by Laura Valeri
And though it’s hard for you to imagine it, there was a time when time was not a measure crushed to crumbs for the hunger of people whose gods have been asleep too long. Iihtsipaitapiiyo pa, the Source of Life, was not a God, nor a man, nor a woman, but just a dreamer of dreams, a little like you, creating tomorrows with the tender blossom of thought. The Siksikawa had just crawled out from the navel of the earth to people the North American continent. Blackfoot, they were called, for they walked on the ashes of the burned prairies, and their moccasins, though beaded and tanned with various colors, were as dark at the bottom as the ashes of those fires. Soatsaki was new like the dawn, light as the sun in the morning. She slept in a tipi made of deerskin and antelope bone, a beautiful nii toy yis which her mother had owned before her, and which she shared with three sisters. In the tradition of her people, the nii toy yi had been made by her great grandfather, who painted the deerskins in the colors of the ancestors, telling their tribe’s history through it’s design, and then the tipi was handed down to the women, who owned it, cleaned it, set it up and took it down when the hunters followed the thunderous herds of the buffalo across the plain. In this manner, the Siksikawa spread over the valleys like the rivers and the prairie fires and the women carried their history on their shoulders.
On summer nights, the air was sweet with smoked meat and joyous with the thundering drums of the dance. The reeds swayed with the breezes and the mud of the riverbanks breathed life onto the crust of the earth. In the daytime, the sun shone bright and the moisture of the river rose and permeated the air. But at night, the sweet hot breath of the earth clung to the skin of Soatsaki, making it hard for the girl to sleep.
All the lodges had their flaps opened like great mouths gasping for cool air. Soatsaki, not wanting to wake her sisters, tip toed out of the tipi’s mouth. She quietly moved away from the earth fires as the crickets sang in waves of tingly choirs, and she collapsed on the tall grass, her hair tangling with pieces of reeds and small weeds. Tiny insects crawled through the earth under Soatsaki’s clothes but the girl did not mind, as back then human beings had not yet quarreled with the gods, and insects and animals and all children of earth thought of each other as one.
I know your patience is frayed from the constant noises of your time, but listen: here you are, thousands of years later, looking for clues of the beginning, for details of the life of a tribe girl who was alive before history was the trade of learned men. Imagine Soatsaki, this girl who slept in the prairie, who lived of squirrel meat, June berries and buffalo, who made soap from the fat of animals and sewed with porcupine quills. Tonight she sleeps in the soft pillow of the prairie grasses, her feet pale in the moonlight. Half the world is still asleep and dreaming, coagulating nightmares trapped in the gossamers of superstition and wonder. And on this night of so long ago, an ordinary girl steps away from the campfires, sure-footed and unafraid, and crosses beyond the sensory impermanence of life into the cottony eternity of myth.
Not so far from her, the men are snoring in their nii toy yis, curled around their wives, for the dogs are alert, and the cliffs are painted with the blood of the buffalo that jumped to its death to feed the Siksikawa. The girl is lying supine watching the Morning Star glow as it climbs towards its azimuth on the primordial sky. How beautiful and free seems the Morning Star, so mysterious that the girl watches it all night. And here is the part you can only believe of a folk tale: the girl falls in love; she falls in love with the Morning Star.
Do you remember the sweet breath of new love? Can you feel the tingling ghost fingers of hope dancing on the tender part of your belly? This is how Soatsaki felt as she ran to her people with her hair still tangled with bugs and pine needles. Love was Soatsaki’s news; she told it to her sisters, told it to the crackling fires, to the sharpened knife she used to cut fat and to the quills she used to fit and saw the bladder that she filled with water for the hunters’ journey. Love, she said to the coyotes who watched her curiously as she toiled. But her band, the elders of the tribe, they laughed at Soatsaki’s love.
Even Soatsaki’s sisters, two adolescent girls covered in smoke and pelts, their teeth shining in the sun, even these sisters mocked her: “How could you fall in love with a star?” As if love could be reasoned away.
Ridicule is contagious, a virus that quickly spreads from mouth to infected mouth so that the girl endures shame as she goes about her chores. “Soatsaki, what do you want with a star? Marry this clod of dirt! At least it will feed you. Soatsaki, here is a rock that fell from the sky; do you think it’s pretty? Soatsaki, look up! There goes your lover chasing a star! Oh, Soatsaki, who will you love now?”
Soatsaki cooked, cleaned, skinned the hunted buffalo and washed blood from her fingers in the cold waters of the river. She collected roots for medicine. She plucked June berries from the shrubs and pasted them into sauces for the meat. She sliced thin the flesh of hunted animals and laid it to dry for the winter season. She wove feathers together into head garments; she gathered tobacco leaves and laid them out to dry. Maybe she smelled of smoke, of leaf, and dust, and blood, of new, sweet grass, of youthful sweat, of mud and pinesap. She had her moons and passed them in her sweat lodge, and celebrated with dance, and chanted for rain, all the while speaking to unsympathetic ears about her night alone in the prairie grass.
You want to be exact about it, but you can only imagine the real details. Subconscious memory is not that precise. Focus on more important questions. For example, how did Soatsaki fall in love with what you now know is a planet shrouded in toxic ammonia and volcanic ashes? When her warm adolescent form was a hot coal in the damp earth, what did she gather in her chest, what fantasy tingled the pit of her soft belly that made her save her love for a rock in orbit? When she looked up into that black blanket of ancient sky, seeing the stars like someone had poked holes into a tarp with a hot iron… what, exactly, did she love?
Like all things unusual, her crush is so easily dismissed, as if dreams were something cheap for the trade, as if the soul itself needed no food to thrive upon, no fantasy on which to drape some shred of love.
And yet, here you are, charting her course through the geography of Montana and lower Canada, looking up the course of the Saskatchewan and the Mississippi rivers to retrace what might have been her people’s journey. Imagine how that love quickened her breath and sent her blood rushing down between her thighs, a knot down there untying, loosening the restraints of daily boredom. Why has legend been so unkind to that first love, when it seemed Soatsaki’s body exploded with a numinous strangeness that invalidated all caution. Her people laughed. That’s all the stories will tell you.
She grew tired of the glances that people threw at her before their cheerful gossip dropped to a whisper at her approaching footsteps. They believed she had met a reason to break away from respectability in the musky tall grasses of the prairie that one night, and she was lying to cover her shame. It was a man from another tribe that she had met in the prairie. The whispers thickened, infecting daily life with the ill.
But then, one day Soatsaki walked along the river. A man stood there smiling at her, his lips bright as berries and his hair as dark as the earth under her fingernails. On top of his head his hair was gathered in a lump in the ways of the hunters with an eagle feather to hold it in place. At first, she mistook him for a villager, an inverted comma in his cheek, and the dimple in his chin so mocking. He was dressed like the hunters of her band, with leggings and a robe sewn of white buffalo skin. Around his neck he had the claws of a grizzly bear, the ornament of a mighty hunter. His face was painted in red, the color of life, the color of Soatsaki’s feelings. He extended a hand to her. His smile was long across his face, holding a meaning that frightened the girl, for it seemed to hold secrets she believed only she held locked tightly in her breasts.
“Go,” she shouted when she found her voice. She threw a small stone at his feet as if to scare him away like a coyote. “I will not suffer mockery from a stranger.”
But from his hair he pulled out that eagle feather, which he held out to her as in gift and his hair tumbled on his shoulder, glossy and dark. At her feet he placed a juniper branch draped with glittering white, silky threads, ephemeral and fine. Caught up by the beauty and strangeness of these gifts, Soatsaki let the tips of her fingers brush against the glowing web on the juniper branch and knew at once this man was no man at all.
Then Morning Star spoke. His voice resonated like the hum of the wind. He told her he knew she had spied him from the earth in the womb of the dawn, that for a hundred nights he’d watched her from a pillow in the sky, sending his breath over the contours of her body as she, vulnerable, unguarded, opened the gates of her heart. Now with eyes full of sunlight and mirth he said, “Come to live with me in the sky nation. I promise that you’ll be happy like no human has yet.”
It felt to her that with his gaze he touched her in a part inside that was raw, a knowledge only just born to her now bursting to respond. The river thrummed, and the spray of the fast waters weaved a misty rainbow web from the god’s lovely shine.
You wonder how she could look at him, light pouring out of his mouth so that even the tiny insects on the leaves of the elms glowed like hot, colored crystals. But she was a girl who had fallen in love with a planet. There were no limits to her faith.
“Let me say goodbye to my people,” she pleaded with him but he was stern, his arms crossed before his chest and already in a hurry: “We must go now or never meet again.”
“My sisters will be worried. They will not know what happened.”
“The stars align only with the right season,” he said sternly. Unlike the gentle voice he’d used before, there was an edge to him she should have felt, a clue that would peck a tiny crack in her memories, but he set the juniper branch at her feet, told her to touch her toes to it, and so she closed her eyes and did as was told, as one might expect of an offer for ascension.
That’s how Soatsaki left the campfires behind, her sisters, her people, her history, and all the things mundane and dear: the long painted feathers she used to braid in her hair, the nii toy yi she was born in, the necklaces and bead bracelets her mother had made for her, she left all of it without as much as a last glance.
You would hope her lover appreciated her sacrifice, but who knows what are the motivations of the gods. He told her only “Close your eyes,” and she did, not understanding how much the things that she once thought unimportant would manage to dig tunnels inside her, deep and dripping with cold grief. On that day she thought only of love, and rose up to the heavens astride his knotty shoulders with her eyes shut against all that floated away beneath her.
The star nation was a color like sunset, and speckled with golden large lodges that glowed with the hearth fires, and heavenly bodies busily orbiting about. The Moon greeted the girl; she was Morning Star’s mother, gracious and pale as she bowed to acknowledge her son’s new bride, but a smile was cleaved like a scar on her open face as she offered Soatsaki gifts of clothes, food, and jewelry.
Sun and Moon, who were Morning Star’s parents, noticed the ashes on Soatsaki’s moccasins and the dead animal skins that covered her body. In private, they voiced a tender concern, but Morning Star seemed oblivious to their complaints. Between him and Soatsaki there were kisses, hands searching secret places, the mingled breaths of god and woman whispering words that have no sense and parental worries cannot compete against such sensations.
Then, one morning Soatsaki ran her fingertips from her navel down the hair line on her belly, felt something move in there and understood only just then all the absences she had lived with. All the words that she had once found easy to sing to her lover turned into things hard and edged, things that lodged into the holes inside her where once there had been the memory of campfires, and of the teasing of her adolescent sisters.
Soatsaki groped with the rigors of motherhood without help from her heavenly mother in law, who said she knew nothing of raising human children, while Morning Star himself gradually grew too busy for Soatsaki, leaving early for his ever widening orbits, glowing in the purple realm of dusk late in the night, away from Soatsaki and their baby. Sun and Moon, who had never been sure of Soatsaki’s class, her smelling of river and stone even after so many years in the star dust, decided it was time to put a test to the girl. When Morning Star was away, Moon presented Soatsaki with a special gift.
“This is a root-digging stick,” Moon told her, holding an objected that seemed whittled out of the very glow of the moon. “Only pure women can use it,” the Moon added in a whisper, as if to add some June berry juice to the smoking meat that was Soatsaki’s curiosity.
All about the star nation there were great craters covered by leafy plants of many varieties and sizes. These plants were shrouded in glimmering spider webs whose threaded ends disappeared into the glowing, puffy soil of the sky nation and spiraled down towards earth. Morning Star had told her, “Those spider webs are the roads that the gods use to travel, but you must never go near them.” He had never explained why.
Soatsaki eagerly accepted the gift, and strapped Star Boy, her child, onto her back.
“Go dig good medicine root for us,” Moon advised. “But wherever you go, whatever you do, do not dig the great big turnip. It has been planted by grandmother spider to plug a hole in the clouds that connects us to the earth. You must never look at earth through that hole.” When Soatsaki agreed, Moon seemed to emit a different light, as if an invisible worry had just cast a shadow on her cratered countenance.
Turnips as they go are usually harmless, but Soatsaki had been warned not to dig it up. Mortals know well the temptation of warning, the hot, dangling promise of forbidden things. Soatsaki saw the turnip, enormous in the valley of the star nation, luminous and purple-hued, the only thing up there that smelled of earth and home. At first she could hardly move it, so deeply it had been plugged into that great crater of the sky nation that it seemed impossible that there had ever been anything strong enough to plant it, but a pair of storks flew by, watching her as she dug, and when she was about to give up, attempting to remove bits of star dust from her short, bitten-edged fingernails, the storks flew around her in great swooping circles and down towards the crater where, with their long bills, they lifted up the turnip just enough for Soatsaki to slide her wondrous root digging stick deeper in. Little by little, the turnip came loose, enough that it could be rolled on its side from its hole. Not for a moment had Soatsaki thought about what she could see, only that something tugged at her as she dug, a feeling as of the fragments of a dream one wakes up with in the morning, remembered only through a scent or a fluttering in the chest. But when the girl stood on her knees, looking at the funneling crater that the turnip had covered, the dream came back to her at once. Below, the Siksikiwa hunters had gathered. The smoke of the campfires rose through the hole to Soatsaki’s nostrils. The dogs barked and loped around the dancing warriors as the fire stretched crackling fingers of flames. Soatsaki saw her sisters, infants strapped to their bodies. They shook rattles and chanted while their warrior husbands kicked dust in the frenzy of rite. Their chants dislodged something rooted deeper than any great turnip.
Soatsaki tried to cover up the hole as best she could, an anger beating in her chest that she could barely voice. She ran home to her in-laws, but as she grew closer to the glorious nii toy yis in the stars she understood Moon mother’s game. She quickly wiped the tears from her nose, leaving incriminating streaks of star dirt on her cheeks.
Moon waited for her in front of her lodge. “Let me see your hands,” was the first words she spoke. Soatsaki hid her hands under a fold in her dress. “Where have you been,” asked Moon, relentless. Soatsaki looked into Moon’s face and said nothing.
Moon nodded at Morning Star, who sat, listening, in a dark corner, shadowed by his own brooding. “She’s made of mud and silt,” said Moon. “No sojourn in the star could ever cleanse her. There is no home in heaven for broken promises. The sky nation is no place for dirt and blood and lies.”
Soatsaki humbly handed back her digging stick, head hanging low, for it isn’t often that a girl can summon the courage to talk back to the Moon.
“A promise is a promise,” said Morning Star later that night taking the side of his mother. “If you are not good on your word, at least accept the price for disobeying,” forgetting already the promises he himself had made to Soatsaki and the price he had exacted for his love. So Soatsaki was banished, with her child bundled on her back, his little fingers pulling at her hair and crying, responding with grief to her grief. When Soatsaki descended, the sky lighted up with a purple glow, and the rain fell on the earth for days. A wind swept and beat against the pelts of the nii toy yis, as if to announce Soatsaki was home.
There are great gaps in history as great as the hole of the turnip that the giant spider planted to prevent man from seeing god, so it should be no surprise that this legend skips to the adulthood of her son, Star Boy, half god, half cursed, half like all children ever born to mothers, who will grow strong, but scarred by a wound that never heals. He will leave the village in search of his heavenly father. An old seer will show him the way. He will walk all the way to the shores of the Pacific and climb to heaven on a web of sunrays spun for this purpose by the giant sky spider. He will consult with his heavenly grandparents, who will heal his scar, and he will return to the Blackfoot people with the medicine secrets of the gods, a teacher of wisdom who will overcome lore and bleed into legend for his miraculous powers. He will then ascend to heaven to take his place by his father’s side, and his glory will overcome the shadow of his mothers’ shame.
But what happened to her, to the mother, the young, disobedient girl in love with heaven, who first kissed a god and bore him a son? Of her, there is only one more mention: of lonely nights spent in the prairie where she once fell in love, her back pressed against the cool earth, her nose turned up towards the belt of stars above, her thinned, tired voice pleading for grace from her estranged lover, who returns only silence.
There is no logic in dream, no fairness in love. Beauty has no reward, least of all in young women who grow to be unprepared mothers.
Her story barely survives, passed on from mother to daughter, and loses its details like a washed piece of cloth. Most of the world is asleep yet, anyway: Europe is far on the other end of the ocean; history is written by men in powdered wigs. Monks in long cloaks will preach against sex and folklore from high pulpits, their words raging through stone vaults hewn and chiseled by the labor of superstitious men, and you, in your high knowledge of planets, sheltered by your stone abodes and comforted by beds of air and feathers, you, people of choices, of waking consciousness, will not know the end of my story.
But if you see a mention of me in the dry passages of a textbook, or a poem that has deliberately been casual with the details of my choices, and disregarded the consequences of my ignorance and the price I paid for it, remember, I am the origin of human mistakes. My progeny, when things go dark and sorrows chases you to places where you will chafe your knees to ask for grace or mercy, find comfort, a thread of humor at the notion that all sorrows of mankind spin from the conflict of mothers and sons, and that all curses are laid on earth for the eyes of one girl so long ago who dared to look to heaven and to love.