PodCastle 771: Wapnintu’tijig They Sang Until Dawn
Wapnintu’tijig: They Sang Until Dawn
By Tiffany Morris
In the time of fever, the marks of the animals changed. Waterbirds shone with new radiance: a bright blue iridescence clung to their feathers, glimmering, soaked with the sacred oil of daylight. Their language changed along with their plumage: the chirrup chirrup from their open beaks had transformed into a lilting sort of caw. A shiver jolted through Pi’tawgowi’sgw. As she worked her way through the swamp, she discovered that the world, her world, was newly alive with alien tongues, each one bellowed with an odd sense of certainty. It was as if the creatures’ mouths had always known these sounds, that these new sounds belonged to them entirely. Each odd caw and chirp formed the words that the creatures had been born to speak. The nighthawks, for their part, now screeched owllike into darkening sky, swooping and diving over the water in search of the tiny silver fish they so loved to devour.
It took special eyes to see the full radiance of the swamp. In weaker times she’d thought of it as her swamp, but Pi’tawgowi’sgw knew it was a place too ancient and vast to belong to her, or to anyone; rather, she belonged to it, sprouted up from the water the way the humans had the land. She had heard it said in their tongue: Weji-sqalia’timk, literally, the place they sprouted up from. She’d watched the one with silver hair threaded together tell this to the small ones gathered around the edge of the water, their eager faces murmuring words she did not know. She belonged in the deep stillness of the water. The many creatures in the water with her were not like her. The humans were, at least, sort of like her — more than the fish that shared the water, anyway.
“Hello,” she called to the frogs.
Their croaking had switched into a soft howl, as if the moonlight had transformed them into new creatures altogether. She swam up to them. They scattered into the reeds in a clamor of long, panicked legs. She waited in place and tried to remember their old language. Finally, it came to her: a soft chirping sound. She greeted them. A small green frog, its leopard spots glowing pink in the dark, blinked at her without recognition. It gave another soft howl and disappeared with its comrades into the gathered shadows.
Pi’tawgowi’sgw tried not to panic. She knew the place, still: this was the swamp where she had lived for so long. She hadn’t somehow been washed out to some other body of water, estranged in a new waterway, not like what had happened to her parents. She clamped her eyes closed and tried to push away the memory of the high, toxic water that had flooded them, that had carried them too far down to the river, how they had been too old and weak to fight against its mighty current. After a few days, after the quiet rolled in, unsettled and suffocating, new human machines had appeared in the water among the drowned trees. Her parents still hadn’t returned. Pi’tawgowi’sgw knew, then, that they had died. They had gone down the waterfall and been killed against the rocks in a mess of scales and blood and frothing water. Slick rainbows of pollution had surely leaked around them, killing fish and bug and frog, all the small bodies thrown together until they could be taken again to rest in new and welcoming water.
This place, the swamp, was the place she’d found herself after staying in her childhood home was too much to bear. She embraced a name she’d heard a human call her once — the woman from up the river. Perhaps they’d seen her and thought she was a human swimming. It was peril to be known, so that was another good reason for her to leave. She’d left soon after, dodging the storm-downed tree limbs jutting out from the water, taking some comfort in the fact that she carried her old home with her in her new name.
She felt eyes on her. Pi’tawgowi’sgw turned around and gazed, astonished, as lightning danced between the antlers of a lentuk, deer, that stared at her with black shining eyes from the edge of the swamp. It didn’t speak to her, though it had been a long time since she’d heard their speech, so she probably wouldn’t have recognized it, anyway. Human language had taken up so much space in her memory, shaping her world from birth.
“It’s safest to know their speech,” her mother had explained one night. The sky was filled with diamond shells, husks of voices glittering in the vast blanket reflected on the water. “The humans are the least predictable of the creatures here.”
Pi’tawgowi’sgw had just nodded in response, twirling her moss-colored hair between steady fingers. Humans were curious creatures, sure. It was a mystery that they were so like her, yet completely dissimilar. When she was a child, at least, she’d been amused by them. They were strange, clumsy oddities. She found a morbid thrill in watching them hulking about on their bottom arms, so limited in their movements on land and even clumsier in water. It seemed like it was a pretty place up there. She envied all the human knowledge of the plants. She loved the plants that she’d gotten to know in the swamp, their stories that traveled eternal through arteries of root systems, traveled in the ichor and bark. She loved lying on them and waiting for their polyphonic histories to meld with her knowing in a blissful sort of reverie.
She reached her fingers out to rustle against some nearby reeds. Fireflies danced out of them, blinking the purple of sunset clouds into the darkness. The lentuk, normally a skittish sort of creature, kept staring at her. She watched, transfixed, as the bolts scattered back and forth from antler tip to tip, brightening and dimming in a small storm. She knew those bolts were normally hot, massive, crackling across the sky in tree-root patterns, sometimes striking the ground in thunderous, world-ending cracks. The deer did not appear bothered by the new storm they carried.
“Hello?” Pi’tawgowi’sgw called to it. Maybe it knew human speech. “Kwe’?”
“Kwe’?” A voice answered, quiet. A human voice. “Hello?”
That was louder.
Pi’tawgowi’sgw panicked and froze in place. The lentuk took off into the dark woods, the light from its antlers careening into brief flame sputters before disappearing entirely. She lowered herself into the water and swam deeper under it, breathing deep and grateful gulps of the silty taste of the sludge at the bottom. At least that had stayed the same.
When some time had passed, Pi’tawgowi’sgw surfaced by the oak trees, her fish heart thrumming against the thin bones of her ribcage. A high-pitched squeal rang out and echoed over the water. What animal was that? She shut her eyes tight once again, fighting the sharp tears stinging at her face. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Fear was a bitter wave cresting over her. She had no idea what to do in this estranged version of home.
“Kwe’,” the human voice said again. Her heart sank. Exhaustion pulsed through her. Perhaps if she just floated in the dark, the human wouldn’t see her.
“I — I think I see you out there,” the human said. “Are you there? Are you okay?”
She didn’t move.
“Maybe I’m losing it,” the human muttered. Pi’tawgowi’sgw closed her eyes again. She could float and sleep and maybe the dawn would set the world right again: it would become a comprehensible place, and she would know the sounds of the swamp once again.
The human sat on a tree stump and began to murmur a prayer; she was familiar with this ritual, how they sometimes gave plants to the swamp, how a look of peace washed over them when they did it. The humans factored into the plant stories, at times, with deeds of kindness, and, sometimes, surprise or cruelty. But most often they remembered the gifts, the words, the other life that came with the offerings. It was a good relationship, Pi’tawgowi’sgw recalled. Human unpredictability still nagged at her, made her conceal herself to shadows and nighttime surfacing. Their eyes did not see the full radiance and spectrum of the swamp, and they did not need to see her presence within it.
Fireflies danced around the human’s head and she watched, transfixed, from behind a thicker section of reeds. The human didn’t notice the sound of her submerging and surfacing, quiet and gracefully ducking into the dark-mirrored water.
Her eyes adjusted to the purple arcs of light dancing around the human. The human said something about a fever, voice tight with tears. The fever, the human said, was taking the villagers one by one. They needed a treatment, a cure, anything; the human had been meditating on it, praying, trying to dream of a solution.
In the dream, the human said, the swamp had changed color. So maybe there was an answer here. Pi’tawgowi’sgw watched the fireflies move in a swirling pattern like the trails of stars. The human sat in silence. Pi’tawgowi’sgw’s eyelids grew heavy with sleep like thick snow. The human finally gave thanks to the swamp and got up. They clicked on a light they held in their hands.
Pi’tawgowi’sgw’s heart jumped into her throat and she ducked lightning-fast into the water. The human shone the beam over to where she had been just moments ago. The golden beam danced over the reeds and made the green water shine clear. The beam left as quickly as he’d placed it there.
She waited a few moments and then rose to the surface, silent as death. Footfalls snapped twigs in the distance as she watched the golden beam of light crawl away. An owl, or what now had the voice of an owl, hooted in the distance. She did not know if dawn would arrive, or what it would look like when it did.
None of the voices had switched back; the closest were the nighthawks that now sounded like owls. The blue jays now shone orange instead of blue, blazing in sunset colors, bright as cardinals in midwinter. They chirped staccato and high-pitched songs that were unknown to her. None of the animals seemed to recognize her, either, except the plants, which now grew in different directions and tangled together through the stems, but bloomed the same, opening to the sun when it stretched out over the water and reached them. The plants did not yet have a story of the world’s transformation. As always, with the plants, it was a matter of having patience and respect.
Pi’tawgowi’sgw did not see any other indications of the human that day. It was a relief; normally she tried to stick to shadows and underwater in the daylight, but she wanted to record everything about these changes. The changed directions of the plants, the colors and songs of the frogs, the birds, the fish. Everyone was different but held the same shape; they were beautiful. She would learn the new words. As the day wore on, her panic lessened. Besides, her own reflection had remained the same: her scales still glimmered a dim green on her tail, her skin was still tinged the color of fir-tree needles, her hair still grew in a moss color. She was still in her home.
That afternoon she’d tried to speak with the crows; it was obvious that if anyone would know anything about the changes, it would be them. The crows spoke a croaking language like the one their raven cousins had once spoken. It was gibberish, unfortunately, utter nonsense in raven words: ravings about butter and balm and worm and sky. It sounded like sickness; perhaps the fever had impacted the swamp. Sometimes the humans brought their sickness by accident. She tried talking to the squirrels, knowing that the humans sometimes liked to feed them, that they would coo with soft voices over the small creatures, imitating their speech. The squirrels just gave a rasping meow in response to her questions.
She would have to wait for the humans to arrive again.
If there were any left.
Pi’tawgowi’sgw swam to the edge of the swamp, surfacing among her favorite trees. The towering oaks clasped their bare branches together, forming their own new language in the atmosphere; the crowns no longer shied away from each other but held hands, stronger together through the strange blue breezes blowing down from the cold North. It would be winter soon, and she hadn’t seen the humans since that night in the summer.
She looked forward to when the torpor would come for her. It was a deep and beautiful sleep, warm even in the frozen water, breathing the gray of eternity. Her heart would beat once a minute until the ice broke open, singing springtime, singing a song that she hoped she would recognize when the time came.
Night arrived early. The deep blue was punctured by her silver breath and the zirconia stars sighing above her head. She moved around less and less, these days, waiting for when she would settle in for the winter.
A human voice echoed in the distance. She was hidden in the darkness, shadows deeper than on any summer at midnight. The human sang an old song Pi’tawgowi’sgw remembered from when she was first learning the human language. It was a song that her mother had taught her. Half asleep in the shadows, her voice cracked open, bouncing its silver light over the cold water. The human shouted with joy and shock as they sang together. The song told of cedar and birch, of sap and sapling. It was a song of prayer and thanks.
The humans, she realized, had survived the fever. She closed her eyes as the dawn reached the edge of the water. Frost wrapped her in its blanket. It was a promise of sleep. It was a promise of spring.
…aaaaand welcome back. That was “Wapnintu’tijig They Sang Until Dawn” by Tiffany Morris, and it was her first time on an Escape Artists podcast; however, you can find plenty of other stories from her online at the venues mentioned in her bio–Uncanny, Apex, Nightmare and more–or you can buy her horror poetry collection, Elegies of Rotting Stars, now, or even follow her own podcast of horror poetry readings and interviews with other poets, Verses from the Void. Find her on Twitter @tiffmorris or online at tiffmorris.com
About Wapnintu’tijig, Tiffany had this to say: So much of life is contending with the sudden and continuous nature of change: sometimes dramatic, sometimes subtle, and often transformative on personal and societal levels. I wanted to write a story that takes a being present in Mi’kmaq story – a mermaid – and place her into the unexpected environment of a swamp. I also wanted to explore what it might be like for her to experience a world in crisis and flux – and what beauty might still be found in understanding her world in a new way.
Thank you, Tiff, for the thoughts and the story. There’s a longing and a regret to this one that resonates today, and only more so in the decades to come, I think: of losing our heritage and our homes to the water; of watching the world change around us, the way it talks and the conversation it holds with itself in the delicate web of life; of wondering how we will survive, let alone prosper. Fitting, perhaps, that this story comes from and joins an oral tradition stretching back far further than any recorded coloniser history. We need to think in centuries and millennia, not financial quarters and terms of office, if we’re to survive what’s coming. Perhaps then we can find the note of hope that Tiff did here: perhaps then there’ll be a promise of spring for all of us.
About the Author
Tiffany Morris is a Mi’kmaw/settler writer of speculative fiction and poetry from Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Nova Scotia. She is the author of the horror poetry collection Elegies of Rotting Stars (Nictitating Books, 2022). Her work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and Apex Magazine, among others. She has a Master of Arts in English with a focus on Indigenous Futurisms. She is a member of the Speculative Fiction Poetry Association and the Horror Writers Association, and her work has been nominated for Elgin, Rhysling, and Aurora Awards.
About the Narrator
Samantha Loney is a Metis actress and writer from Barrie, Ontario who got her start performing stand-up and sketch comedy in Toronto. Samantha is a winner of the Brian Linehan Award for Outstanding Artistic Promise. She is the director and star of her debut short film Woman With Bangs, which is currently on its festival run. You can listen to Samantha on the fictional podcast series, Herstory the Podcast Series, available wherever you get your podcasts.