By John Thomas Tuft

Her face always portrayed a smile to strangers, but if you looked into her eyes you knew it was raining on the inside. When you never feel at home in the world, or even in your own skin, life can become a tide of tears. And the eternal hope is that this tide will not ultimately drown you in your own sorrows. If pain is the great teacher, then Cree was schooled in the Master class. Born with the ‘Devil’s Mark’ of a deep burgundy birthmark on the skin of the left side of her face, from just in front of her ear, around the eye and across the bridge of her nose, down the cheek to the corner of her mouth. When she was nearly five years old, her family moved away from the only home she knew…and left her behind.

Oh, mind now, they left her with two large boxes of Cheerios and a gallon of water. Locked in the basement. With a stack of the teen glossy magazine, Seventeen, and the light of a single window that looked out on the alleyway in the rear. For three weeks Cree stretched those Cheerios and the water, determined to survive. She paged through the magazine day after day, knowing that she would never be as beautiful as all those smiling girls, wondering if they had a family like hers, dreaming of one of them maybe coming to find her. Tell her it was okay, she was wanted, needed, capable of being loved. Maybe, someday, one of them would find her. Tears were useless, she knew, but sometimes in the darkness of the nights she would sing to herself to keep them at bay. She’d heard her father listening to it as he and her mother drank themselves into a stupor in the long evenings, Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.”

“Please see for me if she’s wearing a coat so warm/To keep her from the howlin’ winds…” she sang, as only a child can sing. Human beings can break. Human beings can be broken. Sometimes they can try to be glued back together with best intentions and frugal prayers, but “remember me to one who lives there/She once was a true love of mine” was what kept Cree going. The magic North Country would welcome her. “Please remember if her hair hangs long/That’s the way I remember her best.” Cree’s hair was towhead white, cropped short, sticking out at all angles. But the magazine gave her another vision of what could be. One of these days, in the North Country, she would have long hair that would hang down across her face and hide the shame…of being born.

When I first met Cree, she was nineteen, sitting quietly in the corner, staring through me. I got the strong impression she was waiting, but I had no idea for what. Her story came out in fits and starts, in a raspy whisper, like a match being struck. “Did you find the North Country?” I asked, waiting through the silence. She turned her head and the single lamp in the room revealed the birthmark, iridescent in its bathing light. She changed the subject. “I knew better than to pray. What would I pray for? More food? That would be like some starving kid in Yemen punching up UberEats and ordering a Big Mac.” She flashed the ghost of a smile. “New parents? God don’t make no mistakes, or so I’ve heard.” She shrugged and lit a cigarette with the burning tip of the last one.

“Finally, I dragged some cinder blocks over, and a rickety old wooden crate. Piled them on top of each other, climbed up and broke out the window with my head. See?” She lifted the hair from her forehead to reveal a jagged scar at the hairline. “That, now that…” she blinked rapidly as her eyes filled. “That made me cry.” She swiped at the tears and looked off into some distance I could never fathom. She pulled at the baggy sweatshirt that she always wore, sleeves hiked up to reveal intricate designs in all colors covering her arms and disappearing beneath the cloth, popping out again on her neck. The ink of the tattoos enfolded her in their embrace, some warning, some pleading, all of them revelations.
“Will you tell my story?” she asked, with a direct look into my eyes, the only time she has ever reached so deeply within my soul. “Be sure to tell them the truth. About me. And about Willow. About how she marched right into that emergency room and insisted on taking me home with her. Those cops didn’t dare say no. Not to Willow. Tell them about her and the others that were with us, okay? Promise?” I nodded. “She was the North Country, you hear me? Do you understand?” Again, I can only nod. “But start at the end. I don’t give a damn what they think of me but be sure to tell them about Willow. How at the end when she was suffering so with the bone cancer, that she came to me. Because she knew. She knew that I knew…that pain gives no rights, gives no reasons, laughs at our tears.”

Then Cree shrugged and walked out the door…leaving me with her story.

Words are magic and writers are wizards. This is a character sketch for my novel, The Healing.