THE SNOW PAPOOSE©

By

Michael McGhee

I can still feel my tongue sticking to the freezing living room windowpane. Outside, in the darkness of that winter’s night in 1950, snow swirled in all directions. Nights like this made chills run up and down my spine. I knew for sure that some horrible, unseen creature was out in the darkness waiting for one false move from its innocent prey. However, it was not what was concealing itself in the storm that made this night such a lasting memory in my four-year-old mind.

Mother was the industrial nurse in Seneca, a logging camp in Eastern Oregon. Seneca was miles away from a hospital or any formal medical facility. She was the only source of medical treatment for at least sixty miles. Except for surgery, she took care of most medical problems: giving primary care to victims of logging accidents, acting as midwife in the birthing of babies, and dispensing medications. Most of the year a doctor drove to camp once a week and held clinic, but in the winter, Mom was on her own.

This night was like many winter nights at home. My father had not returned home from work. The temperatures outside were barely above freezing. Mom was finishing the last details of cooking dinner, when my father’s boss had called to tell her that Dad would be very late getting home from work. As she was putting Dad’s dinner in the oven to keep it warm and preparing hers and my plates, a loud series of knocks came crashing upon the back door. I ran to the porch, ripping my tongue away from the frozen glass. Mom was already opening the door at the very moment I got there. By the light of the moon, I could see a rotund Piute Indian woman wildly waving her arms and hands. Her hair was gray with snow. Two long braids fell down across her blanket-covered shoulders. Strands of beads and strips of tanned animal skins tied each braid together. The stinging wind had reddened her full cheeks; her eyes were as dark as the night that engulfed her.

As soon as the door opened, the woman grabbed Mom’s arm, almost pulling her out into the snow bank. I grabbed my mother around the waist, and the woman and I were having a tug-of-war, with Mom the prize. The woman pulled on my mother, screaming: “Missee Nurse! Missee Nurse! Papoose come! You come! Now! Papoose come!”

Upon hearing the word “papoose”, my heart stopped beating. I knew that the phantom that I feared the most in the darkness of the storm was attacking the Indian encampment down by the river. Approximately six to eight Piute families lived in tents made of canvas and animal pelts. I had never been in the encampment, but had seen it every time we crossed the bridge on our way to the garbage dump. I had thought that Indians lived in teepees, but my father, teasingly, would tell me that these Indians had sawed their tepees in half. That is why they had flat tops. The question in my mind was what could my mother do to save the Indians from the ferocious snow monster that now had a name.

Mom began to calm the Indian woman, and explained to her that my dad was not home from work and she had no one to tend to me. The woman insisted that Mom bring me with her. The men would take care of me in another tent, hopefully far away from my dreaded creature of the night. She told us that her name was Minerva, and she would not take “No!” for an answer. Mom knew it was her duty to go to the encampment and help them with Snow Papoose. Mom instructed me to put on my heaviest coat, the one with the hood; wrap a couple of scarves around my neck, mouth, and nose; and put on the warmest mittens I could find. In the meantime, she wrote a note to Dad, equipped her black bag, and dressed herself warmly.

Without stopping to lock the door, she grabbed my hand and we were on our way. She was pulling me so hard and walking so fast that I was sliding behind her. I finally managed to pull away so I could run behind her, keeping her in sight through the snow, and, of course, keeping an eye out for this horrible creature and his flesh-eating army.

We arrived out of breath, vapor from our noses having a contest with the snow to see which could swirl the fastest. I could hear the screams of the woman inside the tent where Minerva led us. I was positive the woman was in the clutches of Snow Papoose. I grabbed my mother as she stepped forward to enter the tent. I knew I would never see her again once she went inside. Again, Minerva and I were in a tug-of-war with Mom, and I was losing.

Just as Mom stepped through the door of the tent, a huge Indian man grabbed my shoulders. I was too scared to resist. Like Minerva, his hair was gray with snow, and, he, too, had braids resting on his shoulders. Instead of beads tying the end of each braid, he had only strips of animal hide securing one big elk’s tooth, on each end. “Come”, was all he said. I was so scared. I followed his direction. I was curious why Snow Papoose did not have him in his grasp.

The woman inside the next tent screamed again with more pain, breaking the quiet of the stormy night. Even the wind seemed to stop whistling momentarily at the sound of her desperate cry.

The man took me to a tent, where only men sat around a fire contained within a circle of round smooth rocks. A hole in the roof let most of the smoke escape, but there was still the smell of burning pine and cooking animal flesh. Three or four young boys, over against one wall, were playing a game of throwing the blades of knives into the dirt floor. I learned later the name of the game was Mumbly Peg. I watched them play, but no one offered to teach me. I found it so strange that the men were wearing braids in their hair. Two or three of the older men wore high, black-brimmed hats with long black-and-white feathers sticking out the side. The older men were passing a long pipe back and forth between them. Their deep-set dark eyes looked straight ahead into the fire, as if they were in a trance. By today’s standards, they would have appeared “stoned.”

I was surprised that the tent was very warm inside. The older men wore blankets across their shoulders, but I took off my coat, scarves, and mittens. I was getting too hot. The walls of the tent were alive with black slithering figures, much like the flames dancing in the fire. I knew these shadows were the slithering faces of the demon and his followers dancing beyond the walls of the tent.

Mom and Dad should have seen me. I was sitting as still as a mouse. Not a word escaped my lips. I was always on the move and talking. This night I had assured myself that if I were perfectly still, Snow Papoose would pass over me when he came to raise havoc in the men’s tent. Being in a tent with these Indians was overwhelming in its own way.

The quiet continued, but at once I was jerked back to reality by a deep voice asking, “Don’t white boy talk?” I started to answer, when the woman let out with the loudest scream of the night, and yelled several words in a language I did not understand. Next, I heard cheering from all the Indian women in the tent next to the men’s tent, where I was sure my demo of the night was slaughtering everyone, including my mother! The laughing grew and became more festive. Suddenly, a woman jumped through the door and yelled, “Papoose come!” My hair stood straight on edge. I knew that the one I feared most was coming to our tent. I moved closer to the wall. Suddenly, I saw my mother’s head peering through the hole into our tent. She had the biggest smile on her face.

“Time to go home”, she said. “The baby has arrived. All is well here.”

“What baby? I thought it was a papoose!” I exclaimed. Mom explained that the Indian word for “baby” was “papoose.” I gave Mom a big hug and dashed through the door of the tent. Relief overtook my body. It must have shown, but Mom did not pus the issue. It was not until I was six or seven years old (many years before I knew the facts of life) when I learned that babies did not come from tepees, even if the teepees were flat on top.