By Atticus Benight
The northeastern wall was bleeding. From the cliff face high above, a copper-colored liquid leaked, staining the coarse grain of the granite as it descended to the water and swirled in the shallows of the lake. Nearby, an ancient willow stood sentinel over our favorite swimming hole, but the tips of its yellow-green whips were dyed orange nearly a foot above the waterline. Aquatic plants along the shoreline appeared to be dipped in war paint, and the inlets that once teemed with minnows and water fleas were now deserted.
Before I saw the scene, the drums murmured a warning, and I felt the contents of my belly churn and lurch. As we drew nearer the water, the rumble continued to build, and my heart matched it, stroke-for-stroke. The humid breeze of late spring picked up an acrid aroma of bad eggs just before the water slid into view.
It was the beginning of my eighteenth cycle, and Gimi thought that a celebratory dip was in order. That morning, we sunned ourselves in the gathering heat of the meadow just outside of our village. When we were sufficiently parched, we headed north for the knoll where that old willow stood.
I lagged behind as Gimi and Chin raced ahead, unencumbered by the drums. By the time I caught up enough to glimpse the scene, Gimi was already planning her approach to the open water that lay just beyond the crimson muck.
“It’s not that far,” Gimi said to Chin. “We just have to get through here, and then you’ll be in the deep water where it runs clear.”
And before I could offer any warning, Gimi had already stripped off her clothes and was knee deep in the shallows, kicking up red mud as she struggled toward the deep blue. She progressed well at first, until she began complaining of a faint itch that was crawling up her legs and across her exposed belly. As she trudged deeper, the itch ignited into a burning sensation. She was half-way to open water when she finally turned back, chest deep in the viscous sludge, and by the time she made it back to shore, Chin and I had to help her from the water.
When she was on land again, her eyes drew wider and her mouth formed a pigeon hole and she let out a long exhale. Red coated her like drying clay. She lowered herself carefully onto a patch of grass, rolling and sliding against the earth in a futile attempt to rid herself of the toxic film that coated her from her breasts down.
“It—it burns,” she gasped as she writhed at our feet. “Get it off me!”
The warning drums drew louder as my eyes fell upon her crumpled clothes nearby. I seized them and rubbed the dry fabric against her dry skin. It offered the odd impression of tanning buckskin, or removing the bark from a branch that was destined to become a pipe. Following my lead, Chin removed his own shirt and began working on her legs. As the red film yielded slowly, angry blisters began to bubble against her flesh.
“It’s not good enough,” Chin said, his voice cracking.
“We have to get her to Nakomis,” I responded.
Together, Chin and I hoisted her to her feet, but Gimi’s legs folded under her weight. Perhaps it was fatigue, but the multiplying pustules offered all the encouragement we needed to move her. We each wrapped an arm around our necks, and we carried her down the hill and across the meadow to the village.
The sun was three quarters of the way across the sky by the time we made it there. Nakomis had been gazing out over the river, puffing her grandfather’s pipe, and muttering an unidentifiable prayer to the four directions. She exhaled a dense plumb of aromatic white smoke and pulled it over her head with her right hand before it was dispersed by the wind.
Gimi had gone limp, and Chin and I labored under her dead weight. I tried to call out to Nakomis, but I was so winded I managed little more than a squeak and a gasp. Finally, Chin and I slowed long enough to fill our lungs, and we shouted in unison.
The sound of her name jarred her from a trance, and she glanced around in alarm before spotting us as we approached the dome of her wetu. Gimi’s toes dragged in the dust behind us. Finally, we collapsed at Nakomis’ feet and rolled onto our backs to force air into our burning lungs.
Nakomis glanced at me, to Chin, then finally her eyes fell on the blistering, bubbling body of Gimi. Much of her was still encrusted with the mysterious red residue, and even though Nakomis could not hear the drums, she knew immediately that Gimi must be cleaned.
She swept into her wetu, emerging with a buckskin water vessel, a small satchel, and a turtle shell with a bone rattling inside. Thrusting the water vessel into Chin’s lap, she barked her order.
“Take this and fill it in the river,” she said.
Though exhausted, Chin complied without a word. He sprinted awkwardly to the river and filled the vessel. When he returned, Nakomis poured water first into the turtle shell, then used the remainder to rinse Gimi’s body. She began with her feet, red and raw. A few blisters had popped and small streams of blood seeped out from the holes in her skin. Nakomis rinsed Gimi’s legs, then worked up to her belly, back, and breasts. At last, she rinsed her arms, neck, and face. She pulled Gimi’s matted black hair away from her head, and for a moment, it appeared as though Gimi were wearing a tall black hat.
There was a chorus of drums by the time I recovered sufficiently to push myself into a sitting position. Nakomis gripped two blankets, passed me one, and began dabbing Gimi’s skin in an effort to dry her. I mirrored her motion, attempting to avoid the worst of the yellow bulbous blisters that dotted the landscape of Gimi’s once beautiful, honey complexion.
I thought to myself how, in a better world, she would have been married now. She should have had children—but we were the last three Geesis children. With no one our own age to love, our childhood continued interminably. She was the most beautiful woman in the village, smart and strong—everything I hoped to become. Now, she was reduced to a wailing sliver of flesh that seemed to be boiling on the ground before my eyes.
Nakomis emptied the contents of her satchel into the turtle shell full of water. She stirred and ground the contents—a blend of herbs, berries, and bark—with the thick knuckle of the bone. She added a bit more water as needed until the shell was filled with a tacky paste. With two fingers, she applied the blend to the worst of the blisters, and soon Gimi’s groans gave way to a sigh, and she drew quiet, drifting slowly to sleep.
Nakomis took a break, walking back to the edge of the river and rinsing her hands in the cold flow. It had been hours since the sun slipped past the western wall. She was illuminated only by the white light of the moon and stars winking from their canopy above. The night was remarkably clear, except for a single dense white cloud that rose from the northeastern cliffs and stretched across the sky.
I walked to stand beside her, and for a long time, we examined the stars together. Finally, she asked the question I had been dreading.
“What happened, child?”
“We were going to swim in the lake,” I answered. “But when we got there, the water was red. Gimi thought she could make it out to the open water, but—” My throat tightened, cutting off the words. I swallowed. “We were just going to swim,” I said.
My eyes burned, and I could almost count the hot tears as they rolled down my cheeks. I swallowed and futilely attempted to slow my breathing against the will of the drums. Nakomis offered me a brief reprieve to compose myself before continuing.
“And did the drums have anything to say?” Nakomis asked.
“They were slow and firm,” I said, closing my eyes. “A warning, I think. Telling us to go slow—be careful.”
“Are the drums saying anything now?”
I attempted to sift through the chorus, teasing out the distinctive rhythms. First, I turned my head in the direction of the lake, and the slow deliberate strokes of the warning rose to the surface of the chaos. It was the same cadence, though more forceful than before. Then I glanced back at Gimi, and the warning drums faded to a rumble in the background, giving way to a steady firm beat. For a while, I considered the beat, listening to it cycle, feeling each stroke made by the invisible drumbeater. Twice through the cycle, it became clear, as though it was a long lost memory rushing to the forefront of my mind without any verifiable cause. The steady beat was counting down—to zero.
“There are always the drums,” I answered.
“And what do they say?” Nakomis asked.
At first, I did not respond. I felt the drums rattling my ribcage—each drumbeater competing with the next. I turned to face upstream, north in the direction of the lake, and pointed toward the northeastern wall and the swimming hole.
“The warning still plays over there,” I said simply. Then I turned to face Nakomis. Her muddy brown eyes locked on my own, and my lip began to quiver. I felt my face contort against my will, and the burning of my eyes was unbearable. With considerable effort, I whispered slowly. “They—they are counting down—here.”
Nakomis glanced back at Gimi, nodding as though she had suspected it. Together, we watched Chin kneel beside her, gripping her hand while she slept. Without warning, Nakomis enveloped me in an extended consolatory embrace, kissed me on my dirty forehead, and then returned wordlessly to Gimi and Chin.
Nakomis whispered something in Chin’s ear. He rose, and together they lifted Gimi and carried her over the threshold of the wetu.
I sat at the edge of the Great River for a long while, attempting to estimate how many strokes the invisible drumbeater had left. I could feel his fatigue—the mounting desire to stop battling with the current need to continue. The pace sped up and slowed as I listened, counting the beats before finally surrendering myself to the third drum to emerge from the din. The one that finally played me to sleep.
By the next morning, most of the blisters on Gimi’s legs ruptured, spilling out a yellow, glutinous fluid and giving off the aroma of a slow rot. She stirred for a moment, her eyes squinting around the darkened space, attempting to work out where exactly she was.
Nakomis sat, sucking on her pipe. She inhaled deeply and blew streams of white smoke over Gimi’s body, muttering another prayer to the four directions on Gimi’s behalf. It was the sound of the whispered prayer which drew her focus, and she finally spoke.
“Nakomis?” she said in a rattling voice.
Nakomis reached down, placing her palm against Gimi’s face. With her thumb, she traced Gimi’s high cheekbone. Gimi tried to continue speaking, but Nakomis shushed her, allowing her eyes to roam over the striking features that lived in her face.
Tears collected in the corners of Gimi’s eyes, and I heard the quickening of her drumbeater. The muscles of her face relaxed, and her eyes shifted in confusion.
“That—song,” Gimi finally struggled to say. “That voice.”
Nakomis and I exchanged a glance. I heard nothing but the drums now. We both knew her time was drawing near and that there was nothing that could be done.
“I—I think,” Gimi stuttered. “I know that voice—I’ve heard it. Mother?”
I leaned in, studying her face, and watched the black of her pupil eclipse the brown of her iris, leaving only a thin corona of color. Gimi’s voice trailed off just as the drumbeater finished the cycle. With three slow, deliberate strokes, Gimi inhaled deeply and licked her lips as all of her muscles seemed, at once, to tense and release. The final stroke of the drum landed and it rang out with a sickening thump, like wood contacting live flesh. It was as though the skin stretched over its head had split. The drum fell forever silent, and she was gone.
That afternoon, the entire village gathered outside of Nakomis’ wetu, and the elders made contact with the Geesis spirits. With a bone blade, Nakomis trimmed a lock of Gimi’s hair and placed it in the satchel that once held the blend of herbs that she had applied to Gimi’s body.
We wrapped her in a blanket and carried her to the stand that Chin had assembled just outside the village and we placed her there, to ensure that her spirit would not be tempted to linger in the comforts of the village. Nakomis offered her prayers and tobacco, and we left Gimi to the spirits. Four days later, Chin returned with a few of the elders, and the remains were planted with the others, at the edge of the eastern meadow.
Atticus Benight is a writer, poet, and professor. He is a native of Pennsylvania and currently lives in Minnesota with his wife and kids.