Cries-At-Moon of the Kitchi-Kit, a novel
A young Native American boy, Cries-at-Moon, living in a small village on the Great Plains prior to the time of Coronado’s visit to the area, becomes entangled with his tribe’s formidable medicine man when the boy shows an unusual talent for understanding the ways of the buffalo and other animals. It is a troubling time for Cries-at-Moon’s Kitchi-Kit tribe. Buffalo, so critical to the tribe’s well-being, are hard to find and drought plagues the land. Cut off from his family, Cries-at-Moon struggles under the tutelage of the medicine man, but he finds his tribe’s fate coming more and more into his own young hands.
In alternating chapters, we learn the story of a modern day, eccentric college professor, who is obsessed with unlocking the mystery behind the sudden disappearance of a Native American tribe from the anthropological record. The tribe is Cries-at-Moon’s own Kitchi-Kit people. One of the professor’s students, Kevin, agrees to help with the professor’s unorthodox research much to the dismay of Kevin’s premed, no nonsense girlfriend, Pam, who can’t shake her misgivings about the professor. As Pam feared, Kevin’s involvement with the professor turns dark, but Kevin plunges forward and commits himself totally to unlocking the Kitchi-Kit mystery. In a surprising resolution, the fate of the two boys, Cries-at-Moon and Kevin, become entwined across the centuries and both must face their own test of courage.
Sample Chapter from Cries-At-Moon of the Kitchi-Kit:
Cries-at-Moon reached forward with a trembling hand and bent the tall grass down in front of him. He could just make out the horizon in the dim morning light. He heard the distant hoots of the drivers spooking the buffalo, getting them on the move. His brother River was beside him busily testing an arrow in his bow. Cries-at-Moon watched the muscles tighten in River’s arms as he pulled the bowstring behind his ear.
Their father had shown them where to wait in a dry stream bed. “The buffalo will run there,” he said, pointing across a grassy plain. “You will have a chance with your arrows when they pass.” But as soon as their father disappeared with the other hunters, River insisted on crawling out into the tall grass. They found a low spot that offered a little protection but it wasn’t much. “Now we have a real chance for a kill,” River said.
Thump…thump…thump. Cries-at-Moon could hear the heavy hooves pounding the ground through the earth. Far away, other hunters were circling the herd of buffalo and driving them in the direction of the two boys. With most animals, Cries-at-Moon felt a great kinship. All his young life he had been keenly aware of the animals in his world: the coyotes howling in the night searching for their mates, the bullfrogs croaking greetings to one another along the river banks. The other boys laughed at him when he told them he could understand what the animals were saying to one another. So Cries-at-Moon had learned to keep this a secret to himself. But these great beasts, these buffalo terrified him. Their snorts and bellows screamed in his head whenever they came near. He could make nothing of their awful noises. He felt his spirit shrink from theirs.
Last summer a buffalo had killed his uncle not far from the very spot where he and River waited right now. A huge bull had turned aside from the rushing herd and caught his uncle full in the chest, tossing him aside with his massive head like a straw in the wind. Cries-at-Moon felt like it was partly his fault. If he had understood the buffalo, like he did the other animals, he might have warned his uncle. Instead his uncle’s body was carried home broken and bloody.
Cries-at-Moon glanced over at River. His brother was quite eager to face the buffalo, but this was no surprise. River had already taken his first buffalo, killed it with three arrows from his bow. Their father had been so proud that day. He had marched River from lodge to lodge presenting his son and allowing River to tell the story of the kill.
“Look at your brother,” his father had said, “so young and already bringing meat home to our lodge.” Cries-at-Moon had burned with shame. He was a year older than his brother. He had lived through twelve summers, River only eleven. Even the boys’ names, given to them based on events in their early lives, favored River.
The Kitchi-Kit told a favorite legend about how the rain and the river had once plotted against the Kitchi-Kit. With the help of Rain, River had made a terrible flood that engulfed the whole world. Most Kitchi-Kit children heard this story and were afraid of the river and the spirit that dwelt there. But when Cries-at-Moon’s brother was small, the moving water of the river did not frighten him at all. His mother could not keep him away. He waded right in and swam without being taught. So it was decided that he should be called River, a name of courage and pride.
Cries-at-Moon had not been so fortunate in coming by his name. During one long dark winter evening, his father was playing host to a gathering of hunters in their family’s lodge when apparently an evil spirit possessed all the children. His brother, his little cousins, the sons and daughters of the visiting hunters, all began to scream for attention at once. Only Cries-at-Moon remained quiet. The hunters, who were gathered around the fire telling stories of winters past, covered their ears and finally begged for relief from the noise. It was well known among the Kitchi-Kit that the moon had a wonderful calming effect upon crying babies, so all the children were wrapped up in fur and taken outside into the cold night air, including Cries-at-Moon who could not be left behind. Mother Moon, who guarded and protected the Kitchi-Kit women, was waiting in the sky among the stars. Each child calmed down instantly when unwrapped and held in the magic moonlight. But when Cries-at-Moon, who had been quiet all along, was held up by his mother, he burst into such an awful howl that the dogs woke up, jumped up from their bed in the snow, and began barking as if their tails were on fire. The women started laughing and one of them said, “Surely you must call this child Cries-at-Moon.”
Just then the hide covering the entrance to the lodge flew open and Cries-at-Moon’s father stomped out into snow. “What’s happening out here?” he demanded.
“It’s your older son,” one woman said still laughing. “We have given him a name.” And the name stuck, for as many times as Cries-at-Moon’s mother brought him out to the moon to show that he would not cry, he began to scream and howl, so even his father was convinced that this must be his proper name.
Cries-at-Moon jumped when River reached through the grass and grabbed his arm. “Today father will be proud of you,” River said. “You will see. We will both take a buffalo. I feel it.” Cries-at-Moon nodded. The rumble of the hooves was growing closer. He wiped his damp hand against his leather vest.
Cries-at-Moon hoped his brother was right. The night before, circling the dancing post to the chant of the hunting song, he was sure he saw his father looking at him, probably wondering what was to become of his oldest son. Cries-at-Moon had closed his eyes as he had been taught to do and imagined himself bravely facing a buffalo with his bow and arrow, but instead he had relived the moment when his uncle had been killed. He had watched helplessly from a distance. He saw the great bull swerve suddenly from the herd. Perhaps if he had been quicker, he might have yelled a warning to his uncle.
“Your bow!” River cried suddenly as he snatched up his own bow and fitted an arrow against the bowstring. “They’re coming!”
Cries-at-Moon reached for his bow. The thumping became louder. The ground shook. Cries-at-Moon saw the first buffalo dash over the horizon toward them. Then more dark shapes swarmed into view. Fear caught hold of him like a coyote snatching up a rabbit.
Cries-at-Moon could not stop himself. He dropped his bow and ran for the stream bed. He turned just in time to see River jump to his feet. He had an arrow drawn in his bow and was trying to pick out one of the animals to shoot. Buffalo stampeded by him on either side. He let his arrow fly but it went wide.
Paying no attention to Cries-at-Moon, River turned and ran after the fleeing buffalo hoping he might get another chance as they slowed down at the river where the other hunters waited.
He soon disappeared out of sight and the frantic noise of the rushing buffalo passed into the distance. Cries-at-Moon stood motionless in the dry stream bed watching the wind ripple the tall grass. He was amazed as always by the courage his brother had shown. When would he ever find such courage himself, he wondered.
After a moment he roused himself and collected his scattered arrows and bow. He made a half-hearted attempt to find the arrow that River had shot, but the tall grass had swallowed it. He gave up and trudged off to find his brother. He had not gone far when he heard a grunting noise. He came up over a rise and discovered a steep drop off. The same stream bed where he and River had been hiding curved around here and had formed a high bank. Cries-at-Moon couldn’t believe his eyes. At the bottom of the embankment, there was an enormous buffalo lying on its side and shaking all over.
Cries-at-Moon climbed down cautiously, afraid the animal would leap to its feet and charge him. But as he came closer, he saw that the buffalo’s front leg had been broken in the fall from the bank. It was an old bull. Dirt was caked in layers on its matted hide. Its muzzle was gray and criss-crossed with scars.
Cries-at-Moon sensed the fear and pain radiating from the great animal. It was like heat from a campfire, but a heat he felt more inside himself rather than without. His own fear seemed to leave him and he moved closer and closer. He moved so close that with a good kick of its leg, the buffalo might have broken him in half. Then Cries-at-Moon reached out and placed a hand on the animal’s broad shoulder. There it was, Cries-at-Moon realized, the same strong connection he felt with other animals, like their spirits were one and the same, only taking different paths through the world.
Cries-at-Moon whispered to the buffalo. “Quiet, Old One. You’ve had bad luck here, haven’t you? But you are very old and have had a long life.” He met the gaze of the buffalo’s dark brown eye. It felt like he and the animal were old friends. Cries-at-Moon closed his eyes. In his mind he was a buffalo running beside the old bull. He saw the grass sweeping by underneath him. He felt the warm sun on his shoulders. Now his face was down in the grass and he was tearing it up, eating it. Flies buzzed by his ears. He felt himself rolling on his back in the dust kicking his legs in the air. When he opened his eyes, the buffalo had calmed and was no longer shaking.
Cries-at-Moon understood what he must do. From his waist strap, he pulled out his knife, a sharp, broad chunk of flint embedded in wood. He ran his hand over the fur on the buffalo’s neck, finding his spot, and then thrust the knife as hard as he could into the hide below the jaw and cutting downward. The buffalo jerked but did not struggle.
Warm blood poured from the wound over Cries-at-Moon’s hand. The light soon left the buffalo’s eye. Its head rested on the ground. Cries-at-Moon bowed his own head and wept to see his friend die.
After awhile, he cleaned the knife off in the sand at his feet. His hands he wiped clean as best he could in the grass. Then a deep exhaustion overcame him. He had slept very little the night before. The dancing in preparation for the hunt had stretched into the night. And even after he had returned to his lodge and settled on the buffalo hides that covered the frame where he slept, he was wakeful, hearing the coyotes howling on the far side of the river. He had to fight off thoughts of his uncle’s death. Just beside him, he could hear River breathing regularly and deeply, fast asleep. Their father had roused them well before dawn, and the trail out to where the buffalo waited had been long. They had covered the distance without rest, jogging the whole way.
Cries-at-Moon sat down next to the great buffalo and leaned his back against the bank of the streambed. The sun was climbing into the sky and becoming warm. The buzz of flies and the rustle of the grass lulled Cries-at-Moon quickly to sleep. When he woke up, he was amazed to see a group of hunters standing on the opposite bank looking down at him. His father and brother were among them.
“What is this?” said Tastes-the-Wind. Tastes-the-Wind was a leader of the Kitchi-Kit people, one of the council of warriors, and renowned for his hunting skills.
“It’s my brother,” River said excitedly. “He has made a kill. I knew he would become a hunter today.”
Cries-at-Moon struggled to his feet. He found his voice and said emphatically, “No!” It was important to him that his friend’s death be properly understood. “My friend was badly hurt. I only did what I was asked to do. He wanted to die.”
Tastes-the-Wind stepped forward. “How is that? You called this buffalo your friend? It wanted to die? It told you so?” Some of the other hunters laughed but Tastes-the-Wind held his hand up to quiet them.
Cries-at-Moon saw the surprised, uncertain look on his father’s face. “My friend…um… yes…” he stammered. “It was like he spoke to me. I understood.”
Again the hunters laughed at what they took to be Cries-at-Moon’s ridiculous claims. They would expect a hunter who had endured many rites of passage and had drawn close to the buffalo through meditation and dream visions to know the mind of the great buffalo, or perhaps a holy man, but a youngster like Cries-at-Moon could not possibly have such knowledge.
“Quiet!” Tastes-the-Wind roared. He turned to Cries-at-Moon’s father. “This is your son, is it not? You must bring him to the council tonight to tell his story. It is strange enough that we find him asleep here with the only animal that was slain today, but to claim that the animal spoke to him. This is strange indeed. We must hear more from your young son.”
Cries-at-Moon’s father nodded, uncertainty still clouding his face.
During the long walk back to the village, River followed in the line of hunters behind Cries-at-Moon, who thought he could feel River’s eyes boring into the back of his head. “What is it, River?” he turned and said. “Say something.”
“You’re going to the council,” River said awestruck. “What are you going to say?”
“I don’t know. What you heard me tell Tastes-the-Wind, I guess.”
“The buffalo spoke to you? How is that possible?”
Cries-at-Moon didn’t answer.
“Do you think they’ll make you a hunter?” River asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t feel like a hunter. I didn’t shoot a single arrow. I just ran away.”
“But still, you were the only one to make a kill today.”
“How is it that no other buffalo were taken?”
“It was very strange,” River said. “The buffalo came down into the valley that leads to the river, just as planned, but then suddenly, the leaders turned and rushed straight up the slope. No one could turn them back. And no arrows found their mark.”
They were nearing the village and Cries-at-Moon could hear the dogs barking with excitement as the first hunters turned down the last stretch of trail toward the lodges. He tried hard to resist the urge to listen closely, but he couldn’t help himself. As the dogs barked, in his mind, he heard them say very clearly, “We’ve waited so long. We’re glad to see you. Have you brought us chunks of meat and fresh bones?”
Cries-at-Moon hurried past the dogs that came bounding around him as he crossed the ceremonial grounds in the center of the village and passed by the dancing pole. He felt desperate to return to his father’s lodge, to see his mother’s warm smile, and to retreat onto his pallet of buffalo skins where he could close his eyes and not think about councils or the hot blood that had poured from the buffalo’s neck and still clung to his hands.