Some ladies in Boston raised the twenty pounds. How had she fared among the savages they asked. She'd sewn a shirt for her captor's little son from a new pillowslip of Holland lace they'd stripped off her own bed before they burned it. For that he gave her six roast ground-nuts and a small bloody piece of horse's liver which she gulped raw. Never had I bit so savoury…
Rehearsed and never quite believed in that moment when the curtain dimity, velvet (the face of terror) slashed naked the cloak now avails before the scouring wind of His permission demonic gashes of black paint she faces the masks she masks her terror even even when husband on your return oh even now riding turn turn back (the trestle table overturned and pewter rolling in the deathly silence after the screaming is stilled.)
And all along she knew about this open savage world where bear wolf fox but oh, even here God’s mercy surmounting man’s cruelty —was that an owl that hooted in broad day? So close? A fox that barked? An axe there in the doorway. Now she is in some inner circle of hell. They slashed right through her ordered spheres. I bore this as well as I could she glances up into the deepening cup of blue that has its center surely still in Him? If she could find her way —
stumbling through woods — a fallen birch — somehow climbs over it with torn hands, ripped skirt — blood on her arms — the baby? He is carrying it, the same who — Was it just this morning? Was it just? Was it God's punishment? This morning has no beginning — she has from eternity been stumbling through the forest. The wilderness has sent its spirits to fetch her — but what of the Lord's Holy Spirit? You are not touched nor injured. There was no resisting…
Splashing through swamps beyond the known world. How many miles guarded, impenetrable, by alders? Terra incognita. Her terror somewhat abates. Ebbs toward exhaustion. He, burdened with spoils, still carries her new-born baby. Leads her which I took to be a favour from him by the hand through streams. She murmurs to her older daughters, lifts her small Eben over mossy logs, treads brambles underfoot. Not daring to appear troubled or show much uneasiness lest —
At the side of the river the Indians would have my oldest daughter sing them a song. Then was brought to my remembrance the psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down, yea we wept when we remembered Zion.” And my heart was very full of trouble.
He scowls, impatient. “Now then! Red Otter, powerful river-woman, you have come to listen. Quickly you have arisen. You will carry me across, you will take me to the far bank, you walk strongly through the current, you play in the cold waters, you have come to listen. Sharply!”
His song steadying the water, his friends each greeting the river. But the captives — who will teach them, ignorant and rude? “Sing! Sing the white man's greeting. Or River-woman will drown you.”
“For they that carried us away captive required of us a song”
Up to their necks in the river, “oh spare” — and the boy on his shoulders yea, the Red Sea did part for them and if I put one foot before the other — the rocks slippery as glass — my baby rest safe against my shoulder — “Sarah — your sister's hand” careful — the water's gentle — so.
“Red Otter this woman and her young have a white spirit, you are hearing of it, you are listening, they are crossing the water, their spirit greets you.”
After the river, mountains — breathless clinging to granite spurs, her flesh still tremulous from childbed and craving rest — and Eben starting up in terror each night. She tries to hold some picture — a map — in her head, looks back — pebbles agleam in moonlight, marking the trail?
Is there a way back? Does God still see her plainly, lost among the endless trees? (In his sleep Eben cried out “Papa! Papa”!) Oh, riding after them! Blot out the image swimming before her eyes — he, arrived home, quickly surrounded, clubbed — Dear Lord! He lives. Though she as in a nightmare, works her laboring way further and further from his reach.
Having by this time got considerably on the way — groping through blaze of autumn maples, notes the wild loveliness, as one might say one and one makes two.
Mercifully, a halt. Sinks down, unbuttons her bodice for the suckling child while her own stomach gripes with hunger, having at times nothing to eat but pieces of old beaverskin coats used more for food than raiment. “Sarah, help Eben, he would search, poor mite, for cranberries.”
The Indians are at some distance, talking. Low voices, angular gestures — she shivers, watches with downcast lids. “Mary, you have learned some words, what” — do not meet their eyes. Having got considerably on the way, the Indians parted, and we must be divided amongst them. This was a sore grief to us all.
The short one with thick braids is coming toward them takes Sarah by the hand, points toward the Western hills. “Mama?” Throat dry, eyes frantic from one to the other, leaps — “my Sarah!” — to her feet, the baby put down in haste. Holds her, will not be moved, not let her go, face pressed into her shoulder — “child” — My eldest daughter was first taken away.
We did not travel far before they took my second daughter from me, I having now only my babe at the breast and little boy six years old.
He watches, awake in the deep forest — Union-of-Rivers and Bear, those shining ones, skunk-tree sisters talking all night long. They say frost, they whisper far, alone. Mooneye. Wind from good hunting. Answer-stone in his right hand. Owl pipe shares his breath, smoke blown in the four directions.
Brings-me-luck sleeps. White like death yet lives, hair like sacred pollen — Brings-me-luck. Awiyah, antlered one see she brings no misfortune to me.
Best he kills them? A white trail where sickness walks? A notch in the circle where good luck streams in for him. The axe lies alive at his side but it is no, it is sleeping — she sleeps, moans, little Hold-tight curled against her. Coins like grains of corn will flow into his hand from his captives. Ha, the forest people. Old woman birch has never seen such ones — white bark like hers — do not belong here. Belong to him. We will pass through quickly. Soon snow will fill our footprints.
At night I was both wet and tired exceedingly, lying on the cold ground in the open woods.
Bone-weary, one foot before the other, Our shoes and stockings being done and our clothes worn out in that long journey and the weather coming in very hard — little Eben drags at her skirt until she feels she walks for both, and when he stumbles she falls, bruising her knee. She feels the blood drain from her face. Prays she has not been noticed.
A memory haunts her: she, a young wife, in Deerfield with her husband on his business. The great Mr. Williams is to preach that day. She is afraid to ask, they being Quakers, if she might hear the famous minister, captured by Indians and newly freed by the grace of God. And lo, the Lord (foreknowing her future need) moves John to grant her wish before she asks.
To know that others have walked this trail, have suffered like her, have won through to redemption — it strengthens her, hope surges through her body. I will survive, according to thy will, I and my children.
And suddenly she aches with wanting. To feel John's arms around her one more time.
By a sweet stream, a clearing. Corn-hills, familiar, a dear sight beside the wigwams strewn like woody baskets among the birches — a kind of little shelter made with the rinds of trees.
How still the women — their dark eyes not unkind? Watchful. She too. Eben behind her skirt, peeps out at her master's little naked boy. Dare she sit down?
She starts, chokes back a scream — at the clearing's edge, a band of painted savages, a din like hail or a whole nest of rattlesnakes —
“He has returned with gifts. Bear made his heart fierce. Wolf was shadow in the forest. Crow saw keenly, saw the unknown land. He with his companions approached the hostile place. Blood was on the enemy's sleeping robe. Death was on the enemy's hearth. The work of his axe was they-do-not-rise.
He has returned with gifts of beauty. He does not forget the women who wait for him. He does not forget his brothers.” The Indians welcomed my master home with dancing, shouting and beating on hollow trees which, I suppose, in their thoughts was a kind of thanks to God put up for their safe return and good success.
“My husband has brought you, white woman and your children. You will share our wigwam and our work.”
They touch her arms, breathe in her strange, pale scent. They murmur over the whiteman gifts — a great black iron kettle. Knives that bite through moosehide as though it were the finest fawnskin, scarlet wool the captive woman knows how to fashion into stockings.
“My son has brought you to us. You will share our corn and meat.”
In plentiful time I felt the comfort of it, having a portion given for me and my little ones which was very acceptable. When flesh was scarce we had the guts and garbage allowed us. But pinching hunger makes every bitter thing sweet.
Her hands are willing. She cuts wood, gathers nuts and acorns. Fetches water in a birchbark bucket cunningly stitched with pine roots. Spotted Deer minds the baby, wraps it snug on her own cradle board, sings Little Partridge, Little Star-eye to it — why does Brings-me-luck frown? But the baby cries, cries — a thin hunger-wail — does she not fear to anger him? He will flare.
I was brought so low my milk dried up, my baby very poor and weak. I could perceive its bones from one end of its back to the other. She fills her mouth with water, dribbles it down her breast into the baby's mouth. Are all white women thus helpless? Sees-the-Sun pounds walnuts for it into paste, boils them with cornmeal. It began to thrive, which was before more like to die than live.
Spotted Deer is tickling the baby pressing her face against its belly. The baby's spirit has crept into her own, a small raccoon into a mossy hollow — if she could keep it? Why after Little Feather have no more come?
Would he give her the baby? But Brings-me-luck — she tries to think how it was: led from her wigwam by men in their beautiful, violent paint, the days and nights in the forest, her strange, flimsy moccasins and dress that tears on every branch.
She has seen Brings-me-luck weep, and felt shame for her. But again and again the picture comes — Brings-me-luck in her wigwam sitting on lace instead of furs and the black kettle bubbling. She is making cloth with two sticks. Why is her husband not there?
She offers her a handful of her best dyed porcupine quills. But Brings-me-luck has not been properly taught. Spotted Deer shows her how they weave in and out of deerskin, but her hands refuse to understand. There are tears in her pale eyes.
Spotted Deer frowns, thinks I would not disgrace my lineage like that and turns back to the baby. It coos, and the two women's glances meet. Both are soft with love.
It is the Lord's day. She has put aside her master's half-knit stocking. Has permission to visit the old squaw whose wigwam skirts the clearing's furthest edge — slips past, into the woods, with Eben at her heels, the boy as stealthy in his moccasins as any Indian.
She leans against a rough-barked spruce, imagines herself at Meeting, wills herself among the congregation, close beside him — dear God, may he be well! Sarah, Mary — Holy Spirit, thy grace — the blessing of His presence — her heart lifts —
“Mama.” Eben holds out a fan of bronze and crimson leaves. “ — because they killed the sky bear. That's his blood on the leaves in fall, I saw him among the stars last night. Little Feather showed me — ”
Jolted out of herself — “child! What dreadful untruths — 'tis their heathen tales. You must not” — only God can redden these woods, redeem all fallen nature with His blood, redeem His captive people —
neither could I ever think but that our lives would be preserved by the overruling power of Him in whom I put my trust both day and night.
Then it was that the Lord struck my master with great sickness and violent pain —
He burns with fever, he shivers — what creature has sent this thing? Bear, thick-fur, you are not offended, the hunters give back your bones, they are robed in strength, you feast with the people, your spirit is not offended.
Deer, silent suddenly-there, you wait at the killing place, the stamping of your hoofs is come-my-brothers, the people honor your flesh, your spirit is not offended.
But black ice fastens upon his bones, he breathes pain. Ghost-woman bends and sways there in the shadows, white mushrooms gleaming on dead wood — each blow he struck now striking his own skull, the stick he flung yesterday at her cub pounding his ribs.
My child was much bruised, and the pain made him pale as death. I entreated him not to cry —
Sees-the-sun puts on her snowshoes, folds a pair of newly beaded leggings into her deerskin pouch. In the next village lives a m'teoulin, a man of power. She starts along the barely visible trail.
Birch girls go beside her clothed in blue lichen; glimpse of red-fur, snow birds — does the burnt skunk-tree still stand still put out new green needles in hunger-moon?
But her spirit trembles. May he be well, may the evil thing leave him — may the great dying not return — death feasting in every wigwam. Let healing come —
She stares. Above the trees, black shape, fringed wings sweeping the air, harsh voice — her birthname, secret self — she stands, rooted in stillness, breathes “Grandfather Raven” — fierce dark eye fastened to hers — yes, and yes
gone. Power song pouring from her throat there on the snowy trail.
Wind-fingers streak her face — how far has she come? Already the first meat-drying racks are visible. She makes a quick prayer to the four directions.
Beside the sick man, the m'teoulin prepares the plant called when-their-saliva-is-bitter, sings the chant of driving it out.
“Now then! You have come to listen, Little Whirlwind, wizard! Among the stretched-out branches of the mountain You sweep it away You toss it about You scatter it Ha-yi!
You and I facing each other Little Whirlwind, wizard! You do not fail You drive it into the marsh You brush it away. Healing has been done, It has been done indeed. Ha-yi!”
Tobacco smoke cool cloud against his forehead, bitter, healing drink over his swollen tongue carrying away the evil thing.
He soon recovered, nor do I remember he ever after struck me or my children again. This I took as the Lord's doing, and it was marvellous in my eyes.
The circle of the People is broken, and power streams out of it. He dreams a moose across the river, but no moose comes to his gun. Beaver woman has left her lodge and taken all her people with her.
He is shamed. Spotted Deer and Sees-the-Sun boil an old horse's foot in the black iron kettle but the broth gives no strength. Little Feather lies curled like a puppy on his deerskin and will not play and will not wear his fine new shirt.
A handful of groundnuts turns to foul slime in his fist. Snow hides the sky, the trees groan with it. At night Sees-the-sun coughs. Blood speckles her sleeve.
I dreaded his returning empty and prayed secretly in my heart that he might catch some food —
But he comes back with nothing, in a rage. His eyes search the wigwam. “Too many bellies to fill” — stroking his axe. Spotted Deer turns rigid, glances at Brings-me-luck shrinking in the shadows. “Ransom would bring us food” she murmurs.
“Whiteman food! Who knows if anyone will buy her? And the journey is long and bitter — she will die on the way.”
Sees-the-sun stands, faces him but will not anger him by meeting his eyes. “Brings-me-luck has brought ill fortune to us. Her white smell frightens the deer. Her coming and going offends Beaver Woman. Her son eats Little Feather's food. But killing her will fasten her spirit upon our wigwam. Evil will dwell with us. At last the village will cast us out.
My son, it is long since you summoned the small spotted ones, the good tribe underground. Their words have always been true. Let them help us now.”
He scowls, but the next night he builds a little lodge of saplings. Makes fire. The women see the branch walls bulge and shake. They peep between the cracks.
Fire shines on him. Around the blaze the salamander tribe with yellow spots stand upright, flicking their tongues. He listens.
After this he would not suffer me in his presence. We made another remove, it being two day’s journey, and mostly upon the ice. He took me to the French and I was with my baby ransomed; my little boy likewise at the same time was redeemed also.