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The Kindness of Strangers

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There was a young woman who should have been an old woman, living beside a river, almost alone.

Father Time had ceased to visit her years and years before; weeds and thorns grew over his path to her door, and she did not change. Her hair flowed black as a starless, moonless night, and her legs were young and strong, her lips full, and when she sang her voice rang out as clear and bright as yours, my dear, my little dove.

She had been called by many names, from Amonute to Rebecca, and she had as many secret names by which no man had ever called her. It's best that we speak of her as Pocahontas, the playful one.

I do not think that she would answer to that name today.

Long ago, when she was a girl, growing and changing with every turn of the moon, she was the delight of her family. She was so sweet that Hummingbird flew about her, as if her mouth were full of nectar, and she was such a generous child that Raccoon would wait on her faithfully, knowing he would never go hungry.

No, my dearest, this is not one of "those boring stories about olden times." This is a true story. Do stop fidgeting so, or I shall put out the fire and leave you to your dreams.

The summer after her twelfth harvest, the strangers came to Pocahontas's land. Terrible tall, pale, long-fingered men, decked out in strange metals, speaking in ugly tongues. As fearsome as they were, they were also stupid, being unable to accept the gifts of Mother Earth. They did not know how to gracefully accept the earth's bounty, so instead they cursed her, beat her children and burned her hair, and stole what she placed before others.

For this is what you must always know about strangers: some are cruel, it's true, but cruelty is easily fought with fire. Those who do not wish to be cruel--their ignorance is more dangerous. And there are some strangers who are kind, and gentle, and generous. Those who touch your young, ripe heart. They are the most dangerous of all.

And Pocahontas had just such a ripe heart.

A decision was made, as these decisions are made, with consideration of law and consultation of omens and finally the blind leap of fear. The strangers would be taken, their spirits returned to time, their flesh to earth, and the balance restored.

Only Pocahontas dissented. She said no word, but she laid her neck across a stranger's, under the raised ax, under the sickle moon.

Later they would say she saved his life because she was the strange man's lover. But I will tell you the truth. She was no lover of his; he was far too old and ugly and helpless for her to consider. But he was a gentle man. He had listened to the sentence pronounced on him in silent, wide-eyed curiosity. And for our tender Pocahontas, that silence sounded like a song.

So the stranger was spared. He was allowed to rise from that sacred place and leave, holy dirt on his knees, that much wiser. He might have found a place in the balance, with his silence and his gentle walk. He might have been a new kind of man: not a brother, but no longer a stranger.

It was his own kind that killed him, of course. When you're older, and you read strangers' books, you might find that they kill all their finest teachers.

Now watch your tongue, little dove, or a fox might nip it right out.

Pocahontas did not weep. Instead, she began walking. She walked a night, a day, another night. I cannot tell you what she passed through on that journey, what she said to Hummingbird or Raccoon, or heard from the trees or grasses or clouds. She followed the tracks of alien beasts. The scent of alien fires. And at the edge of the great gray ocean, with the full moon overhead, she found the strangest of all possible strangers.

This man thought himself a king, though his kingdom was merely a few small ships, a wrack of rope and oilskin and dead wood from his own old world. He thought himself strong, though no strong man needs so many weapons or so much wealth. He thought himself powerful, as powerful as a god, though he spoke no wisdom and commanded no faith. Pocahontas walked right up to him, barefoot and shaking in the oceanic wind, and he stood before her in his heavy black armor and called out to his men: "Come look at this lovely little widow I've made."

She had her knife at his throat in three seconds, cutting away at his laughter.

By the time the sun rose, she was alone and sorely tired. She took what little she could use from the strangers' encampment - some warmer clothes, provisions, a good whetstone and plenty of rope - and began a more leisurely walk home. She shared the food she had with Raccoon and sang a light, lyricless duet with Hummingbird. But inside her chest her heart was heavy as a September peach, bowing its branch toward the chill autumn ground.

Late that day she came to a river, and as she waded into the water, it lapped at her bloody skin and began to freeze around her. The river said to her, "You cannot cross."

Pocahontas spoke the names of her mothers and her grandmothers, but the ice only thickened around her. She imitated, with perfect accuracy, the rustle of the leaves of the willow tree under which she was born. The ice held fast.

"You cannot cross," the river said, "until your work is done."

"There are no strangers living on my land," Pocahontas said. She was dying of the cold, but her smile matched her knife, glint for glint.

"There are always survivors," the river said.

The ice showed her what the strangers had brought, in their greed and stupidity and murderous kindness. Death was already here. Fevers that no willow bark could ease, parasites no poultice could draw out of the body. Alien weapons in friendly hands. And this was only her family, now at the beginning. More ships were coming. Flood. Famine. Fire. The ice glowed scarlet and gold and faded to white again, empty of any sign of life.

There, there, now. I did warn you that this was a true story.

For a long time, Pocahontas stared into the white without blinking. At last, the ice gave back the reflection of her own face.

"Yes," she said. "There are always survivors."

The ice melted, and the river ran hot as human tears.

She built herself a tent beside that river, and as the years passed, the tent became a shack, became a house. She scratched out a garden that grew into a forest all its own. Every day she labored to survive alone, a woman without ancestors or descendants, speaking only to hummingbirds, breaking bread only with raccoons.

And every night, she went out to look for her pale enemies. With a long staff and a sharp knife. With a silence, and a gentle walk.

Now come here to me, little dove, and dry your tears, and we will put out the fire together and pray for her. She is the daughter I will never kiss, the mother you will never meet. She has not crossed the river. She is hunting still.