Lisa J. Ellwood
* Note: The author would like to thank her sister Dee and Joshua Heath of High Level Games for their editorial support.
The Keepers of the Land
"We are those who kept watch over the land of our ancestors"
Nanticoke and Lenape Confederation Learning Center & Museum
Today was not the day she was going to die.
He was here.
And if He was here, then she desperately needed not to be.
The nondescript white man with his strange dark eyes, always dressed in a nondescript military uniform topped off by a black beret.
Cat and mouse.
Cat and mouse.
Cat and mouse.
He had dogged their steps since they landed on Fenwick Island. She had ceded to the wisdom of Lenape and Nanticoke family who’d said she needed to keep moving, but she was fairly certain now that posting up on Fenwick Island was not it. Her dreams — and nightmares — had led her to this godforsaken place but every cell in her body urged her to leave. Being a Philly girl put her at a distinct disadvantage out here in East Giblip Delaware during this supernatural apocalypse — and she didn't like it.
"I'm telling you we need to get back to the mainland — NOW!" she hissed in a half-whisper.
"And I'm telling you one. more. time. to shut the fuck up or get the fuck out!" a burly white man she only knew as Big Frank growled as he turned on her. “You’ve been nothing but trouble since before we got here! If I’d had my way you’d be somebody else’s problem!”
“Or in a ditch…” his latest paramour snapped loudly from the back of the room.
That was it, the final straw. She’d had enough of his bullshit to last several lifetimes since joining the ragtag group outside of what was left of Williamsville. Even though she was sure she’d end up regretting it, she canvassed the gathering in the island’s rickety community center for support on the road. It was to no avail in the end, and deep down she was relieved despite being afraid. Never one for making grand pronouncements, she simply turned around and scooted out.
It was a miracle her old wooden cane didn’t snap in two from her whacking it down on the ground so hard as she hobbled away in anger.
She had tried for almost two days, she guessed, to get them to listen, but they wouldn't.
So she was leaving them to their inevitable doom as they settled down to their new lives squatting on the island, ready to battle any-and-everyone who dared to try and run them off.
She was absolutely certain of this, but it was driven by gut instinct rather than concrete fact.
They were doomed.
And she refused to be.
Whatever day it was, it was not the day she was going to die.
She guessed it had been at least two weeks since leaving Fenwick. Summer days were so short and nights so long and deeply black it was hard to tell. The pain of her damaged spine and knees slowed her progress considerably as she headed across the ancient Indian River Inlet Bridge. She was heading northwards back to her immediate Lenape family in and around Cheswold and Dover, bypassing her Nanticoke relatives in Millsboro. Big Frank and his mob had vaporized the Fenwick Island Bridge, the shorter and only other way off the isolated rock, so retracing her steps the way she’d come was impossible.
Her only choice on foot now was the Delaware Coast Highway — and it was also the most dangerous. She had as much to fear from DCH’s notoriously corrupt patrol unit, especially its Cyborg Black Watch, as she did from ordinary people with less than her who could use what little she had.
She paused at the halfway mark to adjust her heavy glasses and the cheap electric mask and goggles that didn’t offer enough protection from the pungent fumes wafting off the murky Atlantic Ocean.
She wondered what the deadly waters had been like in the centuries before the Great Upheaval when fires and earthquakes consumed the West and near-constant storms, floods, and tornados decimated the far Southeastern and Southern parts of the country. White people who could afford it fled to what was left of Europe and what they thought were better climates in other far-flung parts of the world in a bid to avoid the catastrophe, but it followed them too as they were the cause of it.
The peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands thought they would be ok, despite their own environmental calamities.
What was left of western tribes that originated in the east began trying to return to their original homelands. Room had to be made for the remnants of those that lost everything they’d built up over the centuries. It had to be negotiated because eastern tribes hadn't forgotten how their western relatives disparaged them, especially the "mixed bloods" of Native and Black, as being "pretendians", "wannabes", and worse.
Eastern tribes including the Lenape in Delaware had refused to leave the lands they had battled to remain a part of since the long ago arrival of the settler invaders. Their western relatives had expected to be treated with unbridled cruelty, yet were welcomed with pity. A Council was called by Lenape elders in Delaware and New Jersey along with those of the Mohawks, the Keepers of the Eastern Door, and all were told: "We are those who kept watch over the land of our ancestors. The so-called Indian Wars of ancient times began with us in the east and will end with us. And now you must join us in our fight or you too will finally perish. We are all still here ... for now.”
So was the story that had been handed down in the wake of the Great Upheaval.
But now she couldn’t help but feel Indigenous people’s time safeguarding the land was really beginning to run out.
She’d just made it off the bridge onto the derelict Delaware Coast Highway near Coin Beach not long before sundown, she guessed, when it happened.
There was a faint unnatural roar behind her, forcing her to turn around.
A great, glowing mass of cloud and mist spanning some miles had erupted and was rising upwards from the ground across the horizon as far as her near-sighted eyes could make out. Her autistic senses were on overload, her mouth agape at the horror in the distance. And once again every cell in her body was telling her to run for her life — which of course she couldn’t do. Her grandmother had always told her to keep moving and never look back yet here she was, rooted to the spot.
Her instinct was to record the scene, for what she had no idea. She was too poor to have decent tech like the most privileged did, but her home-made digital camera was still ok enough. The forbidding ectoplasmic storm of glowing white and grey clouds and mist slowly, but steadily expanded like a preternatural organism. It reminded her of the scary green skeletal fingers that were the Angel of Death in the old 20th-century film The Ten Commandments coming down from the heavens to kill all the first-born Egyptians. The only thing missing was the Lenape equivalent of Charlton Heston’s Moses with his arms outstretched, staff in one hand, bellowing “behold His mighty hand!”
She watched as whatever it was engulfed the doomed islanders and the inhabitants along Delaware’s Coastal Highway in the far distance. She expected screams at the very least, but instead there was nothing.
It was so quiet, she thought she'd gone deaf.
There was something taking shape in the forbidding phenomenon. It took a moment for her to recognize the faint details of the badge worn on the strange white military man’s black beret.
She held the camera aloft in one hand, watching as the ectoplasmic phenomenon settled high above the landscape, obliterating the night sky. The temperature began to drop and the mist cleared enough for her to see that everything on the ground in the distance was now covered in a glistening white and silvery grey powder.
The summer snows were known to come early in the past few decades, but of course this was different — very different.
And she wasn’t prepared for it.
“What the fuck is going on?!” she gasped as she turned around and hobbled forward a bit quicker than before.
She pushed through the pain even though it wasn’t good for her, needing to put as much distance as possible between her and the metaphysical terrorist now consuming the land behind her.
She’d seen an old moving picture from the late 23rd century once about chattel slavery in what used to be The South. Escaped slaves would lie low during the day and travel as fast and as far as they could at night to outwit those that hunted them. Her gut instinct told her that doing the same until she made it to at least West Rehoboth would probably be a good move for a woman on her own.
But she was scared, more scared than she'd ever been in her life. There was no such thing as being carefree in these perilous times. Still, one could achieve some semblance of it, she supposed, with enough money and the right connections. She could only wonder what that must be like.
Without warning, a brick came flying towards her, barely missing her head.
There was no time to think as a gang of five women and two teenage girls surrounded her. She noted with disappointment that one of the women was Black, one Native, one Asian and the two teenagers appeared to be Native.
“An equal opportunity beatdown? I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to,” she said quietly.
She thrust out her old cane in a defensive stance and all but one of the gang roared with laughter.
“Get a load of this — a four-eyed crip with a busted-up piece of wood!” one of the two white women cackled.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said firmly, pushing her thick glasses up on her nose. “But I will if I have to.”
“Pfft you wish!” the Black woman said as she swung a baseball bat back and forth. “You got guts, I’ll give you that.”
She noticed that the younger-looking of the teenagers didn’t seem so confident about her initiation. The last thing she wanted was to fight anyone, least of all a child.
“Fighting grown-ass white people is bad enough. I don’t. want. to. hurt. you, but I will if I have to.”
“Go on you two — you wanted in so get on with it!” the other white woman said, handing a long thin steel pipe to the older of the two girls.
She was prepared to take a hit before taking action, and gripped her cane so tight the veins on her hand seemed ready to burst.
The girl made the mistake of landing a feeble hit on her upper left arm.
She brought up the cane with her right and it transformed into a lightning sword mid-swing.
The girl went down with a heavy thud after it sliced through her right arm and into her abdomen.
There was nothing but screams as the women tried to disarm her and she fought back, killing one of the white women and severely injuring the other.
“Oh eff this I’m out!” the Black woman said, running off to wherever it was they’d come from with the Asian woman following close behind.
The remaining white woman howled the highway down as she realized she was dying from her wounds.
“If you have somewhere better to go, then get to it before The Watch gets here and you end up like them … or worse,” she said to the young girl, her eyes brimming with tears.
It was then that she decided it might be safer to walk in the woods lining the coastal highway until she reached West Rehoboth.
She couldn’t remember when she was last so tired as she trudged through the heavy white and silvery grey powder that now blanketed the land as far as her near-sighted eyes could see. She wouldn’t complain about the lingering pain from the vicious beating she’d survived. As far as she was concerned she deserved it. She abhorred violence -- and seeing the light leave someone’s eyes and knowing that she was the cause of it would haunt her for the rest of her days.
The memories of everything that she’d been through in the past few months rushed to her consciousness, overwhelming her.
“I can’t … I just can’t” she murmured before collapsing on a boulder at the edge of a great wood. She wasn’t entirely sure where she was now that the worst of the coastal highway was behind her, just that she was still headed north. She was freezing cold, hungry, and wanted nothing more than to sleep — but to do so now would surely mean her death.
Maybe she deserved it after what she’d done.
The sound of singing reached her before she could reproach herself further. She was too exhausted to move to try and find shelter for the night let alone find out who the latest strangers she might have to fight for her life were.
She heard them in her head before she was able to stand up.
“We are those who have kept watch over the land of your ancestors.”
Her jaw dropped as a small figure emerged from the snowy woodland just ahead to the right of her, clothed only in a buckskin shirt and pants.
Followed by another.
“Aren't you cold?” she blurted aloud as three more little people emerged, looking at her with intense curiosity.
“Hè. You have nothing to fear from us,” came the voice in her head again as an elderly-looking male-presenting manëtutëtàk stepped closer, beckoning to her to come with them.
Her large chestnut brown eyes widened as she noted that his lips had not moved.
Before she could react she felt herself being lifted up by some unknown force, still sprawled across the boulder, and carried into the forest.
Her autistic senses were again on overload as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing and feeling.
It was a balmy summer night in a world devoid of man-made climate catastrophes driven by a lust for power and greed. The pristine water of a vast lake. Rolling hills of trees, flora and fauna, dotted with small wigwams and longhouses. Clean air that smelled so pure, she could not connect the experience of it to anything she’d ever known. She found the strength to reach out and touch the tree under which she’d been left resting, still sprawled across the boulder. She’d never seen anything so green, and fragrant — and ALIVE.
One of the little people pointed at her worn-out combat boots.
"Off!" she heard in her head.
She hesitated for only a moment before whipping off her boots followed by her smelly, dirty, holey, socks, trying not to feel embarrassed.
"Feel," came another voice in her head.
"Feel what?" she asked out loud.
"The earth as you should have been able to."
"It would have been nice to actually be able to walk around that meadow and not have to worry about a racist as fuck white farmer shooting at me and my cousin and being called the n-word. Sorry for my bad language."
"There is none of that in this world."
"You're not playing a trick on me, are you?" she asked, sounding far younger than her 20-ish years.
“No, Welitèhat,” replied the elderly-looking little person. "Not here and not now ... never in this place."
The little elder drew up beside her and patted her right arm gently. She didn't know why, but she couldn't help bursting in tears.
"I was only ten … I could actually run then ..." she said, sounding younger with each word. “I ran for my life …”
She looked over at her old busted-up, but decidedly lethal wooden cane, and realized she hadn't thought about her damaged spine and knees since entering wherever it is that the little people have taken her.
"He is no longer. Leave him out there in the past where he belongs. You must eat and rest, and gather your strength. Then, we will talk when the time is right,” said the elder as he helped her stand.
“Wait, where did that come from?” she asked, as they walked towards a small longhouse perfectly suited for her needs that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
“I see there will be much to acquaint you with since you did not grow up with all of the stories of your peoples,” the elder said, making a noise that sounded like he was choking while trying not to laugh. “I am not laughing at your ignorance, Welitèhat; you just have the most wonderfully expressive face I have ever seen. It suits your good heart.”
“Good-hearted people don’t kill.”
“Nothing in this life or yours is that simple.”
Trying to keep track of hours and days was troublesome even in the most ordinary of circumstances. It was impossible with the little people. After a while she just stopped worrying about it.
She caught her reflection as she sat by the lake one afternoon with some little people she supposed were women, and couldn’t help but think she looked much improved. It was her … and it also was not.
“You see your true self as you should have been,” one of the little people explained. “The benefit of a comfortable life with an abundance of real sunshine, fresh air, and plenty of healthy, fruits, meats, and vegetables.”
“Things that only the very privileged have access to, as limited as they are in my world,” she sighed.
She noted that though everything anyone needed to survive was abundant and free for the taking, the little people did not take anything just because it was there and they could. She learned a lot by listening and observing.
And she was not going to take their trust for granted in this world or hers.
The time finally came, such as it was, for her to leave the little people and the only comfort she had ever known in her short, miserable life. The elders and those who had been her companions during her stay arranged themselves around a large fire in the council longhouse, with her seated in the lowest seat.
"You have always walked with the power and instinctive understanding of your peoples: Lenape, Nanticoke, and Black as you navigated the world of the whites. This will serve you, and those who will need you, well," said the little elder who had become a sort of honorary grandfather to her.
Clothing and boots for an unnaturally extreme winter and a large backpack appeared in front of her. She had been given traditional gifts, each of which, she was told, would be of significant use to her on the road and at her eventual destination. She did not understand how, but accepted them with gratitude understanding that divine timing was at play.
She will know what to do when she's meant to.
Her honorary grandfather presented her with a new cane. It will look ordinary to everyone but her.
It was a beautiful supertech cane carved in ornate patterns, some of which she immediately recognized as Lenape and Nanticoke designs from the old moleskine notebook she had with her. Unusually, there were also vèvès of the Haitian Vodou lwas she was connected to since she’d been initiated as a Hunsi in her hometown. She’d only gone to services out of curiosity. One Sunday a lwa told her she should be initiated. And that was that.
The little people had no understanding of her religion and spiritual practices, just that they were an important part of who she was.
"You need to reconnect with your spirituality and the deities that you are connected to because of it," she hears in her head. “For your sake as much as those who would also benefit from it in your troubled times.”
“It’s been hard to believe in anything that’s good over there.”
“Your biggest challenge is the white devil that has haunted your steps. As long as your mind is free of it, it cannot find you.”
“What do I need to do?”
"Disrupt the chaos.”