"I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority." - E. B. White
There were a dozen times that summer when I could have spoken the word that would have combined with Nibii’s knowledge to reveal the location of the cave. The second opportunity came after we emerged from the forest and Nibii came to my home in Derby so she could see the mysterious inscription on the grave stone of John Stanton.
We spent a few minutes in a cold rain, just long enough for Nibii read the grave stones. As I stood there watching her, I was thankful that we had good weather for our field trip and that I was safely home with this late spring storm arriving. It pained me to think of Nibii having to make the long drive back to Amherst so late in the day. In my mind, I tried to compose an invitation for her to spend the night that she would not want to refuse.
As we walked away from the cemetery I started to tell Nibii some of what I could remember my grandmother having told me about John Stanton. “John’s father lived during the war against the French and worked several jobs along the Crown Point Road until he met his wife and they settled near Rutland. They were declared traitors by the British for their support of the Green Mountain Boys, and fearing capture by British troops, they moved to this area, when John was nine. That was the year that Vermont declared its independence. When he reached 15, John went to Windsor and apprenticed as a printer.”
We went inside took off our wet coats and boots. I offered Nibii the use of a warm pair of boot liners and took her down in the basement. Half of the floor of that basement is raw bedrock and there were old family treasures down there that had not been touched in sixty or seventy years. I opened up an old storage trunk and showed Nibii some ancient issues of the Vermont Journal and the Universal Advertiser. “These old prints are from John’s first job, working for one of the earliest printers in Vermont.”
I rummaged around looking for something my mother had once shown me while Nibii read of bits of news about the Republic of Vermont in the 1780s. Finally she commented on the collection of old Stanton family documents, “These should be in a museum, you know.” I was still rooting through old crates and she asked, “What are you looking for?”
I explained, “When my mother moved to Florida, she showed me some of this stuff. There was an odd book that I remembered when you were telling me about the Three Sisters.”
Nibii tentatively looked in an old chest of drawers. “What does the book look like? Big? Small?”
I replied, “It is small. It has been years since I’ve seen it. I remember a black cover with a gold inlay design.”
Nibii held up a copy of the Bible she had found, “Like this?”
I shook my head. “Not that thick. Maybe only 50 or 75 pages. The cover had no words, just an inlaid design.”
While we searched, I remembered something else of what she had told me. I said, “I have been wondering about something. You described The Three Sisters legend as a story without people. Why was the cave called a lodge?”
Nibii shrugged, “The trivial explanation is that somewhere down through the years a human-oriented term crept into the story. But in this case, there is probably a more interesting explanation. Several of the legends that do not include human characters make reference to places that do become important to people and re-appear in other stories with people at those places.”
I looked puzzled.
Nibii explained, “There is a legend called Black Heart. It is about the initiation ceremony for a Spirit Tender. It’s rather long and full of ritualistic chanting, the entombing of a heart that the initiate has cut from a living animal and all sorts of lessons a new Spirit Tender is supposed to have learned from the old master.”
I interrupted, “What do you mean by ‘entombing of a heart’?”
She explained, “Traditionally, an animal’s heart holds its spirit. If you bury the heart then the spirit of the dead animal returns to the Land Spirit and can be reborn, allowing the cycle of life to continue. It was important to think about such things when taking life to sustain life.”
She continued to summarize the Black Heart legend. “So, the initiate is shown a carved image of Moz, what we would call a mastodon. The initiate sings, -I am ready to join Moz. I will pass on to the Sky Land to complete my learning.”
“But the initiate is afraid and bungles the initiation ritual and there is an accident and the initiate dies. Moz is horrified and says, -I will not watch anymore of these ceremonies.”
Nibii fell silent and I looked up. “That’s it?”
She nodded, “Basically. There is a bunch of moralizing about how Spirit Tenders should listen to the advice of their master. But my father always claimed that the Spirit Tender initiations took place on a mountain. The mountain of Moz, presumably the same mountain as in the legend of The Three Sisters.”
At this point, I found the book I was looking for. I showed the neatly bound volume to Nibii. On the cover was an enigmatic gold leaf design. The contents of the book were hand written in some language neither Nibii nor I could recognize. I turned to the page I wanted to show to her, “My mother told me that she had been told that John Stanton wrote this book. Look at this map.” It was not much of a map. It was basically a wiggly line with about two dozen place names written in along either side of the line. At one end of the line was the word “Keniltun” and “Kenilwug” was at the other end. Both of these words could also be found in the main text of the book. Nibii did a quick scan and count and found that Keniltun appeared many more times than did Kenilwug.
We took the book upstairs and I started trying to get Nibii to stay longer, at least for a meal. She looked out into the deepening darkness of that stormy evening and insisted that she had to be back in Amherst the next day for some meetings. She asked if she could show John Stanton’s book to a language expert. I replied, “Of course, please do.” We said our goodbyes and she was gone.
Looking back on that evening, it is impossible not to wonder what might have happened if I had taken the time to talk more about what I knew of John Stanton’s life. Even a short description of where he had lived and worked after leaving Windsor would have moved us towards the line of discovery that we only actually reached later, after that long sunny summer.
Through the course of that summer, I went on half a dozen more trips to the White Mountains with Nibii. Usually we were accompanied by one or more Amherst students or other colleagues. I got to hear more of the stories that Nibii had learned from her father, including the rest of the Black Heart story. Some of the details of that story did not take on their special meaning until months later.
Nibii explained that in the initiation ritual of the Black Heart story, Spirit Tender initiates were given a challenge. The initiates were made to smoke the leaves of some plants that contained psychoactive chemicals. Made susceptible to suggestion by the drugs and ritualistic chanting, they were shown some rock carvings and told to follow Moz and the other depicted creatures to Sky Land.
“Here you see Moz and the other creatures who have gone to Night Sky. Join them and you will emerge in Sky Land as a Spirit Tender. We will meet you on the other side of the sky.” Nibii explained that the initiate was then left alone to chant a rather long prayer about courage and wisdom and then, when done with the prayer, to enter Night Sky.
When Nibii was telling the Black Heart story, we were sitting around a fire with an Amherst College student who asked, “How did one enter the Night Sky?”
Nibii had no idea. “I’ve often wondered that myself. Maybe the initiate was taken to a high place like this and carefully intoxicated.” She looked up at the stars. “Just walking away from the fire might seem like walking into Night Sky. I can imagine that an initiate might panic and run, falling in the dark and being injured and killed.”
Nibii had then finished telling the Black Heart story. An initiate known as Night Song was afraid of Night Sky and did not journey to Sky Land with a pure heart. Night Song went to Night Sky but fell out of Sky Land with a rock. The rock crushed Night Song’s head, and thereafter Night Song was known as Black Heart. Moz was so distressed that she never again lit the way for new initiates to reach Night Sky.
Beyond the wonder of how Nibii and I repeatedly failed to combine our knowledge and solve the mystery of John Stanton’s curse, two other thoughts cannot be avoided when I think back on that summer. Both of those thoughts center on the magical person that was Nibii. I was hopelessly infatuated with her, both as a woman and as a mystical force which periodically invaded my universe from beyond- from the alternative universe where she resided.
With increasing frequency I had insight into the nature of her world. I allowed myself to fantasize that if I continued to learn about her world, I might become enough a part of that world that she would no longer view me as some alien creature. I came to learn that she fully accepted the reality that her native American ancestors had existed within. She had a faith that told her that if enough could be learned about how the Spirit Tenders of old had knit together the spirits of land, sky, river, beasts, people and plants then it would become possible to recover the harmony of our planet.
Nibii was not one to wish for the ancient times. She could imagine a future that combined the best of East and West, ancient America and modern Europe. Driving through the hills and valleys of New England, we discussed how Europeans had tried to rip the heart from the land and dam the rivers and had come dangerously close to filling the sky with poison that will kill the forests. In the end, the great marble quarries were closing, the dams were being torn down, and the forests were surviving the assaults of farmers, lumberjacks, and pollution. Can we find a way past the excesses of modern technology back to a respectful stewardship of this world?