A Free, Unsullied Land by Maggie Kast

UnsulliedLand Cover for web.jpegA one-page excerpt from: A Free, Unsullied Land. Henriette, the protagonist, is doing her first anthropological fieldwork among the Apache and attends a funeral. Izzy is her professor, and Charlie is her Apache informant.  

The shaman placed the branches at the head of the coffin and spoke to the dead man. Charlie translated: “Don’t you ever turn your face to us. Don’t look back. Keep on going. Don’t bother your wife or child.” The gravediggers resumed their task with a fury, rushing to accomplish the burial, while the mourners hurried away from the coffin, forming a distant half-circle. The sun dipped behind the mesa, and a cool breeze chilled sweat. A wave of terror passed through Henriette, and she found herself standing on an edge she’d never known before.

The shaman, the dead man, and the mourners seemed to move back and forth in a passage between two worlds: the living and the dead. The mourners and the gravediggers were clearly terrified of the dead man, while the shaman confronted the dead one’s power. She glanced around quickly, wanting to leave before it got darker and starlight alone would show the way. Her throat thickened, and she inhaled sharply. Feeling faint, she grabbed Izzy’s arm, and he steadied her, apparently untrou- bled, then stepped away. Suddenly she felt conspicuous and wondered if she were being watched. Perhaps her alien white-girl skin made her stand out in the dark, like phosphorescence. She glanced at her hands and saw only shadows, but the sense of being seen persisted. Night surrounded them, velvet thick, and the desert itself seemed to come alive. Henriette listened for sounds of activity, checking the ground around her feet. Something touched her cheek, an insect or a bat, and she brushed it away. An owl hooted, and the mourners’ wailing rose to screams of fear, competing with the grunts of the gravediggers as they lowered the coffin into the grave and covered it with rocks.

“Against marauding animals,” said Charlie, as the stones clattered in the dark. “Step back. Be careful.” So he, too, was scared of the open pas- sage, of the owl, of whatever or whoever might be watching the scene. Only Izzy appeared calm. The members of the burial party picked up the boughs the shaman had prepared and brushed off their arms and legs, taking care to brush off the baby as well, but did not offer the branches to the visitors. Henriette brushed her face and arms with her hands and hoped no one noticed. Then they threw the branches toward the grave and hurried away.

 

Maggie reading at Sally's.jpgMaggie’s first novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, was published by Fomite Press  in 2015. An excerpted story, “The Hate that Chills,” won 3rd prize in the Hackney Literary Contests and was published in the Birmingham Arts Journal. She is the author of The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family, published by Wipf and Stock. She received an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has published fiction in The Sun, Nimrod, Carve, Paper Street and others. A chapter of her memoir, published in ACM/Another Chicago Magazine, won a Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination.  Her essays have appeared in America, Image, Writer’s Chronicle and elsewhere. 

 

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