He looked at me with heavy eyes; I watched as he fought to keep them open.
"Pocahontas," he kept saying, as if he was afraid I was going to disappear. He'd been that way for a while now, drifting in and out of consciousness like the waves on which he'd come. Soon, they'd be taking him back.
I pushed a sweat soaked strand of hair back behind his ear and out of his eyes. It killed me to see him like this- sweating, shaking. His jaw was pulled tight, and all the color had drained from his face. The bandage that covered his wound was wet with blood and sweat. It took everything I had not to look at it.
"Shh," I whispered, mostly for him but also for me. I forced myself to focus on everything else: the light strands of hair on his arms, his fingers, the sheets.
"It's okay," I said. "You're gonna be okay."
Inside, I was screaming.
I returned to the glade to find John waiting. The sun had long since set, and Grandmother Willow's branches were drooping overhead. They moved in sad, slow circles as if to communicate that she knew too. If she did, she didn't say.
I threw my paddle onto the shore and climbed out of the canoe. John jumped down to help me.
"They're coming," I told him. "And not just my people but people from up the river too. Your village won't stand a chance."
That last part came out labored and wispy like a pant. His brow furrowed, and his jaw tightened, but other than that he didn't look the least bit phased. He didn't say anything, just finished pulling the canoe out of the water and stared off into the distance. Waiting. Or processing. Either way, the air was getting thicker, and the Earth was starting to shake. The life around us had grown strangely silent as if it were hiding and trying not to breathe. Down the river, there were drums. Nature's heartbeat. Or mine. I wasn't really sure.
"Why aren't you saying anything?" I asked, but even before he stood to face me, I already knew the answer. "Your people are planning the same thing," I said.
John slowly shook his head. I watched as he let out a long breath and ran a hand through his hair. I reached for him. He didn't pull back. Instead, he took my hand in his and led me further into the glade. Grandmother Willow had a root the size of a small bench so we sat on that and stared in silence down the river. A small fish splashed. The rest of the world looked on too.
John's hand was big and warm in mine, steady and sure, the exact opposite of how I felt. It was like being in the middle of a rapid with a big, giant rock heading right toward you and not being able to get around it. That was the kind of fear that was building up inside of me, the kind that was braced for pain (or something much worse) and got its fuel from the powerlessness that I felt to do anything about it. I could feel it now in the pit of my stomach, the realization that we were now on a ride that we couldn't get off of. Unlike John though, I wasn't done trying.
"We can't just let this happen," I finally said. Still, he refused to look at me.
"I'm not sure we have much of a choice," he replied. That set something off inside of me. I took my hand back and stood up.
"Tell me you don't mean that."
No sooner had the words left my mouth though than a terrible howl erupted through the forest. John pulled a knife from his boot and shot to his feet too. The next thing I knew, Meeko and Flit were flying through the bushes. Behind them was what looked like a barking, two-legged log. It crashed after Meeko and landed in my hands before wiggling free.
"Percy!" John said. And it was.
Once free of the log, he tore after Meeko, chomping at his tail and foaming at the mouth. Meeko, to his credit, leapt onto one of Grandmother Willow's branches before Percy could reach him and grabbed Flit to use as a sword. John yelled at Percy, and I yelled at Meeko, but it did nothing to stop the fighting.
"You see what I mean?" said John. "Once two sides want to fight, they quit listening to you."
Suddenly, the branch that was holding Meeko snapped in two, and the raccoon came tumbling down. Seeing his chance, the little dog lunged, and in his rage, he jumped too soon. Rather than latching onto Meeko's tail, he flew just under it and ended up in the water instead. If this wasn't the exact situation that we found ourselves in, it might have been kind of funny.
I caught Meeko and held him tight while John fished a defeated Percy out of the river. The dog didn't seem to know what had happened. When John pulled him out and placed him back on the shore, he took one look at me and Meeko and slumped over onto his stomach, exhausted.
After a few moments, Meeko slid down from my arms and tiptoed toward him. When he saw that Percy was shaking, he scurried back up Grandmother Willow's tree to the place where he kept all the things he scavenged. When he came back, he was carrying a little blanket which he promptly threw over Percy's sad, shivering shoulders.
"You were saying?" I said. "About there not being a choice?"
John looked at me with weary eyes and shook his head as if he understood.
"You're right," he said. "So what do we do?"
He was so close to me. I could feel the heat in his body as surely as I could see it in his eyes. My heart was racing. So was his. And this was the choice: love or death, peace or war, kiss or turn away.
He closed his eyes, and I closed mine, but here's the thing about taking too long to decide. If you don't do it, then someone else always will.
I didn't leave his side for most of the day. When he slept, I slept, and when he was awake, I ran a cool cloth over his head. I held his hand and promised him that it would be okay. He would survive this just as he had survived everything else, and when the time was right, we would find each other again. Lies.
"I can't leave you," he kept saying.
"I don't think you have much of a choice," I replied.
"There's always a choice," he said.
"Not if you want to live."
He grinned at that and inhaled sharply. His grip tightened around my hand, but I didn't wince or pull away. If I could have absorbed even an ounce of his pain, I would have. The tent opened up behind me, but I didn't take my eyes off John. Beside me someone asked,
"How is he?"
I didn't have to look to know it was Thomas. He pulled off his hat and knelt down next to me.
"The ship's almost ready," he told us. "John, if we don't get you on board soon, we'll lose the tide."
That's what he said. What he meant was, "If you stay here, you'll die."
John wasn't stupid. He knew exactly what Thomas was saying, and in an attempt to prove him wrong, he let go of my hand and tried to push himself up. He was back down before either of us could stop him.
"C'mon, mate. You know that just makes it worse."
"I'm fine," said John, but if he was white before, he was even whiter now. New drops of sweat pooled on his forehead, and his teeth were chattering again. He bit down to try to make them stop, but biting only made it worse. I could see him trying not to cry as the pain rattled his entire body.
"John," I said. "Please." My voice skidded over that last word. Please what, the voice inside my head said. Stop fighting? Go back? That last one stung a little. A lot.
I didn't want John to leave any more than he did. He could die here, but he could just as easily die on that boat too. Even if he did go back to London, there was no guarantee that he'd make it to his medicine man in time. Perhaps this is what he'd felt earlier when he said that there was no choice. Maybe now there really wasn't.
I could feel Thomas looking at me as I pushed John's hair back. It was slimy and damp. I didn't care. I watched his eyes close and his facial muscles relax under my touch. When his breathing slowed, I knew he'd fallen back asleep.
"He can't stay here," Thomas said. "Not if he's going to live."
"Maybe," I replied, but I wasn't really listening.
I remembered Kocoum's shriek as he barreled through the trees. I remembered Percy and Meeko scattering and what it felt like to have John ripped from my arms. A lot like now actually.
"Pocahontas, come with us," Thomas said, but I still couldn't hear him over the sound of my own memories.
Kocoum on top of John.
Me on top of Kocoum.
The tomahawk. The rock.
Behind me there was a shot, but only seconds after Kocoum had managed to throw me off of him. I hit the ground hard, banging my head on something sharp. My vision blurred. I could feel something hot and sticky running down the side of my face.
The Earth spun.
Voices. Feet. A scream.
Then nothing at all.
When I woke up, I was on a cot in my father's tent. No one was there- just me and the moon, but I could hear something going on outside. My head felt like someone had stuck an ice pick through it. It throbbed mercilessly as I pushed myself up. My legs shook underneath me, but I stumbled to the entrance anyway. I grabbed a post to steady myself and then peaked through the slit in the deer-skinned door. Behind it stood two guards.
They had their backs to me, but I knew who they were. Nomito and Nutomon were my father's most trusted sentries. With names like "see" and "hear," it was no wonder that nothing ever got past them- except maybe me.
Not far beyond their shoulders, I could just make out the flames of a huge fire. People were dancing. Preparing. Painting each other's bodies and praying. As was the custom, they would be up all night. Slowly, so as not to be detected, I tiptoed away from the door and back to bed.
What had happened out there?
I sat down on the bed and pushed the hair off my neck.
I brushed it out as best I could and wracked my brain for even the smallest recollection. Nothing.
When I opened my eyes, there was someone behind me.
"Daughter," he said. I braced myself, then turned to face him.
"Pocahontas," someone was saying. I don't know how many times he'd said it before I finally snapped back to reality.
"Walk with me," Thomas said. I looked at John who was fast asleep. Thomas must have sensed my hesitation because he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "C'mon. Just for a few minutes." Reluctantly, I followed him out of the tent and into the sunlight.
Outside the air was warm and balmy. The sun did cartwheels across my skin, and the breeze caressed my cheek as if to say, "It's okay. It will all be okay."
Thomas didn't say anything as we walked along the edge of the fort. All around us men were busy shuffling the last bit of supplies to the ship. None of them seemed to notice us as we slipped around the corner and toward the sea. Thomas walked with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on his feet- nervous, like he was afraid to even look at me. It was only when we reached the shore that he finally looked up, took a deep breath, and said,
"I'm sorry for shooting your friend."
My stomach turned. With everything that had happened in the last few hours, I hadn't given myself time to think, let alone process the fact that yes. Kocoum was dead, and it was all my fault. I chose John over him, defiance over my father's orders, and ultimately, the settlers over my own people.
I remembered the look on my father's face when he told me what I'd done. The moon shown on his ash colored cheeks. His eyes were dark and hard, his jaw set, and the disappointment that he wore was its own kind of body armor. What he said next hurt more than any weapon ever could.
"You have shamed me," he said which is why I could never do what Thomas was asking. No matter how badly I wanted to follow John back to London, I couldn't make the same mistake twice.
"I can't go with him," I said.
I know that wasn't the answer that Thomas was hoping for. Something along the lines of "I forgive you" or "Thank you" would have probably been preferred. Slowly, he turned to face me, and I could see my own guilt in his eyes.
"I never meant to kill anybody," he said. There were tears, but he wiped them away with a fist and a sigh. I think he was hoping I didn't notice. Carefully, I put a hand on his shoulder.
The truth was we'd all made choices. I chose John; Kocoum chose me, and Thomas chose to shoot. In the end, my father chose peace; Radcliffe chose war, and John chose to take the bullet that saved us all.
The thing about choices though is that they demand to be made, but they also demand to be lived with. I would live with mine the same way that Thomas lived with his: in the company of Acceptance and Remorse.
When I woke up, she was gone. My whole body was heavy like someone had been sitting on it. Again, I pushed myself upward and was met with an intense pain. Carefully, I peeled back the dressing around my abdomen to inspect the damage. Sure enough, there was a small, black hole and an angry, red ring. Whether or not that was blood or the beginning of an infection, I wasn't entirely sure. Either way, Radcliffe had gotten me good.
I looked around at what used to be his tent. There were maps and trinkets, a tall wood-framed mirror, and a trunk of something that I could only assume were his personal effects. No one had bothered to pack for him. I guess almost getting us all killed didn't entitle him to any favors- not here and most certainly not on the ride home.
He was probably locked up in the bottom of the ship somewhere with all of his limbs tied and a dirty rag in his mouth. He'd get his three square meals a day and a court date because we were civilized like that, but if it were up to me, we would have left him with the Natives. To me, Radcliffe had gotten off easy and unlike him, my chances of making it back to England were more than slim.
If that red ring were any indication, I probably had a week, not even. As a soldier, I had seen plenty of gunshot wounds, and shots to the abdomen were the worst kind. It wasn't the bleeding that would get you. Depending on where the bullet hit, it was the slow spillage of toxins into your bloodstream that would eventually lead to your death.
Once an intestine or another organ was punctured, there was no telling what would leak out. Then came the fever and the chills, the vomiting when there was nothing to vomit, the shortness of breath, the racing heart, altered perceptions of reality, and ultimately, death itself. I had seen this happen too many times to other men, better men, and now it was my turn. Exhausted, I fell back against the pillow. Still, I would do it again.
Things I'd Remember about this Place
#1.) The stillness. Her. Reaching for her hand and being surprised when she didn't pull away. The river gurgled. The willows swayed softly in the breeze. For a moment, it was as if everything had stopped for us: life, time, impending doom.
I brought my forehead to hers and closed my eyes. This. This was where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. I wanted to kiss her then, but to move even just an inch would roll the world forward again.
Life. Time. Impending doom. You know the story.
When the Earth started spinning again, it spun right off its axle, and like dominoes, we went tumbling after it.
#2.) That deafening shriek and the life leaving my lungs as my back hit the ground. I couldn't breathe, but I didn't have time to recover before someone was swinging a hammer over my head. A man, I think. I caught him by the wrist and managed to flip him off of me. Clumsily, I rolled to my knees, but by the time I lifted my head, he was already coming back at me, this time with a knife.
The man's rage was all consuming. He pushed the knife that was really just a sharp rock up to my neck. His eyes were angry. Black slits blaring into mine. Pocahontas tried her best to pull him off of me. He threw her to the ground. A shot rang out. Then the body on top of me went limp.
#3.) I remember throwing the rock aside and rolling him off of me. Pocahontas laid a few feet away. In the distance, I could hear more yelling, feet thudding, bodies crashing through the trees.
"Pocahontas," I said. No response.
"Are they dead?" someone else asked.
Only then did I notice him.
In my head, I knew that Thomas was well into his twenties. At that moment though, he looked no more than twelve. That gun was too big for him both physically and psychologically. As I crawled toward Pocahontas, I could see the weight of what that weapon had done crushing him from his eyebrows down.
The voices were getting closer now.
"Thomas, run!" I said.
He didn't move.
"Thomas!" I said again.
An avalanche of arms descended on me. They yanked me away from Pocahontas and onto my feet. When I looked up, Thomas was gone.
I don't have many habits- good or bad. But being captured? That's something I know a little bit about.
The Dos and Don'ts of Captivity
#1.) Don't fight it. Unless of course you want to get your head bashed in. Even if you think you can, I don't recommend it.
#2.) Don't. Say. Anything.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, you won't understand them, and nine times out of ten, they'll just laugh at you anyway. Or bash your head in.
#3.) Get used to being uncomfortable. Cold? Yep. Hungry? Sure. Tied up with something prickly? Absolutely. That last one is pretty much guaranteed.
#4.) Sleep. Even if you don't feel like it.
#5.) Befriend the guards. Where there is a Brutus, there is almost always a Sympathizer.
#6.) And lastly, your captor's daughter. Hopefully you're already in love with her because she just might be the difference between this life and the next.
More Things I'd Remember
#4.) Her skin. The sense that she was in the tent with me even though she wasn't. I remember playing those last few moments over and over again in my mind. I remember her lying there and not being able to do anything to help her. I remember thinking they'd think I did this too. Not only did I murder one of their men, but I also hurt their princess. That last part was unbearable. It also wasn't true.
#5.) I remember staring up at the hole in the roof and coming to terms with the fact that this was not going to end well. Radcliffe would attack, and I would die, and if Pocahontas didn't get far, far away from here, she would too. I remember hoping that her father was smart enough to make that happen. That much, at least, we could both agree on.
#6.) Somewhere along the line I fell asleep. I remember being woken from it. Hard.
#7.) I remember the ache in my neck and the splinter in my knees as I tried to walk after being on them all night. I remember the rope around my neck, the way it dug into my skin, and the prickly sensation in my hands from having my wrists tied and the blood flow restricted all night. I remember blinding sunlight and falling. A lot.
#8.) I remember the splitting headache as they slammed my head against the rock. I remember making the mistake of looking up and seeing the club. My stomach lurched, and if I hadn't already been so resigned to the inevitable, I would have thrown up right there.
#9.) I remember closing my eyes and bracing myself. I remember thinking that this was it. I remember when it wasn't.
#10.) I remember when something soft and warm threw itself over me. She cradled my head in her arms and covered my face with her hair. I couldn't see, but I could hear.
"Get back," the Chief must have said. She didn't move. Instead, she proceeded to argue with him. I could only guess what was said, but I'm pretty sure I had an idea. Some things transcend even the biggest barriers. Even language. Even hate. Love is one of them.
#11.) I wish I could say that I was completely calm throughout the entire exchange, that having her over me allowed me to relax a little. It didn't. Even after they cut me free, my muscles were stiff, and my heart was still threatening to throw itself out of my chest. Even if it had, I'm pretty sure she would have caught it. As it were, I caught her instead.
#12.) I only got to hold her for a few seconds before I saw it:
Radcliffe with the gun.
The Chief in the way.
Love transcends a lot of things. Bullets are not one of them.
It was time. The ship was ready; the crew was on board. There was a steady wind, and Radcliffe was securely stowed (or so Thomas had told me.) The only thing that was missing was John.
I waited until they brought him out before I said goodbye. I did this because I knew that if I went back into that tent, neither of us were coming out. We'd stay there wrapped up in each other's arms. He'd hold half my face in his hand while I soaked him with my tears. He'd whisper sweet assurances like "It was all going to be okay" and "He'd always be with me" even though we'd both know that wasn't the truth.
I'd press my forehead to his and close my eyes, hoping that when I opened them this would all be a dream. A nightmare even. In those last few moments, he'd try to change my mind about leaving. Or letting him stay. I would think about it, and it would sound like something we could do. I might even agree.
I watched as they carried him down to the shore. The closer they got, the tighter my chest became. I could feel that place behind my eyes begin to prickle, but I was determined to hold it all in. Even it meant exploding later. Even if it meant not breathing now.
They'd put a blanket over him, and the light from the sun made him look even more pale. As they brought him up beside me, I took his hand. It was cold and clammy, not warm and reassuring like it usually was.
"You sure you don't want to come?" he asked. His eyebrows were raised, and he was half smiling.
"I can't," I said, but man how I wanted to.
I could tell that the men holding him were getting impatient so I bent down and kissed him, not long, just long enough to communicate all the things that I didn't have time to say out loud: that this was the hardest thing I'd ever had to do, that if I could go with him, I would. That if he could stay, I'd want that too.
"I will come back," he said. "I promise."
I wiped a stray tear from my eye and another bead of sweat from his face.
"Time to go, John," Thomas said. I could tell that his arms were getting tired so I nodded my head and let go of John's hand.
I couldn't watch his face as they carried him away. It was too painful, and I knew that if I did, I'd probably go after him. It was cowardly, but I looked at my feet instead. When I looked up, he was sailing away.