1. Keepers of the Holy Fire
There is never nothing left. Even broken things, even burnt things, are not nothing. Some little part remains, a smell, a smudge, a memory, a hope. This is what I tell myself as I pick my way among the charred timbers of the only Catholic church in the county. The pews are blocks of cinder. I see no sign of the altar or the massive wooden crucifix. I see no walls, no windows, only open sky and prairie grass scorched to the horizon in the direction of the wind. The entire settlement of Cherry Mills is gone. I’m the only one alive. My neighbors apparently sought refuge in the Lord’s house, but He chose to withhold His protection.
Few escaped the flames. Those who did must have fled while their families screamed and burned within. It didn’t save them. Four men and two women lay outside the church’s foundation, felled by a volley of arrows. The Barker brothers. Herm Johnson. Caleb Schwartz. Mrs. Isaksen. Miss Harrow, the schoolmarm. The women are merely dead; but the men have had their jaws wrenched open and their tongues hacked out. I stare up at the sun, trying to purge my sight of the horror. In this sign conquer, Christ revealed to Constantine. This sign, this bloody sign, reveals the identity of the attackers, although no grisly calling card was necessary. We were warned this was coming.
We call them Potawatami. They call themselves Bodéwadmi, which in their language means Keepers of the Holy Fire. The Bodéwadmi take the tongues of male enemies as bidjgosan, a kind of magic, to use against them should they meet in the spirit world.
I can account for the rest of the adults by number only, for most are unrecognizable, no more human than embers in the hearth. Somewhere among these beloved dead is my husband Johannes, yet, despite twelve years of marriage I don’t know which body is his.
The stench is unbearable, not because it’s unpleasant, but because it so resembles the sweet roasting meat of a pig on a spit. Dear God, this is no pig for a Saturday night bonfire!
I dig through bones and blistered flesh. Remnants of still-warm skin slough off in my hands. My fingers become slick with bloody ichor. It isn’t Johannes I seek, for I don’t need to see him to feel his presence.
As I finish the last of the bodies, my own bones tremble with a hope akin to panic. Rachel is not here. I can’t find our daughter.
I can’t find any children at all. There are only three. They aren’t in the burned- out homes or storm cellars or outhouse holes. They aren’t in the church. Perhaps they escaped to some secret hiding place when they heard death approaching—
No. That’s only mad grief speaking. Children can’t outrun ponies or arrows.
They can’t take wing and fly. There is no secret hiding place. They’re either dead here in Cherry Mills, or alive and in hell with the killers. And they aren’t here.
The Bodéwadmi have taken our children.
A hard wind comes up from the north, a harbinger of evening storms. I vomit into what once was the sacristy, then rise from the ashes of my old life and gaze toward the west, where they’ve made their village. A frontier wife is accustomed to hardship and loss. But there’s no shovel for burials, no priest for Mass, no law for justice, and in this place, at this time, no God for prayers.
Those are tasks for the next people to stumble upon this tragedy. I can do nothing for the dead. I have but one purpose now, one. The Bodéwadmi kidnapped my Rachel, and I will have her back.
2. Two Dogs
A few years ago, when Cherry Mills was just being built and there seemed land enough for all, I met Black Wolf, an emissary for the Bodéwadmi. Black Wolf had been educated at Eton and spoke English with an odd hybrid accent. One evening, near the spot we had chosen for our church, he entertained settlers with fanciful tales of the benevolent trickster Nanabozho and the monstrous cannibal Wendigo, but when Father Andrew asked him about God, he only laughed.
“Gichi Manito,” Black Wolf said.
“Your Great Spirit,” insisted the priest, “is not God.”
“You speak of your God as if he were human,” Black Wolf said. “Gichi Manito is neither male nor female, but an essence that creates simply by the power of being.”
“Are you some kind of holy man?” Father Andrew said. “Ayaawiyaan midewinini,” Black Wolf said.
“‘Medicine man’ is the closest term you have in English. Shaman.”
The night was clear, and the moon was bright on the prairie. “We will build our church here,” Father Andrew said. “Where do you worship?”
“We dance and sing in the mide lodge,” Black Wolf said. “Your people have chased us from the woodlands to the grass ocean, but we have made the Hill of Stones beyond the Manidoo River our Place of the Dead. Even more than the mide lodge, it is our holiest site. We ask that you not go there.”
“We don’t deny you entry into our churches.”
“Your people and mine are not the same. Even we do not go to the Place of the Dead, except when duty requires it.”
“If your Gichi Manito is not God,” I said, “where is your Divine guidance? How do you know right from wrong?”
Black Wolf asked Johannes for one of our cigarettes. He smoked the entire thing before answering. “Your tobacco is better than ours,” he said, then looked into my eyes. “Each of us has two dogs that battle inside our mind. The white dog is peaceful and good, while the black dog is spiteful and wishes only to do evil. It is a constant struggle.”
He rose and clasped my hands. His skin was calloused, his grip strong but gentle. Directing my gaze into the starry void above, he said, “Think, Rebecca. What is there in the eternal but mystery and wonder?”
And then he mounted his pony and turned toward his village.
“Black Wolf,” I call. “Everybody knows that story. The dog that wins is the one we choose to feed, right?”
“Which dog will it be, then?” he says, smiling at us all.
3. The Wendigo
There is never nothing left, but they have stolen our horses, our food, and our weapons. If I am to reclaim my child, it will be on foot and without supplies. I have no reason to wait here, no reason to do anything but walk.
I’m weary, but I will not sleep on ground hallowed by death. And so I leave behind the embers of Cherry Mills, my hands stained with the blood of my people, my face and dress blackened by soot, my heart burning with cold determination.
I shouldn’t hate them. We take their land. We move them, sign treaties, then break the treaties and move them again. We starve them, we mock them as savages. They kill not out of spite but desperation. They mutilate bodies not to be malicious but to prevent another battle in the spirit world. I have forgiven the attacks by the Lakota up north. I have made excuses. I have said, “What would you do in their place?”
But this isn’t another settlement, it’s mine. It’s my home they burned, my
husband they killed, my daughter they kidnapped.
I do hate them.
And I hate myself, for I wasn’t here when they came. Johannes drove me by buckboard to the train station at Belleville, though it isn’t far and I could have walked. My sister’s birthing went well, no complications and a fine healthy son. I left there in high spirits, but sensed trouble when I returned to Belleville and found no one waiting for me. Johannes knew the hour of my arrival. He would have come, or sent somebody. I hadn’t enough money to hire a horse, so I walked home to a horror no eyes should behold and, oh yes, to blameless guilt. I wasn’t here when death claimed my people. My presence would have changed nothing but the body count. And had I died, Rachel would have had no hope against whatever indignities the Bodéwadmi visit upon white children.
And yet … And yet.
Clouds tumble over the horizon, swallowing the sun. Lightning stitches earth to sky, although thunder is too distant to be anything more than an ominous tremor in the air. A wall of flame had spread eastward from Cherry Hills with the wind, but I’m heading west. Here the prairie grass is still lush and green, the ground supple, the breeze thick with the smells of growing things. Here, out of sight of the ruins, it’s difficult to imagine that there could be pain in the world. A “V” of northern geese wings past overhead, ahead of the storm, honking a joyous noise.
I’m in no mood for beauty.
Against the western darkness smoke from Bodéwadmi tepees has become invisible, but I don’t need that for guidance. I’ve been there before.
Within minutes the fast-moving storm engulfs me in wind and rain. I release my hair from its ties, then stand with arms extended, my face to the sky. The rain washes over me, washes away the blood and the soot, cleanses my body of the horror of Cherry Mills. Nothing will cleanse my soul, ever again. The rain falls like tears from God, but when the hail comes, I seek refuge in the timber alongside the Manidoo River. Suddenly exhausted, I collapse against the gnarled trunk of a black maple. The canopy here is thickest, deflecting most of the hail and some of the rain.
Thunder pounds the erratic heartbeat of the storm. Lightning ignites the space between leaves in incandescent white. If a bolt should strike the tree that shields me, I will burn as my people did. I look up into nature’s fury and realize that I’m numb to my own sorrow. Now is the time I feel I should weep, but I can’t.
My dress is soaked. I withdraw my arms from the sleeves and hug myself beneath the material. I’m freezing and, I fear, delirious. The wind ricochets between the trees with a demonic shriek. I can hear laughter in its voice, too, cruel laughter. I will eat your soul, it hisses.
Wendigo, I think. Bodéwadmi spirit of evil.
I make the sign of the Cross, although the Lord is fickle with His favors. Didn’t He stand by while Johannes agonized in His church?
You have no plan, the Wendigo says, and I can smell the rot in its breath. Will you simply rush in? They will kill you, too, as remorselessly as they killed your people.
“They have my daughter,” I say. “I will do anything for her.”
Even die? the Wendigo says.
Lightning strikes nearby, and in the momentary white blindness of its afterglow I see a shadow emerge. Johannes opens his arms to me but we don’t touch. My love, he says, they have already named her. She is no longer Rachel, but Weeping Blossom.
“She will always be Rachel,” I say. My stomach churns.
Do you see the future? Johannes says in the Wendigo’s taunting voice but with his own High German accent. In forty years she will return to the site of Cherry Mills. She will be the wife of a chief with many children by him. He will say in the Bodéwadmi language, “This is where we found you,” and she will answer, “I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything of that life. Did I have a mother and father?”
“The earth is your mother,” the chief will say, “the sky your father.”
“Rebecca,” Johannes says, “she will forget us and our ways. As if we never existed.”
I rub my eyes, and the shadow of my dead husband fades into the tangle of tree shapes. The Wendigo says, She is theirs, and you are mine.
No, I say, “No!”
I try to rise, but my limbs won’t bear my weight.
You are one woman. How will you fight them?
“I will become as you are if I have to. I will take spirit form and fly to them.”
The Wendigo releases a high-pitched, mocking laugh, and then the wind is only the wind. Soon it’s not even that. The rain stops, and holes appear in the clouds. The temperature rises. Glittering stars poke through the canopy of leaves. As I lose consciousness, I look into the infinite nothingness of space and I wonder.
4. Unto Thee All Flesh Shall Come
Black Wolf waited outside the circle of mourners after the funeral, not wishing to intrude. The good will between our people was almost gone, but some of us still made the effort. It was a sunny morning in early autumn, and the leaves were just turning. Johannes was on burial detail. I walked with Father Andrew from the gravesite.
Black Wolf greeted us by name as we approached. He was wearing the brown suit we had given him as a gift, complete with bowtie and bowler hat. White men’s
clothing was nothing new to him, as he could hardly have worn native costume at Eton. He looked almost comical with his long black hair hanging out from beneath his hat.
“Were you acquainted with Mister Miller?” I said, knowing that he wasn’t.
Miller hated the Bodéwadmi, and would have nothing to do with Black Wolf.
Got no use for Englishmen or Injuns, he used to say, and this one’s both.
He also resented Black Wolf’s education, which he considered a waste of time. “He bore us ill will,” Black Wolf said, “but I bear him none.”
“The Lord be with you,” Father Andrew said.
“And with you.” Black Wolf removed his hat. He wasn’t old, but already lines creased his face as if grooved with a tanning knife. “I wanted to observe your funeral rites. Ad te omnis caro veniet?”
“‘Unto thee all flesh shall come,’” the priest said. “It’s Latin.”
“Yes, Father, they teach Latin in England. I find it curious that you imprison a man in a box before you put him in the ground. How may his spirit escape into the sky?”
“Are you mocking us?”
“No, sir. I am trying to understand.”
“They have no churches in England?” Father Andrew said. “I went every Sunday.”
“Then you should know.”
“I know, but I do not understand.”
“The casket only holds his earthly body,” I said. “It cannot contain his soul.” “Ah,” Black Wolf said, and he smiled warmly, as if that were answer enough. He
put his hat back on. “It is always good to see you, Rebecca.”
5. Day of Mourning
There is never nothing left. In the morning my eyes are raw from weeping, and I know some part of me is still alive. The magnitude of the tragedy sank in during the night, perhaps in dreams, perhaps in the half-world between wakefulness and sleep. Or perhaps the Wendigo returned and whispered in my ear, He is dead and your daughter is lost to you.
However it happened, I remember clutching at my heart and sobbing so furiously I could scarce find breath. Once released, my grief couldn’t be contained.
“It isn’t fair!” I cried to the stars. “Why now? Why now?”
You know why now, the stars replied, and in morning’s daylight I’m still shaking. Some of this is a chill from the storm. I’m not numb. I’m not numb. My nose is running, my skin knotted with gooseflesh. I may have a small fever. But I can feel. And because I can feel, sweet Christ, if I had a gun I would put it in my mouth. Were it not for Rachel, I could not endure.
I come out of the trees to dry my dress in the risen sun. Here in the open prairie I squat to empty my bladder. Who’s here to see or care?
I’m famished, though the thought of eating sickens me. But I must be strong if I’m to find my daughter. Living in a frontier town, I’ve learned which native plants are edible and which are poisonous. Wild carrots and onions, lambs quarters and smartweed, strawberries, blackberries, and grapes all grow in abundance. If I could catch a rabbit or turtle, I know how to make a knife from stone and a fire from kindling.
Individual curls of smoke rise from the Bodéwadmi village. They haven’t packed their camp and moved on yet, despite their attack on Cherry Mills. Someday a relative of the victims, wondering why no letters have arrived, will discover the massacre and send word to our soldiers. The Bodéwadmi are aware of this. But for the moment they must feel safe, for they cannot know there was a survivor.
Using a fold in my dress as a basket, I hurry to gather enough vegetables to sustain me through the day, then return to the Manidoo River to wash them. As the shallow, meandering stream flows around my hands, I imagine familiar shapes in its twinkling surface, like a memory fashioned from fractured light. I see myself with Rachel, drawing water from the well on her fourth birthday. We’re going to bake a cake. We have flour from the mill at Belleville, cornstarch, sugar, and cocoa from the Cherry Mills general store, butter and milk from Mister Miller’s cow, and eggs from our own chickens.
Rachel is so excited. Once inside, she’s constantly underfoot in her desire to help. She darts around the kitchen, from table to woodstove to shelf. Her fingers are into everything. She’s surprised by the bitterness of cocoa before the sugar is added.
Slow down, little one, I say. We have time. Mama, I’m so happy, she says.
I rise from the bank of the Manidoo. We do not have time. No longer able to see Rachel in the lights on the river, I heave the vegetables against the trees.
“God damn you!” I scream at the Bodéwadmi.
Most of the settlers in Cherry Mills were older, their offspring grown and gone. There were only three young children, Rachel and Esther Brolin and Paul Isakson.
Black Wolf perched on the crossbeam of our fence, dressed in typical Bodéwadmi costume of deerskin breeches and moccasins. He wore a leather band around his head with two hawk feathers protruding from the back. He had shaved all the black hair from his head. The children sat on the ground before him, with the adults standing behind them. Few of us came to listen to him anymore, very few.
“I wish to tell you the story of Nanabozho,” Black Wolf said. “Nah-nah-BOO-joo! Nah-nah-BOO-joo!” the children giggled.
“One day,” he said, “a great manitu came to earth. A manitu is a spirit, like a ghost, only mightier. This spirit chose a wife from among the children of men. She bore him four sons. The eldest was Nanabozho, who was a friend of the human race and often communed on their behalf with Gichi Manito. He was also a trickster, for he had a wondrous sense of mirth. After two more sons, the final and youngest was Chakekenapok.”
“Chah-kuh-KEN-uh-pok!” the children cried.
“In coming into the world, Chakekenapok caused the death of his mother. By this time Nanabozho was a grown man. His mirth left him when his mother died, and he swore an oath to avenge her.” Black Wolf paused to look hard at the adults present. “Among my people,” he said, “revenge is considered honorable.”
Then he smiled and went on. “Full of grief and anger, Nanabozho pursued Chakekenapok to the ends of the earth. Each time he found his brother, he fractured some part of his body. After several encounters Nanabozho finally destroyed him by tearing out his entrails. The fragments of Chakekenapok’s bones grew into large stones and mountains.
His entrails took root in the earth and became plants and vines and trees of every kind. And so was Nanabozho’s mother avenged, and from his brother’s death sprang the shapes of the world we know and all the growing things in it.”
“That story isn’t suitable for children,” Father Andrew said. “Didn’t Lot impregnate his own daughters?” Black Wolf said.
7. The Naming of Children
There is never nothing left. I retrieve the vegetables and force myself to eat.
How my world has changed in one day. Yesterday morning I was departing for my home and family from my sister’s farmstead. Today I have no home and family. And yet, Rachel, I think. Rachel. Rachel.
Weeping Blossom, the shade of Johannes had said. She will forget us.
I chew as if my teeth can crush the bones of the Bodéwadmi. I will kill you all, I vow, and I can smell the rot of the Wendigo’s breath.
Give me your strength, monster, I pray. Give me your stealth. Cloak me in the whirlwind, let me rend their lives apart.
When I’m sated, when I’m ready as I can be, I cross the shallow Manidoo into Bodéwadmi lands. Beyond the greenbelt the ground slopes upward. As I crest the low hill the first sign I have of my enemy is the barking of dogs.
Then I smell roasting meat. Like buffalo. Like fatted calves. Like bodies in a church. It seems the Keepers of the Holy Fire are having a feast.
I see their tepees. Their horses—and ours—are corralled just outside the village.
Women scurry about, doing whatever it is Bodéwadmi women do. Teenaged boys are playing a game of lacrosse by the mide lodge. Younger children laugh and run. Rachel is not laughing or running, of that I am certain. She is Weeping Blossom. They name children for nature, they name them for their disposition. To them, Rachel was a beautiful flower, crying for her mother. Of that I am also certain. I wonder what names little Esther Brolin and Paul Isakson have been given. Sorrow? Despair?
Dies illa, dies irae. Day of mourning, day of wrath.
There are no trees here, so I crouch in the tall grass and advance slowly.
A warm breeze blows in from the west. Dogs bark. Meat roasts. Women scurry. Boys play. Children run.
Where are the men?
You have no plan.
You are one woman. How will you fight them?
The Wendigo spoke truly. I am alone. What am I thinking? Rachel. I’ll do anything for my daughter.
Even die needlessly? I don’t know if the thought is mine or Johannes’s or the Wendigo’s.
I scan the camp. Where are the men?
A high-pitched yell echoes across the hills. I don’t speak Bodéwadmi, but I know a warning cry when I hear one. I’ve been spotted.
Pounding hooves approach from behind. I turn to see them spilling out of the timber. They were there all the time. I didn’t even sense their presence. They could have taken me whenever they chose, could have killed me in my sleep. Or worse.
I stand, thrust my chest out defiantly.
I don’t have to go to them. They are coming to me.
8. The End of the World
“There will be a resurrection of the dead and a Rapture of the living,” Father Andrew said the one time he visited the Bodéwadmi village. Johannes, I, and a few other whites were with him. The entire Indian population was present. We were sitting together in the mide lodge. The lodge was a long triangular dwelling place, wide at the base, very simple in its construction. The Bodéwadmi had no use for a more permanent structure.
Black Wolf translated while the priest preached from the Apocalypse of St. John. “All true Christians,” Father Andrew continued, “will be gathered to Christ when
God’s Kingdom comes on earth. But a Great Tribulation will occur first. For seven years believers will experience persecution and martyrdom throughout the world. They will be purified and strengthened by it.”
The chief, surprisingly to me, was a woman. She looked to be a hundred years old.
She whispered something to Black Wolf, who said, “What about the children?” Father Andrew didn’t seem to understand the question.
“The ones who are too young to decide,” Black Wolf said.
“Those who have not reached an age of accountability will be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.”
The chief whispered again.
“Is there a place for the Red Man in your heaven?” Black Wolf said. “If he accepts the Lord,” Father Andrew answered without hesitation.
The chief shook her head in confusion. She held up a hand for silence while she conferred with Black Wolf. There was not a sound in the lodge. Finally Black Wolf nodded. “She wonders, is this how your world will end?”
“Would you like to know how ours ends?”
“Very much,” I said, speaking out of turn. Johannes squeezed my hand in admonishment, but gently.
“Yes,” Father Andrew said.
“Nanabozho still lives,” Black Wolf said. “He is resting from his many labors upon a shelf of ice in the great Northern Sea. We fear that one day the White Man will discover his retreat and drive him off. As Nanabozho sets his foot upon the earth, the universe will erupt in flame, and every living creature will perish.”
The chief studied each of us settlers then, her ancient eyes moving slowly from face to face to face. She spoke in a loud, clear voice for all her people to hear. They chanted and slammed their spear butts on the ground.
When the chanting stopped, Black Wolf said, “And here you are. Our Great Tribulation has already begun.”
9. First Blood
There is never nothing left, but as the Bodéwadmi braves on horseback surround me, I can’t see many options. One of them raises a spear. I notice his head is shaved, a traditional sign, Black Wolf once told me, that his tribe is at war. I draw in a breath and
mumble a prayer in preparation for death. I haven’t traveled far or long, but it seems as though a great journey is coming to a sad conclusion.
I have failed. I’ve accomplished nothing. I’m not afraid, but my rashness has doomed Rachel to a life among people who are not her own.
I should have thought this through, but confronted with what I saw in that church, how could I think at all? How could anyone? Perhaps I should have gone back to my sister and had her husband summon soldiers. We had tried that before the massacre, to no avail. But even if they had come this time, that would not guarantee Rachel’s safe return. The Bodéwadmi might have been forewarned of their approach and fled. They are ghosts when they choose to be. Or they might have killed the white children out of spite.
“Do it now, you bastard,” I say. Forgive me, Rachel.
He pulls the spear back, then buries its point between my feet, grasps the collar of my dress, and hoists me across his horse. Too shocked to struggle, I simply lie there like a sack of flour as he taps the animal’s flanks with his heels and carries me down into the village.
Curious natives gather as we pass. They’ve all seen white women before—me, if no one else, when I visited with Father Andrew—but probably never one facedown on horseback with her hindquarters jutting indelicately into the air.
I look up from my awkward position, hoping to see Rachel. I do not. “Where is she?” I say.
My captor shoves my head down against the horse’s shoulder. Its powerful muscles quiver like a locomotive, its sweat lathers my cheek.
We stop in front of the mide lodge. He dismounts and jerks me from the animal’s back, letting me fall to the ground like a fresh kill from the hunt. All the grass here has been worn down to dirt. I scrape my face and the palms of my hands on the hard edge of a rut. They’ve drawn first blood. It won’t be the last. These small pains, I’m sure, are nothing compared with what will follow.
A frontier wife is stoic, she is sturdy and strong, but she is not immune to fear. I wasn’t afraid to die when I thought death would come quickly at the point of a spear. But they didn’t kill me, and I can only imagine what they intend to do with me now. It’s the unknown horror that chills the soul.
I lay rigidly on my side, trembling, weeping against my will. Not daring to raise my eyes, I see only the unshoed hooves of the horses, the deerskin moccasins and breeches and dresses of the gathered Bodéwadmi. One of the animals urinates nearby, and I smell the acrid stench.
No one speaks. They simply stare at me.
I clench my fists but otherwise can’t will myself to move. “Damn you,” I say, “kill me if you’re going to.”
One of the men lifts me to my feet. Two women step forward and strip me of all but my underclothing. If they think that will prevent me from trying to escape, they needn’t worry. I’m not leaving without my daughter. Thus disrobed, I’m shoved through the leather flap over the lodge’s entrance. No one is waiting inside. There’s nothing for comfort here, no benches, no tables, no bedding, no blankets, no food, no water, no kindling for fire. There are no windows. All is darkness save for a single pillar of sunlight slashing down from the smoke hole. At the far end a stiff breeze ripples the flap at the west entrance. For several moments that’s the only sound, but soon I hear voices
outside, and laughing, and running, and people resuming their normal business, behaving as if they hadn’t just imprisoned a white woman in their holy lodge.
10. Sacred Stones
After he told the Nanabozho tale, Black Wolf did something he’d never done before. He kissed the children goodbye and shooed them away. Afterward he faced the few of us who still considered him friend. His expression was frighteningly grim.
“Why have you shaved your head?” Father Andrew said. “Warriors do that when they go to war.”
“And who are you going to war with?”
“May I have some water?” Black Wolf said. I fetched a bucket from our well and scooped him a cup. Black Wolf drank slowly, then carefully put the tin cup back in the bucket. “I lived among Whites for many years,” he said. “I was educated in England. I learned everything there is to know about you, and I still do not understand you.”
“Black Wolf,” the priest said, “what’s wrong? What happened?”
“We go to war with you, Father. With white people. There are too many of you. You swarm like locusts. We retreat and retreat and retreat, and still you come, still you want more. We are tired. We will not be moved again.”
“We can’t stop the migration,” Father Andrew said. “We have lived in peace with the Bodéwadmi for many years. Your complaint is not with Cherry Mills.”
“What happened?” Johannes said. “Why now?” I said.
Black Wolf looked as unhappy as I had ever seen him. “A white man has desecrated our Place of the Dead. He has stolen sacred stones from the hill. All we asked is that you give us that one place. That one place.”
“Why would someone steal stones?” I said.
“Why do you people ever do anything? To line a well, to build a fence, to lay a foundation. Material you could easily find somewhere else. We mean nothing to you.”
“It wasn’t us,” Johannes said. “It wasn’t anyone from Cherry Mills.”
“My people,” Black Wolf said, “do not distinguish between you. What one does, you all do.”
“But we’re your friends!” I said.
“Friends make the bitterest enemies,” he said. “Revenge is honorable for us. I cannot stop this. Prepare yourselves.”
He then walked slowly to his horse, mounted, and rode off. He looked back once, and that was the last time we saw his face.
11. In This Sign
There is never nothing left, yet night comes and goes, and comes and goes, and comes and goes. No one brings food or water or blankets. Guards are stationed outside the lodge, but they never enter. They only push me back if I look out the flap.
The mide lodge isn’t their Place of the Dead, but it’s sacred enough. Even now, even now, I wouldn’t defile it if I didn’t have to. But a body has needs I cannot control. I relieve myself only in one corner, at the far end.
Day and night I hear drums and whistles and singing in the distance. I’ve tried talking to my captors through the flap, and have been ignored.
I’ve begged to see my daughter, and have been ignored.
I’ve pleaded that I’m starving, and have been ignored. Few Bodéwadmi speak English, but in their silence I sense a collective thought: How does it feel?
I’ve remained still, and have been ignored.
I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m nearly naked, and I’m sad beyond consolation.
Last night I lay beneath the smoke hole and looked up at the stars. The hole is small, and I could only see a few, the tail of the Great Bear, perhaps, the belt of the Hunter. They are lovely, but I’m told the distance between them is so vast that everything that is something in those spaces dwindles to insignificance.
What is there in the eternal but mystery and wonder? What is there in the eternal but nothing?
I couldn’t wonder at the stars. I couldn’t wonder, even, at my lack of wonder.
I woke to early morning rain dripping on my face. I still had a fever from the previous storm. My deprivation hasn’t helped. I have chills and hunger pangs that are almost beyond bearing. I cough constantly, and I find it difficult to concentrate.
The drums and whistles and singing continue.
The rain has stopped and blue sky returned above, but it’s still dark as death in the lodge. I sit on the floor next to the eastern entrance. From this angle I can see a horizontal sliver of light at the top of the flap at the far end. It isn’t much. After an hour or two the sun passes overhead. When it reaches just the right angle, the vertical pillar of light spears down, bisecting the sliver at the flap.
With the sign of the Cross, Christ made Himself known to Constantine. It was the eve of a battle. The emperor looked up into the sun and saw the Holy Cross displayed there. In this sign conquer, the Lord said, and Constantine did. He won the battle and converted to Christianity.
Is that all it is? Is that all?
I stare at my cross of light, the pillar and the sliver.
In this sign.
I climb to my knees, fold my hands together. My mind is so befuddled I have forgotten the words. I listen for Father Andrew’s voice in my head. The rhythm of the drums outside help to shape the syllables.
“Exaudi orationem meam, Domini. Ad te omnis caro veniet.”
Hear my prayer, O Lord. Unto thee all flesh shall come.
I can recall no more, but it’s enough. I repeat the chant until my throat is near to bursting, lifting my voice above the pounding drums. As I pray a form materializes upon my cross, a transcendent form of pure light, glowing not with heat but with hope. Arms stretch out along the narrow sliver, fingers curl. One leg hangs limp, the other is slightly bent. The head that should be drooping forward in death is instead held high, eyes burning into my heart with love. His face, His face, is serene and beautiful.
As the darkness falls away, the light shimmers and His body takes substance. At first He is translucent. I can see His bones, His veins, His muscles. Then His flesh solidifies into glimmering alabaster, hiding what lies beneath.
There is never nothing left. Even broken things, even burnt things, are not nothing. Some little part remains, a smell, a smudge, a memory, a hope …
Oh, yes, my Lord, my Lord!
But as I rise to my feet the temperature drops. Though the air is still, I feel an icy wind. It carries with it the stench of rot, of decay, of corruption. Christ smiles, and as He does, His flesh suppurates and shrivels into the caverns of His skull, His eyes roll back in their sockets. His teeth blacken, His lips tatter and bleed. Muscles fall from the bones.
“My Lord …?” I say.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!” the Wendigo laughs, an evil, piercing, soul-crushing shriek. As the vision fades before me, I collapse screaming to the floor. The body is gone,
leaving only my cross of light. And when the sun moves in its circuit, the glowing pillar tilts, narrows, and dissipates, too, closing in on itself like a whirlwind spindling out of existence.
We took Black Wolf seriously. After he was gone, we wired for soldiers, of course. The government refused on the grounds that they had heard of no recent hostile activity by the natives anywhere in Kansas. The Bodéwadmi were, they assured us, a peaceful and compliant people. In any case, no soldiers could be spared. The army was occupied by bloody battles with the Lakota Sioux up north. Don’t bother us, they said, unless there’s a real threat.
For a year we waited, buying guns and ammunition and spending many hours practicing. Some favored a pre-emptive strike, but although white people might have seemed thick as locusts to the Bodéwadmi, it wasn’t so in Cherry Mills. We had far fewer than half as many settlers as they had warriors.
And yet no attack came, and none came, and none came. Gradually we let down our guard.
Gradually we began to feel safe.
Gradually we imagined that everything would be all right after all. We forgot to be afraid. We returned to our plowing, our weaving, our smithing, our baking, and our churning, to our bonfires and pig roasts and square dancing on Saturday nights.
And so when word arrived of my sister’s impending delivery, I was pleased to go share in her joy.
13. The Final Tribulation
Sometimes there truly is nothing left. Even the drums have stopped.
I spend my horror on the floor, keening myself into incoherence. After I’ve found the calm of total desolation, the flap of the mide lodge flies open and Black Wolf strides through. He seems years older, decades older. His hair is still cropped short, but what stubble he has is no longer black. He wears only a head band, a deerskin loincloth, and a pouch at his belt. He now displays four hawk feathers.
“Rebecca,” he says. He looks weary unto death. His body is wet with sweat. “Stand up.”
I don’t move.
“Stand up,” he says, “or I will force you.”
Force me? I push myself to my knees, then to my feet. My first reflex should be to cover myself, but I’m not ashamed. I’m not anything. Let him ravage me. I don’t care. “So that’s what it’s going to be?” I say. My voice is so ragged and hoarse I can barely hear myself.
I slap him with as much strength as I have left.
He doesn’t flinch. “Rebecca,” he says. “It will not be that. I am a Two-Spirit Person.” “I don’t know what that means.”
“For you it means it will not be that.”
He pushes the flap open with his right hand and nods at someone outside. A woman brings in my dress, now washed.
“Put this on,” Black Wolf says, dismissing the woman. “Why?” I say.
“Because I will drag you in your underclothes if you don’t.” I pull the dress over my head. “Where is Rachel?”
“She has not been harmed. All three children are safe.” “I want her back.”
He says nothing.
“You knew I was coming,” I say.
“You were not at Cherry Mills that day. I knew you would return. We watched for you. We watched you search the town and the ruins of the church. We watched you in the trees along the Manidoo. You are clumsy as a buffalo. Did you think you would catch us unaware? We had time to move the entire village if we chose. You would have found only ghosts.”
“I want Rachel.” “Come with me.”
He turns and exits the lodge without waiting to see if I follow. I follow.
After four days of darkness, the sun, even low in the sky, is like a knife in my eyes. I squint and stumble along behind Black Wolf. The men guarding against my escape fall in step behind me. There are Bodéwadmi all around. They move aside as we approach. Outside a tepee two dogs growl as they play tug-of-war with a stick. A little girl looks at me and pulls at her mother’s skirt.
I must look like the Wendigo to her.
No, not a Wendigo, just a haggard, broken spirit. Black Wolf has no intention of relinquishing my daughter, I know that. I have no husband, no home, no child and, now, no Lord.
Though exhausted, I run to catch up with him. “Who killed Johannes?”
“He has gone to your heaven, Rebecca. Is that not enough?” “Who killed him?”
“It was not me. I did not set the fire. But I was there. We kill our enemies without pleasure or shame.”
We pass the last row of tepees. He is leading me back toward the rise by the Manidoo River, where at least two dozen Bodéwadmi warriors in full ceremonial costume wait. They must be the source of the drumming and whistling and chanting, although all is silent now. Two large fires burn about twenty feet apart. “What about Father Andrew?” I say. “He was your friend, Black Wolf. Which dog did you choose to feed?”
Black Wolf’s jaw clenches. He looks straight ahead. “Stop talking.” “You are a coward.”
“Where are we going?” “Stop talking!”
“I hate you,” I say. “I know,” he says.
“Why did you leave me in your lodge for four days?”
Black Wolf sighs and turns toward me. “We were preparing ourselves.” “For what?”
“We are almost there.”
At the top of the hill he guides me through the Bodéwadmi warriors and between the two fires. To my back the sky darkens over the greenbelt alongside the river. Ahead the sun sets behind the Bodéwadmi village. All the men stand in a knot on the other side of the fires, facing me. The chief sits cross-legged on a blanket. She is the same impossibly old woman I met on my only other visit here. Her hair is thin, and her mottled scalp shows through. She has growths of skin on her face and whiskers on the growths. She nods solemnly at me, then at Black Wolf.
“She wishes me to say this: ‘Although we would accept you as brothers, like Chakekenapok you are causing our mother’s death. Revenge is honorable, yet it is not possible. If we could kill you by the tens of thousands you would still keep coming. And so for four days we have performed the Dream Dance and prayed, prayed for deliverance from the Whites, prayed for your paralysis, prayed for a way to live.’”
The sun has dropped below the horizon now. Darkness engulfs the village below, but the fires on the hill light Black Wolf’s face and burn like stars in his eyes.
“Divine guidance?” I say. “If you will,” he says.
“All because someone took stones from your holy place? You desecrated our church. Isn’t that revenge enough? Our debt is paid.”
“Your debt will never be paid.”
Another man steps forward. He is also wearing face paint and four hawk feathers.
Black Wolf reaches into the pouch at his belt and gives the man two objects, one for each hand. He keeps two for himself.
The man stations himself next to one of the fires. Black Wolf stands by the other. He opens his hands for me. Each palm holds a small, shriveled lump of … something. I catch a whiff of decaying meat.
Oh, sweet Jesus, I know what those lumps are! They’re the severed tongues of the Barker brothers and Herm Johnson and Caleb Schwartz.
“Every spirit,” Black Wolf says, “has a powerful bidjgosan. We have taken it from your dead friends. We will use your people’s own magic to ward you off. We will join with all the tribes and build a wall of fire the length of the land to keep you out. The White Man will not pass beyond the Manidoo River again.”
The men simultaneously throw the tongues into the fires and chant something in their language. Perhaps because it’s magic I expect a flash or explosion, but the putrid globs of flesh make no sound save a mundane thudding on the burning wood below.
The chief leans her head back as if in a trance while the others wait in anxious silence.
I almost pity this sad, desperate plan. It’s pagan nonsense, nothing more. But before I’ve finished the thought, a trickle of flame spreads quickly across the ground in a straight line between the two fires. As I watch, the trickle grows taller, ascending like a burning curtain. It
is no more than a few inches thick but soon higher than my head. Transparent as glass, it emits as much heat as any bonfire, yet the prairie grass does not ignite.
I’m alone on one side of the curtain, the Bodéwadmi grouped together on the other. The chief smiles in her trance. The warriors murmur in awed appreciation.
Black Wolf gazes at me through the flame. “We are Bodéwadmi,” he says, “Keepers of the Holy Fire.”
“What’s happening?” I say.
“Come through if you can,” he says. “You must choose to do this. We cannot force you or the magic will not work.”
“Are you mad?” I say.
“We will give you incentive.” Black Wolf motions to someone behind him. The group parts and a child wearing Bodéwadmi deerskin is ushered forward. She walks in a stupor, as if fed a potion that renders her senseless. She looks at me without recognition.
My heart aches.
“What have you done to her?” I say.
“Come through from that side,” Black Wolf says, “or I will push her through from this side. Even without magic, it is still fire.”
This man was my friend. I invited him into my home. “That is no choice!” I scream with my tortured voice. “What kind of devil would make a child watch her own mother die? You have already slaughtered her father.”
“She did not witness Johannes’s death. We took the children before the battle.
We hope you will not die. We hope the fire will repel you.” “And if it doesn’t?”
Black Wolf glances fondly at Rachel. “We have induced a holy state in her. She will not remember.”
“God damn you,” I say.
“That may be,” he says. “Come through.”
I take a deep breath. For my daughter. If I am to die, let me die. I pause to gather myself before entering the flame. “Exaudi orationem meam, Domini,” I mutter, although the words have little meaning now.
Suddenly I feel a weight on my shoulder. I breathe in the familiar icy air, the stench
I will eat your soul, the Wendigo says. Its rancid tongue licks my cheek. And then I
will eat your daughter’s.
“You will not,” I say. You do not know hunger, monster. With a determination stronger than mystery and wonder I draw it inside myself, ensnaring it, rooting it in the heart of my rage and grief. Feed on this. Feed on my pain. It struggles and shrieks but cannot break free.
The Wendigo is a creature of cold. I step into the curtain of flame, the Holy Fire, the purifying fire. My dress flares instantly, then my hair. In moments my flesh blisters and chars and melts. Still I don’t stop, even when my blood boils and my bones crack. I accept the heat into my core, burning through my nerves, cauterizing my pain and illness until it reaches the secret place where I have imprisoned the beast.
No! it cries, thrashing, convulsing, diminishing.
Hoing/IN THIS SIGN – 16
I clutch it in my will until, like my pillar of light in the lodge, it spindles out of existence, until there isn’t a smudge, a smell, or a memory of it left.
After what seems like hours in hell, I tumble through the flame to the other side. My dress and hair are singed, but I am physically unharmed.
My soul is free, unencumbered.
Cleansed, I shudder as if in the throes of passion, but it is a passion not of the body. I rush to my girl, my daughter, my beautiful Rachel, and sweep her into my arms, kissing her face, her eyes, her hair. I’m blubbering like a baby. Rachel doesn’t know me yet, but when her “holy state” wears off, she will, she will.
Only now I realize that the Bodéwadmi are also weeping. All have fallen to their knees, wailing, pounding the earth. The chief has lowered her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest as if posing for death.
Black Wolf is on all fours, his forehead to the ground. “We prayed,” he says. “We danced. We invoked bidjgosan.”
“You failed,” I say, squeezing Rachel closer. She hangs limp in my arms. “Your fire didn’t keep me out and it didn’t kill me. You can’t hold us back.”
Black Wolf lifts his face and sits back on his haunches. “In your stories,” he says, “Jesus died so that you could live. In ours, you have lived, so we must die.”
“Where are Esther and Paul?” I say.
“They are ours,” he says. “Take your daughter and leave us.”
I kiss Rachel again. Is there a glint of understanding in her eyes? “You have destroyed everything I own,” I say. “Where will we go?”
Black Wolf waves his hand helplessly. “Anywhere you wish, it seems.”