Where are we going?
Why are you here?
Why do I follow you without question? Is it the guilt of never having done so in life? Step after step, and I don't even try to walk away.
Do you mean to help me?
The figure didn't turn. A disquieting thought came to him from the deep silence. Perhaps…do you mean to hurt me? They had overheard a man from the South at a trading post once, speaking with the matter-of-fact blandness of those who have escaped death a hundred times over, of things he called will-o-the-wisps, lights that seemed to come from lanterns, luring travelers to their death in deep bogs.
Again the silent figure didn't turn, which struck Uncas as stranger yet, because his eyes on her back were sharp now. Sharp as they'd been on a distant summer night, when a small battalion had burst into the Mohawk barracks and taken his brother away in chains. Uncas would have burst through their midst with his fists alone. But fists were no good here.
I should turn back and run. I can't fight. Defenselessness did not sit well with Uncas, not when he'd carried a knife at his belt since he was a child. But something, a calm silence from deep inside his heart, made him trust every step he took by her side.
So faint, as if it came from far away. He realized he'd looked away from her at some point, and looked up. The be-robed woman had taken a few steps ahead and had turned to face him, expression still and unreadable, one arm pointing towards the darkness. As Uncas blinked in that direction, the darkness eased just a little, and a long outline appeared: a doorway, he realized. A doorless, hinge-less frame standing in the middle of nowhere, as if it had once been on a house, before the entire thing burned down and only the pointless skeleton of a doorway remained. The Cameron house had had one.
Mamèthakemu didn't move, but Uncas felt a tug of something in his chest. The sense of rightness had returned, and it was urging him over the threshold. His feet only hesitated for a moment as he passed the silent Mamèthakemu, pointing and staring as if at something far away.
He felt, for a very brief moment, like a child playing pretend, because the other side of the endless room was visible as he edged the tip of his foot through the doorway, but then Uncas was in thick darkness, as if he were crossing under the leather apron of a wikwam, and then he was slipping through to the other side.
Uncas was in a small room bathed in moonlight (though where it came from, he could not tell) and strange dark shadows. A moment later, he realized he stood in a room thoroughly invaded by the lower parts of a tree, for the shadows were leafless branches and thick, knotty roots. They stretched across, from wall to wall (and there Uncas loosened his shoulders in relief: walls he could see, to his left and to his right, even though the back of the room lengthened far out of his sight), like a hand, ancient and too-many-fingered, reaching out…
To block my way, because I feel the path goes to the other side of this room, Uncas thought. He sighed, even as he felt the pull of his odd new sense, coaxing his feet forward.
The twisted, gnarled branches and roots made for a hard going. Uncas had to climb, or drag himself over the ground, stomach to the dirt; he sometimes believed the spaces were getting ever smaller, and that he'd become stuck or lost in these narrow spaces forever. Hard as the going became, slow as his going could get, Uncas pressed on.
The trail stopped under the cover of a mass of arched roots, the ground bare underneath them. Uncas had to crouch low to sit himself there, the soil cold and moist against his buckskins.
It looked dark and rich, fresh as a newly turned field waiting for grain. His family's wandering life meant that Uncas had never had to work a field for himself, but he'd helped with the fields of others enough to deeply appreciate good earth. He aknowledged an idle, practical thought about planting (a pointless thought here)...
...and then a momentary glint of something made him reach out, fingers digging into the soft soil before he could think any better of it. His hand brushed something hard. Uncas passed his palm several more times before the tip of something, buried just below the surface, finally came into view.
Using both hands to dig, Uncas uncovered the handle of a knife. A familiar, well-worn handle he had not expected to see again. He pulled it out of the ground with care, though the soil parted with it without resistance.
There it was, under the slight smatter of dirt, still in the familiar woven sheath tipped in red, still worn smooth at the handle, so much that it seemed to Uncas, once he'd wrapped a hand around it, that the knife clasped back in greeting. A warm swell of relief rose in his heart at not being quite as helpless…
...and then a sharp metallic scent suffused the tiny space. Uncas looked down to the disturbed earth, where a miniscule red-black wellspring rose from the hole that had just recently housed his knife. Blood.
Uncas nearly forgot the low roots above his head in his haste to move away. Why? Caught by a strange thought, Uncas wrenched his knife free of its sheath: the blade was clean, and so was the buckskin sheath it rested in. He breathed harder, unable to understand what was happening, but knowing somewhere deep in his bones that the blood was a message for him.
My knife. A spring of blood. My knife…I am a killer. Is that the matter?
It was the life he knew, to kill or be killed. The harsh law of the frontier, particularly true for three red-skins who wandered far away from the protective embrace of a camp or a village. Red-skins and heathens, the sharp rock in the shoe of the British, of the French, of every last force bent on dominating the Americas. There was little choice in the matter.
The blood slowed, creating a dark, still little pool that didn't seep through the earth as it should. For the first time in a long time, Uncas let himself think of a world where he did not have to anticipate a fight for his life and that of his loved ones just round the next bend of the forest roads. What was the difference between the hunter and the warrior? He had been both, turning into one and then the other in an instant, but could it be that he was a hunter at his core? A man who killed for sustenance alone was not like a man who found his fire in the heat of battle. His gift had been the speed of the elk after all; Nathaniel's, in contrast, had been deadly aim. A warrior's gift.
Was he unhappy over the lives he had taken? He would not have regretted Magua. He did not regret the men struck down during the assault on the survivors of Fort William Henry, as Nathaniel rushed to Cora's side. But there were other deaths. There were the men they'd killed for the canoe that took them across Lake George. There were bluecoats and couriers des bois, throats cut in the dead of night for safety's sake.
A warrior understood death in a way different from that of a hunter. Perhaps…perhaps, if the times were different, Uncas would have never been the kind of person to raise a knife or musket at another person. Perhaps his life, with its joys and its warmth, had chipped away at a bit of his soul that Uncas, though it cost him some effort to admit, would not have wanted to part with..
And this I knew, somehow, even if it only came to my thoughts in the dead of night. Sadness clouded his heart. He was slowly clambering out from between the roots and branches, far and away from the pool of blood (whose?) before he'd fully realized that his feet were calling him somewhere else.
It was only a few steps later, weaving through the maze again, that he realized he had tucked his knife, with the thoughtlessness of long practice, in its place at the front of his belt. Uncas was honest enough with himself to admit that he would have done it, even if the hilt had been tainted with blood.
The next patch of earth at which Uncas paused was harder, drier, like the earth in high mountain land where no homesteads would prosper. Uncas saw no hint of what might be hiding beneath it this time. He searched, simply because he believed there might be something to find.
A little deeper that time, his hand closed over thick weave: more digging and pulling yielded his father's woven belt. Black and brown, familiar in his hands, bearing the history of the Mahican people.
The shock of seeing it there, between his hands, made him forget to look out for more unpleasant surprises. As the eldest, Nathaniel had carried the belt, cinched across his chest with pride, and Uncas had been glad to see it there. It was a proclamation to the world, that his brother, pale and blue-eyed though he was, was a Mahican and a son of Chingachgook in all the ways that mattered.
Uncas knew then that what he held was not the real belt – the real one would still be across Nathaniel's chest back in the life he had known. You're here for a reason, just like my knife was, Uncas thought, running it through his fingers pensively. He glanced at the disturbed earth from where he'd taken it, but no blood emerged. He sank into thought, still moving the belt mechanically through his fingers. Nathaniel, the firstborn. Uncas, the trueborn. Chingachgook, the last warchief who resisted…
A thought finally dislodged itself from some deep, dark part of his heart where he rarely ventured. Frustration. Exhaustion. Even…envy. Envy of Nathaniel. Uncas let out a short, pained breath.
His brother's blood had given rise to a hundred different reactions in others over the years: distaste, distrust, even blatant outrage, back when he was small, scruffy and angry as a wolf cub. Uncas couldn't remember, but Chingachgook had mentioned hiding from British companies, worried they might think he'd stolen Nathaniel from his family. Once or twice some officious Lenape mother had glanced at pale Nathaniel and wondered aloud if he'd live through the next winter.
But Nathaniel had grown, and his musket had become legendary. His cheerfully disparaging manner endeared him to many and infuriated others; nobody could have a lukewarm thought about him. His cutting comments and brazen, devil-may-care manner had gotten them into more than one mess over the years, but everyone everywhere remembered Nathaniel Poe very well once they'd met him.
And then, there was Uncas.
Uncas was quiet like his father, taller than many of the tribesmen he had met. But that, as far as many of their distant kin told it, was all that could be said for him. He was an untried youth who had already began to upset custom by staying alone and childless past his twentieth summer. The judging eyes of all who remembered the stalwart Mahican war chiefs that came before him often found Uncas too lost to his own thoughts, too abstracted from the world – when they managed to see him, that is, wrapped in his silence as he was. A warrior by need only, not a fighter by nature. Not like Chigachgook's adopted son, fiery and warlike.
Nathaniel had all the boons of being Chingachgook's son and none of the burdens – he could live as he pleased. Uncas had his days of freedom portioned out for him from the moment Chigachgook's village went up in flames. Uncas had felt the unequal weight in small, stolen moments of unwelcome clarity. It would be lies to say he wasn't affected by the difference. And for a moment, the realization threatened to sink him, somewhere deeper and darker than death.
It rang like a musket shot through the dark, forcing Uncas to raise his head. No…what? A memory of his brother's carefree grin, a sure hand at his shoulder. No…whatever the world may have put in our path, still Nathaniel was my brother. Is my brother.
The words rang true, shaking Uncas of his lethargy. Yes…Nathaniel was his brother. If Uncas had his way, he would have run the forests with his brother and father forever - at least, until Chingachgook left the world. Then it would have been just him and Nathaniel, aging under the Americas' bright, bloody sun. Now that this simple, bright future could not be his, Uncas nevertheless loved his brother still. When the time came and they met again, here or some other, kinder place in this life beyond life, Uncas knew how he would greet the older, likely crabbier Nathaniel: with a raised hand, a gentle smile, and a simple, firm netohcon. Older brother. Because despite his wistful thoughts, Uncas loved Nathaniel. And he knew his brother loved him.
Uncas was only barely aware of drawing up his knees, slouching forward and touching the belt to his forehead. He had loved Nathaniel. He had loved his father. They had never said the words to each other, but Uncas couldn't remember a single time when he'd doubted that simple truth; their actions had spoken loud enough.
The realization strengthened him. Whatever their circumstances, whatever lay deeply buried in his heart, that truth remained untainted.
He rose to his feet in a single, careful movement. His feet began to itch with the promise of movement, even as he sought another opening amidst the branches and roots, and Uncas took a step. He opened his hands before taking the second, watching as the woven belt record slithered to the ground like a snake –
- before something about it shifted, darkening and coiling, and suddenly it was not a woven belt record but a chain of heavy, metal links. Uncas had never seen its like often, not outside of forts and garrisons – or, lately, around his own brother's wrists. It lay by his feet, black and heavy as a curse, and Uncas was slightly surprised it did not move to catch him.
He did not pause to ponder what might have happened if he'd somehow found in himself the urge to take it with him, but slowly made his way towards the next clearing.
The next clearing was covered in rocks, like the bed of a river.
Uncas knelt amongst them, frowning. He was less surprised than…concerned by what this particular patch of earth would yield for him. A thought hidden so deeply would without a doubt bring him no joy.
He loosed one of the rocks closest to him and went to feel the ground beneath. It was hard, dry and dead, which surprised him. He'd half expected dark, wet river soil.
Sooner begun is sooner done. Uncas could not remember which side of his curious upbringing had given him that phrase, if it was a distant Mahican relation, dead before Uncas could remember their face, a kindly Lenape encouragement, a word of wisdom from the Moravian missionaries, but never had it struck him as clever and appropriate as it did at that moment.
His fingers had turned tired and clumsy from repetition when he shifted a rock to finally find a hint of something.
It was not like the two times before, no. The pale handle of his knife and the earth tones of the belt-that-wasn't blended neatly with the half-darkness, blue, white, grey and black. The thing peeking slightly from beneath a rock was brightly colored, jarring: like some fragile creature ailing beneath the weight of its prison, a length of pink ribbon peeked and vanished from underneath one of the rocks Uncas had yet to shift. Uncas knew that once he held it up to the light, it would have the bright glow of new silk, and it would feel soft against his fingers.
He didn't want to touch it. His hand withdrew rebelliously and clasped his shirt before Uncas was properly aware of what he was doing. He didn't want to touch it…but he had to. He eased a hand out, fingers outstretched. An instant before the pads of his fingers touched it, Uncas closed his eyes.
The first time he had seen the ribbon, well and truly seen it, he'd been bringing up the rear of the most unusual party he'd been part of yet: his brother, his father, a loud British militiaman, a dark-eyed woman with a hint of steel in the lines of her back…and a girl.
A frightened, moon-colored little girl who'd narrowly escaped death by ambush. Uncas had expected her to be loud or reluctant, even angry at them – he had expected her outrage at the loss of the horses. His surprise began when she didn't take offense at Uncas touching her (he had been prepared for her to beat at his chest with shocked anger, for example). She had assumed Uncas spoke English from the first, unlike Heyward. And then she had sunk into a tired, compliant silence, despite the length of the walk and their uncomfortable clothes.
The ribbon had been braided into the girl's yellow-gold hair as she turned, staring at the tumbling water of the falls to their left with an innocent, patient awe that had taken Uncas aback. She'd turned back to her sister after…well, Uncas couldn't remember. The scene must have lasted a breath or two, but sometimes it seemed to him that it had lasted days. A thousand summers.
Uncas opened his eyes, which became fixed immediately on the length of pink silk. What was there to say of Alice? He had found her strange, but not unpleasantly so. Mild. Kind. She should not have become a trading good in Magua's quest of revenge. He regretted dying, but he could not regret having gone after her, even though he could acknowledge that a quiet, secret part of him had tried – tried to regret her, tried to blame her, even. But Uncas knew better.
He had felt a different man as he'd done it. The person he believed himself to be up until the last summer of his life – quiet, contemplative, cool-headed – would have never taken such a foolish risk. Even Nathaniel, blinded by the smoke of his heart, on fire for Cora Munro, had made sure he and their father were at his back during the Huron ambush. But even knowing that he had out-dared his brother in that fatal hour, Uncas could not summon any self-recrimination. His hands should have been faster, his guard keener, but running up the promontory, alone…it had been natural. Inevitable.
Why was he here then, with Alice Munro's ribbon held between two fingers?
No. To even think the words would break him. But the thoughts simmered like a pot to the fire.
It wasn't as Uncas had imagined it would be. It wasn't an all-consuming passion, it wasn't madness – it was a quiet, soft thing, sharp-edged as a small white river rock. It lived in peace with Uncas' sense of honor, with his determination and his loyalty, so much that he was sure his brother and his father would have never noticed it was there. The single casualty in this entire mess – because here at the end of all things, Uncas could recognize it had been a mess, and a mess it would have remained if he lived – had been his caution.
He had little to compare it with. He had known other women, but his visions of the future had been simple and sober. To hunt. To run. To have Nathaniel and his father close at hand.
Those had been his only dreams, until –
- until he had held the shivering, fragile form of an English girl and knew a yearning that went far and beyond the needs of his body and the dreams of his childhood. He had given her comfort, even as he realized she could not give him any back…because, even if the best were to happen, Alice Munro would leave, and even though Uncas would return to the life he knew, nothing would ever be the same again.
Silence, like a softly scented herbal compress, spread over Uncas' chest. He stroked the length of the ribbon once, and could almost pretend a long strand of golden hair had clung to some part of it.
"I…" Uncas was a man of few words. Without company, or in the company of those who could read him best, he had little trouble forgoing words for hours at a time. But this one thing demanded it of him. As it had demanded of him from the moment he'd truly seen Alice Munro. "I…I love Alice Munro."
The words seemed to hang in the air for a moment, waves in the water. When they vanished, something changed in the air. Uncas rose to his feet in shock: the great roots were gone.
No sound had warned him, no movement. The tree had been there, and then he wasn't anywhere. All the obstacles were gone.
He was at the other side of the door in a moment, and found that nothing had changed there, at least: Mamèthakemu still pointed, still looked vacant. The light was still faint and strange, the walls of this Other Cabin still distant. Uncas wet his lips, which weren't dry despite the gesture. "Mamèthakemu."
The figure in front of him didn't react, not at once. Then she slowly lowered her hand and turned, beginning to walk away.
"Mamèthakemu…why were you calling me?"
Mamèthakemu stopped, and Uncas followed suit. She turned, setting bland eyes on Uncas again, and lifted her arms slowly, as if each weighed a ton.
Uncas… the whisper sounded farther away now. It had never come from Mamethakemu at all.
"It was not you."
Mamèthakemu shook her head, and for the first time, her features shifted. She blinked, and regarded Uncas with a gentle, unmeasurable sorrow.
A sudden brightness made him turn: on a wall that had not been there before, immediately behind Mamèthakemu, a line of bright light appeared, as if someone were drawing it vertically across. Then it blossomed into a square of light, and Uncas saw movement.
It was Alice. She walked the halls of a place like Fort William Henry, her eyes wide and frightened, mouth open to pant like when they'd met on the George Road. Her long hair was loose, and she wore the just-slightly-too big dress she'd been wearing the last time he'd seen her. Uncas...the voice was Alice's voice, a gentle whisper he couldn't believe he hand't placed before. Her lips didn't move. But the whisper, somehow, came from her.
"Alice…" Even as he called her, Uncas knew she wouldn't hear him. As Alice paused, aggrieved, the image vanished like smoke from a burnt-out candle.
Mamèthakemu's eyes met his, but Uncas, overcome by a sudden distaste at this creature who was not human, threw himself back and away from the shape, feeling the despair that had flooded him recede away like he was rising out of a lake, fast replaced by something fiercer. Dimly, he realized he was panting now too.
"What…why is she…"
A line of something bright crossed Mamèthakemu's cheek - a tear. And Uncas knew, as his spine curved and his chin met his chest. He knew.
The specter that looked like Mamèthakemu must have dissolved into the air. The cavernous Other Cabin must have probably done the same, perhaps vanishing without a trace or a sound like the trees in the tiny room where he'd found three crucial items. But Uncas lost all awareness of everything but his sorrow until a gasp and a clatter of footsteps told him he was with John Cameron again.
"Uncas!" The clatter approached his ear, and familiar hands where at his shoulder. "How d'you do that? The mass of trees, it just vanished –"
"She is dead, John." No tears had come, but Uncas' voice was tight.
"Wha – who?"
"Alice Munro. She is dead." Dead, alone and lost. Uncas had failed, yet again.