In Alberta, Canada, the sunset glowed through the virgin forest surrounding the Bear Claw First Nation Reservation. An hour earlier, the tribe members had grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, but now lounged around the bonfire talking and laughing while the children entertained themselves by burning sticks. Some of the men stood outside the circle drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
John, a spirited young man with long hair that hung free, carried an armload of logs to the fire. He shooed away the kids before placing the wood on top of the burning embers. Sparks shot into the air. He grabbed a stick, using it to prod the logs until the flames grew bolder, dazzling the children who drew closer once more.
One of the boys stepped away from the blaze, going over to Tom Running Deer, a headstrong man in his mid-thirties who sat beside his equally headstrong wife, Cecile Two Feathers. The couple both had black hair woven into braids. The boy tugged on Tom’s t-shirt, which had the words “The Original Founding Fathers” printed above an illustration of four Native American chiefs.
The man set down his beer. “Yes?”
“Uncle, tell us a story,” Hoki requested, his big brown eyes hopeful.
Tom shook his head. “No, not me. Grandmother Hausis is the storyteller.”
Overhearing her name, the old woman, who wore a flower-print cotton dress, knee-high support socks and orthopedic shoes, stopped chatting with the woman next to her. She turned her gray-haired head, calling out in a crackling voice, “What? Did I hear my name?”
Tom explained, talking louder than normal, “Grandmother! Hoki wants a story! Would you do it!?”
When the other children heard the request, they aptly followed the conversation. They loved to listen to the stories.
“What does he want to hear?” Grandmother Hausis asked.
Hoki pointed at the sky. “Tell me about those.”
Everyone gazed up at the hazy opalescent plane trails that marred the burnt-orange sky.
“Those things?” The old woman shook her head. She knew the tribe had no ancient stories of this modern-day phenomenon. “Nay, why don’t you do it, Tommy?”
Hoki and the other kids refocused their eager energy on Tom.
Cecile patted her husband on the back, and said with a smile, “Yeah, let’s hear it, big guy.”
He cleared his throat while racking his brain. “Ah…give me a minute.”
The children settled in the dirt in front of him.
Tom tried to remain optimistic for the young ones, but, deep inside, he was somber. He had done his best to ignore the plane trails all day long because he knew the Earth Sentinels’ agreement with the world’s governments had been violated, and it was too bitter of a pill to swallow after five years of good medicine.
The fire sizzled and snapped.
Everyone grew quiet, waiting for the story to begin.
Tom cleared his throat. “There are prophecies from another tribe that speak of the end of days. One says, ‘near the Time of Purification, there will be spider webs spun in the sky.’”
The children’s eyes grew big.
A girl pointed at the misty plane trails, asking with a slight lisp because her front baby teeth were missing, “But…how’d they get there?”
Tom was at a loss for words. He didn’t want to ruin the mood of the gathering by explaining that, in the past, the government had sprayed chemicals into the atmosphere for unverified reasons. Geo-engineering, such as cloud seeding, was one possibility. He also had read that the sprays might contain particles that were used to reflect the sun to counteract global warming. However, because of the secrecy, he suspected something more sinister was afoot.
Not wanting to disappoint them, Tom improvised, “Once upon a time, there was a giant spider that spun webs to keep the stars from floating away.”
His opening line captivated the children. Some of the adults chuckled. They knew he was crafting the tale from scratch.
“Whenever a strand was weak, the spider would climb up to fix it, keeping every star in place. And, because of her efforts, everything was good and balanced. But one night, the spider slept too long, and one of the strings broke, letting a star hurl through space.” Tom pretended to fling a star.
The children envisioned it flying away, lost in the cosmos.
“The hole needed to be filled so the Giant Spider went after it, hoping to catch the star and bring it back.” Tom moved his fingers like a spider scurrying through space. “But while she was gone, another spider snuck through the hole.
“Now this new spider was not like the other one. It thought only of itself, and weaved a web across the hole to keep the Giant Spider from returning. And that—” Tom pointed at the plane trails in the sky, “is what that is. The Sneaky Spider’s web.”
A boy asked, “How will the Giant Spider get back?”
“When she returns with the missing star, its heat will burn up the Sneaky Spider and its sticky web. And after the star is in place, the world will become balanced once more.”
“Is the Giant Spider coming back soon?” Hoki asked.
“I hope so.”
A steady downpour hit the roof of the shack where Tom and Cecile slept. The clock on the nightstand read 8:05 a.m. The dreamcatcher hanging on the wall above the bed served as the headboard.
The sound of the rain prodded Cecile awake. She immediately noticed the aches in her body, then her throbbing head, and wondered how a sickness could come on so quickly. She looked over at her husband. His face was flushed. Concerned, she touched his forehead with the back of her hand. Feverish.
Tom opened his bloodshot eyes.
Cecile gasped. “Tom! Your eyes—” She didn’t finish her sentence. A sudden urge to vomit overcame her.
She tossed the covers off herself, rushing out of the bedroom, through the living room, and past the frayed green chair sitting under the rain-spattered window. By the time she made it to the bathroom’s threshold, she was lightheaded and forced to hold onto the doorframe to steady herself. What is wrong with me?
She reached for the sink counter, making her way to the toilet. She sunk to her knees, placing her head over the bowl, throwing up.
Tom unsteadily entered the bathroom to check on her. “You okay?”
She shook her head.
“Me, neither. Damn, I feel—” He unexpectedly gagged, then motioned for her to move out of the way.
Cecile sat back as Tom kneeled over the bowl, every muscle in his body contracting as he retched. Dizzy, he fell to the vinyl floor, lying face down and moaning.
“Tom!” she cried out, pulling on his shoulder, attempting to turn him over, but his moans echoed through her mind.
The room began spinning.
Cecile became disoriented.
Everything went black.
The makeshift infirmary in the tribe’s community center was divided in half by a waist-high barrier created out of blankets and sheets draped over chairs spaced evenly apart. The temporary wall offered a slice of privacy for the sick people lying on the floor. Men were on one side and women on the other. Most of them slept. A few moaned because of their aches and pain. All had blotches that resembled bruises covering their bodies.
A teenage boy entered from the outside through the entrance doors that had been propped open to let in the sunlight. The overhead fluorescent lights were off because the power was out. The teenager looked much healthier than his counterparts as he carried in a bucket of water that sloshed over the sides.
Adeelah, a junior at the reservation’s school, walked around the room to see who needed her assistance. She held a pitcher of water in one hand and a few empty mugs in the other. The blotches on her skin were almost indiscernible.
Cecile’s eyes, laced with broken blood vessels, flickered open for the first time since she fell ill. She lay on the floor with no idea how she had gotten here.
Adeelah noticed that Cecile was awake and made her way over to her, sidestepping the other women. This normally timid girl seemed to embrace her role as a caregiver. She set the pitcher down, kneeling beside Cecile to check her temperature by feeling her forehead, saying, “You’re better, but you should drink something.” Adeelah poured water into an empty mug, then held it against the woman’s dry lips while telling her, “Just so you know, Tom’s here and he’s doing fine. He’s on the other side.”
Pulling her mouth away from the cup, Cecile asked, “Can I see him?” She tried to get up, but became woozy and had to stop.
Adeelah helped her to lie back down. “You should rest. Okay? Don’t worry, you’ll both be fine.”
Cecile examined Adeelah’s face, trying to detect if the interim nurse was lying, but found it hard to focus. She was simply too tired and weak. Her eyelids drooped.
Adeelah placed the half-empty mug next to the sick woman’s pillow. “Let me know if you need anything else,” she said, then walked away. There were others that needed her help.
Left alone, Cecile groggily noticed the teenagers were the only ones taking care of the others. She wondered, Where’s Grandmother Hausis? The elders? The children? But she didn’t have the strength to ask, and maybe didn’t want to know.
She fell asleep, dreaming she was walking down a red road. The sides were lined with arching trees dotted with pink blossoms. Crows flew overhead. The fiery ball in the sky was touching the horizon.
Each of Cecile’s footsteps became heavier than the last, and just when she thought she couldn’t go any farther, a stag stepped out from behind the trees, standing in the middle of the road. The sunset silhouetted its strong form and magnificent set of antlers.
The totem animal had a message for her. “This will be your most difficult lesson, but you will find the strength, wisdom and courage to do that which must be done.”
The stag became streams of light, swirling around Cecile, joining with her spirit before the woman drifted deeper into her dreams.
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