Her name is Aurora Little Bear. When she pushed herself out of her mother’s womb, old Lily Paul caught her. Lily’s strong brown hands were calloused from work, veins popping with excitement. She washed her and wrapped her in a flannel blanket while she sang Aurora her Indian name. Lily held her up and breathed the name into her, mouth to mouth. Lily’s own song entered Aurora’s breath and it settled there. It would always remind her of who she was born to be.
From her bed her mother, Lucy Little Bear, watched without speaking. Then Lily cut the cord that attached Aurora to her mother, and even as an infant, she rejoiced.
Lily let the umbilical cord dry for several weeks hidden in a place that only she knew. Then she wrapped it in a red cloth and deerskin. She carried it into the bush and buried it near a split rock in a balsam grove. Behind our cabin. Lily spat on the spot seven times to protect it from being discovered by animals or anyone who would want to harm Aurora. That is how she was planted in this place and that is why she returns today. Lucy, her mother, and Lily have walked on and left Aurora to tell our stories.
When she was just a few months old, Lucy and Lily knew it was time to move back to the village at Northpoint. Spring came on with rain and sleet and we knew the mud would soon be too deep to travel. We had to get out while the earth was still frozen and could slide our belongings on makeshift sleds. Lily cut up the wooden table that we had eaten on all winter and nailed sides to it from scrap wood, then she attached runners made from a pair of old skis.
Lily was skillful. When we needed something, she made it. Lucy wrapped Aurora in several layers of clothes then swaddled her in wool blankets and tied the baby across her chest.
When she got too heavy to carry, Lucy put her on the sled surrounded by rabbit skins and more blankets. Lily wore her long woolen coat and a green shawl wrapped around her throat and neck. On her head she wore a red felt hat.
The journey was not easy. We got caught in a spring snowstorm and had to spend the night in the bush even though we were only a few miles from the village. Lily insisted that it was too dangerous to travel in the dark. Lily had night vision and Lucy trusted her advice. We bedded down in a cedar grove as deer do when they cannot travel in deep snow; spread a heavy tarp that covered the sled on cedar boughs cut from the trees. Then we layered it with blankets and kept warm huddled together under the moonlight. The moon hung yellow that night.
At dawn we continued on to Northpoint. When we arrived we went immediately to St Anne’s Church where we knew the Jesuit nuns, who were early risers, would give us food. We had no place to live. We stayed with the nuns for a few days until the Mother Superior contacted tribal officials about our return.
The tribe gave Lucy a trailer in a park called “Hollywood” and assigned Lily to the elderly housing apartment complex. Lily was not happy about the plan to separate her from Aurora. She had become attached to the child and Aurora to Lily.
“What the hell is all the fuss about?” Lily asked. “I’ll just shack up with Lucy and Aurora in the trailer.” But as close as they were, Lucy did not want Lily to live with them. She wanted time alone with her baby and hoped that Aurora’s father would find us.
“It’s time for Aurora and I to have our own place now, besides, at the elderly you can get meals and live the easy life,” Lucy told Lily.
But Lily wanted no part of the easy life. She was crushed and hurt by Lusy’s words. She was also angry with her. Lily turned away and walked outside to get some air. She had no choice. She knew that if she tried to return to the cabin in the bush her legs would not carry her and she would die on the trip there. She wanted to die in the cabin but she did not want to die alone on the trail.
Lily hated the smell of the elderly center. It smelled of stale tobacco, urine and death. She had never lived with electricity, running water or central heat. Even the telephone ringing scared her. She refused to answer it.
But her apartment was warm and she had a large east-facing window which overlooked Passamaquoddy Bay. She had forgotten how much she loved the water. Whales and dolphins appeared and she remembered magical songs for greeting sea monsters. She waited for their return.
Her first meal at the elderly meal site would be her last one taken there. It was not so much the quality of the food, it was good, but the quality of the company made her want to stay away.
“I’m Sal Sockebesin,” a woman with jet black hair and uncommonly white false teeth approached Lily when she took a seat at the long oil cloth covered table. Her teeth rattled when she spoke and Lily, who was toothless with pure white hair, had a hard time understanding what Sal said.
“I think I know you from somewhere,” Sal continued. “Where are you from?”
Lily wasn’t sure if Sal said, “Where are you from?” or “When did you come?” But she answered “I’m from right here, Northpoint.”
Sal slid her chair closer to Lily. “Have to talk into my good ear, the other one died a few years ago.” Lily didn’t like Sal being so close to her. She smelled of sweet flowers, lavender or lilacs. Perfume, Lily thought, remembering that some women use perfume to mask their body odors. Lily moved her chair and focused on the plate of food before her: meatloaf with mashed potatoes, carrots and a side dish of salad. “Rabbit food,” Lily muttered as she pushed aside the salad. Lily tasted the meatloaf. Where’s the meat? she thought as she chewed it. She was accustomed to eating moose and deer in slabs or chunks in stews not ground and mixed with bread crumbs and vegetables.
“Want some ketchup?” Sal asked. “It’s better that way.”
Lily took the ketchup bottle from Sal, removed the cap and poured ketchup over the meatloaf.
Sal watched in amazement. “I guess you like ketchup.”
Lily ignored Sal and finished the meatloaf, then ate the mashed potatoes and finally the carrots.
“Want some dessert? Go over to the counter and pick what you want,” Sal gestured with her chin towards a long table to their left.
Lily didn’t want to move. Her legs ached and she was tired from having just come from out of the bush. “You get me come cake,” she told Sal, “the chocolate one if they have any.”
Lily left Sal at the meal center and walked the short distance down the hallway to her own apartment. She had not seen nor heard from Lucy in three days. Aurora was six months old and Lily knew how important it was for her to hear her songs and the old language. Lucy didn’t know our language and Lily was afraid Aurora would grow up not knowing how to survive as an Indian. She feared the child would be influenced by my mother to follow the white man’s world. After all, Aurora’s father is a white man and Lucy wanted him to find us and return to live with us.
So, Lily sat in a straight-backed wooden chair and looked out her window at Passamaquoddy Bay. It was stuffy living with central heat so she opened the window wide to let fresh air into the room. The smell of salt air, low tide and mud flats invigorated her. It was March now and she wanted to go down to the shore to gather mussels and clams and the sweet periwinkles that cling to the rocks there. But she knew her legs wouldn’t carry her. I’ll ask Lucy to bring me sea food, she thought. Lily missed the taste of the sea after a long winter of living in the bush. The sound of waves crashing the shore soothed her. It was a gentle sea that day. Wave upon wave rose then broke and washed upon the shore. The pounding of waves and the release of the water was hypnotic. The pulse of the sea soothed Lily. Her heart rate slowed and she closed her eyes and opened her ears to the voice of the sea.
Lily thought it could be a day when sea serpents might show themselves. She watched for hours for their giant heads to rise out of the water. Lily had seen a sea serpent when she was a young woman walking the shoreline looking for sea glass. It was a sunny autumn day and the sea was calm. At first she thought she saw a line of porpoises swimming a few hundred yards off shore. She watched and soon she noticed the long neck of a serpent rise four or five feet out of the water. It was an immense dark brown creature 60 or 70 feet long. It had a head as big as that of a horse. It moved vertically like a caterpillar with great bulges along the surface of the water. She watched the serpent dive and then reappear a few hundred yards from where it had been. She wondered if the serpent had seen her on the shore.
Lily remembered stories told of the water moving back over the land as it had been in ancient times. Northpoint is a peninsula surrounded by the waters of the Bay of Fundy which feed into the Passamaquoddy and Cobscook Bays. Tides are extreme in this area.
Sometimes the water goes out for several miles, returning with such vengeance it consumes anything in its path. Beachcombers find parts of uprooted trees and the wreckage of boats from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Lily also heard stories told by her elders that one day the entire reservation would be under water. One of the stories told that before the waters rise sea serpents will arrive in great numbers to warn the people to move to higher ground. Sea serpents are usually solitary creatures.
But for now, daylight sinks into dusk. The sky turns magenta. Two Nova Scotia style boats with their high prows and low sterns return home from a day of fishing for halibut and cod. Seagulls chase the boats in hopes to feed on the bait of herring and scraps fishermen throw overboard.
Lily is tired. She undresses and lays down on the cot bed she had been given. She covers herself with a heavy patch work quilt the nuns made and she sleeps a long and heavy sleep.
Next morning Lily wakes to someone knocking on her door. She gets out of bed and walks to the door and opens it. Sal Sockebesin is standing there.
“Morning Lily. Get dressed and come to breakfast. It’s a day like no other.” Lily is not ready to face Sal or to go to breakfast. In fact, she feels like slamming the door in Sal’s face, but she doesn’t. Grudgingly, she opens the door wider and Sal walks in.
“What are we doing today?” Sal asks, raising her arms over her head.
“We?” Lily answers.
“Yup, I have wheels, we could go shopping in Calais.”
Lily is amazed that Sal owns a car. Probably a rez car, she thinks, she can’t take it off reservation. But the idea of going someplace appeals to her.
Lily puts on a calico dress and the two women walk out of the elderly center. Both women wear heavy winter coats and black rubber mud boots. Brightly flowered kerchiefs are wrapped around their heads topped by felt hats. They look comical in a way old ladies sometimes do, their hats tilted on their heads. Sal is taller but Lily leads the way. She possesses an independent stride that lets Sal know she is in charge. Sal’s 78 dark green Chevy Nova is parked not far from the elderly center in the parking lot of St Anne’s Church. The red brick church with a life size statue of St Anne planted near its door, stands out among the small wooden clap boarded houses of tribal members who live by taking fish from the sea. Jesuit priests established a mission on the reservation in the mid 1800’s and built the church only a few yards from the shoreline. The Jesuits liked the scenic view of the water. Lily decides it will be the first of the buildings to be washed into the sea when the waters of Passamaquoddy Bay move in to take back the land. She is amused by this thought. Serves them right, she thinks.
The two women get into Sal’s car and drive the dirt road off the rez until they come to a three-way stop sign where Route 116 , a paved highway, intersects the reservation. The land was taken in eminent domain by the state of Maine to build a causeway to connect the island of Eastport to the mainland. After the highway was built things changed at Northpoint. Tourists pass through the reservation at will. Young Indian children are kidnapped by white intruders. Even last summer there were white men cruising around here for young women they could steal and enslave in the sex trade. Lily told me this is nothing new. It was happening even when she was young but they had had a harder time getting to the girls since there was no highway through the reservation. Tribal borders were clearly defined. But now it is no longer a place where tribal members can feel safe from outsiders.
“Right or left?” Sal asks Lily when they reach the stop sign. “Eastport or Perry?
Lily does not hesitate; she is certain she wants to visit Lucy and Aurora. “Let’s go to Perry. We can stop at Chibesquiog on the way and on the way back we can visit someone I know in Hollywood.” Lily smiles at the opportunity to stop by Lucy’s trailer unannounced. She is curious about Lucy and the baby and hurt that Lucy has not been in touch. Sal realizes that Lily has a plan and she is ready for adventure.
Lily sits in the passenger seat next to Sal’s bad ear, the one she said died a few years ago. I should talk loud, she thinks but by nature she is soft spoken. Sal needs to keep her eyes on the road and can’t read Lily’s lips.
“Sal, how long since you’ve had sex?.”
Sal isn’t sure what Lily said but she knows by the inflection of her voice that Lily has asked a question. She feels compelled to answer. Sal thinks Lily asked when was the last time she saw her ex.
Sal answers, “Oh, just the other day at the Super Saver.”
Lily chuckles. Just last week she had sex at the Super Saver, she thinks.
Sal is annoyed. “What’s so funny?”
“Sex at the Super Saver,” Lily answers between laughs.
“You crazy old woman, I said Ex not Sex.” The two old women share a good laugh.
At the edge of the reservation the women enter a low land, a swampy area called Chibesquog. It’s a wet and often foggy place where ghosts live. Stories tell of restless spirits who have not been able to make it to the other side living there. Ghosts of those who have suicided or killed someone in a rage or of people whose families refuse to let them make their journey to the next world. They all hang out in Chibesquiog. These ghosts appear to women so most don’t go there. When they have to pass through the area, the only way out of reservation land, they turn their eyes away. Sal looks straight ahead but Lily turns her head to look into Chibesquiog.
“Stop the car!” Lily yells.
“What? Are you crazy, this is Chibesquiog.”
“I know where I am. I said stop the car.”
Sal reluctantly pulls the green Nova to the side of the road and stops. Before she can turn off the engine, Lily opens the door and gets out.
“Where are you going?” Sal asks.
“For a walk, that’s all.”
“Well, you’ll be walking with ghosts.” Sal raises her voice so Lily can hear her but Lily has headed into the swamp. Marsh grasses, cattails and rushes are just poking out of the thawing black earth. Willow withes turn from yellow to green. Lily thinks I have to remember to come back here. She knows by autumn the willows will turn red and their inner bark will be ready for her pipe. Lily notices the tidal water in the marsh is low. “Tide must be out,” she tells herself. She is able to walk in the water now because she wears thick rubber boots to protect her feet. Soon the tide will turn and Lily knows she’ll be in water way over her boots, perhaps even over her head. Have to hurry, she thinks.
Sal waits in the car for Lily but after a long hour Lily doesn’t return and Sal is worried. She is too frightened to walk into the swamp to look for her. The tidal waters have risen. Desperate, she drives back to the rez for help. Sal drives towards a magnificent orange/magenta sky. A calligraphy of fir trees and sea gulls is silhouetted against the sunset. Soon it will be dark.
Sal grips the stirring wheel with both hands. She thinks this could have been a perfect day.
From her apartment she phones tribal police.
“I want to report a missing person,” she tells the officer.
“Who?” the cop asks.
“Lily Paul. She walked into Chibesquiog more than an hour ago and hasn’t come out. And now the tide is rushing in.” Sal’s voice cracks at the thought of Lily drowning in the swamp.
“Is this Lily Paul an old woman?”
“Yes, older than your grandmother. You’d better try to find her before dark.” The cop listens but the thought of looking for an old lady in Chibesquiog scares him. He has heard too many stories of ghosts living there. He remembers what happened to Bonnie Neptune when she encountered the bear in Chibesquiog. Bonnie survived but would never tell anyone what happened to her.
“I’ll call the chief. It’s policy to call him in cases of missing persons.” He hopes this will satisfy Sal.
“There’s no time to waste. It will be dark soon.” Sal is hysterical. She’s pacing and talking to herself. “The tide is coming in fast and she could drown in that swamp,” her voice is fading and she is fighting back tears.
“OK, OK I’ll go have a look.” But the cop wants backup, he is not going out there alone.
Sal hangs up feeling that the cop won’t go out there. She thinks, I’ll just go back over there and have a look. Maybe she is waiting by the side of the road.
When Sal reaches Chibesquiog, Lily is not waiting by the road and there is no tribal police car. She is left with the pungent sulphuric smell of salt water and the sound of waves rushing onto the muddy shore. Sal shivers. It’s nearly dark and she turns on her high beams. She steps out of the car to call Lily one more time. No answer.
Lily is trapped in the swamp. Lost and exhausted, her legs refuse to carry her another step. Water has risen to her waist. She’s cold. The salt water sloshing in her boots and all around her tells her she may die in this swamp. Lily doesn’t want to die in Chibesquiog. She is not ready to die. She is determined to get to Lucy and me in our trailer in Hollywood. “I’ll do it,” she tells herself.
Shivering. Lily removes her clothes and lets them float away with the tide. Her felt hat, her heavy coat, her flowered dress, her underwear, her rubber boots. Her human body grows long and tubular and is covered with thick silky white fur. Her ears are small and pointed on the top of her head. She grows a short tail with a black tip. Her brown eyes adjust to darkness. She sees precisely. She gracefully swims through the tidal waters and smells dry land ahead. She is no longer lost.
The ermine reaches the shore and pushes through the willows and alders creating a barrier between the swamp and the road. She hears cars passing on the highway and runs toward the noise. Carefully, she crosses the road and has no trouble finding the entrance to Hollywood.
Several years ago the tribe bought these single wide trailers in an attempt to provide housing for families that had none. Somebody with a sense of humor, named the trailer park “Hollywood” and the name stuck.
Lucy and Aurora live in one of those trailers and now Ricky Youngblood has found them and has come for an extended visit. He is homeless and doesn’t hesitate when Lucy invites him to move in with her. Ricky is six feet tall with fair skin and sandy hair. He has a space between his two front teeth which Lucy thought was sexy when they met at Bingo four years ago. They started dating and before long they were shacking up. It was Ricky’s idea to build the cabin in the bush where Aurora was born. He isn’t a mean man but when he drinks, he is unpredictable. When there is no alcohol he will drink mouthwash and cough syrup. Last week the trailer filled up with smoke when the chimney cap blew off. He was furious and walked out the door. He wasn’t any help at all. Lucy had to climb up on the roof and replace the chimney cap. He didn’t come back for three days.
Lucy keeps her mother’s deer rifle by the door of the trailer. It is the gun her mother, Maggie Little Bear, used to try to kill her when she was only seven. She says the gun reminds her how lucky she is to be alive.
The ermine has found her way to our trailer. Her sense of smell is so acute she is able to smell the baby smells of diapers and urine distinct from other households. But she is hungry. There’s a multitude of mice, even rats, that hang out around these trailers. They feed on whatever garbage is left untended, food scraps, etc. The ermine easily makes a meal of mice and retreats to the crawl space under our trailer to rest.
It is warm and dry. The ermine makes a bed of leaves and dried weeds that have blown into the crawl space. She settles on a spot under the floor where the woodstove is located in the trailer. She is exhausted and immediately falls asleep.
Suddenly she is startled by angry voices above. Light comes from a hole in the trailer floor where a dryer vent would have led to a clothes dryer. Lucy has no clothes dryer. The open hole is easy entrance into the trailer. She crawls through the hole. Silent, she follows a wall into a bedroom where Aurora sleeps in a wooden crib. She sees a hole in the wall of the room left by an angry fist. She enters the hole and makes her way among wooden studs and sheets of fiberglass insulation and dry wall.
“You’re nothing but a slut.” Ricky yells. “If you hadn’t gotten pregnant we‘d still be happy living in the bush.”
“Oh right! I got pregnant all by myself. You had nothing to do with it.”
“God damn you Ricky. You coward. You walked out on us, why don’t you just walk away now?”
Something white flashes on the wall against the flowered wall paper.
“What’s that?” Ricky yells.
Oh no, the ermine is back, Lucy, my mother thinks. Ricky runs for the gun by the trailer door.
“Don’t you dare! You don’t understand.” Lucy is trembling but she runs after him. She knows the ermine is Lily. She stands in front of Ricky.
Ricky holds the rifle in a position to fire. It is pointed at Lucy. When she tries to grab the gun from him it fires. She is hit in the head.
“Oh my God, Lucy, No!” he yells as Lucy falls to the floor. He runs to her. She doesn’t move. Blood streams from her head, her ears, her nose. Ricky runs to the trailer door opens it and screams for help.
They have no phone to call EMTs. He stands under a full moon that sheds so much light he can see his own shadow. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the ermine running towards the road. Gun still in hand he fires again. “You son of a bitch. You made me do it.”
The ermine is hit. She leaves a trail of blood in the snow and collapses.
Barbara Robidoux is the author of two books of poetry, Waiting for Rain(2007) and Migrant Moon (2012). Her fiction has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, The Yellow Medicine Review, the Santa Fe Literary Review and numerous anthologies. SWEETGRASS BURNING: Stories from the Rez, a collection of linked short stories, was released by Blue Hand Books in February 2016. The Legacy of Lucy Little Bear, a novella, was released by Blue Hand Books in April 2017. Robidoux lived in coastal Maine much of her life before she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. She holds an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in creative writing as well as a BA from the University of New Hampshire and an MA from Vermont College. Barbara is of Eastern Cherokee, Metis and Italian heritage.