The baby peered watchfully into her eyes. Though tiny and helpless, he seemed determined to live. With a sigh he rooted for milk, for something, anything. Anxiously, Omakayas hurried toward the camp.
The angry boy with the long stick legs and frowning face sat next to Pinch by the fire. He glared up when Omakayas entered the clearing, but then his whole attention returned to the bowl of stew in his hands. He stared into it, tense as an animal. He tried without success to keep from gulping the stew too fast. His hands shook so hard that he nearly dropped the bowl at one point, but with a furious groan he righted himself and attained a forced calm. Straining to control his hunger, he lifted the bowl to his lips and took a normal portion of meat between his teeth. Chewed. Closed his eyes. When Omakayas saw from beneath one half-shut eyelid the gleam of desperation, she looked away. Not fast enough.
"What are you staring at?" the boy growled.
"Don't even bother with her," said Pinch, delighted to sense an ally with whom he might be able to torment his sister. "She's always staring at people. She's a homely owl!"
"Weweni gagigidoon," said Angeline, throwing an acorn that hit Pinch square on the forehead. She told her brother to speak with care, then commanded him, "Booni'aa, leave her alone!"
Omakayas was grateful to her big sister; still, she flushed and turned away. She was embarrassed by her brother's teasing, and also she felt it wrong to witness such hunger in the visitor. She could tell the boy was proud and it had hurt him to have his ravenous eating observed. Besides that, she was, as usual, mad at Pinch. Sometimes the things he did were so awful that they instantly made her blood hot. At those times she had to run away before she hit him or screamed at him. Luckily, there were the other small children to occupy her immediately.
The scrawny little wide-eyed children dove into the food. They ate all they could and even licked one another's faces clean. When there was nothing in sight, they begged for more. At last, their bellies full, they fell asleep right where they sat, clutching some tattered old skins around them. That was when the woman, who ate politely and slowly, sighing with gratitude at each bite, spoke to Omakayas's mother, Yellow Kettle.
"This baby is not mine," she said. "We have been running for our lives. The Bwaanag wiped out our village. We left our gardens, our food caches, all of our kettles and our makazinan sitting by the doors. Some people even got left behind in the crazy mess. They were captured. That is why we have nothing. I don't know what happened to this baby's mother and father."
Omakayas's eyes filled with burning tears. She held the baby closer and let him go only when Mama, with a cooing lullaby and a cup of warm broth, took the baby to feed.
That was how Omakayas gained a brother that day, and a cousin, too, for the angry boy with bold eyes went to live at the camp that included her Auntie Muskrat and Uncle Albert LaPautre, as well as her girl cousins and her father's friend Fishtail.
From the first, the baby fascinated Omakayas. He was very different from Neewo and that was good, said Yellow Kettle, for the baby was his own little person. He had his very own spirit, and shouldn't be confused with the other. She, of course, never said the name of Neewo. Nobody said the names of those who had died. That was because to say their names would attract the spirits of the dead, even bring them back to visit the living. It was better to let even the most loved ones go along on their journey into the next world.
Anyway, this baby soon stopped reminding anyone of anybody but himself, for he was clever-eyed with a watchful face and a sharp bow of a mouth that he held in a quizzical line. Mama loved to hold him and sing to him while looking into his eyes. He needed to hear her baby songs, get used to her voice, she said. But Omakayas, whose arms ached to hold the baby too, understood that Mama needed to hold the new little one for her own healing. Mama even put this baby to her breast and let him nurse. After a while, she said, the baby would cause her body to remember how to make milk. When that happened, said Mama, with a gentle and confident look at the baby's pitiful legs and arms, the baby would rapidly grow fat. Nokomis quickly made the new baby a cradle board, bending a soaked piece of ash for the head guard and scraping a soft piece of fragrant cedar smooth for the back. Nokomis beaded two thick velvet bands to hold him against a soft cushion. As it was just the right time of year when the heads of the cattails explode into puffy sticks, Omakayas picked bags of cattail fluff to use as diapers. Once the baby was set inside the sack of the cradle board, he seemed to appreciate his new security and fell instantly asleep. But not for long. Whenever Omakayas turned around from her work, she'd see the baby watching her with such close attention that it seemed as though he was memorizing her every move. Nokomis gave him a nickname to match this sharp-eyed habit. She called him the little Bizheens, or baby wildcat, for the way the wild lynx stalks and watches its prey reminded her of the close and intent eyes of the baby.
From The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich. Copyright © 2005 by Louise Erdrich. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Harper Collins.
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