My grandmother never explained it, but there really was no need. I knew now why Gods Lake belonged to our family: because part of our family had died there, and their spirits still spoke from the trees. Somehow, knowing that was a comfort to me.

Ben and I learned from the women how to fashion elaborate braids out of red willow bark. There was a design to the weave, and grandmother watched us to make sure we made them correctly.

“Before the changes the Zhaunagush brought, the people would make mamaawash-kawipidoon, rice ties just like these. Each family had their own braid tied their special way so that they could be recognized in the rice beds. Each head of rice is tied with these.” She talked as she worked. It was as though her hands could think on their own. “We make a ceremony out of the gathering. It teaches us to remember that rice is a gift of Creator.”

“It is a gift from God,” my aunt said quietly.

The old woman replied slowly. “No matter how you make the address, the sender remains the same.”

“We should pray with the rosary and give thanks the proper way,” my aunt said. “This way is wrong.”

“Blasphemy,” my mother agreed.

“That school gave you words that do not apply to us,” my grandmother said. “Out here there is no need to keep the spirit bound to fear.”

“We were taught to be God-fearing,” my mother said.

“One who loves does not brandish fear or require it.” The old woman stopped her braiding to look at my mother and aunt, but they kept their heads down and continued with the ties. “Here in this old way you may rediscover that and reclaim it as your own.”

I didn’t understand the words they spoke that day. I only knew that it felt right and good to do the chore we did, the simple ceremony of making rice ties. When we were finished, my grandmother and Ben and I paddled out in a canoe and she showed us how to tie the heads of the rice so it could be harvested more efficiently. She used a long, forked pole to push us around the rice beds. In the slow, steady motion of the canoe, my brother and I followed our grandmother’s directions. I didn’t realize until later, when the tent flaps were down and I could hear the voices of the adults over the snap of the fire, that my brother had not coughed the entire time. He slept quietly that whole night.

WHEN THE RICE MOON came, Ben and I were put in charge of digging a pair of shallow firepits and gathering firewood. Then we dug another, larger, slightly deeper pit a few yards away from the fires and lined it with a canvas tarpaulin. On the day of the harvest we started the fires early in the morning. In the dawn chill my grandmother sang in the Old Talk, her voice reverberating off the water and echoing back from the face of the cliff. She sprinkled fresh cedar on that fire. My brother and I hauled the crisp air deep into us and tried to join in the old woman’s song even though we did not know the words. Ben coughed and had to stop. My parents and my aunt and uncle hung back near the trees, the toe of my father’s boot tracing circles in the dirt.

After we’d eaten, the adults paddled off to the rice beds. Ben and I tended the fire and when there was a good bed of embers we propped the metal wash basins my grandmother had brought across stout green logs to heat them. We knew what would go on in the canoes. She’d told us.

“The men will pole the canoes through the stocks. We women will pull the heads of the rice down with a stick. Then we’ll knock that stick with a swing of another one and the rice will fall into the canoe.”

The solid clap of sticks travelled back across the water.

“We keep on knocking that rice until the canoes can’t hold any more. Then the men will guide us back here to the fires.”

We heard a shout after about an hour. In the distance the canoes emerged from the rice beds, so low in the water I thought they would sink. The women were sitting on the bottom. We could see the rice piled up over their legs, which they’d covered with thick pants to ward off the bite of the rice worms. My grandmother and mother and aunt paddled lightly. The men stood at the sterns and used the tip of their paddles to ease the canoes forward. It seemed to take them forever to travel the breadth of the lake. When they got closer I waded into the water to help pull the bows of the canoes as close to the beach as they would go. I helped the women out and the four of us hauled the canoes up onto the stone shore. Once my father and uncle had hauled the canoes out of the water, we began throwing rice into the metal washtubs.

When the tubs were filled the men carried them to the fire and the women took the canoe paddles and sifted the rice. The smoke curled up and around them and they rubbed at their eyes. As they worked, my father and uncle walked into the bush and returned with two long poles that they stripped of bark and propped up in holes they’d dug at the sides of the deeper, canvas-lined pit. When the rice had parched sufficiently over the heat, my grandmother signalled for Ben and me to take up our positions beside the men.

“In the old days, it was important for boys to learn to be men, to be responsible. This dancing of the rice was one of the first ways they did that,” my grandmother said.

“Rice is sacred. When Creator sent the Anishinabeg, the Ojibway, east from the Big Water to find their homeland, we were instructed to stop when we came to the place where food grew on the water. This country of rice was the place we found.

“You boys will crush the hulls of the parched rice from the seed with careful, steady steps. I will use your grandfather’s rattle as I sing the ricing song. The poles beside the pit will help you keep your balance.”

Our grandmother came to smudge our feet with the sacred herbs and mumble a prayer. When she took up the rattle and began to sing, Ben and I stepped into the pit. The rice pods shifted crazily under our feet and we struggled to keep time with the song. The dried seeds in the rattle sounded like hulls of rice. The crunch of the pods beneath our feet took on a beat that we struggled to maintain. When she had determined that the batch was hulled, our grandmother signalled us to stop.

After Ben and I climbed out of the pit, my father and uncle lifted the tarpaulin and poured the rice out on a blanket set on the rocks near the shore. My mother and aunt loaded flat baskets with rice, turned to face the breeze and began flipping the rice into the air. I watched as the breeze caught the rice and blew the crushed hulls away. Then the pit was loaded again and Benjamin and I began to tread the fresh batch. We worked that way all morning, legs burning. Benjamin tried to hide his coughing from the adults. I wanted to call out, but he looked at me with his fist held to his mouth and shook his head.

The sun was high when we stepped into the pit for the last of the load. My brother splashed himself with water and wiped at his face. He leaned harder on the pole, doubling over with coughs that shook him mightily. He managed only a few strides before the coughs hit him again. A spume of blood flew out of his mouth and sprinkled the rice at our feet. Benjamin leaned on the pole and fell onto his side on the edge of the pit. I yelled.

We dragged my brother from the pit and laid him on a blanket in the trees. He couldn’t stop coughing and his lungs made a wet, slushy sound. Finally my grandmother said we should move him.

My brother was limp and hot and he felt thin in my hands. Empty. When we laid him on the spruce boughs in the tent he seemed to sink into them, as though the land were already reaching out and claiming him.

We took turns bringing him water, the old woman and I. The others stayed away. We could hear them talking by the fire, but my grandmother was too busy making teas and potions, using roots she’d found by searching the nearby bush, to pay them any mind. I could feel the chasm between the three of us and the others as if it were a living thing. There seemed no way to cross that distance. It was the first time I recall being afraid of my parents. They stoked the fire and sat in its shadow. The moon rose. When I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, I leaned against my grandmother outside the tent where my brother hacked in the darkness, and fell asleep.

He was dead by morning.