Pauline reveals that she left Argus because the men haunt her dreams. Dutch James, the only survivor of the night of the tornado, ails in bed, slowly losing parts of his body due to frostbite and infection. Pauline’s Aunt Regina suddenly loves him again, nursing him back to health, and he loves her for caring for him. Women from the church visit in endless streams, bringing dishes for them to eat. Eventually, when this parade of visitors ends, Dutch is just healed enough to actually marry Regina.
Pauline’s Aunt Regina takes on a typically feminine roll in nursing Dutch back to health, as do the women from the church, who arrive with food prepared in the hopes of healing the man, but also possibly luring him away from Aunt Regina, the town having lost three of its eligible bachelors. While Dutch had avoided marrying Regina before his convalescence, he is now open to it, seeing that she was willing to care for him even when he was at his worst.
Bernadette Morrissey and her brother Napoleon visit Argus to trade for what they cannot supply themselves from their farm. They are wealthy from having acquired allotments from the hard-up Chippewa people. Napoleon, a known drunk, is well-regarded for having taken in his sister and her children, including her strapping son Clarence.
Despite his bad habits, Napoleon is seen as the honorable one in this situation, as he is the one who owns the land—but Bernadette is the one who does the work maintaining the farm, keeping a close eye on the financial records, and looking after her brother, showing the inequity of gender roles.
The Morrissey farm is large and has a variety of crops and animals. Sophie is the older of Bernadette’s daughters, and Philomena the younger. Pauline tells Bernadette that her Aunt Regina and Dutch had beaten her when she lived with them in Argus, and this lie convinces Bernadette to pity her and take her in. Bernadette teaches Pauline how to read and write, and keeps the financial books for the farm during the late hours that she sits with the dying. Napoleon soon shows interest in Pauline, though she tries not to encourage him.
Pauline’s habit of lying appears in moments when the lies will benefit or protect her. Bernadette is a responsible, caring woman who takes in Pauline, while also realizing that she could use a hand in her own work caring for the dying. People assume she has great patience, but her appreciation of the quiet hours spent with the dying is also practical, as the silence allows her to focus on the finances of the farm. When Pauline begins to receive Napoleon’s attentions, she refuses them, but hints that she might be somewhat flattered.
Pauline at first feels lighter since telling the story of what happened in Argus to Margaret, but after she shares this information she begins to dream of Fleur. Pauline then reveals that it was she who locked the men inside the meat shed before the storm, though Fleur was blamed for it. Pauline tries to use a dream catcher to quiet her dreams, but it doesn’t work.
Pauline believes that telling Fleur’s story will relieve her of her responsibility in what happened, but this proves not to be the case, as it’s revealed that Pauline had not told the whole truth at all. Pauline attempts to use a Native tool to comfort herself, but her guilt is too strong and her faith in the old ways too weak.
When Mary Pepewas dies in Pauline’s company, Pauline is finally able to rest again. Pauline goes with Bernadette to Mary’s house, and when it is time to take her turn sitting with the dying young woman, she gets the feeling that Mary wants to be gone—so Pauline cuts the rope, “frayed down to a string,” hanging in the air between them. Pauline again feels a lightness, as she levitates and experiences death as a form of grace. Bernadette finds Pauline resting in a tree later that morning, shocked at how she might have gotten there.
Pauline discovers that she has the power to end a person’s life by spiritually cutting the thread of life holding the girl’s spirit to this world, an echo of the Fates of Greek myth. Pauline does not do this as an act of mercy so much as an act that provides herself with a sense of power. After taking this action, Pauline has a vision of lightness, but the next morning Bernadette finds her in a tree, suggesting that Pauline’s vision might have been a psychological break that caused her to climb the tree, a place that she associates with the bodies of her dead family who could not be buried. (Or this might be another moment of characters being affected by magic or spiritual powers.)
After this night, Pauline feels as though she has become holy, learning how to prepare the dead and, instead of washing it off of her, passing this form of grace on to others. Her treatment of the dead and dying becomes an almost selfish way for her to find peace. Speaking of the reservation again, Pauline says that Misshepeshu is benevolent for a time. She sees the light of his eyes in Lulu, but also sees the Kashpaw nose on her face (suggesting that Eli might be her father). Pauline tells how Margaret was unable to resist the lure of her granddaughter, and takes up residence in Fleur’s cabin to help raise Lulu. Pauline continues to visit the cabin, but she gets the sense that they don’t like her, as though Pauline has told some lie about them.
Pauline’s experience on this night, though seemingly tied to her native religion if anything, of deepens her faith in Christianity. Pauline rejects the Native need to wash the residue of the dead off of her skin, and she protectively holds onto this connection with the afterlife. Pauline still has a desire to remain connected to the Pillager and Kashpaw families living on Matchimanito, despite her judgment of them, though they clearly distrust her. Pauline is unable to reconcile her own disavowal of native life with the way the Pillagers and Kashpaws reject her intrusion.
Pauline can feel the electricity between Eli and Fleur, and it spurs a jealous lust in her as well. Pauline thinks of finding herself a husband, and becomes receptive to Napoleon’s advances. Napoleon tells Pauline to meet him at an abandoned house in the woods, where he undresses her and criticizes how thin she is. They embrace, but do not consummate their relationship. Napoleon stops, “like a dog sensing the presence of a tasteless poison in its food.”
One of the reasons that Pauline seems drawn to the cabin is because of her interest in the attraction between Eli and Fleur, something she has never experienced herself. Her awareness of their magnetism makes her open to Napoleon’s interest, but Napoleon seems to sense that there is something wrong about Pauline that stops him from proceeding.
When Pauline and Napoleon wake at the morning light, they try to have sex again. Gossip about them begins immediately, with people laughing at the pair. Clarence tells Pauline that Napoleon has headed south to sell some horses, but Pauline says he’ll be back. She sees that Clarence is the one she ought to have pursued, but she knows he wouldn’t have had her.
The gossip of the people in the town worries Pauline far more than gossip worries any of the Pillagers or Kashpaws. Pauline seems acutely aware of how she is seen, and this must be at least partially related to her tendency to lie, as she attempts to save her reputation when her actions contradict her beliefs.
A year passes as Pauline continues to assist Bernadette, sometimes going out on her own to attend to the dead, and people recognize her as a sign that someone is dying. She also continues to visit Fleur’s cabin, hoping to soak up some of the attraction between Eli and Fleur in lieu of experiencing such feelings herself. She feels that Fleur acts coldly toward her, while she is attracted to Eli’s heat. Pauline thinks that Eli might feel the same, and allows herself to touch him, but Eli snatches her hand away, causing her to hate him while still feeling the attraction.
Pauline as a character here literally becomes a symbol of death. Her body is read by others as a Grim Reaper-type figure, heralding someone’s imminent loss of life. Pauline continues to embrace this power, as previously she had felt entirely invisible. Pauline, so ensconced in the attraction between Fleur and Eli, doesn’t realize that she has no place in the dynamic exchanged between them. She lies even to herself in trying to convince herself that Eli might feel the same way.
One night Pauline dreams of Eli, and awakes next to Sophie, noticing how beautiful she is. She comes up with a plan. Pauline can imagine herself in Sophie’s form. She buys fabric to make Sophie a new dress, fitting it tightly to her form. Bernadette doesn’t pay attention to Pauline’s interest in Sophie, because she is busy running the farm and attending to the returned Napoleon.
Pauline knows that she remains invisible sexually to men, but she can see the power of attraction in her roommate Sophie. She begins to plot her revenge on Eli for rebuffing her advance, by manipulating Sophie. Pauline’s ability to “inhabit” others suggests that she is out of touch with reality, or that her imagination is very strong, or that she can tap into some of the powers those like Fleur have access to.
One day Bernadette stumbles on Napoleon cornering Pauline behind the barn. Pauline escapes, changing the subject to suggest that they hire another man to help on the farm, specifying Eli. When Pauline returns to the Pillager cabin, Fleur tells her Eli is in the woods. Pauline tells Fleur about the opportunity at the Morrissey farm, and Fleur jokes that that is where Pauline is staying. Pauline feels certain that Eli and Fleur must have been laughing about Pauline’s advances together. Fleur says she’ll pass on the message to Eli.
Pauline is embarrassed that Bernadette has caught her in her affair with Napoleon, but rather than admitting to it and suggesting they find a way to proceed according to the Catholic church, Pauline refocuses their interaction on the revenge she is plotting against Eli. Pauline is perhaps even more embarrassed that Fleur clearly knows about Pauline’s attraction to Eli, and that Fleur remains totally unthreatened.
Two days later, Eli shows up at the Morrisseys’ to work. Pauline has acquired a sack of medicine powder from Moses, who forces Pauline to tell him her plan—which is to snare Eli—even though she knows Moses will certainly tell Fleur. Pauline plans to bake the concoction into Eli’s lunch. On the first day, Pauline sees Eli and Sophie interact and knows that her plan is possible to execute. Pauline encourages Sophie, calling out how Eli looks at her. Sophie begins to bring Eli treats. Napoleon teases her, and Clarence vows to kill Eli if he lays a hand on her.
Pauline is not above falling back on tradition and Native medicine to ensure the success of Sophie’s flirtations and Pauline’s overall plan. The men in the family are far more aware of the potential threat Eli poses, while Bernadette sees Eli and Sophie’s interactions as more harmless.
When the day comes, Sophie heads out of the kitchen with a water jug, a loaf of doctored bread, and a block of butter. Pauline sneaks out to watch, imagining herself into Sophie’s body and controlling the girl’s actions. Sophie lifts her dress and straddles Eli, and he carries her to the water. Pauline follows, and Sophie and Eli have sex. Eventually Pauline allows them to stop. She sees men approach over the hill, and Eli darts out of the water.
Pauline imagines herself out of her own body and into Sophie’s so that she can experience the sensation of having sex with Eli. It is not just an empathetic identification that Pauline performs, though, so much as a measure of control over the tryst, forcing them to continue until she allows them to stop, when she knows they will be caught by people who will make the affair known, absolving herself of the necessity to gossip about what’s happened.
Pauline then reveals herself and tells Sophie to go home or she’ll be punished, but Sophie collapses and Pauline has to drag her home. At the Morrisseys’, Pauline shows Bernadette the evidence of what happened on the dress, and Sophie confirms. Clarence loads his gun, arguing about wanting to go pay a visit to Eli, but eventually he goes to sleep, unsure of what has happened.
Pauline acts as though she has no responsibility, even chastising Sophie for something she clearly is partly guilty of. Sophie does not lie or try to hide what happens, but admits to her misdeeds, showing a greater honor than Pauline. While his initial instinct is to defend Sophie’s honor, Clarence will not commit violence against a man whom he’s uncertain is in the wrong, also showing a greater honor than Pauline’s duplicity.
Pauline worries she has gone too far and that Eli might know she had something to do with the seduction, but she knows that Eli cannot betray her crime without revealing his own crime to Fleur. The next day Pauline reveals to Bernadette that she did witness what happened, but that Sophie made the first move. Bernadette goes inside to whip Sophie, and Pauline feels the beating too. Pauline goes in and stops Bernadette from continuing, and Bernadette breaks down in tears. Sophie tells Pauline it is she who should ask for God’s mercy, and calls Pauline “death’s bony whore.” This comment prompts Bernadette to send Sophie far away to live with a pious aunt. Sophie jumps from the cart soon after she departs, however, and runs, as though out of her own control, toward Fleur’s cabin.
Pauline’s ability to imagine herself into Sophie’s body is not limited to the sensual interaction between Sophie and Eli, as she also feels the punishment delivered by Bernadette. Her feeling of this punishment has important repercussions, as Pauline seeks out other forms of self-humiliation to identify herself with Christ’s suffering as the novel continues. While Pauline halts Bernadette in her action, this shouldn’t be read as a charitable act, as Pauline is ultimately stopping her own suffering in this moment. Sophie suffers more for calling Pauline a name that is harsh, realizing that Pauline goaded her into seducing Eli.
Sophie kneels, as if possessed, outside Fleur’s cabin. Pauline arrives and tries to break Sophie’s trance. Fleur tells her there’s no need to do that. She tells Pauline that Eli is on the trapline. Pauline says that the last time she saw him, Eli was running away from Sophie, naked, and so he must be hiding from Fleur. Margaret emerges to try to force-feed Sophie some broth, but the girl’s mouth won’t open. They go inside, and sometime later in the night, they hear Sophie’s body topple over. Fleur refuses to bring her in, insisting that Margaret instead cover her with a blanket. Meanwhile, Pauline finds herself sleepless again. In the morning Sophie still kneels stiffly in the pouring rain. Margaret constructs a rudimentary structure around the girl.
Sophie’s actions are assumed to be the result of a spell Fleur has placed on the girl, though it could be that Sophie is doing this to prove her devotion to Eli or repentance to Fleur. Margaret’s sympathy for the girl is much greater than Fleur’s, as she tries to feed and shelter the young woman. The effect of this situation on Pauline again sends her into a fit of sleeplessness. The unrest seems to occur when Pauline acts immorally, only abating when Pauline performs more selfless acts that begin to negate the harm she’s done. Eli is afraid of the repercussions of his actions, and hides from Fleur.
Eli returns with six ducks on a string, and still Sophie does not move. Eli gathers his courage and enters the cabin. Fleur ignores him, continuing to cook some venison, and flinching from him when he tries to touch her. Eli leaves and returns to the woods when he realizes that Fleur knows what he’s done. Pauline returns to the Morrisseys’. Clarence slips out and Napoleon approaches Pauline, reaching into her blouse to touch her back. Pauline tells him that they have Sophie out on the Pillager land. Pauline then hears as Clarence and Napoleon stomp down the road. Pauline eats dinner and then follows in their tracks.
Eli returns to Fleur with an offering, much in the same way that the Native characters make offerings to nature when they need extra protection. Clarence seems complicit in Napoleon’s desire for Pauline, leaving the room so they can be alone together. Pauline only tells them of the whereabouts of their sister as a way of deflecting Napoleon’s attentions. The fact that she eats dinner before following after them shows a lack of concern over how they might try to punish Eli.
The Morrissey men are unable to move Sophie, no matter how hard they try. The men leave, and Pauline stays to assess that Sophie has not changed since she left Fleur’s cabin, aside from Margaret having built a small fire to keep the girl warm. Clarence and Napoleon run to the church, rouse the priest, and Clarence grabs the statue of the Virgin Mary from the church’s niche. A nun in the church chases after them, but Clarence makes it all the way to Sophie. Then he can’t figure out what to do next. The nun arrives and orders Clarence to surrender, and begins to pray as Clarence shines the Virgin’s gaze on the huddled Pauline and Sophie. The nun beats Clarence with her robe until he withdraws.
The fact that the girl is unmovable even by the two adult men suggests that she is indeed being controlled by some force larger than herself. The men’s attempt at addressing this power is to steal the statue of Mary as a counter to the Native forces holding her in place, but this necessitates Clarence committing a theft to perform this action, against the wishes of the nun. Clarence is still tied to the idea of a physical object’s presence being the best antidote to a Manitou controlled by Fleur.
A vision then appears to Pauline and Sophie, of the Virgin crying, but Pauline refuses to reveal what she saw to anyone else after the event, believing it was meant for Sophie alone. Sophie tries to stand, but falls in the snow and Clarence hauls her up. Napoleon and the priest arrive in the clearing, but no one observes Pauline scoop up the Virgin’s hardened tears from the ground. She puts them in her skirt pocket, but her legs melt them back to water. Pauline imagines that the Virgin cried because she had never known the pleasure of men, but that she realized it was the opposite, as Pauline spends each night with the comfort of Napoleon’s warm body—the Virgin had experienced the same sensation, but in the exponentially greater power of God’s embrace.
Pauline thinks that because she saw the vision of the Virgin crying that Sophie must also have seen the same, even going so far as to believe that the vision was meant to save Sophie, and not herself, as Sophie slowly comes back to her senses after the vision. Because the tears that Pauline collects melt in her pocket, Pauline has nothing to prove what she’s seen, relegating her vision to another story that, if told, would need to be blindly believed from the mouth of someone who has proven untrustworthy. Pauline justifies her relations with Napoleon as being similar to the way Mary joined herself with God.