by Darcie Little Badger
In the wikiup, I slept beside Twin Brother. His dreams had been vivid for some time, and he fought nightmares with punches. Unlike him, I did not – ever! – dream. To me, sleep was just a long blink, and that night, I emerged from blackness as fists drummed my upper arm. “Stop!” I said. Twin Brother was panicked breaths and stinging knuckles in the darkness.
“What?” he asked. “Sister?”
“You hit my arm.”
“Again?” He scooted away from me. “Sorry.”
“We need to build a wall between our mats. Bad dream?”
“Terrible dream. Terrible, terrible.”
I waited for him to continue. He always did.
“You ran away,” he said.
“Me? Why me? It should be you.” If Twin Brother ever married somebody, he would leave the camp to adopt his wife’s family: goodbye, friend! I dreaded the day he fell in love. With luck, Twin Brother would be pickier than Auntie. She turned away every gift her suitors offered.
“Listen,” he said. “During my dream, you met a witch man near the stream.”
“The drinking stream?”
“Yes. Sister, the witch man – he murdered you.”
Nearby, Baby Sister whined. When she was new, her cries, like breaths, were frequent and honest. Unfortunately, she learned cunning before her first words. That particular whine had been calculated to wake our parents. Baby Sister giggled as Mother said, “No more talking!”
“But, I dreamed that… ”
“Son, we all have nightmares.” She chuckled. “I might be having one now.”
Indeed, most people have nightmares, and most nightmares are just fantasy, but the elders say that spirits communicate with dreamers. In that way, they cause visions and make new shamans. How can somebody know the difference between a significant and insignificant dream?
Concerned, I chanced a whisper. “In your dream, how did he kill me?”
Twin Brother whispered back, “The witch man spoke. His words are poison.”
“What did he say?”
A pause. “I forgot that part.”
“If his words are really poisonous, you might be lucky.”
Baby Sister whined again, thus ending our conversation.
Morning slipped through gaps in the branch and grass wall beside my face, warming hair-fine patches of skin. My parents had already begun their daily routines outside; Baby Sister was also gone, since Mother carried her everywhere to thwart coyotes and other predators that enjoyed stealing children.
“Is she here yet?” Twin Brother asked without opening his eyes. He was wrapped in bison and deer skins.
“Any time now.”
“Get up, children!” As expected, Auntie ducked into our home, swatting the ground with a long, thin stick as she walked. “Little Girl, help me gather water. Dress properly this time.”
When Auntie and I last visited the stream together, I went barefoot, to quickly dip my naked toes in the water. On the way home, a pointed rock sliced my heel down the middle. I limped a few steps, water sloshing over the rim of my water jug before Auntie noticed my bloody footprints; she carried me home on her back and had to return later for both of our jugs.
To avoid further embarrassment, I slipped into high leggings, secured them below the knee with thin buckskin rope, and joined Auntie outside. Our camp consisted of five wikiups around a clearing. Green maple trees made shade under their densely leafy branches. Eight other families lived nearby; we all travelled together during the moving seasons, but I mostly knew the people in my small camp: Auntie, Mother, Father, Grandmother, Grandfather, Great-Grandfather, Big Sister and her husband, Twin Brother, and Baby Sister. My married uncles were strangers. I used to visit them and play with my cousins, but I grew older, new responsibilities left no time for play. It was lonely becoming a woman, although being a woman seemed anything but.
Auntie had dozens of friends. Near the cooking place, she joked with three of them, young women from neighboring camps. Their laughter stopped when I approached.
“How does your foot feel?” asked a woman with beautiful dark marks from her left cheek to chin. She was a storyteller, the best in our nine-family group, a local legend because of the legends she knew. Around her, I always felt like I had something to prove.
“Just fine. I can even hop like a rabbit. See?” The storyteller laughed when I jumped, and I blushed happily.
“No running or hopping necessary,” Auntie said. She handed me a woven, pitch-covered jug, which was wide at its middle and narrow near the top. “Quickly. We have a busy day planned. Grandfather’s wikiup needs repairs.”
As we crossed a well-used path through the forest, I lagged behind the others. Occasionally, Auntie slapped the ground with her stick and shouted, “Little Girl, stay close to us!” We travelled due west so she could observe my lanky shadow on the path beside her feet and determine, without turning around, when I’d straggled too far.
I was not slow because my foot still hurt (although it did sting, yes, because my hopping had reopened the gash). I lagged in order to eavesdrop on their raunchy jokes and stories about monsters, mistakes, and men. When I walked near the women, their conversation transformed into boring comments about the weather, as if I could not handle anything more scandalous than “It may rain soon.”
I would not completely join their sisterhood until after my puberty ceremony. During the ceremony, girls become adults who possess the strength and goodness of White Painted Woman, the mother of all people. Evil creatures fear her, and good creatures revere her. White Painted Woman is extremely wise, too, because she has lived countless lives. As she walks west, her body stoops with age, but before it crumbles, she is reborn in the east.
Despite their lack of maturity, many my age had already completed their coming-of-age ceremony; I was a late bloomer. It seemed unfair because my mind felt ready – beyond ready – to grow up. Frustrated, I made faces at Auntie’s back and imitated her distinctive swaying walk.
“Little Girl!” Auntie called. “Not funny.”
I'd forgotten about my shadow.
The trees thinned along the knee-deep stream. As I removed my leggings on the bank, Brother’s nightmare, his terror, made me cautious. I looked from side to side and listened for anything unnatural. Auntie and I had visited that spot hundreds of times over several years, and we never encountered danger.
Yet now and then, while eavesdropping on adults, I heard rumors that a witch man lived in the nearby mountains. Once a great shaman, he used the divine powers to murder, spoil food, and pelt the land with ice. His own family drove him into the wilderness.
“Have you ever seen a witch?” I asked Auntie.
“We should not discuss evil things without a very good reason.” Auntie gave me her jug and said, “Fill this, too.” Barefoot, I waded upstream, where the water was cleaner. Once the current carried away the disturbed silt and blood from under my foot, I began to fill the vessels.
A stick cracked near the bank. My seed bead necklaces rattled when I straightened, gasping with fear. A black doe approached the stream, her head bowing to drink. I had never seen such dark fur; it was nearly blue, like crow feathers. As the doe lapped thirstily, the blood from my foot injury resisted the current. A fine red tendril reached, instead, for her mouth.
“Little Girl! I saw a bad snake! Be careful!” Frightened by Auntie’s shout, the doe fled with explosive quickness. Why had the animal been so tame near me? Why had my blood reached to her? Sometimes, sacred animals visit people to bestow spiritual gifts. I impulsively drank from the cool stream, hoping to taste water from her muzzle, to become stronger, quicker, and more graceful. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you. Thank you!”
On the way home, with a heavy jug cradled in my arms, I wedged into Auntie’s group. “A sacred deer came to me. Did you see her? She had black fur and drew blood from my foot with magic. No, no, I can walk. The cut is shallower than it used to be.”
“Black like a shadow?” asked the storyteller. “Black like burnt wood? Black like the space between stars?”
“Yes! Do you know what it means?”
“People tell stories about white deer. Never black. Maybe the doe knows spirits. Maybe she is a spirit. Ask the shaman.”
“A spirit! I knew it! She blessed me!”
How quickly joy becomes sorrow. My brother-in-law came running down the path. “He Laughs With Birds has been injured!”
Twin Brother? His name was spoken so infrequently, I almost did not recognize it. Dropping the jug, I sprinted home. My heel burned with every slap against the hard earth. At camp, Mother and Grandmother knelt beside Twin Brother; he writhed and whined with pain. A lurid bruise darkened his skin from armpit to belly. Two boys, his play friends, waited nearby with their anxious-looking parents.
“What have you done?” I asked. “Brother!”
His mouth opened and closed, fish-like. Spit bubbled from the corner of his lips. “Fell. Hard … breathe.”
“Where is the healer?” Mother shouted.
“Help him!” I screamed. “What happened? Somebody tell me!”
“He was climbing a high tree,” one boy explained. His voice broke mid-sentence. “The branch snapped. He landed on a rock.”
The healer reached camp shortly, leaning on Father’s arm. She was Grandmother’s age and wore pouches over her buckskin skirt and top. After examining Twin Brother, she helped him drink water. “Carry him inside,” the healer said. “Make him comfortable.” Once Twin Brother had been moved from earshot, she continued, “The boy needs a powerful shaman. His life – his breath – cannot persist without healing rituals.”
“Can we do anything to help right now?” Mother asked.
“Yes. Put these herbs in his water.” The healer handed Mother a bundle of dry, fragrant leaves. “Be calm when you are near him. Fear makes injury worse.”
I tried to quiet my fear, but it would not stop speaking. To me, fear said, “He cannot breathe. He is dying. He will die.” They were bad thoughts, because to think about death invites it into the soul. I curled up outside the wikiup and closed my eyes. Sleep could take away those dangerous thoughts, yet it would not come. Auntie sat beside me and patted my back with her calloused hand. She used to cradle me when I cried as a baby. Mother had been overwhelmed by Twin Brother and me, since we had arrived at the same time, so Auntie mothered me instead, carrying me on her back until I walked, teaching me crafts, and punishing me when I did mischief. Now, she said, “Be hopeful; the shaman is coming. We have many chores to finish now. Come with me, Little Girl.”
We fixed Great-Grandfather’s wikiup, gathered edibles from the forest, and prepared the late meal. Whenever I felt like visiting Twin Brother, I worked harder instead because my thoughts were so troubled; they would surely poison him and make things worse. The shaman arrived that afternoon, sooner than expected. After she went into the wikiup, I could hear her chanting over Twin Brother in that half-recognizable language shamans speak when they channel magic. I pressed my ear against the outer wall to better eavesdrop. “I eased his pain,” the shaman said.
“Will he recover soon?” Grandmother’s voice.
“Evil magic spoiled my healing spells. A witch must have cursed this poor child. A powerful witch. I can do no more.”
Auntie pulled me away. “What did they say?” she asked.
“There is nothing to be done.”
We went to the other side of camp, where the dogs sleep and chew their bones. Big and Loud came to us with tucked tails and put their heads under our hands. “He can survive this,” Auntie said, more to herself than me. I made sounds of agreement and pet Loud’s gray brow, thinking: Can he really? Can I help?
It came to me at once: the solution. If a witch cursed Twin Brother, I had to kill the witch.
Normally, even finding one person in the wilderness would challenge an exceptional tracker, but the spirits had given me a gift. Through Twin Brother’s dream, they told me where and when I could find the witch man. At night. At the stream.
By sunset, the shaman had departed. Mother told me that Baby Sister and I would sleep next to Auntie that night. “Can I see Brother first?” I asked.
“Yes. He wants to see you, too.” Mother did not look at my face, as if it hurt her eyes, like the sun.
In our wikiup, which smelled of potent herbs that made my head spin, Twin Brother lay on his back, uncovered from the waist up. He breathed with quick, shallow gulps. The bruise had spread and darkened; a shadow was devouring his body. “Bad day,” he whispered. “Still hurts, but I feel better than … during landing.”
When I sat beside him, Twin Brother held my hand. His fingers felt cool. Whether that was good or bad, I could not decide. Heat, like breath, is a sign of life, but too much heat can be unhealthy, too. “Tomorrow,” I said, “you will recover. I promise.”
His purplish lips tightened subtly: a smile.
“I promise,” I repeated. “Dream about pleasant things tonight. No punching the air.”
He squeezed my hand. “People cannot choose their dreams.” His voice, so improbably quiet, might have been nothing but his moving lips and my imagination.
“I know. Try anyway.”
That evening, I hugged each person in camp. While preparing for sleep, I told Auntie, “Will you take care of Baby Sister?”
“What do you think I am doing now?” She wrapped my sister in warm blankets and handed her to Grandmother.
“I mean always.”
Auntie looked at me for a long time, as if something about my question bothered her. At last, she said, “Yes, I will take care of your baby sister. I will also take care of your brother and your grown sister and you. Always. Go to sleep.”
After the camp became silent, except for our faithful crickets, I sneaked outside and grabbed the bundle of warm clothes I’d hidden behind a maple tree, along with father’s wooden club, Auntie’s walking stick, and Mother’s skinning knife. The knife I slipped into my belt. The club I carried in my right hand, its dense weight comforting. Big and Loud stirred, tails wagging, as I passed them into the forest. “Protect the family,” I whispered. Protect me, too, I wanted to say. Scare away the dangers that live among shadows. Unfortunately, this journey had to be solitary. In Brother’s dream, I ran away alone.
I used Auntie’s walking stick to feel the path from camp to stream, effectively blind in the wan moonlight. Along the way, fear did become louder, but it never screamed like my sorrow. Anyway, I never believed that Twin Brother's death was inevitable, just probable. The spirits would not give him a prophetic dream if our tragedies could not be stopped. Luckily, I had surprise on my side, unless the witch man also knew the future.
Near the stream, under uninterrupted moonlight, details emerged from the forest. I put Auntie’s stick on the ground, crouched, and approached the bank on all fours. Something splashed nearby. Nearly on my belly, I looked toward the sound; there, across the stream, a bear pawed at the water. “Go back into the forest,” I whispered.
The bear – no, not a bear – stood, face falling back, skin parting, revealing a wizened man. The witch! How could I contend with this powerful, wicked man? Even most shamans would not tread in a bear’s footsteps, much less wear his hide.
I could still have run. A stream separated us, and he did not know the path home like I did. Yes, if I ran, I might survive.
“Are you lost?” he asked. His voice sounded deep and rough. “Are you hurt? I see you, Child. I see very well at night.”
He made no move to approach.
Run. Just get up, turn, and run.
I thought of Twin Brother. If I survived the night, but lost him in the morning, how could I enjoy another day?
“I came here for you,” I said. “My brother is a brave, kind boy. Please, remove your curse.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My brother!” I almost spoke Twin Brother’s name, but names hold incredible power, power the witch might exploit. “The shaman knows that you cursed him. She told my family everything.”
He chuckled. “I understand now. Your brother is sick? The shaman came? She told you, ‘A witch has cursed him.’ Is that what happened?”
“Go home. Nobody cursed your brother. Sometimes, bad things happen. A person cannot live a full life without sadness.”
“The shaman …”
“The shaman is impotent. Do you understand? The spirits do not give her any healing power. I guarantee that she takes credit when her patients recover and gives me credit when they die.”
How could he speak of death so freely? I stood from my crouch. “I know that you lie! Before his accident, Twin Brother had a dream. In the dream, I met you here and … and then … I cannot say it. Remove your curse!”
He turned, and I no longer saw the man under the bear skin. “I will not accept blame,” he said, “for all the grief on Earth. Go home, and grow up.”
“Do not leave!” I raised Father’s club and charged across the stream. The witch threw off his bear hide and lunged at me: we met in the water. As I brought the club down, he grabbed my wrist, squeezing so hard that the weapon fell from my numb fingers and landed beside us with a splash. I could see his chest – in fact, it was the only thing I saw. He wore bear claws around his neck, and their blood-stained tips dangled over a crescent-shaped scar, as if they often cut his skin
“I can heal your brother,” he said.
I stopped fighting.
“There will be consequences,” he continued.
“The world is balanced. When my patron spirit gives, He must also take. It is the first lesson I learned from Him.” The witch released my aching hand. “I asked for His gifts too often. Tragedies followed His favors. I took fever from an infant. The mother died instantly. I blessed the land with plentiful deer. The mescal shriveled that year. So many tragedies. My own family turned their backs on me. 'You must be a witch,' they said. Yet they still begged me for help. Do you understand? I can heal your brother, but the consequences may be worse.”
“To save Brother’s life, what will your spirit take?”
“I do not know.” He stepped back. “I never know.”
I knew. “My life. Twin Brother saw it in a dream. Please.”
“What do you dream?” he asked.
He laughed in a way that resembled shrill sobs, the kind people make when they are surprised by tragedy, the kind my mother made as she knelt over Twin Brother and screamed for a healer. “I thought so,” he said. “Some spirits give dreams. Ours devours them.”
“His power is neither bad nor good. Use it judiciously. I wish that I had been wiser when I was your age. Many people have regrets like mine. It is inevitable, because only White Painted Woman can become younger again by walking west and returning from the east. The rest of us walk west until we fall beneath age, no chance to try life again. It seems that my time to fall is nearly here, and you will walk in my footprints. Our spirit has seen to that. What is your name?”
“Many Questions,” I said, afraid that defiance would hurt Twin Brother. “It has been my name since I could speak.”
“Many Questions, your brother will recover.”
Without another word, the man retreated under his bear hide and returned to the forest. A question made me heavy with anxiety, so heavy I nearly collapsed in the water: if not me, then who gave her life for Twin Brother?
Somebody screamed behind my head, up the trail from camp to stream. It sounded like a child’s cry. I ran to help the victim without a stick to guide me and tripped over a large body sprawled across the ground. My hands felt silky fur beneath them. It was the deer, the shadow-black deer, now dead. She must be the messenger of that not-good-not-bad spirit who gives and takes equally, the spirit who gave me my brother in exchange for my service.
“Thank you. Forgive me.” I took Mother’s skinning knife from my belt to take the doe’s hide, no doubt a grave sin, but necessary for me to become a vessel for the dream eater. I could not reject the spirit’s gift and risk regretting my decision later, during a truly desperate moment.
Twin Brother – his dream – had been right. Something died in the drinking stream that night. A child entered the water, and a woman emerged, no wiser than she used to be, no stronger, but her burden immeasurably heavier.
As the doe’s blood spilled over me, I honored her sacrifice by chanting in a language that was not my own.
Darcie Little Badger is a graduate student scientist, dancer, and speculative fiction writer. She lives in Texas with one dog and many books. Her previous work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Vignettes from the End of the World, Dark Eclipse, and Fiction 365. She blogs sporadically at https://darcielittlebadger.wordpress.com/
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
My stories usually metamorphose as I'm writing. For example, "The Girl Turns West" was originally about a UFO. The less said about that, the better. However, I became intrigued by Many Questions' coming-of-age and its connection with her budding spiritual powers, so I scrapped the original plot and wrote a new story.