Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 71

   

Jamie, having flung off his breeks and belted his crimson plaid in record time, fastened it with a small bronze brooch, snatched a bottle out from under the bedframe, and was out through the open side of the house before I had finished tidying my hair. Giving up that attempt as a lost cause, I hurried out after him.

The women watched me with the same fascination I had for them, but they hung back as Jamie and Nacognaweto conducted the necessary greetings involving the ceremonial pouring and sharing of the brandy, Ian being included in this ritual. Only then did the second woman come forward at Nacognaweto’s gesture, ducking her head in shy acknowledgment.

“Bonjour, messieurs, madame,” she said softly, looking from one to another of us. Her eyes rested on me with frank curiosity, taking in every detail of my appearance, so I felt no compunction in staring at her, likewise. Mixed blood, I thought, perhaps French?

“Je suis sa femme,” she said, with a graceful inclination of her head toward Nacognaweto, the words verifying my guess as to her heritage. “Je m’appelle Gabrielle.”

“Um…je m’appelle Claire,” I said, with a slightly less graceful gesture at myself. “S’il vous plaît…” I waved at the pile of waiting logs, inviting them to sit down, while mentally wondering whether there was enough of the squirrel stew to go round.

Jamie, meanwhile, was eyeing Nacognaweto with a mixture of amusement and irritation.

“Oh, ‘no Franch,’ is it?” he said. “Not a word, I dinna suppose!” The Indian gave him a look of profound blandness, and nodded to his wife to continue with the introductions.

The elder lady was Nayawenne, not Gabrielle’s grandmother as I had thought but, rather Nacognaweto’s. This lady was light-boned, thin, and bent with rheumatism, but bright-eyed as the sparrow she so strongly resembled. She wore a small leather bag tied round her neck, ornamented with a rough green stone pierced through for stringing, and the spotted tail feathers of a woodpecker. She had a larger bag, this one of cloth, tied at her waist. She saw me looking at the green stains on the rough cloth, and smiled, showing two prominent yellow front teeth.

The girl was, as I had surmised, Gabrielle’s daughter—but not, I thought, Nacognaweto’s; she had no resemblance to him, and behaved shyly toward him. Her rather incongruous name was Berthe, and the effects of mixed blood were even more apparent in her than in her mother; her hair was dark and silky, but a deep brown rather than ebony, and her round face was ruddy, with the fresh complexion of a European, though her eyes had the Indian’s epicanthic fold.

Once the official introductions were over, Nacognaweto motioned to Berthe, who obediently brought out the large bundle she had carried, and opened it at my feet, displaying a large basket of orange and green-striped squash, a string of dried fish, a smaller basket of yams, and a huge pile of Indian corn, shucked and dried on the cob.

“My God,” I murmured. “The return of Squanto!”

Everyone gave me a blank look, and I hastened to smile and make exclamations—thoroughly heartfelt—of joy and pleasure over the gifts. It might not get us through the whole winter, but it was enough to augment our diet for a good two months.

Nacognaweto explained through Gabrielle that this was a small and insignificant return for Jamie’s gift of the bear, which had been received with delight by his village, where Jamie’s courageous exploit (here the women cut their eyes at me and tittered, having evidently heard all about the episode of the fish) had been the subject of great talk and admiration.

Jamie, thoroughly accustomed to this sort of diplomatic exchange, modestly disclaimed any pretention to prowess, dismissing the encounter as the merest accident.

While Gabrielle was employed in translation, the old lady ignored the mutual compliments, and sidled crabwise over to me. Without the least sense of offense, she patted me familiarly all over, fingering my clothes and lifting the hem of my dress to examine my shoes, keeping up a running commentary to herself in a soft, hoarse murmur.

The murmur grew louder and took on a tone of astonishment when she got to my hair. I obligingly took out the pins and shook it down over my shoulders. She pulled out a curl, drew it taut, then let it spring back, and laughed like a drain.

The men glanced in our direction, but by this time Jamie had moved on to showing Nacognaweto the construction of the house. The chimney was complete, built of fieldstone like the foundation, and the floor had been laid, but the walls, built of solid squared logs each some eight inches in diameter, rose only shoulder-high. Jamie was urging Ian to a demonstration of the debarking of logs, in which he chopped his way steadily backward as he walked along the top of the log, narrowly missing his toes with each stroke.

This form of male conversation requiring no translation, Gabrielle was left free to come and chat with me; though her French was peculiarly accented and full of strange idioms, we had no trouble understanding each other.

In fairly short order, I discovered that Gabrielle was the daughter of a French fur trader and a Huron woman, and the second wife of Nacognaweto, who in turn was her second husband—the first, Berthe’s father, had been a Frenchman, killed in the French and Indian War ten years before.

They lived in a village called Anna Ooka (I bit the inside of my cheek to keep a straight face; no doubt “New Bern” would have sounded peculiar to them), some two days travel to the northwest—Gabrielle indicated the direction with a graceful inclination of her head.

While I talked with Gabrielle and Berthe, augmenting the conversation by means of hand-waving, I slowly became conscious that another sort of communication was taking place, with the old lady.

She said nothing to me directly—though she murmured now and then to Berthe, plainly demanding to know what I had said—but her bright dark eyes stayed fixed on me, and I was peculiarly aware of her regard. I had the odd feeling that she was talking to me—and I to her—without the exchange of a single spoken word.

I saw Jamie, across the clearing, offering Nacognaweto the rest of the bottle of brandy; clearly it was time to offer gifts in return. I gave Gabrielle the embroidered kerchief, and Berthe, a hairpin ornamented with paste brilliants, over which gifts they exclaimed in pleasure. For Nayawenne, though, I had something different.

I had been fortunate enough to find four large ginseng roots the week before. I fetched all four from my medicine chest and pressed them into her hands, smiling. She looked back at me, then grinned, and untying the cloth bag from her belt, thrust it at me. I didn’t have to open it; I could feel the four long, lumpy shapes through the cloth.

I laughed in return; yes, we definitely spoke the same language!

Moved by curiosity, and by an impulse that I couldn’t describe, I asked Gabrielle about the old lady’s amulet, hoping that this wasn’t an insufferable breach of good manners.

“Grandmère est…” She hesitated, looking for the right French word, but I already knew.

“Pas docteur,” I said, “et pas sorcière, magicienne. Elle est…” I hesitated too; there really wasn’t a suitable word for it in French, after all.

“We say she is a singer,” Berthe put in shyly, in French. “We call it shaman; her name, it means ‘It may be; it will happen.’ ”

The old lady said something, nodding at me, and the two younger women looked startled. Nayawenne bent her head, slipped the thong off her neck, and placed the little bag in my hand.

It was so heavy that my wrist sagged, and I nearly dropped it. Astonished, I closed my hand over it. The worn leather was warm from her body, the rounded contours fitting smoothly into my palm. For just a moment, I had the remarkable impression that something in the bag was alive.

My face must have shown my startlement, for the old lady doubled up laughing. She held out her hand and I gave her back the amulet, with a fair amount of haste. Gabrielle conveyed politely that her husband’s grandmother would be pleased to show me the useful plants that grew nearby, if I would like to walk with her?

I accepted this invitation with alacrity, and the old lady set off up the path with a sure-footed spryness that belied her years. I watched her feet, tiny in soft leather boots, and hoped that when I was her age, I might be capable of walking for two days through the woods, and then wanting to go exploring.

We wandered along the stream for some way, followed at a respectful distance by Gabrielle and Berthe, who came up beside us only if summoned to interpret.

“Each of the plants holds the cure to a sickness,” the old lady explained through Gabrielle. She plucked a twig from a bush by the path and handed it to me with a wry look. “If we only knew what they all were!”

For the most part, we managed fairly well by means of gesture, but when we reached the big pool where Jamie and Ian fished trout, Nayawenne stopped and waved, bringing Gabrielle to us again. She said something to the woman, who turned to me, a faint look of surprise on her face.

“My husband’s grandmother says that she had a dream about you, on the night of the full moon, two moons ago.”

“About me?”

Gabrielle nodded. Nayawenne put a hand on my arm and looked up intently into my face, as though to see the impact of Gabrielle’s words.

“She told us about the dream; that she had seen a woman with—” Her lips twitched, then hastily straightened themselves, and she delicately touched the ends of her own long, straight hair. “Three days later, my husband and his sons returned, to tell of meeting you and the Bear Killer in the forest.”

Berthe was watching me with frank interest, too, twining a lock of her own dark-brown hair around the end of an index finger.

“She who heals said at once that she must see you, and so when we heard that you were here…”

That gave me a small start; I had had no sensation of being watched, and yet plainly someone had taken note of our presence on the mountain, and conveyed the news to Nacognaweto.

Impatient with these irrelevancies, Nayawenne poked her granddaughter-in-law and said something, then pointed firmly at the water by our feet.

“My husband’s grandmother says that when she dreamed of you, it was here.” Gabrielle gestured over the pool, and looked back at me with great seriousness.

“She met you here, at night. The moon was in the water. You became a white raven; you flew over the water and swallowed the moon.”

“Oh?” I hoped this wasn’t a sinister thing for me to have done.

“The white raven flew back, and laid an egg in the palm of her hand. The egg split open, and there was a shining stone inside. My husband’s grandmother knew this was great magic, that the stone could heal sickness.”

Nayawenne nodded her head several times, and taking the amulet bag from her neck, reached into it.

“On the day after the dream, my husband’s grandmother went to dig kinnea root, and on the way, she saw something blue, sticking in the clay of the riverbank.”

Nayawenne drew out a small, lumpy object, and dropped it into my hand. It was a pebble; rough, but undeniably a gemstone. Bits of stony matrix clung to it, but the heart of the rock was a deep, soft blue.

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