After agreeing amongst themselves that they should try, each of the animals took turns to dive down below the water. The hopes were highest for the strongest swimmers like the otter, but as each animal tried and failed, that hope soon turned to despair. Eventually, only the muskrat remained untested, but the other animals told the muskrat not to bother with an attempt himself and that the strong swimmers would keep trying.
During the night, while the other animals slept off the fatigue of a day spent trying to reach the bottom of the sea, the muskrat lay awake on his back, looking at the stars. In his heart, he began to realize what needed to be done. With a splash that woke the other animals from their sleep, the muskrat dived down beneath the water. The other animals called for the muskrat and watched the swirling sea, waiting for him to surface. But as short moments stretched into long ones, they fell into silence.
It wasn’t until the sun was halfway across the sky that they saw something bobbing on the water in the distance. When the turtle had gotten close enough to recognize the shape of the muskrat, still and soundless, the other animals jumped into the water to pull the little body onto the turtle’s shell. As they began to mourn the muskrat, arranging the body in the centre of the shell in alignment with the path of the sun, they noticed that one of the muskrat’s paws was shut tight. Gently, the otter opened it and found a small bit of dark mud inside.
The animals began to celebrate, their joy mixed with many tears, as they turned the muskrat’s paw to drop the mud on to the turtle’s shell. The land that grew from that small bit of mud, clasped in the paw of the humble muskrat, lies beneath our feet today.
“I always wondered how the animals got there in the first place,” I remember saying to Hunter, crunching through the snow and ice that still stuck to the ground. “Did Dad ever tell you that part?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Hunter responded.
I couldn’t recall either.
Many Indigenous scholars have said for years that we, as Indigenous peoples, are leading lives in our post-apocalypse. When I had first heard this idea, it immediately resonated, explaining (at least in part) why the myth of the remaking of the world struck a chord so deep within me, even as a kid. The fact that the ways of life that would be recognizable to our ancestors are gone, likely never to return, creates a strange form of grief that is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t already know it in their blood and bones.
So just as we had done when we created our play Lake of the Strangers, Hunter and I began to engage in a process that we call “myth architecture.” An extension of the teachings we’ve gained from our Elders, who have told us that storytellers tell stories for those who need them, myth architecture begins with a question that feels important but is without an answer and challenges us to craft a narrative that provides some sort of response. Often, this looks like “completing,” “expanding,” or “setting up” a pre-existing myth. With Lake of the Strangers, for example, we completed the myth of mista muskwa (The Big Bear) as we tried to answer the question: Why should we heal when there is so much darkness?
As we continued to imagine the image of the animals floating on the back of the vast turtle of legend, a concept emerged for the story that we began to work on in earnest this past summer: câpân. When complete, câpân will be the tale of how the animals got to the back of the turtle. Through the lens of a group of teenagers finding their way at the end of the last great ice age on Turtle Island, we will seek to answer the question, “What do we need to begin rebuilding the world once the old one has been swallowed up?”
Like most of us, I know I’m counting down the days until the end of 2020, despite understanding that once we emerge into a new year, we will still be in the process of being forever changed by a world that has ended and has not yet been reborn.