BY MADONNA HAMEL
As the dust settles from a weekend of eclectic theatre and story-rich music, I find the voices in my head still unraveling their tales, going even deeper than the alotted time granted them. Of course, my characters, seven women and three men, were never confined to a short-lived stage life; they came from generations ago and will continue to live on in my heart, and hopefully in the hearts of the audiences who attended last Friday and Saturday at the venerable old Lyric Theatre in Swift.
The voices of one in particular, haunts me. Her name, a composite name for a composite character, is Marie-Ange. Being that she is Metis, she carries her frenchness in her first name: all french born females get Marie, Mother Mary, as a namesake, just as all boys names begin with Joseph. And Ange is of course, angel. It could be the patron of all messengers- Angel Gabriel, or it could be the totem of all messengers: hawk. You get to decide, because every tradition has its version of the big stories, the ones that come in dreams or from the mouths of babes, the ones that keep returning, riding the infinite loop of the ages.
In my performance, ‘Mother’s Apron’, which is as much about the surface layer of soil that covers the Earth as it is about a woman’s “tool & toolkit, uniform & habit, costume & coverall”, Marie-Ange and the nameless jilted mail order bride, turned assitant midwife to her ‘sage-femme-sauvage’, sit on a grandfather rock one night and come to an understanding. The young woman turns to Marie-Ange and asks:
“What are you afraid of?
I am afraid of your fear. It will make you greedy. Mais surtout, but above all, said: I’m afraid you’ll stay.
But she showed me the wild mint, anyway. To calm your nerves. To help you sleep. Here’s mushroom to stop the bleeding. Boiled cherry tree root for nausea. Soft moss to line the cradle. Cattail down for diapers.
I lost the baby, anyway.”
The young woman keeps hearing Mari-Ange’s voice in her head, especially when falling asleep or dreaming. Last night I heard her voice as I tossed and turned in the late night heat. Parts of the performance kept coming back to me. There is a scene where I, the young woman from England (although my own folks all came from France my young women were of that wave of young people hoping to escape the snobbery and confinement of the ‘horrid pink tea parties, back home’.) describes Marie-Ange:
“I was humbled by her knowledge but I was jealous of her freedom: She didn’t seem to care that her hands were calloused, her arms muscular. My studied postures felt pointless and prissy next to her.
Something stirred her that did not come from books. It’s something I will never know. But why didn’t we know about them?Why weren’t we told about them?Was it for the same reason no one told us about: The wind and the drought and the seven months of snow. Why didn’t we just ask them to show us how? Were we too frightened or too damn proud? But then, I suppose, when a thief breaks into a home, even he knows not to ask: So how do you work this stove? Did it just not occur to us that they might have something we need. Until we started losing babies.”
I have researched a great deal into the history of first contact between native and pioneer women and I find glancing references to a relationship formed over the deep and creative bond of motherhood. Marie-Ange becomes the midwife to women who lose babies, and their own lives, at an alarming rate. And what becomes clear to me is that their ‘animalness’, their ‘sauvage’ appearance and deportment is not the great hindrance to survival that the refined and studied gentlewomen of England expect- it is the ultimate compliment, the sole force that drives their survival and relationship with their world, the land, the other animals – including children and men, the weather, the whole of creation. And, what is at heart, at bottom, is a chance to recognize that Marie-Ange, if asked, could show the women, show us all, our own splendid animal-selves.
I am interested in the women who saw the light through a shift in gaze. Women whose enlightenment rested in letting the wild be their guide. Marian Fowler, in her brillaint summation of the diaries of women who came as appendages to elite husbands, but who grew enchanted by the freedoms of the wilderness, wrote in her book, “The Embroidered Tent”: “Their consciousness was raised not by social conditioning, but by the the Canadian wilderness itself. They were given a unique opportunity not available to their stay-at-home sisters until the twentieth century. With their petticoats and parasols, these gentlewomen in Canada may have not looked the part: but these were the shock troops … The wilderness encouraged, demanded initiative and courage … Their psyches began to run wild” with the land and its inhabitants.
Marie-Ange whispers to me to run wilder, deeper, let go of more and more dregs, chaff and dross. She also laughs: “No, you didn’t know about us. But be certain, we knew about YOU. How could we miss you and your arrival on the scene? The noise, the display, all those books and pianos and trunks of clothes. Had it ever occurred we prefered it that way: us knowing exactly where you were, you not seeing us? The less contact the better- it goes both ways. But of course, I am Metis, I am born from contact. And I have so much more to say.”
I woke to an invitation to hunt for a buffalo drive lane in the park. I was eager, after four days in Swift, which I now refer to as ‘the city’, to sink into the park again. And listen to Marie-Ange talk to me, coming through loud and clear, away from the traffic and pavement, where the ancestors appear.
(For those who missed the performance “Mother’s Apron”at the Lyric, the piece in its entirety, including collage reprints matching the stories, is available from Madonna and at PWSS for $15. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org)