THE SHAMAN’S RATTLE
A SHORT STORY BY DONALD WILLIAMS JR.
(All rights reserved)
Mechakhokque (When the cold makes the trees crack)
The branches of the trees were bowed under the heavy, freezing snow in the Moravian mission town of New Gnadenhutten, near the Huron River. While a freezing wind howled without, the inside of the cabin where the child lay ill was warm. The smoke from the small hearth hung thick in the only room, making it even harder for the child to breath. Her fever burned, and was not responding to the cooling applications applied by her mother. The child’s condition was growing worse. Her mother, Marie Chalfont, a woman in her mid-twenties, with light brown hair, whose countenance gave very little hint of her French-Munsee Delaware parentage. Marie was better known to all as the fiery, headstrong French Mary, was becoming desperate.
Rising from the floor where she knelt near the bed, the mixed blood French-Munsee, Mary, would pay a visit to her closest friend Ruth, a devout Christian Mohegan Indian, who was skilled with herbal treatments. A potion prepared by Ruth had already been tried, but with no result.
Arriving at Ruth’s cabin, wrapped in a blanket against the cold, and being received by Ruth’s husband Jeramiah Strong Oak, Mary desperately pleaded with her friend for help.
“I will come with you to see the child myself, Mary,” said Ruth, looking distressed knowing her last attempt at an herbal remedy failed. The two women walked on snow several feet deep, it being so frozen as to allow them to walk on top of it without the benefit of snow shoes.
Arriving at French Mary’s cabin, a structure of hewn logs, with oil-paper windows and a stone chimney, they found Mary’s husband Jonathan Symes, former sergeant in Butler’s Rangers, kneeled beside the bed where Mary’s oldest daughter, eleven-year-old LaBelle, lay burning with fever. LaBelle, whose Christian name was Margaret, was a child from Mary’s previous marriage to a Christian Munsee named Stephen, who was murdered by Pennsylvanian freebooters near Fort Pitt. As the two women labored over LaBelle, Jonathan quieted their seven-month-old infant, Esther.
It took only a short period of time before Ruth leaned back from the child, a discouraged look on her face. “I must be honest with you, Mary. I have nothing in my herbal stores to help her.” Tears formed in Ruth eyes as she spoke, telling the whole story. LaBelle will die if something can’t soon be done.
“Oh God,” cried Mary, “what am I to do? I can’t lose her. Help me Ruth, please.”
Forcing back tears, and taking her friend by the hand, Ruth responded with the only thing she had left to offer her friend. “We must pray hard, and trust in the Lord. I’m sure he will hear your plea.” Ruth embraced her Moravian beliefs to the utmost, and suggested her friend place her child’s life in His care.
Mary just knelt next to her child, her chest heaving with trepidation. She began to shake. Her eyes were wild. She addressed her friend in a low voice that sounded almost like a growl. “Ruth, I lost my little Simon at Gnadenhutten, murdered by the Long Knives. I cannot . . . I will not lose another. I must find a way.”
“The kind of potion LaBelle needs comes only from herbs often kept by tribal shaman. There are none to be found here,” replied Ruth, trying to remain calm in the face of Mary’s growing hysteria. Ruth knew her words would stir French Mary to want do what was forbidden, but she had to tell her friend the truth.
“Then I shall go to the Chippewa and get these herbs from the Shaman,” said Mary with determination in her voice. Her friend was afraid that would be her answer.
Ruth reminded her that they were Christians who had vowed to follow their Christian faith as directed by their Moravian teachers. “They will never agree to have you visit a shaman and obtain herbs that have been concocted by magicians and shamans, who invoke mystical powers to aid in their remedies. No, this is not something you should even think of. I am sorry I mentioned it,” said Ruth resolutely.
Mary remained silent for a time, then her shaking stopped. She looked at her friend and smiled. “Thank you, Ruth, for helping me. Not only with LaBelle, but with those things that torture my very soul,” referring to her struggle between her tribal beliefs and the Moravian teachings. With that, knowing the stubborn resolve of her friend, Ruth wrapped herself in a blanket against the bitter cold and left.
“Mary,” said Jonathan who had been listening nearby, “certainly you are not going to try and go to the Chippewa village through this dreadful freeze, against the admonitions of our Moravian teachers, and risk LaBelle’s life to a shaman?”
Mary’s face became hardened. “No, Jonathan, I am not going to try . . . I am going to succeed.”
Jonathan tried to reason with her, but to no avail. He thought of going to Reverend Zeisberger, the principal missionary, and getting him to put a stop to this. But he knew the strong-willed French Mary would not be deterred. The death of Simon resonated through every fiber of her being, and he knew his wife could not survive another such loss. He did attempt to use their infant daughter as a deterrent, but Mary suggested she be put under the care of Ruth while she was absent.
“Then I must go with you,” said Jonathan, feeling completely powerless against his wife’s wishes. “We will depart first thing tomorrow,” he told her.
“No, Jonathan, we will depart now,” came the reply.
All that has previously transpired had taken place in the early hours of the morning. By late morning, with Ruth reluctantly agreeing to care for the children, French Mary and Jonathan had ventured out of New Gnadenhutten toward the Chippewa village, a hunting camp eight miles away. The air was freezing cold as an unforgiving wind blew from the west. Snow of a depth of four feet in some places, with a hard, icy crust created a hostile path not easily navigated, even with their snow shoes. Although their progress toward the village was slowed by these conditions, French Mary’s mind raced. Her remembrance of Simon’s death and her subsequent abandonment of the Moravian congregation dominated her thoughts. She never felt a genuine commitment to their doctrine, an issue she struggled with. She admitted only to herself that she had returned to them for the sole reason she didn’t want to hurt LaBelle or Little James, or sacrifice her potential marriage to Jonathan. Now her daughter lay dying, and again, as it was with Simon, the Christian Moravian converts were powerless to help.
As they made their way through the wintry forest, Jonathan again reminded her that the teachers would be angry at her seeking help from a Chippewa shaman. Prodding along exhausted, with her breath coming almost in gasps at this point, she told him, “I do not care, Jonathan, what they think of me. It is my child who is dying, and there is among them no one with the capacity to save her.”
Tripping on a frozen rock beneath the snow, Jonathan staggered, fell, and then regained himself. The hardy former sergeant of the British rangers shook with cold. “I know your feelings about their lack of fortitude in saving the victims at Gnadenhutten, particularly Simon. And remember, these feelings caused you to walk away from them and return to your tribal ways. What did they then do when you asked? They took you back. This will appear as though you have once again cast them aside, and have no true belief in their Christian God.”
The exhausted woman stopped and looked directly at her husband. “Do I look tired, Jonathan? Well, I am. But I am not tired from this difficult journey. I am tired of being a hypocrite.”
Jonathan stood listening as freezing blasts of snowy wind struck him in the face. “What do you mean by that,” he inquired.
“Oh, Jonathan,” said Mary, “I have tried so hard to be true to their ways and embrace their faith.” She referred to the Moravian teachings. “But the truth is that I have failed miserably.”
“You mean you still follow your Roman Catholicism?” French Mary had been baptized Roman Catholic and having spent her youth in Montreal, she secretly embraced Catholicism even after entering the Moravian community. Her enemies within that community were well aware of this.
To Jonathan’s bewilderment, she shook her head. “No. I keep that in a very private place,” she replied, not wanting to discuss it. “In spite of all my efforts to be a true convert to the ways of our teachers, my heart wanders back to my own people. They were the ones who truly helped me in seeking revenge for Simon. In coming here to the Chippewa shaman, Jonathan, I being far less a hypocrite than if I remained at our town praying with them to save my daughter.”
Jonathan left the conversation there. He knew his wife was a troubled creature who allowed her heart and her intuition to guide her, and no one, himself included, would change her. French Mary could be counted on to resist anything forced upon her. She remains steadfast in her own beliefs, unclear as they were to Jonathan.
Their bodies were aching from the labors of trudging through the deep snow. They both shook with cold and were rapidly being overcome by exhaustion and thirst. The little food and water they brought was gone. Darkness would soon set in. Jonathan, who had recovered from a past wound in his leg, had kept silent about the pain he was experiencing as they made their way to the Chippewa village. However, the further they went, the more intolerable became the pain. Finally, he could bear it no more. He sat straight down in the snow.
“Jonathan!” cried Mary. “What is the matter?” He told her. An immediate sense of panic overwhelmed her. She, herself, was exhausted and barely able to continue, and would never be able to help the ailing Jonathan to make it to the village. With darkness came an even deeper freeze. If she went on alone, Jonathan would surely die of exposure. If she remained, they would both die, and so would La Belle. She wanted desperately to save her child, but could not leave her husband to freeze to death. She turned to the spirits of the forest, and to the Earth Mother. As she prayed, she found some sacred beans in her pocket which she spread around herself and Jonathan. It became colder. She began chanting a death song. The dauntless French Mary knew the end had come.
She awakened in a smoke- filled wigwam, her head spinning with confusion and she had difficulty focusing. Soon she was aware of faces starring down at her. She soon learned that she was in the winter hunting quarters of a band of Chippewa. They had been returning from a winter hunt when they discovered the pair lying near death in the forest.
“My husband,” inquired Mary, suddenly remembering Jonathan’s leg. “Is he…….” Her voice trailed off.
“The man is safe and will be well. He has much pain and is not now jabbering with the spirits,” said an elder, referring to the fact that Jonathan was not in his right mind. “Why do you two White people wander in the forest near our village? And how comes it you understand me? Have you lost your sense? You appear to come from the town of the Praying Indians.”
Mary explained their purpose. “Aha, so why do you, the Christian people come to seek help from those of us you call heathens?” asked the elder Chippewa.
“I am a Munsee,” Mary told him, “And I follow the beliefs of my people.” The elder now laughed.
“Since when do the Munsee have hair that is almost the color of a young doe?” It was clear he did not trust her motives, and was not prepared to grant her the privilege of receiving help from their shaman. Mary tool a gamble on her brother’s reputation.
“I am a French Munsee of mixed blood, as is my brother Black Cloud of the Munsee.” At this disclosure, the elder Chippewa’s whole countenance changed.
“There is no greater warrior than Black Cloud of the Munsee,” he said. “Then you must be she who is called French Mary.” From that point on, the members of this clan could not do enough for her. Good fortune smiled on her, and a shaman was present. The necessary herbs were produced, and two warriors were appointed to accompany French Mary and the Chippewa shaman back to New Gnadenhutten and the ailing child.
By early morning, before the sun had risen, they departed, French Mary having rested well enough to continue. Jonathan would remain behind with the Chippewa until he was better able to travel.
By mid-afternoon the town of New Gnadenhutten came into view. The temperature had warmed a bit, and a light mist hung over the snow’s icy crust, giving it an eerie appearance. The wind was merciful, it remained calm. The closer to her cabin they came, the greater was the dread of what awaited inside. If LaBelle still lived, Mary trusted the powerful medicine of the shaman to restore her. Mary was asking the Earth Spirits to help her.
As they neared the entrance, Little James came running toward Mary, tears in his eyes. She braced herself for the worst. He threw his arms around her, expressing his joy at her safe return. He inquired of Jonathan and was told. “LaBelle?” she asked, “Is she…….”
“Alive. But barely,” came the answer. Summoning the shaman and his warriors to follow, Mary entered the cabin where she immediately encountered Ruth leaning over LaBelle, tears in her eyes. She looked at Mary and then the others.
“She lives,” said Ruth, starring with disbelief at Mary’s companions. “I will go now,” she said, no longer wanted to take part in what was unfolding. As Ruth stepping outside, taking baby Esther with her, she noticed a group of Christian Brethren starting to gather, they having seen French Mary return with three Chippewa. The Brethren all knew the purpose of the three. The national assistants had been sent for. They were men of native birth chosen to assist the missionary teachers, and held a high status in the Moravian Indian community.
The shaman examined the child and saw her condition was grave, but not hopeless. If his remedy worked, she would begin a recovery very soon, but if it failed, she would die within the hour.
Instructing Mary to get him the required vessel and mixing utensils, he prepared the heated potion, and with much difficulty got the child to drink it down. French Mary stood nearby, powerless to do anything but watch. She no longer felt as assured as she had a while ago. The child’s breathing was labored, her fever seemed to be burning her up. Mary knew the signs, and death was drawing near.
The door to the cabin suddenly opened abruptly, admitting burst of cold air and two national assistants. The sound of rattling and a chant.
“We have rules within our society, Mary,” said Brother David, a surly and aging Delaware. “We do not allow the heathen rituals to be practiced in our midst.”
“Have you forgotten that it is prayer that will answer your child’s needs. If God chooses for her to live, then it will be so. Surely, you do not want to allow Satan himself to save her for his own purposes,” said Brother Solomon, the younger national assistant.
Her face turned from grief to fury and her fists clinched with rage. “I will not lose another child without doing everything on this earth possible to save her. I’m her mother and she does trust in me to do this.” The shaman continued his ritual, non-plussed at what was taking place behind him as he danced about the child, shaking his rattle and chanting in a low voice. The two Chippewa warriors just looked on, remaining stone-faced.
Brother David now became angry and spoke his mind. “These Chippewa are an indolent people who do no farming, but would rather eat toads and dogs than apply themselves to a plow. And it is in them, rather than the Almighty, that you put your faith?”
Now Brother Solomon stepped up to Mary. “Dismiss these men instantly, so myself and our Brethren can continue our prayers for Margaret.”
“I will tell you who is dismissed! It is both of you. Now get out,” screamed Mary, no longer caring about their rebuke. But before the two national assistants were able to exit the cabin, there came a sudden cry from the shaman.
“Aiyee.” He pointed to LaBelle. It took Mary a moment, but then she saw. There was a small cluster of sweat beads forming on her forehead. The shaman’s herbs were working, the fever was going to break. The child would live. The two national assistants, convinced that they had just witnessed a form of dark magic, quickly withdrew from the cabin.
During the night, LaBelle’s fever broke completely. She was in a terribly weakened condition but was clearly in an early stage of mending. The desperate attempt of her mother and Jonathan had paid off. Surely, had they not sought the help of the shaman; the child would have died.
On the morning following LaBelle’s beginnings of recovery, with the wind howling along the Huron River, Mary was summoned to the meeting house. She had anticipated this happening, and went without protest. Once inside the hewn log structure, with a warm fire in the hearth, she seated herself on a bench opposite the two national assistant who had been present the previous evening. There were several other church elders there, most of them Munsee, and a few Mohicans. Sitting to one side, his interpreter nearby, was their long time and beloved principal missionary, Reverend David Zeisberger, now in his late sixties. The love, charity, and compassion of this man could be seen in his eyes.
The Moravian Christian Indian community was anything but mean spirited, but were rather a loving people. The behavior of the two national assistants the previous evening was clearly out of character for them, and appears to have been brought on by an honest dread of what was taking place before them. But at a time the Christian Indians and their teachers were undergoing a winter of great hunger and depravation, the national assistants were not about to allow blasphemy to thrive where God was desperately needed.
“Where are the Chippewa?” asked the principal missionary.
“Gone,” said Mary. “Before sun up.”
“And our little Margaret, or LaBelle as we all fondly call her, how is she?”
Mary explained the child’s beginnings of a recovery. All in the room were delighted. The Reverend Zeisberger then allowed to national assistants to speak. Both made a strong case against French Mary’s departure from her Christian vows, as well as her disregard for the rules of the society. Reverend Zeisberger just listened as the national assistants and several of the elders set forth the belief that both Mary and Jonathan be expelled from the society, and should leave as soon as the weather will safely allow it.
Hearing this did not surprise French Mary. The national assistant, Brother David continued to reprobate her. “You left Captive Town saying you could no longer live among us, for you much blamed us for what happened at Gnadenhutten. You returned to your brother Etienne, the war captain they call Black Cloud, and along with him you took an active part in the war, and even brutally tortured and executed a deserter who had been your former admirer. Despite all of this, Reverend Zeisberger and the Christian Brethren had welcomed you back. You had renewed your vows. Now, again, you dismiss us in favor of your heathen beliefs. So, French Mary, I say to you go, live among your chosen people, and trouble us no further.” Most of the elders present nodded their approval of Brother David’s words.
Knowing that Reverend Zeisberger was a kind and forgiving man, Mary’s instinct told her that he was going to ask her to renounce what she did, and renew her vows before God and the Brethren and Sisters of the society. She knew if she refused to do this, Jonathan and the children would all suffer her same fate. But she also knew that to go on keeping up a pretense among such good and honest people would result in nothing good. She had prayed to Kitanitouit to save her daughter, and is was clear he had done so through the Chippewa shaman. French Mary knew what she had to do.
Her intuition was correct, and Reverend Zeisberger did exactly as she thought; he offered her forgiveness. “Renounce Satan,” he said. “Accept that is was our prayers, and not the rituals of the heathen shaman, that caused LaBelle to live. Please renew your vows.” He smiled at her, the invitation to his world of peace and love beckoning from his eyes. French Mary admired and loved this man whose tutelage she had lived under for ten years. It would take every fiber of her being to be able to look at him and reject his offer. The room was charged with anticipation of her repentance. She hesitated, and then spoke.
“I am most grateful to my teachers and the national assistants for your offer of forgiveness, and to allow me to remain after my transgressions against you,” she began. The Reverend Zeisberger started to smile, and the others began to feel relief. She continued. “However, it is an offer I cannot accept.” There were several gasps in the room. French Mary, voice trembling, tears welling up in her eyes, but standing tall in front of them, gave her reasons with all candor.
Reverend Zeisberger, disappointed and saddened by Mary’s decision, attempted to rescue the moment. “You have been through several terrible ordeals, Sister Mary. First, with Simon, and now with La Belle. I believe your mind is taxed and confused. As the snow lays heavy on the ground, there remains time for more reflection. I ask that you wait until Jonathan has returned to us, and once you have talked with him, I will again ask for your answer.” Mary simply nodded and walked out, feeling on the verge of collapse.
answer.” Mary simply nodded and walked out, feeling on the verge of collapse.
A few days hence, Jonathan arrived back at the cabin, much improved, and accompanied by a Chippewa warrior. He was immediately uplifted at seeing LaBelle on the mend, but he was rather astonished to see his wife sitting near the child dressed in doeskins, moccasins, and adorned with shell beads. She was wearing her tribal garb. After satisfying each other with general inquiries as to their well-being, Jonathan turned his attention to Mary’s appearance.
“Why are you dressed like this?” he inquired, almost knowing what the answer would be.
Mary explained the situation with the Moravian teachers, and the decision she needed to now make.
“Mary,” he pleaded, “we have been unduly cold, we are all hungry, and LaBelle is in a weakened condition. You remember the last time you had to make this choice, and what you almost did to the children….to me.”
“When one has lived in as many different worlds as I have, Jonathan, I long to pick the one in which my heart and soul can find comfort. That world is not here with the Christian Delaware,” she said with a resolve.
“What do the children say? And Ruth?” he asked, desperately hoping to dissuade her from this action.
“Little James is with me on this, and LaBelle will learn soon enough who saved her. As for Ruth, she knows my intentions, and although she doesn’t agree with them, she accepts it.” Mary hesitated for a bit and then spoke. “And what about you Jonathan?”
“I am tired from my journey, Mary. I wish to rest. We will talk about this later,” said Jonathan.
Mary agreed, and then busied herself preparing food for Jonathan, the Chippewa, and the children. She looked at her daughter who had been saved by the Shaman, at her nephew James who wore the metal bracelet with the image of a Thunderbird his father had given him, and at her infant Esther who she had named after the Seneca queen. “I know what I must do,” she murmured to herself.
The following morning, the couple again appeared before the principal missionary, prepared to give a final decision. Mary smiled at Reverend Zeisberger, and nodded to the others. She then looked at Jonathan, who smiled back at her.
“Brother Zeisberger, I have come to a decision,” she said, her voice steady this time, and no nervous shaking inside. “I must take leave of my loving Christian Delaware family and return to my own people. That is where I belong. My family will be going with me.” Now there were tears in the missionary’s eyes as he wished her well, and requested a visit from time to time. The missionary offered that they could remain until spring. Mary declined, stating they would leave for the Chippewa village as soon as LaBelle was able, taking only what they could carry. The rest would be left for the congregation’s use.
Two weeks later, at an early hour, the small party departed for the Chippewa hunting camp. The weather remained freezing, and everyone felt the bite of hunger from the scarcity of corn and meat. Their goodbyes had been said, and tears were shed as they departed.
“Let us wait for just a moment,” requested Mary. “I just want to look at it for a moment.” They all stood looking at the result of their labors, a village containing a chapel, twenty- two cabins, and cleared fields now covered with ice and snow. But within its confines were the Christian Indians and their teachers, all kind and loving souls who lived simply to serve their Almighty God.
“They are the exemplification of goodness,” said Jonathan.
As they turned to go, French Mary had a question for LaBelle. One of which the answer was of the utmost importance, yet one she had been afraid to ask. “Tell me, LaBelle. What do you believe saved you from dying?”
The child had no understanding of the herbs which had been administered to her. She though deeply but did not reply. The group walked on.
After walking in silence for some distance, the pensive child finally spoke.
“It was the shaman’s rattle.”
French Mary just smiled.