A Welsh Indian
By Celia Jolley
"But woman's bright story
Is told in her eyes.
Love came, and brought sorrow
Too soon in his train;
Yet so sweet, that tomorrow
Twere were welcome again."
"Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood
men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation."
Nest stirred. Every morning when the light pulled back the cover of night, she huddled in a tight ball under her buffalo robe. She wasn't hiding fro the day, but from haunting memories. Hugging herself, she pretended it was her mother's arms protecting from the white invaders. The pounding of horses' hooves men shouting, "Kill the nits," then gun shots shattered her life. Screams died away. The bullets had pierced, and blood dripped like a warm rain upon the slight girl safe under her mother's lifeless body.
After a deep sigh, Nest emerged. Pungent smells slapped her: the wind-stirred ashes from last night's fire, the dog at her feet and the unwashed odor of her mother's husband who was snoring across the floor of her teepee. The trapper was wrapped in his bedroll like a Hudson Bay cocoon. He had come home from following his trap lines with her little brother to find that the raid against their village left few survivors. His squaw was gone, but his son remained. Nest remembered her mother urging the trapper to take her brother along that terrible morning. He, like Nest, was saved because of their mother.
Their adopted tribe was decimated, and the village crops burned. The survivors sought safety by joining another Creek village. When the raiders had left, Nest had beat out the fire in their dwelling before hiding in the cane alongside the river. Now, only the three of them and dog were left amidst the scorched places. Today they were moving on, again, somewhere.
At thirteen, Nest was doing a woman's work, remembering everything her mother taught her. She cared little for her mother's husband except the fact that the trapper had helped them escape from the Sioux who had stolen them from the Mandan village's peaceful existence when Nest was eight. He bought her mother as his squaw. Since her mother refused to leave without her, he bought Nest too. The new wife had learned many words to speak with her husband, but Nest never spoke to him. She understood when he talked though. It was a mixture of English, Creek and Cherokee with a Scottish brogue he used while she still thought in Mandan. Occasional Welsh phrases peeked out from her earliest memories. Now, Nest only let her half-brother hear her voice; she also talked with her mother when she was alone, the mother who was not there.
Her father and older brothers were dead. Small pox had wiped out so many of the Mandan. Their tribe, from the thousands strong in eight cities, was weakened to a small band. The trapper brought home the news from the rendezvous. Nest was swallowed by the sorrows of life, adrift as if in a coracle swirling in the rapids. No one could be trusted, white or Indian. The trapper was her only protection now, yet she did not trust even him. She was on constant alert, never letting her guard down.
The slender girl moved without sound as she entered the day emerging from the flap of the teepee. The dog followed her, sitting down to scratch. Nest stirred the embers from last night, feeding it dead pine needles and dry twigs, then pine cones and small branches. She blew on the flames as a fire kindled. Later she added a handful of the tiny wild strawberries to the porridge. She had found them as she walked the forest in her wood gathering. Her little brother would be pleased.
The wildflowers she picked were laid on her mother's grave. Nest had knelt down and kissed the cool earth. At least the trapper buried her mother after the old ways of he people, not in the Mandan style of building a platform for their dead. Nest sang the remembered fragments of ancient song in Welsh her mother had taught her. It brought memories of her mother's beautiful voice as she laid to rest her last baby who did not survive a day.
"Child of sorrow, child of pain
Never may I smile again,
If' 'till all subduing death
Close thine eyes and stop this breath."
Her mother wept then. Nest wept now.
After eating her portion and letting dog lick her fingers, Nest looked around at the camp. She would need to prepare the blankets, their hides, and cooking utensils for the move. The teepee was put up with her mother's strength. Nest wondered if she would be strong enough to take it down alone. First, she began removing the strips of meat drying to make pemmican. She banged the cooking pot hoping the trapper and boy would wake up so she could clean up and finish packing.
Nest was so used to numbing the heavy burden of sorrow weighing down her heart, she did not know she moved as if she carried a heavy stone. It bent her thin shoulders in and bowed her tall frame as though she were an old squaw. Nest wandered to look for the Trapper's horse and mule. Her Indian pony had been stolen in the raid. She would have to walk unless she was allowed to mount atop the pack mule's load. She would not ride with the trapper even if offered. His closeness repulsed her. He was a white man too. She saw his eyes following her every move, so soon after her mother lay in the grave.
When the man came out of the teepee finally, stretching and yawning, Nest slipped inside away from him. She found her mother's deerskin dress. It was soft from daily wear. It pillowed her head every night with the faint smell of her mother. Instead of this one, Nest had chosen to bury her mother in a beautiful ceremonial beaded and quilted one. He mother had spent one winter working is detail into a masterpiece using beads, gifts from her trapper-trader husband. Nest remembered the delicate daffodil embroidered on the yoke. Her mother had told her it was a symbol of their homeland over the Great Water. Now she stroked her mother's common garment before folding it. She kissed it inhaling deeply.
Something slipped out and fell in her lap. Nest held up the mirror, a rare present the Trapper had given her mother from one of his trades, The reflection showed her blue eyes pooling tears. One trickled down a blushed, brown cheek. Her fingers combed back her brown, curling hair. Its locks were sun-streaked with golden strands. She was a Welsh Indian, proud of her heritage. Nest pictured her father who was taller than any man she had met since with a blonde beard and her same blue eyes. Her mother also was of unusual height, taller than the trapper. Though her hair and eyes were dark brown, her features and skin were more White than Indian. Seeing her reflection sent her mind into the repetition of her history. Nest set the mirror down, wrapped it deeply into her mother's dress, and rolled it in her buffalo robe, also putting away the thoughts of her people No time for that now.
Nest remembered the argument the Trapper had with her mother convinced as he was that she had been captured from a white man's village. Her mother stood tall with her shoulders thrown back as she recited her people's story in Welsh. Nest remembered the trapper's astonishment. He did not understand a word she was saying, but knew it was not an Indian dialect. He had come from across the Great Waters, and recognized the Welsh language. All the trappers of the far country knew the story of the Welsh Indians. He couldn't have looked more incredulous than if she were a faerie in his teepee. Nest still flushed with pride at the memory of that moment.
The girl shook back her curls over her shoulders and straightened her back like her mother did. Nest would not be bent like a bow, but would become straight as an arrow. No more would she move like an old squaw waiting for death to hurry and catch her.
"Wake up and meet the morning, little one. Your porridge has wild strawberries in it."
Nest stroked the soft auburn curls on her brother's head. Then she began moving quickly now to pack up the rest of their simple belongings setting them outside. As soon as he was up ad out, she took to dismantling their lodging while the trapper looked on amused. It wasn't graceful as the tepee crashed to the ground, but still it was down no matter how Nest pulled out the poles after unlatching the leather hongs that held them together at the peak. Sweat beaded on her forehead even in this early morning in Spring. Rolling the thick hide of their shelter was hard work. It was up to the packer to load his animals she had tethered to the nearby trees. If he was an Indian, the woman would have done it all, but as a trapper he was particular how to load his beast of burden.
Nest was glad. She was tired. Whistling like a bird, she called her brother to her and took his hand leaving dog to lick the pot clean. Leading him, she slipped into the cool of the forest and knelt in front of her mother's grave one last time to say goodbye. Her little brother stood back watching, Her hands caressed the ground smoothing over the newly turned dirt. Trickles of tears made muddy trails across her hands. When she wiped her hands across her eyes, she left brown streaks like war paint. Then she stood tall, back straight saying, "I will remember, my mother. I will not forget. I will never move away from you for you are in my heart."
They walked back to the clearing, and she sat her brother up on the trapper's horse. Nest mounted the mule. She sat with her back straight as if on a throne defying questioning. Nest waited looking straight forward while the trapper finished strapping the last few things on his mount. He brother was pestering the man.
"Where are we going, da? Will I see my friends there? How far is it? Many moons?"
The trapper only grunted.
It mattered little to Nest. Sorrow followed her wherever she went.