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SunLit

SunLit Excerpt: In “Mariano’s Woman,” a mother seeks her dead daughter’s spirit-being

Author David M. Jessup introduces a native woman whose quest to reconnect with her child winds through cultural clashes and enduring spiritual questions

Editor’s note: In the wake of her 15-year-old daughter’s death,  Takánsy, the native wife of trader Mariano Medina, visits where she has hidden the girl’s body and desperately tries to connect with her spirit in order to join her in the Great Beyond.

1
The Crossing

My body, she is feeling lighter today. Not floating, but almost. I check my feet. They are where they should be, thrust into my old worn-out moccasins, planted on the floorboards of our house. My eyes see, but my no-feeling feet ask me whether my eyes are seeing true. 

A strange haze-pulse flickers at eye-edge. Purple dark, it flares and fades with each heartbeat, then slowly lifts like morning meadow fog. I shake my head to try to clear it. I am still in our house, by the river. My feet are still on the floor. 

The sickness, maybe. I am growing weaker in past days, unable to eat much. My breath is coming harder, so I spend more time on the pallet that I use for my bed. My muscles, they are wasting, bones showing under my hide, skin thin and spotted as that old rag draped over the pump handle. 

It is past time to cross over into the Great Beyond. But I cannot. Not yet.

I am standing next to the table in the cooking room of our log house. The iron stove hulks against one wall, the china cupboard against another. Its shelves have empty spaces where blue china cups used to be. Medina dashed them against the wall, enraged after I stole our daughter’s body. She was lying here on this table, my beloved Lena, stiff and cold in the burial shroud I made for her. I could not let him bury her in his cemetery. I remember how, in the dark, with the great storm masking my sounds of escape, I dragged her out of this house and carried her body to the red-cliff ridge to the west. Only my horse knows where I hid her. Medina will never find where she rests. 

The front door swings open with its rusty hinge sound. Medina walks in, wipes sweat from his forehead, and hangs his hat on its peg. He turns, stares right at me, through me. I stare back. He still has the anger, but the blind bull fury is gone. He pretends not to see me, brushes past and steps into the next room. He leaves the smell of leather and smoke in his wake, odors that once stirred my desire. We speak few words to each other since Lena’s death. Small words only, everyday words. “Mariano, where you leave the cast iron pot?”  Or, “I will not be here tonight for supper.”  Or, “Woman, where are the shirts you beaded for the trading post?”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Anger at Medina still hardens my heart. He sent my Lena to the Denver City school. Put her on the danger path. I know he was trying to help her, having for her his big pride. But forgiveness, I cannot give. 

Two winters have passed since I found Lena’s body in the river, face and throat splotched red, glossy black hair matted against her cold skin, eyes glazed through half-open lids, arms and legs stiffening in the moonlight. I try to banish that mind-picture, but it claws me awake at night, a demon badger digging a hole in my head. I curse it, burn sage, invoke old chants I learned long ago. I even try holding my broken cross to my heart when the memory comes, chanting the rosary as I click the black beads in my pocket. Nothing helps.

What I hunger for is Lena’s spirit-being. In dreams I sometimes see her as she was, riding her black mare in the Denver City parade, slender in the white doeskin dress I made for her, smiling her beautiful smile. But I never see her spirit-being. Where is she?  That is the question that haunts me. 

Is she in the Black-robe heaven, surrounded by saints, with Jésu and God’s angels among the clouds?  In Purgatory, having died without last rites, awaiting travel to a better place?  Or has she gone to the Black-robe land of fire?  No, no, that cannot be, must not be! She had only fifteen winters of age, too young for mortal sins that send one to the land of forever punishment. That hell is where I may go, where I deserve to go. But not my Lena.

Maybe she travels in the Great Beyond of my people, galloping over green meadows on a fine horse, singing and dancing with our ancestors, well-fed, well loved, in the Road of Many Stars. I wish I could believe this were true. But in my heart I am afraid. I feel her spirit is still close by, trapped, waiting. Salish people believe the spirit dead need prayer medicine for traveling to the Great Beyond, a ceremony one year after crossover-day. April 10, 1872. That is what is written in the Catholic Church Book of the Dead, where Father Machebeuf put her name with his black ink stick. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

I tried to make ceremony for her at her secret resting place on her first-year crossover-day. I wanted to know where she is going, so I can follow. But I fear I did not make a right ceremony. Maybe my fire was too small. I was afraid a large fire might reveal the location of her body on the red-cliff ridge. Maybe I did not chant enough. Not all the old words would come to me. I have forgotten so much. Or maybe my offerings—a bit of pemmican, her favorite red ribbon, strands of hair from her horse colt’s tail and mane, a copy of her otter pouch—were not worthy. 

I needed help from the spirit of Otter Woman. A gray jay flew over and perched on one of the stone slabs that hides Lena’s body. That bird is common along the Bitterroot River, but almost never flies here along the Big Thompson. So I thought that bird might be the old medicine-woman’s spirit. I spoke to it—said her name aloud—but no answer came. 

When I was twelve winters of age, Otter Woman told me how to know when a spirit journeys from this world to the Great Beyond. A shift shadow, a hazy presence, a tremble of leaves with no breeze to stir them. Before traveling to the next world, spirits sometimes linger, swooping silently through the night on owl wings or appearing in the bodies of animals. Or even humans. I do not know if this is true, but these things I watched for during the time since Lena’s crossover. Nothing. Lena’s sad spirit may still be hovering near, restless, troubled. Waiting to journey into Black-robe heaven, or walk the great log over the gorge that separates this world from the Salish Great Beyond. 

My only wish, my last wish, is to be with my Lena in her spirit world, wherever it is. Otter Woman once told me how, with right spells, you can speak with spirits, if not in words, in mind-thoughts. I must speak with my daughter, explain my false-tongue stories about her young suitor, John Alexander. She must understand it was for her own good, so she would escape with me instead of marrying him. I must try once more to reach her on the red-cliff ridge so she can finish her journey to the next world. So I can follow. 

 I leave the house and walk over the toll bridge that made my husband wealthy. Mariano’s Crossing, he proudly calls it. The air is warm. Despite sun-above, the water shimmers dark, clear but not clear. Strange purple haze wisps around cottonwood leaves. The river sings its gurgle song, breathes its mossy odor, familiar sounds and smells. I walk upstream along the river trail to a place where a lichen-covered boulder rests beside the riverbank.  I pull away the smaller stones piled at its base, stones that seem natural to other eyes but mine. Underneath is the obsidian blade I hid there after Lena’s death. I pick it up by the thick edge, feel its heft in my palm. It glows, pulsing in time with the purple haze that throbs at the edges of my vision. I run my thumb across the thin edge. Sharper than any knife. 

I touch the scars made by the stone on my upper right arm, just below the shoulder. The lowest scar is newest, left there when I pressed the blade into my flesh after Lena’s death. The next is for Martin, my youngest boy, barely six winters old when he returned to us dead, tied to the saddle of the horse he was riding to prove his manhood. The third is for my little Rosita, not even a winter old when dying of the weakness sickness. 

The last scar I touch is hardened into a rough, aging welt near the top of my shoulder. Punishment for the loss of my first love, long ago, caused by my own willful actions. A story I have never told anyone except Jésu. A story I must tell Lena so she will understand. Heat creeps up my neck even now at the shame of it. I did not want Lena to make the same mistake I did. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The black stone’s spirit calls me to press the blade into my throat instead of my arm. I heft the obsidian toward my neck. How easy to push it into the artery, let the blood pulse out in great arcs, let my mind forget all. But first I must make one last try to connect with my daughter’s spirit.

I return the obsidian to its hiding place and cover it with stones. 

Further upstream I leave the river to climb the red-cliff ridge. There is no trail here, so I push my way through bushes that leave scratches on my arms. Sweat drips down my face and sides. I feel so weak I wonder if I will be able to reach the top. By the time I arrive at Lena’s secret resting place, my legs are shaking, and my breath comes in short gasps. I pull the stopper from my water skin and take a long swallow.

Lena’s bones lie under a pile of rocks between two sandstone slabs that lean against each other like lazy sentries. The opening between them, I have covered with a thin piece of sandstone. It takes the rest of my strength to push it aside. The rocks behind it—her rocks—are undisturbed. Good. No bear or wolf or coyote has found this place. Neither has Medina, or the John Alexander boy who was hoping to marry her, or curious settlers.

It is here I made the crossover ceremony twelve moons ago. Here I come every moon to try talking with Lena’s spirit. Will this last visit be different?  I hope so. My time is short.

I squat in front of the opening, pull a sage bundle from my belt pouch and light it with one of Medina’s phosphoros. With a hawk wing I wave smoke in the four directions. I chant Lena’s crossover song. I call her name, which you are not supposed to do if you want a spirit to cross over. I don’t want that. Not yet. 

Sun travels across the sky from sun-above halfway to sun-asleep. I try praying to Jésu. I make the Catholic touching sign. I feel the broken rosary in my pocket. No response. Not a surprise, since I cursed the name of Jésu after finding Lena’s body. But I am willing to try anything for a chance to find her spirit-being.

I rise, defeated. I take in the vast sky, the shining white peaks toward sun-asleep, the river far below snaking from canyon mouth through sandstone ridges that flank the great mountains. Purple haze still flutters at eye-edge, but dimmer now. Pine scent rides the air I breathe, the squawk of a black-headed blue jay and the trill of a meadowlark reach my ears. The buzz of bees. These are things of this world I will miss. Along with my children. 

I turn slowly in a complete circle. No sign of Lena’s spirit-being. I sigh, replace the sandstone that hides her resting place, and turn to leave. I step lightly downslope, watching for prickly pear and rattlesnakes. Below, the river winds toward the Crossing, cloaked in green cottonwoods. 

Sudden silence. At the far side of eye-edge, I see something move. A chill comes over me. A figure appears from behind a juniper tree. I stare. My breath catches. My heart races. A cry rises in my throat.

It is her.

Her hair is glossy black, the shine back in it. Color is in her cheeks. She is wearing the white doeskin dress I spent a full summer beading for her, the dress she wore while riding Shy Bird in the Denver City parade. She is as beautiful as I remember her.

She turns away to face the western mountains and raises her arms toward the sun. White leather fringes spill against her tawny arms. My beautiful daughter. Her spirit-being, found at last!

I am afraid to breathe, but must, or faint. I take in a small breath, let it out slowly, slowly. Dare I call to her?  I fox-step in her direction, balancing on a flat rock. Then another. A breeze touches my face. A scent of freshly turned earth. Her scent? I am downwind of her. If she were a deer she would not catch my scent. But she is not a deer. 

Another step. The rock tips, clicks against another. Lena lowers her arms, slowly turns toward me. 

No!  Her eyes are vacant gray orbs, staring at nothing. Unseeing ghost eyes.

A cry escapes my throat. I fall to my hands and knees and scrabble backwards, stop, look up. Her dead eyes rove over me, no-see eyes. Not her real eyes, which were dark brown, lovely. They are like my own gray eyes, my ghost eyes that stare back at me when I look at a mirror. Then she turns away, steps—or floats—behind the juniper tree and fades from view. 

Lena!”  I push myself off the ground and rush forward. “Lena, do not leave me!”  I shove the juniper branches aside, scramble around, searching, calling out. She is gone. So close. Was it a vision?  An awake-dream?  Brought on by lack of food, sickness?  Is my mind failing?  I return to the tree. A scrap of red ribbon lies on the ground where she stood. I pick it up, feel its weave, pinch it, marvel at its unfaded redness. It is real. 

I sit down, clutching the ribbon. Maybe she will return. I wait, head turning this way and that at every mouse rustle in the grass, every bird flitting through bushes, every breeze moaning through sandstone rimrock. 

As I wait, my heart sinks. Is Lena warning me away?  Telling me not to follow her?  Does she blame me for what happened?  That must be it. Giving me a sign that we will travel separate roads to the Great Beyond. 

I clutch the ribbon. “Lena, my child. Come back.”  I cringe at the sound of my voice, the desperate wail of it. I clamp my hand over my mouth. I breathe, trying to rein in my galloping heart. To reason with myself. Maybe she is still around. Maybe she can hear my thoughts even if I cannot see her. I will sit here, tell my story. Maybe if she understands why I did what I did, our spirits can join.  


David M. Jessup grew up at Sylvan Dale Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, owned and run by his family. He is passionate about preserving open space and telling stories about the American West.  He is a popular speaker on topics such as cattle ranching, sustainable agriculture, land conservation, flood recovery (he’s been through two floods on the Big Thompson River in Colorado), fiction writing and the history behind his novels. He and his wife, Linda, live in Maryland.


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