This story was written to reimagine the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, which encompasses the Upper Mississippi River Valley. The land here is incredibly old and displayed mysteriously as a geographical anomaly, which makes me question how the hills and the rivers themselves came into existence. - Jonathon Engelien
One knows it’s autumn not by the changing of the leaves, but rather by the burning of the ground. It’s a wretched time of year and the sun is never out because smoke lingers in an opaque haze that only turns more brown as the season continues. It’s a dry season when it begins, and only a few rainstorms will come through to slow down the blazes until the onset of winter.
This land is referred to as Missapi. It is known for its steep hills where hundreds of villages nestle amongst its thousands of valleys. The traveler gets lost in the allure of the area, as it doesn’t have the ferocity of mountains, but rather comprises itself in a connected fabric of towering mounds that stretch on as far as the mind can construct, where rivers and creeks have cut the geography into vein-like networks. Boats are the preferred method of travel on these waterways when they haven’t frozen over, but when this does occur, dog sledding and skiing along them becomes the transportation standard.
The hills themselves are a patchwork of prairies, dense northern forests, and towering oak savannas. These oak biomes are popular amongst the locals for sacred reasons, as their wood has been used for hundreds of years to create the incredibly decadent structures, as well as an abundance of crafted luxury goods. Every wooden piece is a masterwork of hundreds of years of dedication to perfect the shapes, cuts, and patterning. And it is for this reason that the area is relentlessly pillaged by marauding tribes beginning in the autumn months, carrying through into the winter season. It ceases at the first signs of the snowmelt spring, and the natives go back to producing the goods and necessities for the next raiding season.
The large rivers and streams that cut through the valleys create brackish water marshes in the silt they leave behind. They make their way to the large central river where the name of the region comes from. Here, at this large river, all the hills turn into steep bluffs with sandstone rock faces that continuously crumble in the aging of time. There are thousands and thousands of miles of marshlands around either side of the fast running current, where a cathedral of solitude exists for the weary boatmen to navigate, along with cranes, elk, and various other wildlife.
By this time of year, the marshes have turned over to browning water and plant life, and on several mornings they produce a thin film of ice. The tall grasses and reeds have begun their decay, and have wilted to the point where they resemble the rolling mesh of the hills around them. Tall aquatic trees line the sand bars of the waterways, having shed all of their leaves in anticipation of the region’s harsh winters.
It is here, before sunrise, on a night where the stars would be out had they not been compromised by the fiery smog, that a tiny canoe passes lightly through the marshy channels. A light fog brushes over the surface of the water, coming from the temperature of the air being colder than the water. Two bodies sit hunched over on the floor of the boat, braced together for warmth. It’s a narrow boat so their legs have to be tucked up high between their arms. A third figure stands and steers the boat with a long, unnaturally straight, wooden pole. He spits out phlegm into the water and takes in a deep breath of what he finds to be putrid air. He clears his throat and spits again.
The night should have been darker than normal as the moon was nowhere to be seen, but the orange glow from the wildfires lingers constantly on the horizon and behind distant hills. Sora, the man steering the boat, finds these autumn months intolerable.
These months are seen as a time of ritualistic cleansing of the land for the next cattle rearing and growing season. Each of the thousands of villages in Missapi have specific trades they pride themselves in developing, and the fires are created to formally end the work of the year and restart their work at the dawn of winter. Though a necessity, the fires have now become the obsession of the majority to rid the earth of what is unneeded. Rather than only burning for agriculture, many villages have become fond of burning areas of forest to create the charred wood they now prize in their designed structures.
It isn’t only the inhabitants of the region that start these fires, it is also the marauders, who pillage whole valleys and burn them to the ground, to the point where only a few people are left to survive the village. But in very practical ways, these wildfires will also act as a cloak of defense for the villages, as the land is ravaged by confusion.
The air smells of thick wood smoke and mixes with the grey mist above the surface of the water. Sora continues steering the boat in a mechanical fashion, as these waterways are more familiar to him than his own wife. He is a young, yellow-skinned man with dark black hair, around the age of twenty five. Unlike the homogenous features of the people in the land, Sora has distinctly heavy-lidded, triangular eyes and a precise jaw line. His cheekbones are high, and his clear, smooth skin reflects the pale orange glow of the false dawn. He wore only his summer tunic, he had packed his thicker one in his bags, even though it was cold enough to see his breath. He wore a long piece of fabric around his waist, which was stitched with bright but fading patterns, to keep his clothes secure while he paddled.
On mornings like this one, he makes his living by ferrying night travelers over the wide river. The two figures squatting low in the canoe are children, one boy and one girl, whose names Sora never thought to ask. These children, though young, had come from outside Missapi. Their clothes would suggest they came from the prairie lands to the southwest, but Sora never asked to clarify.
The boy was about the age of nine. like many people his features were plain, as if stripped of all signifying characteristics, though his skin was the same yellowness and texture of Sora’s. The girl was similar in age, and held her brothers arms. They were determined, and seemingly far too young, to be completing the journey they were on.
Sora paddled slowly through the mess of sandbars and grasses. He took the boat around a corner in the marsh where it opened up to display the grand river bluffs, which at this time of day were just silhouettes, resting in front of orange backlight. The great river flowed strongly. Here the river was expansive, and as if an open stage, an array of hot burning embers performed a fluttering dance across its surface. Directly north of them, behind the closest bluff, more performers were added to the stage, as wild sparks bursted out up into the sky. Though only a whisper to the night travelers, the area rumbled with the sounds of the burning woods.
Sora took the boat up to a narrowing in the river, where the current was faster, but the distance across was smaller. He sat down and placed his rowing stick on the bottom of the canoe, to then take out a wider paddle that was bent midway down the shaft at a forty-five degree angle. He understood the currents out on the open water. He knew the places it pushed him quickly, and other places where it almost coaxed him upriver. In Sora could paddle the canoe across in a matter of minutes, as he had acquired the physical stature to propel the boat quickly.
By the time they reached the other side, the firelight was beginning to mix with the light of the dawn of the sky. He brought the children to the shores of the largest bluff, which was marked by flaming torches that lined a sacred path going down next to the shoreline and continuing up the side of the bluff and over to the neighboring valleys. Here was an opening in the forest and a dock of ebony wood, lacquered to a pristine glaze, waited in the shallows. It was connected to a collection of wooden arches of the same color, displaying perpendicular to the river in front of the torch marked trail. These arches were intricately carved by this valley’s inhabitants two hundred years prior. Their arrangement formed a display up the steep bank in an array that mirrored the rolling and steepness of the hills. Each one was a different size, but together they created a grand spectacle as the entrance of this path. The carvings were patterns of flora found amongst the villages in this great river basin, but also some arches held non-descriptive markings that reference the specific families present during the time of their construction. Sora never paid much attention to them as his ways were of the river, not the sacred path.
It was here that the children jumped quickly out of the canoe, and, splashing in the water of the river, ran to where the torches began beneath the arches. The torches were lit every night during the summer months, which was winding down with the approach of snow, and not being lit again until the first snowmelt. The trail goes north, at least the end is north. The fact is the trail moves in all directions, not just north, and snakes through all parts of the land, in and out of Missapi. Finally, in theory, it reaches the fabled city of the North, but Sora has yet to hear of anyone who has.
He pulled the canoe up next to the dock and unloaded his pack. The torches had burned through their night’s supply of resin, and now remained just as sturdy poles in the dirt. The wood creaked beneath the weight of his body, but the dock itself did not wobble at any moment. He walked the twenty yards to the shore and found a large sandstone boulder that had freshly fallen from the bluff to sit on. There were hundreds of these boulders strewn about, but many were crusted in moss and browned plant life.
The boy and girl were well up the path, most likely at the section where it jackknifed up to the top of the bluff. After they make it up over the bluff, the path winds along the tops of the hills for many many miles. At least up at the top, the children would see the fires, Sora thought about to himself. He gave a moment’s thought to their safety, he had two sons of his own, but then took out a flat piece of bread to begin pulling sections of it away to eat. In between bites he pulled his cloak over his mouth and nose to keep from breathing too much of the smoky air.
The dawn was now here, and the air’s rusty patina flooded with light. Sora could tell the sky was above the smoke, but it was distorted to a turquoise that bled through the browned cream of the clouds. He was finished giving rides to travelers for the day and got up to unlatch his boat from the dock and drag it into the woods along the waterline to hide it from travelers who would request his assistance.
He was still chewing and clapped his hands clean of the bread crumbs and dirt he felt on them. In a sudden heave he began to cough, and he held the morsel of masticated food in his mouth with his tongue to keep from inhaling it, as he took in deep breaths to continue coughing. His cough worsened and he spit out his food into the grass and squatted down by the water to cup mouthfuls of it into his hands to drink it.
When he was settled coughing, with his head down, he stared at the ochre brown of the water, and his stoic reflection sketched on the surface. It was quiet for a brief second, with the roaring wildfires being the only sound.
Suddenly he heard the chiming of a bell mixed with the humming of men’s voices behind him on the far side of the base of the bluff, at the downstream portion of the great gate of arches. He could tell they were coming along the path. At first he only heard the higher tones, but as they walked closer to his side of the bluff, he heard the unnatural bases leveling in an undisturbed drone. There were several distinct notes that the men held, which to the ear felt like a stack of logs that rested on each other. These drones drowned out the sounds of the forests and the wildfires, bringing an unnatural resonance to the atmosphere. More voices were added to the chorus, and these rose and fell to notes by sliding in various patterns and speeds, but always resolved to the droning tones. And through all of this, the bell chimed on.
Sora wouldn’t look up. He’d heard these men before, back in his childhood. They cleansed the trail during the days the fires burned. They wore green tunics that draped almost to the ground, and they were decorated in fiercely designed patterns stitched also in green. These stitchings had been perfected as a craft in one of the villages somewhere in Missapi. His wife came from this village, but he was unfamiliar with its name and its exact location. In fact the patterns on these priests garments were the same ones that Sora’s wife had stitched on his own.
There were dozens of these priests, and none seemed to notice Sora at the water’s edge. He couldn’t remember exactly, but felt that one of the arch posts was blocking their view of him from the path. He also reckoned that he was close enough to the forest line, that too was sheltering him, as they made their ascend across the path and then up the side of the bluff. He didn’t hear any strain in their voices when he could tell they were climbing jackknife going north in the same direction as the children earlier.
Their voices were growing louder and Sora slowing began to lift his head up to try to turn around to see just how many priests there were. As he did so, his eyes caught the shapes of a set of figures wading like him further up of the river bank to his right, some couple hundred yards or so. He was forced into a double take and found the figures to be that of a small herd of elk. Sora was right between them and the priest, and several bulls in the heard watched in his direction in curiosity at the sound of the chant. Soon the females looked up from their eating and froze in the commotion.
The priest’s couldn’t see the elk, who were completely covered by the forest, and stood amongst marshy reeds. Only Sora could see them from his place on the shoreline, but they had now begun to move their head upward to try to see what the sounds was through the forest on the bluff. Many of the men were still passing behind Sora and was astonished how many there were this year. He was getting frustrated and wanted anything but for them to see him. He didn’t know why.
From his angle, Sora was only able to see around a dozen of the animals, but he knew this was the time of year they were beginning to assemble in their winter herds to head up out of the valleys of Missapi into the great forests. They were too distracted by the priests to notice him. He took his eyes off the animals and crouched down onto his stomach in the sand to crawl towards his pack. The grasses and gates did indeed shield him from view of the priests, but he could finally begin to hear the end of their procession.
Sora grabbed his bow and arrows, thinking only of the elk. The smell of dry grass and dirt filled his nostrils. He closed his eyes to concentrate hard on the moment when the men were far enough up the trail that they wouldn’t see him rise to his feet. Their voices were still loud, and Sora prayed deeply that the elk would still be there when he came back.
Finally, he shot up facing the bluff and gate where the priests were just passing by. The arches had been strewn with bright ribbons of orange cloth that now danced slowly in the wind. It startled him at the sight of just how full the arches were of the fabric. He coughed a little as his lungs remembered the putrid air they were breathing in.
He went quickly back to the water’s edge while trying not to make a sound. The elk had continued to remain wading in the water, but now they looked farther to their left, trying to discern the oddity of the sound of singing. Some had gone back to eating the marsh weeds, having discerned the priests were of no threat. At the front of the herd Sora noticed for the first time was a massive bull. It may have been the largest he’d ever seen. He simply stared at it and caught that he had stopped breathing for some time. Careful not to gasp again for breath in the smoke-filled air, he slowly put his scarf up over his mouth. It smelled of sheep, earth, and charcoal.
The bull’s body was facing Sora, but as he began to draw his bow up to take a neck shot, the animal stumbled forward a few paces to turn broadside, exposing a clear shot at its vitals. Sora was shaking, but took a few more deep breaths to steady himself. The chanting was still audible, but it was beginning to descend away.
Sora timed his breaths to the releasing of his arrow. Inhaling and then exhaling he calmed himself and only thought about the moment his fingers would release and the arrow would fly forward.
He was about to fire when a loud crack was heard behind him. The sound rumbled and then chased over the water with a breeze that felt as though it timed with it. Another loader crack sounded and the herd had startled and began to run off in haste.
“Fuck,” Sora exasperated. He brought his bow down.
He turned behind him to the rumbling sound, and saw directly across the water, the scene of one of the bluffs crumbling down in a slow rock fall. The cracking sound felt piercing, and it mixed with the sounds of rock smashing into other rock as well as tree limbs snapping under their weight. The rocks tumbled down to a new blaze at a section of the shoreline that Sora was at only a few hours before with the children.
The chanting was stopped by the sound of the crumbling bluff. Sora moved quickly to grab his pack and gather brush to cover his canoe with. When he was finished, he extracted from his pack yards of tarry brown fabric. He began wrapping the fabric tightly around his calves, ankles, and feet until they formed a complete boot around both sets. The fabric had been dipped into a solution of a tar derived of pine sap, and allowed him to walk through the marshes without getting wet.
He quickly put on his pack and began stumbling through the marsh on the edge of the tree line, the entire time hearing the renewed chanting of the priests. Carrying his bow in his left hand, he held the arrow in his right, holding it ready to be fired at a moment’s notice. He didn’t know how long the herd would run before they settled and continued eating.