Sweet-Grass Christmas

A bit of holiday fiction to warm your heart

Illustration By Ben Simonsen

About the author: Zu Vincent’s novel The Lucky Place is on the 2011 California Libraries Collections List and is an Honor Book for the Paterson Prize. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College, where she won Harcourt’s postgraduate award in 2006. She lives north of Chico and makes her living writing, editing and teaching.

First time I laid eyes on her was Christmas Eve. I mark out my time on the claim so I knew the date. I woke hearing a keening. A wild cat screech, only this was human. Run out of the cabin without a lantern. Run into a big old moon carving up the snow, disclosing things with its yellow light.

She was laboring in the shadows. Crouched down and trembling hard. A scared Indian woman in a stained raccoon cape, with a sorry-looking gash on her cheek, having a baby right behind my woodpile! What with that bright hurt in her eyes, even an old rough-and-ready prospector like me could see that woman was suffering more than her labor. That some kind of trouble had found her.

This was in the late ’60s. I’d been holed up in these mountains since ’49, combing the creek bottom and bringing it up to the sun. Worked me a one-man sluice on Digger Creek. I never had run-ins with Indians myself. Only once got my cabin broke into when I was away in town. But Indians don’t steal as a rule, so I figured they was pretty desperate thieving my flour and beans, and after that took to setting some extras out while I was away. Getting back I never saw so much as a footprint but them supplies was always gone. And once I got myself a nice basket in return.

Deal was, Indians were losing their ground to the white folks coming over the Ridge Trail, pushing north. White folks wanted to root them out, but them mountain tribes were a hard bunch, dug in their heels and refused to give up land as easy as the valley Indians had. Couldn’t say as I blamed them, but I kept my nose to myself. I’d come here green and grown shy, turned into a regular hermit over the years. A body alone don’t pay much heed to the squabbles.

Anyhow, I didn’t know a lick of Indian language to ask how this woman had come here, and that babe wasn’t interested in nothing but getting born. So I knelt to help out. I was motioned off strong. I was breaking custom. Indian women never let a man near a birthing. But she was in a poor way and needing someone, so I guess old Matteus was chosen.

Strongest thing in the world was that laboring woman’s grip. Like to choke me to death. I tried coaxing her inside, the night was freezing, but she wouldn’t have it.

At times like this folks sort of bury their differences, man, woman, Indian, white. We worked, that’s all. I used to help birth cows and the like back home in Tennessee and this didn’t figure to be unlike it. I was beat when it was finished but the fine part was seeing that little bit of a baby girl with moon on her face. Rising Moon, that’s what I called her. Christmas babe.

Darned if her ma didn’t whisk her up and off to the creek, me fit to be tied thinking she meant to drown her. She only dunked her a little though, and wrapped her up good in a skin blanket. Then she suffered herself to come inside.

I called the woman Yana after what some folks call her tribe. I had room enough in the cabin for an extra bed roll so I give her and the babe my bunk. I tried getting some stew down her and cleaning that cheek but she weren’t interested. She tucked in and cuddled her babe and pretty soon I heard suckling.

The two of them were long asleep while I lay awake still feeling the strength in that woman’s grip, smelling her dusky Indian smell. My insides wouldn’t settle and Matteus, I says to myself, what in thunder have you got into now?

Illustration By Ben Simonsen

Near dawn Yana woke up screaming. Her wound was oozing so I put a poultice to it. She was talking nonsense in any tongue, her eyes looking scared over my shoulder like a haint was stalking the room. I held her down so she wouldn’t up and leave out the door with him.

It went on like this all morning, Yana spooked and sweating fierce. She’d raise up and clutch at this bracelet on her wrist, made of sweet grass and woven tight. Then she’d fall back like she’d been hunted down and cornered, shot clean through. Good thing the babe stayed quiet. I stoked the fire and the ’lil thing slept until noon. When she finally woke bawling, Yana didn’t seem to hear.

I didn’t cotton to picking up that babe. She looked so delicate like. But she was pitiful soaked clean through her blanket skin and gnawing for her fist. I fished out some fancy kerchiefs my sister Sarah sent me five years previous, a Christmas gift I never used. What you call monogrammed and real nice.

I unwrapped them from the brown paper where they’d been all this time still smelling of Sarah’s rosewater scent. I smiled to think what Sarah would say seeing them made into nappies. Rising Moon quieted when I dried her. I wrapped her in a kerchief shaking scared holding that bitsa thing in my two rough hands. But she right off took to the warm bit of water and molasses I held on a spoon.

I rocked her till she slept again.

Two days went by like that. Me worrying what I’d do if Yana didn’t ever wake up and feed that babe. I was making flat bread of an evening, Rising Moon in one arm and stirring things in my bowl, when I finally heard what I’d been listening for. Yana perked up and wailing, thinking she’d lost her child.

When I showed her Rising Moon she stopped wailing and her color came back. She had eyes like chipped stone raking me over. I saw an old hurt, a piece tore out of her ear, but her face was real young. She pulled the babe from me and opened the swaddling. When she discovered that monogrammed kerchief she studied it like kerchiefs come from the moon. I thought she’d smile then, but I was disappointed.

Later that night I woke drowsy to see Yana standing by the fire. Her hair was unplaited. Fell long and raven black. She was burning it off piece by piece. She burned each piece clear to her skull. And from what I know of Indians that meant somebody close to her had died.

I figured that once Yana was fit I’d be taking her back to her people. I even figured she might leave on her own, soon as she was able. But every morning there she’d be, the babe wriggling on the bunk beside her. Then she’d up and stick Rising Moon in a sling so she could tramp around outside like cabin air made her seasick. But she never did go very far into the woods, and if I went down to the sluice she’d follow with the babe tucked in her blanket.

One noon coming on the second week of their company, Yana had made us an acorn mush. She was eating with her two fingers, when of a sudden I remembered that Indian basket been left on my doorstep. I brung it out to show her and she grabbed it up and started talking all kinds of things I couldn’t understand. It was the first she’d done more than grunt or nod and I took it to mean she was better now.

The next day I made a decision to take her home. I figured no matter what had come between her and her family they got to be wanting her back. I loaded us up and hiked south, knowing them Indians was camped somewhere near the spawning beds folks later called the Sluicebox. All this time Yana was going slow, looking fretful and glancing round like she thought I was planning some devilment. Them looks of hers and my own restless worry had me good and riled. I wasn’t pure positive of the reception them Indians would give me, neither. Maybe they’d think I stole her or meant them harm. Only thing I could do was count on Yana to set them straight.

Illustration By Ben Simonsen

Took us near to sundown to get to Sluicebox, me expecting to be jumped from some bay tree or taken with an arrow. But there wasn’t a sign, not even no birds or squirrels fussing, the closer we got. That wasn’t natural, us being able to make it all the way to the oak grove marking the Indian village.

I stopped before the trees gave way to the meadow. I looked back at Yana. She stood some yards behind, clutching the babe. Stood stock still and staring at a big old oak with its leaves gone and its branches full of buzzards. Buzzards just hanging there like black fruit. Then of a sudden they’re up and jawing, moving off all at once kind of ponderous like. It was then I knew.

I motioned Yana to stay back and went ahead to make sure. Them birds had gotten to the bodies but even so. It made a terrible stench and the dead all crooked everywhere, babes and mothers and warriors. The snow red beneath the bodies like the earth had been cut open and bled.

My gut was turning when I come back to Yana. What could I do but march her home? Sure scared me how close I’d brought her and what was I to do had she seen that sight.

All the way to the cabin I watched her walking heavy in front of me, her burnt hair sticking out every which way and the raccoon cape, the one she’d come to me in, torn and matted. I didn’t know how she survived. Maybe she’d been outside the village when it happened, being as her time was near. Or maybe she’d managed to get free by some miracle, to make her way to my place. Even after we’d got to understand one another some I never did hear her speak of it. I expect that scar left on her cheek was nothing compared to the one in her heart.

It sure would have seemed a crowd to me had someone beforehand told me I’d be housing Rising Moon and Yana. But here they were and it made life more interesting. That babe was held and suckled and bounced so much she never cried, and I got used to them dark little eyes following me about the cabin. I knew she’d picked her smile up from me and that she liked getting her tiny fingers caught in my beard.

That winter paced itself with snow and rain like it’d never run out. We kept inside for the most part, the fire blooming like sage brush on the hearth. Yana dug through snow for pine needles and worked some baskets, dyed them lichen green. First sign of broke weather and I’d be out sluicing or hunting venison. Come March she took her baskets up to the ridge and gathered bulbs and sweet clover.

I admired how she was always about using things from the wood, herbs and pine bark and sedge grass. Even to making a fine glue from fish in the creek. Come spring she collected more than ever, and with the salmon run she was saving fish bones to dry by the fire and grind into flour. She was teaching me some secrets all right, about this place I thought I knew.

It was nearly June before the heavy water let up in the creek. First warm day at the sluice I worked up such a sweat I had my shirt off. Yana and Rising Moon were with me on the bank as usual, but after a time they disappeared. Pretty soon here Yana is motioning me downstream to that deep hole where the waterfall ran.

She started undressing in that shameless way Indians have, until she wasn’t wearing nothing but her sweet-grass bracelet, and I saw she meant for us to go bathing. Never was a woman more at home in the water, and I set up on the bank watching her go under and counting to myself, thinking she was holding her breath too long. Then she’d be up panting, taking the current strong as any man. Next thing I know she had Rising Moon in, too, dunking her and lifting her up against the sun. I feared she would drown the babe, so I stripped and suffered myself to go in.

That creek was icy enough to split my skull, but I forgot it after a bit, watching Yana and Rising Moon. When we climbed on the rocks to warm ourselves Yana left us to wade upstream. She moved easy and stretched her hands in the water in a quiet way. Like she was calling something. Sure enough, after a time she lifted out a nice trout to show me, bending and glittery with sun.

Illustration By Ben Simonsen

Now that was one impressive feat, and I was determined to learn it. Yana taught me patiently for a while and then I tried for that big old fish I knew holed up beneath the serpentine. I had to stay in current where things were slick, me bent over and wiggling my hands like a crazy man. By jingo if that fish don’t come right up to me! I was so excited I grabbed him hard and before I knew it I slipped on them rocks and the trout went flying. I fumbled that fish like a juggler before I managed to dunk us both.

When I came up spluttering I heard the sound I never thought I’d hear. Yana laughing, hard. Rising Moon was looking at her ma in surprise. I must have been a ridiculous sight. I might even have got offended by her teasing except that laughing sounded so good to me.

Then of a sudden Yana looked scared to death and burst out crying. Set on the rocks and wouldn’t let up. I went right on trying to catch that fish like a half-starved grizzly, shivering and shocked and not knowing what to do.

That night I was sunburned sore. Yana made up a poultice. She pointed to her skin brown as an acorn and just as hard to the weather, then touched my arm with pity. But the best thing was her looking me in the eye. I was right all along—she was pretty when she smiled.

After that Yana let her hair grow. Without its being burnt it got nice and feathery round her face. All that summer we sluiced mornings and swam in the afternoons. Guess I was learning that water didn’t hurt a body’s skin like I’d come to believe. Game was plentiful so we got along good. Yana stretched the hides to dry and made wraps for her and the babe, since I’d gone and buried that old bloody raccoon cape.

There hadn’t been a soul, Indian or white, poking his nose into my neck of the woods for quite some time. I didn’t think it was much of a worry to leave Yana and Rising Moon for my trip to town. What I was dead set against was taking them along. Couldn’t never forget the sight of all them slaughtered people of hers. I figured the less any troublemakers knew about my company the better.

Yana and me had a few words between us by this time, and with the help of some dirt drawing I showed her where I was off to and when I might be back. Five suns, I said, the time it usually took me. They were both standing in the cabin door when I left, I’ll never forget that picture. Rising Moon crawling over to cling to her ma’s leg. Her ma looking after me. It came to me how large my life was then, with the two of them to fill it up. Loneliness doesn’t explain itself to a person until he’s got something to put it against. And I thought on Yana clear to the valley, the way her teeth shone white as shells when she laughed.

But that trip took twice the time I expected. Some trouble on my claim had me to the county seat, three more walking days away. Flat lands worked a real sweat out of a man hiking across them. But it got so I preferred them dry plains to the faces in town. I sure had lost some of the old curiosity that the goings on no longer interested me. Talk was how with spring they’d cleaned out another village of Yana’s people, making the way safe for settlers coming over the Ridge Trail. Some around held there wasn’t no killing of women and babes, but I knew different. I knew had I given Yana over to that remaining tribe she’d be carrion by now. That knowledge put a stench to my visit, and I stayed closed-mouthed and short.

There was, though, one pleasure from being at the county seat. In the mercantile I spotted me a silver bracelet I hankered after for Yana. Spent nearly a third of the dust in my pouch for the trinket, then went on over to the China Town, hoping for a brown-skinned doll for the babe. That there was a lively place, with the fellows carrying baskets on long poles across their shoulders and playing their fan-tan games in the doorways. For once I wished Yana was here to see it. I wished she could have touched the woven bamboo mats in them stores and heard the chimes tinkling when the hot wind knocked through.

The doll I found in a little narrow place what had great red rugs tacked to the walls instead of underfoot. The store fellow brought me a stool and give me tea in a tiny china cup. He had himself some long yellow fingers and a queue half way down his back. I bought the doll he showed me, answering to his Pidgin English that it was for a babe. As I was taking my leave he held up one yellow finger, going behind one of his rugs and bringing out the dandiest music box I ever saw. It was blue and shiny and round, like a women’s powder box. When he lifted the lid, a round mirror was revealed. He turned a key and music floated out. I already had my presents but I bought that music box, too.

Then I quick got what staples I’d come for before I spent every ounce. I traveled home by James Lake and Slate Mountain way, all told it took me near ten days. Closer I come to my mountain the more apprehensive I got. Like maybe I’d been gone ten years instead of ten days, and in my absence one of them fairytale spells had been cast.

Illustration By Ben Simonsen

The woods were quiet near the cabin. The cabin itself deserted. I didn’t see much sign of struggle. Just a chair and blanket out of place. I ran down to the sluice, but there wasn’t a soul. I stumbled up to the ridge for a better view. Turned my eyes over stand after stand of trees. Nothing but mountain heights the way they went marching on.

Then I knew. Yana had took her freedom at last.

I sat on that ridge until sundown; such a sad mood had come over me.

It was dark when I made it back to the cabin. Then I see her with the babe tucked in that sling and her arms full of wood. She’d given me up for lost, too, with the surprise on her face. She laid the wood down real slow and I could see Rising Moon asleep against her shoulder but that she herself had not slept well. She took my hand then, holding tight for the longest time. I didn’t move me an inch, just stood there, no way of telling her my shame for worrying her so. It was the first time she’d held on to me that way since the night Rising Moon was born.

It seemed proper to wait until the babe’s birthday, Christmas Eve, to give Yana and Rising Moon their presents. Yana took them bundles of waxed paper in her quiet way. She liked the music box and made the babe laugh by opening it for the sound and showing her the mirror. She got a kick out of the brown-skinned doll she unwrapped for Rising Moon, and smiled her white shell smile at the joke we shared. Then she began at the last package.

Of a sudden I was scared for her to open it. It coming into my hard head at last what she wore that sweet-grass bracelet for. Yana did not touch my silver bracelet present when she opened it. She looked at me with those chipped-stone eyes and that look didn’t need no scanty words. I could see in her gaze she was sizing me up as a man. It was no good trying to explain the trinket now.

I could feel myself getting shy, the cabin growing small. I had to get out quick, out where I could catch my breath and set some stones dimpling across the creek. You’re an old fool, Matteus, a lonely old fool.

Yana got more quiet than usual that Christmas day, it taking Rising Moon’s prattle to fill the spaces. I swear that babe had grown into a child from one Christmas to the next. It sure pleased me how she’d laugh when I come through the door. Never was a prettier babe than Rising Moon, and I knew in her how Yana must have looked before trouble stamped her.

The more I thought on Yana’s grief the more I kicked myself for buying that silver bracelet. I wished things would go back the way we had them before that bracelet drew a carefulness in the air. I didn’t know where Yana had the bauble hid, but its meaning stood between us.

Even so in them close quarters we had to recognize each other. And now I know the moments connecting two people happen at the simplest times. There we were Christmas evening, both of us watching Rising Moon pull herself up by the footstool. It’s just a year since she come bawling into this world and here she is letting go for her first step. Me and Yana both reached for her at once to keep her from pitching to the hearth. And the babe took her step and plopped down and there Yana and me were grasping nothing but one another.

I felt terrible clumsy when Yana leaned into me instead of letting go. It was my first experience of such warmth. How warm that woman felt when I held her.

There never was two more shy people born to this earth than me and Yana approaching our feelings after that. It is what you call a paradox to me that this strong Indian woman could worry me as delicate. But there wasn’t no sense in trying to figure out why life done to her what it done, or how the two of us, so unlikely, come to be together.

I expect Yana had some thoughts on this, too, and grieved all the more for it being my people that murdered hers. But I never did see no hate in her eyes, only the sadness, and maybe something deeper that this fellow will never understand. I knew it was hard for her having the Indian ways inside, and sometimes I was sure that ghost she’d seen on the first night was living there in the cabin with us. I guess it must be like that there musical box, how even when you clamp on the lid the tune keeps going round and round, if only in your head.

Still and all that Christmas night I noticed, next to the sweet grass, my silver bracelet on Yana’s wrist.