Faith and Fidelity, part one of two
1. Faithfulness to obligations, duties, or observances.
2. Exact correspondence with fact or with a given quality, condition, or event; accuracy.
“…the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
There it was: the feeling. A gnawing in the cavern of her stomach…a sensation as familiar to her as a mother’s breast is to a child.
She stumbled down the hall, endless and dim, dizzy with hunger. A room warmly lit was at the end, and heavenly smells wafted out from it. She reached it, and saw a regal dining room, laid out with a feast of steaming ham and fragrant bread and potatoes with dribbling butter and
The orange light lit up the geometrics of the quilt, blue and green, upon which her hands lay, slipping a string of stones through her fingers. The beads were pink coral. And those hands were pale and pliable; the polished skin on the back of them seemed so thin and tight as to actually glitter in the morning sun.
Skenan traced the rivers of the jade-colored veins with her eyes. She then breathed in the musky smell of the garret and made that she was waking up.
“Good morning,” she said.
The hands with the stones ceased and the girl to whom they belonged turned slightly to Skenan in a cloud of curls and said, in the sweetest tones, “Good morning, dear,” her mouth moving as if by conscious thought.
Her mouth was a rosebud of love.
Skenan was flooded with attraction and deep bonding towards this girl who shared her bed. She was a compact girl of power: power not in her delicacy but in her force of fearless love. Skenan could not express her admiration for this girl's strength, conviction, and the exquisite sense of her own femininity.
From her own plump pillow, she gazed at the fragrant flower beside her. With devotion, Skenan asked, "Did you sleep well?" Her words were like honey, too.
"Yes, dear. Did you?"
She had no power to cry out for help: just power enough to move towards the warm light there - there - before her legs would melt and give way beneath her. The hallway was dark but she could feel a thick carpet underneath her feet and feel the ridges of the rich wallpaper as she ran her hands along it for support. She was short; so short. The ceiling was far, far above her. The hall was long...the light at the end in the distance like a speck of sun in faraway hills.
"Yes, very well. I think I’m going to get up."
"Alright. I just have two more decades left of the sorrowful mysteries and then I'll help you wash the dishes."
Skenan folded her shift and slipped it among packages of lavender. She stepped into a mourning dove-colored dress and pulled her arms through the tight sleeves. She buttoned the basque to where her arms could reach the middle of her back. Then she went and stood at the side of the bed, holding her mounds of hair high on top of her head while Fidelity finished the last button of black bone, all the way up to the white lace collar which lay against her hazel neck. Skenan dropped her hair. She did not even have to ask as Fidelity took up the limp silk ribbon and tied it in a demure bow behind Skenan's waist. The ribbon was gray.
"You look beautiful," concluded Fidelity, laying back and holding her rosary against the quilt in one practiced hand, with reverent, studied casualness.
“Thank you, love.”
Skenan then vigorously brushed the tangles out of her hair, but it bristled out around her head like a briar bush. So she went to her friend who braided it into submission. When she had finished, Skenan took the brush back and felt her tight long tail: it was so neat and tidy, and Fidelity had finished it with a silk ribbon. Skenan was filled with gratitude: she would be lost without Fidelity. The girl was her age, but she had done Skenan’s hair for so many years that Skenan could neither braid nor tie a bow herself. She put the tortoiseshell brush back on the vanity and laughed at the fact.
When someone could do something better - or merely do it - Skenan surrendered the task.
"You look completely different,” said Fidelity, “when your hair is done.”
"Neater, you mean," Skenan said, self-disparagingly, taking her coat off the peg near the door.
"But where are you going? - I'm almost done."
Skenan wrapped a scarf around her head and twined it about her neck. "Outside. - I'll feed the chickens," she added, to placate Fidelity.
"’Tis very cold," she consented dubiously.
"I don't mind it. I'll be back into time to do dishes!" and she slipped, as quickly as she could, out the door.
Winter hit her with its beautiful force and robbed her lungs of air, briefly. She made her way to the woods and then she began to ran, which was difficult in her heavy boots and galoshes: the snow clumped on her trailing skirts and held her back with disobliging fingers until she felt like she was wading in a stiff ocean of spray. "Darn not being a boy!” she growled to herself and put more exertion into pushing herself through the slog. Her body grew heated with the effort. These woods sloped downwards and she felt like a skidding, scudding deer - but a fat one hampered by many wool petticoats. Her breath fogged the scarf against her mouth and the clinging beads began to collect and drip, drip down her chin.
That warm wetness irked her, but when she finally exploded through the woods onto the lake, she skidded to a stop and pulled her scarf from her mouth and felt the refreshing stinging air on her exposed face.
Then she began to walk.
Lake Maspenock stretched out in front of her for acres like a field. The snow was on fire from the rising sun: it gleamed like an apricot ice. The leafless trees that edged the lake were blurred in a burnished wave, and the sun was crowning them, pressing through the horizon, a baby’s head edging out. Her boots crunched and made little purple smudges behind her that tracked her path away from civilization.
It was ten past seven in the morning: a time icy and frozen in stillness, because no one, besides Skenan, came down to the lake to worship a sunrise - never in Moguncoy. The bent New Englanders were all treading their way with their heads down to the barn, blinded by the mufflers their wives had made. No one saw her here.
Here she was herself, and she thought thoughts as secret and new as the first day of the world. Her body thrilled with the reedy, quivering life she felt. She was wrapped in ephemeral protection and invisible. Here, in the wild, she owned her own soul... and she dreamed gossamer dreams magical and mystical. She raised her hands in delight. As a vessel, she was made of human clay that was of the porous type, sensitive to the visceral world, similar to those who once named this lake…and was about to sing -
…when suddenly a sharp pain ripped through her middle like a grappling hook, tearing a burning hole, and she doubled over.
For a long time she stayed very, very still, looking at diamonds at her feet.
Slowly she began to speak soothingly to herself, aloud. She panted, watching her breath coming in quick, white expressions.
"'Tis nothing. 'Twas brought on by the dream."
Presently she straightened, and remembered that she had promised to feed the chickens, so she went home: up-hill was grueling, but she paid that price each morning.
By the time she skidded into the chicken yard, she had highly improved her appearance: her usually dusky cheek was ruddy and her eye was bright. And she ran, of course, into a man - as all girls do in stories when they happen to be at their height of beauty.
Now Paul Linmoor was everything a maiden envisions when she hears the name: tall, with glossy, dark, curly hair, and limpid eyes that melt women's hearts... but Skenan was impervious. Or, as the Moguncoy village lads said, "a hard nut to crack”. Few dared anything past metaphorical scorn…and as for Skenan, her heart did not even skip a beat when she ran into Paul, for she saw this youthful god eat mutton and string beans with his elbows on the table every night...and well, mutton and string beans can just about blind any girl.
He was already scattering the cracked corn, making little yellow dips in the softness, and said, “Hello, Skenan,” when he saw her, but did not ask where she had been.
“Oh - hullo, Paul. I was going to do that,” she said bluntly. “ - I’ll finish it for you,” she added in a higher pitched voice, which irked herself when she adopted it.
“Of course you won’t,” he said. He sounded offended, but there was a smile on his face.
She was discomfited by his show of chivalry and drifted away. “Well - I’ll go get your breakfast started!” - and moved away, completing their unnatural charade.
She walked - she did not run now that she was in proximity of the severe Shaker-shaped house - into the kitchen and saw, with dismay, that Fidelity was washing the sink of dishes.
She felt a surge of nervousness curdle through her body as she threw her wraps up on pegs near the door. “Oh, Fidelity, I’m so sorry!” she rushed to say, hoping her words would breach the offense.
Her friend did not answer, which Skenan took keenly. She reached for the greasy pan in Fidelity’s hand and felt she deserved the girl’s silence. “I’ll do the rest of that,” she offered in mortification.
She took the heavy skillet, which Fidelity seemed to have delayed in washing, and began sudsing it.
The next day she awoke in the early yellow hours of the morning, sitting up in a cold sweat.
“Why is this happening?” she asked, passing a hand across her gray face, creased by lines. “That time is over. It’s over.”
She curled up on her side until her stomach calmed down, which it did within a few minutes. And after it untangled itself, she looked over at Fidelity.
Fidelity was sleeping as in a fairy tale: beautifully, serenely. The first slender rays were smoothing her face…and at the sight of it, Skenan felt a terrible desire to leave again. She would go now.
She rustled into an old black stuff dress and buttoned up what she could. She stretched her arms as far as they would go, then gave up and hid the incompleteness under her coat, and left her hair down. She would come back before Fidelity woke up.
Down by the lake she could breathe. Her wraps around her were warm, and there was something titillating about having her back half unbuttoned and her rope of black hair hopping out behind her. She tripped blithely along, walking carefully in her own steps. She liked the way her boots dropped perfectly into the shapes she had made yesterday. She owned those marks.
But half-way across the lake, she froze in shock. There, beside hers, was a second line of prints: human ones. Their owner looked like he or she had followed her as far as the center of the lake, and then turned around and ploughed back.
She bent down and, with her mittened finger, traced the blue print. It was a heavy boot, almost double the length of her own. It was a male’s.
When she straightened up, she received a second sickening shock to her system: a tall lengthy man was walking towards her, not too far in the distance. Her immediate reaction was to run; her steady pride - foolishly - made her stay. She squeezed her gut tight and stood her ground. She had never liked running when she would look weak. She was suddenly very conscious of being half-dressed. But she did not want to show she was afraid.
But she was. As he came closer, she could tell he was a Negro lad, one of those from the lake shanties.
This was worse and worse! Everything about him made her think - danger - lower morals - slimy living - poverty - rape. It was almost deliberating enough to make her lose her ground, but she stood where she was.
“Hullo!” he called out. He had a fishing pole over his shoulder and she was surprised to hear he had a friendly voice. But it put her even more on her guard. Perhaps he would just sugar sweet-talk her into a shack where he would -
“I’ve seen you here before…I hope I’m not intruding. I thought maybe you’d like company, so I came out to ice-fish.”
Did she want company?
And from him? Less than she would want company from a wildcat or pig. What was he thinking?
This was dreadful! She could never come here again!
She started walking backwards so that he could not get close enough to her. She kept a comfortable distance, and, barely trying to be polite, said,
“I’m sorry, I have to feed my chickens. I would stay, but I have to go.” She turned without so much as a name-exchange or goodbye. This whole thing was utterly improper; this was not the way ladies met men, without being introduced - and such a man! One who was considered a low-life and barely fit to associate with her kind. How did he dare to even speak to her, or presume that she’d desire his presence?
With a stiff back, she walked away, willing him not to follow her - terrified that he would - wishing Paul would have the gumption to be curious (for once) where she went in the morning and have followed her and saved her.
But she made it back home, utterly unmolested.
When she went into her bedroom, Fidelity was regrettably awake, sitting there and brushing out her long golden hair. She must have asked her mother button her ash-colored dress. She sat brushing, brushing, brushing, when Skenan entered, and saying nothing, which Skenan had learned to see as a threatening sign - no maple-syrup words of “Good morning, angel!” or “Hello, sweet-love.”
She could not figure out what could possibly be wrong this morning, until Fidelity put down her brush and started right off, as if she had been engaging in an inner dialogue with Skenan all along.
“Your attitude and behavior is most peculiar, particularly for a woman.”
Skenan pulled her scarf off her head and the hair flew up with the electricity and curled around her cheeks. She did not speak, but Fidelity needed no encouragement to continue.
“Paul said you came from the woods yesterday, and here you are coming in now. Going for an afternoon walk in the company of another - now that is customary activity, and quite alright. But there are things to be done, Skenan. We have responsibilities. We have the dishes to do and breakfast to make, and you can’t leave me with them alone. ’Tisn’t right.”
“I’m really sorry I left you with those dishes,” she said. “It won’t happen again. I feel wretchedly about it, I promise you.” She fuddled with the buttons on her coat. She wanted to hurry to make things right; she could not stand confrontations, and wished to be anywhere other than in this cold attic right now.
“I forgive you,” she said. “But ’tis more that that: ’tisn’t safe for a girl, larking about in the forest in early hours.”
Skenan did not reply, but went to hang up her black coat. She knew in an instant that she would never tell Fidelity about the man she saw; she had hoped to unburden her heart into her friend’s bosom, to tell her of her fright, but now she saw that she would be harshly judged and blamed.
As she put her coat on the wall hook, she revealed her bare brown neck and the last ten buttons undone and open wide.
Fidelity gasped in a low hiss. “Look at you,” she said, “walking about half-unclad. You should be ashamed of yourself! - when we women uphold modesty. We carry the torch.”
The winter air from the garret window chilled Skenan’s skin and she shivered, but her face was as hot as a red poker. She felt her friend’s reproach like a lance deep in her soul, for she had also been taught that women retained the moral imperative to sustain the chastity of the world. How shaming that she had come close to dropping her own torch, extinguishing it, hissing, in the snow!
There was a moment of silence, Skenan miserable and with no words. She hated that Fidelity made her feel this way, and she hated herself for provoking the reaction.
Fidelity finally let out air from her mouth, relenting, and seemed to fill herself with mercy.
“Let me do those buttons,” she said.
And Skenan had to submit because she had no other way. Fidelity did them up rather like a schoolteacher, and took the ribbon in her hand.
“I’ll do the bow,” interrupted Skenan unexpectedly, moving away as if not to bother her friend.
She went into a corner and tried to tie the bow behind her. She had never done this before in her life, and now she had only one chance to get it right. Her hands fumbled with nervousness and ineptitude, as Fidelity sat by the mirror, placidly plaiting her own locks. Finally Skenan got a bow finished so that it looked like a child’s performance.
“Would you like me to do your hair now?” her friend asked, in a strangely altered voice: the sweetness of it jarred Skenan.
“I think I will leave it down,” she said, not knowing why she said it.
Fidelity gasped and then laughed. “Good prank. Come here, dearest,” patting the bed.
And Skenan went and sat to have her head pulled and yanked into a ribbed snake which was then wrapped up into a dense nest at the back of her skull. The hair arrangement felt unnaturally heavy and the pins scraped her scalp. She suddenly even more irrationally and deeply craved the soft folds of her own hair draped about her, bushiness and all. It was a bush. It was a glorious forest of hair! Her own. Protecting, soft. A cape of authenticity without device.
Fidelity finished a tight knot and swooped down and planted a kiss on the white part of Skenan’s hair.
“You are my dear one,” she said, “and I just want your good. And that is true love.”
Skenan’s brain felt off-balance as she stood: unnaturally heavy, her center of gravity shifted.
“Are we going to market today?” she asked, wobbling to one side.
“That we are.” Fidelity pocketed a slender book of litanies and smiled creamily.
Skenan hated market day. It brought back too many memories. Her hands used to be so good at slipping peaches and rolls into her apron pockets. She probably could still do it, if she wanted to. These were parts of her that Fidelity didn’t even know.
But now she had copper in her pocket. The two girls walked through the Moguncoy square, filled with hushed snow, but the venders were still there, hopping from foot to foot, rubbing their hands. Fidelity held the market basket tightly over her arm and bought multiple heads of fish, a poor man’s diet. Skenan stayed away and loitered by the hot-house flower cart, tenderly caressing the satin lips of the orchids. Then she looked up and realized that she had fallen far behind her friend. She skipped to catch up with Fidelity, who was marching toward the cabbage heads.
Fumbling through the crowd, Skenan saw three girls, of her own social status, walking along, linked arm-in-arm, sucking on sugar sticks. They looked like plumaged Caribbean birds on that wintery New England green, and Skenan’s eye was immediately drawn to them. They had as little money as the Linmoors, but they were brightly, though not expensively, dressed. Their skin was flawless and fair. They wore butterflies and roses on their hats. They even wore bobbling earrings! The girls nodded at her as they passed, but otherwise the rainbow-colored flowers were in a world of their own, of which Skenan was not a part.
Fidelity was neither - and she never had been. It was such an agonizing puzzle to Skenan. Now, she personally thought that Fidelity Linmoor was a storybook princess. She had curls spun of gold, and paper-thin, translucently pale skin. But her ears… she did have unnaturally large ears, of which she never spoke but seemed embarrassed, for she hid them partially with her hair, always. And she perpetually dressed in the harsh colors of a storm-dashed cliff. How transformed she would have been, Skenan believed, in a conch shell pink dress! But Fidelity never allowed herself this, and often turned the mirrors to the wall. Still…perhaps she could give some Skenan uplifting, spiritual advice.
She found Fidelity frowning over cabbages and holding one up with brown spots. She finally basketed two heads.
As they turned to go, Skenan whispered, “I just passed Ivy, Violet, and Belle. Sometimes I wonder, Fidelity,” she spilled out her confession painfully, “why I do not belong with them. Am I not beautiful?"
Her friend, who was attempting to keep the fish separated from the cabbages by creating a paper barrier, suddenly looked up with scorching eyes.
“I’m ashamed of you,” she said.
Skenan was taken aback.
“How could you even ask - or think of - such a question? I’m ashamed for you!”
Then she turned back to her fish heads.
As they traveled along the road, Skenan walked next to Fidelity, the words darting through her brain like spots of fire.
At first she interpreted them in good faith. She thought Fidelity was speaking in jest, by soundly scolding Skenan for questioning her own beauty: “Of course you are beautiful!” she heard in the vigorous lash.
But then she realized that Fidelity was reprimanding her for thinking of her own beauty in the first place. Vanity of vanities. Skenan hung her black head and toed the slush with her boots. She wanted to be anywhere but walking back to that white farmhouse.
She woke up in the freezing garret the next day, as a furious orange sunrise was smudging the sky. She still felt suffocated and ashamed. She again felt the ache, the engulfing need to go down to the lake. She couldn’t not. She didn’t care.
She was even aware that she would see the Negro boy. In that moment, she did not know why she entertained the possibility of his presence in her life briefly; he was not handsome like Paul and she knew she would never think he was. And - he was not of her kind. He was the frightening color of the night. He had tightly curling brown hair, a broad nose, and skin the color of soft tan calfskin.
She thought of this as she drifted over the snow of the lake, and then, as if he had materialized from her thoughts, saw him walking, whistling, towards the center rock. She turned her back, but he called,
She skirted around to face him. She briefly raised her mittened hand. She did not know what forces were at work in her - courtesy or desperation - but for some reason, she walked over to him.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” he said, relaxing himself into a seated position on the gray throne. “I was worried I scared you off,” without even a hint of worry in his voice. He sounded blithe and self-assured.
“Of course you didn’t scare me off,” she said tersely. Despite her lack of physical courage, she always denied she was afraid. She never allowed others to think she was capable of such weakness: even if it would be an accusation from her own murderer. “Why would I be scared?”
“Good,” he said, putting down his fishing pole. “Then maybe we can sit and talk. We have one thing in common already: we both love this lake. And I know who you are. You are Mr. Linmoor’s daughter. I’m his farrier.”
“I’m not his…well, yes. Skenandoa.” She did not like saying her name aloud to him. She felt he did not deserve such a gift.
“I’m Lucius Clarence. How-do.” He cocked his head in a mock nod. “So now we’ve got introductions out of the way…I’m excited to talk as merrily and freely as snowbirds with you. About this lake…and life.”
This was the most forward manner in which anyone had ever addressed her, and it both annoyed her and piqued her curiosity. She was so tired of the sameness of life. She decided, in a brief flash, that it would be alright to flirt with danger. Just for the moment. She still did not know if he was safe or not: she felt like he was a lithe panther, but whether a beast of a menagerie or wilderness, she did not know. She was so unhappy, she felt reckless, even to the point of self-destruction.
“Alright, but we must walk back to my house,” she said, figuring that it was safest in case he tried anything: she would be closer to home. She felt like she was dancing on a knife-sharp edge, and she proceeded with interest in this new sensation, curiously observing the discomfort she felt in her mind and body. Experiencing a shift of being, even if negative, was necessary to her.
“As you like,” he said, picking up his pole again. “Need to feed those chickens?” he asked.
She could see his tone was teasing, and she couldn’t help it, but she smiled.
He set up a fast walk and she matched it easily; she enjoyed the vigor of the stride and unconsciously liked the fact that he did not dilute his gait for her.
“I come down here when I am troubled and need to be refreshed again,” he confided. “The early morning is the best time, because no one is around. The trees and the snow right my mind. The fish are the best listeners to my problems. I always get good advice - delivered on the wind, almost, from an unseen source.”
He seemed to continue as he had begun: quite frankly and intimately, and everything about it spoke against her religious upbringing with the Linmoors. It shocked her. Interactions between a man and a woman were to be distant in the beginning, and if they spoke at all, the content for quite some time was to be light and detached, upon elevated subjects such as the spring weather or the Sunday homily. These were holy conversations in which Skenan felt safe and comfortable. It was how she conversed with Paul. She had been conditioned to find them reassuring and pleasant.
But there was something brisker, hotter, in Lucius’ way of talking that pushed past conventions. She could not tell if he was wicked or simply ignorant. She ascribed it to those two explanations only, for she could find no other reason for why he would side-step the usual dance of male-and-female interactions. She again observed her reactions with curiosity. She felt discomfort.
She answered, “I come down here for similar reasons,” vaguely. Her feminine reticence was not willing to offer more information.
“I thought as much,” he said. “No one would do it, otherwise. And you must have good cause to, as well.”
What did that mean? she thought, in a brief flash of fury.
Home was very close - she could see the square house through the woods - and she planned on summarily dropping his acquaintance as soon as she stepped over the border of her property. In fact, she knew she would never be friends with him again because of his soft brown skin and wide nose.
“I like to think, is all,” she said.
“Me, too!” heartily. “There’s no greater medicine for troubles. A dose of thinking and I’m back on my right path.”
She had just needed stimulation, and was sad and empty enough to be precarious. She took in their interaction as one would take a drop of dew from a pine down one’s neck: discomforting, disturbing, distressing; but bracing and awakening. She used him terribly in this way, for her own need and entertainment and distraction from her existence.
But it had been enough and she was done. She was safe.
And just then, before they reached the border, she slipped on the slushy root of a pine, and he caught her and shattered her earthly security.
“Be careful!” he pleaded.
“I’m alright, thanks,” she said, pulling her palm away quickly. (She could not believe she had let his dirty skin touch hers. For once she should have been a lady and worn gloves!)
He apparently thought this was a - dangerously - intimate moment, because he took the opportunity to ask softly, glancing up at the white house, “Do you find it hard?”
“Do I find what hard?” She had lost her need for him; she thought he meant walking in galoshes; she only thinly veiled her impatience. She only had to step past this big pine tree to be on her family’s land.
"You know - not being one of them."
She flicked her head to one side.
“I didn’t mean to phrase it like that. I mean, do you feel like they treat you differently at all?”
"Everyone treats me perfectly well.”
“Oh, that’s grand. I thought maybe it’d be hard for you. It is for me.”
“I really don't know what you are talking about."
“But…you are like me, aren’t you? That’s one of the main reasons why I thought we could talk.”
“No.” Her heart swelled with indignation. “My surname is Duquois,” she said. “I am pure-blooded French. Skenandoa is a French name.”
He smiled ironically. “Parlez-vous français, n'est-ce pas?”
“Well, if Mr. Linmoor took more care with your education you would know easily that ‘Skenandoa’ is not a French word.”
“Of course it’s not: it doesn’t…mean…anything in French.” Now Skenan’s confidence was shaken. She fished for greater authority in her voice. “‘Skenandoa’ is thought to be a river or obscure town in France. My parents probably knew it, but no one else here in America does.” She squared her shoulders and dared him to defy her. It was like her subconscious was speaking, being woken up, and she was fighting with blood and nail to silence some wild bird in a cage deep inside of her that wanted to be free.
“My dear,” he said sympathetically. He reached out and gently touched her rope of black hair. She flinched backwards at his touch.
“Or should I call you ‘my deer’?” he smiled.
“You have no right to take familiarities,” she said. The more frightened she got, the angrier her voice sounded. “Especially when I am alone like this. Good morning!” She began to walk away.
“I’m sorry; you’re right - I’m sorry. I’m only trying to tell you - Now just wait a moment and listen, Skenan, and then I won’t bother you anymore! I promise. Just listen. Do you know these words? - Kit anamikon Mani -”
A strange lyricism began to float in the snow-stilled forest, and against her will, Skenan slowed her tracks and listened. It was like the golden glow of the orange lake was speaking to her on the wings of meaningless sounds.
“Weckineckagoian kittiwake oniciciiwewin, Kije Manito ki mamawiitim, kakina endatciwatc ikwewak kin awacanmenj ki kitcitwawinigo, gaie kitcitwawina Jesos ka anicinabewiitisotc kiiawing.”
Now the clicking rhythm filled the forest air as if the trees themselves had birthed the words from their very roots, ceaseless and ancient. Something inside her subconscious woke up and was stretching and biting deep in her soul to be freed at his words. She fought it with all she had, to the last dregs of her guts and bones.
“Kitcitwa Mani, kije Manito wekwisisimate gaganotamawicinam neta patatiang, nongom gaiae wi nipoiang gaganotamawicinan. Kekona ki ingi.” He paused and looked to see if any recognition lit in her face. “That pattern should be familiar to you.”
“No, it isn’t familiar at all,” she laughed. “I’m sorry. I have got to go feed the chickens. Good morning.”
“Good morning,” he said, and watched her trip off, her lines looking utterly childish in her chosen oblivion.
Suddenly something was torn out of him. “Wait!” he called after her.
She turned reluctantly.
He had to tell her, come what may. “Skenandoa,” he called. “Your name is Iroquois. I don’t know what that means for you, but that’s what it is.”
She looked at him stupidly, and with great dullness, said,
“No, ’tis French.”
“It really isn’t,” he maintained. “It’s the farthest thing from French there is. And it’s beautiful. Perfect for you, I’d say.”
She shook her head, and her voice sounded strange.
“Perhaps ’tis a nonsense word. Perhaps my parents were creative. Perhaps ’tisn’t French at all.”
“Last summer I trapped with Frenchmen and Huron. I learned both languages - not fluently, but well enough. I love words. And ‘Skenandoa’ means deer.”
She was very silent.
“It is very obvious to me that you’re part-native, Skenan. And you would’ve been told this had anyone had any brains around here to see it - or the grit to tell you. Like as not they all know and consider it a dirty trick fate played on you and have been trying to iron the Indian out of you ever since -”
Before her mind could process the phrase, “You’re a native,” all she could think of what he had said about the Linmoors, and her heart exploded.
“Don’t talk like that,” she said, stung to her first command ever given in her life. It was an accusation against the only people in the world who loved her. She stumbled backwards in the snow, her heart heaving. “How dare you talk about them like that! You don’t know my family.”
“Ask them,” he persisted. “See what they say. Just ask them. Tell them to show you the birth record.”
“I have to feed the chickens - you don’t know what you’re talking about. This name means nothing - names mean nothing -”
Now he seemed nervous: her reaction was so intense. “But it’s a beautiful thing if you’re native, Skenan,” he called out after her. “It’s - wait, Skenan -”
She had turned and ran.
When she reached the sanctuary of the saltbox, she found no one in the attic.
In the empty, purple shadows, the garret became strangely her own, then, as if the potent entity of Fidelity never existed at all. She fingered her rough rope of black hair and looked in the mirror pensively for a very, very long time.
The only thing her brain could think of was, “I belong in the lower lot like Lucius,” and,
“So this is why I love the woods.”
Separated from the visceral threat of the Negro, she accepted the fact of her patronage without question. She knew it. And thus that rude and wild thing in the cage was freed: it broke out, tearing, yawing, cawing, its wings flashing black and orange, and flapping around her heart, beating its wings against her ribcage. It felt good to be this stirred up, this alive.
After that, she looked at her face in the mirror a lot. Instead of hating it and hating herself, she found, against her will, to…sort of…enjoy not identifying with the Linmoors. She had always felt different and now she had the relief of a reason, without having to explain herself or draw lines in the sand on spirituality or dogma or modesty or passion. She did not even have to risk sending her soul to hell. She could just concretely and simply say she was not of their kind. - Not that she told the Linmoors: she kept it as a precious secret, and wondered at it in her own heart, increasing the hours before the mirror even more.
Very soon, one morning, without really even considering an alternative, she purposefully got up, as the sun was unfolding itself from a bed of winter briars. She went down the hill to the lake, and there he was.
She found him sitting on the rock in the middle of the frozen body of water, his cap on his head and no mittens on his hands. He saw her and waved before their voices could even touch. When she came close enough, she noticed how softly his skin glowed as he grinned. “Stand away from the hole,” he said. “I knew you’d be back.”
“Are you always that overconfident?”
“Often,” he said.
“So I know you’re right,” she said, beginning immediately. “About me being native. It’s true without a doubt.”
“And how do you feel about that?” he asked tenderly. He made eye contact with her, more than Paul ever did.
She was not so advanced, though. She kicked the snow and looked up at the cream-colored sky, tinged with orange and pink, like a woman’s first blood. “I feel different,” she said, wondering how these confessions were coming out of her, so cleanly, so wholly. This was how men and women were supposed to talk, she thought. “But I always did. And now I feel…sort of…happy to be different.”
“I’m glad for you,” he said. “Maybe now you can find some peace,” he said. “Maybe now you won’t need the lake.”
“I’ll always need the lake,” she contradicted. “Everyone who is alive needs such a thing. And maybe my troubles are just beginning.”
“No. No!” he shook his head. “Say they are ending. Why create distress for yourself? Why call it into being?”
“Because I see…” But her newly-blossoming spirit was duly fading, and she closed up her thoughts and clamped them shut. “I don’t know. I just see problems ahead. …Anyway.” Her words trailed off. “They don’t like me gone long. I’d better go.”
“Ah. I see what you mean,” he said softly.
It just came out of her mouth one night. They had been brushing their hair together. Static was in the air and Skenan felt the intimacy of their shared femininity. It was intoxicating. The night was cool and they were wrapped in afghans. Skenan was on the bed, her sister-friend at the vanity. On impulse, she said,
“Fidelity, I am Iroquois. Did you know?”
“So you did not know?”
“Of course not.”
“You couldn’t tell by looking at me?”
“I never saw a half-breed before. I thought you were just what a French person looked like. But, Skenan…it doesn’t mean anything. You are still a child of God. It makes no difference. Don’t worry. Though…it does seem to account for some of your…well, why you sometimes seem to act differently than you say.”
She felt stabbed. “I…I always try to be consistent.”
“Well, yes, of course. Then,” she laughed affectionately, “it accounts for your oddities. You know,” she said practically, awkwardly reaching over and patting her friend’s knee.
Skenan winced. But somehow she laughed and said, “Yes, I know.”
“You can feel better about that.” Her voice was soothing. “Because I know you sometime say you feel unwomanly or unnatural. Now you can understand the reason better. It’s in the blood.”
Skenan paused and then braved something. “What about Kateri Tekakwitha?”
“Exactly,” gloated Fidelity. “See what the redemption of God can do?”
Then the snows melted and the rivers rushed and the crocuses split the ground with their purple hair and orange tongues. Skenan and Lucius began to seek each other out more and more. They purposefully haunted the same paths and met often in the woods, now that they could not walk to the middle of the lake.
“I don't know what to do, Lucius," Skenan said one day, barely able to speak the words aloud, for the guilt she felt. “I don't see how I can continue a relationship with her.”
“With whom? Fidelity?”
“Because...it's like we're both looking at the same stars, but she's telling me my telescope is small and bad. She does it over and over.”
“So? What does it matter what she thinks?” He lay back with his hands under his head, comfortably, not feeling her tragedy. They were by a stream that fed the mouth of Maspenock.
“It does matter. You don't know her.”
“She shouldn't have that kind of effect you.”
“It's not my fault! Her opinions are so strong. You don't know her.”
“Then you're going to stay stuck,” he shrugged.
Skenan was angry.
“Look, Skenan. I've seen her. She looks like a nice girl. A sweet girl. But she sounds like a pious prig to me.”
“She's not! She's not. Don't think of her like that. She's not, I swear. She's loving and kind and understanding, and oh-so-wise. I've never known a better girl.”
“You can be all those things and still be a pious prig. I don't know why you think they're mutually exclusive. Jumping Geronimo.”
“You're still under their spell.”
“You know I don't like talking about them.”
“Because you're still so loyal. Under their thumbs.”
“They are the kindest people I have ever known in my life.”
“You owe them nothing.”
“Lucius! I owe them my life, practically. They saved me when I was starving. You don't know what that's like.”
“Mayhaps they saved your body, but that doesn't mean you owe them your soul.”
“No, I was starving in other ways, too - for God, for love, for belonging. So, no. You become insulting and I get offended and we risk quarreling. So...don't.”
“Alright.” He leaned back and put his hat over his face. “Fold up your telescope, my lady.”
At that Skenan got up and walked away. Lucius jumped after her.
“What? Skenan, what?”
“I like talking openly with you, Lucius. But you can't talk to me like that.”
“I understand. I understand.”
“No, you don't. It makes me furious. It's just as bad as Fidelity.”
“Stab my heart! Why?”
“Because you're trying to fix me and save me and make me change. In a different way, but it's the same idea. So stop or I won't talk to you either. I can't abide by people trying to change me.”
“Skenan. Why can’t you say these things to her? Why can’t you talk to her like you’re talking to me right now? You’re brilliant! Shining!”
“You don’t know her. So don’t press the subject anymore.”
“Alright. Alright. I won't.”
“Really, Skenan. I promise. I do want you to feel like you can talk freely to me…like you can’t to her. No judgments here at least, alright? No judgments.”
She paused...smiled...and sank down on a rock.
“So, now... how about you tell me about Fidelity's telescope? Or how you first met the Linmoors? Or even about your own glorious, luminous stars. I'm listening. I’m listening.”