Posted in Short story

Ojibwe Gichigami

The Anishinaabe, which includes the Chippewa or Ojibwe, have lived in harmony with the Great Sea for more than six hundred years. When French fur traders arrived, they formed an alliance that made the Ojibwe the dominant native population in the region before they were driven out by the expanding United States. The Ojibwe called the big lake “Gichigami,” which simply means “Great Sea.” In his work, The Song of Hiawatha, Longfellow used the spelling Gitche Gumee, which was later Gordon Lightfoot’s preferred spelling as well.

I don’t know if my dad was familiar with any of that. More likely, he read a sign posted by the local tourism board at some scenic overlook. But to my dad’s way of thinking, Gitche Gumee didn’t sound like the name of a lake; it sounded like the name of a monster.

Dad wasn’t home much. It’s not that he was always working or anything like that. As a matter of fact, I can’t really remember him holding down a job for more than a few months. He just liked to spend time at Randall’s a lot more than he enjoyed spending time with Mom. Can you blame him? Beer helps you forget things, if only temporarily. Mom never lets you forget anything.

Anyway, it’s hard to hold down a regular job that starts at 7:00 when you come home reeking of Hamm’s and piss at 2:30 most mornings.

As much as Dad may have wanted nothing to do with Mom by that point, it was obvious that he still enjoyed time with me and Abby. Sometimes totally soused, but often as sober as a judge, he would sit on the couch and tell Abby and me stories of the Gitche Gumee—how every year on a warm August evening it would crawl out of the Great Lake and slink across the land to a random home looking for its favorite meal… small children.

Then he would get suddenly still and quiet. “Shhhhh… I hear something… do you hear that?” he would whisper.

“Fooooo-oood.” he would say in a ghostly caterwaul—the voice of the monster.

“Oh no, it’s here!  Hide!”

“Fooo-oooo-ooood!” sounding louder and closer. “Fooooooooood!” closer still.

By this point, Abby and I were about as far into the couch as is humanly possible in anticipation of what we knew was coming. Dread, excitement, longing, and love filled us. Then Dad would attack us with kisses and tickles while repeating “foooo-ood!” until we were exhausted.

Of course those were games for dads to play with little kids. It stopped completely when I was about ten.  Abby was just a little more than a year younger. Dad may have continued with her for a bit longer, but I never saw it.

In those years, Abby wasn’t just my little sister but she was also my best friend. Well, her and Billy Simpson anyway. By the time Billy and I were fourteen, I’m pretty sure he was starting to develop a little more interest in Abby than he would have ever admitted. I’m also pretty sure the feelings were mutual.

During summer vacations, the three of us would get up to all kinds of mischief around town, but one of our favorite recurring diversions was to sit down on the breakwall and fish. We called it fishing anyway since there were poles, fishing line, hooks, and bait involved. I don’t really remember any fish, though.

The pair of breakwaters are jetties that protect the town’s shoreline from the rough gales that form large waves on the lake. The east breakwater stretches almost 1700 feet out, about half before a thirty degree bend toward the west breakwater, and about half after the bend. It is comprised of timber cribs and a concrete cap resting on stone fill.

Since Abby and I didn’t see Dad much anymore—if ever—and no one could stand to be around Mom, there really wasn’t anything we liked more than sitting down there, “fishing,” and telling stories about things that were, things that never were, and things that (as it turned out) never would be.

It was Saturday, August 16th, 1984. I’ll never forget that date, like how none of you will ever forget September 11th, 2001. Mid-August is the hottest part of the year on Superior’s North Shore and we set the heat record that day. Somehow, between the stories and uneventful fishing, we completely lost track of the time. That happened more than you might think.

The sun had gone behind Pork City Hill, but the sky was clear and the moon was waning but still almost full, so there was still plenty of light as we packed up our gear. I was just mounting my bicycle when I heard the first big splash about fifteen feet out on the seaward side of the breakwater.

“What was that, Andy?” my sister exclaimed. Billy was already on his bike and moving but he stopped to see what was happening in the water. He was the closest to the seaward edge and still the furthest from shore.  That’s when it burst from the water. It had to be fifteen feet long on stubby legs and probably three feet in diameter, but with a powerful tail that propelled it from the depths. And it was dark; not black like you might expect but a dark translucent greenish hue.  You could even see that in the diminishing light.

The stench was a horrific combination of landfill and rotting fish. But what I noticed most were the teeth. Big, long sharp, teeth. People always think “white” when you mention teeth, but these were a rusty metallic color. Somehow I could tell they were in rows like a shark, or more like a lamprey. But lampreys don’t have legs, and lampreys aren’t fifteen feet long. And lampreys don’t bite your best friend, Billy, in two.

“Get on your bike and fucking ride, Abigail! Forget about the gear!” But she was frozen to her spot, staring at the bloody fallen bicycle and lower torso with legs where our best friend had stood a moment before.

I got off of my bike and shook her, probably a little harder than I intended.  But it snapped her out of her daze. She leaped onto her bike and started racing for shore with me right behind her. I don’t know if the Gichigami finished what it started with Billy, but the authorities never found anything. I could hear splashes chasing as Abby and I raced for the shore. I made sure to stay behind her because she was all I had left in this world. We rode hard—the hardest I’ve ever ridden.

“Be careful around the bend!” I yelled up to her. She took the turn with ease, barely slowing.

“We’re gonna make it,” I thought as the shore inched closer. But the Gichigami had other ideas as it made another try, snatching Abby and her bike in a single leap and disappearing back into the depths.

It never did say “foooood.”

I only told this truth to the first investigator. She didn’t believe a word of it. Why would she? The story is not believable. I wouldn’t even believe me if I hadn’t lived through it. They dredged the harbor. Divers searched the seaward side. Nothing was ever found.

All of the counseling and therapy have done practically nothing for me.  To this day, I can’t go near even small lakes, or rivers, or even ponds. I don’t even care for puddles, to be honest.

Author’s note: Credit to my IRL dad, who actually did tell similar stories to the fictional dad in this tale complete with the kisses and tickling. That’s where the similarities end, though.


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