Thane Swink, a botanist from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, arrived at the Wisconsin Potawatomi Reservation around noon, having just bounced along ten miles of dirt road plagued with pot holes and scratching tree limbs. Lake Michigan, sunlit blue and specked with seagulls, sat low in the east behind an autumnal stretch of maple and birch. His white Ford pickup, now caked in dirt, came to a skid at the general store and launched a dust cloud at a tribal officer. The policeman, whose black hair hung down past his shoulders, lifted an eyebrow and watched the cloud pass through his legs.
Thane dropped from the truck and tore off his sunglasses. "Sheriff Stalking Bear?"
"Call me Ike," the man said, gripping Thane's hand.
"You must be Mr. Swink. Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too. Call me Thane."
The pickup coughed and pissed some fluid, then fell silent. Thane withheld eye contact just long enough to suppress his embarrassment.
"Might wanna get that checked out." The sheriff's tone had a laugh pushed up against it.
Thane slid his sunglasses into the pocket of his flannel shirt. He turned for a quick look around. A post office, a hardware store, and a single-pump gas station stood across the street. A one-room schoolhouse, its playground overrun with children, sat near the lake to the north. He also noticed a diner, small marina, a few clunker cars, and a scattering of ranch-style and prefab houses. Though most of the dwellings were nestled along the tree line, a few driveways could be seen shooting off into the woods.
"Nice little town," Thane said. "And the fall color is spectacular. Quite vivid."
"We do our best," Ike replied, glancing about casually. "So Thane, tell me more about why you're here today."
"Well, like I was telling you over the phone the other day, I recently came across an old file at the museum that mentions a research cabin on Potawatomi Island. Said it was built in 1894, for a botanical expedition. You mentioned having seen it yourself."
The officer nodded.
"Now, what I suspect is that maybe, just maybe, it might still contain a few plant specimens, maybe even an old data book - items that would be of great interest to our botanical department."
"You anticipate finding plants collected over a hundred years ago?" Ike asked. "I take it they were somehow preserved?"
"Definitely. A plant can last hundreds of years if pressed and dried properly, so long as it's kept in a safe environment. My guess is that the botanists kept a steel herbarium cabinet there. Those things are rust proof, insect proof, even fire proof. And they're airtight. According to my research, the surviving botanist didn't take anything back with him but his dead comrade."
"The man the museum claims was murdered by our shaman guide."
"Yes," Thane said, "but honestly, I don't know much about it, and I certainly don't take any sides." He shrugged. "I just assume things went south right from the get-go. Clash of religions or something.
Ike nodded. "Wouldn't be the first time."
"Anyway, I hope the tribal council doesn't take issue with me being here, seeing as I work for the museum. That was a long time ago."
"Certainly was. And no worries, Thane - you're quite welcome. We understand you've a job to do."
Thane gestured to the store. "If you don't mind, I'd like to run in real quick and grab some packing tape for the cardboard boxes."
"To carry out the plant specimens."
Thane followed the sheriff into the store. A spritely old man, eating what appeared to be a blueberry donut, greeted them from a nearby table.
"Afternoon, Jaime," Ike said to the young woman standing behind the cash register.
"Bozho!" she replied. To her left, displayed atop the counter with candy bars, cheap toys, and fishing tackle, was a stack of locally baked goods containing "heal berries."
"What's healberry?" Thane asked the sheriff.
"Oh, just a local name for blueberries."
The men entered a nearby aisle where Thane grabbed a granola bar.
"Healberries grow on the island," Ike went on, "in areas where it's darkest. Which reminds me: the canopy is very dense over there. I hope you brought a flashlight."
Thane thought it over. "Hmm, didn't expect I'd need one. What aisle?"
Ike winked. "We'll get there."
They turned down the next aisle, where Ike stepped out in front of the botanist and faced him. "Thane, let me go ahead and get something out of the way."
"Sure, go ahead."
"Now, the tribal council doesn't contest that the cabin is museum property, so do with it as you please. That said, if you're at all tempted to explore the island, even to collect plants, then please, come and see me first. You're a scientist, I'm sure you understand about permits, safety, all that - political mumbo jumbo. Anyway, it's my responsibility to mention it. So keep that in mind, and try to wrap things up as quickly as you can." His hands were tucked into his pockets, thumbs out. "Get back by six and I'll treat you to the best fish n' chips you ever had."
"I just might take you up on that," Thane said. "And in regards to collecting, the only plants I'm interested in are those old flattened ones in the herbarium cabinet."
The sheriff gestured to a messy arrangement of office supplies. "Might find the tape you need here."
Thane faced the shelves, his finger hovering over each item as he searched, then located and grabbed the packing tape. A heavy duty flashlight rested on the shelf beneath it.
Whispers floated up from the checkout counter, where a woman holding hands with a doe-eyed little girl stood talking with Jaime. The women grew silent and parted as the men approached.
"Bozho!" Thane said, smiling as he placed his items on the counter. The women smiled back, and the little girl, who nibbled on a blue-tinted muffin, regarded him with a countenance he thought seemed a bit too wise for her age.
The spritely old man grinned and waved goodbye as the two men left the store.
"Four or five hours, tops," Thane was promising as he and Ike approached one of the nearby docks. Sunlit gravel crunched beneath their boots, and each man carried a few items from Thane's truck. "I work fast, and I'm not easily distracted." He paused, then added, "I know I don't look it, but . . . but I'm actually a quarter Potawatomi myself, on my mother's side. In fact, just coming here . . . well, I was kind of hoping to get in touch with my heritage a bit. If that's even possible in such a short visit."
Ike turned beside a wood canoe and smiled warmly. "I'm sure you will, kid. And I can tell you've got Potawatomi blood - it's in your mannerisms."
Thane studied the older man, unsure if he were joking or not. His lined face didn't reveal a thing.
"Better get going." Ike squinted at the horizon. "Rain's coming."
Thane only saw clear afternoon sky. Shrugging, he began to load his supplies into the canoe.
"You be careful now," the sheriff said. "Remember, those woods are dark, and the terrain's uneven. No trails, either." He regarded the botanist, sort of father-like. "You look fit. What are you, twenty-five 150?"
Thane let out a quick, two-syllable laugh. "Nope, thirty-five 170. Just like you, right?"
That made the sheriff's eyebrows jump, and he actually laughed. "Kid, try older than dirt and none-of-your-business!"
The shoreline of the island was a composite of sand, dark pebbles, and ragged juts of limestone. Thane rowed until his oars scrapped bottom, then hopped out and dragged the canoe ashore, tying it to a stout viburnum. He retrieved his gear, packed up some food, and attached the flattened boxes to his backpack. Carabiners and bungee cords kept various items strapped or tied to his person.
He hiked up to the tree line where an old wooden sign marked the direction of the cabin. After pulling out a compass, he tried, in vain, to take a GPS reading of his location; unsuccessful, he presumed, because rainclouds had suddenly appeared overhead, turning the lake pallid gray.
Raindrops smacked the sand as he stepped into the trees. The terrain ascended steeply and darkened by degrees until it became nearly lost from sight. He pulled the flashlight from his belt and discovered why the woods were so intrinsically dark: as far as he could tell, the canopy was a nearly solid, interwoven mass of tree limbs and thick vines. It seemed to form a roof, albeit a leaky one, for some ecological purpose he could not yet discern.
Drops from a steady rain began to penetrate the canopy and fall through the darkness. Thane turned from side to side as he advanced, investigating the ecosystem through the long beam of his flashlight. Spidery ferns, squat shrubs, and other shade-tolerant flora not uncommon to the lower Great Lakes region surrounded him. Leaves fluttered to the ground. The soil, he observed, was moist and sandy, the air was humid. Ghostly orchids appeared often, as did pockets of strange phosphorescent fungi that seemed to fade like moribund stars whenever he approached them.
Though botanical curiosity often veered his thoughts to the island's floral diversity, Thane did daydream about his Native American ancestry, going so far as to imagine himself on a hunt for wild game. What animals might I encounter here? he wondered. And how might my buried instincts help me to navigate? He scrutinized his surroundings, scouted for large boulders and oddly shaped trees he imagined Natives might consider good markers. Such thoughts gave Thane a sense of pride in the small but ever-rising presence of his Potawatomi heritage.
After about half a mile the rain stopped, and the canopy thinned out just enough to put away the flashlight. A short way up, cradled by an elegant mass of wet ferns, towered a ten foot, square boulder covered in mossy skin. Thane hiked up to it, pushed a palm into the moist, springy layer. A cloud of spores rose toward him, the moss undulating where he had just touched it. He turned on his heel to avoid being hit in the face by the yellow dust, and in doing so noticed, just beyond a stand of crooked pines, a small, dilapidated building. Thane forgot about the spores and made a beeline for the structure, his equipment clanking as he pushed through the brush and into a clearing.
The cabin's colorful, mottled aspect was its most striking feature - a patchwork of bluish gray lichen and crimson vines over dark wood. Half a dozen bur oaks formed a tight circle about it, their long, gnarled limbs climbing the log walls while smaller branches punched through the cracks.
Thane stood at the door and reached out. With a wobbly turn of the handle it swung inward, a downpour of rust flecks falling from the hinges. Fungous air blew against his face and lingered on his skin for what seemed an exploratory moment. A plump silver-brown spider plopped onto the leaf litter at Thane's feet and scuttled toward him. To his surprise, he had to kick at it several times before it finally went the other way.
Tiny feet, probably mice, scurried off to remote corners as Thane stooped through the doorway with his flashlight. Inside, the log walls seemed solid but for an area or two of rot, while overhead a few precarious rafters held up the low ceiling. A hard slab of earth composed the floor, and along the bases of each wall grew that strange phosphorescent fungi Thane had seen earlier, and which, as before, seemed to shut off their intrinsic light at the moment his eyes caught sight of them.
There were two cots: one against the north wall, another against the west (the shaman, Thane conjectured, must have slept outside). Along the east wall stretched a wooden table with two chairs, one leaning on a broken leg. Candles, degraded books, and an array of scientific instruments were strewn about the table, covered in lonely decades of cobwebs, pollen, and tiny phallic growths. A curious oak limb corkscrewed through the lower right corner of a four-paned window, reaching over the table like an eldritch arm. The remaining panes were visibly cracked and dirty, and a few shelves, crooked but tightly packed with crumbling books, hung above the work table at each end. The air smelled heavily of decay.
First impressions were instantly banished at the sight of a rigid structure beneath the table - a grimy, steel box resembling a short file cabinet, its entire front composed of a side-hinged door.
"The herbarium cabinet," Thane said. "Look at that old thing."
The botanist quickly untied his equipment and hung an electric lantern on the unsightly oak limb above the table. He dropped to his knees in front of the metal box and cracked his knuckles. There he paused, quiet and reverent, as if the cabinet were the long forgotten idol of some woodland god, and he, the chosen one, ready to receive its untold secrets. He was a bit anxious. Had the botanists followed protocol in keeping the plants preserved? Would he see the standard: flattened plant specimens tucked within sheets of newspaper? Would collection numbers be written along the newspaper margins, those numbers corresponding to data inside a notebook he was sure to find inside the cabinet? These things he dared hope as the handle was turned and the steel door creaked open.
The damn thing was empty.
"Christ, are you kidding me?"
Falling forward to grasp the shaky edge of the table for support, Thane shot his flashlight into the depths of each narrow shelf, only to discover a thin scattering of plant debris - proof, at least, that the specimens had been there. But where were they now? And what had become of the data book?
Thane slumped in the likeness of defeat; shut his eyes against the red of encroaching anger. A groan swelled in his throat. How could he go back empty-handed? How could he face his superiors after persuading them to fund this little excursion? And then it occurred to him that in his haste he had not bothered to check the backs of the last few shelves. So he bent low and scanned again. To his surprise, the data book was sitting at the far end of the bottom shelf.
"Yes!" He pulled the leather-bound object out into the light and opened it, careful not to crack its yellowed pages. With the lantern beside him he skimmed its hundreds of brief and still-legible entries - a mix of plant data and journal entries authored by an "A. Wilhelm," the botanist who survived the shaman.
Thane tugged at his sparse beard. "Now we're talkin'."
An entry at the back of the book caught his attention: August 21, 1894: It is hard with this savage. What he has taught us of the regional flora is of great value, and will prove beneficial, if not profitable, to the civilized world. But there is much he refuses to tell us, and such stubbornness does not sit well with Dr. McKiness. I now fear for the safety of our shaman guide.
In an obvious hurried hand, the last page of the journal (August 22nd) goes on to say,
Let this entry be a record of events, for something unholy has taken the life of my colleague, Dr. Timothy McKiness, and at present I do not know if I will be allowed to leave the island.
It all began the prior afternoon when McKiness mercilessly beat our shaman guide as he sat meditating outside the cabin (McKiness never did have much tolerance for the shaman's heathen ways). As the old Indian writhed in pain, a terrifying echo shot through the woods. An amalgam of hissing snakes, chattering crows, various animalistic growls all seeming to rise up from the soil from the four cardinal directions, and down from the forest canopy. At this point I lost all nerve and promptly took refuge inside the cabin. From there I watched helplessly as an assortment of contorted shapes emerged from the woods and swarmed about McKiness. Never one to back down from a threat, McKiness spun upon his heel in a circle, shouting "Damn you all!" with his cross held high. It was to no avail. In an instant those awful shapes merged into a ghostly black noose and snatched McKiness off the ground with an awful crack. The last thing I remember seeing was the shaman as he floated off into the woods.
I must have been struck dumb with fear or insanity a short time after, for I calmly took to my cot, closed my eyes, and fell into a long, deep sleep. This morning I awoke without an immediate recollection of the events - as often occurs when one is newly awake - and noticed McKiness lying in his cot, the eyes blankly staring, the face purple and stuck with wet leaves . . .
"Whoa!" Wilhelm had been crazy. No wonder he'd been locked up in an asylum for the rest of his life.
Thane took a deep breath and eased his shoulders. He criticized his nerves. Those people, he reminded himself, were long dead. Furthermore, the documents he had read were more or less uncertain about what had actually transpired between the three men. Maybe Wilhelm's account had been concocted in an effort to admonish the botanists' of any wrongdoing in what might have been perceived as a murderous act against the shaman. Or perhaps the shaman had killed McKiness in self-defense, only to be killed by Wilhelm. But even if Wilhelm's fake story had been accepted, then why confine him to an asylum? Was there some kind of cover-up?
Thane pondered such questions only briefly, realizing the truth was probably lost to history. He shook off his concerns and returned to the data book: August 15, 1894: Wilhelm & McKiness; collection #158; medium-sized shrub discovered in ravine just NW of cabin; plant 1.2 meters tall; leaves deeply serrated; scraggly branches covered in blue fruit. Genus undetermined; possibly a relative of our native blueberry.
Most interesting, however, were the following comments: A very infrequent shrub, thus far seen nowhere else in the region but on this island. The shaman is very secretive of it, revealing only that his ancestors have deemed it void of medicinal value. McKiness and I have feelings to the contrary, for the savage disapproved strongly of our collecting samples of it. He claims, rather unconvincingly, that it is sacred to his tribe.
Thane decided he would visit the aforementioned ravine and search for possible descendants of the mystery shrub, curious to know if it truly had any taxonomic relationship with common blueberry (or "healberry," as it was referred to locally). He recalled the sheriff's rule against collecting, and in lieu of a fresh specimen, would only take notes and photographs.
A few minutes later, as he adjusted his field gear outside the cabin, Thane noticed a large boar staring at him from the darkness of the woods.
"Hey there, bud," he said, surprised. "How'd you get so far north, huh? Hitchhike?" As Thane pondered the unexpected presence of the animal, which was hundreds of miles outside its natural range, it stepped back and disappeared from view.
To Thane's delight the shrub still persisted where the men had found it, and upon further inspection he became convinced of its origin, that it was, indeed, a descendent of the plant described by the botanists. A robust specimen, its branches were heavy with dark blue berries and large leaves serrated along their edges. Thane plucked a berry and turned it over in his palm, then placed it under his flashlight. It was soft, thinly-skinned, full of juice. He rolled it between his fingers and pinched it, put nose to the excreted juice. The smell was potent, citrusy. He knew well the flora of the Great Lakes region, but this one stumped him. Hybrid blueberry? New species? Thane didn't know, so he pulled a sandwich from his pack and spent the next twenty minutes documenting the plant with notes and photographs. Lastly, out of impulsive habit, he clipped a small branch for further study back at the cabin.
The boar reappeared as Thane began to pack up his things, its head and prominent tusks poking out from behind a bulky maple just a few yards downslope. Now closer, it seemed almost sentient, as if pondering the man. But when Thane went for his camera, it disappeared.
Back at the cabin, Thane tossed the branch onto the work table and slid out of his gear. He sat in the unbroken chair, then lit a few candles and returned to the leather-bound data book: The shaman has, on several occasions, boiled and eaten the shrub's berries. And though it appears to us that his vitality greatly increases after ingesting the fruits, McKiness and I have chosen not to sample them until thorough testing can be done. After all, it is well-documented that Indian tolerance of certain foods is greater than that of the white man. Nonetheless, we have high hopes the plant contains medicinal properties of which we are presently ignorant, despite the shaman's insistence that it does not.
That was the last thing Thane remembered reading.
The candles were burning low when leaf-crunching footsteps jarred him awake. Early moonlight streamed through the window. After a few seconds, something banged against the wall several times like a giant fist, dislodging copious amounts of dirt. Thane jumped to his feet and stumbled back. He leaned forward, grabbed the table to steady himself. Fear and vertigo overwhelmed him. With mouth agape he listened intently as the footfalls made their way to the front door. There they stopped. Utter silence followed. Without warning, the door blasted inward and crashed to the ground. Thane fumbled over the table for his knife, turned, thrust the weapon forward. A dark, snorting cloud retreated from the opening, a pair of tusks left stuck in the fallen door.
"Hey! HEEEEY!" Thane yelled, his words stretched out like a retreating flock of birds. He stumbled in the flickering candlelight, head full of jolting synapses. Trembling hands flew to his face as the knife dropped and stuck into the earth. When he finally yanked his hands away, he noticed that the tips of his thumb and forefinger were stained blue from pinching the shrub's berries.
"Damn it, I'm hallucinating." Thane scowled at the branch clipping. "Berry residue. On my sandwich. Shit."
The sound of tribal drums rose in the distance. The footsteps returned.
Heart racing, Thane crouched to retrieve the knife even as the last candle burned to its end. In that same moment, a rush of adrenaline kicked away his vertigo. He ran outside with his flashlight and wavered through the night's patchwork of shadows, darkness, and slanted moonbeams.
"Show yourself!" Thane demanded.
A nebulous figure appeared in a nearby mass of ferns.
Thane jabbed his knife at the shape. "You! If you think this little prank is going to scare me off then you're sorely mistaken! Sheriff Stalking Bear gave me special permission to be here!"
He shot out the flashlight, but there was no one in the bright beam. The drums shook the earth beneath his feet.
Now the figure stood in a slant of moonlight just a few yards to Thane's left - an old Native man, sunken-faced and naked but for a bone necklace and the head garment of a wild boar. He arced forward and swayed his arms like a storm-blown willow, releasing an amalgam of sounds neither distinctly human nor animal. When the sounds melded strangely into words, they snapped at Thane so suddenly he tripped backward over an emergent root and fell to the ground.
"BURN THE BOOK THANE!"
Shadows crept in from the four cardinal directions. Some slinked along the ground, others floated in the trees. With frenzied blurs the old man began to shape-shift in rhythm to the drums. The boar hide trembled, slid back like a slug and disappeared into a thick, hovering fog at the crown of the man's head; the lanky body cracked, stretched, expanded; hoary fur sprouted along face and quivering limbs as a dozen sharp tusks grew forth from an exaggerated mouth. Full moons flashed in the eyes as he landed on all fours and charged, his extended hands morphing into hooves - a massive, running boar.
Thane curled himself into a tight ball and covered his head. The drums burrowed into his psyche, called to him like the mother of some lost animal. He expected death, but the grunting, spitting beast took a final sharp turn and crashed through the woods behind him.
Thane sprang up and ran back to the cabin. There he lifted the fallen door and propped it into place with the herbarium cabinet. His hands trembled.
"If that was all a hallucination, then why 'Burn the book'? What book?" He scanned the table and shelves. Every book seemed on the brink of dust. Had he meant the botanist's data book?
Not chancing to find out what the old man might do next, and with nerves already shredded, Thane gathered his gear, packed away the data book, and, despite the onset of nightfall, raced back to the boat.
Tripping through the woods, and nearly losing his flashlight on several occasions, Thane finally broke free of that humid, claustrophobic darkness and stumbled onto the moonlit beach, relieved to find that his canoe had not been damaged or stolen. He untied it and rowed to the mainland in what might have been record time, then pulled the boat ashore and collapsed onto the sand.
Snapping twigs jarred him awake. He sat up, weak, dazed, still on the beach.
"Come get warm," said a familiar voice. It was Ike Stalking Bear, sitting on a log and tossing twigs into a crackling fire.
Thane shivered, his clarity returning in short bursts.
"So, you find what you were looking for?" Ike asked, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. He took up a pocket knife and a long stick.
Thane spit sand from his mouth and glared at the man. "No. Because - because someone took out the specimens before I got there. Right? They destroyed them so I wouldn't learn about the healberry. Then, someone in crazy animal garb, someone who probably knew I was hallucinating, chased me off."
Ike shrugged his shoulders.
"I mean, why not just tell me it was empty in the first place? Why have me come all the way up here?"
Ike examined his stick, decided it was good.
"But no one knew about the data book, did they?" Thane went on. The item in question lay next to the fire, most of its pages ripped out. Thane pointed at it. "Why, Ike? What's so special about that shrub? That island?"
The sheriff began to carve a sharp point into the end of his stick. "Let's just say I've been kicking around for quite awhile. Older than dirt, remember?" He chuckled lightly. "But you've got to boil the berries first, otherwise they're just an annoying hallucinogenic."
Thane did not respond to that, instead: "But the medicinal properties . . . that plant could-" Thane paused to think it over. "Never mind. I get it. If a pharmaceutical company ever got hold of it, the plant would go extinct inside a year." He thought about it some more. "No, wait. It could be cultivated off the island!" He stared thoughtfully into the fire. "Hmm, but then people might abuse it as a recreational drug." He looked at Ike. "Am I right?"
Ike put aside his sharpened stick and picked up a second one. He glanced at the data book, then scrutinized Thane's face. "Yep, you found it all right," he said. "Or maybe it found you."
Ike nodded at the data book.
"But you're destroying it," Thane accused.
"I guess you don't remember. It was you, Thane. You built this fire. You burned those pages. That is, before you passed out."
A minute or two went by without words.
"The old man," Thane said pensively, "and that boar . . . that was my subconscious coming out symbolically through hallucinations. Is that it? Had to allow for a potent shock to the system . . . an experience strong enough to alter my thinking . . . rewire the brain so my suppressed ancestry could reveal itself . . . like . . . like a vision quest or something. Am I right?"
"Jeez!" Ike laughed. "Don't think too hard on it, Thane. Not everything needs to boil down to logic. Just know that you took your first step on a new path; the one you were seeking."
Ike finished carving the second stick. "Sounds like the old man gave you quite a show. Don't judge him too harshly, though. After all, he's very protective of the nourishment that keeps us all so healthy. And keep in mind that scare tactics are a common device in a shaman's bag of tricks. He did what he felt was necessary. He always has. But let me tell you something. He did not kill McKiness. The island did. One day you'll understand."
"Wait, back up. What are you saying? That crazy guy on the island is the shaman from the 1894 expedition?" Thane snorted. "C'mon man, he'd be long dead by now."
Ike reached down between his legs, picked up a jar of healberry jam and held it up.
"Oh yeah," Thane said. "You guys are older than dirt. Sure, got it."
He turned to look out across the starlit waves of the lake, shaking his head doubtfully even as he began to accept the things he now knew to be true, or at least let himself believe were true. A screech-owl called nearby. Its trill, mingled with crickets and lapping waves, helped lull Thane out of his confusion.
"So what happens now?" he asked after a few minutes.
Ike reached down and shoved his hand into a small plastic bag. He offered Thane a sharpened stick.
"Graham crackers, marshmallows, a dab of healberry jam. My own version of s'mores. Quite good. Care for one?"
Thane got to his knees and looked down the length of the shore. Colored leaves floated down from the rustling trees, landed on the beach and the surface of the lake. He scooted forward, grabbed the data book, tore out the remaining pages. Tossing them into the fire, he stared a long while into the flames, then edged closer to Stalking Bear.
"Gimme that stick," he said finally, head nodding to the beat of distant drums.