New Beginnings

February 1, 2009
I didn't fit in here. Anyone could see it; they wouldn't have to belong to this tribe. Just the way people here looked at me would give it away. Not curious, inquisitive looks, but scathing, scornful looks that burned the back of my head as I tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone. Did these people honestly think I wanted to be here? If I had a choice, I would be on my own, but even I wasn't na've enough to believe I could last in the forest for very long. I was stuck here, practically a prisoner. The women I worked with watched me discreetly. While we ground grain for flour, they would periodically glance over to me, looking away quickly if I caught them watching. When we harvested roots they kept close to me, not letting me get more than three or four trees away before following me or calling me back. At night when we ate, I pretended not to notice the eyes that flitted over to me where I sat in the shadows, checking to make sure I was still there. True, at least I wasn't confined to the camp in a tent; at least I could be somewhat free. I wasn't sure which option was better.

I had been here for two weeks, and still it was surprising to wake up without my brother and sisters beside me. Although it was just my mother looking after my younger siblings and me, she managed pretty well, keeping a balance between village and family. As I grew up, I helped to care for my two sisters and one brother, taking over chores like bathing them and making sure that they ate their roots before their honey. Now that I was here I had no one, and I was shifted from home to home, as if I was a vile rodent no one wanted to keep for long. This night, fourteen days from when I came, I was in a small, cramped tent on the very edge of the camp. I huddled against the worn walls and peered through a gap in the leaves in the ceiling. The one thing that gave me comfort was the way the stars always looked the same; from when I was a young girl lying out late at night with my father, to now when I was alone in an unfamiliar village.

Itzel leaped among the dense undergrowth, her tiny hands stretching upward to grasp at the butterfly drifting lazily above. It seemed to know that there was no chance she could catch it, and was just taunting her with its bright colors.

"Gene!" she cried excitedly. "Butterfly!" she grabbed my hand and pulled me along with her, following the faint path along the forest floor. I laughed easily, the sound flowing freely from my lips and ringing through the trees. I grabbed my brother's hand to make sure he kept up with us. I didn't mind going deeper into the forest, for today my father was returning home and I was anxious to see him. I knew if we followed this trail, eventually we would run into his hunting party. I smiled to myself, thinking of how tonight, after we had finished preparing the meat they had gotten, we would lay out under the stars. He would point out the constellations and tell me their stories. Now, I felt energy rush through my limbs as I ran with my siblings. After a few minutes, my brother, Agwe, started to complain he was tired. Itzel stopped only with the promise that we would find her butterfly later, and that I would find her some delicious berries. I glanced at the bushes around me, searching for berries,, when I heard footsteps. I froze for a moment, and then darted away from the path, hushing my siblings as I herded them ahead of me. Peering out from the branches of a large tree, I pricked my ears, listening intently. There was a group of people coming, and I prepared myself to run back to camp when I recognized the voices. It was my father's hunting party! Joyfully, I sprang out and rushed down the trail, anxious to see him. I reached the group and they started to see me.

"Father!" I cried, Itzel and Agwe echoing my calls. I looked from face to face in the group, eagerly searching for my father. I took in the solemn expressions of the group and nervously I counted them. They were one short. My father was missing. I looked around, expecting him to leap out from behind a tree to surprise me. Instead, I saw a man in the hunting group holding the shell and river stone necklace my father had, the one he never removed.
I awoke the next morning, still weary after a fitful sleep. Stiffly, I picked up the worn necklace beside me. I tied it onto my neck, feeling the smooth stones and chipped shells between my fingers. I crawled out of the tent to see the camp was still silent, a narrow tendril of smoke winding its way skyward from the ashes of last night's fire. I slipped quietly out of the camp into the forest, walking slowly in the pale morning light. I let my fingers brush against the leaves of the shrubs, absorbing the cool sweetness of the early day. I found my feet following a path I recognized, but not from my time here at this foreign camp. I quickened my pace slightly as I went down the trail from my childhood. My breath was catching as I wondered if it was still there, as if somehow it would be gone because life was so different. Now I was running down the trail, my bare feet ignorant of the pine needles that stabbed my toes, my face unaware of the swinging branching that whacked me. My lungs felt about to burst as I hurtled through the forest. Suddenly, I burst out into a clearing. I gasped in awe at its beauty, as I had always done when I was a young girl. Soft grasses grew in a small circle, its width the same as three times the height of a grown man. The circle was almost completely even, as though God has pressed his thumb here, leaving perfect features behind. Along one edge of the clearing was a small stream, laughing softly as it flowed though the grass. Wildflowers bloomed, their petals turned hopefully towards the sun, stretching upwards to the light. I sat down with a soft thump, reveling in the cheerful memories of this place. When I was a girl, I would come here with my mother and father and we would bring berries and deer meat. We would sit in the middle of the grass and enjoy our lunch, my father telling ancient stories from the elders while I laughed and gasped in the right places. My mother would sit quietly with a small smile on her face, her fingers absently combing through my hair. I smiled as I recalled this, feeling the muscles in my face move into a shape that was unfamiliar to me now. I don't know how long I was in the clearing, but when I looked up, the sun was almost directly overhead. I leaped up, racing back to the camp as fast as my feet would carry me, my smiles and memories left behind me.

I tried to enter the camp discreetly, but as I slipped out from behind a tent, a large hand gripped my arm. It was one of the strongest warriors in the camp, whose name I had not bothered to learn. His lips curled back angrily, exposing his yellow-tinged teeth.

"Where were you?" he snapped, his voice cutting against my ears. "Who did you talk to? What did you do?" I didn't reply, and instead tried to squirm out of his iron grasp, my fingers scraping uselessly against his hand. "Well?" he snarled, squeezing my arm tighter. I shook my head, still tugging vainly against his hold.

"Patience," said another voice, this one calm like clouds rolling across the sky. One of the village elders stepped up, and placed his hand gently on that of my captor, who grudgingly released me. The elder turned to me now, his pale grey eyes relaxed and peaceful; the deep waters of a great lake. "Now, Genesee, where did you go this morning?" I felt compelled to answer, as if he had caught my words in my throat and was gently pulling them out. "Just to a meadow I know'" I murmured; my voice barely audible.

"Did you see anyone?"


"Well then, I don't see any harm in you going, but next time you will need to be accompanied by one of us," the elder said.

"Yes," I said, my eyes trained on a wilted leaf near my foot. The elder slowly shuffled off and I stayed where I was, frozen, until I thought it safe to look up. When I did, however, I met the angry glare of the warrior's eyes, and I knew I would never be trusted here.
I sat in the stuffy tent, gently sponging the forehead of Agwe, trying not to notice his soft moans of pain. Itzel cried out in her sleep as she tossed and turned. I felt her head and sighed; her skin was still as hot as the coals of a raging fire, although it had been five days since the fever started. I reached over for my cloth and found it was almost as warm as she and my brother were. As I crawled out of the tent, I passed my mother who was trying to feed some soup to Tama, who had only seen six seasons.

"Any better?" I asked; my mother only shook her head. I walked slowly to the river and dipped my bowl into the icy water, wishing that it would make the burning of my siblings disappear. I wished desperately that my father was still here. I had wished that more times than there were stars in the sky. Since that fatal hunting trip, I had had to step up and take responsibility for Itzel, Agwe, and Tama, who was just newly born at the time. My mother had aged several years in these few seasons, her face becoming lined with worry and sadness. Now we had even more responsibilities, for over half our village was suffering from this unknown sickness. We had already lost an elder and a young boy to the illness. It seemed like more were getting sick every day. All of us were hungry and tired from the extra work nursing the sick, and few had time to gather and prepare food. I returned to the camp, my steps heavy with weariness, to hear cries of sorrow and despair. As I rushed into the village, my heart stopped in my chest, for my mother was standing in front of our tent, holding the small, limp body of Itzel. My face froze in disbelief as I watched this scene, as if I was standing from afar, and I did not know these people, as if this had nothing to do with me. I walked in a dream-like state to the tent, the water in the bowl sloshing down my shirt. As I stood and looked for the last time upon the soft face of my sister, I felt the first chilly breeze of what promised to be a hard winter.
I dug around in the moist soil, searching for the knobby roots that were used to make a gruel that gave energy to the warriors. I hadn't ventured away from the village since I had gone to the meadow. Instead, I had mainly worked in the camp, repairing tents, making bread, and preparing food for the rest of the tribe. However, today all of the women and even some of the men were out searching for roots and fruits. Many of the men were leaving tomorrow for the first great hunt of the year, and they would be gone for two weeks. It was our job to make sure they had enough provisions to last for at least part of that, so they could spend time hunting instead of foraging for their dinners. We had collected nearly ten basketfuls of roots and several small bags of berries. My fingers were sore from digging in the dirt and my back aching from being bent over all day. I heard the voices of the few still in camp calling us back to the village to finish preparing for the hunting trip. I grabbed a basket overflowing with roots and started walking back, trying to see around the massive mound of roots. Suddenly, my foot twisted out from beneath me as I stumbled in a rabbit hole. The roots flew everywhere and I fell to the ground, the dirt making dark stains on my clothes. As I scrambled to gather the roots, the other women kept walking past, not even sparing me a glance. One of them seemed to pause for a moment, as though considering helping me, then thinking better of it and moving on. Once they had all passed, I sighed and slowed with my root retrieving. By the time I had gotten to the camp, everyone else was already assembled in the center of the tents. As I drew closer, I realized that instead of excited chatter, I heard concerned murmurings. I held back, not wanting to attract glares and reproving looks, but then my curiosity got the best of me. I edged forward, craning my neck to see what they were looking at. Then my spine stiffened, my body went cold as I saw the pale, sickly form of a child who was no doubt infected with the same disease that had eliminated my village.
I was the only one who was still healthy. No one could figure out why. Some thought it was a sign that I was favored by fate; some saw it that it as misfortune for it seemed I would be left behind, alone. I thought my health had more to do with a mix of herbs I made rather than fate favoring me. I was no medicine man, but I had thought of a mix of herbs to relieve a sore throat, and I had taken this during the sickness as well. I used mint leaves, marigold, poppy seeds, and water-mint, mashed together in a thick pulp. I don't know if taking this was the reason I stayed healthy, or if it was because somehow I was immune to the disease, but soon after the sickness first came, I was the only one who had not been infected. No matter how much I begged my tribe members to, they refused to try my remedy. Our medicine man had assured them that the herbs would not make a difference, for he had tried everything and nothing was powerful enough to cure this illness. Instead, I just did what we had been doing; giving the sick some yarrow leaves to make them throw up in case it was something we ate, laying cool cloths on those with fevers, and preparing food for all. There were only a few others who were well enough to help me out. These were our strongest warriors who were the most resilient to the disease; however, they were becoming weaker as well.. I tried to take the time to pay my respects to the graves of my parents and sisters, but usually at night I was too exhausted to do anything more than collapse in my bed and try to sleep a little. By the halfway point of the winter after the disease came, over half of our village had died of the sickness, and all were infected. Some were only breaths away from death, though somehow they clung to life like a spider will cling to its web, even as it is washed away by a storm. I didn't know how we would be able to overcome this, or if we even could.

Spring arrived, but with its coming brought the passing of more of our village, leaving only five behind; five who were barely alive as it was, surviving only by the slimmest of chances and the shallowest of breaths. I tried to help them; no one could have tried harder. I did everything they asked of me and made sure that their clothes were fresh and their foreheads cool as much as possible. Despite my greatest efforts, it was not long before I was the only one left of my village. In less than one year, this disease, this unknown horror, had come upon us and taken lives away like they were fish in the river and this sickness was an otter. When I had paid my last respects to the graves of my tribe, I tried to swallow my tears and continue life. After a mere three days, I couldn't bear it and I ran into the woods. I kept running until my lungs felt like they would burst and my muscles shrieked in pain. I ran until I couldn't run any longer, and still I kept running until sometime, I collapsed, still running in my mind. It was then that this strange tribe, once our enemy, had found me and taken me. I knew I should be grateful. I should be glad that they had saved me, but instead I almost wished I had been with my tribe and was with them where they were now.
Once again, I changed my tactics. Instead of staying in camp, I did as much as I could away from it. I followed the hunting trip as far as I dared go. I spent all my time harvesting roots, nuts, and berries to build up our stores of those foods. I climbed trees and sat in the highest branches, the wind combing through my long hair. I did anything I could to avoid being in the camp and having to face the terrible sickness again. I knew what would happen now. This tribe didn't know it, but they were doomed to follow my village in the awfulness of this disease. I did not tell them this. I did not say a word. They did not ask me. They didn't speak to me. However, when the men returned from hunting two weeks later, I was forced to stay in camp and prepare the meats. I tried not to notice the grim, worried faces. I didn't see the thin, sallow child as he lay gasping for breath, and I didn't notice the other that had become infected. I kept my focus on cutting and salting the meat. After a day though, I couldn't stand hearing his moans and coughs. I knew that I had to do something, anything, to avoid it. I slowly began to edge away from the camp, moving inches at a time. Just when I was about to spring into the safety of the trees, I heard the soft voice of the kind elder, the one who called me by my name.

"Genesee, there is still work to be done. The meat must be preserved before it spoils," he said.
I nodded meekly, still hovering about the trees. He nodded and as he walked away, I again felt the urge to speak to him.

"I know how to make the sickness go away," I blurted out. I clapped my hand over my mouth in shock, for I had not been meaning to say anything. The elder turned, his pale eyes shimmering with curiosity and a spark of reluctant hope.

"How do you know this?"
I tried not to say too much or give anything away. I simply shrugged and said,

"I just had an idea'"

"Show me," he said, his voice like the fluttering of moths' wings. I felt my feet move of their own accord; my hands picked the plants I needed without any contact with my brain. I moved in an almost surreal way as I made the remedy I had thought of so long ago. The elder watched me, his eyes narrowed in interest as he watched my progress. When we returned to the camp, he led me straight to where the sick were kept. I heard anxious murmurs and as I tried to enter the tent, an arm blocked my way. I looked up to see the mother of the infected boy in front of me. She stood in front of the tent entrance, her face set in a determined frown.

"She cannot come in," her voice was hard and cold. "My son does not need her to make him worse." I heard noises of agreement around me and I stayed where I was, not sure where to go. The elder spoke over the anxious murmurings.

"I will be with her and I assure you she means no harm. If she did, I would know and she would not be even close to this camp, let alone the tent." His voice, which was so gentle, had a firmness to it that seemed to calm all of the tribe. He led me into the tent where the three who were infected were. My hands shook to be so near to this disease again. I carefully knelt down, and with an approving nod from the elder, slowly spooned some of my herb mixture into the boy's mouth. He spit it up at first, crying out, but slowly I managed to get him to swallow a good amount of the remedy. Then we waited.

At first it seemed that there was no improvement at all, but then we noticed that his coughs became weaker and his breaths became stronger. Each day there was a slight improvement, and I continued to administer my medicine. After almost two weeks had passed by, he was sitting up and chattering as normal. The other two who had been sick were almost entirely cured as well, a clinging fatigue the only sign of the sickness. I also noticed a change in the rest of the villagers. Now they would look me in the eye, and once a woman said "Genesee, could you hand me those seeds?" in a perfectly civil manner. I realized that by helping heal this illness, I had found my place in this strange tribe. I knew it would never truly be home to me, but I began to feel a sense of belonging among these foreign people. After all that I had been through, I knew with certainty that no matter what I would do here in this new village, my family and old tribe would always be watching me from their place in the stars.

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