Story and Art by Kristy Gherlone
A single twig snapped. It broke the silence of a forest not yet awakened by the dawn. On slender, summer-browned legs, Wawetseka scuttled behind a shelter of cedars and pointed a bow and arrow in the direction of the noise. Fog ghosted up from the river and closed in around her, hindering her sight. She hissed and lowered her weapon. Batting at the air, she cursed the river spirit, Memekwesiw, for playing such childish games.
With her vision limited, Wawetseka prayed for the clarity of her remaining senses. Grandmother Fox answered by lending her ears. Only then could Wawetseka hear a whisper of rustling leaves. Her heart skipped with excitement. She straightened and readied herself. A pair of antlers appeared through the haze. She began to tremble with anticipation. This was what she was meant to do. This was where she belonged. She closed her eyes and prayed for both serenity of mind and the surrounding elements. A successful hunt would show her grandmother and the others that Kisemanito, the Great Spirit, had made a mistake. He had sent her to mother earth in the wrong body. She was male no matter what she looked like on the outside.
When she opened her eyes again, a tremendous deer was before her. A quick count revealed twenty tines on his rack. He was much bigger than any of the deer that Mingan had killed, or any that she had ever even seen. To bring home such a prize would be all the proof she needed. She willed Ehacatl, the God of Wind, to stay asleep, for the lightest breeze would reveal her. She beseeched Ayas, The Great Hero, to give her courage, for the slightest quiver would cause her to miss.
The deer tossed his head as he grazed on acorns and the last of the season’s berries. Wawetseka considered her options. His neck was as thick as a bull moose’s and coursing with blood-ripe veins, but it made a poor target. The chest was too narrow and it was unlikely that she could reach the heart. Broadside was best. Puncturing the liver was the surest kill, but she’d have to wait for him to turn and still. There could be no mistakes.
Her decision made, she trained the arrow towards the deer’s side and followed his movements as he foraged. Her heart quickened when he paused to chew. Beads of sweat broke out on her lip as she steadied her shot. She squinted through one eye to streamline her focus. Without warning, a collection of unwelcoming dew rained down from the branches above and drummed onto her head. Wawetseka squeaked and released the tension in her bow arm. The deer’s head snapped up as he finally noticed her hiding in the trees. Their gazes connected and for the briefest of moments, an understanding passed between them that no mortal creature could conceive. When the moment passed, the buck’s nostrils flared. Wawetseka was afraid to blink for fear he would flee. He snorted and pawed at the ground, tossing his antlers around in a show of aggression. Wawetseka prayed to Nanabozho to help restore peace. The deer grunted and sniffed the air but resumed his feast. Relieved, Wawetseka sighed inwardly and thanked Nanabozho. She shivered as the moisture seeped into her scalp, trickled the length of her braid and onto her dress. She would not show her discomfort. She wouldn’t give the Apiscinis the satisfaction. It was becoming clear that Kisemanito was angry with her for taking Mingan’s bow. In revenge for her crime, he had sent Wesakechak, the God of Mischief, to ruin her hunt.
Though her legs ached, Wawetseka maintained her position. She braced as the deer paused to gnaw a mouthful of vegetation. Her arm shook with effort as she pulled back the fiber as far as it would stretch. Withholding her breath to keep the arrow from jiggling around, she took aim.
“Wawetseka!” Mingan’s rebuke broke the silence. Wawetseka’s concentration shattered, and she stumbled under the unexpected intrusion. The arrow soared as it loosed prematurely from her grasp. It struck the deer in the flank. Startled and wounded, he took flight and raced away so fast he might have been a dream. Wawetseka cried out. She threw down the bow and, ignoring Mingan, ran to where the deer had been. She fell to the earth and pawed through the forest debris for signs of blood. If he’d left a trail, she could follow it and still make her kill.
Suddenly, she was wrenched from the ground. Mingan held her belt as she thrashed around in mid-air. “You’re a thief!” he accused. “What kind of woman would steal from her future husband?” he demanded, shaking his property.
Wawetseka spit in his face. “I am not a woman, and you are no husband of mine. Not now. Not ever.” The thought of lying with Mingan was too disgusting to imagine. Whenever she was reminded of their upcoming marriage, it was as though Kacitowaskw, The Bear, had cornered her on a cliff. She could choose to fall or to be ripped apart by Kacitowaskw’s teeth. Either way, death would be more pleasant than lying with a man.
Mingan released her. She landed heavily in the dirt. “I see you are still convinced that Kisemanito is a fool,” he scoffed.
“He is a fool!” Wawetseka cried, rising to her knees. She hated Kisemanito for his mistake. She hated both him and Mingan for thwarting her hunt.
“You shouldn’t say such things,” Mingan scowled. “Kisemanito will curse you.”
“He already has,” Wawetseka wept. “I am male. Kisemanito has ruined my life!”
“Really?” Mingan scoffed. “A male?”
“I have known I was male since my first memories. Why is it that you cannot see? Why is it that no one can see?”
“Oh, I would like to see. Let’s check.” Mingan grinned. He kicked her back down and pinned her under the weight of his foot. Wawetseka tried to get away, but he wrested her over and yanked up her dress.
Wawetseka kicked and bit at Mingan. His creeping fingers felt like invading beetles that had no business on her body. She prayed for Pinesiw, The Thunderbird, to carry her away, but he did not answer. Her woman’s body was powerless against Mingan’s strength. He managed to pry her legs apart as daylight broke through the trees. It cast away the remaining shadows and illuminated her most private place. The wilderness awakened and every creature seemed to leer at her. “I don’t see a member. You are still split,” Mingan smirked. He shook his head and laughed.
Wawetseka’s cheeks flamed and tears filled her eyes. They had no right to see her. They were stealing from her. Maybe this was her penance for taking Mingan’s bow. “Let me go!” she screamed.
She couldn’t breathe when Mingan moved his own clothing aside. “This is what a man looks like,” he said. His voice grew husky and his gaze darkened. Wawetseka shuddered. She turned away, completely repulsed.
“Get up,” Mingan’s lip curled. He released his clothing and covered himself. Wawetseka nearly wept with relief. “Go back to the village and speak of this to no one. I will clean up your mess.” He snatched his bow and arrow, and headed into the woodland.
Sniffling, Wawetseka sat up. She glowered in the direction that Mingan had gone and prayed for the Mishipizhi to remove him from the earth.
“Wawetseka!” her grandmother exclaimed upon seeing her. “What has happened to you?” Wawetseka’s hands rushed to her head. Her braid had unwound and her hair was littered with pine needles, dried leaves, and dirt. “Nothing has happened, Kokum. I am fine.” She sighed and shook out some of the debris. Wawetseka kissed her grandmother’s cheek and hoped she didn’t suspect anything. She would be furious to know that Wawetseka had been hunting. She did not agree that Wawetseka was a man. In Wawetseka’s youth, she had idolized her grandmother, but with each passing year, she’d felt her hands tightening around her neck as if the older woman were trying to choke out her identity. Wawetseka’s one wish was that she could be accepted in her true form. Was it not possible to feel like a man but look like a woman?
“But where have you been?” her grandmother asked, reaching for the brush.
“Searching for the berries for Nuttah’s dress. I fell asleep in the forest,” Wawetseka lied, averting her gaze to avoid further scrutiny.
“Come. Sit.” Her grandmother frowned, motioning to a pine stump.
Wawetseka sat. She grimaced as her grandmother’s hands worked through the tangles. “You are a dusty flower,” her grandmother remarked. “When will you embrace your womanhood? How will Mingan love you when you look like this?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Wawetseka snapped, flashing with anger at his name.
The brush came down hard across Wawetseka’s back. Wawetseka yelped. She fumed as her grandmother ripped through her hair with increasing intensity. She sat on her hands to keep from pushing her away. “You’d better care!” Wawetseka’s grandmother chastised. “He’s going to be your husband in one week.”
Bile rose in the back of Wawetseka’s throat. No one should have the power to choose another’s mate.
Her grandmother finished and refashioned Wawetseka’s braid. “Hurry up, now,” she said as she swatted Wawetseka’s bottom. “The others are waiting for you to help finish the blankets.”
Wawetseka joined the other women in the making tent. It did not feel right to her to be there. She belonged in the forest, tracking her deer. She smiled only when she noticed that Nuttah was there. Nuttah’s delicate fingers worked a needle through the tough seal hide with ease. Nuttah was beautiful, and her heart was pure. She didn’t care that Wawetseka didn’t look like a man. Nuttah was proud of the way she looked. Wawetseka sat next to her, breathing in her flowery scent as she began to work.
“You look nice today,” Nuttah whispered shyly. Their hands brushed. Wawetseka’s heart soared.
At mid-day, the voices of many rose suddenly through the village. The women dropped their blankets and rushed outside to see what was wrong. A crowd had gathered, and people were cheering. Wawetseka pushed her way to the front. Mingan displayed her buck across his shoulders. She was consumed by rage and jealousy.
The people shouted, “Amazing! You are a legend! You are a hero!”
The great weight of the deer buckled Mingan’s knees. He heaved the beast over his head and dropped it for everyone to admire. Murmurs of appreciation and awe rippled through the crowd in waves. Even Nuttah patted Mingan’s back in a show of respect. Wawetseka wanted to die. The congratulations belonged to her. Nuttah should have touched her back.
Mingan saw Wawetseka. He nodded. For a second, she thought he might still offer her a small measure of credit. She composed herself and waited, but he gave her no mention. “Is he not the biggest? Is he not the best?” he boasted with a grin instead. Hateful thoughts filled Wawetseka’s head. If she’d had a bow and arrow at that moment, she would have used it to kill him.
“You are the greatest hunter!” the people admitted. “You are the greatest man ever!”
Wawetseka couldn’t watch any more. She had no way to prove that the deer was hers. She had no way to prove what she felt in her heart. She and Nuttah would be doomed to a lifetime of secrets. There was nothing else she could do. Her people would never accept her the way she was. Someone would always take from her the things she had earned and make her do things she didn’t want to do. She ran from the village and kept running until she reached the river. She jumped into the shallows, so full of despair that even Memekwesiw could feel it. He warmed the water to show remorse for his part in her turmoil. Wawetseka’s mind raced. She thought about Nuttah. She wanted to be with her, but how would she care for her if she wasn’t allowed to hunt? She considered how her grandmother always pushed her towards something she didn’t want. She considered Mingan. If she were to marry him, he would always overpower her. Her true soul would be lost forever. She contemplated being woman but feeling like a man. Why had Kisemanito made her so different? She found her reflection in the water. She didn’t hate the way she looked and Nuttah thought she was beautiful, but it was hopeless. Without the parts of a male, Wawetseka could not be with her. No one would allow it.
She removed the binding on her braid. Ehacatl blew on her hair to set it free. She decided to confront Kisemanito. “I know I have not been nice to you, but you have wronged me,” she declared. “You made a mistake, and I want you to fix it.” Wawetseka waited, but Kisemanito did not answer. She pulled a sharp stone from her belt and drew it across her wrist. Blood gushed from her veins and spilled over, staining the water red. She grew dizzy and fell. Kisemanito finally appeared as she drifted in and out of consciousness. “Courage,” he said. Wawetseka did not understand. He laid his hand upon her head. “Be still of mind, my mortal flower. For when you wake, all will be as it should.”
When Wawetseka awoke, she knew that something was different. She peered down at her body, expecting to find muscles and manhood, but instead she saw a beast. She was misshapen and covered with fur. Her feet had not toes, but hooves. Her head was heavy. She gazed into the river at her reflection. Giant antlers adorned her head. She spied a male part dangling between her legs. Kisemanito had made her a male, but not a human male. He had tricked her!
She had the strongest desire to eat from the forest. It did not seem foreign to do so. Suddenly starved, as if she hadn’t eaten for days, she snatched a mouthful of leaves from the bank. Finally, she emerged from the water. Memekwesiw created a thick shroud of fog to help mute her footsteps as she proceeded into the timberland in search of more food. When she paused to graze on fallen acorns, a small noise insulted the stillness of the early morning forest. It might be a mouse, but she wasn’t sure. There could be danger. Wawetseka stopped eating and sniffed the air. Her brain told her to flee, but when she looked up, she saw herself; her human form was hiding in the trees. She was holding a bow and arrow. Her eyes were full of the same desperation and longing she knew all too well. The scene was familiar, as if she had lived it before. Mesmerized, Wawetseka could not look away.
Wawetseka saw Mingan storming through the brume. She startled and then pawed at the earth, throwing her head around to show how much stronger she was than he. She had lived this before; This same endless loop. Just how many times was hard to say.
Mishipizhi hissed in the distance, asking what to do. Wawetseka remembered how she’d prayed for him to remove Mingan from the earth. She had a choice. The power was hers. ‘Courage,’ Kisemanito had said and now she understood.
She grunted, giving her permission. She raised her head and accepted, with bravery, the arrow that would pierce her lungs.
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