The Twice-Born Daughter
The old ones say that my great-grandmother was born twice. The second time, she grew old and had children, and they had children. But the first time, she was born a baby and stayed a child.
Four years after she was born, the first time, a brother and sister came along, and they were twins. Because she was the oldest and a girl, her name was Winungna, first-born daughter in Lakota. Her little brother was Takoda, friend to everybody because he wasn't shy, and her sister was Angpetu, bright dawn because she was the last to be born and the first to smile.
This was when the Indians were shuffled around the country like dry leaves in a windy winter, dispersed in anticipation of the slow smothering, endless snows of white men. Everybody knows what happened, the massacres and the lies, the tribes and bands and clans who lost their land, language and pride, and the mothers and fathers whose children were wheeled off in wagons or trains to boarding schools many miles from home. For some families, it was a difficult choice, and for others, they had none. In Kansas, children and the teachers who would assimilate them arrived from all over the country at the marshy floodplains of the Wakarusa River and the US Indian Industrial Training School.
And so when my great-grandmother was ten years old, she and the twins became Winifred, holy one of the blessed reconciliation, Theodore, gift from God, and Angela, messenger of God. These were good, Christian names. The girls' braids were untied and their hair cut to their chins, and Takoda's loose mop was shaved to a black stubble. Winungna and Angpetu were dressed in itchy wool skirts, stockings and shoes the wrong size, and Takoda was given a tiny military suit with cold metal buttons up the front and a little soldier cap to cover the stubble on his head but nothing to keep his ears or neck from the winter wind.
All the words spoken were the words of the whites, and all the words thought were the old words, until they became too old and died. They were made to fade like the memories of a warm fire and the stories told around it, light dancing in the eyes of parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts, the smell of burning wood, the berry-tart taste of wojape.
Under Head Mistress Riley, the youngest children were the quickest to forget and soon took to the “Our Father” and the gray gravy and the “Yes, Ma'am.” The oldest children remembered most but their memories were denigrated until the children became swollen with anger at the old ways for forgetting them. But the ones in the middle didn't forget their mothers and fathers and words, and they couldn't see so far ahead to know that they might as well have.
While Theodore was learning arithmetic and marching, Angela was weaving baskets and canning fruit that she wasn't allowed to eat. In time, he would serve the nation, because there was only one now, and she would serve a white man, at least one. In time, they might even forget they were twins. Winifred memorized the alphabet and “i before e except after c” and sang hymns to a god who lived in a chair on top of the clouds, while she and the others her age worked in the fields and orchards, where they were not allowed to eat.
“When your first moontime comes, you have to move into the kitchen with the older girls,” whispered Elizabeth to Winifred, who was hoeing a row in the turnip garden next to her.
“Yuck! Why would they make us cook during moontime?” she whispered back.
“That's what makes the gravy brown sometimes.” The girls snickered and puckered their noses in distaste. They knew the gray gravy was made with lard and flour, but the brown gravy had remained a mystery.
The early summer sun was high over their heads and making the marshes beyond the garden sweat. The air was sticky from the wabash clay, and the girls' hair fell in sweaty streaks over their ears like dark vines tumbling down the branches of the honey-locust trees, ashes, and elders in the swampy mire beyond the orderly rows of the garden.
“You ever been in the swamp?” Elizabeth asked.
“No! I heard one of the Chippewa girls say that's where the wendigos live and if you go out there, they'll suck you down in the bog and drown you in the mud.”
“Don't be a featherbrain. Tonight, meet me by the north window and I'll show you what you should really be afraid of.”
That night, when the lamps had been blown out and snores echoed through the second floor of the girls' dormitory, Winifred heard bed springs coiling and uncoiling from three beds to her left. Very slowly, not even daring to breath, she scooted closer to the edge of the bed and dipped one leg into the space above the floor. First one toe, and then all five met the cool cement. Next came the second leg, slowly, slowly. Without a single creak, she descended from the bed and tip-toed across the cement to the shadow outlined by the night sky on the other side of the glass.
The girls knelt down into the warm sticky breeze blowing in from the marsh and through the open window. Outside, the mud seemed to have taken over the earth and sky, and everything was black; not even the tallest maple trees made a shadow darker than the mud.
“I don't see anything,” Winifred whispered in the smallest voice.
Elizabeth turned to her with a fingertip against her mouth and eyes wide. They both faced the window again.
After waiting for what seemed like hours, somewhere in the distant dark, a flickering light appeared like the burning end of a matchstick. Elizabeth took Winifred's hand. The light went out and then reappeared again off to the right, maybe a little closer now. Then there were two. They came toward each other and were soon joined by a third. For just a few moments, there were a dozen or so of these strange, enchanting lights, moving in and out of each other, flickering off and back on, until finally, one by one, they each faded back into the blackness that they were born out of.
The girls sat waiting awhile longer, staring silently out at the marsh, until Elizabeth let go of Winifred's hand and tapped her on the knee. Winifred looked up and saw Elizabeth move her head back toward the beds. The girls crept on light feet and silently climbed back under their thin white sheets.
Winifred lay in bed thinking about what she'd just seen. They couldn't be campfires because campfires don't pick up and move. They might be giant fireflies, but fireflies don't just disappear like that. Maybe it was that Holy Spirit that Miss Ashgard talked about in Bible class. It made little fires in people's mouths once, so that must be it. Maybe the Holy Spirit was looking for places to build a fire, and what if it found her awake and wanted to make a fire on her tongue? That scared Winifred into faking sleep until it finally came.
The next day, she and Elizabeth were working in the garden again. Miss Huxley walked back and forth, up and down the rows, making sure the girls were in line and singing their hymns. Anyone who wasn't sweating wasn't working or singing hard enough and got a willow switch across the shoulders.
Soon Miss Huxley's back was turned and the voices singing “Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King” would safely muffle her own. Then Winifred asked, “Was it that Holy Spirit?”
Elizabeth looked at her from the sharp corners of her eyes and shook her head, trying not to laugh out loud. “No, dummy. There's no such thing.”
Thirty minutes later, when the coast was clear again, she continued, “They're ghost lights.”
“Ghosts of the kids that've died here. That’s what one of the old teachers, Miss LeJeune, said, and she was from Louisiana like me. That’s why they want to baptize us, so if we die here then we won’t light up afterward.” She picked up in the next chorus, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
It hadn't occurred yet to Winifred that children could die here, that she and the twins might not ever leave. The thought of dying away from her family, of never being able to go home, of being trapped there forever, was much scarier than the Holy Spirit making a fire on her tongue. Then she remembered that a few months before, when they first arrived and it was still cold, she overheard two of the older girls whispering in Lakota that they had taken someone's baby away, that Nurse Baxter told the mother it was already dead, but that she had heard it crying. After that, they bolted the door to the girls' dormitory so there couldn't be any more picked locks and sneaking around with boys at night.
There was a whooshing sound right before the willow switch fell down on her shoulders, and she started forward like a stunned plow-horse, unthinking. “The Lord wants to see planting and hear praising!” Miss Huxley yelled for all to hear, so they would all quickly turn and look at the one who got caught lollygagging, relieved it wasn't their own back with a willow welt this time.
When the noon bell rang, the boys marched in line into the dining hall, and Winifred scanned the shortest ones for Theodore. The little soldier looked up from beneath his too-big cap and caught his big sister's eye. She winked at him and chased a tear away that was trying to slip out from behind the thought of the ghost lights. He smiled back at her, and she saw that he'd lost one of his front teeth.
In the girls' half of the dining hall, Winifred waited in line for the littlest ones to get their slice of bread and butter first. As Angela turned with her plate and walked to a long bench, she cast a glance toward the medium-sized girls, and Winifred caught her eye and winked twice to let her know she'd seen Theodore earlier. Angela smiled, and Winifred noticed that the same front tooth was gone.
In the fall, as the maples turned their leaves into firelight, it was time to harvest. The turnips, squash, onions, cabbage, and beans were ready to be picked and pickled. The boys worked in the orchards plucking apples and pears, and the taller of the middle girls were put to work in the corn field.
It had been awhile since Elizabeth and Winifred could talk to each other openly, but the corn stalks provided some shelter from the patrolling Miss Huxley and her willow switch.
“I'm leaving tonight,” Elizabeth said.
“You’re going to run away? It’s too far. You can't, you’ll never make it.”
“Yes, I can. I'm going home.”
“But, Elizabeth, didn’t your parents send you here?”
“Just because they made a decision then doesn’t mean they’d make the same one now. They thought it would be better for me than the reservation. How could they know it would be like this? I've had more beatings in the last two years than in all my life put together. My family's dogs eat better than we do here. If I stay any longer, I'll be too weak to run anymore.”
“What if they catch you?”
“Then they beat me again. If I stay, I get beat; if I go and get caught, I get beat. Might as well go. Plus I'll die of shame if they stick me in that kitchen with the rest of the bleeders, making the gravy go brown.” She paused and tugged on Winifred's right hand. “Come with me.”
Winifred looked down at her hand and shook her head. She looked back up at Elizabeth and said, “I'm not going anywhere without the twins.”
Elizabeth smiled and nodded. “You're a good sister. You have family here at least. I have no reason to stay. And I miss my dogs.”
Winifred put her left hand inside her apron pocket and pulled out a carrot stolen from the garden. “Be careful, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth smiled, almost proud, as she put the carrot in her own pocket. “Maybe this school is good for you. You’re getting more clever every day.”
“You mean ‘cleverer’.”
“I mean that you’re smart enough to survive whether you stay or go.”
That night, Elizabeth crawled out of bed, the springs barely making a sound. The north window slid open silently, and she dropped two stories to the ground below.
The next morning, when the girls filed out of the dormitory and downstairs into the dining hall for their morning bread and gravy, it became clear that one of them was missing. Sometimes, a girl's moontime would come in the night, and she would be moved to the third-floor dormitory and made to work in the kitchen, but that only happened after breakfast, when the inspectors went around the beds to make sure no one had bled or peed and that all the corners were tucked under the straw mattresses. That morning though, something else had happened. One of the few advantages of being forced to speak the same language was that words could circulate rapidly when they needed to. “She made it out” was the most popular phrase being whispered that morning.
When the girls, excited by the possibility of Elizabeth's escape, were all seated at the benches and eating their bread, Head Mistress Riley walked in next to Nurse Baxter, who pushed Elizabeth in a rickety old wheelchair. Miss Huxley rang the bell in case there was anyone not already paying attention.
“Young ladies, your attention, please,” the stern old woman paused a moment to make sure they all knew she meant business. “Miss Elizabeth was caught late last night trying to run away from school. To flee one's responsibilities is a sin of Sloth, and to disrespect Our Lord and all the Charity he has provided you is a sin of Pride. According to God's Word, the wages sin pays is death. However, we on earth are not entitled to carry out such punishments, and we leave that to the Lord Almighty. But this must be a lesson to you all. You cannot run away from Christ, for He knows all, and you cannot run from Civilization, for it is the Way, the Truth, and the Light. Those who practice such backward cowardice will face retribution.”
By the time Head Mistress Riley had finished talking, all the girls noticed that Elizabeth wasn't wearing stockings or shoes, but that her feet were still black. It wasn't mud from the marsh, and it wasn't a shadow. And if it wasn’t the second-story fall that had broken her ankles, then it was Head Mistress Riley who had ordered it done. That was the lesson: you'll only run once.
Elizabeth was sentenced to a week in confinement so she could contemplate her sins and return to humility. During that week, the broken bones in her ankles became infected, and when they came to take out her night soil and bring her morning slice of bread, she was covered in sweat and shaking all over. The guard called for Nurse Baxter, and they carried her out to the infirmary. She was dead two days later.
They held a little funeral for Elizabeth at the chapel and then buried her in the cemetery out back. Winifred didn't even know there was a cemetery. It was enclosed by a brick wall and no one else had been put back there since she and the twins arrived late in the winter. Elizabeth's was only the third grave, and they put her in a deep hole next to a boy who died of pneumonia some years before and an older girl who had opened the veins in her arms and thighs with a butter knife. The numbers on their whitewashed crosses said 1889-1894 and 1878-1895.
All the students gathered around the deep hole, and they put the wooden box with Elizabeth's body inside it while the children sang, “Now the day is over, Night is drawing nigh...”
Winifred looked for the twins among the crowd, and found them behind the nearest row of teachers, holding hands on the other side of the grave.
“With Thy tend'rest blessing, May mine eyelids close...”
There were only two graves, now three, but she'd seen at least a dozen ghost lights. “Grant to little children, Visions bright of Thee...”
Elizabeth might've been wrong, and the ghost lights were something else, not kids who have died here.
“Comfort every sufferer, Watching late in pain...”
And then she remembered the Lakota girls whispering about the stolen newborn baby. “Those who plan some evil, From their sin restrain...”
Or maybe, just maybe, not all the kids who've died were buried here, but only the ones that everybody knew about.
“Through the long night-watches, May Thine angels spread, Their white wings above me, Watching round my bed.”
Then Winifred knew that she must take the twins and run, that whatever evil might be in the swamp – in the mud, in the air, in the night – that the evil in the school was much worse.
By the time the casket was covered with dirt, a cold north wind had begun to wheeze through the treetops, and leaves blew from the limbs of the honey-locusts, ashes, and elders in the marsh. The wind was carrying more than leaves from treetops and the coming winter season. It was also carrying tuberculosis.
Head Mistress Riley said that the wrath of God had befallen them for Elizabeth's sins of Pride and Sloth. The teachers couldn't know that every time the children prayed aloud before meals in the dining hall and before bedtime in the dormitories, and especially with every hymn belted out in the chapel, the disease flew from mouth to mouth, like the Holy Spirit building fires on their tongues and in their lungs that would slowly consume and kill them.
When coming in from the garden at noon one day, Winifred searched for her little brother but did not find him. Miss Ashgard granted her permission to visit him in the infirmary, where he was wrapped up in a cotton bundle, dotted with red from the spray of fire from his mouth. When Nurse Baxter turned to go out the door, Winifred leaned in to Theodore's ear, burning with fever, and whispered, “Takoda.” He opened his eyes and forced a weak smile, the front tooth mostly grown in and two others now missing. He coughed, and a little blood appeared on his lower lip. Instinctively, she took the inside hem of her wool skirt and wiped it clean. His eyes closed, and she took his small sweating hands in hers, trying to remember the words of the yuwipi man’s song that had healed her mother after the twins were born. Without all the right words, she hummed the yuwipi song softly against the rhythm of her brother’s labored breathing.
After his funeral, Winifred and Angela held hands and watched the little wooden box sink into the deep hole until it disappeared into its own shadow. Winifred asked Miss Ashgard if she and Angela could stay in the chapel awhile to pray for their brother. When everyone had shuffled back out to their chores and classes, Winifred pulled Angela close to her, and just in case anybody was listening in, even the god sitting up on top of the clouds, she spoke to her in Lakota.
“Angpetu,” she began, “We can't stay here any longer. One by one, they'll kill us all. Let's go home. Don’t you want to see Mom and Dad, and eat bowl after bowl of Grandma’s wojape?”
Angela's eyes were rimmed with red, and tears pooled on her cheeks. Winifred reached over and wiped her tears away with the blood-stained hem of her skirt.
“When we get home and tell them what’s happened here, they can put a stop to it. No more boarding schools, no more beatings. Just home, the way things should be.”
“Takoda,” Angela sniffed, “We can't leave him here by himself. How could we go home without our brother?”
“If we stay here, we will be in holes in the ground next to him.”
“Yes, I will,” said Angela, and her mind was made up. She had waited for him to go first at birth, and she would wait nearby to meet him again at death. “Winungna?” she said.
“Please don't get caught.”
Winifred wanted to wait until the ground was covered with frost so the marsh would be less muddy and her tracks would not be seen. But if she waited too long, the snows would come, and then they would know where she went. One morning, when it had been almost a full year since she and the twins had arrived at the school, she woke up and her young breasts felt tender, and there was a wetness that was not urine or blood but something in-between. She knew that she must flee now because if moontime came first, it would be impossible to escape kitchen duties or drop from the third floor of the girls' dormitory. As she walked past the north window, she saw the earth covered in frost and knew she would run that night.
At the dining hall during lunch, Winifred caught Angela's eye and did not wink. A defiant tear swelled from under that eye, and she blinked hard, sending it running down her cheek, and then walked on to the long bench with the other younger girls.
That night, before Winifred slipped out the north window, she dropped her stiff cotton sheets and the thin wool blanket first to soften the frozen ground where she would land. After alighting on her bed linens, she folded them over her shoulders and across her chest. No stars or moon shined through the clouded sky, and her feet made no sound as she flew into the north wind, over the tilled and frozen garden, to the marsh beyond. The mud felt solid beneath her feet when she reached the marsh, stepping over long woven tufts of bluestem and reed canarygrass. At last, the thick clouds that had been hiding her in the dark broke under their own weight, and heavy snowflakes began dropping to the earth, sticking to the wabash clay and leaving a trail behind her that even white men could follow. She began to panic and ran faster into the wind that pushed water out her eyes and nose.
She heard voices a long way off and knew they were after her. Her breath was loud in the night, but the voices trailing her were louder. Then she was surrounded by them, crying, whispering, laughing, behind her, in front, on all sides, but she couldn't run any faster. She looked through the dark for a place to hide, a clump of sumac or a buttonbush, a hollowed-out elm log, but she knew it wouldn't matter where she hid; they could follow her tracks through the snow.
The voices were growing, getting closer. Her breath came in and out in rasps. Finally, she reached the edge of the Wakarusa River and stopped, panting, looking up and down the water for a way to either cross or drift downstream – an old boat, a fallen log, a trail of stones, anything. Once she was on the other side, she would be free. Without horses to plunge through the water, they wouldn't bother crossing the river.
As the snowflakes fell from the sky into the rushing black water and disappeared, something else arose from the other side of the river. A flame flickered off and on and hovered midair like someone lighting a lantern. Suddenly, there were two lights, and then ten, and fifteen, and she knew they weren't lanterns. The ghost lights were all around her. A small, scared whimper escaped her, and she realized she was trapped.
There was a tickle in her left ear, and a voice whispered, “Winungna.” She jerked her head to the left, downstream, but nobody was there. She wanted to fall down and cry, and pull the blankets over her head and hope the end would come fast. Just then, another voice whispered, “Don't stop now, silly.” The lights kept flickering off and on, strange stars born from the earth. Then two of them broke free and drifted downstream. The first voice whispered again, speaking her old language, “Come, this way.” She recognized the whispers now and took a deep breath, running after the airborne flames, her cold, tired legs stumbling over long vines of Virginia creeper curled over fallen limbs, the sticks reaching like fingers for the opposite bank.
At last, the lights came to a halt when Winungna reached a great elder tree. This tree didn't grow straight upward like normal trees. This tree had been trained into a new shape; it was a sign to be read by warriors and hunters and bands on the move. When still a sapling, it had been formed to point the safest way across the river, its trunk bent into a shoulder and elbow before turning back up to the sky.
As she put her hand on the marker tree, leaning against it, nearly dead on her feet, the ghost lights drifted away into the dark until there was only one, very faint. Then came a final whisper in Lakota: “Here, Winungna.”
She looked down into the dark, icy river washing over slate and limestone, and then she looked at the footprints left behind her in the snow. Wrapping the blankets tight around her shoulders, she stepped from the bank and into the water.
It swirled over her and stole the blankets from her shoulders. She pushed it away with numbing hands and kicked with the heavy leather shoes on her feet, but it was too strong. As she felt herself sinking lower and being pulled through the current like a leaf riding on that cold north wind, she remembered being in her mother's womb: warm, wet, and breathing water, and that is where she was.
When Winungna opened her eyes, she was warm and wet, but she was breathing air again. The sun was heating the swampy wetlands and she felt the water evaporating from her too, as if she were becoming another goldenrod bush climbing its way out of the marsh up to dry air. Looking up, she saw the sun filtered through the green-leafed branches of the elder tree, its arm-like trunk shaped like a shepherd's crook to catch those who stray. She had not made it to the other side of the river.
Suddenly a shadow fell over her, blocking that warm sunlight. She dared not move, but her eyes shifted to see what made the shadow, fearing a bounty hunter or Miss Huxley or worse yet, Head Mistress Riley. Instead, it was a very old man, darker than his shadow, carrying a fishing pole and a tin can.
“What in heaven's name we got here?” he thought aloud, not expecting an answer from the mud-soaked girl.
Winungna had never seen a black person before, but she wasn't surprised. If there can be white people on earth, why not black ones too.
“My goodness, child, your hair’s all tangled up in them roots. How long you been this way?”
She thought how strange it was that her chin-cropped hair could be tangled up in anything, yet something was pulling at her scalp. He set the pole and can down on the bank of the river, and wiggled down the slope to the summer sandbar.
Slowly, he unraveled her long black hair from the roots of the old marker tree, one vine-like strand at a time. For every knot he untied came a methodical, gentle “There goes another one, child. Look at this mess. How’d you get all tangled up like this?”
After he had unraveled her hair from the roots of the marker tree, she sat up on the sandbar and pulled a long strand of hair over her shoulder to examine it. He asked slowly, searching her eyes, “Well, child, where d’you need to go? Where are your people at?”
She shook her head, not sure how to answer.
“Ah Lord,” he sighed, “the child don't speak English.”
“I speak English,” she said dryly, as if her voice hadn't been used in years, “but I don't know where my family is.”
“Well, you’re wearing clothes like the white folks, so probably best get you back to the mission where you belong,” he said, pulling himself to his feet with one of the elder roots.
“Please don't take me back there. Head Mistress Riley will kill me for sure.”
“Head Mistress Riley?” he furrowed his brows. “Honey, you must have bumped your head on them old elder roots. Mean Miss Riley ain't been around town in ten, eleven years, not since she got transferred up north.” He looked at the girl carefully as he spoke. “No, Head Mistress at the mission now is a young Indian lady, Angela Stein. Husband’s a preacher, come up from Kentucky last year. Nice people.” He examined the girl’s clothes as she continued to examine the length of her hair. Underneath the drying mud stains and over her night dress, she was wearing a collarless button-up shirt and a long, gray wool skirt, but nobody wore those kinds of clothes anymore, not even the kids at the Indian Training School. And her hair was long, like it hadn’t been trimmed once in ten, eleven years. He narrowed his eyes and said quietly, “My Lord, honey, what’ve you been up to all these years?”
“I fell in the river last night.”
“Last night? You ran away from Ole Miss Riley last night?”
She nodded, and he shook his head, laughing. “Ten, eleven years, and you ain't aged a bit except for your hair. That’s sure something else. I’ve seen some strange things in this swamp, and around this river, but this just beats all.” He gave her his hand, holding onto the elder roots with the other. “My name’s James. You best come with me and we’ll get you cleaned up.”
And so my great-grandmother was twice-born. Once from her mother, and once again from the earth, from the river.
Some days later, James and Winungna were walking through the sun-baked streets of the town as horse-drawn carriages and the occasional motor car drove past. Her long, black hair was combed and braided the way it had been, before. Lots of people stared at the girl in clothes from the previous century, but no one said anything. They just passed on by, ladies in long, belted dresses and feathered hats and men in dark suits with slick hair and pocket watches. She was staring back, taking it all in, all the sounds and smells and sights of being in a town.
Then someone caught her eye and held it. It was a young lady in a yellow dress with ruffles and puffed sleeves and a matching parasol, walking with her arm hooked in a man's elbow. The young lady stopped in her tracks and took her arm from the man's. She walked right up to the girl without taking her eyes off her.
“Winungna,” she said. She smiled bright as day, and all her teeth had grown in.
And although she had always suspected, Angpetu was overwhelmed with relief at knowing that her sister had not gotten caught after all, except by time.
I’ve walked the banks of the Wakarusa River time and again, searching for that crooked elder tree. Maybe it was cut down, or it died of old age and was washed away in the floods, out to the Mississippi, down to New Orleans, and into the sea. Or maybe it’s not about where it is, but when. Maybe it’s been there all along, but you can only see it when the marsh first freezes over, and when the midnight air is bright with snow and ghosts and hope.
The year’s first snow is set to fall tonight.