Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Woman in the Woods

Kahnawake River, Haudenosaunee Territory
October, 1748

It was sunset, and the sun was falling into the vast estuary. It was late, late autumn, and the leaves had long since fallen, and the sky was washed pale and cold. Ice was creeping around the edges of the river. Black Egret and his younger brothers, Far Osprey and Small Heron, were fishing -- or more precisely, sleeping in Black Egret's canoe, trailing their fishing nets in the water.

The shouting woke them. Far Osprey jerked as his eyes opened, and his fishing net slipped into the river. Small Heron sat up straight and taut, as if trying to listen with his whole body.

"Mi'kmaq?" whispered Far Osprey. He had never seen or heard one of the Mi'kmaq -- there had not been much fighting between the Kahnawake and Mi'kmaq tribes lately -- but the boys knew they had come much further north of usual Kahnawake fishing waters than was strictly safe.

Black Egret already had his oars in the water. "Maybe," he said expressionlessly. Black Egret hardly ever showed any emotion. "But that was a woman's voice." Without haste, but with no wasted movements, he maneuvered the canoe out of the tangle of half-frozen reeds and shot them across the water towards the shouting.

The shouting and the crashing in the underbrush, the snapping of tree branches and crunching of fallen leaves. Black Egret pushed the canoe up on a sandy bank and the three boys leaped out, grabbing their hooks and lines and knives, and dashed into the trees. It was just a moment before they saw her: a young woman with pale skin, running desperately, almost mindlessly towards them, barefoot, dressed in breeches and shirt of some strange material that had once been white, but was now stained with mud and fresh blood.

She ran headlong into Black Egret, who caught her before she could collapse. Far Osprey and Small Heron raised their knives and ran a few yards forward, listening. The sounds of shouting and crashing through the trees were coming closer.

"Mi'kmaq," said Far Osprey. "That's their war cry."

"Save me," gasped the woman in the trade language. Black Egret saw that her skin was very pale -- from loss of blood? It was hard to tell in the dusk, under the trees. Her face was strangely thin and drawn, birdlike.

With one motion he lifted her onto his shoulder, then turned and carried her back to the canoe. As he gently lay her in it, his brothers stood watch, knives ready in case the Mi'kmaq suddenly appeared from the trees. Though the cries were still far off, it was a common trick for one war party to make a lot of noise and distraction while another party crept up silently in the underbrush. It would be hard to do that this late in the year, with no foliage for cover, but they were taking no chances.

In a few seconds Black Egret had the canoe ready, and they jumped in and pushed off. Just as before, Black Egret rowed powerfully and efficiently, and in less than a minute he had pulled them out into the open estuary, far out of bowshot of the banks.

"See to her," said Black Egret, nodding at Far Osprey, as he continued to row for the other shore.

She had fainted, probably from blood loss. Far Osprey found an arrowhead buried in her back, the shaft of the arrow broken off. "She has carried this arrowhead in her for hours," he said. "Her wound is discolored. She is feverish."

The brothers all knew this meant she would be dead within a day. There was no need to speak it aloud. Far Osprey began binding the wound. The last light of the setting sun was red on the water.

No comments:

Post a Comment