Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson
In the time of the great disease she watches as one after another the people of her pueblo sicken and die of the fever from the pale-skinned ones. Her husband falls ill. The pueblo shaman performs the healing ritual, but when the chants and prayers are complete, she stares at her beloved’s lifeless body. She wrenches away from the bed pallet. On the other side of the room the baby cries. With a last look at her husband, the young mother clasps the infant in her arms, and runs across the village.
She enters the church at a rush. “Padré, help us! Tell me how to save my daughter. You know this sickness. You are well. Tell me what to do,” she pleads, her tongue tripping over the foreign words.
“You must remove the child from the village,” he instructs her.
She acquiesces. “Gracías, Padré.” Turning, she walks back down the center of the small church.
“Wait,” he says. “Let me pray with you.”
She stops and kneels facing the altar. His voice drones an echo in the dim chapel. The aroma of burning candles normally consoles the Indian woman. Nevertheless, at this moment, the fragrance oppresses her and a slight nauseated sensation reels her stomach. Breathing deeply, she regains her equilibrium. The woman parrots memorized lines, finding no comfort in the foreign language. The baby squirms, uttering a short whine.
“Shh.” The mother strokes the young infant’s cheek. The prayer ends. The woman nods to the elder Franciscan priest, rises from her knees and retraces her steps.
“Vaya con Dios, my child,” he calls to her retreating back.
Walking through the village, she hears the moans of sick friends and family hanging on the crisp air. Saving her daughter’s life is her only concern. The mother ignores the misery of the others and returns to her plain adobe room.
Her preparations are simple, and she tells no one her plans. To protect the small one from the bitter cold she bundles her in the red blanket, a gift from her grandmother. Trembling hands place corn into a pack for the journey along with a skin of water. A small leather bag contains corn pollen. She concentrates on the effortless tasks, shunting her own fear to the back of her mind. The mother lifts the baby into her arms and exits the warmth of the shelter into the high desert winter.
She wanders for hours before coming to a path leading up the mesa. The trail is long and treacherous. Many times she stumbles. The precious weight in her arms does not cry. Shivers no longer rack her or the baby. At long last she reaches the end of the trail. She sets her valuable burden down on a rock outcropping.
Sprinkling the white corn pollen in the wind, the woman prays, “Please Great One! Hear my prayer! We can go no further. Protect us here from all sickness and death.” She bows her head and snowflakes alight on tangled black hair. Tears run down her cheeks.
It is her grandmother’s voice she hears on the wind. “Keep the baby wrapped in the red blanket, and she will remain safe.”
A great sigh escapes her and she brushes the wetness from her face. Confident in the protection of her ancestor, the woman returns to her infant. Holding the baby to her breast, she feeds the child. She reverently touches the blanket, stroking it and cherishes the warmth of the precious little one inside. Wind whips violently around mother and child. She ducks her face away from the icy currents lifting her hand to protect her eyes. In the brief unguarded moment, a gust rips the red blanket away from her daughter. It flies away, swirling in the breeze.
Recalling the promise of her grandmother, she rushes after it, the infant in her arms. She must not lose the red blanket. Placing the babe on the rock once more, she runs over the mesa chasing the treasured fabric. It dances, calling her to play, teasing her mercilessly. The wool cloth flies up and skirts the rocks before being lifted again on another blast of air. A cry from the baby jerks the mother’s gaze back to her daughter. The baby appears small in the distance. The woman is surprised how far she’s run in such a short time, but she’s nearly to the edge of the mesa. Lying on the rock, the child will freeze without the warmth of the blanket and her mother.
“Be strong little one. I’ll be back in a moment,” she calls. Again, the woman turns to watch the blanket. She scrambles over the sandstone rocks and sees the cloth caught on the branch of a mesquite tree at the cliff rim. This will be the last chance to reach it. Balancing precariously at the edge of the slippery rocks, she strains toward the bright wool. Her hands grasp a handful of air. Another sharp gust rips at the white elk hide she wears and the shifting weight causes her foot to slip. Grabbing a tip of the red wool unbalances the woman and she topples to the sandstone shelf above the canyon. Her neck snaps on impact and her wail echoes on the wind.
The child lying on the rock whimpers, falls asleep, and wakes no more.
On his herb-gathering walk after the weather clears, the priest finds the child lying on the mesa in death’s sleep. He says a prayer for the little one and builds a small cairn of rocks over her. A short while later, he spots the woman’s broken body whose hand clutches a red blanket. He shakes his head and expels a soft moan. His advice to her had not saved her or the baby. He prays over the woman and spends an hour gathering rocks to gently place over her body. Before setting the final stone atop the makeshift tomb, he uses it to scratch a name into the cliff.
In passing years sagebrush and scrub oak grow around the lone grave hidden below the mesa rim. The marker: a cairn of red stones. Visitors to the concealed burial place are an occasional deer or elk wandering down the slightly worn animal path along the edge of the mesa. The harsh desert climate reclaims the land.
The vaquero sits tall in the silver-trimmed saddle and rides his horse up the steep path cresting the last rise to level out onto the mesa. Far from being lonely, he takes pleasure in his solitary travels over the ranchero’s vast terrain. Today he’s looking for stray cattle possibly left behind in the summer pastures after the fall round-up. Gathering gray white clouds foreshadow an impending storm. He gathers his jacket closer to ward off the dropping temperature, and pulls his sombrero down so it won’t fly off in the rising wind. Hoarfrost covers the brush, creating a bleak, peculiar landscape. Creeping over the mesa, the fog flows through the crags and crevasses of the canyon below. Within a few moments he can see only a few feet in front of his mount. The familiar site becomes a strange foreign land surrounding him. The horse spooks, bucking him in his saddle.
“Whoa! Easy El Diablo. What’s wrong?” He pats the horse’s neck to calm the animal.
Hearing a noise, he turns in his saddle toward it. He reaches his gloved hands for la riata, taking it off the saddle’s horn to prepare a lasso before dismounting. Usually he’d remain on the horse, but with limited visibility, he prefers to have his feet on the ground. His leather boots scuff the loose sand on the mesa. He leads El Diablo by the reins, peering into the freezing fog surrounding him. The sound reaches him once more. He is convinced the whimper is a calf so he continues toward it, rope in hand.
Through the mist an Indian woman materializes. He drops El Diablo’s reins and darts back to hunt for a hiding place. A sandstone indentation provides cover. There hasn’t been any Indian fighting in the area, but he warily watches the woman. Though he thinks she must hear both his footsteps and those of the horse on the sandstone, he sees no indication that she sees him yet. He is ready to run if she shows any signs of hostility. He lets out a breath he is surprised to find locked in his chest.
She strides back and forth, not more than twenty feet in front of him. Her gaze searches, without seeing him. He stands. The woman’s focus lands on something beyond him. She runs toward him. He sidesteps to avoid her, but she brushes past him and a flash of colder air enshrouds him. He gasps drawing his knife, spins around, he makes the sign of the cross and watches her whirl to stand opposite him. Her eyes widen, eyebrows arched.
“Mí niña? Have you seen my baby?” Her voice is desperate.
“Please find her. She will freeze without the blanket.” The woman raises a red blanket, supplicating the stranger for help.
He backs away crossing himself once more. “Bruja? Please don’t hurt me.”
“Help me.” She pleads. “I must find my baby.”
The vaquero shakes his head. “No. There is no baby here.” His voice quivers and he trembles. “Madre de Díos.”
“Ask her to help me find my baby. She is a mother. She understands.”
Is she asking him to pray for her? He shakes his head again.
“Please. Ask the Virgen de Guadalupe to pray for me. She will hear your prayers.”
He kneels in the dusting of snow covering the mesa now. He closes his eyes and folds his hands in prayer. “Madre de Dios, protect me from this spirit.”
He repeats the prayer and lifts one eyelid. Is the specter crying now? Yes. Her tears slip down her pale red-brown cheeks. He hangs his head; sadness replaces the fear his heart. “I cannot help you, Spirit.”
Her simple request is hopeless. How can he make her understand? “Señora, it is not possible. You do not live in my world.”
The fog lifts expanding the visibility. He gazes around seeing the mesa once more. “Where are you from?”
“Why did you leave your village?”
“The sickness. To save my baby.” She shrugs her shoulders.
“Where is she?”
“I left her on the mesa so I could catch the red blanket.” She raises the wool cloth in her hand. A sigh of exasperation escapes the woman’s throat.
“Where did you find the blanket?”
She points to the edge of the mesa. The man follows the direction of her gesture and glances over the cliff. There is a cairn of stones. He nods in understanding. Circling back toward the spirit he finds no one.
Emotions conflict in his mind. He understands the spirit is in pain and wanders the mesa looking for her lost child. As much as he enjoys the solitude of the setting, he cannot imagine eternally drifting over the mesa. How can he help her rest peacefully in her grave? The solution is obvious—if he buries her body and hides her grave, the spirit cannot roam perpetually restless. This he can do. In the frigid wind and snow flurries, he clambers down the side of the cliff using the animal trail. Upon reaching the cairn, he dismantles it with trembling hands. Clean stark white bones, the result of a century of heat and dehydration, are unveiled. With a shovel-shaped stone he digs a small hole in the sand and places the dry bones inside. He covers the grave with sand. Perhaps the spirit can now sleep, but he doubts he will sleep this night. The vast uninhabited mesa loses its allure for the young vaquero. He climbs the path to find El Diablo waiting. Lost cattle will wait. The young man mounts his horse and heads down the trail.
Flat Top Mesa—1888
She paces the floor of the cabin. Ten feet one way, turn, ten steps the other direction. Four walls built for comfort and shelter trap her inside. Her life is framed in waiting moments. It will be at least two hours before he returns. If she stays here, her imagination will take over. Her husband often pokes fun at what he terms her “tetched thoughts”. Unable to bear the silent aloneness of howling winds any longer, Maggie wraps her shawl tight around her auburn hair and rounded belly, opens the door to escape the cabin’s clutches. Animals need tending: an excuse and a necessity force her outside. The door wrenches out of her grasp. Pulling her full weight on the doorknob she latches it closed.
Head down, she presses through blowing snow flurries of the dim afternoon toward the barn. Frigid temperatures threaten blizzard conditions on the top of the mesa. She’s lived here a mere two years, but experience makes her aware of nature’s deadly dangers.
I hope Arthur makes it back before it hits, she thinks. If not, I could be stuck alone here for days. Thrusting the thought from her head, she plods on to the barn; watering eyes blur her vision. Each step exerts energy from her already exhausted body. Her extra load weighs her down in this eighth month. The short trip takes her an extra ten minutes this late afternoon fighting the gale. At last she arrives finding the barn door open. Maggie gaze searches the murky shadows to find no cow or calf inside. She must find them. They depend on the milk for the winter. Bracing herself for a moment on the doorframe she turns to renew her struggle against the winter.
Slow measured steps. To fall now would be a deadly misstep. She peers through half-closed eyes to make her way toward the pasture. Her best guess is the animals went to find water at the well. Buffeted by the wind she continues the search. Clouds darken the afternoon further to early twilight and the wind pushes her long skirt against her legs. Ignoring the cold, she continues. The first pain doubled her over with its force. She grips her belly and a wetness slides down her legs. Maggie slumps to her knees. Snow falls now in heavy freezing wet sheets blinding her to everything except the red sandstone disappearing beneath the snow.
“Uhhhh,” she gasps. “Not now, baby. I need to find the cow.” Maggie lifts her heaving body. One step before another contraction rips through her abdomen. She pants puffs of frozen air. Knifing pain brings her back to her knees. Teeth chattering and legs weak she lifts one leaden leg and then the other to stand up.
“Oh God please!” the wind whisks her scream away.
Scarlet drips onto the snow. She watches in disbelief. “No!”
Strength she didn’t realize she possessed allows her to leverage her body against a frost-covered rock. Trance-like, she places one foot deliberately in front of the other.
A low fog now obscures the visibility. Blowing snow masks the landscape into an unfamiliar mysterious ice-shrouded world. She hears a cry. It sounds like an infant bawling. Confused, Maggie berates herself for what must be a ploy of her active imagination. The sound comes again on the wind, more definite this time. A babe’s whimper. She was sure it was more than the wind. It must be the calf bleating. Gritting her teeth to block the pain she heads the direction of the sound. She creeps forward toward the mewling noise.
Maggie catches herself in a stumble: a girl-child of no more than two months old lies naked brown against the snow. The baby whimpers now, hiccoughing, gasping for air. Impossible. The agony must be playing tricks with her mind. Shutting her eyes, she takes a deep breath expecting the vision to disappear. Delusions occur in dire situations. Barely raising her eyelids, she squints, disbelieving her own senses.
“Save me and you save your own babe,” the child says in a woman’s voice. “Leave me, and your infant is lost.”
Maggie staggers back from the naked girl, but maternal instinct urges her forward. She reaches a tentative hand out to touch the child. The baby’s skin is frigid underneath the woman’s fingers. At the edge of her vision the small whiteness her world has become at the moment, she sees a patch of red blow toward them. Reaching for it, she recognizes the scrap as the wool of a small blanket. She wraps the babe within it and cuddles her close to her own tender body, sharing her heat. The animals will have to fend for themselves. She turns, finding her bearings, retracing her steps. Snow obliterates the trail she’s left before she can follow it. She turns, but cannot see the house or the barn. Dim pale clouds surround her in the darkness now complete.
An elk emerges white and ghostlike out of the fog, staring intently at the woman with the child. It walks toward her and then away. Maggie’s never seen one so tame. She watches it watch her and the baby. They stare at one another for long moments. The elk seems to beckon her. On this evening filled with strangeness, she doesn’t question this vision and walks toward the animal. In the presence of the elk, a strange lethargy quiets Maggie’s anguished body. Trusting the magic of the moment, she chooses to follow. The animal leads her watching, leading, turning, watching, and leading once more. With the assistance of the elk, the return journey is shorter.
The cabin comes into view through the blizzard. She rushes toward it, opening the door to enter. Before she closes the door, she turns to look for her animal guide, but sees nothing except blowing whiteness and fog.
Laying the baby on the bed, she stokes the fire and begins to heat some water. Maggie lights a lantern. Pain returns to her distended belly, tightening snake-like around her middle. Catching her breath, she leans against the rough-hewn table. The wetness she felt out on the mesa returns. Her time has come; she has no doubts now. There is nothing to be done but to prepare to have this baby. She lurches to the bed and another pain seizes her. Closing her eyes, she catches her breath and lies on the straw mattress.
A soothing warm hand strokes her cheek, “Shhhh. My sister, shhhh.” Maggie’s eyes flutter open. An Indian woman stands next to her wiping her forehead with a cloth.
“Who are you?” Maggie asks. Her eyes are unfocused. She shakes her head, trying to clear the wooziness.
“White Elk Woman.”
“I don’t know you.” She pulls away from the woman and a contraction takes hold of her belly.
“It’s all right, I’ve come to help.” White Elk Woman’s soft voice gentles the skittish woman.
“But who? What?” The baby. “Where is the babe?”
The labor pains rack her body. White Elk Woman eases Maggie into a sitting position, stuffing pillows behind her.
“The child comes.”
During the next protracted minutes, time speeds by. Maggie follows the terse directions of the black-haired woman, confident that someone capable is assisting her.
“I need to turn the baby. It will hurt. I will try to do it fast.”
Unbearable pain is tolerated. The child Maggie carries slips into the stranger’s hands. White Elk Woman bathes the child, wraps it in a red blanket, and places it in Maggie’s arms.
“Keep her safe,” the Indian woman says. “Close your eyes. Your work is done for now, my sister.”
Maggie looks at her baby. The girl-child sleeps, worn out by her recent ordeal. The mother, too, is exhausted and her eyelids droop before opening wide, “But wait, where is the baby from the mesa?”
White Elk Woman smiles. “The baby from the mesa is safe now.”
Maggie’s heavy eyelids close.
“Thank you Maggie” is the whisper she hears before fatigue overtakes her and she drifts into a dreamless sleep.
The new mother wakes to a clear, calm morning, the storm having blown itself out overnight. Her babe snuggles close in her arms. She gazes in wonder at her miracle.
Arthur bursts through the doorway. “Maggie, I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it home last night. The blizzard came up so fast.” He stops short at seeing the bundle in his wife’s bed. He looks from the baby to his wife. “Oh Maggie. How? What?”
“It’s all right, Arthur. White Elk Woman helped us.”
Maggie explains the arrival of the Indian woman of the night before.
“But where is she?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I fell asleep.”
“Honey, it must have been horrible for you. I’m sorry you had to go through this all alone.”
“But I wasn’t alone,” she counters.
He shakes his head. Arthur loves his wife, but he knows she is liable to imagine stories. His gaze explores the small cabin. There is no evidence of anyone’s presence other than his wife. “There is no one else here.”
“She was. Maybe she took the baby and went home.”
“The baby is here.” He holds his wife close. He can’t imagine the strength of this woman, to have endured the pain and birth of a child all by herself.
“No, the other child,” Maggie says.
“Other? Sweetheart, rest. I’m here now.” He strokes her tangled auburn hair.
Arthur backs away as he sees she sleeps.
He goes to tend the animals. Finding the barn door open he searches the pasture for the cow. A mooing comes from the edge of the mesa. Walking over, he sees an animal path he’s not noticed before. He cautiously makes his way down the cliffside. He finds his cow with her calf lying on a ledge. He ties a rope around her neck and leads her and the calf up the path. On an outcropping he reads and mentally translates the faint Spanish scratches in the sandstone: White Elk Woman.
Tamara Eaton is a former high school English teacher who is taking time off to rediscover her muse. She is a “snowbird” who splits her time between Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota where she is helping to renovate a ninety-year-old brick high school. Email: tamarae9[at]hotmail.com