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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter34)

2006-09-08 19:39

  CHAPTER XXXIV The Birch-Bark Vessels

  Rolf was sore and stiff for a week afterward; so was Skookum. There were times when Quonab was cold, moody, and silent for days. Then some milder wind would blow in the region of his heart and the bleak ice surface melted into running rills of memory or kindly emanation.

  Just before the buck adventure, there had been an unpleasant time of chill and aloofness. It arose over little. Since the frost had come, sealing the waters outside, Quonab would wash his hands in the vessel that was also the bread pan. Rolf had New England ideas of propriety in cooking matters, and finally he forgot the respect due to age and experience. That was one reason why he went out alone that day. Now, with time to think things over, the obvious safeguard would be to have a wash bowl; but where to get it? In those days, tins were scarce and ex- pensive. It was the custom to look in the woods for nearly all the necessaries of life; and, guided by ancient custom and experience, they seldom looked in vain. Rolf had seen, and indeed made, watering troughs, pig troughs, sap troughs, hen troughs, etc., all his life, and he now set to work with the axe and a block of basswood to hew out a trough for a wash bowl. With adequate tools he might have made a good one; but, working with an axe and a stiff arm, the result was a very heavy, crude affair. It would indeed hold water, but it was almost impossible to dip it into the water hole, so that a dipper was needed.

  When Quonab saw the plan and the result, he said: "In my father's lodge we had only birch bark. See; I shall make a bowl." He took from the storehouse a big roll of birch bark, gathered in warm weather (it can scarcely be done in cold), for use in repairing the canoe. Selecting a good part he cut out a square, two feet each way, and put it in the big pot which was full of boiling water. At the same time he soaked with it a bundle of wattap, or long fibrous roots of the white spruce, also gathered before the frost came, with a view to canoe repairs in the spring.

  While these were softening in the hot water, he cut a couple of long splints of birch, as nearly as possible half an inch wide and an eighth of an inch thick, and put them to steep with the bark. Next he made two or three straddle pins or clamps, like clothes pegs, by splitting the ends of some sticks which had a knot at one end.

  Now he took out the spruce roots, soft and pliant, and selecting a lot that were about an eighth of an inch in diameter, scraped off the bark and roughness, until he had a bundle of perhaps ten feet of soft, even, white cords.

  The bark was laid flat and cut as below.

  The rounding of A and B is necessary, for the holes of the sewing would tear the piece off if all were on the same line of grain. Each corner was now folded and doubled on itself (C), then held so with a straddle pin (D). The rim was trimmed so as to be flat where it crossed the fibre of the bark, and arched where it ran along. The pliant rods of birch were bent around this, and using the large awl to make holes, Quonab sewed the rim rods to the bark with an over-lapping stitch that made a smooth finish to the edge, and the birch-bark wash pan was complete. (E.) Much heavier bark can be used if the plan F G be followed, but it is hard to make it water-tight.

  So now they had a wash pan and a cause of friction was removed. Rolf found it amusing as well as useful to make other bark vessels of varying sizes for dippers and dunnage. It was work that he could do now while he was resting and recovering and he became expert. After watching a fairly successful attempt at a box to hold fish-hooks and tackle, Quonab said: "In my father's lodge these would bear quill work in colours."

  "That's so," said Rolf, remembering the birch-bark goods often sold by the Indians. "I wish we had a porcupine now."

  "Maybe Skookum could find one," said the Indian, with a smile.

  "Will you let me kill the next Kahk we find?"

  "Yes, if you use the quills and burn its whiskers."

  "Why burn its whiskers?"

  "My father said it must be so. The smoke goes straight to the All-above; then the Manito knows we have killed, but we have remembered to kill only for use and to thank Him."

  It was some days before they found a porcupine, and when they did, it was not necessary for them to kill it. But that belongs to another chapter.

  They saved its skin with all its spears and hung it in the storehouse. The quills with the white bodies and ready- made needle at each end are admirable for embroidering, but they are white only.

  "How can we dye them, Quonab?

  "In the summer are many dyes; in winter they are hard to get. We can get some."

  So forth he went to a hemlock tree, and cut till he could gather the inner pink bark, which, boiled with the quills, turned them a dull pink; similarly, alder bark furnished rich orange, and butternut bark a brown. Oak chips, with a few bits of iron in the pot, dyed black.

  "Must wait till summer for red and green," said the Indian. "Red comes only from berries; the best is the blitum. We call it squaw-berry and mis-caw-wa, yellow comes from the yellow root (Hydrastis).

  But black, white, orange, pink, brown, and a dull red made by a double dip of orange and pink, are a good range of colour. The method in using the quills is simple. An awl to make holes in the bark for each; the rough parts behind are concealed afterward with a lining of bark stitched over them; and before the winter was over, Rolf had made a birch-bark box, decorated lid and all, with por- cupine quill work, in which he kept the sable skin that was meant to buy Annette's new dress, the costume she had dreamed of, the ideal and splendid, almost unbelievable vision of her young life, ninety-five cents' worth of cotton print.

  There was one other point of dangerous friction. Whenever it fell to Quonab to wash the dishes, he simply set them on the ground and let Skookum lick them off. This economical arrangement was satisfactory to Quonab, delightful to Skookum, and apparently justified by the finished product, but Rolf objected. The Indian said: "Don't he eat the same food as we do? You cannot tell if you do not see."

  Whenever he could do so, Rolf washed the doubtful dishes over again, yet there were many times when this was impossible, and the situation became very irritating. But he knew that the man who loses his temper has lost the first round of the fight, so, finding the general idea of uncleanness without avail, he sought for some purely Indian argument. As they sat by the evening fire, one day, he led up to talk of his mother —— of her power as a medicine woman, of the many evil medicines that harmed her. "It was evil medicine for her if a dog licked her hand or touched her food. A dog licked her hand and the dream dog came to her three days before she died." After a long pause, he added, "In some ways I am like my mother."

  Two days later, Rolf chanced to see his friend behind the shanty give Skookum the pan to clean off after they had been frying deer fat. The Indian had no idea that Rolf was near, nor did he ever learn the truth of it.

  That night, after midnight, the lad rose quietly, lighted the pine splints that served them for a torch, rubbed some charcoal around each eye to make dark rings that should supply a horror-stricken look. Then he started in to pound on Quonab's tom-tom, singing:

  "Evil spirit leave me;Dog-face do not harm me."

  Quonab sat up in amazement. Rolf paid no heed, but went on, bawling and drumming and staring upward into vacant space. After a few minutes Skookum scratched and whined at the shanty door. Rolf rose, took his knife, cut a bunch of hair from Skookum's neck and burned it in the torch, then went on singing with horrid solemnity:

  "Evil spirit leave me;Dog-face do not harm me."

  At last he turned, and seeming to discover that Quonab was looking on, said:

  "The dream dog came to me. I thought I saw him lick deer grease from the frying pan behind the shanty. He laughed, for he knew that he made evil medicine for me. I am trying to drive him away, so he cannot harm me. I do not know. I am like my mother. She was very wise, but she died after it."

  Now Quonab arose, cut some more hair from Skookum, added a pinch of tobacco, then, setting it ablaze, he sang in the rank odour of the burning weed and hair, his strongest song to kill ill magic; and Rolf, as he chuckled and sweetly sank to sleep, knew that the fight was won. His friend would never, never more install Skookum in the high and sacred post of pot-licker, dishwasher, or final polisher.

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