Mistress, Seamstress

He was a considerate man. She had heard the other women talking about husbands who came home reeking of a half month's sweat and dried blood. They would never think of washing before they came to their wives, but he would. He left the group before they came to the village, heading down the narrow path which lead to the stream. He would scrub himself raw, she could feel the coarseness of his skin when he at last set his moccasins beside the door. They were always clean, he having knocked the mud off before he entered.

He also went to the trouble of carrying a packet of the meadow flowers she loved, in his pocket, so that he would smell fresh. Because of all these preparations, he usually arrived an hour after the other hunters, which gave her the opportunity to receive him.

She wore her dress, made of heavy wool, and given to her by one of the women. She didn't mind that it was a charity piece. It was thick and warm, but allowed the breeze to sweep her legs in a way that felt most provocative, so different from the normal leggings and tunic she wore, shells around her. The wool clung to her shape, rather than defying it.

He would embrace her, crushing her to his chest so the flowers would be bruised, and shed their fragrance over her. They would stand like that for what seemed like hours, happy to be together. Today, however, her happiness was disturbed. Her hands, caressing his back, felt the stitches of his tunic. They were not hers. The heavy leather was suffocating her, trapping her in his adulterous embrace.

She didn't let on that she knew his secret, just continued to explore his mistress's handiwork. Her fingers told a distressing story. The woman was a master. The threads were evenly spaced, each one taut, each one perfect. Worse, the thread was heavy. Much heavier than anything she could ever use. The strength to force such a weight through the thick hides would be incredible, of course he would love one who was strong, unlike her. Her fingers tensed. If that was what was required to win back her man, she would become that strong.

He released her, drawing her off to the bedroom. This room had been her idea. Actually, the entire cabin had been her idea. He had wanted to live in the long house with his people, but she had been uncomfortable there, with everyone talking about her.

None of his tribe had wanted him to marry her. He was one of the best hunters in the area, and to marry him to someone like her seemed a waste. Worse, she hated the pity they mounted on her husband. She knew what they thought, 'Poor Anook, couldn't find a worthwhile squaw, so he had to take a weak white wife."

It was true of course, she could not do everything they could, and her sewing did not feel so beautiful, but she didn't want her husband looked down on by the tribe, so she had asked him to build a cabin. He had agreed, eventually, and had spent a year constructing it.

It was designed specially for her, everything laid out in an orderly fashion, with enough shelves and bins for storage that there would be no clutter to obstruct her.

She had thought he built it out of love. Now she knew it was pity. Had he built a similar cabin for the one he loved? No, she would be living in the long house.

How often did he see her?

How many of his hunting trips were actually trips to see her?

It was probably she who washed him. Maybe she met him down by the stream, and scrubbed his skin. She wouldn't mind the smell of sweat and blood, as long as she were close to him. It was probably her that picked the flowers.

She suddenly found the smell of him smothering her. The cloying perfume assaulted her, driving itself down her throat. She fought back the urge to vomit. That would drive him back to the other one. She would win him back. He would see that she was just as good a seamstress as his lover.

He was gone. Supposedly to hunt. She knew that he had gone over to the long house, where his petite cherie doted on him, her gentle hands caressing his head, while she looked deep into his eyes and they could see the passion between them.

She couldn't go there and take him away. She would never manage to find her way through the forest of rough bark and damp earth, where there was no path she might grope along. She would be lost in the forest, and then the other one would have him forever. Better to let her have him for a few hours than eternity. Still, she must win him back.

The cabin on the edge of town was considered by many to be the most beautiful building they had ever seen. While most of the settlers bought the wood which made up their homes, thin planks which could be had from the mill for a few pennies, the Indian had hewn his own trees, dressing the trunks himself to create the massive members which formed the walls. More than that, he had carved the surface of those walls, beautiful symbols of the woods. Hawks and kingfishers were frozen above rabbits and deer, a poem to life and death.

There were no windows in the house, nothing which would have allowed the villagers admiring the handiwork that graced the shell of the building to see the struggle inside.

She sat in the darkness, two furs spread out on her lap. She had been sewing for three days, agonising over every stitch, carefully setting the needle, checking the alignment of the fur, then striking the awl with a flat stone she had found in a brief foray outside. The needle penetrated the leather, and drove itself a little way into the wood. She plucked it out, and moved onto the next hole. She did not worry about time, or food, or anything save the next stroke of the awl. It was the heaviest leather she had been able to find, much heavier than that other woman's jacket. It would be sturdy, and warm, and it would be dirty. That other woman would not wash this garment nor its wearer, not once her husband knew that she was every bit as good a squaw as any of those in the long house.

He came home seven times while she worked on the jacket. Each time he reeked of her. She tried to hold her breath when he was near, but it was no use. He forced her shame on her. Each time when he left, she would draw out the jacket. Every stroke, careful, considered, was a nail in the coffin of that woman's ambition. She seldom left the house. There was enough food, and the midden pot could be dumped at a spot just downwind of the house. At one point, however, when the jacket was almost finished, she ran out of the heavy thread she had been using.

She took one of the squirrel skins he had brought home after the last trip, and started for the store. There was only one of course, the social centre for the town, it was run by Mr. Barries. Mr. Barries had been one of her father's friends, one of the ones who had advocated killing her when she was born. She had learned that one night as she lay awake. They had laughed about it. It was a long time before she could go back to the store.

The old hatred of the place crept up again as she felt the path beneath her feet. Luckily, she was met by Mr. Smith, who helped her along. Mr. Smith was an elderly man, who farmed on a little patch of cleared land a few miles out through the forest. She remembered playing on his floor when she was young. It had been made of planks, covered with fur rugs. Her little fingers had explored every chink, discovering the tar which had been forced into the cracks. Her mother had scolded her about getting her hands dirty, a soft scolding, encouraging further exploration.

Remembering that gentle woman, and how she had given her life, she leaned on Mr. Smith's arm, wrapping her hands around his wrist. Out of habit, she found herself exploring the seams of his clothing. She stopped suddenly, jerking him to a halt. It was the woman's stitches. She turned, without a word, picking her way as quickly as possible back to the cabin. She didn't work on the coat for the rest of her husband's absence.

He came home, as always, smelling of his debaucheries, cloaking his deceit in feigned tenderness. She woke late in the night, to find him absent from her side. She climbed out of bed, padding quietly in the darkness, to the other room. She could feel the heat of the fire, now waning. She could hear his breathing, shallow and calm. She crept over to the pit. Her hand found a chair there. Her fingers continued to explore, discovering her slumbering mate's leg, then his arm. He had a fur lain out on his lap, probably one of his squaw's. He crept out in the middle of the night to relish that woman's love, when he could no longer be burdened with hers.

Something drove itself into her second finger. She gasped in surprise, awakening him. He jumped up, but not before a drop of blood had fallen on the fur spread over his lap. She felt his arms surround her. The pinprick throbbed, but she felt safe, bathed in the sweet scent of blood which abolished the other woman's perfume.

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This work is Copyright (c) Mike Fletcher 1995