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Council of Fire: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Saturday, September 7, 2019 08:06 EDT



The world is changing

Lands of the Six Nations

    A steady walk from the sachem’s house at Canajoharie to the Onondaga Council Fire might be five, or even six, sunrises. But Joseph of the Wolf clan would do it in three.

    “Go quickly, my son,” his stepfather had told him. “The elders must know what we have seen.”

    He ran by day, as far as his legs would carry him, and rested so that he could walk by night. Rain and wind were no obstacle–Joseph was young and strong. The Wolf clan of the Mohawks was well known even outside of their lands, and anyone close enough to loose an arrow or throw a spear would see the markings and know that he descended from sachems and war-leaders, and was not to be harmed.

    And as for the trail, the markings stood out to Joseph, day or night, as if they were etched in starlight: where to turn, or cross, or descend. It was said that he could travel from one place to another as quickly and as quietly as any Mohawk warrior, from the youngest and most nimble to the strongest and most experienced.

    He would speak of what he and his father Theowaghwen-
garaghkwin had seen a hand of days earlier at the great fort of the Onontio, at the place they called Carillon, and the tribes called Ticonderoga . . .



    He ate sparingly and slept little; the elders of Wolf clan would have clucked and talked about how the young can live on nothing but sunshine and stiff breezes. But he did not feel weak–the urgency of the mission kept him running, alert to trail sign, hearing every forest rustle and bird call as he traveled toward the sunset, toward the Council Fire of the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations.

    And then as he was crossing a field of tall grass toward evening, three arrows thudded to the ground in front of him, missing his right moccasin by the span of two fingers. He dove to the ground, rolling onto his side and drawing his bow as he had been taught.

    All of a sudden, it was disturbingly quiet. A flock of blackbirds had taken flight as soon as the arrows struck. Joseph tried to be as still as possible, listening for footfalls.

    He could hear his heart pounding in his ears and willed himself to be calm.

    There. Two, or perhaps three, sets of feet approaching from the direction of the sunset. They were trying to be stealthy, and it was almost good enough.

    He carefully drew back his bow, aiming chest-high in the direction of the footfalls as they drew closer . . .

    A figure appeared–a very tall figure, dressed richly as a chief, his hands held out in front of him, his eyes seeking the place where Joseph crouched.

    “Peace, young warrior,” the chief said. “You know me. You know my face.”

    “Skenadoa,” Joseph said, still not moving. “If you are with those who shot at me, know that I demand honor be satisfied.”

    “It will be,” Skenadoa said. “You are the son of a Mohawk sachem, who stands to defend the eastern door. I know your voice. Now show your face.”

    “Let the others show themselves first.”

    Skenadoa looked directly at where he lay hidden, his face unmoving. After a moment he nodded and shouted out a command. Joseph heard rustling from not far away: two, and then two more sets of footsteps approaching. He slowly got to his knees and then to his feet, never letting go of his fully drawn bow, which was pointed directly at Skenadoa’s chest.

    “There is no feud between us, young Joseph, nor with your clan, nor with the Mohawk tribe.”

    “I was shot at.”

    “They missed you,” Skenadoa said. “Be assured, young warrior. If they wanted to harm you, they would not have missed. And if they wanted you to be dead, you would be dead.”

    Joseph thought for a moment and then lowered his bow.

    “Come to the longhouse,” Skenadoa said, gesturing toward the sunset. “There is something you must see.”



    It was almost completely dark when Skenadoa and Joseph reached the longhouse of the Onondaga. He had been there before, attending with his father’s escort. This was the place of the Council Fire of the Haudenosaunee, the center of the Confederacy. For centuries, members of the Five–and now Six–Nations had brought their petitions and their disputes before the Tadodaho, the spiritual leader of the Nations. Graves were covered, hatchets buried, and conflicts were resolved before the Council Fire.

    Skenadoa was not a talkative man, but he seemed unusually silent as the traveling party came to the sacred grove on the lakeshore, where the great old longhouse had stood for centuries. Joseph remembered the scene from earlier visits; even from a distance it was easy to pick out the longhouse and smell the fragrant smoke from the constantly burning Council Fire. But he could see nothing but shadows and smelled nothing but the forest and the nervous sweat of his companions.

    “Something has happened,” he said to Skenadoa, who said nothing in return but led him to the longhouse. He stepped inside and in a darkness interrupted only by a pair of hanging oil-lamps, he saw a very old chief–the Tadodaho himself–and a familiar white man sitting opposite on blankets spread on the floor.

    The rest of the longhouse was vacant, except for three old women sitting off to the side, which was itself unusual–both the vacancy as well as the presence of the women under these circumstances. Joseph recognized one of the women–her name was Osha, if he remembered correctly–and she was the Clan Mother of the Heron clan. He assumed the other women represented two of the other clans.

    The clan mothers occupied a very powerful position among the Iroquois. They presided over the longhouses, they controlled land use, and they had the right to choose the sachems of the various tribes.

    “Hello, Joseph,” the white man said, turning his head but not rising.

    “Sir William,” Joseph answered. Joseph was the white name he had been given by Sir William Johnson, the white sachem who had become his patron a few years earlier; Johnson seemed unsurprised to see him. “What has happened to the Fire?”

    “Put out,” Skenadoa said at last. “Something has extinguished the Council Fire.”


    “A few nights ago. When the great broom-star fell,” the Tadodaho said, his thin, old voice sounding like rustling paper. “It is as foretold. The world is changing, young chieftain’s son.



    “And where is everyone now? Where are all the sachems, honored Tadodaho?”

    “They are out,” the old man replied. “They are watching for enemies.”

    Joseph was ready to ask another question, but Johnson rose slowly from his seat and took him by the elbow, leading him to the doorway of the longhouse.

    “You are looking well, young Joseph,” Johnson said, placing his hands on Joseph’s shoulders. “Why have you come? The news of the Council Fire cannot have reached Canajoharie yet.”

    “My father sent me. Something else has happened–a few hands of days ago we witnessed the spirits of the dead in the mists near Ticonderoga. They call for Abercromby.”

    “What sort of spirits?”

    Joseph was surprised that Johnson seemed unfazed by the idea of spirits in the mist. The Englishman–his patron in the world of the Europeans–had always been pragmatic and rational, respecting but never quite believing in the stories of the shamans of the Iroquois.

    “They were Scotsmen, Sir William. General Abercromby sent them to their death against the French in their hill-fort. I remember. I watched it happen. The English general threw their lives away, throwing them at the French defenses.”

    “Highlanders.” Johnson looked away. “Abercromby ordered the soldiers of the Highland Brigade against the abatis. The brave men were too proud to withdraw and too soldierly to refuse the order. And now . . . they are returning to walk the earth?”

    “Excuse me, Sir William, but don’t you find that–strange? I would not have expected you to just accept the account as anything but a tale by a . . .”

    “A savage.”

    “Yes. The Tadodaho would accept this as true, but not a white man. I did not think you believed in such things.”

    “Since the fall of the comet–the broom-star–I have come to believe many things. I was here the night it happened, a few sunrises before you saw your apparition. We were gathered around the Fire and suddenly there was a cloud of light, like mist. In an instant the Fire was snuffed out as if it was covered with a great dark blanket. The Tadodaho said that there had been an omen about this: a shaman had predicted that it would happen.”

    “What else did he predict?”

    Before Johnson could answer, they heard a cry from outside. Joseph hesitated for a moment as Johnson went to the door of the longhouse; the Tadodaho waved at him, indicating that he should go.

    When he came out into the clearing, Joseph could see an apparition at the edge of the trees. Floating up near the upper branches was a hideous glowing object, shaped roughly like a large head. It had fiery eyes and long, tangled hair; its mouth was a rictus filled with sharp teeth, and it was muttering words that he could not understand.

    “Konearaunehneh,” Joseph whispered. “But–what has brought it?”

    “It hardly matters,” Johnson said, coming up beside him. He had a musket in his hand and had picked up a powder-horn. “It means us harm.”

    “I don’t know if a musket-ball will do anything to it,” Joseph said. “That is a creature of evil dreams.”

    “It doesn’t seem to be affected by the warriors’ arrows,” Johnson said, pointing toward the two warriors shooting at it a dozen yards away.

    Joseph squinted, looking at the hideous apparition in the bright moonlight. He could see–barely–a tendril of something, like a spider’s web but somewhat thicker, trailing from the bottom of the head toward the ground.

    “What about that?” he said, pointing toward the trailing tendril.


    “The string. It hangs down from the head.”

    “I don’t see anything.”

    “I do,” Joseph said, and began to run toward the place where it seemed to trail on the ground.

    He could hear Sir William Johnson call his name as he ran, and caught a glance of the two archers, who turned aside to see him, pausing in their attacks.

    He could see the tendril clearly in front of him, and he reached out to grasp it–

    It was as if he was looking at the world from a great height, like a huge mountaintop. The world was a long oval, extending from fields of ice in the north to steamy jungle in the south; it was ringed around with ridges of mountains rising from the sea. Far to the north and west was a great waterfall, taller than any he had ever seen; there was another far to the north and east, dropping off the edge of the world.

    Sir William, and other whites, talked of a land from which they had come, across the eastern ocean. But it was not there: beyond the mountains in the sea there was nothing, only blackness. The world came to an end, and there was no more.



    “He is stirring.”

    Joseph opened his eyes to see Skenadoa sitting next to him, smoking a long clay pipe. Sir William Johnson was beside him, now bending down. The sky was deep blue above; Joseph was lying in a rope hammock.

    “I–” he began, and coughed; he lifted his right hand to his mouth and found it covered in a bandage.

    “I’ll fetch you some water,” Johnson said, and moved out of Joseph’s field of vision, then returned with a gourd. He helped Joseph to sit up and drink from it, but the world was full of blue spots and he fell back to lie flat.

    “What happened?”

    “I could ask you the same, young Joseph,” Skenadoa said, taking the pipe out, scowling at it, and tapping it against his boot. “You ran under the Flying Head and made some medicine. There was a bright flash and it floated away. When we reached you, your hands were burned and you had gone to sleep.”

    “I saw something. I saw . . .”

    “What did you see?” Johnson said.

    “I think I saw the whole world, Sir William. I don’t know how that could be. But I could not see the land of your people, of the white people. The mountains are the edge of the world. There is nothing beyond.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    “You may not be meant to understand, Warraghiyagey,” Skenadoa said, using Sir William’s Iroquois name–Chief Big Business, the doer of great things. “But if there is no more land of the whites, then things have changed for all of us.”

    “It might have been just a vision,” Sir William answered.

    “I trust this one’s sight,” Skenadoa said. “But we will have much to consider. It is well that we are at peace–for now.”

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