What We Build Upon the Ruins

Dad wasn’t what you’d call “handy,” and Mom wasn’t the type to “go with the flow,” so it’s hard to say how we ended up spending several weekends during the summer of 1989 making a birchbark canoe on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“It’ll be a bonding experience,” he said one night, waving the brochure over the dinner table. He said this as if it were still up for discussion, though he’d already sent in the deposit. “This’ll be good for the family. Teach the boys the value of hard work.”

Marty and I exchanged anxious glances across the table.

“Plus, we’ll end up with a hand-made wooden canoe at the end of the summer,” he added.

“You’ve never paddled a canoe in your life,” Mom pointed out.

“They don’t make them like that anymore,” Dad said, shaking his head appreciatively. “They just don’t.”

“It’s not going to replace what we lost,” Mom said, her voice very quiet now. “Making something doesn’t fix anything.”

“It might help us be less self-absorbed,” Dad said.

No one said anything else after that.

*

Starting in June, every weekend we’d load up the Gran Torino with coolers and tents and sleeping bags and bug spray. Marty and I sat in the way back, so we didn’t have to listen to books on tape. We’d occupy ourselves by reading comics until we got carsick. Then we’d play the license plate game, though we never saw more than a dozen different states on the four-hour drive.

I was eleven. Marty was almost ten. As his older brother, I was supposed to protect him from the perils of childhood. But because we were so close in age, we figured things out together mostly.

There was nothing wrong with Marty. He was small. The doctors said he always would be. And he was just reaching that age when it started to matter. His main coping strategy was cardboard boxes. Whenever Marty felt anxious or scared, he’d go down to the basement and climb into one. The first time I found him there it was a couple weeks after the accident.

“What’s going on?” I asked, folding back the cardboard flap.

“I’m thinking,” he said.

“I know. But why here?”

Marty’s big eyes peered out at me from the darkness of the box. “I think Mom wishes I was a girl.”

“Why do you think that?” I asked, though I already knew.

It was quiet between us for a moment. I could hear our parents’ raised voices coming through a vent somewhere overhead.

“I made up a new comic book character,” Marty said, suddenly hopeful. “His name is The Human Hologram.”

“What’s his power?”

“He does this thing where he’s there, but he’s not really there.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “How is that a super power?”

Marty looked nervous, like he’d revealed something he shouldn’t have. “The cardboard makes me calm,” he said, putting his hands against the sides of the box. “The smell reminds me of something happy, but I can’t remember what.”

*

Angus Boudreaux was three-quarters Anishinaabe and claimed to be one of the last surviving tribal members who knew how to make a traditional birchbark canoe. The first day we assembled in the woody acreage behind his trailer, he told us to call him Big Angus.

He was six foot six, with a choppy mullet and a red-checked woodsman’s cap and a fraying tweed jacket. His glasses were so thick his eyes looked like peepholes.

“Annii, zhaagnaash.” He smiled and chuckled to himself for a second. “That means, ‘Welcome, friends.’ Over the next several weekends, I’ll be showing you how to make weegwasi jeemon the way my people have done since the olden days.”

Three other groups showed up that first day. The Wetzels were a family of five with three daughters, the middle of whom seemed to be roughly my age. The Caspers were a family of four, with two sons who were a little younger than Marty. The last group consisted of five men in their thirties who had all belonged to the same fraternity at the University of Michigan.

“In the olden days,” Big Angus said, “making a canoe was a family project. It has to be a group that can work together and stick together.” Here, Big Angus looked us over, as if checking for weakness.

“First thing we gotta do is get ourselves the bark,” he went on. “So me and Eugene—“ Big Angus pointed to a wiry guy with a thin mustache who had been standing behind us, “—we found ourselves a good grove of white birch.”

Eugene made a follow-me gesture and set off into the woods. The going quickly became uncomfortable.

“How far is it, Michael?” Mom asked. “I’m wearing sandals.”

My father glanced around at the others. It was clear we were the group least prepared for the day’s rigors.

“It builds character,” he said.

Then I heard my mom make a sound that I can’t really describe but usually meant she was upset.

*

It turned out we only had to walk ten more minutes. We’d entered a different part of the forest. The trees were white with black striations, and their leaves let in a lot more of the sun. The air felt lighter, cleaner.

Eugene gave each group a hooked knife and instructed us to find a suitable tree. We settled on one that was so thick I couldn’t put my arms around it.

“Before you make a cut,” Eugene said, “it’s important to know this will kill the tree.”

Mom gasped. Marty looked like he wanted to find a cardboard box to hide in.

“The elders tell us we have to ask the tree’s permission first.” He nodded solemnly. “So go ahead.”

We looked at each other. I could tell none of us wanted to do it.

“You’re holding the knife,” Mom said to Dad, by which I think she meant: This was your idea in the first place.

My dad stepped up and laid his hand on the trunk. “Well, tree, we’re here for your bark. We want to build a canoe. I guess we wanted to thank you for growing so big and strong for us. We’re sorry for what this is going to do to you. But it looks like you’ve lived a long and good life. Long and good.” His voice caught in his throat for a moment. “If you let us use your bark to make a canoe, in a way you’ll be part of our family forever. We’re good people. And we mean well, even if sometimes we fall short.”

My mother was crying quietly by the time he finished. Marty and I didn’t say anything.

Eugene came around and showed Dad how to make the incision, how to dig the hook of the knife in deep and pull it around the circumference. With the help of a ladder, we did another cut twenty feet up, and then one long zipper-cut from top to bottom. Eugene helped us peel the bark off the tree. It was like removing a stiff jacket from a corpse.

*

I think we all felt better once we got our rolled-up sheet of bark back to the camp. Big Angus had dug out trenches in the sandy soil, one for each group of canoe-builders.

He showed us how to unroll our bark and weight it down with heavy stones. Slowly, the four of us bent the edges upward and braced it with pine timbers the way Big Angus had showed us. It was hard work. And it really did take a team effort.

“You got that corner, Jeannie?” my dad would ask.

“Check.”

“Jack, you go with that piece over there. No, that one. Good. Now, Marty, help him with that clamp the way Big Angus showed us.”

We were busy. Occupied. There wasn’t time to think about things that had happened or what we could have done to prevent them. There was only the bark and the bending and the work.

By the end of the day, we were sore. Sweat had mixed with dirt and dried, so our skin was covered with a salty grit. But we had something that resembled an actual canoe. If any of us knew how far we still were from the finished product, we probably would have packed up and left after that first day. But we didn’t know, couldn’t know: To build a thing like this would take a lot more suffering.

*

That evening, each of the groups claimed their own section of the property to set up camp. Dad wanted to stick close to our canoe-in-progress, but Mom said we needed privacy, so we pitched our tent at the edge of a clearing, as far away from the others as possible.

Dinner was mac and cheese cooked on the camp stove. Afterwards, we wandered over to Big Angus’s trailer where a good-sized campfire was blazing. He and Eugene sat on lawn chairs, staring into the flames. The Wetzels were sitting on a log, all of them lined up from biggest to smallest.

We took a spot on a log opposite the Wetzels. My mom and dad sat on either side of Marty and me, which I wasn’t fond of since it made me seem younger in front of the Wetzel girls.

“How long have you been in the canoe game, Angus?” Dad asked.

“I’m from the Bear Clan, where most of the best canoe makers come from,” he said. “I guess you could say I was born into it.”

The fraternity brothers had set up their camp a ways off in the woods. We could hear them cracking beers, and every once in a while they’d break into a chant.

“There’s a story we tell in the Bear Clan,” Big Angus said. It was hard to be sure in the growing dusk, but it seemed like he was looking at my mother. Not in a lascivious way, more out of what might be concern. “A story that goes back to the olden days. A girl was just reaching the age to find a suitable husband. And this fellow fancied her. But she didn’t want nothing to do with him. And it wounded his pride something fierce.”

I could sense my mother shifting uneasily on the log next to me.

“It was winter and this fellow went out late one night and took some snow. He crushed it so tight it became the hardest ball of ice you ever seen. And he snuck into the girl’s wigwam and placed the ice on the girl’s chest.”

I heard my mom whisper “Good God” under her breath.

“The next morning, the girl woke up sick. And the next few days she had a terrible temper. She knew she was becoming what some people call a Chenoo and some call a Wintiku.”

“What’s that?” the eldest Wetzel girl asked.

“It’s a powerful creature,” Big Angus said. “Maybe the most powerful. Almost impossible to kill without magic. And they’re dangerous too. They have to eat. Always. They’ll eat a whole village without even thinking about it.” The lenses of his glasses reflected the fire–two orange circles in the middle of his face.

“So this girl knew what she was becoming and knew it would be trouble for her family and everyone she loved. She told the elders to kill her before it was too late. In order to do it right, they had to take the seven bravest warriors of the Bear Clan, and each one had to shoot her with an arrow.”

My mother sighed loudly.

“So the first six archers took aim, and their arrows hit the mark. But the last archer was the same fellow who put the ice on the girl’s chest in the first place. He couldn’t bring himself to kill her, so he missed on purpose.”

The Wetzels were bunched close together on their log, the daughters clearly frightened. But Big Angus went on: “The girl began to shake and they knew she was close to turning, so they took her to the river and threw her into the deepest part, and the water froze solid, all the way through.” Big Angus looked up from the fire. At first he seemed surprised to see us there, but then he smiled. “That’s where she’s been ever since,” he said. “Whenever spring comes, we make offerings to the river, ask it to hold her until the ice returns.”

It was quiet around the fire for a moment.

“That’s a shitty story, Angus.” My dad’s voice caught me by surprise. It was low, and angrier than I’d ever heard it sound before.

“Michael!” Mom said.

“I’ve got this, Jeannie.”

“No, Michael, it’s Marty. He’s gone!”

It was true. Somehow during the story, Marty had disappeared.

“Goddammit,” my dad said, springing from the log.

“Marty!” Mom called out.

We all listened, but there was no answer.

“Okay, Jeannie,” my dad said, “you try the tent, I’ll check with those frat guys.” They both took off in different directions.

I looked around the fire, at the Wetzels and Big Angus and Eugene. Then I decided to check our canoe-in-progress, since that seemed like the kind of place Marty would hide. The path was dark, and I nearly tripped twice on overgrown tree roots. It turned out I was right. My brother was sitting in our canoe, his back stiff, staring straight ahead.

“Hey,” I said, but he didn’t turn to acknowledge me.

I sat down next to him, outside the canoe, resting my hand on what would eventually become the starboard gunwale.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“Right here,” he said, blinking earnestly.

“Sorry. Stupid question.” I could hear agitated voices filtering through the trees, but I couldn’t tell what they were saying.

“Why did you wander off?” I asked. “You shouldn’t worry Mom like that.”

“I didn’t like that story,” he said. “It reminded me of Collette.”

“It’s not really the same, Marty.” But I knew what I said was false. What happened to our sister would always be at the center of our lives. My family, the four of us now, would be planets forever revolving around that moment. So I said, “I guess everything is always the same.”

Marty smiled. I think this made him feel better.

At that moment, a moth fluttered between us, its wings powdery-gray in the moonlight. To both our surprise, it landed on the tip of Marty’s nose. But he didn’t swat it or shoo it away, as I surely would have done. Instead, he looked at it for a moment, his eyes going slightly cross-eyed, and he said, “This is a job for The Human Hologram.”

Then he made a platform of his hand and invited the moth to move onto it. He held the moth out above his head until it thwipped its wings and took flight, in search of light or warmth or whatever moths seek.

“Should we go back to the campfire?” I asked.

“In a minute,” Marty said. He was looking up into the sky. “How did the story end?” he asked.

I wondered what to tell him. The answer seemed important, though I’m not sure why. “Those kinds of stories usually end badly,” I said. “But they’re not like real life. Not always.”

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