Then Benjamin walked out of the bush. He’d run away from the school in Kenora. People he met told him where we’d gotten to, and he’d followed the rail line north, and then the road. It was sixty miles to Redditt and he’d walked all that way. He was bug-bit and thin, taller than when we’d last seen him. His hair was cropped close to his skin and his ill-fitting clothes were made even looser by the weight he’d lost on his journey. For a moment no one knew who he was.

“Mother,” he said.

My mother burst out of her despair in a gale of tears and laughter.

There was great celebration. My brother sat by the fire and was fed our thin stew and my grandmother mixed up bannock that she baked on a stick over the fire. I stood by his side while he chewed. He was different. Not only in size. There was a wariness in his eyes and a hardness to the set of his chin. His hands shook some when he tore off bits of the bannock. “Saul,” he’d greeted me, nodding firmly. It was odd to see the expressions of a grown man on a boy’s face. Then he coughed.

The cough racked him, and he bent forward. The hump of his back rose and fell with the effort. The grown-ups shrank back a step, fear on their faces. Only my grandmother stepped up to attend to him. She leaned him back against her bosom and cradled his head. His coughs subsided gradually. When they left him finally, his face was red and there were tears in his eyes. I could see how much smaller the spell had made him. He huddled close to my grandmother and put a hand to his mouth and worked at breathing regularly. “The coughing sick,” she said to us. “He got it from the school.”

Over the next few days my brother rested. It would be years before I knew the full name of what he had but the TB my brother carried in his lungs spread anxiety throughout my family. My mother retreated into her woe again. My father drank hard. One evening my grandmother coaxed everyone to the fire and spoke to us.

“There is not much time,” she said. “The coughing sick is in Benjamin hard, and I think that soon the Zhaunagush will come to find him. When they do, they will find Saul and we will lose them both.”

We needed to go where the government men could not find us, my grandmother said. We needed to get back to living in a proper way. We needed to take Benjamin to a place where the air and the land could ease his spirit.

“He is twelve,” she said. “Saul is seven. They are old enough now to dance the manoomin, the rice, in the old way. Their grandfather would have wanted this for them. We will go to Gods Lake.”

No one argued. In the firm words of the old woman there was no room for discussion. We began to prepare for the trip. My father used his last paycheque to buy three old freighter canoes that he and my uncle and grandmother patched with spruce gum heated over the fire. The old lady quietly traded my father’s whiskey for a rifle and shells and a pair of heavy metal washtubs. We packed our tents and what food we could and set off to paddle our way to where Gods Lake sat in the thickest part of the bush country. Grandmother knew the country and she guided us through the portages to the Winnipeg River, then north past Minaki, then east again beyond One Man Lake. The journey took us ten days. Benjamin and I sat in the middle of one of the large canoes with our grandmother in the stern, directing us past shoals and through rapids and into magnificent stretches of water. One day the clouds hung low and light rain freckled the slate-grey water that peeled across our bow. The pellets of rain were warm and Benjamin and I caught them on our tongues as our grandmother laughed behind us. Our canoes skimmed along and as I watched the shoreline it seemed the land itself was in motion. The rocks lay lodged like hymns in the breast of it, and the trees bent upward in praise like crooked fingers. It was glorious. Ben felt it too. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, and I held his look a long time, drinking in the face of my brother. When he coughed I put a hand to his back.

“In the Long Ago Time before the Zhaunagush, a group of hunters set out to find moose late one fall.” My grandmother’s voice carried over the water, and the other two canoes pulled even with us so the adults could hear. “They went the way we go now, and they’d never seen such strength in the country. The rocks seemed to sing to them.

“In those times our people relied on intuition—the great spirit strength of thought—and the hunters found a portage at a flat place not far from where we are now. It led back into country marked with ridges. It was very hard to walk, but they followed a small creek through a cut in the land until they felt the land close off behind them like the flap of a wigwam. They could feel the stillness in their bones, and some of them were afraid. But the need for meat for the coming winter was so strong they pushed on.

“Finally the creek led them to a hidden lake. The shoreline was narrow and the curve of the lake’s bowl was steep, except for one section that sloped upward gradually out of a tamarack bog. The hunters knew there would be moose there and they were heartened. They began exploring to find the place where it would be easiest to dress their game. The water of that lake was black and still, though, and the silence that hung over it made them nervous. The hunters had the feeling of being watched from the trees.

“Finally the men came to a spot where a cliff spilled gravel downward to form a wide beach. There were shallows for landing their canoes near a good stand of trees and thickets of willow. It seemed a perfect place to make their camp. They beached the canoes and stood on that gravel shore and looked around them. The air did not move. It felt hard to draw a breath, and their feeling of being watched was stronger.

“As they started to unload, the hunters heard laughter from the trees and the low roll of voices speaking in the Old Talk, the original language, unspoken but for ceremony. But no one was there. As they splashed through the shallows in a panic trying to get their canoes back into the water, laughter rolled openly from the trees. The hairs on the back of those hunters’ necks stood straight up, and they trembled as they paddled back to the head of the portage. By the time they made it back to their home, every hair on their heads was white.

“The people called the place Manitou Gameeng, and it became Gods Lake when the Zhaunagush missionaries heard the tale. No one could stay there; whenever anybody tried, a powerful presence would overwhelm them and they would run away. But Solomon had a dream. In that dream our family were harvesting rice at Gods Lake and we were content and settled and the sky was a deep and cloudless blue. So we went there one spring. We made a ceremony on the rocks at the base of that cliff and we sang old songs and said prayers in the Old Talk and prepared a feast and carried Spirit Plates into the trees and left them there. We made a sacred fire and we burned the last of the food and your grandfather climbed high up the face of that cliff and laid a tobacco offering there.

“The air thinned and the breeze began to blow and there was peace. But no one else has been able to go there since. They are still chased away. Only the Indian Horse family can go to Gods Lake. It is our territory. The rice that grows at the southern end is ours to harvest, and we will gather it in the traditional way as another offering to the Old Ones.”

The story spooked us. Even the adults, who had heard it many times before, grew silent. I wondered what would become of us there. I wondered if the spirit, the manitous, of Gods Lake would look upon us with pity and compassion, if we would flourish on this land that was ours alone.