Chenoo: A Novel

Chenoo: A Novel

by Joseph Bruchac

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Jacob Neptune, a wise-cracking, two-fisted Penacook private investigator with a checkered past, lives in upstate New York—four hundred miles from his tribal community on Abenaki Island. Then one night the phone rings. “We . . . got . . . trouble,” Neptune’s cousin Dennis says from the other end. And trouble is where it all starts in this brilliant, often hilarious novel by acclaimed Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac.

Attacked by bikers before he can even board his plane, Neptune—“Podjo” to his friends—quickly begins to realize just how much trouble surrounds his people’s ancestral home. Guided by his sense of duty to his homeland, he agrees to help protect Dennis and other Penacooks as they stage a takeover of a state campground on land that should have reverted to their tribe. But encroaching developers, government operators, and even fellow Penacooks eager to build a casino each pose a threat to the Abenaki lands—and all have reasons to want Neptune out of the picture.

Podjo greets each challenge with self-deprecating humor—but it’s difficult to shake his increasingly disturbing dreams, and an unsettled feeling when his return leads to a reunion with a long-ago love interest. As he and Dennis contend with hired guns, police, and security, a far greater threat appears: someone, or something, is brutally killing people in the woods. It will take all of Neptune’s skills as a martial artist and the wisdom gained from tribal elders to battle the forces that threaten the sacred land—and his and his people’s lives.

Bruchac ratchets the tension from the first page to the last in this detective novel that pairs comedy and action with serious consideration of corporate greed, environmental destruction, cultural erosion, and other modern-day issues pressing Native peoples.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806154312
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/21/2016
Series: American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series , #68
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 427 KB

About the Author

Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki writer, poet, and storyteller, has written more than 130 books during his distinguished career. His best-selling Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children is used in classrooms across the country.

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Joseph Bruchac


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5431-2


Awake, less than awakened Sleeping, almost awake

Breath burns in my throat like acid. My legs are numb and heavy as clay. I struggle up the slope, seeking the safety of the pines. My heart seems ready to burst, but I can't slow down. It's too close behind me.

I've run at least two miles since I first heard that blood-stopping howl. First distant, then closer. Silent now. But the silence doesn't give me hope. It may only mean it's no longer following just my scent — that it's now seen me.

Is that drumming my pulse or the sound of heavier feet than mine striking the earth as it lopes closer, closing the gap between its thirst for my blood and my thirst for life?

The mouth of a small cave is just ahead. There at the base of the cliff. I might reach it! The bracelet on my wrist catches on a branch. I don't remember that bracelet. Where did it come from? I reach back, open the clasp. The heavy silver band falls to the ground, glitters in the moonlight. But in that moment, just as I free myself, something darker than shadow looms over me. Twin reflections of the moon glint from the ancient cold of its dead eyes. Lightning strikes inside my skull. I start to fall, my ears ringing from the killing force of that blow.

And then I was awake.

I sat up in bed. The full moon was filling the one window in my bedroom, set high on the wall above me and in front of me. But no one other than the oldest celestial grandmother was looking at me now. The sense of someone — or something — watching, watching with malevolent intent, was gone, though I felt as if I'd walked through a spiderweb.

The first five chords of "Custer Died for your Sins" sounded from the red cell phone on top of the old wooden soft drink crate I use as a bedside table. I wiped my face and picked up the phone.

"Kwai, kwai, Dennis."

"Podjo!" Dennis Mitchell's voice roared back at me, not quite loud enough to explode the electromagnet inside the earpiece. Long ago, tradition goes, back when animals and people looked even more alike than they do now, his people were bears. Get one of those Mitchells excited, they tend to lose their quiet tone of voice and start roaring like bears. Uncle John Neptune told me that and, like most of the things that old muskrat taught me, he was dead right.

"J. J. Neptune, P.I.," I replied in my most formal tones. Then I held the phone a foot farther away from my ear to avoid more permanent hearing loss.

"How?" Dennis bellowed. Then, in a more normal tone of voice, "How you always knows it's me when I call?"

As if he had to ask after all we've been through together? I didn't answer. Anyhow, it was not really a question. Dennis knew two things. First, that I do not have caller ID, and second, that I have this way of knowing things that most folks do not.

"Okay," Dennis finally said.

"It's the middle of the night. Where the hell are you?"

"Penacook Tribal Office."


On the other end of the phone, four hundred miles closer to the dawn than upstate New York, my best friend sounded like a whale in an echo chamber as he took a deep, deep breath.

"Podjo," he said, pausing between each word to emphasize his seriousness, "we ... got ... trouble."

"I know. I saw the piece on the news when I was down at the store yesterday. Caught Mikwe's sound bite and noticed just how noble he looked. 'Chief' Mikwe as they're calling him now."

Though I was joking about it, I actually had been impressed by Mikwe's response to the reporter asking if the tribe's takeover was an act of disloyalty at a time when all Americans needed to unite against terrorists. It matched the post-9/11 mood while conveying the legitimacy of the claims being made by the Children of the Mountain in taking over the thousand-acre abandoned state campsite that had been put up for auction by the state.

"We're the opposite of domestic terrorists," Mikwe had said. "We're loyal Americans, loyal first Americans. Every person in our ranks has either served in the armed forces or has a family member who served or is on active duty. We're just asking the government, our government, to honor some of the promises made to our people. Such as the promise that this sacred land we're occupying would be returned to our people if it was no longer being used by the state."

Impressive, indeed. But I wasn't about to admit that, which was why I then added, "Amazing what a few turkey feathers on your head can do for a man's image, eh?"

A sound like someone turning on a grinder filled the earpiece. Dennis's chuckle. But his voice was deathly serious when he spoke again.

"It's not just the standoff."

Another pause followed, the kind of long pause you get only when you're talking with another Penacook over the phone. Clam up with someone who isn't Indian and they start to get nervous. Real nervous. Have to ask if you're still there. And when you just say "unh-hunh," and nothing else, they get more nervous. Great way to spoil a telemarketer's day.

But Dennis and me were both Penacooks. Being Penacook meant never having to ask if you are still there. We are and we aren't going anywhere. Which, in itself, has been a source of consternation for those individuals, governments, and organizations that have tried so hard to eradicate our presence over the last five centuries.

Seconds silently ticked away as the digital display of the battery-powered clock by my bed reminded me it was now 4:15 A.M. There was no electricity in that little cabin of mine. Thus no TV, no air-conditioning, no computer. Just my two rooms, and my woodstove for heat. For entertainment, I had the picture window looking out over the high mountain meadow, the woods, and the hills rolling down to the Hudson River, which, though concealed by the trees, often reveals itself some mornings as a lazy S of fog rising above the green.

I was not a total whatever-ist. My windup radio, my cell phone, and that clock were concessions to the fact that "This is 2004, for Christ's sake!" Fred down at the store said that yesterday because I had no idea what he was talking about when he referred to the last episode of Lost.

* * *

That clock now read 4:16. But I only noticed its small glowing face out of the corner of my eye. My real attention was fastened on a brighter, more lasting keeper of true time. It was one reason I cut that southeastern window so high on my bedroom wall, perfectly placed for me to look up from my pillow and observe not just the swirl of stars across the firmament but also the passage of Nanibonsad, the Night Traveler, Grandmother Moon. She'd moved a bit since the phone woke me, walking her slow stately way across the heavens. I was willing to bet that Dennis was also watching her back there on the Island, his thick glasses reflecting Grandmother Moon's journey toward the promise of another dawn.

My cousin Dennis and I had both loved the moon since we were little kids. Batteries ran out, power failed, people changed or disappeared to never come back again, but not her. She was always there. Even when her face was hidden, we knew she was watching, would always be reliable, always return her light to us. We learned early in our troubled younger years that we could count on her to abide, to tell the truth, unlike some people or some nations. The faithful moon — the only grandmother that both of us orphan kids ever had.

"So tell me," I finally said.

Dennis sighed. "Podjo ...," his voice was weary, worried. "It's something that's ..." he hesitated, trying to find the right way to put it without saying it straight out, "just something we can't talk about over the phone."

Another long pause. I listened to Dennis breathing and to the familiar, soft rhythmic sound I could pick up underneath it. It told me he was using a headset so that his hands could remain free. Thwick, thwick, thwick. Whittling. Thwick, thwick, thwick, small curlicue shavings of pine being flicked off the wood held in his left hand as the lock-blade knife in his right sought what ever shape was held within the grain. It was amazing just how delicately he could shape things with those huge lineman's paws of his. It reminded me of one of the things Uncle John taught me — that you can never judge people just by their looks. There was a lot more to Dennis than met the eye and people usually got the wrong impression when they first met him, especially when they were not, as the politically polite would now have it, Native Americans.

Both Dennis and I had spent more time than most Penacooks in that not always politically correct, bleached-out civilization. In college we were both Indians. By which I mean we went to Dartmouth and played football there. Back before he became the world's slowest suicide, Dennis was pretty much unstoppable. Even today, at six feet six inches and 320 pounds, Dennis still looked like the NFL lineman that a good many experts thought he might have been — playing the same position of monster right tackle he nailed down for the three years we spent in Hanover. As the starting right linebacker for two years, I learned what it was like to get blocked by him in practice — less pleasant than being buried in a rock-filled avalanche.

I was almost as good at my position as Dennis was at his, which led to sportswriters in the '90s dubbing us "Dartmouth's Two Big Chiefs," despite our being from a contentiously unrecognized tribe. Some envisioned us making the jinx-ridden cover of Sports Illustrated and ending up being taken in at least the third round of the NFL draft. Maybe higher if our senior year stats improved the way everyone expected.

Someone, a psychology professor I liked, once told me, that we human beings can recover from almost any trauma. That's why we've succeeded beyond any other species on the planet. We can lose our parents and grandparents in the same car accident and still recover. We can be starved and beaten by foster parents, barely escape sexual molestation by stabbing the sick bastard in his leg with a pencil, have our fingers broken and everything else, and still, a few years later, be back to normal, as fully functioning persons. I believe that to be true.

I also believe that to be bullshit.

There are two things that we Penacooks can tell you about life. The first is that things are simple. The second is that they are not.

Which may explain why at the start of our senior year, with our biggest season ahead of us, Dartmouth's Two Big Chiefs got drunk and went out and enlisted. Slick Willy was prez then, not one of the Bush leaguers. The fall of the Twin Towers was years away, so it was not an excess of patriotic zeal that overtook us, nor had we dreamed since childhood of eventually being one of those Indian vets at the powwow who gets to carry in the 'Merican flag as an Honor Song is played on the big drum. At the time we did it, we might have thought it was funny, a real joke on our school and our coaches and those writers who gushed about us scalping Yale and being on the warpath against Harvard. Ho ... ho ... ho. It might have been a result of our shared ironic sense of humor, or — to be honest — a preemptive strike, with us choosing to fail all on our own before anyone else could reject us.

What ever the case, we turned out to be even better in Special Forces than we'd been on the gridiron. And the brotherhood Dennis and I shared became that much deeper. We had something we could share with no one else. Total trust.

Don't get me wrong. Despite my hermit existence I liked most people. And I was capable of love, as well. He prayeth best who loveth best, as old Sammy Coleridge once lisped. There were a lot of people I'd loved, even some who would try to kill me on first sight because I was in their country and they felt justified since I was part of an invasion force trying to kill them. Trust, though, is a whole other ball game. There was only a handful of people I could trust. Dennis ranked as that hand's thumb.

"Podjo?" Dennis said, his voice soft this time. "You comin'?"

"You know I am."

Click. No addio, nidoba. No bye-bye. No catch you later, dude. Just our old abrupt Penacook way of ending a phone conversation once all that needed to be said had been said. So abrupt, in fact, that it may have surprised someone listening in on another extension in the tribal offices. Because, just a second later, that click of Dennis's phone line disconnecting had been followed by another click.

What that meant, I had yet to find out. But mentally I filed it away in the Expect Trouble folder as I pressed the off button on my own handset.

What ever whoever else was up to, I knew what my bro was doing now. He was putting down his whittling, bringing up the commuter airline on his laptop that he had turned on 24–7, checking the arrival time for the earliest flight that would lift me over the intervening mountains to be dropped (gently, I trusted) at the regional airport nearest the island.

I had no doubt that Dennis would be there waiting for me in the airport lot, his beloved old Jeep Renegade even more battered than before, disguising the souped-up engine under its scratched hood, its reinforced bumpers displaying such stickers as


The thought of that old jeep and Dennis's broad, smiling face — the sharp intelligence in his brown eyes masked by Coke-bottle prescription sunglasses — brought a smile to my face. I relaxed a little, but I didn't lie back down. Sleep didn't want to be my friend.

I flexed my right leg. The pain in my knee wasn't that bad. No more than an eleven on a scale from one to ten. I massaged it, straightened the leg and bent it a dozen times, hearing the Velcro crackling of tendons as I did so. Gradually it loosened up and the pain lessened. I suppose I could have taken painkillers for it. Sure. But it would have required far too many of those to dull the knife-sharp pangs I'd gotten used to feeling. I'd have ended up as hooked on oxy as I used to be on booze. Thank you very much, but nda.

I unlocked my heavy bedroom door, swung it open, and walked out into my combination living room and kitchen. I stood in my fashionable plaid boxer shorts in front of the open window and peered out through the thinning dark, the quiet expanse of tree-clad slopes rolling below the cabin. Two of my jade plants were in bloom and their sweet scent filled the air, making me think, pleasantly for a change, of certain tropic places I'd been.

In the light from Grandmother Moon, I could easily make out the two lines of my blueberry bushes and the rounded shapes of the pears and plums I planted a few years back. I wondered what animals might be looking up at my window or just ignoring me as they went along their way, indifferent to a human being who felt no need to hunt them. Maybe my five grey foxes were out there.

Thinking of them brought a smile to my face. I'd first seen them a few days before from my picture window and observed Mama Fox walking past with the biggest Anjou pear from my tree held firmly in her jaws. I say "Mama" because no sooner had she settled down to start eating that pear than her baby came rollicking out of the woods. Half her size, the reddish tinge on its side and the white on its puffy chest even brighter than hers, the baby looked as cuddly as a stuffed animal. Its tail was bushier, too, and held up like a question mark.

"Kwai, kwai, Q," I whispered, as the baby fox jumped over its mother's back, rolled off onto its side, then picked up a leaf and hightailed back into the pines. To reappear a minute later, but tail straighter, body looking skinnier than before ... oops, not Q at all, but a sibling. And, yup, with tail like a bushy punctuation mark, out burst Q again, leaf still in its grinning jaws with a third young fox in pursuit. I stayed there without moving, just watching the show. My right knee started spasming from standing still so long, but who cared. It was a small admission fee to pay for that matinee. When, two hours and three of my prize pears later, the four of them finally faded for good back beneath the pines and hemlocks, I felt like applauding. Who needed Net-Fix or what ever it was called?


Excerpted from Chenoo by Joseph Bruchac. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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