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I made it through the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge with my entry titled “VirtuaLife“.   The following is my entry for the second round.  My prompts were:

Genre: Historical Fiction

Subject: Saving a Life

Character: A farmer

This story is based on an event in the life of Winema, a rather remarkable Modoc woman.  Although I took a lot of liberties with her story (this is, after all, historical fiction), there are many facets that are true. If she interests you, I suggest reading more about her and her remarkable life. 

 

 

Winema

 

I lie on the ground inside a tent.  Blood flows from a deep wound winding down my right wrist.  It feels as if the obsidian knife still sits inside the cut, although I know the cut was clean.  My left hand holds the scalp of an army officer; the bristly hairs already feel coarse and false with no life to feed them.  I feel blood seeping from the private, sacred place where all women bleed. It is not my moon time.  This is what I have lost, along with my people.  Ten years since my last child, and now there will be no others.

 

****

When the world was new, only the underground spirit world and the lands where the sun touched existed.  There were no animals, no hunting grounds.  The birds did not fly in blue or grey colored skies. Winter fell but no bears slept, no hares foraged.  There were no farms, like the one I tend, nor farmers to sow them. The world was quiet, but also peaceful.  It was a world I cannot imagine.

In that new world, Ancient Kumush carried his basket of bones from the underworld and seeded the earth with a crop of people for all the lands. He plowed the Klamath, and cursed them with cowardice.  He sowed the Shasta near the snow giant, and graced them with bravery.  But he blessed the Modoc people most of all.  The strongest tribe, who would defeat all of our many enemies.  When he seeded the earth with bones, Kumush gifted our people, and he doomed us. He must have planted the white man’s bones deepest.

            The Modoc have always been at war.  Our greatest enemies, the Klamath, would raid our villages under a dark moon, and we would raid theirs under the full.  At the beginning of spring, we would seek peace by bringing our flowering girls and our young warriors together to trade them in marriage.  It was short-lived. I used to wonder how those young wives managed, knowing at the next moon their handsome husband would be off to seek the scalps of their fathers and brothers.  It was not long before I found out exactly how it felt.

 

****

 

There was always a restless spirit in me, from the time I was laid in my mother’s arms. She named me “strange child”.   I spent my early life sneaking away; from my mother’s side while gathering camas plants and wild onions, or when she cleaned the ducks father hunted on Tule Lake. Alone and awestruck, I huddled in the grasses to watch a doe and her fawn as they foraged.  The gathering of tribes was a time when I flourished, asking questions of other children my age about the lands they lived in, whether the geese flew in the same patterns over their heads in the fall, or if they had a river with rapids like we did.  I became the guide for the young ones, as our hardened feet jumped over the river-smoothed rocks and pushed our canoes into the froth.  I think it was that restlessness that made me chase them through the rapids. I pulled the children to safety when their canoe flipped. They were nearly dashed against the rocks.  The Lagi elders called me Winema after that, “woman chief” and rescuer.  They allowed me more freedom to run, hunt, fish and play than they allowed the other girls.  

            When it came time to be given in marriage, to perform the rites of Shuyuhalsh, they wanted to take that freedom away. It was restlessness and freedom that made me refuse my cousin, Kintpuash.  I was saved an arrangement with a Klamath warrior, but I did not want my cousin that way. We had grown together in our childhoods, and although I knew he was just, he was also sometimes cruel.  He did not approve of my unusual ways.  

****

 

I was defiant, and I ran. I found this rough but fertile land.   I met a white man, and loved him.   It took years for my people to accept him, though he gifted my father with horses and cows and observed the customs.  Frank Riddle taught me English words. He put our child in my belly.  Our crops grew, and so did our child. I happily cleaned the ducks my husband brought me from Tule Lake.  I was calmed by this strong man who knew what it was to be an outsider, to not live the role assigned to him, to leave his family and his home to find a new life.  Our firstborn son, Charka, was 10 when the war began. My belly swelled with our second.  

 

****

 

Kintpuash held his mother in his arms when next I saw him.  Shot with a white man’s rifle, blood had stopped seeping from her wounds. He would not set her down.  Takoda, one of the young ones I’d saved from the river, lay wide-eyed on the other side of the fire, her stomach gaping and rank.  My hands trembled.  My strained voice slipped back into Luatami when I spoke to Kintpuash, whose keening had not ceased.

“Kintpuash, come.  Auntie must be attended to. And these others.  You must let her go.”

His eyes, glistening with tears shed without shame, met mine filled with fury and hatred.

“You,” he heaved, “You, who left the hearth of your father and lay with the white man.  You, who turned away from what was offered you, as if it was not good enough.  How can you look on the faces of these women, these CHILDREN, and not fling yourself into the rapids?”

 

His words cut me.  There was a portion of truth in them, and part of me wanted to seek the river, swim with the salmon until they overtook me and guided me to the underworld.  Part of me knew he was wrong, that bad things were done by bad men, no matter the color of their skin or the place they were born.

 

“Kintpuash, these were some white men, but not all white men.  Because I love a white man does not mean that I do not love our people, that I do not love my Auntie!”  I knelt at the side of Takoda and brushed her hair from her face, closed her eyes.  “It does not mean that I regret dragging Takoda from the rapids.  I did not do this deed.  I want to help our people. We cannot win if we fight the white man.  We can only win if we befriend him.”

 

Kintpuash pressed his nose into his mother’s neck and inhaled her scent, choking on a sob, then laid her down. Rising, he spat on my feet.  “This is what white men do, Winema.  They kill women.  They kill babies! The Modoc would never kill women and children.”  His eyes melted me with their heat, and he stomped from the hut.

 

****

            After the massacre of Kumbat village, Kintpuash and his warriors harried the U.S. soldiers.  They killed many men, including the General.  I was one of the few Modoc who could speak English and Luatami fluently.  Talks and treaties pulled me from my farm and my child, on long excursions translating the peace terms they brought to the people. Frank travelled with me, and our fields languished.  Kintpuash never looked at me during the peace talks, as if I were a ghost.  I had become invisible to the last of my people.

 

That did not change when Kintpuash stepped into the tent this morning.  Five of his warriors assembled around him, and stared at the army officers with dead eyes.  My translations were not acknowledged, although they awaited my words and responded to them.  

The peace commission, with the chairman at its center, sat at a table. A soldier in the corner was whispering to his friend, a sound I only half paid attention to.  I heard the words “Kumbat massacre” and they both laughed under their breath.  Faster than I could follow, Kintpuash let out an ululating cry and had the soldier’s head in his hands. Chaos erupted in the tent, with Kintpuash’s warriors attacking the guards surrounding the interior.  An obsidian blade appeared from nowhere, and as quickly as a wind on the lava bed, the soldier’s scalp was in Kintpuash’s hand. Frank was held captive by a warrior, and the chairman had a Modoc blade at his throat.

 

Red spotted the walls and the ground.  A low, grunting noise came from somewhere, and I realized it was my own throat reaching for breath.  A scream emerged, and my eyes finally focused on Kintpuash, holding the soldier’s hair in his hands, heavily breathing. He began to laugh.

 

I hurled myself at him.  “How dare you! It is a peace meeting! You’ve thrown your honor in mud!” Kintpuash pushed me away, his face hardening.  I launched myself at him again, grabbing the scalp from his hand and shaking it at him.  “You claim for honor, but you have none. None!”  Kintpuash hit me then.  He hit my face first.  Frank shouted from his captive position and pulled against the arms of the young warrior holding him.  Kintpuash hit me, again and again, until I no longer felt where his fist fell.  And then his knife, still in his other hand, caught itself against my wrist as I raised my hands to protect myself.

 

As soon as the cut was made, I knew it was dire. The blood was flowing too quickly.  I felt dizzy, and I fell.

 

****

 

I lie on the ground of a tent belonging to the U.S. Army.  I can hear voices raised in anger, in indignation, in horror and in shock.  For some reason there is a puddle beneath me, even though I am protected from the elements, and I can see that the day is sunny.  I open my eyes, and see Kintpuash above me.  He is shouting back at a man, held with his arms behind his back, whose face is red with the vehemence of his shouts.  Frank.  Kintpuash still has killing in his eyes, and I am almost relieved when he turns away from Frank and toward the chairman.

 

I roll over onto my stomach.  It is so difficult to get my legs beneath me, and so I manage only a crawl.  I drag myself toward the chairman.  The scalp falls from my hand and lies in the trail my wrist leaves in my wake.  As I make it to the feet of the chairman, a hush falls.  Every warrior, every soldier, watches my painful trek across the tent.  Panting with exertion, I push myself to standing, balancing against an overturned chair.

 

“Kintpuash, stop!  They will kill you for this.  Try you in a white man’s court, and hang you from the trees!”

 

“They all deserve to die! They are dogs.  They reveled in the killings at our village. You heard them! Laughing!” He lunges at the chairman with his blade, but I lurch between them. The motion causes a fresh gush of blood to roll down my leg. Kintpuash looks in horror at my face, drained pale and remarkably similar to his mother’s. I find my voice. I hear the voices of all the senselessly dead in each word.

 

 “You will have to kill me first!  Do Modoc kill women and children, Kintpuash? Do they kill babies?”  His eyes slowly lower down to my skirts, where the lifeblood of my second son stains me. The knife falls from his hand, and lands at my feet. I hold his gaze as more soldiers rush into the tent and bind him.

           

 

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