I run as quickly and quietly as I can. My feet are wrapped in soft worn hide and I barely make a sound as I skirt the elders who sit around the center fire. My hands cover my head protecting the sore spot on top and I keep my eyes downcast. I am the girl known as nothing. No name has been given to me because my father is dead and my mother’s new man will not allow me to have a soul. I am not dirt, he has told others. Dirt serves a purpose and I have none. I am nothing.
The men and boys make sport out of rapping the top of my head with their strong center knuckles as I pass by and I have an egg growing where my hair parts straight down the centre. The spot is tender and sore and I do what I can to protect it but it is impossible when my hands are full of baskets with food for their bellies that I must take to serve them. If I am too slow or if I drop anything in the dirt, I am beaten, usually by my mother. She takes a whipping stick to me and hollers that I am useless and nothing, but then she whispers to me fiercely that she is saving me from worse beatings by others and I have to learn to be invisible.
My Mother’s new man is the brother of my father. He has three wives, and my mother is the least of them. She begs for the scraps of food that others have spit out when they are full, and shares with me whatever she can get. I have learned that this is enough. I never complain.
I watch the deer in the fields. They are silent and staring and flee at a moments thought of danger. I am the deer. I stare silently at the others and when I sense that I am noticed, I disappear. Most of the time it works. At other times, I wear a mantle of bruises.
Days are filled with the danger of being seen. I keep myself hidden as best I can and do my chores quickly and without mistakes so that nobody will notice me. Sometimes I am lucky and find sweet berries that nobody has noticed and I gobble them up, careful to rub dirt on my mouth to hide the bright red stain of their juice. It is wrong and I know that I would be beaten or worse, cast out into the great alone, if anyone found out, but my hungry mouth does not listen to this fear.
Nights are best. I curl into my mother’s warmth and can be still and safe for the dreams that come. That is when I can fly. I am the raven, circling high above the earth teasing those who would dare try to reach me. I am the eagle, brave and swift, a sure hunter with plenty of fat salmon to eat. I am the owl, seeing in all directions, flying from dangers that may come. Sometimes when I wake in the early dawn, I find that a feather is lying beside me and I know I have brought myself the bird medicine from my dream travels. Those are the days I am invisible.
Today I did not find a feather.
I am carrying a basket of cooked meat to the elders who sit smoking beside the fire. I hear the sound, like somebody is straining in their squatting position and I cringe, knowing that I am seen. This is the noise the others use to call to me. It is my mother’s husband who grunts, calling to me. I hold my breath and make myself not run away, for if I run away I will surely be beaten. I walk toward him, keeping my eyes downcast and being careful not to drop the meat basket. I know what is coming and every part of me aches to turn and run into the forest, but I keep walking toward him. I am the deer. I am the owl. I am the raven.
One harsh knuckle knocks the egg atop my head. I do not cry out but bite my lips shut and keep walking. I am the deer.
Another hand lashes out and raps the tender spot. Tears begin to gather in my eyes and I blink quickly. Tears would gain me nothing but more bruises. The others are laughing now, making the grunting noise and trying to add their fierce rapping to the top of my skull. I hurry my step. I am the deer. But then I am tripped by my own feet. I fall. The basket of meat empties on the ground, into the dirt at the feet of my mother’s husband.
I feel his fists as they connect with my body and for a moment I lift above where I lay and just watch as my body is knocked around, lifeless and abandoned.
My mother rushes in to lay her body on mine and begs her husband to spare the life of her stupid, clumsy, useless child. His anger turns to her and she receives his fists willingly, sparing me their wrath. His anger is spent after a time and we are left to bleed in the dirt. The cold of night folds in and we cradle each others broken bodies with our own. We are cast out. We are shunned. We must leave and go to the great alone.
Come dawn, my bruised and battered mother gathers me into her arms and walks us into the forest. It is cold so that our breath shrouds around us and frost clings to our hair. We must leave now, but I am not sure where my mother will take us. After a time of walking silently my mother stops and lays me beside a great tree stump. She wanders off, silently watching. She is the deer.
When she returns she has brought mushrooms that she has foraged from the forest floor. She feeds them to me, gently ripping them into tiny pieces so that I can chew them with my shattered jaw. She watches me closely as I eat and I am comforted by her attention, for once glad that I am not invisible.
The pains start not long after that and I wretch and wretch as if I can turn inside out, but the vile poison won’t leave my body. Hands and feet go numb and I feel my tongue and throat swelling. My mother watches closely, as the poison she has fed me does its job. I suffer for a time, then gently pop out of the top of my head and float away. I linger at the treetops and watch my mother hold my empty body. She wails for a moment as she feels my spirit leave then calms and begins to eat the rest of the mushrooms.
Gravity leaves me and I return to spirit. I begin to fly.