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Kohkum Knows Best
A The Ones Who Call story
Start at the beginning of The Ones Who Call series
"I swear to God, Rob, that was a genuine UFO over the lake last night."
Rob Pawluk scowled over the counter at his neighbour, Daniel. Oblivious to Rob's scepticism, Dan continued to hobble around the interior of the rental shack, the ticking of his cane a counterpoint to his footsteps.
"There were, like, ten lights just hanging over the lake, dead still. I watched them for a whole minute before I thought to grab my camera, but by the time I got outside, they'd already disappeared."
"Uh huh." Rob said, turning the page of his newspaper. "I guess a sasquatch went and scared 'em off."
Daniel shot Rob a dirty look and hooked a thumb into the pocket of his jeans. "See, now you're just making fun of me. I would'a thought you'd be interested in this, Rob."
Rob looked up from the article he'd been reading and chuckled. "How'd you figure that?"
"Because of that weird thing you saw in the water last year." Daniel persisted.
Rob winced at the memory of his own foolishness. "It was just a fish, Dan."
Daniel grinned and leaned on the counter, sensing he'd scored a point in their argument. "That's not what you said then. You were pretty shook up when you got to my place. Said you saw something big down in the lake, too big to be a fish."
"So it was a piece of driftwood, then, or a dead cow. We find 'em washed up on the shore all the time in the spring." Rob said.
Daniel's grin widened. "You said it looked at you. You could see its eyes."
Rob set his paper down with more force than was strictly necessary and stalked over to his filing cabinet. He pretended to search through his expense reports. "I didn't see nothing, Dan. Or at least, nothing worth talking about. You and I both know I fell off the wagon pretty hard last year, and I said and did all kinds of crazy things during that time that I don't need to be reminded of."
Rob's warning tone pushed its way past Daniel's enthusiasm, and he finally realized that he'd crossed a line.
"Sorry, Rob." He said after a moment, running a hand through his thinning hair.
"No problem." Came the muffled reply.
"I'll, uh, leave you to it." Daniel took a half step towards the door, then paused and turned back towards his friend. "Just... keep an eye out for anything weird over the lake, okay? And keep your camera close at hand. Can you imagine getting a picture of a real UFO? They'd want us on The View for sure."
Rob snorted. His friend's obsession with daytime television was both hilarious and a little sad, but he couldn't fault the man for finding something to do with his time until his leg healed up.
"Sure thing, Dan. See you later." He said, giving the man a wave.
The door clicked shut, and Rob continued to sort through the file. He hadn't intended to tackle his paperwork until later in the day, but he was already sorting through the damned filing cabinet. He pulled the envelope of receipts out of the file and sat down heavily at his desk to begin sorting them, though his mind wasn't on the task.
He kept seeing that face in his mind's eye. Long, stretched, and pale as a dead fish. It had pinned him with those cold, slitted eyes for a long moment. Then, calmly, it flipped over and darted back into the depths.
Those eyes haunted him still.
"Still no sign of her? Are you sure? You did check the bingo hall, right? And the Laundromat? She likes to go there sometimes and watch the clothes swirl around. Don't ask me why."
Jenny sighed. Her mother had asked the past three search parties whether or not they'd checked the bingo hall, and she could only imagine that by now, half of her cousins must be loitering around outside the dingy old community centre in Fort Qu'Appelle waiting for Kohkum Agnes to appear.
"Well, keep on looking, I guess." Noreen said, rubbing at her temples. "It's not like she's left the valley. And call me if you hear anything, all right?"
Her mother set the phone down with great care, as though the cracked plastic receiver was her only remaining link to Kohkum. Jenny laid a comforting hand on her mother's shoulder.
"We'll find her." Jenny said. "I'm sure she's okay, wherever she is."
Noreen's smile was thin, and Jenny saw that the bags under her mother's eyes were even darker today. She'd hardly slept since Kohkum Agnes had gone missing three nights ago, despite Jenny's pleas for her to get some rest. Jenny was almost as worried for her as she was for her grandmother.
Noreen patted Jenny's hand and stood, stretching out her joints as she walked to the window. "We've still got a few hours of daylight." She said. "Maybe, if we go check the lake again..."
Jenny frowned. "No, Mom. You need to eat something."
"I had some of that soup earlier." She replied, and Jenny's scowl deepened.
"There was hardly enough there for one bowl, and you skipped breakfast." Jenny said, tugging her mother away from the window and guiding her to a chair. "Sit down, and I'll make you something."
Noreen, to her credit, didn't argue with her daughter. She sat quietly while Jenny stirred the cheese packet into the pot of macaroni and double-checked the list of places that her family had already searched. Most of them were fairly normal - places like the grocery store, bingo hall, and Elder's hall. However, a small number of them had odd, non-specific names like "the garden" and "the blue hill". These referred to places in the lakes of the region, and had been among the first places her family had checked.
Noreen sighed as she drew lines through a few more locations to denote that the search parties had seen no sign of Kohkum, and rubbed at her temples. She was running out of places to search. Agnes had wandered off before, but she'd never been gone this long. She was beginning to feel that she'd failed her mother by not insisting the woman move in with them when she began to forget things, but of course, Agnes was equally as stubborn as her daughter, and their argument had ended in a stalemate. Maybe, if she'd fought harder...
Noreen's thoughts were interrupted as Jenny set a bowl of macaroni before her. She patted her mother on the shoulder and looked as though she was about to say something when the phone rang. Noreen reached for the receiver, but Jenny was quicker. She snatched the phone out of her mother's reach and scampered off into her bedroom to answer it. She paused at her door and mouthed the word 'eat' to her mother before shutting herself inside her room.
Noreen dutifully began to pick at her macaroni, though she strained to hear Jenny's conversation. After a few minutes, Jenny returned.
"Good news!" She said. "That was Fox. He said he found some of Kohkum's footprints down at The Point."
Noreen brightened and began to stand. "That's wonderful! That's the first real sign we've had of her in days."
Jenny, however, set a firm hand on her mother's shoulder and pushed her back down into her chair. "Mom! Didn't I just say you needed to eat?" Jenny said. "Let us handle it, okay? You need to get some rest."
Noreen sighed, wanting to argue but knowing that for once, her daughter was right.
"Okay, my girl. But be careful. The lake doesn't feel very friendly right now, and I don't want you two lost as well.”
Jenny smiled and waved as she ran out the door. "I will!"
Jenny cautiously poked her head above the water, making sure that the reeds hid her from anyone watching on shore. Once she was sure that no one was watching, she pulled herself into the bushes, stifling a curse as her shirt caught on a bramble.
"Hey, you're getting pretty good at that." Her brother's voice came from right behind her, making her jump. "I wouldn't have seen you if I didn't know what I was looking for."
She whirled to see him leaning against a tree, wearing his usual cocky smirk. She stood and wrung out her wet hair as she sauntered over to join him. "Well, I've been practicing, just like you said. Mom trusts me to go out on my own now."
His grin widened. "Told you she would." He said, and before she could duck away, he reached over and tousled her freshly rearranged hair. She squawked with indignation, shielding her head with her hands.
"I don't know why you're so worried. We're just going to get wet again in a minute." He laughed, and she stuck her tongue out at him.
"You're not supposed to mess with a lady's hair, you idiot." She said, but her grin took the sting out of her words. As tense as things had been at home the past few days, it was a relief to be able to joke around with her brother.
"Little sisters don't count as 'ladies'." He said, but his attention had already wandered away from her and back to the search. "C'mon. I'll show you where she went into the water."
He motioned her towards a dark path with a nod of his head, and together they traced their Kohkum's footsteps. In the dim twilight, Jenny had trouble making out the soft moccasin tracks her grandmother had left behind, but Fox assured her that he knew they were hers. The tracks led to the very edge of The Point and disappeared in the soft mud of the lakebed.
Jenny frowned. "Joe and Aunt Sparrow searched this part of the lake already." She said.
"Yeah, but they've only been on the surface. I don't think they've found the caves yet." Fox said, wading out into the lake.
"Caves?" Jenny said. "There's no caves in the lake. It's all sand!"
Fox flashed her one of his 'I know more than you do, and always will' smiles and dove into the water. Jenny bit back her sigh of exasperation and followed him.
Above the lake, the lights had reappeared.
They drifted like motes through the still night air, buffeted by unseen currents. Each winked faintly in and out of sight, and despite the use of his binoculars, Daniel could not see where the lights originated.
"Well, I'll be damned." Rob said, squinting. "You were right about the lights."
"Yeah, but they're not a UFO." Daniel said, his voice sour with disappointment. "Last night they were way brighter, almost like a car's lights, and they were darting around."
Rob shifted, trying to edge closer to the lake's edge without losing his footing on the loose soil. "Fireflies, maybe?"
Daniel shook his head. "Nah. We don't really get them up here. It's too cold in the winter."
Rob lowered his binoculars and rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. "I dunno. The weather's been getting warmer lately. Maybe they are just ranging further north?"
"I guess." Daniel agreed, but he didn't sound happy about admitting he'd been wrong about seeing a flying saucer.
The two men slung their binoculars back around their necks and began climbing the gentle, sandy path back up to the main road. As they reached the road, however, a flash of light made Rob look back. The lights flared, searing pinpricks into his vision, and then dove down into the water of the lake.
Blinking the afterimages from his eyes, he turned back to Daniel. The smaller man had dropped his cane and was staring raptly at the lake, his jaw slack.
"I've never seen fireflies do that." He whispered.
Jenny followed her brother to the bottom of the lake. They reached it quickly, for the lake was quite shallow here and entirely featureless. Jenny wondered if Fox had been wrong about Kohkum having travelled this way, as she saw no sign of anything living in the muddy gloom.
Fox motioned her to a halt in front of a small outcropping of stone that poked through the muddy bottom of the lake, and then approached the craig with the same solemnity of a pilgrim approaching a shrine. He made several quick gestures with his hands and then pressed his palm to the stone.
Jenny scoffed, annoyed at Fox for pulling his usual pranks in the middle of a rescue. She was about to grab at his arm, but he turned and shook his head at her, pointing upwards with his free hand.
A veil of motes lit the water above them. They spiralled down from the surface of the water, moving in a slow, unhurried fashion. Jenny watched in awe as hundreds, no, thousands of the sparkling points of light poured down from above to swarm above the outcropping of rock. Several of the lights brushed up against Fox, and where they did his human disguise fell away, revealing the coppery scales underneath.
He bowed to them and spoke, though Jenny could not hear his words. The lights responded by forming a wide circle around the rock outcropping. Jenny edged back to avoid touching them, but Fox motioned for her to join him inside the circle. Once the motes were in position they began to pulsate slowly, and Jenny felt a current of some deep, primal energy swell around them. Her human guise fell away, as did her brothers, leaving them both in their slick-scaled Memegwaysiwuk forms.
The lights drifted down to touch the lakebed. The sand seemed to shrink away from their presence, leaving a perfectly bare patch of stone. The lights then sank through the stone, and the sudden absence of their light made the dim light of the lake bottom seem as dark as the interior of a cave. The energy that had been growing around them suddenly increased in strength. Jenny a sensation like that of a thousand butterfly wings flickering across her skin, and then a jolt of motion, as though she were being tugged sideways through the water.
She cried out, and when she did, her voice echoed oddly around her.
Fox chuckled and touched her arm. "You can open your eyes now. We're here."
"This is the craziest damn thing we've ever done." Rob said as he manoeuvred the boat into position.
"Shh." Daniel said, peering down into the water. “We're almost on top of them.”
Below their boat, the water glowed faintly, casting rippling bands of light across the hull of their rowboat. The motes of light in the water might have been mistaken for the reflections of the stars, were it not for the perfect circle they formed. Despite the beauty of the glowing orb, Rob couldn't help feeling that there was something distinctly menacing about the display.
He suppressed a shudder. "Let's go back to shore, Dan. This don't feel right."
"Gimme a minute." Daniel said. He set aside the camera he'd been balancing in one hand and fished a blocky device out of the bottom of the boat. Rob thought it looked a little like an answering machine, with the addition of two long wires that jutted like antenna from the front of the device. He raised an eyebrow as Daniel fiddled with some dials on the side of the machine, and his friend grinned back.
“Got the plans for this off the internet.” He said, as though that explained everything.
Daniel dipped the antenna into the water and twisted several more switches until he seemed satisfied with whatever the machine was doing. Rob concentrated on keeping the boat steady and positioned where Daniel had directed him.
Daniel continued to fiddle with the machine, frowning and muttering to himself. He set the box aside and scribbled down some figures on a sheet of paper, and was about to pick the device back up when the lake lit up. A spark sizzled up from the antenna and something inside the machine made a loud 'pop'. Daniel swore and jerked his hand away from the machine, knocking it off of its tenuous perch.
It fell into the lake with a quiet 'plop'.
"God damnit!" Swore Daniel, peering over the side of the boat. Rob might have laughed, had his heart not been racing quite so fast.
"Guess we have to go back to shore." He said. The lake was now quite dark around them, and he was sweating profusely in the chill air. He gripped the paddles and began turning the boat back towards the shore.
"No, wait!" Daniel gasped, lunging over the side of the boat as he reached after his contraption. "I almost got it—!"
A series of events happened then that Rob would spend the next several years trying to get straight in his mind.
Daniel's hand entered the water. However, Rob wasn't watching his friend. His attention was instead drawn by the sound of something large knocking against the hull of his boat. He looked down just in time to see the end of a long, fringed tail disappear underneath his boat. It might have been explained away as an especially large clump of lake weeds, except for the sheen of scales that caught the dim light from his lantern.
His heart caught in his chest. He froze up completely, his mind going back to the night when he had first seen this creature. Those eyes, staring at him...
He didn't notice when Daniel was pulled over the edge of the boat, and when the cold, clawed hand grasped his arm and pulled him under as well. He couldn't move to defend himself.
The cave was enormous.
Jenny couldn't imagine such a thing existing under the lake. The limestone cavern looked as though it belonged in the side of a mountain in one of her fantasy novels. Pale, ghostly light illuminated the wall she had found herself beside, and now that her eyes had adjusted to the light, she found that it was covered in a multitude of cave paintings. The strange figures with sticklike limbs and animal features paraded across the wall, some fighting, some seemingly dancing, and still others in positions so bizarre she couldn't begin to glean their significance. The figures stared solemnly down at her from their timeless canvas.
"Wow." Jenny breathed, leaning in to press her webbed fingers against the wall.
"Come on." Fox said, climbing out of the water beside her. Like her, he did not transform back to his human form even when he left the water. "I'll bring you back here later. Right now, we've got to get to Kohkum."
"Why?" Said Jenny, annoyed at her brother for bringing her to such a marvellous place and not letting her examine it. "We don't even know if Kohkum's here."
"She's here." He said, and pointed towards a tunnel at the back of the cave. A warm, flickering light that could only be firelight glowed from within the tunnel.
Reluctantly, Jenny tore herself away from the examination of a huge, catlike figure depicted in ochre and followed her brother through the cathedral of lattice-thin columns. Now that she was away from the entrance, she could see that the lights that had brought them here had taken up residence within the columns. They pulsed slowly, in time with her own heartbeat.
"What is this place?" She asked, her voice nearly a whisper.
Fox shrugged. "I just call it 'The Caves'. I traded a year of my life for the secret of how to get the guardians to open the way."
Jenny raised an eyebrow at her brother, but he didn't elaborate. He kept his eyes on the floor, and Jenny realized that he was guiding them along a very specific path, one that avoided the darker patches of stone swirling the floor. Jenny didn't feel like asking what would happen if they touched them, and kept quiet so that her brother could concentrate.
As they got closer to the tunnel, the air grew hot and stale. Small things crunched underfoot, but Jenny was too horrified by what she saw at the end of the tunnel to pay them much mind.
Ahead, the lights that Fox had referred to as 'guardians' had gathered in great number. However, unlike the gentle motes of light that Jenny had seen before, these seemed to have swelled and twisted until they resembled miniature comets. Hot gouts of flame crackled in their wake as they swirled around and around the cave, blackening the very rock with their presence.
If this display wasn't already terrifying enough, Jenny though that she could make out a shape within the maelstrom. It stalked counter-clockwise, against the flow of the guardians. Vague and indistinct, the shadows that made up its ever-changing body formed a shape that seemed familiar to Jenny. The toothy snout looked a little like the strange fish-cats that had attacked her in the lake last month, though the body was much larger and feline instead of piscine. She shuddered at the sight of it.
Then, her eyes widened as she looked beyond the wall of flames.
At the center of the vortex sat Kohkum Agnes. Her eyes were closed, and were it not for the creases of tension on her forehead and her wildly swirling hair, she would have looked serene. She sat upon a large chunk of driftwood and was tapping a finger against the wood in time to the tune she hummed.
Jenny recognized it as the lullaby her grandmother had sung to her when she'd been very young. Even now, the song had a strange calming effect on her, and she had to fight against the urge to close her eyes for a quick nap.
The vortex of light continued to surge and snarl before her grandmother, but anytime one of the flares of light came too close to the woman, it faltered and went out as if it too were feeling the effects of the old woman's song. This confrontation had clearly been going on for some time, and it looked like both combatants were at a stalemate.
Jenny looked to Fox, but he seemed equally at a loss for what to do.
Kohkum slowly opened her eyes and beckoned to them both. Then she made a quick, stabbing gesture with her hand and the wall of flames briefly parted to let them pass. Jenny and her brother darted inside before the flames could reunite.
"Kohkum!" Jenny said, kneeling before her. "What's going on?"
The old woman continued to beat a rhythm against the wood, keeping the flames at bay, and shook her head.
"Sing with me, my girl." She rasped. Her voice sounded raw and thin, and now that she was closer Jenny could see the dark circles of fatigue under her Kohkum's eyes.
Jenny glanced up at her brother, who shrugged. She rested a hand on her grandmother's knee and began to hum, trying to remember the words. After a few stumbling, halting tries, she found the words and began to sing.
The effect on the flames was immediate. The flames slowed their frantic dance, and the shadow-beast snarled at her, lunging from the flames to snap needle-toothed jaws at her face. Jenny flinched but continued to sing.
"Fox." Kohkum paused in her humming to motion the young man over. "It has two men in the lake. Go see to them."
Her brother nodded, found a break in the flames and darted through. Jenny was momentarily confused. What was this "it" they were fighting, and who were the men in the lake? However, she knew she couldn't let herself get distracted, and she turned back to her singing, tapping her foot in time to the music.
Her grandmother joined her, and together their voices wove a spell of slumber. The angry flames licking off of the motes flickered and ceased and slowly (far too slowly for Jenny's tastes), the vortex slowed and began to come apart. The now serene motes drifted back into the cave, leaving only a handful of still-angry fellows to spin and snarl. The shadow beast drew these remnants to itself, pacing back and forth in the thin flames they emitted. It shrieked, and the sound was so high and so thin that Jenny felt it reverberating in her bones.
Then, with a puff of dark, oily smoke, it disappeared.
The remaining lights milled about for a moment in disarray and then followed their fellows back into the cave. Kohkum slumped back against the rock, utterly spent.
Jenny scrambled to help her grandmother up. She patted at the old woman's sweat- streaked face with the edge of her t-shirt and held her steady until she could sit up on her own.
"I am glad you came." Kohkum said after a moment's rest.
"What was going on, Kohkum?" Jenny said, sitting down beside her grandmother and putting an arm around her. "We are all really worried about you. Mom's been going crazy looking for you."
Kohkum smiled and shook her head slowly. "I told her I needed to come here."
"Did you?" Jenny said, confused. "She said she had no idea where you'd gone."
"I told her, 'it is summer, and the lake is angry. I will go speak to it'."
Jenny frowned. "That's... not exactly clear."
Her Kohkum chuckled and patted her hand. "Not to you, maybe. But your mother should have known what I meant." Kohkum's eyes went distant for a moment, and she shook her head sadly. "Maybe I have not trained her enough. It is good that you came, my girl, because now you know the way to calm the Mishipizhiw's anger."
"The Mishi— what?" Jenny gestured around the cave, her brow furrowed. "Kohkum, what happened here? What were you doing?"
The old woman sighed heavily and waved her hand for Jenny to be silent and let her think. After some thought, Agnes drew in a deep breath and began to speak.
"Our kind might be stuck in this valley now, but it was not always this way. A long time ago, we went wherever there was water, for that was the domain of the Mishipizhiw, the Great Water Lynx. He is God of all the water."
"Since our exile here in the Qu'Appelle, we have still listened to the call of the Mishipizhiw. And right now, Mishipizhiw is angry. He has not received a sacrifice in many years, and the gifts our people leave out to appease him are no longer sufficient. He sent the powâkan, what you called the 'guardians', out to lure in a sacrifice to appease his hunger. I spoke with the lights, and knew that one of our kind needed to come down and calm him before it took the life of one of the valley people."
"Is it some kind of demon?" Jenny asked, appalled.
Her Kohkum laughed. "No, my dear. He is the one who called us into being. Like the powâkan, we serve the Mishipizhiw."
Jenny blanched, unable to think of the terrifying shadow monster she'd seen in the flames as anything but evil.
"Where did it go, then? Did it eat the men in the lake?" Jenny asked.
Kohkum shook her head. "No. I made a bargain with it."
Jenny, who had read enough fantasy stories when she was young to know that making a deal with anything supernatural was a bad idea, swallowed hard. "What was the deal, Kohkum?"
The old woman's jaw tightened and a resolute look came into her eyes. "When it is my time to die, I shall offer myself to him."
Jenny gasped. "Kohkum, you can't!"
Agnes laughed, a high, reedy laugh that sounded at once brave and terrified. Then she spread her hands wide. "Too late, my girl. The deal is made, and it cannot be undone."
She turned and took Jenny's face in her hands so that she could look into her granddaughter's eyes. "When I am gone, my dear, you will take over for me. You will be the one to speak to him, to tend his needs and appease his anger. I will train you, better than I trained your mother. Can you do this?"
Jenny didn't know what to say, but the fierce look in her grandmother's eyes demanded an answer.
"Yes, Kohkum." She said quietly.
Agnes held her gaze for a long moment, and then nodded her approval. "Good. Come my girl, it is time to leave. I need food, a good drink, and my own bed."
Kohkum made a sharp gesture with her hand and muttered a long, melodic phrase in Cree. The in-between space of the cave faded away, and as the darkness squeezed once again around Jenny, she knew that they were going home.
Rob woke up with sand clogging his nostrils.
He sat upright, coughing and spitting to get the grains out of his mouth, and then immediately regretted having moved so quickly as his head blossomed with pain. Shuddering and retching, he fell back onto his side and waited, praying for the pain to stop.
He heard another groan of pain beside him, and turned his head to see that Daniel had come to the same conclusion as he. For several minutes, the two men simply laid still in the dew-wet sand and tried to piece together where they were and how they'd gotten there.
"Rob?" Came Daniel's voice, rough and raw sounding.
"Huh?" Said Rob.
"Why are we on the beach?" Asked Daniel, who had regained enough equilibrium to attempt sitting.
"Dunno." Said Rob, struggling to gather enough energy to contemplate moving.
With what felt like a colossal amount of effort, he managed to sit up, propping his back against the overturned hull of the boat. Through his foggy vision, he took in the firepit he had fallen asleep beside, as well as the many, many cans of beer that lay scattered around the clearing. With a groan, he rubbed at his temples. The pounding in his head now seemed very familiar indeed.
"Goddamnit." He cursed. "It'd nearly been one whole year."
"Sorry," said Daniel, who still wasn't entirely sure if he'd been the one to suggest this outing or had simply gone along with it. Either way, he felt profoundly guilty.
Daniel pulled himself over to the boat and leaned against it, then patted Rob on the shoulder. The two men watched the sun rising over the lake, trying to sort through the fog of their memories and utterly failing.
When they finally worked up the energy to clean up the clearing and begin the long walk back home, neither of them noticed the three extra sets of footprints in the sand around their campsite that disappeared into the water.
Story by Alina Pete, Copyright 2011
Image by Tara Willett, Copyright 2011