As this scene opens the young and beautiful Abby has been captured by Seneca Indians and is being taken to their village.|
Abby's beautiful gown, torn by brambles and bushes now and stained to her knees and even above her knees and still damp from the last creek they'd dragged her through.
Part of the time her hands had been tied behind her and part of the time there had been a rope made of plaited leathery cords looped around her neck and tied to the belt of a savage who rode a horse. Now her arms were spread out at the height of her shoulders and tied to the ends of a curving bow that cut into her shoulder blades, and her arms and her back were aching because she'd been tied so long. Hours. She didn't know how many hours.
The sun had been bright and hot over the trees when she came to the town, and now it was dark and it had been dark a long time and the drums still throbbed.
The drums had begun at dusk and they'd never stopped. She could feel them throb in her head and in the ache of her back and arms and her wrists where the cords dug in.
Her eyes were still blinded by tears when the women came in. She hardly saw them unfastening the long braided leather rope that fastened the bow to one of the upright posts. She didn't know she could move until one of the Indian women jerked the rope, pulling upward on it, and three or four others lifted her to her feet.
They walked her the length of the empty dark house to the door at the farther end. The woman who held the rope jerked it again. It twisted her arms about, still tied to the bow, so that she went out sideways through the door, and neither the ends of the bow nor her side hoops caught.
Something important seemed to be going on, with bonfires burning and all. There were many fires. One, it seemed, was for women. One, the biggest, was for the men. And there was another where a great iron kettle steamed and bubbled on a thick pole laid across forked stakes.
There was even an orchestra. It was only drums – three of them, low and flat, in a row on the ground by the fire where the men were gathered…
She needed her wits. She didn't know what she could do with her wits but she mustn't lose them. She mustn't go mad with this fear that was growing and growing and thrusting its little roots down into her mind and into her heart and all through her.
And now, as the women led her closer and closer to the biggest fire and the rows upon rows of eyes glittering at her out of the painted faces, she saw that the short squatty important man…
The weazened old Indian capered and chanted. He flourished the rattlesnake wand back and forth in front of her face. The women shrank back, but their hands still held her. There were dozens of clutching hands. They clung to her arms, to her hair, to her dress. They seemed to be waiting for something.
It came. The short, ugly Indian made a sign with his hands.
The women swarmed on her with hideous screeches. Their hands clawed and tore. She felt their nails on her flesh. She heard the gown being ripped apart. She heard the silk itself crying in thin screeches – thin and pitiful cries torn out from the dress.
The heaving and surging weight of the squaws bore her down. The mass of fighting and screaming women was crushing her into the ground and she couldn't breathe, and her stomach heaved to be rid of the awful weight of their stench.
And then they were gone. She lay there quite peacefully on the ground, all alone, and heard the Indians laughing…She looked at herself then, lying there on the ground. The dress was gone. The petticoats had been ripped away. The stockings were gone, and even the drawers were gone. She was on her back, and her arms were still stretched to the tips of the bow, and she was completely naked..
The rows of eyes glittered at her. Two old, wrinkled women came and bent over her and lifted her to her feet.
They held her. She couldn't have stood by herself. But she saw that in their mad fight for her clothes the squaws had dragged her a little away from the fires. The short, ugly Indian was walking toward her…The Indian looked at her. She saw the hate in his eyes. He said a word. The women led her away. He understands English, she thought. He had said a few English words to Garth. I can talk to him.
But the thought came too late. She turned her head. There were only the faces of women behind her. She cried wildly, desperately for help.
A squaw struck at her with a stick. It broke on her cheek. The women led her away toward the end of the street. She saw now, beyond the men's fire, the two trees that had been cut off a few feet from the ground. They had been trees with branches and leaves a few hours ago. She knew it. She hadn't seen any ugly, hacked stumps like that.
The realization did not come all at once. It came like water out of an icy bucket, being poured into and through her slowly, it numbed her, body and brain. She said very calmly:
"What are they going to do?"
And then, still calmly, she thought: That's silly. They can't understand what I say. But one of the women answered, a single word:
The word was not new. She had known it as soon as she had seen the stakes. And she was still cold and numbed by the icy shock pouring through her.
She looked for the woman who spoke, and found her – an old, bent hag with a face as dark and withered and wrinkled as a potato bug but not found and left all year on the ground.
Abby said, "Make it quick. Please tell them to make it quick."
The numbness was draining away and the awful fear was being poured into her slowly, not all at once. But it filled every part of her as the numbness made room for it.
"Tago aween," the old woman said. Then her leathery lips felt for another word. They rubbed. You could hear them rub. "Not quick," she said. "Never quick."
Abby knew with a sudden horror that the old woman was white.
The squaws led her toward the stakes. There were heaps of wood in a circle around them. There was a kind of passageway left in the circling heaps of branches and brush. The squaws turned her around. They clung to her while they untied the bows from her wrists. Their nails sank deep into her arms.
They tied her by one of her wrists to the stub of a branch on the hacked–off stump of one tree. The braided green hide of the cord raised her arm over her head. They tied her other wrist to the other tree. Then they left her.
She hung by her wrists from the cords. The drums…the drums…if the awful drums would stop…if they would stop for only a minute she'd know that this wasn't so.
This was somebody else who stood here naked under the eyes of a hundred men. And it wasn't like being looked at naked by men. They weren't men. They were animals, crouching and waiting. They were the werewolves she'd read about. They were the loups-garous in the old French tales her father had told.
This was a play. It was still a play. And she was a part of the play. It was a puppet show. She was one of the puppets. She hung by strings. She could feel the strings on her wrists.
That was all she could feel. Her body was stuffed with sawdust – her arms and her legs and her head. There was no feeling in her at all except the feeling that this was unreal, that she wasn't real, that this couldn't be happening. Then she thought: Sawdust burns.
They couldn't be going to burn her. The men seemed to be so good-natured. They were having a wonderful time. They were chuckling and laughing together, and making jokes.
If only the drums would stop. They went on and on, a monotonous, changeless, remorseful throb.
The older women had settled themselves by their fire. They had knives. They were whittling sticks. She could see the sticks whiten. They had sharp points. The squaws laid them into neat piles with the sharpened ends all the same way.
One of the old women had something that wasn't a stick. She held it up now. She shook it toward the white girl. It was a gourd or something.
The old woman held it against the front of her filthy shirt. The thing that she held was shaped like a young girl's breast. It was round and full. There was even a nipple where the small stem still clung.
The woman picked up a stick from the pile of whittled sticks on the ground. She drove the sharp point of it into the thing that was shaped like a breast.
She picked up another stick and pushed it in with a vicious jab. She continued to pick up the white sharp sticks and to jab till the breast-shaped gourd was bristling with long pine splinters. Then she dragged herself up.
She was very old. She walked, bent, toward the fire, and spoke to the men. Some of them looked up and laughed. They set the bristling thing on a long slim stick and thrust it into the fire. The splinters burst into flame.
The old woman came hobbling toward the heaped wood and the naked girl. She stood in the gap in the circling heat and held the stick out toward Abby until the splinters burned down and the gourd was blackened and scorched.
The younger women were bringing more wood. They were throwing it on the piles. The encircling heap was as high as her knees. It rose to her thighs, to her hips.
As each dropped her armload of wood, she stooped and picked out one stick. She threw the stick at the girl. Sometimes the sticks missed. But they came from every direction--in front, and behind, from all sides. She couldn't dodge. The sticks didn't hurt much. But her body was welted and scratched. The squaws gibbered and screeched.
And the children were joining in. The small naked boys ran off into the woods and came back with pine cones and pieces of birch bark and sticks. They set the cones on the sticks. They wrapped the end of the sticks in the curls of bark. They thrust them into the fire, and the cones and the bark burst into fierce little tongues of flame. The boys came running. They flipped the sticks at her, over the heaps of brush.
Some of them struck her. They scorched her before they fell. They fell on the ground around her. The few wisps of grass caught fire. They burned to the roots. The ground all around her bare feet was strewn with the burning cones and the glowing wisps of burned bark and the coals from the lighted sticks. They thickened into a carpet of fire at her feet.
There were sparks in her hair. There was a small fierce ember stuck to her flesh in the hollow between her breasts. Her body writhed. The ember, darkening slowly, slowly let go of her flesh. It dropped to the ground and winked out. But there was a fiery pain at the base of her throat. It stayed. A spark was caught in her flesh there too. It ate into her flesh.
A new agony came. It wrapped itself tightly around her body. One of the younger women, carrying wood for the fire, brought a long, limber branch. She thrust it into the fire, and when it burst into flame along its whole length she ran into the circle and struck at the tethered white body. The burning branch curled around Abby's waist.
She screamed, then, the first time. The Indians yelled.
The circle of men had changed. It was only the three-quarters part of a circle now. It was open, toward the girl, so all of the men could see her. She could see them. She could see what they were doing.
They were still laughing and joking. They kept poking the fire, like a lot of small boys. They kept stirring the pot. They were heating things in the fire.
The horrible witchlike creature with feathers behind his head was tottering toward the fire where the kettle boiled. He picked up a ladle made of bone—long bone that must be the thigh of a man. He dipped it into the kettle and stirred and brought it out dripping and bubbling. A young, clouted Indian came with a pine cone impaled on a ramrod. The thing in feathers poured some of the bubbling stuff onto the cone. It burst into flame.
As if that were another signal, one of the savages plucked a hatchet out of the coals. It smoked. Even the handle was hot. He shifted his hold on the haft, and the other savages hooted and laughed. He was coming toward her, the smoking hatchet coming closer and closer. The handle was scorched from the fire. Little curling trails of scorch ran up toward the Indian's hand where the coals had set the long handle ablaze and the flames had licked it.
She could move a little. She backed away till her arms, drawn up by the plaited green strips of hide, were raised in a pleading gesture.
The Indian walked through the gap in the circle of faggots. He stood in front of her now, and the hot iron head of the hatchet glowed cherry red through the gray of the ashes with which it was smeared.
The Indian lifted the hatchet. God, please…please mak'en to go away…please mak'en not to zweal me! The Indian laid the glowing hatchet against her flesh where the thong raised her arm.
The searing pain flashed through her body and up through her throat and it was a scream in her throat.
All the Indians screeched when she screamed.
But God was helping her bear the pain. After the first long cry, she could bear it. The pain was still there, pressed against her side. But the hatchet was gone. The Indian was walking away; she could see his shoulder blades sticking out through his back.
He walked as if he had failed at something. He had. There was nothing so very clever in clapping a hatchet against the ribs. Half the crazy screeches were mocking him because he was stupid and timid. It wasn't often the Seneca burned a woman. But when they did, there were certain exquisite refinements of degradation and torment. The mean-looking, thin little man had achieved nothing but the routine.
The yelling and laughter ceased. Even the women were quiet. Only the children still hooted and scrambled about. There was a curious, waiting tenseness among the men. They seemed to be waiting for something. They were. But she couldn't know these were the small beginnings of torture were a contest, a game in which they were taking turns. She could not know that the real game came later—much later—the really ingenious torture.
They were waiting to see what the next, in his turn, meant to do.
He got up from his place. He was a dull-looking fellow, thick-shoulder and heavy-bellied. He walked slowly across the open space to the women. He stooped and picked up a handful of the white, whittled splinters. He took a long time selecting the one that he wanted. The Indians started to yell, but their yells were not loud. They had plenty of time. They were only chafing him.
The Indian finally picked out a splinter. He walked to the iron pot, seething over the fire, and plunged the stick in. It came out dripping and dark. He turned and began to walk toward her. His belly wagged as he walked.
She didn't know what he intended to do. The thin splinter looked harmless, after the glowing hatchet. She did not know that sometimes, when Indians tortured a woman, they filled her whole body with long thin pine splinters that had been dipped in pitch, and that when she was quilled like a porcupine, head to foot, they set the splinters afire and turned her into a living torch.
She didn't know how long it took to drive in enough slivers, or what happened in between. She didn't know that sometimes, after the splinters burned down to the flesh and into the flesh, the woman was still alive and they could devise new clever tortures that her seared flesh would still be able to feel.
The Indian walked up to her until his belly was almost touching her body. Her arms, raised by the thongs, almost embraced him. His arm went back over his shoulder.
And then she remembered the gourd. In the waiting quiet, her voice was the only sound — a sound so sharp it hurt like knives in her throat and her ears and her head. She hardly felt the splinter driving into her flesh.
She saw it there..
He had missed the breast. All the other Indians hooted.
The pain and the terror seemed to explode in her mind, in a blinding flash.