Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 173

   

The firelight fell on the boy, and I could see at once the peculiar hunched way he sat. I rose hastily to my knees, pushing aside the basket of onions. I knelt forward and took him by the other arm, turning him toward me. His left shoulder had been slightly dislocated; he was sweating, his lips pressed tightly together in pain.

I gestured to his mother, who hesitated, frowning at me. The boy made a small, whimpering noise, and she pulled him away, holding him tight. With sudden inspiration, I pulled Nayawenne’s amulet from my shirt; she wouldn’t know whose it was but might recognize what it was. She did; her eyes widened at the sight of the tiny leather bag.

The boy made no more noise, but I could see the sweat run down his hairless chest, clear in the firelight. I fumbled at the thong that held the pouch shut, digging inside for the rough blue stone. Pierre sans peur, Gabrielle had called it. The fearless stone. I took the boy’s good hand and pressed the stone firmly into his palm, folding his fingers around it.

“Je suis une sorciere,” I said softly. “C’est medecine, la.” Trust me, I thought. Don’t be afraid. I smiled at him.

The boy stared round-eyed at me; the two women at the hearth exchanged a look, then as one, looked toward the distant hearth where the old woman sat.

There was talk from the ceilidh; someone was telling an old story—I recognized the rise and fall of the formal rhythms. I had heard Highlanders tell their stories and legends in Gaelic, in just that way; it sounded much the same.

The mother nodded; her sister went quickly down the length of the house. I didn’t turn, but felt the stir of interest behind me as she passed the other hearths; heads were turning, looking toward us. I kept my eyes on the boy’s face, smiling, holding his hand tightly in my own.

The sister’s footsteps came softly behind me. The boy’s mother reluctantly released her hold on him, leaving him to me. Permission had been received.

It was a simple matter to put back the joint; he was a small boy and the injury was minor. His bones were light under my hand. I smiled at him as I felt the joint, assessing damage. Then a quick bending of the arm, rotation of the elbow, whipping the arm upward—and it was done.

The boy looked intensely surprised. It was a most satisfactory operation, in that pain was relieved almost instantly. He felt his shoulder, then smiled shyly back at me. Very slowly, he opened his hand and held out the stone to me.

The minor sensation created by this occupied my attention for some time, with the women crowding close, touching the boy and peering at him, summoning their friends to stare at the murky sapphire. By the time I had attention to spare for the whisky party at the far hearth, the festivities were well advanced. Ian was singing in Gaelic, very off-key, accompanied in a haphazard way by one or two of the other men, who chimed in with the weird, high-pitched Haihai! that I had heard now and then among Nayawenne’s people.

As though my thought had conjured her, I felt eyes on my back, and turned, to see Tewaktenyonh watching me steadily from her own hearth at the end of the longhouse. I met her eyes and nodded to her. She leaned across to say something to one of the young women at her hearth, who rose and came toward me, stepping carefully around a couple of toddlers playing under their family bed-cubicle.

“My grandmother asks if you will come to her.” The young woman squatted beside me, speaking quietly in English. I was surprised, though not astonished, to hear it. Onakara had been right, some of the Mohawk had some English. They would not use it, though, except from necessity, preferring their own language.

I rose and accompanied her to Tewaktenyonh’s hearth, wondering what necessity impelled the Pretty Woman. I had my own necessities; the thought of Roger, and of Brianna.

The old woman nodded to me, inviting me to sit down, and spoke to the girl, not taking her eyes off me.

“My grandmother asks if she may see your medicine.”

“Of course.” I could see the old lady’s eyes on my amulet, watching curiously as I took out the sapphire. I had added to Nayawenne’s woodpecker feather two of my own; a raven’s stiff black wing quills.

“You are the wife of Bear Killer?”

“Yes. The Tuscarora call me White Raven,” I said, and the girl jerked, startled. She translated quickly for her grandmother. The old lady’s eyes flew wide and she glanced at me in consternation. Evidently this was not the most auspicious name she’d ever heard. I smiled at her, keeping my mouth closed; the Indians usually bared their teeth only when laughing.

The old lady handed me back the stone, very gingerly. She studied me narrowly, then spoke to her granddaughter, not taking her eyes off me.

“My grandmother has heard that your man bears a bright stone also,” the girl said, interpreting. “She would hear more of this; what it is like, and how you came to have it.”

“She’s welcome to see it.” The girl’s eyes widened in surprise as I reached into the pouch at my waist and drew out the stone. I held out the opal to the old woman; she bent and peered closely at it, but made no move to take it from me.

Tewaktenyonh’s arms were brown and hairless, wrinkled and smooth as weathered satinwood to the eye. But as I watched I saw the prick of goose-flesh rising, raising vanished hairs in vain defense. She’s seen it, I thought. Or at least she knows what it is.

I didn’t need the interpreter’s words; her eyes met mine directly and I heard the question clearly, for all that the words were strange.

“How did this come to you?” she said, and the girl echoed it faithfully.

I let my hand lie open; the opal fit snugly in my palm, its weight belied by its colors, glimmering like a soap bubble in my hand.

“It came to me in a dream,” I said at last, not knowing how else to explain.

The old woman’s breath went out in a sigh. The fear didn’t quite leave her eyes, but was overlaid with something else—curiosity, perhaps? She said something, and one of the women at the hearth rose, digging in a basket under the bed frame at her back. She came back and bent by the old lady, handing her something.

The old lady began to sing, quietly, in a voice cracked with age, but still strong. She rubbed her hands together over the fire, and a shower of small brown particles rained down, only to rise up again at once as smoke, thick with the scent of tobacco.

It was a quiet night; I could hear the rise and fall of voices and loud laughter from the far hearth, where the men were drinking. I could pick out the odd word in Jamie’s voice—he was speaking French. Was Roger perhaps close enough to hear it too?

I took a deep breath. The smoke rose straight up from the fire in a thin white pillar, and the strong sweet scent of tobacco mingled with the smell of cold air, triggering incongruous memories of Brianna’s high school football games; cozy scents of wool blankets and thermoses of cocoa, wisps of cigarette smoke drifting from the crowd. Farther back were other, harsher memories, of young men in uniform, in the shattered light of airfields, crushing out glowing fag ends and running to their battles, leaving no more of themselves behind than the smell of smoke on winter air.

Tewaktenyonh spoke, her eyes still on me, and the girl’s soft voice chimed in.

“Tell me this dream.”

Was it truly a dream I would tell her, or a memory like these, brought to life on the wings of smoke from a burning tree? It didn’t matter; here, all my memories were dreams.

I told her what I could. The memory—of the storm and my refuge among the red cedar’s roots, the skull buried with the stone—and the dream; the light on the mountain and the man with his face painted black—making no distinction between them.

The old lady leaned forward, the astonishment on her features mirroring that of her granddaughter.

“You have seen the Fire-Carrier?” the girl blurted. “You have seen his face?” She shrank away from me, as though I might be dangerous.

The old lady said something peremptory; her startlement had faded into a piercing gaze of interest. She poked the girl, and repeated her question impatiently.

“My grandmother says, can you say what he looked like; what did he wear?”

“Nothing. A breech-clout, I mean. And he was painted.”

“Painted. How?” the girl asked, in response to her grandmother’s sharp question.

I described the body paint of the man I had seen, as carefully as I could. This wasn’t difficult; if I closed my eyes, I could see him, as clearly as he had appeared to me on the mountainside.

“And his face was black, from forehead to chin,” I ended, opening my eyes.

When I described the man, the interpreter became visibly upset; her lips trembled, and she glanced fearfully from me to her grandmother. The old woman listened intently, though, her eyes searching, straining to discern meaning from my face before the slower words could reach her ears.

When I finished, she sat silent, dark eyes still fastened on my own. At last she nodded, reached up a wrinkled hand and took hold of the purple wampum strings that lay across her shoulder. Myers had told me enough so that I recognized the gesture. The wampum was her family record, badge of her office; speech made while holding it was tantamount to testimony made upon the Bible.

“At the feast of Green Corn, this many years ago”—the interpreter’s fingers flashed four times—“a man came among us from the north. His speech was strange, but we could understand him; he spoke like Canienga, or maybe Onondaga, but he would not tell us his tribe or village—only his clan, which was the Turtle.

“He was a wild man, but a brave one. He was a good hunter, and a warrior. Oh, a fine man; all the women liked to look at him, but we were afraid to come too close.” Tewaktenyonh paused a moment, a far-off look in her eye that made me count back; she would have been a full-grown woman then, but perhaps young enough still to have been impressed by the frightening, intriguing stranger.

“The men were not so careful; men aren’t.” She gave a brief, sardonic glance at the ceilidh, growing louder by the minute. “So they would sit and smoke with him, and drink spruce beer and listen. He would talk from midday till the dark, and then again in the night by the fires. His face was always fierce, because he talked of war.”

She sighed, fingers curling over the purple shell strands.

“Always war. Not against the frog-eaters of the next village, or the ones who eat moose dung. No, we must lift our tomahawks against the O’seronni. Kill them all, he said, from the oldest to the youngest, from the Treaty Line to the big water. Go to the Cayuga, send messengers to the Seneca, let the League of the Iroquois go forth as one. Go before it is too late, he said.”

One frail shoulder lifted, fell.

“ ‘Too late for what?’ the men asked. ‘And why shall we make war for no cause? We need nothing this season; there is no war treaty’—this was before the Time of the French, you understand.

“ ‘It is our last chance,’ he said to them. ‘Already it may be too late. They seduce us with their metal, bring us close to them in the hope of knives and guns, and destroy us for the sake of cooking pots. Turn back, brothers! You have left the ways of years too great to count. Go back, I say—or you will be no more. Your stories will be forgotten. Kill them now or they will eat you.’

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