Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I Will Make Sure

Kahnawake River, Haudenosaunee Territory
October, 1748

The brothers were sharing a meal of fish and bird eggs by the fire under the trees, when she woke up, and whispered for water. Black Egret cradled her head and gave her a little from his cup. Her skin was still hot with fever, and her lips were cracked and bleeding. When she had enough water, he offered her fish, but she shook her head.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"We are Kahnawake," said Black Egret. "The keepers of the Eastern Door for the Haudenosaunee, the Long House People."

"Long House --? You are Mohawk?" She said it with surprise, but no alarm.

"Mohawk?" said Far Osprey, laughing. "Flesh eaters? Do they call us that?"

"Sometimes," she said. "Do you eat flesh?"

"Maybe," said Black Egret seriously. They did not, of course, but it was good for a tribe to have a fearsome reputation. "But not tonight. Tell us your story, if you have strength."

There was a hint of a smile around her eyes, and she whispered, "That would take all night, and I will not last that long. And there are not enough words in the trade language. But I will tell some. And you will listen."

She paused, and her eyes closed. The brothers looked at each other, unsure whether she would go on. But she opened her eyes again and continued.

"My name is Anna," she said. "Anna Vitusova. I was born in Russia, which is a very big country, the biggest in the world; it lies across the sea, far to the west of here. My father was Vitus Bering. The chief of Russia told him to take many ships and men and sail east, to find this land, to seek wealth and make maps, and claim the land for Russia. He came, and he brought me, because I would not stay behind. We sailed north to where the sea is choked with ice, and then south again. It was very hard; many ships sank and many men died. We found no wealth, but we made zhurnali..."

As she spoke, Black Egret found himself fascinated by her eyes. Perhaps it was a trick of the firelight, but they seemed to shine with a blue light, like lightning reflected in a pool.

"What is a zhurnali?" asked Far Osprey, stumbling over the odd sounds.

"A zhurnal is a bundle for holding memory," she whispered. "For Russia. When we take the zhurnali back home, we can prove that we were the first to find this land. And then the land will belong to Russia."

"But you weren't the first ones here," said Small Heron. "We were."

She ignored him. "Many ships sank, many men died," she said again. "And we found this river that flowed out of the east, that was deep enough and wide enough for our ships; we thought maybe we could follow it all the way through the land to the other side, and so come home again."

"Come home again?" asked Black Egret. "By sailing further east? What do you mean?"

"The world is round," she whispered. "No more questions. Let me talk! We followed the river east. Then we found that some of our food was missing, and we thought it had been stolen by the people living on the shore nearby. My father ordered that we should attack them, and take their food, for revenge, and to scare them, and also because winter was coming and we were afraid we would not have enough. But they were stronger than we thought. My father died, and the ships were burned, and I was taken captive. This was three days ago."

She paused again. "Give me water," she said. Black Egret tried to give her some, but her lips had become too swollen.

"You must rest," he said.

"No," she hissed. "You must listen." She coughed, and she looked up at him, and her eyes blazed with fever, strangely beautiful. "Listen. For three days they had me. Then today I escaped. And you found me."

"We found you," said Black Egret. "But you must rest, you must. Otherwise you will die -- "

"I am going to die," she whispered. "I can already see the angel come for me, the black angel riding..."

She paused and looked over Black Egret's shoulder, as if someone were behind him. He turned quickly, but saw no one.

"He is waiting," she whispered. Her voice was barely audible. "I must go. But listen. You must do one thing for me. One thing." She reached out with her feverish hand and gripped Black Egret's tunic with surprising strength, pulling herself onto one shoulder, and he could not drag his eyes away from hers. "Promise me. Promise me."

"What?" he asked, barely breathing.

"The zhurnal," she said. "Take the zhurnal to Russia. For my father. For me. Do you promise?"

"To Russia?" he gasped. "I can't -- "

"You must promise," she hissed.

"I -- I -- "

"Promise," she cried, her voice ringing in the silence of the wood.

"I... I promise," he whispered. "I promise."

She stared at him, breathing heavily, eyes wide. "I think you will keep your promise," she said at last. "But I will watch you. I will make sure."

He had no words to answer her, and the two of them sat there a short while, him crouching by her, she holding herself up by her grip on his tunic, her eyes burning at him, holding his gaze. At last he realized that she had stopped breathing. He released the dead fingers from his tunic and allowed her body to gently fall back.

"Egret," said Small Heron, "what did she mean, she would watch you? How can she watch you if she is -- " and he stopped, his voice faltering.

Black Egret shook his head. He carefully closed her eyelids, but could still feel her eyes watching him. He reached for her pack, which she had been using as a pillow, opened it, and pulled out a loosely bound leather journal. Its tattered pages were covered with Russian Cyrillic writing, which he did not understand the sense or purpose of. Deeper in the pack he found charcoal pencils. He carefully put everything back in the pack, folded it tightly, and put it into his own satchel. Still her eyes were on him.

She was still watching him as they buried her body with all honors, placing her belongings reverentially beside her in the grave, along with their full tobacco pouches. His brothers did not feel her eyes on them, and Black Egret did not speak of it. He was a warrior and he would do what he must.

They did not sleep that night, but began rowing back home under the stars, and even far out in the middle of the estuary he felt her eyes on the back of his neck. All the next day they rowed and walked and fished, and she followed him. And that night when they encamped, he felt her watching him in his dreams.

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