Omakayas froze and held tight to her paddle with one hand. She was trying to keep the canoe absolutely still while her younger brother, Pinch, balanced with his bow and arrow. With the other hand she held a torch of flaming pine pitch. Wait, higher! Omakayas and her brother had inched close to an old buck deer onshore. Eyes glowing, it gazed, curious and still, into the light of their torch. Omakayas's arm ached, trying to keep the canoe braced in the river's current. But she heard the faint high-pitched creak of the bow as her brother drew back the string and arrow, and she did not move one muscle, even when a drop of blistering pitch fell onto her arm. Tsssip! Tonggg! The arrow flew, the bowstring quivered.
Hiyn! Hiyn! Aaargh!
As the deer crashed through the trees, Pinch shouted in rage and disappointment.
"Your fault! You let us drift!"
Pinch dropped his bow with a clatter and jerked around to blame his sister, rocking the boat. Indignant and offended, Omakayas relaxed her arms. The canoe swerved, the torch wavered, and over the edge went Pinch. His thunking splash resounded through the trees onshore and made further night hunting worthless. Pinch came up spouting water—late spring runoff. The icy cold doused some of his heat, but he was still mad and ready to fight, especially once Omakayas hooted at him, laughing at the way he had gone over the side, arms out, flailing. She put out the torch with a hiss and expertly guided the canoe just out of his reach. Although they were allowed to go out night hunting, they were not supposed to go far from their family's camp.
"My fault, 'na? Do you want a ride or not?"
Pinch tried to lunge through the water at her, but Omakayas paddled just beyond his grasp.
"Remember what Deydey said? A good hunter never blames another for a missed shot."
Pinch stopped, treading water, his dark round head just barely visible in the moonlight. All of a sudden, he was tugged farther downstream.
Pinch yelled in surprise just as Omakayas felt the canoe move toward him, as though propelled by an unseen hand.
"Watch out, the current's …" His words were swept off. Although Omakayas dug her paddle into the water, stroking backward, the canoe sped smoothly along, so fast that she caught up to Pinch immediately. Desperate to save him now, she stretched and held out the paddle for him to grasp. He pulled himself in, seriously frightened, and scrambled for his own paddle. But the moment had cost them and now the current was even stronger, ripping along the bank. The river abruptly widened and there was no question of turning around—all they could do was desperately try to slow and guide themselves away from the knots and snags of uprooted trees in the river's flow. These would loom suddenly, only faintly lighted by the moon. The great floating trees were moving too, Omakayas and Pinch realized. Slower and more grandly, perhaps, but they were only half hooked together. They were dangerous structures in what had become a singing flood. The children soon realized that they'd been tugged into the confluence of two rivers. Theirs had been slow and meandering, but the second river was carrying spring debris from a powerful rain far upstream. Not only that, but as they swept through the dark faster and faster they heard, ahead, the unmistakable roar of a rapids.
No sooner did they hear the rapids, and cry out, than the canoe leaped forward like a live thing.
There was no thinking. All went dark. They were rushing through the night on water they couldn't navigate, past invisible rocks, between black shores. All they could do was swallow their screams and paddle for their lives. Paddle with a wild strength they never knew they had between them. Omakayas felt the cold breath of the rocks as their canoe swept inches from a jagged edge, a monstrous jutting lip, a pointing finger of rough stone. As she paddled she cried out for the rocks, the asiniig, to guide them. Asked them in her mind and then called out again. They seemed to hear her. Even in the dark, she could see the rocks suddenly, areas of greater density and weight. Now she flew past them with a flick of her paddle. Steered by instinct. They hissed in her ears and she shifted balance, evaded. Their canoe didn't seem to touch the water. It was as though it had sprouted wings and was shooting down the rapids like a hawk swooping from the sky—and they landed the way a hawk would, too. Brought up in a sudden eddy. An upsweep of calm. But no sooner had they taken a breath than they were snatched back into the roar.
This time, the rapids sent them through a dark tunnel that seemed timeless, blind, malevolent. A yawning throat of water. The paddles flew from their grip. They twirled and spun in a sickening vortex. Moonless, mindless, they could only hold each other in the bottom of the canoe and wait for death.
As they held each other, falling or flying, Omakayas's one regret was that she'd laughed at Pinch as he fell from the canoe.
"I'm sorry," she cried out. He must have heard her because he yelled in grief and terror, "My sister, I'm sorry, too!"
Even in the chaos, Omakayas was amazed, trying to remember if Pinch had ever apologized to her before. But then the water threw them at each other like two young buffalo—they butted heads and saw winking lights, then nothing. Only blackness.
There was a sudden, eerie silence.
"Are we dead?" Pinch's voice quavered.
The blackness was so intense they could almost touch it. They were now hardly moving. They still held tightly to the sides of the canoe, but the water had suddenly …
Excerpted from THE PORCUPINE YEAR © Copyright 2012 by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
The Porcupine Year