Disclaimer: Not mine.
Rubbing a knot out of the side of her neck, Alice Munro discarded the not-quite-half-finished basket in her lap, its frayed and uneven strands making a mockery of an afternoon's work. She contemplated her sun-browned fingers with some bemusement. Half her friends in Portman Square would hardly know her, and the other half probably would not care to. Pragmatically, though, she was grateful they were brown and not red. Unlike Cora, providence had given her a lily-fair complexion that tended to burn rather than tan. She preferred to view her earthier skin tone as a good omen that perhaps her body was finally adapting to life on the frontier.
She stretched her arms in front of her, futilely willing the hottest, dullest part of the day to pass. She could go to Cora for relief, but there was always the danger that Cora would ask her to help with laundry. Any task was preferable to that.
Back home, Alice had never had a problem entertaining herself. Back home, she had her drawing pencils and more parchment than she knew what to do with. But here such things were luxuries. Here she was confined to imagining all the things she would draw if she could, like the strange Delaware houses that resembled overturned bowls, or the hundred and one wildflowers whose names she could never entirely remember. If they would ever sit still long enough, she would have liked to draw Nathaniel and his brother. It would be a refreshing challenge to capture the contrast of their eyes, one blue like the center of a flame, the other black like charcoal.
There are many things I would like to draw about his brother, she thought wistfully. It troubled her that after nine weeks in the Delaware camp they still had not established what they were to each other. He was always kind to her, sometimes more than kind. Still, that he wanted her around for now did not mean he wanted her around forever.
Rising, she abandoned her basket in front of the circular hut she and Cora now called home. Most of the camp had retreated into the shade in the lazy heat of the afternoon. She passed a couple women skinning a deer outside their wikwam. Both glanced vaguely in her direction when she walked by, but neither acknowledged her. This was not surprising. For the first week or so after their arrival, she and her sister had been novelties, but those days had passed quickly enough. Now they were simply ignored. Alice could not say which she preferred; both were signs that she did not belong.
She wandered passed the sweating lodge and a few household gardens where rows of summer squash basked luxuriously in the sun. After a time she wandered passed the wikwam of an older Delaware man, a man she knew by sight but had never spoken to directly. He was an object of some fascination to her. He did not hunt very often, devoting more of his time to herbs and medicinal teas. He had other talents as well, talents that would have made many of their acquaintance in London recoil. Alice lingered a moment to peer inside his house. He was grinding something bitter. His leathery skin hung somewhat loosely off his arms, but she could imagine in his younger days he had been quite muscular. As the aroma wafted past her, a wild, dangerous thought took root in her mind. Impelled, she moved toward the door.
He glanced up at the sound of her footsteps and favored her with an apathetic frown. Alice's heart began to quicken. What am I doing? I'm not supposed to be here. There is no reason for me to approach him.
"I would like..." She hesitated, floundering for the right words. Then she held out her arm decisively. "I would like a tattoo," she announced.
He raised his eyebrows. She half-expected him to burst out laughing, or dismiss her as a nuisance for interrupting his work. Instead, he let out a soft snort of amusement and gestured for her to sit. "What kind?" he asked methodically, enunciating the final consonants as only a non-native speaker would.
Alice paused. She had not actually thought that far ahead into the conversation. As far as she knew the Delaware had no written language; most of the tattoos she had seen were animals. Her mind flitted aimlessly for a few minutes.
"Tsquall," she said firmly. It was the first Delaware animal term that entered her head, but she was pleased with the choice nonetheless. Frogs were very agreeable creatures. While not outwardly beautiful, they had an unassuming nature she found endearing. They hid themselves for most of the day, staying out of everyone's way, except in the evenings, when they lulled her to sleep with their deep-throated cantatas.
Her commissioned artist shrugged. He sorted through the tools on his floor until he extracted a smooth, white instrument that narrowed to an intimidating point. A small bone or a very large tooth, Alice thought. The older man took her wrist in his hand, gently but firmly. Alice directed her attention to the herbs and pottery hanging from the ceiling, not wishing to look as the needle pierced her arm. Even so, it stung painfully as it cut into her skin. She bit the inside of her mouth in determination. She would not cry in front of him. She must not.
After what she assumed was several minutes, he withdrew the needle and reached for a clay bowl half-full of something that resembled soot.
"Wha-what is that?" She did not like the quaver in her voice. Fortunately it was a simple enough question, and he clearly had a decent grasp of English.
"Tree," he replied tersely. Alice then realized that this – not some properly processed paint or dye– was to go under her skin. It hardly looked safer than dirt. But it was too late to back out now. Perhaps Cora would be able to find her a few leeches if she became ill. As he rubbed the powder into her wrist, with more roughness than she thought necessary, she wondered what kind of tree was going into her skin, and if it made something sweet.
He removed his fingers from her arm and gently blew off the remaining powder, leaving the black insignia flaring on her skin like an ink blot on parchment. "Don't wash," he told her. After some reflection, he added, "Now."
Alice nodded, which seemed to satisfy him. As she left, she paused at the door. "Thank you," she said, with a small and awkward curtsy, though she doubted it mattered as his back was already turned to her.
Alice returned to the garden behind their house, cautiously massaging the inside of her wrist. It throbbed, and she suspected it would for a while, but the pain also filled her with a strange exhilaration. She wondered whether she ought to show Uncas as soon as he came back or let him discover it for himself. She could decide while she finished weeding, as he was not likely to return for at least another hour.
But she had barely pulled up a few stray sprouts when she realized the task was useless. Far from curing her boredom, the tattoo had made it worse. Suddenly weeding felt like a task too dull and monotonous, too ordinary. However, every other activity she could think of was even more dull and monotonous. Abandoning her afternoon work, she resumed her former occupation of aimless wandering, taking great care to avoid areas where Cora might see her and recruit her for laundry duty.
Uncas returned shortly before sundown. Alice spied him in the forest, walking with light-footed nonchalance. He did not smile very often, but Alice was learning to read his moods by his posture and the way he moved. A pair of white rabbits dangled limply from his shoulders. As he neared the unmarked boundary of the camp, his dark eyes scanned the trees. A warm glow shone out of them when they landed on her.
"Welcome back," she said brightly, as soon as they were in arms' length. Feeling uncharacteristically bold, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him briskly on the mouth.
Uncas looked surprised but not displeased at the spontaneous display of affection. Letting the rabbits slide off his shoulders, he pressed his hands around her waist and molded his mouth more slowly against hers. His embraces were always slow and deliberate, as though he feared anything too rough would scare her away. Slow but never weak, she thought. She cherished these rare moments, when his actions filled the unspoken volumes and she did not need to doubt his caring for her.
Alice knew he would stay out in the woods for as long as she would let him. It gave her a rather enticing sense of power, even as he lowered her to the ground until they were both kneeling on the grass. His mouth migrated to the side of her neck. As her left hand slid up to his shoulder, he pulled away to let his lips brush her fingertips. He paused. He held her hand a few inches from his face, glancing from it to her with a look of utter bafflement.
"What did you do to your wrist?"
"A tattoo," she answered cheerfully, though she could sense he was not nearly as happy about it as she was trying to sound.
"I can see that," he said dryly. "Why did you do that to your wrist?"
Alice looked down uneasily. "Lots of Delaware girls have them." This was a bit of an exaggeration. Among the Delaware tattoos were much less common for women than men, but it was not unheard of.
"You are not a Delaware girl," Uncas replied, as if this was something she could have forgotten.
She folded her arms and sat on the ground, accepting the death of their short-lived tryst. "Your father seems to wish I was," she observed quietly.
He looked at her and sighed with what, to her ears, sounded like irritation. "Is that why you did this, moskimutit?"
Alice flushed. His use of her pet name, which she usually found affectionate and endearing, she now found profoundly annoying. No, she wanted to say, but she did not know how to finish. I did it because I was bored, or, because I wanted to do something unexpected, all sounded petulant and childish. Unfortunately, they were also true.
"If I wanted a Delaware girl, I could have one," Uncas told her. "I chose you for a reason, little rabbit."
Her wrist started to throb more painfully. Alice felt tears springing to her eyes, and she suddenly wished she could rub off the markings along with the last two hours before this conversation. "I am sorry. I did not realize," she said. She stood abruptly and turned back toward camp. I did not realize I had damaged myself in your eyes, she thought as she brushed away the infant tears with her unmarked, unsullied hand.
She had not gone more than a few steps when Cora intercepted her. Her sister carried her laundry basket, now empty, under one arm. "Alice, what's wrong?"
"Nothing, nothing is wrong," Alice replied quickly. She tried to force a smile, but in her denial she made the mistake of raising her hands, and what was wrong immediately became quite obvious.
Cora raised her eyebrows in shock. "What on earth – Alice, what did you do?"
Alice did not have a response, but she did not think she really needed one. Cora's lips parted in surprise. To Alice's displeasure, her sister revised the question to one much harder to avoid answering. "What in the world were you thinking?"
"I thought…" She folded her hands awkwardly in front of her, unable to bear displaying the tattoo any longer. "I thought it would be interesting," she finished rather lamely.
Cora pressed her lips together. "This is a strange country. Many things here are interesting." Alice could read the unspoken in her sister's tone and eyes. We do not forget who we are simply because we live in a savage wilderness.
Uncas stepped beside her and held out his hand. "Show me your wrist again," he commanded. Reluctantly, Alice obeyed. He held it for much longer this time, tracing the black markings with an inscrutable expression.
"Do you know what this symbol means, moskimutit?" he asked. Alice shook her head. He hesitated, as though wishing to roll the words in his mouth a few times before letting them escape. "It is considered in some places to be a sign of good luck," he said at last. "Should you wish to become pregnant."
Alice suddenly felt a sickening fit of dizziness. "Then everyone here will think that I…that I am a…"
"No one here will think badly of you," Uncas promised. "It is not normal for Delaware girls to wait until marriage to lay with a man."
His bluntness, both shocking and embarrassing, did nothing to soothe her. He said it without judgment, as an observation, but she could not help feeling a personal affront to her character. To be mistaken for a common harlot. That such a thing could be the norm did not make it morally acceptable. And now Uncas certainly must think her either a wanton flirt or – more likely - a silly, empty-headed girl.
"But I suppose you must hate it," she said meekly.
Uncas shrugged. "It's your arm," he said, with infuriating pragmatism.
"Men have worn frog tattoos," she pointed out after a beat, knowing the defense was weak at best.
"They have," he acknowledged. "It does not carry the same implication."
Alice felt her dizziness begin to subside. In its place a dull sense of remorse weighed her to the ground. She leaned her head against a tree and closed her eyes, wishing they would all disappear. "Alice-"
She turned to the source of the voice. Cora was not looking at her, but had collapsed onto the ground beside Uncas, covering her face with her hand. Her shoulders had started to shake. Since crying did not make sense, Alice could only assume her sister was laughing. "I am sorry, but Alice, of all things…"
After a few more barely restrained convulsions, Cora straightened and wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. "You might have at least chosen something poetic," she said finally.
"It can also mean spring," Uncas said helpfully.
Cora rose, taking a moment to smooth out the wrinkles that had encroached on her mahogany skirt. "You know they will never, ever, let you back into Portman Square after this," she said after another pause. "Unless that prospect no longer bothers you."
Alice turned back to the tree and buried her face in her arm, unable to look at either of them.