When I first saw him I thought I was hallucinating. Was this a real person or a fear-induced illusion? I knew I had to remain perfectly still and quiet. My life depended on it.
I had no idea how long I’d been there – certainly long enough for my skin to have turned red, my mouth parched, my lips cracked. I remember being stung and bitten by insects and digging my nails into the palms of my hands to keep from crying out.
I recall now! We were picking flowers and berries in a sun-filled field; we had been following a stream and unknowingly wandered far from home. I caught sight of a bush hidden deep in a shady area. The plant was heavy with ripe blackberries and I couldn’t resist running to the bush, happily filling my bucket with the deep purple fruit.
I was busy plucking berries when I heard screams – not the usual giddy, playful squeals of young girls but awful shrieks of terror. I started to run back only to see my three sisters encircled by a group of Indians. The men were hulking and menacing, blocking the girl’s attempts to flee. They wore breechcloths across their midsection, moccasins and no shirts. Their faces were painted and their heads were shaved except for a center strip of upright long hair. They were the dreaded Mohawk.
They tugged the girl’s long blonde hair, poked them with sticks and tore at their starched white dresses. I wanted to shout out but was too afraid. How could I be such a coward? At 15, I was the eldest; I was supposed to protect them!
I crouched behind the berry bush and as quietly as possible covered myself with leaves and thorny stems. I peeked through my shelter and watched in horror as my sister’s dresses were crudely ripped from their innocent little bodies, torn pieces crammed into their mouths to silence their panicked shrieks. I wept silently as my sisters were held down and repeatedly raped. My heart shattered into a million splinters as they were ruthlessly slaughtered.
Long after the screams stopped, I remained motionless, eyes tightly shut. It doesn’t seem possible but I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke it was dusk, the Mohawk were gone and there was no sign of my sisters. The field was serene, as though nothing had happened. Where were my parents and the others we lived with? Why hadn’t anyone come looking for us? A terrifying thought came to me, chilling me to my very core: “Did the Mohawk attack our settlement? Did they kill my parents, too?” I wept bitterly until I drifted off to sleep.
A bright streak of early morning sunlight hit my face and my eyes flew open. That’s when I saw him.
He was tall, muscular and tan with long glossy black hair. He wore a fringed vest and long pants made of animal hide. His face was free of paint or tattoos and he looked to be about 20 years old. His features were handsome and peaceful; I knew he was not Mohawk.
A small fire burned nearby and in the time it would normally take me to plait my hair, he proficiently butchered and dressed a deer. He tossed the entrails into the fire, coated the deer in a thick layer of salt paste and wrapped it in canvas. Rising from his squatting position, he tied the carcass onto his horse, washed himself with water he had retrieved from the stream, then doused the fire.
A large bird flew into the bush where I was hiding. Startled, I accidentally kicked my pail of blackberries making a loud clanging sound. The brave quickly turned in my direction, drawing a knife tied to his leg. He crept closer, scanning the area intently. In only a few seconds he spotted me.
I freed myself from the thorny bush and ran into the dense forest but I was no match for the swift warrior. I screamed as he quickly scooped me up by my waist but instead of manhandling me, he made soft hushing sounds and my fears started to subside. He whispered soothingly and did not fight me. I felt a calmness come over me; I stopped resisting and slumped like a rag doll in his strong arms.
He sat me down in the open field and gave me food and water; I stared straight ahead, unblinking, eating and drinking as in a trance. As I ate, he cleaned the cuts and scratches on my face, arms and legs with a dampened cloth. He spoke a language I did not understand but found comforting.
He stood up, offering me his hand. I felt safe with him; if he was going to harm me he would have done so by now. I had unanswered questions about my parents and friends and I turned, heading in the direction of my home; he followed, walking beside his horse. As we drew near, faint wisps of smoke appeared in the sky and the smell of death hung in the still air. He motioned me to stop. Alone, he entered the settlement; when he returned, I knew. He knelt before me and sadly shook his head ‘no’. In his hand was my sister’s little doll. I fell to the ground, my mouth forming silent screams. I had no more tears left to cry.
I did not struggle when he picked me up and placed me on his horse. He smoothly jumped up and sat behind me. I buried my head in his chest, allowing sleep to overtake me.
We rode for three days and when we stopped to rest, we stayed close by each other’s side. I learned his name and he learned mine. My home and family were gone and he was all I had left in the world now. I know he realized and accepted that. He became my protector.
On day four we reached the massive waterfalls. I could barely see the longhouses on the other side of the river. He pointed and said the first word I understood: “Home”. He held me closely as we gingerly crossed the narrow bridge above the rapids.
When we reached the other side, his people ran to greet us; they were cheerful and welcoming and they chanted songs of thanksgiving. The women gently guided me inside; after bathing me, they wove my flaxen hair into intricate braids, soothed my sunburned skin with fragrant oils and dressed me in a beaded tunic of pale yellow. A feast was prepared in honor of their brother who had safely returned. There was much talking and laughing and I was embraced as one of their own.
That night when he came to our marriage bed my only thought was “I am home.”
NAR © 2022