THE SICK CHILD
BY HENOOK-MAKHEWE-KELENAKA (ANGEL DE CORA)
It was about sunset when I, a little child,
was sent with a handful of powdered tobacco
leaves and red feathers to make an offering
to the spirit who had caused the sickness of
my little sister. It had been a long,
hard winter, and the snow lay deep on the
prairie as far as the eye could reach.
The medicine-woman's directions had been that
the offering must be laid upon the naked earth,
and that to find it I must face toward the setting sun.
I was taught the prayer: "Spirit grandfather,
I offer this to thee. I pray thee restore my little sister to health."
Full of reverence and a strong faith that
I could appease the anger of the spirit,
I started out to plead for the life of our little one.
But now where was a spot of earth to be found
in all that white monotony?
They had talked of death at the house.
I hoped that my little sister would live,
but I was afraid of nature. I reached a little spring.
I looked down to its pebbly bottom, wondering whether
I should leave my offering there, or keep on in search
of a spot of earth. If I put my offering in the water,
would it reach the bottom and touch the earth, or would
it float away, as it had always done when I made my
offering to the water spirit?
Once more I started on in my search of the bare ground.
The surface was crusted in some places,
and walking was easy; in other places I would wade
through a foot or more of snow. Often I paused,
thinking to clear the snow away in some place and
there lay my offering. But no, my faith must be in nature,
and I must trust to it to lay bare the earth.
It was a hard struggle for so small a child.
I went on and on; the reeds were waving their tasselled
ends in the wind. I stopped and looked at them.
A reed, whirling in the wind, had formed a space round
its stem, making a loose socket.
I stood looking into the opening.
The reed must be rooted in the ground,
and the hole must follow the stem to the earth.
If I poured my offerings into the hole,
surely they must reach the ground;
so I said the prayer I had been taught,
and dropped my tobacco and red feathers into the
opening that nature itself had created.
No sooner was the sacrifice accomplished than a
feeling of doubt and fear thrilled me.
What if my offering should never reach the earth?
Would my little sister die?
Not till I turned homeward did I realize how cold I was.
When at last I reached the house they took me in
and warmed me, but did not question me, and I said nothing.
Every one was sad, for the little one had grown worse.
The next day the medicine woman said my little sister
was beyond hope; she could not live.
Then bitter remorse was mine, for I thought I had
been unfaithful, and therefore my little sister was
to be called to the spirit-land. I was a silent child,
and did not utter my feelings; my remorse was intense.
My parents would not listen to what the medicine-woman
had said, but clung to hope. As soon as she had gone,
they sent for a medicine-man who lived many miles away.
He arrived about dark. He was a large man, with a sad,
gentle face. His presence had always filled me with awe,
and that night it was especially so,
for he was coming as a holy man.
He entered the room where the baby lay, and took a seat,
hardly noticing any one. There was silence saving
only for the tinkling of the little tin ornaments
on his medicine-bag. He began to speak:
"A soul has departed from this house,
gone to the spirit-land. As I came I saw luminous
vapor above the house. It ascended, it grew less,
it was gone on its way to the spirit-land.
It was the spirit of the little child who is sick;
she still breathes, but her spirit is beyond our reach.
If medicine will ease her pain, I will do what I can."
He stood up and blessed the four corners of the earth with song.
Then, according to the usual custom of medicine-doctors,
he began reciting the vision that had given him the right
to be a medicine-man. The ruling force of the vision had
been in the form of a bear. To it he addressed his prayer,
saying: "Inasmuch as thou hast given me power to cure
the sick, and in one case allowing me to unite spirit
and body again, if thou seest fit, allow me to recall
the spirit of this child to its body once more."
He asked that the coverings be taken off the baby,
and that it be brought into the middle of the room.
Then, as he sang, he danced slowly around the little form.
When the song was finished, he blessed the child, and then
prepared the medicine, stirring into water some ground herbs.
This he took into his mouth and sprinkled it over the little body.
Another mixture he gave her to drink.
Almost instantly there was a change;
the little one began to breathe more easily,
and as the night wore on she seemed to suffer less.
Finally she opened her eyes, looked into mother's face, and smiled.
The medicine-man, seeing it, said that the end was near,
and though he gave her more medicine, the spirit, he said,
would never return. After saying words of comfort,
he took his departure, refusing to take a pony and
some blankets that were offered him, saying that he had
been unable to hold the spirit back, and had no right
to accept the gifts. The next morning I found the
room all cleared away, and my mother sat sewing
on a little white gown.
The bright red trimming caught my eye.
I came to her and asked, "Please mother,
tell me for whom is that, and why do you make it so pretty?"
She made no answer, but bent over her work.
I leaned forward that I might look into her face and
repeat my question. I bent down, and, oh!
the tears were falling fast down her cheeks.
Then we were told that our little sister was gone
to the spirit-land, and we must not talk about her.
We felt of her and kissed her, but she made no response.
Then I realized what death meant. Remorse again seized me,
but I was silent.