Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal Chapter 7

“Not far away” turned out to be three days’ journey on foot. Cate was mercifully unconscious as Demeter led Crossroads, talking forcefully to the little black horse. Luckily, the mare didn’t fight the travois. Toby came along behind with the push cart they had invented to carry the small amount of baggage left, including Demeter’s box. Both people were so shocked and enraged that they could think of nothing but getting to a safe place.

Toby had warned them that the village was much shrunken by smallpox, but they were not really prepared for what they saw. First they came to a broad river, then walked along a road that weeds had begun to repopulate. They began to pass fields, mostly neglected and often showing evidence of flooding in the past. Corn stalks and the dried vines of bean vines and squash plants stood in a few patches. This was comforting to Demeter, almost familiar. “Are you sure these people are Indians?” she asked. Palisades stood, now in some disrepair, at points where defense against hostiles would be possible.

But then Toby called to Demeter to stop. They unhooked the travois so that Crossroads could rest and graze a bit and lowered Cate to the grass in the shade of a tree. “Come with me,” said Toby. Demeter didn’t want to leave Cate, but he said, “We’ll still be able to see her. I just want you to come to the top of that ridge.”

Toby got there first and waited for her, knowing that she would have a strong reaction to the shocking sight. It was a cemetary, but the graves were in the air, on scaffolds. Some of them had collapsed, scattering bones on the ground. There were many, many scaffolds. “These were only some of those who died,” said Toby. “So many died that there weren’t enough left to build scaffolds or to gather the bones of those whose scaffolds had collapsed, so they could finally be buried. Properly, the skulls should have been taken to the Circle of Souls over there.”

“Circle of Souls?”

“That’s what I call it. I suppose the term is too Christian.”

Turning, Demeter saw a white circle of round shapes, like the circles of round fungus puffballs that sometimes formed on the prairie. “We go to talk to them, tell them how the family is doing. Sometimes we tell them jokes, and that’s why they’re always smiling.” Demeter saw the grins under the dark eyeholes.

She wheeled and left. “Such things are not a laughing matter.” Her back was stiff and straight as she jolted back to the road.

Toby shrugged, “The Queen is not amused!” He flashed his own grin over his shoulder at the skulls. “But now she believes that you’re Indians!”

Demeter’s lack of sophistication about Indians meant she had never imagined the earth houses, mounded up along streets in an orderly way with neat little porch-like entrances. Nor could she decipher what seemed to be flagstaffs flying tattered emblems. Toby pointed out a central tree inside an enclosure. “That’s Lone Man. When the Great Flood came -- you’ve read about this in the Bible? How Noah built an ark? Well, Lone Man showed how to save the village by building a wooden wall.” Three steps on, he mused, “But he told us nothing about disease.” Demeter didn’t seem to be listening. "No wall could stop that."

When they stopped in the village square, the place seemed deserted. They waited until, very slowly, a few old people and women appeared, wary and hesitant even when Toby spoke to them in their language. Finally, one of the old women recognized him and they became welcoming, leading them to one of the oven-shaped houses where a fire burned, its smoke wandering out a hole in the middle of the domed roof. The interior was dark but orderly and quiet -- safe.

When they carried Cate inside, Demeter started to arrange her on a pallet, but the old ladies objected loudly and vigorously. Toby had to explain that Mandans never sleep with their head to the northwest and their feet to the southeast, because that is the way the dead are arranged. So Cate was rotated to be better oriented for recovery. Water was brought from the river and when Demeter bathed Cate for the first time since her injury, she stirred and began to wake. She appeared coherent but remembered very little about the attack, which was just as well.

For the next few days nothing much happened except talk, which can be a major happening. It was the Mandans who had a lot to say, telling about how they had once lived expansive, important, civilized lives and had even welcomed the terrible belching boats that brought strange people to visit. Somehow their hospitality -- which surely could not be wrong -- had brought some kind of curse on them and many, many people had died within a year. Now they were afraid to help others. Cate and Demeter looked at each other, understanding that this curse was smallpox brought by fur-trader’s steamboats.

The Mandan old folks went on telling, searching for the terrible thing they had done to make this curse descend on them. They reflected on all the shortfalls and errors of their ways, but none seemed an adequate cause for the erasure of the tribe. Nor could they think of any enemies who would wish them to be totally destroyed -- they had no such thoughts about other tribes. It must have had something to do with the water, maybe some kind of being that lived down under the water.

But they were on good terms with water. Their lives were based on their gardens and fields where the Three Sisters -- beans, squash and corn -- grew together, the corn providing scaffolding for the twining and climbing plants. Each year the river flooded their low-lying fields, but that was good, because it brought fertile new soil. This terrible dying baffled them. They gathered in the village plaza to ask Lone Man, but could not perform the proper ceremonies because none of them were the kind of vigorous young men who could stand to have their chests pierced and be hung from the ceiling in the ceremonial lodge. This “Okipa” ritual was the ultimate test of bravery, and bravery is what could have saved them in the old days.

Cate was more interested than Demeter, and not ready to move around much, so she lay listening with interest as the old ladies told her stories while Demeter cleaned out and fumigated one of the smaller earth houses. It seemed clear that Cate would not be ready to travel for quite a while, maybe the rest of the winter.

An old lady with blue eyes -- blue eyes? -- told Cate that all Mandan people have four different souls. The first soul, a shooting star, was white. The second was a light brown singing bird with a speckled bib. (“A meadowlark?” suggested Cate.) The third was the “lodge spirit” that never really left the lodge and were crowded around them invisibly, watching and listening, guarding the woman whose lodge it was. (All lodges and gardens belonged to the women.) “And the fourth soul?” asked Cate.

“It is black and it leaves us forever. Those black souls go to another village where they live as they did here, but we never see them again.”

“In our ways,” Cate offered, “We don’t group things in fours, but rather in threes. However, I’m inclined to like the idea of four, as at a crossroad.”

The old blue-eyed lady was not impressed. “Of what use are your ideas to me?” she demanded. “Can you bring back my strong sons and beautiful daughters?”

Cate snorted. “I don’t even know whether Demeter can bring back her own daughter.” She turned over and seemed to sleep, but in fact she was turning all the stories over in her mind, trying to fit them together. Did all people have such stories? Were they really about the same things?

That evening she and Demeter talked. “Toby says...” Cate began. Demeter was growing used to this beginning. "There is a very old stone not far from here that is covered with Viking runes. Those would be your ancestors, Demeter! He says that they have a person called “The Old Woman Who Never Dies.”

The two European women looked at each other, thinking of the three old women in their lore, the Three Fates or the Three Norns: one who spins the Thread of Life, one who measures it, and one who cuts it at the end. Cate said, “If we added “She Who Never Dies,” there would be four old women. Four. These people believe in the four directions, like a compass, like a crossroads. But what is the duty of She Who Never Dies?”

Demeter seemed not to listen. But when some of the younger women demanded to know what was in the box on her cart, she wouldn’t tell them. Guided by what Cate had gleaned from Toby, she said it was like the Mandan “Medicine Bundle,” which kept many things safely together, wrapped up for prayer and contemplation. They understood this and did not pry into her box, not even the youngest woman, who was known to be very curious.

One morning they woke to snow. “I’m going on,” declared Demeter. By now her companions knew better than to argue with her. “But before I do, I want to vaccinate these people. I have serum in this box.” To the Mandan Toby didn’t explain vaccination as modern medicine but offered it as a protective ceremony coming from Demeter’s Bundle. Because he did a good job of it and because Cate seemed to be recovering well, which showed that the travelers were good-hearted and skillful, the small group of villagers accepted the prickles and smearing solemnly. “A scab will form,” said Demeter. “You must NOT pick at that scab or bad things will happen.” They agreed to obey. They were used to such restrictions about Bundle matters.

The next morning at the edge of the village Cate stood propped on a crutch Toby had whittled. He held the halter of Crossroads, the mare, to keep her from following Demeter. Crossroads would stay with them until spring when Cate would be well enough to follow. Toby, it was pretty clear, would be with her.

Demeter had a thick coat with a hood that she had sewn from a blanket. Over the top was the shawl she had knitted on the train. She was stronger than she had been in those days and she trundled her cart along briskly. A single figure on a snowy prairie is a lonesome sight, but Demeter was indomitable.

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