The Witch in the Woods

Gorgeous image of beautiful Native American little girl is from: http://www.mirartegaleria.com/2015/09/imagenes-de-pinturas-de-indios.html

 

The Witch in the Woods

Melissa E. Beckwith

 

Abby was only twelve years old when she became an orphan.  Her parentage was never questioned before she got sent to the overcrowded orphanage but it was there they started to call her half-breed, though she was only a quarter, at best.  Her Ma had died two years before and then her Pa drank himself to death.  Where her Ma’s people where she didn’t know, but she heard her Pa had a sister named Natalie Frasier in the east.  The officials couldn’t or wouldn’t find her aunt so, having a little Indian blood in her, and with nowhere else to stick her, they sent Abby to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

Abby sat quietly on the train, gloved hands folded demurely across her skirted lap.  The smell of sweat and urine hung in the thick air.  Abby snuck peeks at the children around her careful to not stare for fear she may be seen as rude.  Her hair was dark like theirs, though not completely black, and maybe her nose was almost as flat, but she knew she was not one of them.   Her Ma had told her that her grandma was a Creek Indian from the south and when Pa wasn’t around she’d tell Abby the stories that the old people of her mother’s tribe would tell their children.  Abby never thought of herself as an Indian though.  Was her grandma’s blood a branding iron that tattooed her as one of them?  Did her lighter skin and green eyes not account for anything?

Just as the sun dimmed the train finally arrived in Carlisle Borough. Abby stepped off the train with her suitcase in hand and followed the line of Indian children to the waiting carts.  School officials inspected the children as each climbed up on the wagons.  “Aren’t you in the wrong place, miss?” a man asked Abby.  As she had been instructed, she handed him the paper that was given to her at the orphanage.   He read it and shook his head.  “Too bad.  What a waste.  Climb up, then!”

Life at the school was not easy.  The school had once been an Army fort and was still run as if it were.  Being one of only a few children who spoke English Abby’s mouth wasn’t washed out with lye or she wasn’t beat like the rest of the children.  Being white and American already, she wasn’t treated so badly, but the other children avoided her at first.  The matrons expected Abby to do her American duty and spy on the Indian children and report back to them if she heard them speaking Indian or singing and dancing.  Abby just looked away when she did hear them talking softly to each other, she didn’t owe the matrons her loyalty.

After a while, Abby won the friendship of a few children her age.  One of those friends was Maggie, who had come to Carlisle a few months before Abby had.  Not long after Abby had arrived Maggie was caught speaking Indian to her cousin and was made to press her lips to a hot radiator!  Abby heard Maggie’s screams of pain for years afterward.  Sometimes Abby woke up at night with the sound of Maggie’s wail echoing through her head.  It was then that she would cry for her Ma and Pa.  She also dreamed of her Aunt Natalie coming to rescue her from the Indian school.  As the crickets and cicadas sang to each other outside the window, Abby wondered what the mountains were like where her aunt lived.

“The Green Witch lives across the ferns!” is what Harry told Abby one afternoon.  He had been a student at Carlisle for four years and knew English pretty well.  Maggie told Abby that the witch was important and knew everything.  Abby thought that the witch might know exactly where her Aunt Natalie was.  Her chance to be free from Indian school!  She had made the decision to run away the night before.  She could not stand to stay in the Indian school one minute more!

“Take food,” Maggie said and slipped some biscuits into Abby’s bag that was filled with water and a blanket.  She smiled at Abby and Abby thought she was beautiful despite the scars.

“Take the wood cutter’s trail until you get to the Great Oak, then follow the deer track until you get to her cottage,” Harry whispered as they snuck through the dark out to the fence.  The children had discovered the small hole in the fence days earlier when chasing a runaway ball.

The moon was bright, almost full, but the guards and matrons were not looking and they found the hole in the fence again quite easily.  Abby turned to Harry and Maggie, suddenly afraid.  “Have either of you ever been to the witch’s cottage before?”  They both just shook their dark heads.

“Others that have run away said they saw a witch in the woods.”

Did they say if she was a nice witch?” Abby asked nervously.  Harry shrugged his shoulders; very un-Indian like.

Maggie pulled a small trinket from her pocket.  It was a piece of jewelry that she had smuggled into the school.  If she had been caught with it, she would have been beaten.  “Give gift to witch,” she said and pressed it into Abby’s hand.

Just as the sun started to rise, turning the black forest into shades of purple and pink Abby found the Green Witch’s cottage.  She supposed they called her the Green Witch because her cottage was barely visible amongst all the huge ferns, bushes and trees.  Abby hoped she wasn’t really green.

Abby walked out into a stray beam of light that had grown brighter as she stood in the shadows trying to gather her courage.  “Hello!” She called out.  She heard no sound.  “Hello!”  Maybe the witch was dead and Abby would never find her aunt!  Had she come all this way for nothing?  Captain Pratt or School Father, as he liked the children to call him, would be so angry; her escape would have been discovered by now.  She would be severely beaten when they found her.  She began to tremble.

“Well, well, what do we have here?”  Abby whirled around and dropped her bag as she stifled a scream.  “Looks like another escaped child, huh?  Well, you don’t look native to me?”  She squeezed her wizened chin between a bony forefinger and thumb.  “What should I do with you, girl?  ‘Ol Pratt will have his goons out look’n for you soon enough, though he hasn’t had much luck find’n this place so far.”  She scrunched up her face and gave a hoot of laughter.  She did sound like she could be a witch.

“Are…are you the Green Witch?”

“Ha!  A witch?  No, more like a Guardian, child.”

Abby immediately felt disappointed.  What if this woman was not the one she came to find?  “Please, ma’am.  I was told that there was a witch in this forest that knows everything and that can help me find my Aunt Natalie.”

Her face looked like a piece of crumpled up newspaper, her hair was white as a summer sun and tied tightly into a bun stuck to the back of her head.  She shut one eye and cocked her head as if trying to get a better look at Abby.  “You do have a bit of Indian in ya, girl.  So I suppose I can help you.  Now you say you don’t know where your aunt is?”

“Well, I know she lives in the mountains of North Carolina.  Her name is Natalie Frasier.  My Pa, John Simon was her older brother.”

“Ah, a mountain woman, all the better!  Come in and I’ll make us some tea.”

The Witch’s cottage was small and warm.  A tiny fire was burning in a stone pit.   Pine cones and small bits of wood lined her mantle.  She handed Abby a chipped mug steaming with the sweet smell of tea and honey.  She drank a few sips and then remembered Maggie’s gift!  She dug in her pocket and retrieved the little carved figure of what looked like a woman. “Pardon me, ma’am.  A girl from the school gave me this to give to you as a gift.”  Abby handed it to the witch, her thin palm outstretched to the girl.

“Ah!  This is a fine one!”  She looked happy.  “Yes, made by a Sioux Shaman.  It is used to increase a Shaman’s powers.  I am quite pleased that she would consider me a Magic Woman.”

“Maggie Stands-Looking gave it to me.  She is a Sioux Princess,” Abby said enthusiastically.

“Ah, Stands-Looking!  Her father is Chief American Horse, from the Rosebud Reservation.  A fine band of proud Sioux!  Their men can be quite handsome.”   Her eyes grew far-away as if she were remembering something in the distant past.  She came back to herself then.  “We will find your aunt; we will do the calling, but must wait for the full moon.  Two days time,” she announced and smiled, showing a few missing teeth.

A few nights later the full moon sailed over the Pennsylvania Ash, Birch, Hemlock, and Oak.  The Chestnut, Hickory, and Walnut also raised their heavy arms and leafy hands to the Moon Goddess.  The witch was dressed in a strange outfit that looked more native than American.  It had beads and feathers and her creesed, an old face was painted just like a savage!  Abby fully believed the old woman could call her aunt to her.

In front of her cottage, she built a small fire and sat, beating a drum that took up the rhythm of Abby’s heart.  She stayed that way for a long time and then took a drink of her tea, the beating silenced.  Then she took up her stick, grabbed her drum and started to sing in time to the drum beats/ heart beats.  Abby did not understand a word that she was saying but hoped her aunt could hear them in North Carolina.

Finally, the beating stopped and she began to chant and suddenly threw something in the fire.  It sparked and burned blue like the color of Abby’s Pa’s eyes, then died suddenly, just as he did.

“Your aunt has been called but whether she answers that call is up to her heart.”

Abby was about to ask a question when men burst into the small enclosure.  “You have enchanted your last savage, witch!”  Captain Pratt screamed as he threw a burning torch onto the roof of the Green Witch’s cottage.

Abby screamed and tried to run but was caught by two men.  They held her closely as she watched the witch’s cottage burn.  Wood peeled like flesh as it took the form of dancing flames.  Crackling echoed across the forest as the cottage turned orange and scalded the green fingers of ferns and trees alike.  Hot, acrid smoke filled Abby’s nose and she coughed.  Her eyes watered as she tried to find the witch, but the old woman was gone.

 

In school, she was not looked upon as the favorite anymore. Abby was the one that escaped and must be watched.  Other children were sent to spy on her this time.  Abby thought often of the Green Witch and wondered if she had died in the fire.  School Father Pratt told Abby how disappointed he was in her.  She was beaten and put in a room alone with no food or water for three days and nights.  All she kept thinking about was the haunting rhythm of the witch’s song.  After a few weeks, she gave up hope that it would work.  Maggie and Harry looked at her with sympathy.

As the full moon crested the sky outside the barrack windows Abby once again thought about the Green Witch and wondered if she had survived.  This past month had turned very cold and slushy snow fell outside.  She worried for the old woman and prayed to God that she might still live.

“Abby!  You have a visitor!” She looked up at the matron with surprise.  When Abby got to the office there was a woman standing in the lamp-light.  She looked nervous, anxious even.  She was tall and slim and her eyes were blue, like her Pa’s.

“Oh, Abby!” she said and approached the girl.  Abby was afraid and backed away slightly.  “I am your Aunt Natalie from North Carolina, Abby.  I received an anonymous letter a few weeks ago that said my white niece was being kept illegally at Carlisle Indian School!  You can imagine my surprise.  I hadn’t even known your father was dead.  I’m here to bring you home, Abby!”  The woman looked over at the Head Matron and Caption Pratt and scowled.  “You should be ashamed of yourselves.  Can’t you see she is no Indian?”

Abby’s eyes grew wide as she watched her aunt scold School Father Pratt.  Then the girl smiled.  The Green Witch had survived, and even if her magic had not been real, it worked just the same.

 

In memory of all the Native American children that lived and died at Carlisle Indian School (and the five hundred other Indian Boarding Schools in the US).  1789-1928