Short story winner – Naomi Musch

 

LONE RIVER WOMAN

 

Upper St. Croix, 1804

The long hunter expelled warm rags of breath. Then, as he called back upon years of practice, forcing his intake of air to lessen, the rags grew wispy and thin, and finally disappeared completely. He sharpened his gaze, narrowing it down tunnels between barren black tree trunks and thick evergreen. Ears piqued, he mentally sorted through every sound, discerned each plop of melting snow, every flutter of the tiniest chickadee’s wings, the distant call of a raven on the stilling evening. The hunter straddled the trunk of a fallen oak. Its rough bark held fast beneath his legs, its gnarled branches like the hands of some old, dying woman, grasped at the sky. The oak had been part of a split tree. Its twin half still stood, straight and strong at the hunter’s back. He pressed against it, his deer hide hunting frock as silent as skin. Even his thick beard, touching his chest as he pivoted his head with painstaking slowness, made not the slightest brushing sound against his clothing. It was as though the buckskin shirt and leggings he wore had grown upon him as part of his body, as though he had not stitched them together himself using bone needles with leather wangs.

His grip tightened on the longbow lying across his knee. With movements so slow not even a red squirrel would notice, he nocked an arrow. It was a good arrow. His friend Animikii had crafted it with only the finest, straightest cedar wood he could find. Animikii had given the hunter a set of three as a sign of their friendship after the hunter brought the meat to Animikii’s family last year when he was sick and unable to hunt. Animikii was not a man to forget a favor. Now, today, the hunter would again honor his friend if he could bring down a buck with an arrow Animikii had made.

He had not long to wait. The weather had warmed much more than usual for the middle of winter in the land near the great lake the voyageurs paddled in their Montreal Canoes. The ground had softened beneath the snow, and it mushed beneath his moccasins when he walked. The softening allowed the deer to move more silently than ever. Yet the hunter’s eyes were keen when an ear twitched, like the flick of a bird on a branch. He narrowed his gaze to that singular spot, and saw the branch that moved was not a branch at all, but an antler, then a hoof taking one tentative step forward. The buck’s neck appeared, stretching as he lifted his nose to the air, nostrils whiffing for scent, for safety.

The hunter stilled so that even his heart seemed to stop momentarily as the deer stepped into the opening between the trees. Swiftly, and with an instinctive grace, the hunter raised his longbow and loosed the arrow. His breath eased out with the arrow’s flight, and afterward his heart pounded.

The buck lurched and whirled away, his antlers a majestic crown spread out above his head, clattering once into the poplar whips, before he was gone. Silence fell again, but now the hunter breathed heavily and loosened himself from his seat on the tree. Walking seventeen paces to the place he’d struck the deer, he looked at the evidence of his shot. Blood sprayed the ground where the deer had turned. The arrow stuck in the snow another three paces away, streaked in blood and tinged in green from the organ it hit as it passed through the deer. The man frowned slightly. He would have preferred nothing but bright red. Nevertheless, he would wait a short time to let the deer lie down and bleed. Then he would find the animal, dress him, and claim his prize.

Twenty minutes passed. Having smoked his pipe, the man tapped it into the wet snow and returned it to the pouch he carried around his neck, tucked inside his hunting shirt. His bow and quiver stretched across his back as he set out on the trail of the wounded buck, thinking of his shot. He had not gone far when the blood trail thinned to droplets. A spot here, a brush along a small tree there, yet the hunter stayed with the track. It was a long track, a heavy deer. It would feed the men in the fort for several days. The hunter would eat well tonight.

For two hundred paces he followed the deer before the gnawing worry began. The blood trail had lessened to only the tiniest drop every thirty paces or more, and then turned to a green tinge before stopping completely. The hunter cursed himself for releasing the arrow a breath too late. He must have hit the deer too far back, behind the lungs and heart he’d aimed for. Now he must quicken his pace and stay with the tracks of the deer before it joined with those of others and he lost it completely. The deer would eventually stop. It would lie down and bleed inside, he hoped. If it didn’t, he might catch it and give it another of Animikii’s arrows.

As daylight turned to gloaming, the drip of melting snow in the woods ceased, and the hunter felt the change of weather descend. The long thaw had reached its end, and tonight the cold would return. He sensed it with certainty. That was why the buck had come. The animals felt the change too.

The buck’s tracks came to the river, the headwaters of the St. Croix familiar to the hunter. He had crossed the peat-stained bogs and dense, trackless swamps of the upper rivers many times and knew their destinations. He sighed with relief that the buck had not crossed, but continued northward along the bank. However, darkness crept closer deep in the valley where the waters flowed beneath the ice.

Twice the man heard the buck get up and move ahead of him. He quickened his stride through the brush that grasped but could not lay hold on his buckskin shirt and pants. The animal had gone deep into the thickets along the riverbank, and one hoof left a distinguishing drag mark with each step.

Sweat trickled down the hunter’s back despite the falling temperatures. He smiled. The deer was hurting badly, still, the buck kept going, and the light that remained was only a remnant as he reached the lake. The hunter knew this place too. Beyond it lay the carrying place to the Bois Brule, another river that emptied a day’s journey north to that inland sea called Superior.

The hunter stopped. Stared. The buck’s tracks went onto the lake. He lifted his gaze as his chest rose and fell in hard breaths. There the animal stood, not fifty paces distant. He unslung his bow and reached for an arrow, but the deer sensed the danger and moved faster. Too far. The hunter stepped onto the slush covered lake. Water oozed from the melted snow and ice around his feet, seeping into the seam of his right moccasin. He considered. The ice had thinned, and open water lay to his left where the river exited. He moved along the shore to the right and went onto the lake again a short distance away. Then he lay down his weapons and drew his long knife from the belt at his waist. With slow movements, he stepped further onto the lake and jabbed the blade into the ice. It held solidly. He walked further. As the ice shifted, he stepped back a pace and jabbed again. Feeling secure, he followed the deer. Now and then he stopped to jab the ice, then moved steadily on, his eye on the animal that moved slower as well. Quickly, the gap between them closed, and his breath quickened, his certainty of the kill grew. At last the deer was there, only ten paces beyond. It eyed the hunter wearily and turned its massive head northward, determined. Equally determined, the hunter took flight. His long legs stretched out in giant strides across the frozen wasteland. The deer slipped on a sheet of clear ice. At the same moment, the hunter leapt and kicked the deer’s front legs. As the buck went down, the hunter slid beneath it. He grabbed the creature’s antlers with one hand, fitting his grip neatly between the tines, and swung beneath. The animal threw its head, its eyes large and wild. He brought it down again, trying to pin the man, but the hunter used his right hand to slash with the knife. Again and again, the hunter plunged the wide blade into the neck and chest of the beast, until he felt its strength weaken as the animal faltered.

Grunts came from the hunter and gurgled snorts from the deer. Blood oozed over them both, spilling into the slush where they thrashed. The deer’s hind legs gave way. It fell, but continued moving its legs as if it meant to run. However, before long it ceased, and its eyes dimmed with the falling night.

The hunter fell onto his back, his body limp, depleted. He stared into the night sky and panted, as overhead, snow fell, wetting his cheeks, his lips, and clinging to his eyelashes. He blinked as the sluice beneath him found the gaps in his clothes then he got up. Deeper cold would soon descend, and he must build a fire. The hunter regretted he would not be able to make the most of the innards of the deer. It was too heavy to carry from the lake, but he would gut the animal, pocket its heart and liver, then drag the carcass free of the lake before quartering the rest.

In the pitch black darkness, he finally moved toward shore. Too exhausted to think of the ice, his heart quickened, nevertheless, at the sound of moving water up ahead. He had lost his track coming onto the lake and must have moved too close to the open spillway. He turned south… but too late.

No warning came when the ice opened and the hunter plunged through into the deep, bone-numbing water. The surface closed over his head, and he flailed wildly to find it again. The shock reached his core, and he swallowed a mouthful as his head broke for open air. He clawed for purchase on the sharp, broken edge, slipped, and sunk again. Grasping, gasping, scratching, his fingers stiffened on the brittle ice, sliding slowly back to the edge. He fell again. This time he sank deeper, fought slower, rose so only his face touched the air. I must live, his brain cried, but his body’s movements failed to obey. He reached again, and this time his left hand clutched a chunk of ice frozen hard to the surface and he hung on. With his right hand, the hunter grasped the handle of his knife and flung his arm out onto the ice. Somewhere in the recesses of consciousness, he knew it would be his one, last chance. He jabbed the point hard and it held fast. There he clung.

Time swam around him like the water beneath, and cold pain bit hard and deep into his body. He waited, breathing, gagging, and breathing again, telling himself he must pull free, but his strength would not answer. He stiffened, wondering how long he could possibly hang on, yet still believing he would be able to pull himself out after another moment’s rest. His eyelashes now felt weighted by ice and the desire to sleep pressed in. He closed his eyes, and his face fell forward, smashing against the broken ice and into the water again.

“Ah! Ah!” He gasped and fought forward again. Pull… pull… pull… Each breath, each tensing of his burning, frozen muscles brought him further up, until finally… finally he lay on the ice, his upper body free. He inched forward on his elbows, gaining ground as the sounds of cracking ice beneath and around him sent terror into his soul.

He dared not move. He turned onto his back and let his hands fall to his sides. He heaved for breath as the snow fell thicker and the cold deepened.

*****

In every part of him, pain deepened like a blade lacerating his skin. His extremities felt like fire. The hunter moaned. He must be dead, but who felt torment like this when dead? Perhaps he had gone to hell. A priest had warned him of such, but he had never feared enough. Now he feared. A curtain of darkness covered him, even though he thought his eyes were open. Perhaps they were not. Perhaps hell was black. Such agony! He succumbed to it, and peace returned.

Again… had hours passed? Days? An eternity? He could not be sure, yet he seemed to be able to think more. The smarting… it remained yet not as sharp. Not nearly so deep. Sleep. This time he knew he was not dead. He had only been sleeping. He returned to the fold of it.

His eyelids bounced slowly, and now all did not seem so black. Clinging to consciousness, pain returned. His head was weighted. Perhaps he would never lift it again. He turned it slightly to the side and blinked. Walls… Walls he did not recognize. And a face with eyes sharp as obsidian staring hard at him. He gasped, but the throbbing radiated through his body and told him not to move. The edges of his vision closed tighter, and soon a shade fell again.

 “Giin giiwosewinini.”

 Yes, hunter. His eyelids lifted again. Blinking was easier. He blinked two times, and a third, and his eyes remained open. Hunter. Someone had spoken. He jerked, and the face was before him again, closer. He hadn’t dreamed it. Had he? He raised his head slightly so that he looked down the length of his body. He lay stretched out on a bed of soft furs. His torso was covered. His hunting shirt was gone, and so he felt freed of outer clothing beneath the three-point blanket and fur covering him. He jerked again, and the face backed up. A woman’s face. Dark, deep set eyes, black hair like a veil hanging to her waist, fringed deer hide dress. She held a bowl. With slow movements, she lowered herself and raised it to his lips.

Hot broth scalded his tongue. She pulled it away. His head dropped back, throbbing. He blinked hard again, but he didn’t want to sleep. He heard her breath whoosh out and turned to see her blowing on the broth.

 “Amo.”

He let her lift the bowl again, and this time his lips accepted it, but his throat clenched and he choked. His body rejected eating, even simply sipping the broth.

“How long?” His voice, to his ears, sounded harsh, like scraping tallow from a hide grown too stiff.

The woman stared. He closed his eyes.

He woke again. When had sleep reclaimed him? After the work of the broth. That was it. Sunlight streamed in across the room, and he recognized the look of a lodge. The door flap was open. The woman… he remembered her. She must have gone out. Where were the others? Where was he? He rose up on an elbow, but the effort nauseated him, and he dropped back onto the bed. Lifting his hands, he examined them. The tips of his fingers were white in spots, black in others. His feet still hurt fiercely. He drew back the blanket robe covering them and saw they were wrapped in makeshift bandages. He lay in his underclothes. Where were his buckskins? His knife? His bow and Animikii’s arrows?

A sudden movement at the door drew his glance as the woman stepped in. She halted and stared when she saw he was awake.

“Where are they? My things? My bow? Animikii?” Maybe she knew him.

She frowned and gave the smallest shake of her head.

“Where am I? Whose lodge is this?”

She added wood to her cook fire and set about cutting roots and things into a pot, ignoring him. He laid back and continued perusing the room. Soft hides — he spied her own pallet on the other side of the room — the cook fire, small piles of belongings stacked neatly along the wall. Robes for extra warmth. A layout of tools. An axe, a knife, a bow smaller than his own. Some carved utensils and bowls.

“Where is your man?”

Black eyes glanced up at him and back to her work.

 “Giin inini?” he asked, trying for the right words.

She paused then kept cutting, but she shook her head.

No man or at least no man that was hers or that she was telling about. Or maybe she shook her head because she didn’t understand.

“You alone? Bezhigo?

Her knife stilled. She glanced again, and as she scraped the blade along the edge of the pot, she nodded.

He let her be then and listened for the sound of others outside. He turned his head to the wall, covered in sheets of birch bark, and closed his eyes, pretending to sleep while he waited for the sounds of voices, of feet, of something beyond the lodge, but nothing stirred.

Soon the smell of food lifted from the fire and wafted over him. His stomach rumbled, daring him to want it. When she ladled stew and brought it to him, he stared. She set it aside and slowly moved a hand beneath his back, her eyes fastened on his. “Namadabi?” He allowed her to help him sit.

His head swam. For a moment he felt like the lake had once again closed over him, and blackness hedged his vision, but slowly it cleared. Her face steadied before him. She raised the bowl.

This time his stomach accepted. The broth contained fine bits of meat and roots and vegetation she had likely dried during the fall. He knew the Ojibwe word for venison — deer meat. “Waawaashkeshiwi-wiiyaas?”

She nodded, and the corners of her lips tweaked in satisfaction.

The deer. He’d lost the buck. He pointed at himself and said the word again.

She licked her lips and raised her chin, then nodded. Turning her head, her gaze drew his to the floor behind him where a pair of antlers sat, cleaned of flesh. The buck. She must have gone back for it after finding the hunter, meaning, it must not have gone through the ice with him. How had she managed it? There was no clear way to ask. He didn’t know enough of her words. He wished Animikii were here. That it had been a feat, however, was clear by the slight gleam of pride in her eyes and slightly raised chin.

“Ah.” He looked to the bowl and she lifted it to his lips again.

Another night, another day passed. Nearest he could tell he had been several days in the woman’s lodge. Three or four? Perhaps. He hated to think it might be longer. Each day she unwrapped his feet and examined the damaged toes. She bathed them, applied salve, and wrapped them again in fresh dressings. On yet another day, he stood. She steadied him with strong arms as he took several excruciating steps then dropped back to his pallet of hides.

Sometimes the woman hummed. He watched as she stitched a garment and even as she prepared a warm slush of brains to tan the buck’s fleshed hide.

“You keep it,” he said, knowing she didn’t understand, but needing to say it anyway. “The antlers too. They’re yours. You go to rendezvous?”

She looked up. Her mouth shaped the word, and she repeated it then nodded and returned to work.

After two more days, he began moving around better. His feet still ached, and he used a crutch he had whittled from a thick branch she brought for him. She rattled on telling him something he didn’t quite understand, but he gathered by her gesticulations that he wasn’t to overdo it, and that he was to allow her to continue nursing his feet.

“I’ve got to go back, woman. ‘Tis time.” Winter had returned in fits and gasps, snowing, freezing, and melting again. Her lodge stood near the river’s edge, and the water had opened up, rushing past. Enough time had been lost.

She might not have understood his words, but she understood his tone. She nodded. The next day when he awoke, her fire was out. Things were gathered, and she stood waiting. “Today?” he said.

 “Aadawa’am.” She turned and led him out of the lodge.

He regretted he would go empty-handed. He had lost his hunting knife out on the lake. By now, it might be frozen in thin ice or sunk to the bottom. He had asked her about his bow and arrows, if she had found them, but apparently she had not. He would come back and look for them, but not today.

Near the river, in a thicket, she tugged at a canoe, a birch bark craft small enough to be managed by one or two people. That was the word she had said. Boat. He recognized it now.

He offered to sit in the stern to steer, but the woman shook her head and pointed at the bow. He was heavier, but he would do as she told him. Soon, he discovered her proficiency with the paddle. The river was high with early melt and dangerous with ice floes. Yet, by the second evening, they had arrived at the trading post where men rushed to the river bank to greet him.

“It’s the hunter!” one man shouted to another.

“We thought you died.”

And so he nodded and laughed and allowed them to assist him from the woman’s canoe. He had thought himself dead too.

He looked back at her and waved an arm for her to come along. The hunter suddenly felt great relief of having survived his peril, though the credit was not his. He owed her something more. After they had eaten, he would take her to the trade store and find her a gift.

She shook her head. “Biindigenaazha’. Niin ani.”

He frowned and nodded. “Wait. I’ll come right back.” If she would not join him, he would get the gift and bring it back to her.

The hunter returned to the store with the others, hobbling on his sore feet with the help of his crutch, answering their questions with short answers as to where he had been, what had happened. His thoughts were with the woman and a gift that might make her eyes deepen and shine. In the store he got needles and thread, a new bucket, some flint, a better scraper than the one she had made of shoulder bone, and a bolt of cloth. With his arms laden, he limped back to the river, but the canoe and the woman were gone.

*****

No one knew her. Someone said they had heard of her before, the lone river woman, but no one knew why she lived that way. Perhaps she had lost her husband or left her tribe for some reason none of them understood. They offered no answers, and the Indians themselves who came into the post said no differently. But the hunter took that name for her. Lone River Woman. He would call her such and he would find her again and ask her why. There were things he longed to know about her and regretted he had not asked. What brought her to the lake to find him that night — or was it the following day? How did she save him, and why?

By the time spring flushed the earth with green and softness, the hunter’s feet had healed, and he was ready to go back up the river and ask his questions.

“You will stay with her?” Animikii asked him.

The hunter thought of the woman’s ebony eyes and her soothing voice that pulled him back from sanity’s brink, when the nightmare of water closing over him beckoned him into blackness. He recalled the glow of her smooth skin and the way her soft deerskin dress moved as she tended him. He shrugged.

Animikii lifted his chin. “I will see you again.”

The hunter strode into the forest, staying within proximity of the river’s edge as he walked northeastward into the wilderness. He carried a new knife, a new set of arrows, and another bow, though this one was not so fine as the first. Going by foot would slow him, but by tomorrow, he would find her. Perhaps he would stay.

He camped that night, thinking again of being alive. At dawn he walked on, gnawing a piece of jerky as he went. He would near the place he remembered before many hours. By noon, however, he was surprised he had not yet come upon it. An hour later, he reached the lake. Visions of that night some weeks past, descended like snow on his thoughts, and the hunter shuddered. The ice had all gone now. Only tiny patches of snow remained in shady places along the woods’ edge. He turned to go back. Somehow he had missed her lodge. Such a thing did not seem possible. Had he only dreamed her?

Water rushed from the river’s inlet to the lake. No, he had not dreamed. Long strides carried him downstream, his energy rebounded. He would soon find Lone River Woman.

Yet, he did not. The hunter turned about on river’s edge, peering into the surrounding trees and hillsides. He recalled the fallen cedar with its cave-like root mass pushing out of the embankment, the bower of three birches just along the shore, and there — there lay the path. With a leap in his chest, he strode up it.

But… nothing. No lodge. No sign.

The hunter pushed a hand through long, tangled hair and rubbed his bearded chin. Where did the lodge stand? He had been so certain of the spot. Then his glance fell to the ground at his feet, where a thick coating of gray smeared his moccasin. He kicked a swath through diamond crystals of snow, turning up dead leaves, dirt, and — ash. He pulled in a harsh breath.

A heavier weight plunged in his chest as he walked a little further until, finally, the charred remains of her lodge stood before him stark and black, remnants against the earth. A jagged pain worse than the sharp burning he had experienced from nearly freezing to death jolted him. Dead. He stepped closer. Snow had covered the ash, though most was melted now. Still, enough remained for him to know the fire had happened many days ago. She was gone.

The hunter closed his eyes, and the woman rose up before him, a soft specter. A squirrel cried warning above his head, revealing him to the forest. His gaze swept upward to the thin clouds like wings brushing high across the sky reminding him of the gentle lowering of her lashes, and the corners of her lips turned up in a tentative smile.

After many minutes passed, he turned away. The river called to him, and he went to it. He lowered himself to his haunches on the bank and stared into the current. With a sigh, he dipped his hand into the stream and brought a cold drink to his lips, still recalling the bowl she lifted to them, sometimes filled with broth or soup, and other times with a gourd of water to drink.

He wiped his hand across his thigh. Possibilities — of exactly what, he was not sure — had blown away on smoke and water leaving only ashes of regret. With a sigh, he rose and turned to leave, and that’s when his eyes fell upon the place she hid her canoe. He moved to the cluster of trees, brush really, where she kept it tucked in safety. His breath caught as he pulled away a branch.

It was gone.

His gaze widened, searching, and then fell upon something else lying on the moss in the thicket. His lost bow, and beside it, his quiver of arrows, one still stained from the buck’s dried blood. He bent for it. Had she known of his weapons all along and hidden them for herself? She must have. But… the boat was gone and the bow remained. If someone else had taken the craft—

His heart struck hard against his ribs. He moved out of the trees and into the sunlight. If someone else had taken the boat from its place, would they not have taken the bow and arrows too? Unless

Unless she lived.

Her form came to him in thought again, bent to the task of tanning the hide and softening it to add to the others she had — the muskrat and rabbit. The deer hide would seem a ransom to her. He had asked her if she planned to go to rendezvous, and the woman had answered with a nod… yes.

His breath quickened. Had she left his weapons knowing he would return to search for them? A smile stretched across the hunter’s face. He gasped then licked his lips. He had discovered her sign. His eyes lay keen on the path ahead as he trod down river again. Hope gave strength to his journey. One river to another, one trail to the next, the hunter would not give up. His pursuit of Lone River Woman would carry him north. And they would meet again.