreams. And it’s hard to keep
track of day and night once you’re dead. Where are your people, Blackrobe?”
“They are the
tribes I visit all along the river,” said the priest. “I think they will miss
me and, missing me, pray for me, while I stay to teach you what I’ve learned
about the Great Spirit—mostly from them.”
“This place, as
long as needed, will change to suit anyone who needs it. I feel it in my
bones,” said Coyote Call, smiling. “Oh, look, Blackrobe! There goes your canoe,
just the way ours did. Now you have
to remain here. That’s the Great Spirit’s trick, not mine. It proves He likes
your decision. Let’s eat!”