She wants to know why the heroes in the stories are almost always all men or boys. That's not always true, I say, But I won't sugarcoat it for you: men have always tried to control everything. Even stories. Even women. Especially women. The past looks worse than today but someday this too will be the past. Everything's still not okay, but it's better than it was, and you have it within you to make the stories better. I am reading to her from John Couchois Wright's Legends of the Crooked Tree, a 1915 book of Odawa legends collected in the village that stood precisely on the spot where we're staying. The French called it L'Arbre Croche for the huge crooked council tree that stood on a high point above it. Our cottage is on the lake between the site of the first French mission built in the 1600s and where the later mission was built (which still stands today, surrounded by hundreds of white crosses). I walk among those graves, imagining my own corpse spending eternity underground so close to the blue waters of Lake Michigan. The names are almost all Odawa: Kenoshmeg; Skippagash; Waw-Be-Gaykake; Chingwa. Many died between 1910 and 1920, and I wonder if any of these dead Indians told John Couchois Wright the stories he preserved. Every night in the cottage I read them two or three legends before they fall asleep, and I do not downplay the significance of where they're sleeping in relation to those stories. The manitous might still be in these woods, I tell them as cicadas crescendo through the open windows and the waves beat their rhythm against the shore. I am satisfied with my receipt of awe.
I have heard rumors of a massive wild raspberry patch along the North Country Trail and we drive east along a two-track seasonal road until we find the trail and the red berries spreading northward from a deeply crooked tree. My mother told the kids stories about how the Indians bent trees to provide guideposts along their hunting routes, so of course they think this one was bent by Indians. I saw a 1920s agricultural map of Emmet County and this spot was marked by wild blackberries, and we find more of those hearty purple berries than the delicate raspberries well past their prime. The night before we read the legend of how raspberries and blackberries came to be, how the Gitchi Manitou sought to reunite the first man and first woman (who had quarreled) by creating patches of huckleberries, raspberries, sand cherries, gooseberries, whortleberries, and finally strawberries along the path the first woman took away from her husband. She stopped to pick the strawberries, and the first man (rushing to seek her forgiveness) found her in the strawberry patch, where she presented him with the choicest fruit. The Indians call them odamin, or "heart berries." Blackberries have a darker origin. A spurned suitor was buried between two lovers whose deaths he caused. His anguished spirit reached up through the earth and his wickedness spread to the brambles of the blackberry bushes growing above the graves and formed the prickers. We pick a few quarts of blackberries and prick a few fingers. My daughter climbs upon one crooked arm of the crooked tree and sits there in silence until she shouts and claims a manitou has yanked upon her front tooth until it fell into her hand. She is too far from her regular tooth fairy for her to know, she worries, and we pencil in a stop at a local gewgaw shop for something leather, beaded, or stone to put under her pillow that night. The manitous are just like fairies, I tell her. Just a different word for them, really.
That night I read them the story of the Great Muckwah, a ferocious black bear sweeping northward from Illinois, devouring everyone and everything in its path. The Odawa sent their mightiest warrior to slay the Great Muckwah, but he returned to tell his tribe that even if he were ten times as strong and as big as twenty men he could not stop this rampaging bear. The next morning I play the the Great Muckwah, growling and chasing my children along the shore, ignorant of the arrows and stones they throw at me. They run from me giggling. It was no great warrior who finally slew the Great Muckwah, the story goes. It was a little girl. While the men of the village gathered for a war council to strategize how to rid themselves of the beast as he slumbered on the shore, a young girl stole away in the night with a powerful potion she obtained from a sorceress deep in the woods. Creeping silently over the dunes, she inched towards that snoring colossus of claws and fur stained with the blood of her people, placing the deadly potion directly inside his nostrils big as caves. The Great Muckwah died right there without even a whimper, and lies there to this day at the point men call The Sleeping Bear.
* * * * *
A few days later we left the cabin and drove downstate. On the way, we said, What the hell, Good Morning America just declared Sleeping Bear Dunes the most beautiful place in America. We might as well stop and show the kids. We had been there once before (ten years ago) when we leaped down the mighty 450-foot dune and then raced each other back up. My wife and I have always been competitive, and the laborious slog back up that dune was no exception. Ten years ago our feet sank back into the sand a foot for every step we took, but in the exhilaration of beating her I forgot how physically grueling it had been. Standing at the top of that majestic mountain of sand I told my children the more traditional Indian legend about how the giant sand dunes were formed (with North and South Manitou islands just off the shore). Long ago, the land across the lake was ravaged by famine and drought. A great mother bear walked along the Wisconsin shore with her two cubs, all three gazing longingly over at Michigan (which remained untouched by calamity). They could almost smell the huckleberries and blueberries swelling on bushes across the water, and finally hunger overcame their fear and they set out to swim across the great lake. A mere twelve miles from Michigan's shore, the mother bear watched helplessly as one of her cubs slipped away from her and drowned. She tightened her grip on the other cub and swam on but two miles later it also slipped away. When the mother bear finally reached the shore, she turned to look where her cubs had drowned and, exhausted, fell into a dreamless sleep. The Great Manitou, moved to pity for the great bear, raised her cubs from the watery depths and turned them into islands, while transforming the mother bear into a mountain of sand.
In one of our many epic moments of parental naivety, we agreed to let the kids head down the 450-foot dune to the lake below. We can go down, I said, But you have to climb back up yourselves. We WILL NOT carry you. The trip down the dune is a strange one. Caught in the snag of gravity, it is easy to ignore the posted signs warning that the trip back up is strenuous and rescues involve a hefty fine. Harder to ignore are the sweaty, disillusioned faces of people trying to make their way back up like shades in Gustave Dore's etchings of Dante's hell. About halfway down I knew this might be a bad idea. At the bottom, I thought the kids would want to swim or hang out by the water, but they were intent on heading back up. The return trip is the equivalent of climbing to the top of a 34-story skyscraper at a brutal angle of 33 degrees in loose, ankle-deep sand. My son did fine for about twenty feet before saying, "Yeah, that's enough for me."
Picture it: a hot day and the sun is beating down on our side of the mountain. I am wearing seven pounds' worth of work boots, heavy wool socks, raw denim jeans, and about a dozen pounds of stay-at-home fat I've accumulated since the last time I made this climb. I am annoyed at my son but not yet despondent. Climb on my back, I say to the boy, and take about fifteen steps up the dune before my body just stops. I slide the dead weight off my back and look down at my wife and daughter making their way towards us, waiting for my breath to return. It doesn't, and as I look down to see how little we've accomplished and how far we still have to go I have a distinct moment of terror. Pick me up, Dada, my son whines, and I know I can't. Instead, I lift him up by a belt loop and toss him three or four feet up the hill, then sloth my way to close the distance. This scene repeats: lift, toss, giggles, trudge, stop to breathe, lift, toss, giggles, trudge, stop to breathe. My wife overtakes us, and I mouth, I can't do this. She thinks I am overreacting, but she allows the boy to climb on her back and I take over the responsibility of making sure our daughter climbs back up. The girl tires quickly and complains, but at least she doesn't demand to be carried.
We climb alongside each other for awhile, stopping to take a break every ten steps, and I stare up at my wife well ahead of me with our son on her back in disbelief. Look at your mother, I tell my daughter. She is one tough cookie. A hero. Soon my daughter herself overtakes me, and I think, I am bested by a six-year-old girl. It isn't long before I am stopping to regain my breath every five steps, providing ample opportunity to reflect upon my predicament and wallow in self loathing. Maybe it's the boots, I tell myself. Or my camera bag. Maybe I should have eaten some lunch and drank more than just coffee this morning. Maybe I'm dehydrated. Maybe I'm just a pathetic fat ass. Is that my heart beating? Are those my veins quivering? Why can't I breathe? Some Indians are bounding down the dune with bottles of water and I consider what I might possess to trade them for one. Wool socks? A Nikon DSLR? A dude in an army t-shirt zigzags past me up the sand. He's got a pencil-thin mustache like Errol Flynn. Then a Yorkshire Terrier jogs past me. The sun descends faster than I ascend. I shout to my wife fifty feet above asking how far we've gone and she yells back, One third maybe? I consider sobbing. Gram needs to poop, she adds, resuming her stoic climb with the boy on her back. I get to the halfway point and hear angels singing and I'm about twenty-percent sure that I am dead. Do you hear the angels? I say to my daughter, but she's well ahead of me now. I find myself alone in the hot sand. Then I realize the angels are singing a song from Les Mis in some sort of foreign accent and I am about 100 percent sure that I am in hell. It's not an angel at all but some insane Chinese woman standing on the edge of the cliff now singing something from The Sound of Music into the wind and I'm so hot and tired and angry I'm just assuming she's Chinese because there were a bunch of Chinese tourists up there before we came down and Chinese people freaking love The Sound of Music almost as much as I hate it and she's got some newspaper wrapped around her head like all those people at that one Beijing soccer game and goddamnit I'm too exhausted to be worried that she might actually be a Korean or Japanese tourist and goddamnit you crazy Chinese tourist lady stop singing show tunes! People are practically dying here! A few feet later I catch up to some other fat slob who's been struggling up the hill even longer than I have and he looks over and says, If I ever get to the top I am going throw that fucking bitch off the cliff, and I nod in a way that says, Please do.
* * * * *
So apparently at thirty-four years old I'm not capable of doing what I was able to do when I was twenty-four and in much better shape. This is hardly a revelation, but I've been laboring under a delusion of invincibility for years. There, on the side of that dune, I had plenty of time to ponder my inevitable mortality, hastened, perhaps, by stupid decisions like this. I trudged five feet up, slipped three feet back, and waited a few minutes for my breath to return. Over and over again. It took us nearly an hour to make it to the top, where my wife waited for us with the child she carried all the way up on her back. My daughter reached them first, and I have never been more humbled than standing there to catch my breath while they all watched from above, concern and disappointment mingling on their faces.
When I finally reached them, I slumped down next to where they rested and could have slept for centuries: a Once-Great Muckwah cowed by his own foolishness, his underwear full of sand.