05/31/2013 07:56 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2013

The Song Of Minnehaha

Getty Images

"Sean, I got up early and went to town for groceries. There's a breakfast burrito in the freezer. Nuke it for two minutes. And don't forget your insulin, ten units of regular and twenty of Lente."

Never marry a nurse; they treat you like a patient. I've been taking insulin for twenty years. One would think that would suggest a modicum of medical knowledge. Despite her occasional nagging, Clara has been a good wife. I write "I'll be at my spot in the woods when you return" at the bottom of Clara's note and leave it on the kitchen table. My penmanship has never been great; now, with the arthritis in my hands, it is barely legible.

I walk over to the fridge and remove the vial of regular insulin; I won't need the long-acting Lente today. The breakfast burrito also does not fit my plans. I place the insulin in a plastic grocery bag and head for the den.

We've been spending summers in this cabin overlooking Lake Superior for thirty years. It is no longer a second home; for me, it is home. This is where I found my motivation to write. Some of my best works owe their conception to a small spark of inspiration gleaned from these forty acres of Upper Peninsula wilderness.

Most of the cabin belongs to Clara, but the den is mine. It is small, to be sure, but provides for my basic needs. It has a red sofa with fabric that, like me, is frayed with age. If Clara had her way, it would have been banished to sofa heaven years ago. (It has too many memories for me to discard.) Up against the window overlooking Lake Superior is my oak desk. This is where I did my writing, first on a manual typewriter and then on a computer. I say that in past tense since my arthritis prevents all but the most essential writing. Now, only my dictionary and thesaurus remain on the desk. They were my workhorses, receiving extensive use as I searched for that elusive stronger verb or that more descriptive noun. Samuel Clemens purportedly said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." Sam was a wise man.

The walls are covered with knotty pine, although bookshelves and pictures obscure much of it. Most of the pictures I took myself: local landscapes and spring flowers. One picture is of a much younger me accepting a Pulitzer Prize for my fifth novel. I find that a bit vain, but Clara insists it remains on the wall.

The bookshelves are where I store my memories, where I keep the more memorable books I have read over the years. Even now, as I look at the titles and then close my eyes, I can replay their stories in vivid detail. My memory is one of the few physical attributes that has not exsanguinated with age. My other senses have been relegated to the endangered species list. Despite three laser surgeries, doctors predict diabetes will claim my eyesight within a year.

Twenty-three of the books display my name on the spine. I hope that is a worthy legacy of my life. It is a silly thing for an old man to think about. I pull an old, leather-bound book from the top shelf and add it to the insulin in my plastic bag. Of all the books on the shelf, this is the book I hold in highest esteem--even above those I have authored. I close the door to the den behind me and exit the cabin through the back door.

It will be a warm day. The matutinal sun is already above the trees, suffusing the clearing in which the cabin stands with sunlight. The radiant warmth feels good on my skin. I head down a well-worn path into the woods, a trip I take daily in the summer. The path is lined on both sides by trilliums, a sure sign of spring. It is one of nature's eternal truths; trilliums will be blooming in spring thousands of years after maggots have finished dining on my soul. About one hundred yards into the woods, the path opens into a clearing of sorts. The trees still provide a canopy overhead, but the ground has been cleared of underbrush revealing a small brook. It is too small to qualify as a stream or even a creek. It is two feet across at its widest spot and in the dry summer months is almost non-existent. The brook drains down from the hill above the cabin culminating in a gentle waterfall no more than three feet in height. The water gurgles as it cascades from one rock to the next.

I sit down on a reclining lawn chair I keep for that purpose; even the short walk from the cabin leaves me tired. I write in my den, but this is where I think. The formula for a good novel, I have discovered, is two parts thinking and one part writing. I take the insulin and syringe from the bag and draw up 100 units; it fills the syringe. Ten times my normal dose should be adequate. Then I inject the insulin into the subcutaneous tissue of my belly. I do not bother with the perfunctory alcohol swab.

I take the book out of the bag and caress the aged leather binding. Books have been my life, my sole reason for existence. That had not always been the case. I close my eyes and remember that summer day in 1954. The war in Korean had ended and times were good. I remember standing before that square edifice of red brick and stone that squatted on a small knoll overlooking Union Street. Its windows were tall and slender and arched at the top like a cathedral. Their lower ledges were well over six feet tall, precluding any thought of peering in--not that I cared to--and the door to the building was recessed in a cave-like structure covered by a high, vaulted arch of cut stone. A drawbridge would not have been out of place. Above the arch, etched in sandstone, was Carnegie Public Library, Sparta, Michigan.

I had walked past the building on my way to school, but I had never been inside. I had walked past many buildings on my way to school; none were as formidable as that stone fortress now peering down on me. No other building so totally dominated the landscape or so filled me with trepidation.

School was out for the summer, and fifth grade wouldn't begin until fall; I could find no logical reason for my being there. Summers were for fun and excitement. I should be standing on the pitcher's mound throwing fastballs in Little League and bowing to cheering crowds. Someday I would stand on the pitcher's mound at Tiger Stadium. When I closed my eyes I could hear the roar of the crowd as my fastball whipped over the plate for strike three. This was not to be; a cast on my right wrist prohibited any fastballs. I was out for the season.

With the summer in ruins and nothing significant to occupy my time, I had been relegated to errand boy, returning a library book for my mother. It was a degrading chore at best: books were for girls; baseball was for boys. My mother asked that I personally give the book to Mrs. Weaver, one of the librarians and a close friend of my mother's. According to my mother, Mrs. Weaver was a full-blooded Ojibwa. Weaver didn't sound Indian to me.

Once I was assured none of my friends was watching, I slipped into the library. The inside was smaller than I had imagined. It was one large room with rows of bookshelves lined up like fields of corn. They were so tall I would have been unable to reach the top shelf, if for some unforeseen circumstance the need should arise. In the center, sitting at a large oak desk, guarding the books, was an elderly lady with hair that was not gray, but white like freshly fallen snow, and it billowed up in a bun like a snowdrift. Her skin was unusually tanned for this early in the summer. A pair of turtle-shell glasses hung from her neck by a chain, a fitting accouterment to her profession. The name plaque on her desk identified her as Minne Weaver.

"Mrs. Weaver?" I said as I cautiously approached the desk as one would a trial judge.

She looked up and scrutinized all four-foot-two of me, paying particular attention to the flaming red hair protruding from under my Detroit Tigers baseball cap. "You must be Sean Connolly. I talked to your mother yesterday."

We had not previously met, but with my red hair, I was not difficult to pick out of a crowd. As the summer progressed, my face would become suffused with freckles. The red hair I could tolerate; the freckles I could do without.

"Are you really an Indian?" I asked. "You don't look like an Indian." My mother would have been horrified by my question, but it was something any ten-year-old would need to know.

"You don't look much like Daniel Boone either," she replied. "You're thinking of historical Indians like you see in the movies." She opened her purse and pulled out a well-worn picture. "This is my grandfather."

I looked at the man in the black and white picture. He had dark skin and high cheekbones, and his hair was dark with braids on both sides. Although he was wearing an old-style, tailored suit, he was very much an Indian. I could visualize him riding scout for John Wayne.

"There are quite a few Indians in the Upper Peninsula where I grew up," she said. "My husband and I married after college. John worked for the mines as a geologist. When he died four years ago, I moved down here to work in the library."

Her eyes began to water--old people can get sentimental at times. I felt bad; I had only wanted to know if she was Indian. She grabbed a tissue from her desk and dabbed her eyes as if no explanation were needed.

"My mother asked me to return this book." I laid the book on her desk hoping the distraction would alleviate her sorrow.

She checked the due-date and set the book on a rolling cart half filled with books. Then she gave my red hair and cap another once over. "You must be a Tigers fan."

"Yes, ma'am. I'm going to play for the Detroit Tigers when I grow up. My uncle promised to take me to one of their games when he comes home from Korea." I looked down self-consciously at the cast on my wrist. "I fell off my friend's horse a couple of weeks ago and broke my wrist. I'd be playing ball now if it weren't for this." I held up my cast as exhibit "A."

"That can happen to any ballplayer. Even Casey had his bad days."

"Casey? Who'd he play for?" I had baseball cards for Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, and all the baseball greats, but I couldn't remember anyone named Casey. He had to be a minor leaguer.

"You never heard of Mighty Casey of the Mudville Nine?"

I felt a bit of shame. "No, ma'am."

"We need to correct that. I'll be right back." The lady disappeared into the cornfields and reappeared with a well-worn book. "Take this home and read "Casey at the Bat" on page twenty-nine." She handed me the book. The title of the book was The Best of American Poetry. I felt trapped. The noose was tightening around my neck and the trap door quivered beneath my feet. I couldn't just give the book back to her.

"Just make sure you return it in two weeks."

I left the library with the book of poetry under my shirt. If my friends were to see it, I'd never survive the razzing...and poetry of all books. Ten years old and my manhood was already in question. I gave the baseball field a wide berth to avoid any encounters with close friends and arrived home with my pride intact. I yelled a quick "hello" to my mother who was fixing dinner in the kitchen and headed upstairs to my room. I didn't feel safe until my bedroom door was securely closed behind me. I would hide the book under my mattress for tonight and smuggle it back to the library in the morning. No one would be the wiser.

Before Mighty Casey was sequestered in the safety of my mattress, I had to see who he was. I turned to page 29, finding "Casey At The Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer.

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day.

The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,

A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

The legendary Harry Caray couldn't have better described the game. I continued reading down the page, fascinated with the rhythm of the story. It was as if I were there or at least listening to the play-by-play description on the radio. I had no doubt Mighty Casey would save the day.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,

And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;

But there is no joy in Mudville? Mighty Casey has struck out.

The ending was a let down; I had wanted Casey to clear the bases. This was unlike any poetry I had ever read. There was no flowery language or mushy romance. It was a poem a boy could read without shame, not that I planned to tell anyone. I scanned the table of contents but found no more baseball poems. "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" piqued my interest; I liked horses. I turned to page 89.

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

For the next few minutes I rode "through every Middlesex village and farm, for the country folk to be up and to arm." I could feel the wind in my face as my trusty steed galloped through the countryside. The horse's mane stung as it whipped across my cheek, but I didn't care. I rode through Lexington and on to Concord, all the time yelling, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" Finding nothing more of interest in the book, I stashed it under my mattress.

I returned to the library the following morning, my book safely tucked under my shirt. Mrs. Weaver was sitting at her desk overlooking her domain. I assumed defending her desk against all comers was part of her job description.

"Good morning, Mrs. Weaver. I'm returning your book."

"What did you think of 'Casey at the Bat'?"

"It was O.K., I guess. Is he a real person?"

"He can be if you want him to. Did you read any other poems?"

I wondered if conversations with librarians were privileged like talking to a priest or an attorney. "I read about Paul Revere."

"Ah, Longfellow, one of my favorite poets. Let me show you something."

She reached into one of her desk drawers and pulled out a brown paper bag. Inside was a book aged by time. It was bound in brown leather and trimmed in gold leaf. For a moment I feared she was going to pawn another book on me.

"This is one of the earliest editions of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. I'm told it's worth a lot of money--not that I would ever sell it. It tells about the adventures of a young Indian boy about your age named Hiawatha. Longfellow personally gave it to my grandfather." She opened it to the first page. "See." I looked at the page and saw Henry Wadsworth Longfellow scribbled in the margin. "My grandfather gave it to my mother, and she gave it to me. I had hoped to pass it on to my son or daughter, but John and I never had any children." Her eyes began to water again. She seemed to get teary-eyed every time she talked about her husband.

She opened the book to one of the earlier pages. "Listen to this: By the shores of Gitche Gumee by the shining Big-Sea-Water stood the wigwam of Nokomis."

"What's gitche gumee?"

"That's the Indian name for Lake Superior, where I grew up. Longfellow uses a lot of Indian names." She closed the book and carefully returned it to her paper bag. "Most people call me Minne, but my real name is Minnehaha. My mother named me after Hiawatha's lover. Minnehaha means waterfall in Dakota."

"Does the book have any horses in it?"

"I don't believe so. You like horses?"

"Yes, ma'am. I have a friend who lives on a horse farm. We ride them sometimes. That's how I broke my wrist. The horse got spooked and I fell off. It wasn't his fault."

"You fell off a horse and broke your wrist and you still like horses?"

"Yes, ma'am. When you fall off a horse you got to get right back on. Mom won't let me ride until the cast comes off, but then I'm going to get right back on that horse."

"You remind me of Alec Ramsay."

"Who's he?"

"He's a boy a bit older than you but has your red hair and freckles. He has his very own horse."

"Wow, I wish I had my own horse."

"If I remember right, Alec spent the summer with his uncle who was a missionary in India. On returning home, his ship sank in a storm. Luckily for Alec, the ship had a wild horse on board. Both Alec and the horse were thrown overboard. Alec grabbed the rope tied around the horse's neck, and the horse pulled him to the safety of a small island. No one survived the shipwreck to claim the horse, so the horse became Alec's."

"Some people have all the luck. Nothing that exciting ever happens to me. Does Alec live around here?"

"Yes, I believe he does...Let me check."

Mrs. Weaver slowly walked over to one of the stacks as if each step inflicted considerable pain. I hadn't noticed that before. I assumed she had arthritis. A lot of old folks did. She returned with a book in hand, obviously for me--she had tricked me again.

"This is The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I think you'll like it," she said. She gave me the book, which I was obliged to take. "Make sure you return it in two weeks."

"Yes, ma'am," I said.

I returned home with the book again hidden under my shirt and immediately took it to my room. Out of curiosity I flipped through the pages. Scattered among the sheets of prose were drawings in black ink. One showed a black horse rearing up on its hind legs. The horse had bulging muscles that rippled and gleamed like those of a prizefighter. He was sleek and mean looking, not the kind of horse that would tolerate a saddle.

I opened to the first page: The tramp steamer Drake plowed away from the coast of India and pushed its blunt prow into the Arabian Sea...I was on page 14 when my mother called me for dinner. The Drake was in a terrible storm and had been struck by lightning; it was beginning to sink. People were heading toward the lifeboats; the situation didn't look good.

After supper I asked to be excused so I could organize my baseball cards. It was not an unusual request; I often spent many hours with my baseball cards. I felt bad about the lie, but there was no way I could leave Alec in the middle of that storm with the ship sinking. I read well into the evening.

In the summer my parents let me stay up until ten o'clock. By then the Black Stallion had dragged Alec to a small deserted island, undoubtedly saving his life, but the Black Stallion was still a wild beast capable of killing Alec at any moment.

"Sean, time to turn off the lights."

I looked at the clock on my dresser. It was hard to believe it was already ten. I dog-eared my page and placed the book in its secure spot under my mattress. I turned off the light and lay in bed wondering how Alec would survive on the island without food and water. Finally, I could endure no more. I found a flashlight in my closet and crawled under the covers so my parents wouldn't see my light shining on the ground from their bedroom window, and I read late into the night. When I awoke in the morning the batteries to my flashlight were dead. The book lay on the floor with a dog-ear marking the place I had stopped. I finished the book in two days.

I found Mrs. Weaver sitting at her desk as usual, the desk piled high with stacks of books. I placed The Black Stallion on a vacant spot on her desk. "I enjoyed the book," I said.

She looked up at me and smiled as if she knew I would. "He's quite the horse, isn't he."

"Even with his cut foot, he beat both Sun Raider and Cyclone. The race wasn't even close."

"He also won the Kentucky Derby," Mrs. Weaver added.

"No, ma'am," I said. "The race was in Chicago." I hated to correct her, but she was clearly mistaken.

"That was the race against Sun Raider and Cyclone. You don't think the Black Stallion stopped racing after Chicago, do you?"

She must have seen the confusion on my face. "Follow me," she said. She picked up The Black Stallion and headed toward the cornfield, walking slowly, obviously in pain. She stopped at an aisle labeled juvenile and headed down the row, stopping midway down the aisle. "These are the F's," she said. "The books are in alphabetical order by the author's last name. All these books were written by Walter Farley." She returned The Black Stallion to the stack.

I looked at the books in amazement. There were The Black Stallion Returns, Son of the Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Revolts, The Black Stallion Mystery. There must have been fifteen or more books in all.

"Walter Farley wrote a whole series about the Black Stallion." She pulled out The Black Stallion Returns. "This is the second book in the series."

"Can I read that one?" I asked.

She gave me the book. "Bring it back in two weeks."

I left the library with my treasure firmly gripped in my hands. I didn't care who saw me. I would read every one of the Black Stallion books; I had all summer. I finished reading The Black Stallion Returns in three days and returned for another book. Each time I read a book, Mrs. Weaver would quiz me about the story. I didn't need much encouragement; I was always willing to tell her about Alec's adventures.

Summer passed by too quickly. By late August I had read eight of the books. With two weeks left before school started, it seemed unlikely I would complete the series. Homework would make finding time for reading difficult. With The Black Stallion Revolts under my arm, I walked into the library. It was unusually quiet even for a library. I walked over to the main desk. Instead of Mrs. Weaver, a man in his late forties was sitting at her desk. I felt a bit of anger; he had no right to be there. That was Mrs. Weaver's desk.

"Where's Mrs. Weaver?" I demanded as if the man had personally hidden her away somewhere.

The man looked up at me paying particular attention to the red hair under my Detroit Tigers' baseball cap. "Mrs. Weaver died last night," he said, choosing his words carefully. "She had cancer, you know. She had been in a lot of pain."

I was overcome with shock. What the man was telling me couldn't be true. I wanted to run out of the library and never come back, but my feet wouldn't respond. I just stared at the man in disbelief.

"You must be Sean Connolly."

"Yes, sir."

"Mrs. Weaver spoke very highly of you." He reached into Mrs. Weaver's desk drawer and pulled out a package. It was wrapped in plain brown paper and had a card taped to the outside. "She wanted you to have this."

I thanked the man and quickly left the library; I didn't want anyone to see me cry, but I cried all the way home. I went straight to my room so my mother wouldn't see the tears in my eyes. I set the package on my bed, preferring not to open it as if opening the package would somehow confirm Mrs. Weaver's death. Then, I cried quietly for another ten minutes. She had given me a new life filled with fun and adventure, and now she had taken it away. It wasn't right.

The card attached to the package said simply, "Sean Connolly." I removed the card from the package--my mother always insisted I read the card first. I recognized Mrs. Weaver's meticulous handwriting. She wrote with a flourish that made me envious. My teachers always told me my handwriting left something to be desired.

"When you read this you will know that I am gone," she wrote. "Summer went by too quickly, but you made my last days enjoyable. Please don't cry for me. I am happy now, for I am Minnehaha the waterfall, and I must return to my homeland. I have gone to join my Hiawatha, and together we shall walk along the shores of Gitche Gumee by the shining Big-Sea-Water. If you come to visit, which I hope you do, you will find me in the mournful cry of the loon or the chirp of the cricket or the susurration of the gentle waterfall. I will be there for you."

I set the card aside, my eyes still filled with tears. I would never read another book without thinking of her. I knew what it was before I opened the package and pulled out the book. It was bound in aged brown leather and decorated with gold leaf. On the cover, printed in gold leaf, was--The Song of Hiawatha.

I caress the old leather binding with tired, arthritic fingers as I have done so many times in the past. Even with my eyes closed, I can identify every crease, every imperfection, as if such a book could have imperfections. The book has lost none of its magic over the years. Just holding it gives me an ineffable pleasure that even I cannot express in words.

Around me crickets are chirping, and down by the lake, a loon is voicing its lonely, mournful cry. The day is becoming cool. I feel a chill cut through my body, although a sheen of sweat covers my skin. I try to lift my hand to my throbbing head, but lack the strength. Vaguely I feel each heartbeat pounding within my chest, as adrenaline tries to compensate for the lack of glucose flowing in my blood. My heart races. It is a race it cannot win. My thoughts begin to fog. Where am I? I wonder. The crickets have ceased their chirping, as if to observe a moment of silence, and I can no longer hear the loon down by the lake. All I hear is the susurration of a gentle waterfall--and then there is silence.