Although the synthetic ropes cut painfully into the Medicine Girl's wrists, it was the loss of her leather satchel that hurt even worse. She watched, immobile and powerless, as the RiverMen opened it, recklessly pulling out her meticulously curated belongings.
They wastefully poured out her powdered herbs, carelessly tossed aside curative leaves and berries, ravenously ate the hardtack and dried meats she’d taken off dead soldiers from the Georgia scrapping fields.
She watched them with blank eyes, revealing nothing, not even the intensity of hatred she felt for them.
The RiverMen laughed when they found her flint stone, fishing line, small machete. But they whooped and hollered like a militiaman when they discovered her gun, holding it up for all to see like the treasure it was. A gun with two bullets!
The RiverMen took turns holding it, pointing it at her, making comments about her they felt she was too young to understand. She wasn’t.
They had found the Medicine Girl outside of Bainbridge in the Kingdom of Georgia, attempting to secure passage up the Chattahoochee River to Columbia. She’d be far safer in the Republic of the Crimson Tide, safer still in the State of United Dakota.
But for now? She’d been duped, a prize for these stupid men.
The RiverMen’s eyes glittered when she presented them hard colony-currency alongside her Universal Pass, allowing her to travel freely throughout the United Authority.
She was desperate to put as many miles between herself and her father, a notable warlord in the free range penal colony of Florida. Declare your allegiance to no one, he’d said. She quietly repeated those words to herself—her father’s last piece of advice—even as he attempted to sell her off, for what dark purposes she could only guess.
Why she had trusted a go-between to arrange Midwest passage with these men made the Medicine Girl angry with herself. She knew better. That her personal Judas had been a boy of six or seven years old was particularly galling. Yet hadn’t she been as cagey and clever as he at that age?
Seething under the RiverMen’s tarp that acted as a makeshift shelter by the river, she decided to kill them all. As they toyed with her possessions, she wordlessly watched the half dozen men with her clear, grey eyes.
She was patient.
🜋 🜋 🜋
“Can you cook?” One of the RiverMen abruptly asked her.
“Yes,” the Medicine Girl replied, eyes unblinking.
“There is no meat to be found along the bankside,” he said.
The RiverMen had not fished for decades, almost about the time the electrical grids went down. There was a time when fish kills had choked the Chattahoochee for months. Now neither algae blooms nor fish troubled anyone.
“There is meat near the bankside,” she corrected him. “We passed several water moccasin nests.” She pointed at the nearly invisible ripples in the water. “Net as many as you can. Keep them alive until I skin and boil them. I will need the salt and wild onions from my satchel. I need a fire and a pot of water. There are black walnuts in a small grove a half of a klick back on the western side of the road.”
The men looked at one another, made assignments, quickly disbursed. They hadn’t eaten well in days.
Still tied up, the Medicine Girl looked over the campsite while they were gone, noting where each of the items from her leather satchel had been carelessly placed.
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In time, the RiverMen returned with a bounty of water moccasins, fattened on five-legged lizards and blind birds that floundered on the lower limbs of riverside trees.
“I’m going to untie you, but if you run—you are going to wish you hadn’t,” the apparent leader said matter-of-factly. She fully understood his meaning.
When the synthetic ropes were removed, she massaged her forearms, wrists, and fingers—systematically restoring mobility and circulation as her mother had taught her as a child.
Her mother knew well how to cure and to ail the body, painstakingly teaching the Medicine Girl all she knew, as her mother also knew their time together would be short.
The Medicine Girl watched one of the RiverMen make a fire, placing a battered cooking pot full of river water on it. She wandered over to stoke the fire, encouraging a raging boil to purify the water as much as possible.
While working, she surreptitiously kicked a thin piece of shale rock, its edge into the fire. Perhaps it would retain enough heat to melt through the synthetic ropes, if she were to be tied up again? But she didn’t think the men would be able to do so after the supper she would prepare for them.
“Hand me one of my knives,” she said with such authority that her request was immediately granted. On a flat rock, she cracked open the black walnuts, extracting nutmeat, finely dicing it into a glistening, oily paste. She chopped up wild onions and even a few mushrooms and chanterelles that she’d found growing in a mossy patch under a conifer tree. She threw all into the simmering pot, creating an aroma that made even her mouth water.
“When do we eat,” the RiverMen’s leader asked, mesmerized by the swiftness of the Medicine Girl’s knife.
“Less than a colony-hour,” she replied. “Bring me the snakes.”
Two of the RiverMen carried over a plastic industrial trash can full of river water and a nest of thick water moccasins.
She meticulously fished one out with a forked stick, quickly grabbed it by the tail, and soundlessly smashed its head against a rock on the riverbank. She cut off four colony-inches from the tail and let the snake bleed out.
Next, she took her knife and split the entire length of the snake’s belly, starting from the tail, peeling the skin from the meat. With her nimble fingers, she gutted its entrails and tossed selected parts of them into the pot to thicken the stew.
The RiverMen splayed out on the ground to watch the Medicine Girl prepare their sumptuous meal, making raucous comments and enjoying her laboring on their behalf.
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You must first cut off the snake's head, her mother carefully explained, while showing the Medicine Girl how to prepare a snake for them to eat. Snakes are beneficial to us, as they eat rats and rodents, the carriers of plague and disease. Snakes are also delicious to eat, especially fried, assuming you can find any nut oil.
Then why do people hate snakes, the Medicine Girl had asked her mother, repulsed by the dying snake’s gaping maw, its glassy eyes, its still-flickering tongue.
Fear. Superstition, her mother had replied. Both are detrimental to us. Where you have fear and superstition, you have cruelty. And women and children usually take the brunt of men’s cruelty.
The Medicine Girl remembered looking at the severed snake head until it finally stopped moving.
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The men were growing restless as their stomachs audibly growled.
“Is it time now,” the leader asked again, impatient.
The men began to assemble their bowls, rustic tureens, large cups—any receptacle to receive the aromatic stew the Medicine Girl had concocted.
“I say it is time now,” the leader said, approaching the pot. The Medicine Girl eyed the thin piece of shale rock on the fire’s perimeter that she had kicked in earlier.
“Then the time is now,” the Medicine Girl replied, as each man elbowed one another to fill his bowl with as much as he could.
She stood with her hands by her side, watching the men consume her efforts with great relish, soon with faces down in their stews, slurping the thick gravy, chewing chunks of snake meat, artfully flavored by the plants which grew without complaint under their feet.
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Had the men not been stupid, they would have noticed that the Medicine Girl had not removed the snakes’ venom sacs, located just behind their heads, before killing and skinning them.
Had the men not been stupid, they would have noticed that the Medicine Girl had cut off the snakes’ tails to bleed them, not the heads. As the head of the snake was not removed, the whole of the meat was poisoned.
Her mother had explained how hemotoxin in snake venom effectively breaks down its victim’s blood cells, resulting in hemorrhaging. Infected blood simply cannot clot.
Calmly, she watched the men eat their fill, happily laying down after glutting themselves.
Soon, she saw them touch their mouths, feeling the initial numbness and tingling. She saw them, hand to chest, laboring to breathe, spitting to get the metallic taste out of their mouths. She saw them try to stand, weak and lightheaded, confused and fearful.
The hemotoxin is effective, she thought. She hardly needed to add the poisonous mushrooms to her stew after all, but certainly the resultant nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea would debilitate the RiverMen as well. One could not be too careful.
She continued to stand in quiet repose while the men writhed, calling down curses on her. Fear shown clearly in their glassy eyes.
Could they have stood up, she reasoned, they would have been incredibly cruel to her.
But above all, the Medicine Girl was patient.
After the fire burnt out, the stew cooled. But the thin piece of shale rock was not. It lay where she had kicked it, on the edge of the embers. Holding a length of cloth, the Medicine Girl picked it up.
She’d always wondered about blood that could not clot.
Unlike the water moccasins, this time the Medicine Girl started with the heads.
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After looting the bodies, the Medicine Girl ate the remaining black walnuts, rich and filling, after such a laborious day.
The RiverMen had little of value, but she inherited a canteen, a small frying pan, two flint stones, several knives, the synthetic rope, and several pairs of woolen socks.
The rest she burned.
After securing all of her belongings into her leather satchel, The Medicine Girl appropriated one of the RiverMen’s smaller logboats, dragging it down to the river. The watercraft was light and efficient, perfect for her size.
Although dusk had fallen, there was a full harvest moon illuminating all the ripples of the creatures that still swam in the river, a river that gave off a yellowish phosphorescent glow.