Often in the stillness of the night, when all nature seems asleep about me, there comes a rapping at the door of my heart. I open it; and a voice inquires, “What of your People? What will their future be?” My answer is, “Mortal man has not the power to draw aside the veil of unborn time to tell the future of his race. That gift belongs of the Divine alone. But it is given to him to closely judge the future by the present, and the past.”
--Simon Pokagon of the Potawatomi
What Came Before
Dangling by her leg, still wet from birth, the newborn howled along with the wind. The man grasping her thin leg looked at the silent lodges of the village. How could they still be asleep? How could they have not heard?
“Stay back,” he commanded. His voice shook with his fear.
“Please, please give me my child.”
He looked at the face of his wife twisted in anguish and still covered with the sweat of childbirth. She knelt in the pelting snow grasping a deerskin she had decorated for the daughter she hadn’t yet held, spatters of birthing blood decorated the snow near her. He felt more fear of her blood than the evil spawned child.
“You saw her eyes; you saw them,” he said.
“Husband, please, it was nothing, a trick of the light. Please, she will freeze.”
The infant’s wails stopped. She no longer wiggled in his grasp. A thin tendril of pain gripped his chest. He’d touched his wife’s stomach, felt their child move under his hand, not an evil thing. Not a monster with glowing eyes that saw into his soul when he’d shoved the lodge cover aside not realizing
his wife had gone into labor too quickly for her to get to the birthing lodge and the mid-wife. That alone added to the signs--the child was not human.
Hadn’t it happened before? Certainly it had--a woman’s pains came too quickly and the child’s urgency to join the world too fast for the mother to leave her home. Everything inside would have to be burned that was all--burn everything and start new.
But in the dead of winter? What child would curse her parents so? He held his daughter up expecting her face to be blue and death to have taken her. In time, his wife would understand.
Large brown eyes stared back at him from a pink face. A trick of the wind made infant laughter spring from the trees around his lodge. Why had they chosen this isolated corner among the trees? At night, branches brushed the sides of the lodge, and the woods creaked and groaned with spirits. How could he have thought his child would be fine--when the very first night they’d slept in this winter camp he’d heard voices in the woods? Night after night until he believed the words of his wife and the medicine man: the wind in the trees made the sounds, no one stood in the woods tormenting him. The child blinked her large eyes. Not green now. Not glowing. He’d been cursed on every hunt. Others landed fat deer, numerous quail, fat rabbits and even the old men came upon a lost buffalo bull. He came home with a thin half-starved squirrel, if luck favored him at all.
His wife cowered in the snow; her silent sobs made her shoulders shake. Her fault. How else could this have happened? She never wanted the others in their home. The mid-wife had never come to see them, and his wife never went into the village center. She always stayed out here, away from everyone else.
He knew what he had to do. He couldn’t lose what little he had. When he started towards the circle of lodges and the bright central fire of the meeting circle, his wife scrambled to her feet and started to follow him, making noises that echoed in his head, but didn’t form words. She became an annoying insect swarm of sound, and he smacked that sound away, taking step after step through the blowing snow. He’d leave the child. He couldn’t kill it. No, that would only make whatever evil had spawned it angrier. If he took his wife and his belongings and left, the blizzard would hide them, no one would even miss them if they ever realized they were there to start with.
And the evil grasped in his hand would be someone else’s problem.
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Chance by Design
I parked the Jag in the usual spot, well away from the trees and the unwelcome contributions the birds always delivered to the reflective midnight-black paint. The front bumper blocked the pedestrian crossing; recognized wealth had its advantages. The police wouldn’t ticket the car. From the sidewalk, I surveyed the small kiosk before me.
For many years, it had been a concession stand serving those who frequented Lake Side Park. After undergoing major renovation, it bore the name Salaam’s Kebabs. Instead of hotdogs and hamburgers, it would now sell gyros and the side items to go with them: stuffed grape leaves, Greek salads, rice, and fries. The park offered a good place to try out this new venture. On a tour of Europe, I couldn’t get enough of the sandwiches the European kiosks sold and the wonderful cucumber sauce, tzatziki, they put on them.
A stiff breeze came in off the lake. I pulled my hair out of my face and dug in my pocket to find the leather lace I always kept there and tied it back. My father had worn his hair in braids his entire life. My grandfather never failed to point out, as a man of the Niitsitapii, The Real People, my hair belonged in braids. I no longer lived among The People, much less on a reservation, so I let mine hang free all the way to my waist.
Dried leaves, now free from a Wisconsin winter’s snow, skittered across the red bricks of the patio. The benches wore fresh coats of gray paint. The tables had new matching surfaces with closed red and white striped umbrellas springing from their centers. Things looked ready for the Memorial Day weekend opening when the park would be full of holiday revelers. I glanced at my watch.
It would be more than an hour before Carlos, the cook and manager of the kiosk, showed up. I hated any reference to Indian time so I always arrived early. In life, there might be time enough for everything, but I saw nothing wrong with the everything being on time.
Black storm clouds were piling up in great angry layers on the horizon. An icy wind whisked across the surface of the lake and whipped the water into a froth of white-capped waves. The air felt charged with electrical current and smelled of freshly thawed earth. It would rain soon; most likely it would be a true thunder banger. The weekend forecast called for clear skies and sunshine, but I put little faith in those weather predictors of Television Station, WTMQ. They were wrong more than they were right.
Near the edge of the lakefront, barely out of reach of the waves crashing against the shore, a woman sat on the back of an olive-drab park bench with her bare feet on the worn seat. Many people sat the same way. Her lack of shoes struck me as odd since winter still lingered in the chill breeze. The way she sat puzzled me the most. Her arms were outstretched and her palms turned skyward. Her oversized red and black flannel shirt flapped, scarecrow-like, in the breeze. The gray watch-cap on her head, with her long black ponytail sticking out, only added to the strange picture.
The seagulls hovering around her hands dashed in to snap up whatever food she offered them. Occasionally, a bird would land on her arm and grab more than its share. She didn’t move and her arm never wavered, as if the weight of the large birds meant nothing.
A rolled-up sleeping bag, a bulging backpack, and a pair of worn men’s work boots, sat under the bench. Great. The season hadn’t even started and already homeless people were waiting to raid the trash bins.
A huge wave crashed into the breaker rocks. Momentarily drowning out all other sounds, it sent a spray of water several feet into the air. One of the gulls squawked and screeched. The bench-sitter grasped a completely white gull around its legs. It beat against her arm with its wings. With an arched neck, it drove its large sharp beak against the flesh of her hand. My stomach turned at the thought of this homeless woman killing the bird and eating it raw.
I extracted my money clip from my pants pocket, unrolled the bills, and peeled off three fives from the outside. I placed the ones around the hundreds left inside before I shoved it back into my pocket. With determined steps, I made my way to the bench. I would offer the fifteen dollars in exchange for the trapped bird’s life.
At the bench, despite the bird’s upset screams and pecks, the woman turned to look at me. I forgot what I wanted to say. She gazed back at me with startling dark brown eyes, surrounded by a ring of green, set in a face with cheekbones as high as my own. She’d been without enough food for some time judging by the prominence of those bones.
I felt like a boy taken by his first crush. My tongue wouldn’t work. I just stared at her. Cliché lines came into my head. I refused to utter any of their nonsense. With her haunting looks, she’d probably heard them a hundred times before. For a fleeting moment, a smile tugged at the corners of her sensuous lips. My ribs felt as if they were constricting the beating of my heart. She could’ve been some legendary sprite who wanted to steal a man’s spirit away. The wind blew in from the lake in a sudden gust that gapped open her shirt to reveal the curve of a shapely breast. I tried to look away.
“Do not just stand there staring at me. Help me,” she said. Her voice commanded and aroused me.
Help her? Help her kill the bird? My gaze went to the gull. Bright crimson blood streaked over her hand and yet she didn’t let go. I couldn’t imagine being so hungry I would ask a stranger to help me kill something. Then I saw it. The bird’s feet were tangled in one of those clear plastic things used to hold a six-pack of soda. She struggled to catch the bird’s wings while she continued to hold the knife in her hand.
“Drop your knife,” I told her. “I have one, if you can capture its wings?”
Her knife hit the ground with a sodden thump. Without it in her hand, she held the bird tightly around its body with its wings pinned. She turned it so its black feet were in the air. I worked quickly to open my knife and slice through the offending plastic. Once the bird’s feet were free, one leg dangled like a broken twig. Only a bit of flesh held the lower leg to the upper part.
“His lower leg is dead already. Slice it the rest of the way off,” she instructed as if there would be no question of my compliance.
I looked at the knife in my hand and switched my attention to the bird. It watched us with its small black eyes and its yellow beak slightly open as if it knew we were helping it.
“The other birds will pick at it like a worm and damage the rest of his leg if you do not.”
With a quick nod, I slid the blade of my knife through the small flap of flesh. The bird didn’t move or squawk. With a radiant smile, the woman scrambled down off the bench and moved to the turbulent lake’s edge. Once there, she tossed the bird into the air. It let out an indignant screech, faltered in the air, and flew out over the lake.
“It was used to flying with that thing around its legs,” she said to me when she returned to the bench. After a quick rummage through her backpack, she came up with one of those water bottles everyone seemed to carry around. Only a bit of white paper still ringed the blue plastic. She must have refilled the same one repeatedly. She used her teeth to pull the black sport-cap open and began to pour water over the gouges covering her wrist and hand. I shuddered at the thought of how much bacteria lived in the water, and now occupied the wound, on top of what the bird left behind.
“Don’t do that. I have a first-aid kit in my car. You don’t want those to get infected.”
Her gaze met mine, went to the street and to the Jag. She continued to pour water over her hand. “I am not going near your car.”
I could see why she would be frightened, or at least cautious. I stood more than seven feet tall and worked hard to stay close to three hundred pounds with low body fat. She stood a bit more than five feet and looked as half-starved as a feral cat. In long strides, I covered the area to my car and came back with the first-aid kit. Taking out a bottle of iodine, I opened it and held it out to her.
“Set it down.” Mistrust colored her voice.
“I’m trying to help you.”
“You ever been raped?” she asked me with a cold glint in her eyes.
“What? No, of course not,” I said quickly. I set the bottle down, took out a roll of gauze, and set it down as well. “Cover the whole area with the iodine. Let it dry before you roll the gauze around it. You’ll need to change the bandage twice a day, so the scabs don’t grow into it.” I set another roll of gauze down. “It doesn’t look like any of those need stitches.”
“Thank you, doctor,” she said. Her voice carried a biting edge.
I reached into my back pocket and took out my gold-plated card case. From it, I withdrew one of my business cards. I set it on the bench.
“Shannon Running Deer, trauma surgeon,” she read.
“Will you let me look at your hand now?” I asked her.
“Anyone with a computer can make those things.”
Her cynical tone, and obvious street sense, led me to believe she wasn’t new to the life of the homeless. I couldn’t even guess her age. Sixteen, maybe seventeen, and yet she seemed far older. She had to be in her twenties. The good old Fond du Lac police were hard on underage runaways and the homeless. Minors got funneled into the hospital before their parents were located. After which, social services returned the lucky kids to whatever abusive situation they’d escaped from in the first place. Justice at work.
“Will you at least let me buy you something to eat?”
Her stare cut right into me. Her gaze went to the Jag and flashed back to me.
“I am not. . .”
“Getting in my car,” I finished for her. I held up my hand.
“We can walk. The 101 Club is at the end of the street.”
“I am certainly dressed for dinner.” She laughed while she continued the struggle to wrap the gauze around her injured hand. I smiled. Her laughter sounded completely natural, almost childlike--filled with playful innocence. It gave me an idea of what she would be like if the streets weren’t her home.
“The Wharf? They have a bar where the fishermen pick up sandwiches. You can walk on the other side of the street,”I said with a shrug and a smile of reassurance.
She looked down the street toward the lighthouse. Just beyond it, The Wharf restaurant stood. Did she find food in their dumpsters? With a grunt, she moved around the bench and shoved her feet into the scuffed work boots. She tied their speed laces with a quick yank and tucked the frayed ends inside the top of them. They were Army surplus. I’d spent ten years in the same sort of boots.
She slung her backpack over her shoulder, picked up her sleeping bag, and started for the sidewalk without a backward glance to see if I followed. I trailed behind her in silence all the way to TheWharf.
“They are not going to let me in there.” We ducked under the flapping blue awning in front of the door together.
“You’ll be with me. They’ll let you in.” I moved around her to open the door. She sprang away from me like a cat whose tail had gotten stepped on. I stared at her for a long moment. I’d expected her to smell unwashed. Instead, the scent surrounding her was musky, in a raw outdoors way—a bit of wood-smoke and clean skin, overlaid with something exotic and arousing. I swallowed hard and cleared my throat.
“I know the owners,” I told her.
In one graceful motion, she sat on the sidewalk and crossed her arms over her chest.
“All right. I’ll bring you something. What do you like?”
She pulled her knees up and rested her head on them. “Anything hot,” she answered, her voice muffled.
When I returned with a large order of the soup of the day, a hot ham sandwich, and a huge green apple, I expected her to be gone. She still sat in the same position.
“Glad you waited.”
In one fluid movement, she got to her feet. Her tongue went over her lips. I knew she could smell the food. Her apprehensive, wide-eyed look reminded me of a caged panther. She mirrored the same seductive form, standing totally still, yet tense with the desire to bolt--watching, waiting--expecting treachery in some form. Carefully, I set the bag with the food in it on the walk in front of her and backed up a step.
She rushed forward and snatched up the bag. I almost expected her to devour the meal right there while I watched. Instead, she straightened her back and met my gaze again.
“I thank you for the food.”
With the bag clasped tightly, she stepped off the walk. The thin fog rolling in off the lake entwined itself catlike around her feet and legs, making it look like she floated above the blacktop.
“Would you tell me your name?” I called after her.
“I am called Morning Dove. My People are the Siksika of
The Blackfoot of Silver Creek? Impossible. What would someone from my ancestral tribe be doing here this far from Canadian Alberta? It seemed an odd coincidence.
“Excuse me, sir. I believe you dropped something.”
I turned to look at the man behind me and down at the quarter he pointed at. With a grunt, I waved him off and turned back. I caught only a glimpse of her before she vanished as if the fog devoured her. There didn’t seem to be any place she could have hidden so quickly. I shook my head.
A chill of unease made its way through my insides. For a brief moment, I thought I’d seen her in a white buckskin dress with her hair in a fan across her back.