Not so very long ago, but quite far away, in the prairie lands that lie many hundreds of miles to the north and west, a girl lived with her younger sister and their parents.
Nearly every afternoon, the girl and her younger sister played in the back yard. They fed snowballs to the hippopotami that lived in the asphalt lake and the hunted for tiny alien creatures that traveled to earth from strange worlds and hid in the tall grass. Sometimes they caught the little aliens and trapped them in little jars of metal and glass. At night they lay in their beds and gazed up at the burning white stars and listened to the growling, scraping sounds made by the snow whales as they lumbered through the icy city streets.
Every morning, the sisters would hear a whistling noise far off in the distance. They knew that this was the sound the Weatherman made when he was creating weather. And each time they heard the eerie whistle, the girls would stop playing and wave at the Weatherman and sing songs to him.
One morning the sisters awoke and listened for the Weatherman’s daily whistle, but it never came, and they knew that something was very wrong. When they stepped outside, everything was muffled and still as a graveyard that nobody ever visits. No breeze blew, no sun shone, nothing fell from the sky. There was simply no weather that day.
The sisters were alarmed. They hoped that this strange phenomenon was only temporary, but when they woke up the following day to the same oppressive quiet and greyness, they grew increasingly upset. On the third day with no weather, the girl whispered to her younger sister what both had been thinking, but had been afraid to put into words:
“Something’s happened to the Weatherman.”
The younger sister began crying. “This is terrible,” she sobbed. “Without the Weatherman, there is no weather! And without weather, there won’t be any snow to feed the hippopotami! Without weather, there will be no ice for the whales to swim through! Without weather, there won’t be any sun to warm us when we go camping in the summer, or rain to make the pink prairie roses blossom in the spring!”
The girl comforted her younger sister as best she could and agreed that something needed to be done. Just then, they heard a tok tok sound, and a harsh voice from the rafters above them croaked:
“There is no weather because the Weatherman has been captured. And I know where he is.”
Looking up, they saw a large, black crow with a scarred beak and beady eyes peering back down at them. The crow explained that the Weatherman was being held captive by a group of fearsome witches far to the north, in the Caribou Mountains on the banks of Mamawi Lake. The crow went on to say that it planned to rescue the Weatherman, but could use the girls’ help.
The girl, being bold and fearless, immediately volunteered to accompany the crow, but her younger sister refused. It wasn’t that the younger one was afraid – though she was less eager for adventure than the her older sibling – but that she just didn’t trust crows. And anyway, if she stayed behind, she could make up a story to tell their parents so that the girl wouldn’t be in trouble, and be grounded, and be forced to go to bed without watching the Muppets, which was the standard punishment their parents handed down for wrongdoing.
“I’ll go,” said the girl to the crow. “But I don’t know how I can help.”
Tok tok, went the crow before replying. “The Weatherman is fettered by a silver chain that can only be unlocked by this.” The crow stretched out its claw and dropped a small, rough stone into the girl’s palm.
“This might look like a perfectly ordinary pebble, but it is actually a magic key that can only be used by someone pure of heart.” Ruefully, it added, “I am not pure of heart, so I cannot use the key. But you can, girl.”
So it was settled. The crow stretched out its hard, cracked talons, flapped its ragged wings, and lifted the girl up by the tip of her toque as if she weighed nothing, and the pair began the long journey north to rescue the Weatherman.
As they flew, the girl looked down and saw the town give way to scattered houses, and scattered houses yield to canola fields, and canola fields dissolve into wild prairies. They followed the Peace River as it snaked its way through farms and hamlets, past Grimshaw and Notikewin, past La Crete and Fort Vermillion and over the great forest tree trunk road.
They were high above Sled Island when the crow announced that it was getting tired and had to rest for the evening. They descended into a meadow, at the edge of which stood a rickety mobile home up on stilts, with a pickup in the gravel driveway and rusting oil drums scattered around the front yard.
“In that house is a family who will give you food and a bed for the night,” said the crow to the girl. “They are Fond du Lac Dene, and they are my people, after a fashion, though they don’t know it.” At that the crow winked and gave a nasty chuckle.
The girl didn’t understand much of anything the crow had said, but since she had no alternative, she knocked on the screen door of the mobile home. She was greeted by a woman whose face was lined and tired, but kindly. The woman listened to the girl’s story and invited her inside.
Though the family was poor, they were generous, and they ate very well, from the girl’s point of view; the evening meal was Kraft Dinner with peas and tater tots (the girl’s favorite). After supper, the family gathered around the television to watch the hockey game. The children ate strawberry ice cream while the adults smoked cigarettes and drank beer out of cans.
When it was time for bed, the woman gave the girl a threadbare pillow and a Hudson’s Bay blanket that was clearly very old, but soft and warm. The girl slept deeply and dreamed dreams of frozen waterfalls and the Aurora Borealis.
The next morning, the girl bid a fond farewell to the Dene of the Fond du Lac. Once again, the crow took her by her toque and resumed flying north along the Peace River until they finally came to the borders of the Caribou Mountains Wildland and the shores of Mamawi Lake.
The crow set the girl down on the stony bank and perched on her shoulder. The breezeless air felt stagnant and wooly, like an old, moth-eaten coat forgotten in the basement of an abandoned house. The surface of the lake itself seemed as motionless as a corpse.
From beyond a low rise, the girl could hear a pulsing sound. She crested the ridge and saw a group of women dancing in a circle at the water’s edge. The women made throaty, coughing sounds and pounded on small drums with deer antlers. As they stomped and twirled on the lakeshore, the girl noticed with a thrill of fear that their faces resembled eggshells, smooth and white.
“Witches!” croaked the crow into her ear. “You must be careful, girl.”
The women appeared to be dancing around a thin, silver chain anchored in the sand of the beach. Its length rose straight up from the ground until it disappeared into a sky that was as flat and featureless as the faces of the dancing women.
So transfixed was the girl by the scene before her that she yelped when strong fingers closed around her upper arm and spun her around. The crow on her shoulder squawked in surprise.
The girl found herself staring at a boy some years older than she. His clothes were made out of some type of animal skin. The left half of his face was made out of jagged, grey stone.
“Who are you?” asked the boy sternly. “What are you doing here?”
“I – I came to rescue the Weatherman,” the girl stammered. “I brought the magic key!” She showed him the stone the crow had given her.
“The crow — “ began the girl, but trailed off when she saw the boy’s eyes narrow in anger.
“You!” he cried. And quicker than a striking serpent, he snatched the startled bird from her shoulder just as it spread its wings to fly away.
“So the spell worked, old man” snarled the boy, his hand tightening around the crow’s throat. “You were forced to return.”
The enraged bird pecked viciously at the boy’s hand, drawing blood which sprayed into the air. A drop landed on the girl’s head, and she flinched.
“Squeeze all you want, boy,” rasped the crow. “You’ll never be able to kill me.”
“I don’t intend to,” the boy with the half-stone face growled. And with that, he threw the bird with all his might into the center of the circle of women, who responded by increasing the pace of their dancing, and beginning a fearful chant: Silaga nauk! Silaga nauk! Silaga nauk!
“What do I do?” asked the girl.
“Nothing,” replied the boy. “Just wait and watch.”
“But I have the magic key!”
The boy took the hand that held the small stone and regarded her with a sad smile. “That is no key, and it is not magic,” he said gently. “That is nothing more than a chip from my face, which the crow pecked out of me during our last battle.”
“But then why am I here?” cried the girl. “I don’t understand!”
“That’s because this is not your story,” the boy explained. “You just stumbled into someone else’s story because of the crow’s mischief. He’s a mean old man who likes to play pranks on children. He was the one who trapped the weather. The women made magic that called him back to undo his crime. Now see what happens.”
The crow tried to fly out of the circle, but one of the women smacked him out of the air with a deer antler. It tried to burrow under the sand, but another woman stopped it with a stamping foot. Eventually the crow grew tired and stopped trying to escape.
“Whatever,” it sulked. “I’m getting bored of this anyway.” And with that, the crow used its weathered beak to undo the silver chain, which fell spinning out of the sky.
As soon as the chain hit the lake shore, the greyness in the air dissolved to reveal a brilliant blue sky. Sunlight boomed through high, white clouds, and a fresh breeze cast swift ripples over the face of Mamawi Lake. From far off, the girl heard happy peals of thunder rumbling across the horizon, and her nostrils were filled the scents of rain and snow. The Weatherman was free.
The girl closed her eyes to feel the warmth of the sun on her eyelids. She listened to the wind getting tangled and torn by tree branches. She inhaled deeply and tasted the cold air as it dove down her throat and into her lungs. She was suddenly aware, in a way she had never been before, of the dirt under her feet, of the plants that pushed up through it, of the currents of water and stone that flowed so deep underground that no light had ever touched them. She sensed the open sky above her, wheeling, ever-changing, flowing upward and outward in all directions. The sheer immensity of it made her want to cry.
The girl opened her eyes to find the boy with the half-stone face regarding her calmly. The group of women had taken off their white masks and were chatting as they laid out a picnic lunch on the banks of the lake. One of them unfolded camp chairs while another turned on a portable radio. A third handed out bottles of pop.
Of the crow, there was no sign.
“Come,” said the boy with the half-stone face, drawing the girl’s attention away from the sound of laughter and rock music. “It’s time to go home.”
Later, the girl struggled to recall the details of the return journey. She remembered a great deal of walking, and feeling hungry and thirsty, and getting a ride from a woman in a pickup truck, and watching canola fields slip by in a yellow blur, and her parents offering the boy with the half-stone face a cup of coffee.
And one more curious thing: even though the trip seemed to take a very long time, she still got home in time to watch the Muppets.
The girl went on to have many more adventures. In some of them, she was the central character. She became a musician and a scholar, and she married a young man who was of the Fond du Lac band of the Dene first nations people. The union ended in sorrow, but that is another story.
In time, the girl traveled east to the far side of the continent, where she took another husband, one who loved nothing more than to listen to her stories. She told him about growing up on the western prairies; about how she and her sister would feed snowballs to manhole covers, which they called hippopotami; about scouring the back yard for insects, which they called aliens; about being lulled to sleep by the sound of snow plows, which they imagined were giant whales; and about the morning train whistle which brought the weather.
And she forever bore the mark of where she had been struck by the blood of the boy with the half-stone face, for it had stained her hair as pink as the wild prairie roses that blossom in the spring.