Title: Le Fantôme
Summary: As Magua's captive, Alice learns the importance of walking with the dead.
Length: 2000 words
Categorization: AU, angst, drama
Rating/Warning: Older teens, violence, murder, character deaths
A/N: For a moment, I let myself imagine a different ending for Alice Munro. First of my 'Five New Fandoms in 2011' ficlets. (Trying to stretch my writerly legs a bit.)
They can only steal what you allow them to take, says a voice in Alice's head that sounds so much like Cora that for a foolish moment she thinks to turn and see her just past her shoulder, dark hair falling about her face, skin smudged with dirt, but eyes so very bright and alive.
This wild, terrible place has been the making of her.
But Alice does not turn, because Cora is not there. Vacant eyes and cool flesh and puddles of red. Cora is not there, but here, not outside, but in.
She lets Cora fill her up, wear her skin, and whisper softly to little Alice huddled in the corner, paralyzed with fear. Cora does not let her cower or beg or cry or look away, but makes her hold her captor's gaze, staring back. Giving back to him what he first taught her: fear.
They fear the dead, Cora whispers, reminding Alice of a cold night impossibly full of stars and surrounded by enemies, her lungs stinging with crystal air, and bundled bodies floating in the canopy above. (Uncas' body warm and smooth against hers, so unlike the dead and moldering, swallowing her trembling fear with his flesh, absorbing her moment by moment).
Those with blood on their hands, like Magua, those with whispers in the dark and doubts for what comes after—judgment—they fear the dead. As they should.
Cora understood this. So now Alice does as well.
So she does not look away when Magua comes to claim what is not his to claim. Magua who has already taken more from her than she can bear to think of.
Cora thought to shield her from the truth of their father's death, shield her as she has always done, as Alice has always let her (even now). But she saw that day. Pretended not to, pretended to still be that girl Cora wanted her to be. But she saw.
Saw the blood on Magua's face as he drank in her father's heart blood. She understands now, understands that Magua sought to ingest her father's power with that profane gesture. He was only half right. The dead do lodge themselves in the flesh of the living, but her father is here with her, his daughter, not in the putrid flesh left behind in the field of fallen. His power cannot be compelled or stolen, but only given.
Be brave, Alice-girl.
She is filled to bursting with the dead. An entire fort of fallen men, her father, Duncan, Nathaniel, Cora. Only Uncas is quiet, illusive.
Falling. Always falling.
The winds sweep his voice away.
But Alice is standing.
Magua fears the dead. Alice walks with them, holds them close. She stares back because she knows he can see it there in her eyes—death.
With them here, buffering her spirit, he cannot bring himself to touch her.
He cannot have what she is not willing to give.
During the day, she follows the women as they move through the village, chattering like magpies. She does not understand their language, full of guttural highs and lows, flowing past like a busy spring brook. They attempt snippets of French now and again, but as Cora is quick to point out, Alice never dedicated herself to their study of French as well as she should have.
C'est la vie, Cora says, consonants rolling across her tongue and dying against the back of her teeth.
So there is no communication between Alice and the women, nothing other than rough gestures and patient explanation of her duties. Not really quite so different than the ones wealthy young English women are meant to do. Gather. Fix. Prepare.
She is not lonely though, despite the barriers of language. How could she be? She has company enough in her companions.
Occasionally she laughs at something Cora says, nodding carefully along as Poppa tells her lessons of great import, teasing Duncan out of his severity.
The red women merely leave her be, eyes lingering even as their comments to one another are hidden behind hands.
Mind you pay attention, Miss Alice.
She is not afraid of work. For all that her life before was pampered and delicate, her hands do not fear the strain of toil. She watches, learns, absorbs the tasks until they are second nature.
Good, Nathaniel says, his kind eyes sparkling.
There is a strange sort of peace to be found in muscles aching with labor well finished.
She is rebuilding herself.
As the season stretches long, Magua's fear begins to rule him.
Alice can feel Cora's grim satisfaction buzzing through her flesh.
Magua demands her words, her actions, but all he gets is her attention, her unwavering eyes, his lifted hand stuck halfway through the arc of a punishing blow.
To touch her is to touch the dead. She never lets either of them forget this.
When the heavy snows set in, bringing with them the threat of keeping them trapped in close quarters and huddled for warmth, something in him finally snaps. He grabs her by the arm, fingers digging in. She does not cry out.
The moment hovers on a pinpoint, wavering with the breeze of Magua's sleepless nights and terror.
Hold, Miss Alice, Duncan orders, voice crisp and inescapable, shoring up her spine. Hold.
Magua is the one to crumple, dragging her out of the tent and into the frigid night air.
He pulls her to a rough stop on the threshold of a distant tent decorated heavily with ochre pictures. An old woman sweeps back the flap, warmth and light and the smell of mysterious things pouring out over them both.
The old woman's face seems impossibly wrinkled, but her voice is sharp as she looks them over. Her high-pitched tone lashes over Magua like a relentless winter wind, the leader and warrior not quite able to hide his flinch at the berating words.
He barks one low word, something final and unmovable, and shoves Alice forward into the old woman's arms. He brushes his empty palms against each other as if to dust himself of her last touch.
He does not look back as he walks away.
She is a medicine woman, Nathaniel says. You will be safe with her.
The old woman brushes and braids Alice's hair like she's a child, her fingers sure and swift, and Alice pretends not to notice when she snips a strand of the fair hair, carefully tucking it away. Alice understands she has been given something important in staying here and does not mind paying that kindness back.
On the days the cold is too much, twisting the medicine woman's fingers into useless claws, Alice becomes her hands. They develop a language of grunts and gestures.
Alice becomes accustomed to the smells of musk and oils and secrets, her fingers dyed red as she grinds powders and potions. Sometimes a moment will rise up without warning, crawling up the back of her throat as she stares down at the rusty stains, metallic memories searing her nostrils.
Cora just tugs her braid, laughingly reminding Alice of that summer they'd stolen a jar of raspberry preserves and eaten it with their fingers behind the kitchens. Mama had scolded them with laughter in her eyes, even as she took them down to the stream and made them wash the stains from their clothes themselves. Cora hums the songs of the washerwomen.
Alice breathes out, and continues to grind.
The medicine woman mumbles something, her fingers slipping to the cord of blond hair knotted at her waist.
Alice begins to sing.
The snows release their grip on the valley at last, trees shuddering off their heavy burden, first tentative flowers pushing up through the slush.
It's time, Cora whispers to her. The rebuilding is done.
She rises in the hours before dawn. The medicine woman wakes, her obsidian eyes following Alice's motions in the dim light from the fading fire, but says nothing.
Alice collects a small bundle of furs and provisions, and the carefully rolled case of remedies and potions she prepared herself, slipping them on to her back.
She pauses in front of the careful collection of the medicine woman's tools, eyes skimming and settling on a honed, iron blade. A white man's tool. Lifting her braid, Alice saws through the thickness at the height of her shoulders.
She leaves the plait.
She takes the knife.
The blade draws across his throat like fingers skimming through water, a supple blade of grass falling to a carefully honed scythe. She stares at him as his life leaches out onto the furs beneath him, holds his gaze as the light leaves his eyes.
Even now he does not dare touch her.
She thinks he looks a little relieved to finally have it be at an end, this moment they have both felt coming since the day he met her frozen gaze on the edge of a jagged cliff. She likes to think the last breath escaping his lips is in gratitude.
The first light has spread across the village as she walks out of the tent, ruddy blade hanging at her side. His blood steadily drips to the dirt like an offering as she walks. Let the earth take his spirit. He will no longer linger in her.
The red men gather on either side of the path, watching her as she passes, but she does not slow.
There is a yip of anger from a young man quickly cut off as the women step forward, standing silent witness as Alice walks to the edge of the village. They understand. She has claimed her right.
"Le fantôme," they murmur as she passes.
The walking dead.
For three days she follows the river downwards, submitting to the pull of her spirits. South, east, west, she does not know. Even the animals leave her be as she huddles in her furs at the base of a tree.
Chingachgook is waiting for her in a clearing as the river slows and calms, gliding into a shallow pond. He waits as if he has heard her approach, a whisper in his ear telling of her arrival.
An entire race of people holds vigil with him, she knows, this warrior who is the last of his kind. The last of her kind as well, the only one left to know the name Alice Munro.
From her pack, she removes her sacred package. She holds the knife out for Chingachgook, blood dried upon the blade, so he will know that it is done.
"Daughter," he says, acknowledging her place.
Uncas was hers; and she was Uncas. His blood and her own.
She feels the phantom touch of fingers on her cheek, a gaze burning into her skin. No words, but a welcome all the same. They had never needed words.
She understands now, the one great absence she has felt these long trying months. It is good that Uncas has not left his father to bear this alone.
Chingachgook takes the careful bundle from her fingers, lifting it to the winds, words rising and falling on his tongue like the swell of the sea. When at last the rites are done, he gathers his belongings and turns into the trees, the branches and leaves absorbing him, the stillness taking him in and making him its own.
Well done, poppet, the wind whispers. Well done.
Alice turns and follows Chingachgook out into the wilds.
She does not walk alone.