Excerpt from Mariano’s Woman

The Crossing

My body, she is feeling lighter today. Not floating, but almost. I check my feet. They are where they should be, thrust into my old worn-out moccasins, planted on the floorboards of our house. My eyes see, but my no-feeling feet ask me whether my eyes are seeing true.

A strange haze-pulse flickers at eye-edge. Purple dark, it flares and fades with each heartbeat, then slowly lifts like morning meadow fog. I shake my head to try to clear it. I am still in our house, by the river. My feet are still on the floor.

The sickness, maybe. I am growing weaker in past days, unable to eat much. My breath is coming harder, so I spend more time on the pallet that I use for my bed. My muscles, they are wasting, bones showing under my hide, skin thin and spotted as that old rag draped over the pump handle.

It is past time to cross over into the Great Beyond. But I cannot. Not yet.

I am standing next to the table in the cooking room of our log house. The iron stove hulks against one wall, the china cupboard against another. Its shelves have empty spaces where blue china cups used to be. Medina dashed them against the wall, enraged after I stole our daughter’s body. She was lying here on this table, my beloved Lena, stiff and cold in the burial shroud I made for her. I could not let him bury her in his cemetery. I remember how, in the dark, with the great storm masking my sounds of escape, I dragged her out of this house and carried her body to the red-cliff ridge to the west. Only my horse knows where I hid her. Medina will never find where she rests.

The front door swings open with its rusty hinge sound. Medina walks in, wipes sweat from his forehead, and hangs his hat on its peg. He turns, stares right at me, through me. I stare back. He still has the anger, but the blind bull fury is gone. He pretends not to see me, brushes past and steps into the next room. He leaves the smell of leather and smoke in his wake, odors that once stirred my desire. We speak few words to each other since Lena’s death. Small words only, everyday words. “Mariano, where you leave the cast iron pot?” Or, “I will not be here tonight for supper.” Or, “Woman, where are the shirts you beaded for the trading post?”

Anger at Medina still hardens my heart. He sent my Lena to the Denver City school. Put her on the danger path. I know he was trying to help her, having for her his big pride. But forgiveness, I cannot give.

Two winters have passed since I found Lena’s body in the river, face and throat splotched red, glossy black hair matted against her cold skin, eyes glazed through half-open lids, arms and legs stiffening in the moonlight. I try to banish that mind-picture, but it claws me awake at night, a demon badger digging a hole in my head. I curse it, burn sage, invoke old chants I learned long ago. I even try holding my broken cross to my heart when the memory comes, chanting the rosary as I click the black beads in my pocket. Nothing helps.

What I hunger for is Lena’s spirit-being. In dreams I sometimes see her as she was, riding her black mare in the Denver City parade, slender in the white doeskin dress I made for her, smiling her beautiful smile. But I never see her spirit-being. Where is she? That is the question that haunts me.

Is she in the Black-robe heaven, surrounded by saints, with Jésu and God’s angels among the clouds? In Purgatory, having died without last rites, awaiting travel to a better place? Or has she gone to the Black-robe land of fire? No, no, that cannot be, must not be! She had only fifteen winters of age, too young for mortal sins that send one to the land of forever punishment. That hell is where I may go, where I deserve to go. But not my Lena.

Maybe she travels in the Great Beyond of my people, galloping over green meadows on a fine horse, singing and dancing with our ancestors, well-fed, well loved, in the Road of Many Stars. I wish I could believe this were true. But in my heart I am afraid. I feel her spirit is still close by, trapped, waiting. Salish people believe the spirit dead need prayer medicine for traveling to the Great Beyond, a ceremony one year after crossover-day. April 10, 1872. That is what is written in the Catholic Church Book of the Dead, where Father Machebeuf put her name with his black ink stick.

I tried to make ceremony for her at her secret resting place on her first-year crossover-day. I wanted to know where she is going, so I can follow. But I fear I did not make a right ceremony. Maybe my fire was too small. I was afraid a large fire might reveal the location of her body on the red-cliff ridge. Maybe I did not chant enough. Not all the old words would come to me. I have forgotten so much. Or maybe my offerings—a bit of pemmican, her favorite red ribbon, strands of hair from her horse colt’s tail and mane, a copy of her otter pouch—were not worthy.

I needed help from the spirit of Otter Woman. A gray jay flew over and perched on one of the stone slabs that hides Lena’s body. That bird is common along the Bitterroot River, but almost never flies here along the Big Thompson. So I thought that bird might be the old medicine-woman’s spirit. I spoke to it—said her name aloud—but no answer came.

When I was twelve winters of age, Otter Woman told me how to know when a spirit journeys from this world to the Great Beyond. A shift shadow, a hazy presence, a tremble of leaves with no breeze to stir them. Before traveling to the next world, spirits sometimes linger, swooping silently through the night on owl wings or appearing in the bodies of animals. Or even humans. I do not know if this is true, but these things I watched for during the time since Lena’s crossover. Nothing. Lena’s sad spirit may still be hovering near, restless, troubled. Waiting to journey into Black-robe heaven, or walk the great log over the gorge that separates this world from the Salish Great Beyond.

My only wish, my last wish, is to be with my Lena in her spirit world, wherever it is. Otter Woman once told me how, with right spells, you can speak with spirits, if not in words, in mind-thoughts. I must speak with my daughter, explain my false-tongue stories about her young suitor, John Alexander. She must understand it was for her own good, so she would escape with me instead of marrying him. I must try once more to reach her on the red-cliff ridge so she can finish her journey to the next world. So I can follow.