time ago, a young boy called Zhowmin lost his parents and went to live with his grandmother, Zhaw-b’noh-quae. Grandmother taught him the ways of his people and how to be respectful, curious, and kind. Zhowmin’s uncle taught him practical knowledge, like how to hunt and fish like a man.
By the time Zhowmin reached manhood he was already caring for his aged grandmother. He kept her well fed with fresh deer, antelope, and elk meat. And she kept him well clothed in animal-hide shirts and leggings.
In the evening, Grandmother told Zhowmin the tales of their people. Even when her voice grew weak and she dozed between stories, she continued to fill her grandson with the wisdom of their elders.
One evening, she told him the story of the Four Hills of Life. Grandmother pointed out that each hill required each climber to have strength and endurance to reach the top and that many people never succeeded in reaching this goal.
Grandmother smiled when she told Zhowmin that she had already climbed the hills of infancy, youth, and adulthood, and was ready to climb the last and final one. “Soon after I leave,” she said to her grandson, “a stranger will come to you. Be sure to do what he says.”
Slowly the moons came and went, one after another, and Grandmother did not leave the wigwam. Then one warm spring morning Grandmother did not answer when Zhowmin called to her. When he brought fresh stew to her bedside, she did not move. Her journey over the last of the four hills was complete.
The people of the village, saddened by the death of a woman they loved, buried Zhaw-b’noh-quae beneath a clump of young pine trees, facing west, or toward the place they called Man’s Last Destiny.
Then, only a few days later, a surly young man arrived in the village. “Is there at least one good man in this village?” asked the stranger. The elders thought. Finally one of them said, “Yes, Zhowmin is a good man. We will take you to him.”
Zhowmin took the stranger into his wigwam and served him a large bowl of deer stew. After they had finished eating, Zhowmin asked, “Why have you come?”
“I have traveled a long time among your people looking for a good man and have yet to find one. I understand from your elders that you are such a man.”
Suddenly Zhowmin became angry. “Who are you, anyway? I certainly do not need to prove anything to a complete stranger.”
The visitor straightened himself. “I will tell you who I am and why I have come. Then you will listen.”
Zhowmin remained silent.
“I am Mandamin. I was sent by Kitche Manitou, Maker of Life, to find a good man and to test his inner strength. But first that man must fight with me. If you win, you will have proven the worth of your people and you will live. If you lose, you will die.”
Zhowmin did not believe that Mandamin was a messenger of Kitche Manitou so he protested again. “I do not have to prove myself to you or anyone else.”
“It is true you do not have to,” said Mandamin. “But I will interpret your refusal to fight as cowardice, which is the same as defeat. And I will report to Kitche Manitou that I have not found a single worthy man among the Anishinabe people.”
Zhowmin grew very angry. He did not care what the stranger thought of his courage, but he did not want Kitche Manitou to think that the Anishinabe people were unworthy.
Then Zhowmin remembered that his grandmother had warned him that a stranger would visit and he must do as he was told. “All right,” Zhowmin agreed at last. “I will fight to prove my people worthy.”
That night Mandamin and Zhowmin met in a clearing in the forest. They stripped to the waist, postured themselves in the center of the clearing, and began to circle. Equal in size and strength, the men twisted each other’s limbs, punched, hit and poked each other all over.
But neither man fell to the ground. At last they became bored. “Let’s quit for tonight,” suggested Mandamin. Zhowmin agreed, and they dragged their bruised bodies back to the wigwam, dropped onto the thick deerskin mats, and fell asleep.
During the night Mandamin grew hungry. “Is there anything to eat?” he asked. Zhowmin got up, lit the fire, and heated some stew. Then the two men sat together and ate as if they were the best of friends. When they finished eating they sat in silence together.
Finally Zhowmin spoke, “It is time to fight again.” And they headed back to the forest. This time the two men fought so violently they uprooted trees and made the tall grasses disappear.
Zhowmin threw Mandamin on the ground. But Mandamin got up and punched him back. They did this for a long time, until both men finally grew bored and agreed to go home again and rest.
The next day, however, Zhowmin was determined to put an end to the fighting. “I am tired of this,” he said to Mandamin. “Today I will win because I do not want to die.”
Mandamin raised his eyebrows and smirked. “Today, I will win,” he retorted. For the first time since the fighting began the men fought like mortal enemies. They punched, kicked, and twisted. First one went down, then the other.
The battle appeared to be no more decisive than the previous two fights, until finally Zhowmin struck Mandamin so hard he fell to the ground and did not get up again. Mandamin’s limp body lay motionless on the ground. When Zhowmin realized he had killed the stranger, he knelt down beside him and wept.
At last Zhowmin picked up Mandamin, carried him to the clump of pine trees, and buried him beside Zhaw-b’noh-quae, his beloved grandmother.
The pain of having killed a man was so great that Zhowmin took his story to a medicine man. “Your grandmother made you promise to do as you were told,” said the wise old medicine man. “And you have done right. Now you must take care of both their graves.”
Zhowmin kept the graves weeded and well-watered until one day a small green plant emerged from the soil in the center of Mandamin’s grave. Zhowmin had never seen such tough little leaves and asked the medicine man to come and take a look.
“I have never seen a plant like this,” said the medicine man. He smelled it. And felt it. Then he patted the soil around the base of the little plant and said, “You must keep it watered. We will wait until it grows up to see what it becomes.”
Zhowmin tended the little plant every day. By early summer the leaves grew up to his knees. And by late summer a feathery brown tassel on the top of the plant blew high above his head.
“Come,” said Zhowmin to the medicine man. “See how tall the little plant has grown.” The medicine man stroked the long thick leaves of the plant and brushed his fingers against the fuzzy brown tassel. “It is good,” he said.
Then he opened one of the fat green husks along the stalk and plucked a small yellow seed kernel from inside. He popped it into his mouth and smacked his lips. “It is nice and sweet,” he said to Zhowmin. “Taste it.”
Zhowmin knew at once that the spirit of the plant had given itself to the medicine man. “Yes,” he said as he tasted one of the little seeds. “It is very good.”
“The plant is corn, food of wonder,” said the medicine man. “It is our gift from Kitche Manitou because you have proven yourself and our people worthy of his great gift. By his death, Mandamin has given nourishment to the Anishinabe people. You have not killed him, you have merely given him life in a new form.”