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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Today on SHOWCASE

“Bogfather” • Fiction by Guy Stewart •


Ozaawindib Erdrich stood with her arms crossed over her chest.
 
Tommy Smoke scowled, then said, “Why is it here?”

Ozaawindib, who went by Win, snorted and said, “As well ask the wind why it blows.”

Tommy looked at her and rolled his eyes. “That’s supposed to sound like Ojibwe chief wisdom?”

“Nah, just a limnological observation, and as likely a good explanation as any.”

After pausing offshore for thirty-six hours, the floating bog had moved again, and torn three docks loose. A pontoon boat was embedded in it from the previous laker who’d tried to move the thing because it was, “Blocking my view!”

Tommy said, “With your doctorate, you don’t have any better explanation than that?”

Win shrugged and moved to the beach. It was an unusually warm day for mid-October but she still had no interest in wading barefoot in hip-deep water. She wore her fishing waders, the stiff green rubber making walking just as difficult as she remembered it being from last October. She sloshed into the lake, made a face, then put her hands on the edge of the immense piece of floating bog.

Tommy said, “It’s not like it’s got any mystical implications or anything. It’s not even the first one this season.”

Win nodded. “True, but the other ones weren’t two and a half hectares, either. It’s an island.”

“English, Doc. I don’t do that metric stuff.”

Win rolled her eyes to the deep blue sky, glanced at the blaze of yellow and orange across the lake, and climbed onto the bog, carefully standing. The last thing she wanted was to fall through a thin patch. Her dignity as the elected chief of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and her standing as the chief limnologist for the Hydrography Dataset rarely felt at odds, but they did at the moment. “A little more than five acres.”

Tommy whistled. “Anywhere between a hundred fifty grand and two mill, then. Big chunk of cash. Plus you wouldn’t even need to buy a boat.” He’d protest until he was blue in the face that he was ‘just a Minnesota DNR associate fisheries supervisor,’ but he knew a lot more than fish. He also had two or three other advanced degrees he never spoke about; one of them Win had only managed to wrangle out of him over a half-dozen expensive craft beers. She hadn’t gotten more than North American Mythology out of him before he’d fallen asleep.

Win shot him dirty look. “Vera Johanssen doesn’t think it’s funny.”

“Vera and Buster have never much cared for each other, and now she’s got to look at his ugly pontoon, to boot. And she’s the mayor of Iron Island, Minnesota.” Tommy laughed and added, “Besides, Vera hasn’t thought anything was funny since middle school. She also ‘expects efficiency’.” That last was the mayor’s famous aphorism.

Win covered a guffaw with a cough. It wouldn’t do to encourage the man! She headed across the bog, being careful not to get too bold. While the real estate weighed in the neighborhood of  a million kilos, it was still little more than a floating mass of vegetation that had broken loose; a frequent hazard on most of the area lakes after a bad storm. This piece of bog could be anywhere between a few millimeters to two meters thick.

In the center was a sort of windbreak of tamarack, scraggly looking at best. At least the surface would be more substantial there than in the part she was walking on. By the time she reached it, she was breathing hard. Walking on spongy ground was like walking on sand; much tougher than it looked.

She instantly recognized the human knee joint poking up through the peat moss. “Uh-oh.”

“What’s up?”

“I think we need to call the police.”

There was a loud splash, some squishy footfalls, and a moment later, Tommy was standing next to her. His normally pale skin was flushed and his chest was heaving. She said, “Hope you don’t have a heart attack before they get here.”

Nodding, Tommy said, “It just stopped being funny, Win.” He pulled out his cellphone and speed-dialed 911.

¤

Chief Bittner arrived shortly. Tommy and Win had made it back to shore and met him on the road passing the Mayor’s home. Tommy had called Mayor Johannsen and even though she was in a meeting, her assistant assured them he’d pass the message to Vera ASAP.

Win nodded at the Chief. “Hey, Ken.”

“Win. What have you got here?”

Tommy, who was technically Win’s supervisor in the loose hierarchy of the Fisheries department, said, “We were looking at the drifting bog—to see what we could do—when Ms. Erdrich discovered human remains.”

“Disturb them?”

Win shook her head, “Didn’t touch them.”

Ken went back to his squad and had pulled on waders by the time Mayor Johanssen drove up in her SUV. Vera was with them in a half-dozen long strides. She held up her tablet computer and said, “I got a cease-and-desist order…”

“This is a Tribal matter, Madame Mayor. You know that,” Ken said. “Besides, this here ain’t your property despite the fact that it rammed into it…”

“It crushed three docks, my nephew’s canoe, our pedal boat, and sank my ski boat!” They all looked away while Vera calmed down. Finally, scowling, she tucked the tablet under her arm. “Just thought I’d try. Won’t make anyone happy if this turns into a mess.” She turned on Tommy, “This is all your fault!”

Tommy looked at her a long time before he said, “No fault, Your Honor. You called in this…encroachment. We were following up. Some reason you think this’ll turn into a mess?”

Vera’s mouth closed and her lips set in a thin line. Tommy studied her this time, and then said, “Care to accompany us?”

The mayor nodded abruptly, saying, “I’ll get my waders.” Shortly, she led them into the water and then hiked herself up onto the island. “Where’d you find it?”

Tommy jerked his head toward Win. Win said, “Nah, you all can go on…”

“I insist,” Chief Bittner said. He turned on his body cam.

Win sighed and joined the group, saying, “Spread out. We’ve no idea how thick the peat is under us. There are likely to be thin spots. Test the surface before you put your full weight down.”

Having already walked to the tamaracks once, Win followed her trail and got there first. The joint of the knee protruded ten centimeters above the brown overgrowth. They’d never have seen it if it had been spring. Chief Bittner pulled out his own tablet computer and began to take pictures. “I called Grand Itasca Hospital, too.”

Vera threw her arms up in the air. “Do you have to call every…” she aspirated an “f” sound, paused, continued, “…organization in the Northland?” They all looked at her now.

Win said, “Madame Mayor…”

“Oh, cut the Madam crap, Win. Yes, I’m upset! There is a skeleton not a hundred feet offshore from my house! The press will have a field day, with Halloween only two weeks away! I can just see the headlines!” It was clear the mayor wanted to pace, but there would be little satisfaction in doing that and some risk as well. She looked at Win and said, “You’re the limnologist. How did a skeleton get on this island?”

Win shrugged. “Up until September, this was part of the usual bog system. If someone was out hunting, fishing, or hiking and not paying attention, they could step on a thin spot, fall through, drown, and then lay there for days, weeks, months…”

Tommy intoned, “Years. Decades even.” He turned his head to take them all in, adding in a sepulchral voice, “Maybe even centuries.”

Chief Bittner said, “What?”

The mayor said the same thing, but her voice squeaked. The others looked at her as Tommy said, “It’s well-known that bogs can preserve animal remains. They’re practically an anaerobic environment.” He looked to Win for verification.

Win met his gaze with stony silence. Vera said, “Win? What’s he talking about?” The distant sound of a helicopter sounded in the cool morning air.

Win said, “He’s talking about ‘bog bodies’. There have only been two found in the US – both in Florida. Otherwise, there were groups of prehistoric humans in the UK who sacrificed people then laid them to rest in bogs. The oxygen content in peat is extremely low because decaying plant matter pulls the oxygen from the water. If someone were trapped in a bog, while they might sink in and drown, the amount of actual decay would be minimal over time.”

Tommy suddenly said, “While there’s no evidence of bog bodies up north here, there are legends and stories…”

Vera spun on him, surprisingly fast for someone wearing waders. She also had a handgun. A big one. Which she pointed at him as she said, “You can stop right there, Mr. Smoke.”

Chief Bittner said, softly, his hands away from his holster, “Madame Mayor.” She glanced his way. He started again. “Vera, there’s no way this can end well.”

“It’ll end fine if big mouth here keeps his mouth shut.” The sound of the helicopter was growing louder. From where she stood, Win could see that they’d sent the pontoon bird; useful in the Land of Ten-thousand Lakes. It would be able to land without trouble right on the bog island. Vera saw it, too, and she looked right at Tommy. The steel went out of her voice as she said, “Please.”

“It’s only a legend,” he said, hands raised.

Vera snorted. “Political careers have been tumbled by rumors and whispers. This is more.” The intensity of the mayor’s gaze was laser-like. Win felt it from where she stood, just to Tommy’s right.

Tommy’s voice was so low as to be barely a whisper. The helicopter nearly drowned him out as he said, “You think this bog rammed your boats and grounded here by accident, Vera Johannsen?”

The gun wavered, then steadied. Chief Bittner said, “I am obliged to inform you that my body camera is recording, Madame Mayor.”

Tommy leaned forward. “How many times was he removed, Vera? Why did he have to die?”

Ken and Win cast looks between Vera and Tommy.

Tommy said, “Your grandmother four times removed, the medicine woman Gloria Looking Cloud, cursed him. He was going to tell everyone in town she’d seduced him, and then leave her with his son and daughter and go West to make his fortune. That was in 1846, shortly before the Gold Rush began.” He paused. “She didn’t believe he’d return. She would have been left completely alone with two bastard children.”

“So she killed him?” Ken said.

Tommy shook his head, “No. She cursed him.” They all looked back to the black knee poking up through the peat. “Not only would he never make his fortune, he’d never leave the land.

“Looks like he decided to take his revenge and come back to haunt his great-granddaughter.”

Win, Ken, and Tommy stared at Vera. The gun sank to her legs as the chopper sank to the island. It settled slowly, sending a long wave through the squishy soil. Another knee popped up through the peat, its skin black and clearly wrapping the bone. Tommy said, “It’s the dead come back to haunt you, Vera.”

The Mayor fainted as a paramedic in waders gingerly made her way toward them, pulling a winter sled-stretcher behind her.

Win looked at Tommy and said, “You really think that last bit was necessary?”

He shrugged. “He’s the one who came to visit her.”



Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife, a breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, teacher, and counselor who maintains a SF/YA/Children’s writing blog called POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS; and more seriously, the author of GUY’S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER AND ALZHEIMER’S. He has 66 publications to his credit, including a book that’s been available since 1997. In his spare time he keeps animals, a house, and loves to bike and camp. He has, in fact, walked on a bog island—although the desiccated knee he saw was when he accidentally backed his truck onto the front-yard grave of a Nigerian family. Guy has been a member of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning, and his Amazon page is here: https://www.amazon.com/Guy-Stewart/e/B001KHE6U2.

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