Max and the Midnight Fiddleheads

AFTER dinner, Max sat restlessly by the kitchen window waiting for the sun to set. It took a long time now with May's lingering days. Finally, when the vivid oranges collapsed into a thin purple line, the rim of night stretched across the sky. It was time. He had raced 20 yards toward Mr. Rosiello's, when the screen door slammed behind him.

It had been about 10 days since his Italian neighbor announced, "Talking Moose is coming to town! He will be at my house next Friday after sunset. He wants to meet you."

Max knew nearly nothing about Talking Moose - except that he sometimes came to Hallowell to see relatives.

"He is one of the few full-blood Wabanaki Indians," Mr. Rosiello said. "You will be lucky to meet him."

During the last week, grand visions of a tall, rugged-faced man with strange speech and a powerful presence developed in Max's imagination. All the Indians Max knew from movies and books merged into one, real man. Meeting Talking Moose would be the event of Max's life. But, this morning, when he eagerly told school friends about it, Jason retorted, "Talking Moose? My dad says that's just a made-up name. His name's always been Louie. Anyway, he's just a basketmaker. And he works over at Elvin's every summ er - been pickin' corn there since before we were born."

Now, as Max rounded Mr. Rosiello's porch, doubts churned in his mind. From his porch rocker Mr. Rosiello waved hello. "Maxie! Talking Moose has to guard his fiddlehead field against trespassers tonight - it's fiddlehead season, you know. We're going with him."

Before Max could ask "What are fiddleheads?" Mr. Rosiello rocked up to a standing position, threw Max a wadded sleeping bag, and strode right past him, calling, "Moose!" When Max turned around, he met a heavy-stepping man with deep, close-set eyes, and straight, black hair. Three wood-splint baskets dangled from his arms. But when the Indian's eyes met Max's, he seemed shy and said softly, "I'm Louie."

A long pause swelled between them. "This is Max," said Mr. Rosiello finally, "the boy I told you about."

I thought he would at least wear a leather shirt and silver rings, or feathers, thought Max. He just looks regular in those old jeans and turtleneck. He felt all his precious expectations drain away. Disgusted with himself for believing Mr. Rosiello, he thought, that crazy man always sees things no one else does with those glasses of his. Now he sees "Talking Moose" when everyone knows it's just Louie.

Y now, Max wouldn't trade one of his holey socks to know what fiddleheads were. But Mr. Rosiello was already following Louie toward the vacant lot. And soon Max was traipsing behind. As they made their way down to the river, Max heard Louie telling about his uncle's fiddlehead field.

"It was always a secret field until now. My ancestors picked fiddleheads there for centuries. But now fiddleheads have become white man's food. Twice this week someone picked the field clean. Must be folks selling to the big supermarkets. I heard they get $3 a pound. So now I have to guard the field."

As they hiked south along the river, the long forgotten smell of crushed, damp grass rose from Max's steps. He suddenly realized he couldn't wait for summer. Feeling unexpectedly better, he thought about guarding the field. Movies began to run wild through his mind, and Max saw himself waving a thick branch as he ordered rowdy invaders off the field. His usually squeaky voice would turn deep and menacing as prankster-kids ran away before he could lecture them. Then he conjured up a minor skirmish between

himself and two or three out-of-town rogues. He wouldn't hurt them, but, after all, he did have four karate lessons under his belt. OK, thought the pumped-up Max, I'm ready for THIS adventure.

Louie turned sharply, lumbered up the bank, and headed into the woods. He marched forward confidently, catching dead branches and heaving them off, while Mr. Rosiello and Max tripped over one another in the dark shadows of pine trees. When bare birches let the moon penetrate the blackness, Max noticed its light jumping from his left to his right, then behind him. "Talking Moose is twisting around like a snake," said Mr. Rosiello. "He must really know these woods."

Louie reached the clearing first, and Mr. Rosiello followed, bursting into the open space, exclaiming, "Ah! Che bello campo! What a beautiful field!"

Then Max saw it. Spread before him under a pale sheet of moonlight was the greenest field he had ever seen. Bounded by dark forest on three sides and lapping water on the fourth, it sat utterly still."Wow," was all he could say.

"It's even better when you come to it by canoe," Louie said.

Then he turned away and walked along the edge of the field - as if to the beat of a slow drum. Mr. Rosiello and Max watched. He must be patrolling the perimeter to check for fiddlehead hunters, thought Max.

After walking the outer boundary, Louie picked up his pace and walked in tighter circles toward the center of the field. Then he kneeled down and motioned to his companions.

Max looked up uncertainly at Mr. Rosiello. "Are we supposed to walk around in circles, too?"

"No," Mr. Rosiello chuckled tentatively.

As they walked straight to the center, Max swiveled his head, spying for trespassers. But Louie was not watching. Instead, he bent down over his knees, curling his head under his shoulders. Sure doesn't look like a guarding position to me, thought Max. As the two shuffled nearer, they could hear faint muttering and moaning. Max sat down at a comfortable distance staring at the huge, rounded back. His eyebrows knit up as he looked at Mr. Rosiello. This looks crazy. What's he doing? Mr. Rosiello cocked his

head and held up his hand to say "Wait."

When Louie sat up half a minute later, his eyes fell hard on Max. He stared right through the boy. A puzzled look tightened his whole face. But a moment later his expression relaxed again.

"What do you feel on the ground beneath you, son?" he asked.

"Bumps," said Max uncomfortably, shifting his eyes as well as his position. Louie was still staring at him.

"The bumps are fiddleheads - the first fruit of our mother earth's waking. She is pushing them up through the ground to feed us something fresh and green after the long brown winter. It is the Wabanaki custom to give thanks to the earth mother."

Then he snapped off a nearby fiddlehead and handed it to Max. Examining the two-inch stem with its spiral end, Max was surprised. "It does look like the head of a fiddle, all curled up." He paused and said, "You eat these? Yuck! That's like eating moss!"

"They're not moss, Max. They're ferns," said Mr. Rosiello. "See, if you look close you will see miniature leaves - they look just like giant summer ostrich ferns, only tiny." He uncoiled one green knot for Max to see, then brushed off its cinnamon-brown scales and popped the fiddlehead in his mouth. Smiling and wiggling his eyebrows up and down, he proclaimed, "Delicioso!"

"I'm not gonna eat ferns!" laughed Max. His sudden voice shook the still field. Glancing around, he wondered if any trespassers heard him. No strange moving shadows, yet. No twig breaks in the woods.

"Perhaps you would rather hear fiddleheads than taste them," suggested Louie. To Max's distrustful look, he added, "That is what Wabanaki boys learn. If you pick fiddles in the morning, the next morning the field will be filled again. They grow six inches in a day. And if you are very still and very close, you can hear them growing. You can hear their brown papery covering stretch as the head begins to expand and open."

Max looked at Mr. Rosiello. "We're supposed to be listening for trespassers," he pleaded.

"There is no one here, Max. Try it," said Mr. Rosiello.

So Max lay down in the field with his ear against the hard knot of a fiddlehead that was two inches out of the ground. He listened, but heard nothing for three or four minutes. Louie and Mr. Rosiello got up to walk to another part of the field. The moon was setting now. The field dimmed. In the vast silence Max held his breath and waited. He could hear his heart beat. Then he heard a tiny rustle. It sounded like a noise inside his ear. Again he held his breath and waited a long time. When he heard the ru stle a second time, he was sure it was the fiddlehead. He focused all his attention on hearing it again. He forgot about trespassers.

Soon Louie returned saying, "We thought we heard noises at the edge of the woods. Mr. Rosiello's staying there a while longer. Probably just foxes."

Max told Louie how he had heard the fiddlehead growing. The Indian smiled for the first time. "You are beginning to listen. But you must also learn to touch and taste."

So, under Louie's direction, Max tasted not only fiddleheads, but sweet grasses, too. He fingered the lumpy soil in the woods and squeezed the loose, sandy river loam between his toes. He stood still enough to feel the damp air on his neck and hear the three different rhythms of the water. `You are patient," said Louie, surprised.

"Once between third and fourth grade, Amy and I looked for four-leaf clovers from before lunch until dinner time - six hours altogether," Max replied.

When Mr. Rosiello returned from his watch, he was surprised to see Max and Louie lying side by side in their sleeping bags as they gazed up at the sky. They seemed completely disinterested in guarding the field.

"Now it's my turn," Louie was saying. In the air he drew a spiral with his finger. Max watched, wondering.

"I know. It's a fiddlehead," said Max confidently.

"Maybe. Maybe not," said Louie.

"What do you mean? Of course it's a fiddlehead," Max pressed.

"Well, it could be a baby curled in the womb. Or a whirlpool suddenly twirling in a smooth stream. Or the eagle circling in on its prey."

"Oh, I get it," said Max. "Or, it could be my dog, Cleo, walking in circles on her bed trying to get comfortable before she goes to sleep."

"Si! Or, it could be the spiral of a star galaxy that spins way out in the universe," mimicked Mr. Rosiello as he stuffed himself into his own sleeping bag.

The three watchmen fell into deep silence as they lay on the ground watching the constellations turn and feeling the earth whirl through the universe. As his body grew limp with sleep, Max mumbled, "Talking Moose."

No trespassers came that night. As it turned out, Mr. Rosiello was right about Talking Moose. He was a medicine man. And that night he entrusted Max with the "medicine" - the wisdom - that would someday preserve the fiddlehead field.

When Max felt the early morning heat, he opened his eyes. Right before them was a four-inch-tall fiddlehead that had uncoiled enough to show its delicate emerald fronds arranged like a pinwheel in the center of the spiraled stem. The brown furry covering was barely hanging on.

Talking Moose and Mr. Rosiello had filled a basket with just enough fiddleheads for the three of them. It was time to head home. For supper, Mr. Rosiello cooked the fiddles in a frying pan with butter and lemon. And Max discovered a green vegetable that he actually liked. Previous stories about Max appeared on Aug. 8 and Oct. 10, 1991, and Feb. 25, 1992.

`Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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