Beside Blue Horse Creek
|PHOTO: Simon Davison|
Originally Published in the July 2012 issue of Empirical
She went to the women’s tent at the new moon although she wasn’t bleeding: it was her usual time and the woman didn’t want to give rumor to the gossips in camp. When she ducked under the tent’s flap, she saw that the only people inside were the two sisters–girls still, their breasts barely budding. They did everything together, those two, and even though one was a year older they’d both begun to bleed on exactly the same day. Everyone in camp had remarked on that–most thought that it was some kind of sign–and the girls now enjoyed notoriety every month with their synchronization. The woman knew that the sisters wouldn’t question her.
She was glad to be here, where no man could know or touch her. She knew that the man was watching the entrance to the women’s tent. He would see her when she left: she would have to leave to gather wood, to bathe, and to answer her body’s functions. But he would never approach her now: he wouldn’t dare. No man would talk to a woman while she was bleeding. She had that protection for three, four days at the most.
The girls chattered together, their voices like chickadees: soft and musical but incessant. The woman banked the fire. It was too warm in the tent: a springtime warmth that swelled up from the open country in the south until it spilled over the ridge of the mountains and into the big river valley. The change of seasons had been abrupt: a week ago the entire camp had evacuated to high ground when an ice dam on the river broke. A dog had been killed in the commotion–the story was that the current had taken it but the woman knew that one of the men shot it: the dog was an ugly little mongrel that in life had annoyed everyone with its constant yapping. Back in camp a day later, the woman had watched the river run muddy and high but free of ice. The last two nights had passed without frost.
The woman checked the supply of wood for the fire: plenty for tonight. She wondered who had gathered it–certainly not the sisters. They hadn’t acknowledged her since she’d come in. Not that she would have spoken to them anyway. The woman sometimes felt as if her tongue had been cut out. She’d heard that up north the Blackfoot–those wild, cruel, ugly people–she’d heard that a Blackfoot warrior might cut the tongue out of a woman’s mouth to punish her, or to silence her. A squaw’s story perhaps or a Coyote tale, but the thought made her shiver just the same.
She sighed and shook her tunic away from her skin. She was sweating. The woman had been too hot recently; her skin like fire, burning in every place his eyes had touched or probed. She hadn’t bathed for a few days either. She’d been queasy in the mornings and the thought of the thick gray water in the big river made her nauseous. No telling what might be lurking under the surface: that yappy little mongrel, a winterkilled buffalo, or Coyote himself, clawing at her ankles. Had anyone seen her at dawn this morning vomiting in the middens?
She wished it were cooler, winter maybe or autumn: early last autumn before the cottonwoods had turned, before all of this had started. Back then, she could have wound a bear skin robe around her body so tightly that the hide would attach itself to her own flesh. She would become a bear-woman then–hairy, rank, reeking of dung and dust and smoke–impossible for any man to want her in that condition. The others in camp would circle her instead of walking past, wary of the contagion or power that she might carry. She would smile when she’d meet other eyes–an inward, inscrutable smile–and even the bravest of warriors would shy from the woman-who-had-become-a-bear.
|PHOTO: TH Morris/Library of Congress|
A shaft from the late afternoon sun pierced the dusk inside the women’s tent. The woman shot a quick, nervous glance toward the entryway. Awkward on her hands and knees, the old woman crawled under the flap and into the tent. Around camp, there were stories about the old woman, stories that perhaps the old woman had herself created. The old woman claimed that she remembered the days before horses, the days before buffalo, the days when the people lived in a thick woodland on the shore of a deep, cold lake, a lake so wide that the sharpest-eyed child couldn’t trace the line of the opposite shore, a lake that held fish as big as a grown man. They say that the old woman had seen over a hundred winters, but who in camp had counted them?
This much the woman knew: the old woman’s monthly bleedings had ended years ago. She hadn’t come to the women’s tent for the normal reason. Perhaps she was here because of the sisters, seeking or offering some portent or spell or charm. The woman watched the old woman watch the sisters, eyes like sparks of obsidian in the pale wreck of her face. When the old woman had been young–or younger–a horse had kicked her face, flattening her nose and causing her to wheeze so badly that at night her snores could be heard from the farthest tent in camp. Her husband, dead now almost ten years, had offered his wife openly to any man who would take her. None had, and he’d been forced to accept her back into his tent. They say that from that day on, the old woman’s husband had never smiled again.
There was a chance that the old woman has come to the woman’s tent for another reason: it was rumored that her practiced nose could scent a pregnancy a handful of hours from the moment that the act had been committed. When the woman had left her father’s tent this morning, she’d brought a blade with her in case she would be forced to prove up. Trying to appear casual, she busied herself among the robes, spreading a softly tanned elk hide over her legs. Through the white of her eye, she watched the old woman squat next to the fire, her gray hands spidering toward the warmth of the coals, wrinkled face aimed at the sisters. The girls chattered on.
In the shadows along the margin of the tent, the woman’s hands groped beneath the elk hide and her dress until they closed on the blade in its soft skin bag. Working quickly, the woman slid the hand that clutched the blade between her legs, up her thigh until the sharpened stone touched the fold of flesh between her leg and genitals. There was an artery there, she knew: once she had seen a man bleed to death after being wounded in the groin during a fight. The blood had pulsed from the cut, rich and red, in spurts that no one had been able to staunch, only stopping when the man’s life had drained from him. He’d been a warrior, a strong man, but as the blood had leaped from his body he’d whimpered like a kicked dog.
The old woman could tell, perhaps, that the woman was not bleeding. She would not bleed again until the child appeared. She clenched her teeth against the pain as the blade penetrated skin. The blood flowed sticky and slick from the wound between her legs.
Be sure to visit the Empirical website to subscribe!
If you are a writer and are interested in writing for Empirical, check out this link to find out how to submit.