Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Midwest Nativity

Emma Wilkinson, 12 years old, awoke that night aware that someone she did not know stood over her bed.

In the heartbeat moment before she opened her eyes, she found that she knew several other things as well.

That her family, including her sister in bed next to her, all slept quite peacefully.

That she herself felt no fear.

She opened her eyes. The banked fire had burned down to coals, but Emma could see the girl quite plainly. She wore white buckskins and a buffalo robe; her face was strange, but the eyes Emma knew.

Emma, come quickly,” said the girl, in English, “one has need of you.”

Wondering as she did so, Emma climbed out of the bed and pulled on her day clothes, then her shawl, overcoat and mittens.

At the unbarred door the girl took down Emma’s snowshoes from their peg and gave them to her. Emma turned to see her family sleeping on undisturbed; then she followed the girl out into the night.

The night was windless but very cold, lit only by snowlight and starlight. By the stars Emma could see that it was nearly midnight. The girl turned to her and said again, “Quickly: time is short.”

The girl led her out across the prairie, toward the river. Emma followed without speaking. The stillness of the night seemed to have entered into her. She shallied across the unbroken snow and felt no fear.

When they came to the edge of the river valley, the girl turned back and met her eyes, but said nothing. They shuffled down the zigzag path along the face of the bluff, then through the silent cottonwoods to the riverbank. The girl led her out onto the frozen river and across to an ice-locked island in midstream that Emma could not recall ever having seen before. She turned again: “Come, we are nearly there.”

A rocky spine ran down the middle of the island, and they went toward it through the leafless willow and aspen. The mouth of the cave was hung with skins, but as Emma shuffled toward it these were drawn aside by the oldest woman she had ever seen, her face as seamed with fissures as the face of a cliff. “Granddaughter,” she said. She motioned them into the cave and pegged the doorskins to, behind them.

Emma stood wondering. By the light of fire and fat-lamp, she saw that she stood in a cave, its walls teeming with painted animals, ocher, charcoal, and pipeclay: bison, elk, horses, deer. Even elephants, or what seemed to be elephants. She had seen an elephant once, in a circus back East. It did not seem strange to her that they should be here as well.

Then, across the fire, her eyes met with those of yet another woman, and thereafter she could look at nothing else, for it seemed to Emma that in this face she recognized the face of every woman she had ever known. Bright sweat shone on the woman’s brow as she stood with her hands cupped over the great rounded belly.

Give me your hands, my daughter,” the woman said to Emma, “My time is upon me.”

Together Emma and the old woman spread the cave floor with the birthing strew: dried grama grass, side oats, and little bluestem, mingled with prairie sage. Upon it together they helped the woman ease down into the ancient birthing-squat.

All that long night the old woman guided Emma through the childbirth ministrations: the walkings and kneadings and bracings. Between contractions, with the girl and the old woman, she played at the string game: the Buffalo, the Butter Churn, the Cedar Tree, the Two-Man Canoe. Then came the crowning, and the birth itself. Emma caught the baby in her own hands; she gave the woman the string from their game to tie off the birth-cord, and the knife to cut it with. She also caught the afterbirth in its great blood rush.

The child was a boy-child, shining and perfect, who kicked and squalled lustily. Light seemed to fill the cave. She gave the baby into his mother’s arms, and having taken and nuzzled him, and set him to her breast—oh, he suckled fiercely—the woman met her eyes once again. Mingling blood and bloom on her fingers, she painted Emma with it: brow, chin, cheek, cheek.

Be marked for mine, my daughter,” she said. “Now go.”

Emma followed the track of her snowshoes back across the river ice, through the river bottom, and up the zigzag path along the face of the bluff. It did not seem strange to her that only one set of tracks should show in the snow. At the lip of the river valley she turned, and it seemed to her that a great light now stood over the island, and that somewhere in that wide, starry night a voice rang out in the ancient cry of triumph: The Mother has brought forth: the Light is born.

It was near dawn, and the dawn wind risen, when Emma reached her family’s cabin and hung her snowshoes and coat again on their pegs. Her family still slept peacefully. Emma shed her day-clothes and climbed back into warmth beside her sister. Soon she too was asleep.

From that day forward, young as she was, Emma came to be known as the most skilled midwife in the Minnesota Territory. When she was grown, she studied at one of the great medical colleges of the East, and so became the first woman accredited to practice medicine in what was by then the state of Minnesota.

But as she lay at the last, after a life both long and full, what she remembered was a girl in buckskins, a night of midwinter stars, and a woman old as earth; a painted cave, a mother and a baby, and a voice that sang on the wind.

The Mother has brought forth: the Light is born.



Thirty-Ninth Night 2011

For MM and the Women With

First told at Coldwater Spring, Yule 2010

Hê Mêtêr tétoken: auxeî Phôs.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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