Pauline realizes she is pregnant, but doesn’t know when she might be due. Pauline has already committed herself to God, so she tries to cause herself to miscarry. Bernadette catches her doing this and stops her. Pauline reveals that it is Napoleon’s child, and Bernadette says she’ll take the baby. Pauline declines, asking Bernadette to help her abort the child, but Bernadette reminds Pauline that this is a mortal sin.
Despite Pauline’s commitment to the Catholic faith, she is again concerned with what others think of her, and is willing to act against her faith to save her reputation. Even though Bernadette offers to keep Pauline’s secret and raise the child, Pauline would still prefer to commit what is considered a mortal sin in the Catholic Church.
Pauline and Bernadette plan to hide the pregnancy as long as Pauline promises not to try to stop the pregnancy again. Pauline struggles with this, knowing that Moses Pillager could make a potion to cause her to lose the child. Bernadette watches Pauline closely, though, and she complies. Pauline knows the child will be a girl, and Bernadette says her name will be Marie, after the Virgin, but Pauline thinks the child is more the spawn of Satan.
Pauline is finally sufficiently shamed by Bernadette into keeping the baby, but Pauline still thinks of the old native ways that might help eliminate the problem of her pregnancy. The child is named after the Virgin, a sign of Bernadette’s commitment to raise the child in the Catholic Church, but Pauline blames Napoleon for her pregnancy, and views him as a Satanic figure of temptation, and so she thinks the child must also be evil.
Bernadette also insists that Napoleon not show his face to Pauline, and makes him stay in the barn. Pauline watches him eat from her window and then listens to him play his fiddle, a sound that is painful for her to hear. Sophie and Philomena dance to the music, growing thin as Pauline grows more and more pregnant.
Even though Pauline sees Napoleon as demonic, she finds it painful to be separated from him and also painful to be reminded of him. Napoleon’s joy while playing the fiddle is upsetting to Pauline, as she is sequestered and forced to live with the discomfort of her body, incubating a baby she doesn’t want.
Fall comes, and the men gather the last of the wheat. The armistice bells clang, keeping Pauline awake. She goes into labor, Bernadette coaching her through, but Pauline realizes that she doesn’t want to let the child go because she’ll be lonelier without her. She tries to hold the child inside of her.
The armistice bells signal the end of World War I. Fall signals the approaching winter, the season that is always the most challenging. Pauline, who tried to rid herself of the baby, now wants to hold onto the child.
Pauline tells Bernadette that she wants herself and the child to die so that the baby won’t be tainted by original sin. Bernadette leaves the room and returns with a coil of rope and two cooking spoons. Bernadette ties Pauline’s arms and legs to the bed, and then uses the spoons to grasp the child’s head and pull. Pauline sees the bruises left by the spoons and says she has been marked by the devil’s thumbs. Bernadette hands the baby to Pauline to try to feed, but Pauline refuses. She leaves the house as soon as she is well enough, and goes to the convent.
Despite Pauline having acknowledged to herself that she’d feel lonely without the baby inside of her, the explanation she gives to Bernadette is tied to religion. Bernadette is resourceful in delivering the baby and refuses to allow Pauline to kill herself and the child. Even when the child is born, Pauline looks for signs that the baby is the spawn of Satan as she’d suspected. She refuses to nourish the child once it is born, holding Bernadette to her commitment to care for the child entirely on her own.
At the convent, Pauline rises earlier than all the others to begin her chores. She is hungry and cold, and offers up these feelings of discomfort to God. She believes that God visits her, sitting on the stove at night. He tells her that she is not Indian at all, but white, and that she was chosen to serve. He tells her she is forgiven for Marie, and that Pauline should forget her.
Pauline’s commitment to appearing the most pious continues at the convent. She begins to think of all of the negative things she experiences as an offering to God, and continues to have visions, believing herself special enough that God communicates with her directly. And God tells her exactly what she wants to hear: her hatred of her Native heritage seems justified when she learns she is (supposedly) white, and her rejection of Marie is affirmed when God tells her to put Marie out of her mind. The reader has good cause to question Pauline’s trustworthiness in relaying these visions accurately, and in her general mental stability.
Many people die that winter, and Pauline tends to them. God tells Pauline that she must make room for him in the minds of the Indians. Sister Saint Anne announces that the order won’t accept Indian girls, and Pauline is thankful to have found out that she is not Indian.
The multitude of deaths means lots of work for Pauline, a problematic conflict of interests. Pauline wants to be praised for this, but God tells her she must do more. The refusal to allow Indian women to enter the convent closely ties Catholicism (in the book) to white oppression and racism. Sister Saint Anne’s acceptance of Pauline’s claim of being white seems like an act of mercy on the nun’s part.
Pauline tells Sister Saint Anne that God visits her in the dark and talks to her, but that he doesn’t stay long because it is too cold. Sister Saint Anne allows Pauline to stoke the fire before bed to welcome the Lord, and gives Pauline her thin wool blanket, though Pauline is sure the sister wears her heavy wool cloak to sleep. She thinks about telling the Sister about how she is the chosen one, but Pauline then sees her own shadow move separate from her, a sign of the devil, and decides not to tell the sister. Pauline waits for God to tell her what to do about Fleur, who Pauline believes is the gateway to the lake monster and Manitous for the tribe. She realizes that she can be this same gateway to Catholicism for them.
Pauline’s claim that God complains of the cold in the convent seems far-fetched, and Pauline refuses to accept the sister’s gift as generous, assuming the nun is keeping the better option for herself. Pauline’s pride at believing she is chosen is something she wants to share, but her concern with reputation again comes into play when she worries she might actually be chosen by the devil rather than the Christian God, and she begins to question who has been visiting her at night in her visions.
Pauline relays a story from Nanapush about guiding a group of white men to hunt buffalo. They killed so many for only their tongues and hides that the few who remained began to act strangely. The living buffalo ate the bodies of dead and tried to cripple each other, even attempting suicide. Only when the thunder came did the animals calm down. Pauline sees a similar thing happening with the remaining people of the tribe. Pauline has a vision of all of the souls she has delivered to God by preparing them for death, and asks what she should do. God tells her to bring him more.
The comparison between the buffalo and tribe members’ self-destructive actions is very clear in the story that Pauline tells, clearly showing the way that weakening the larger community also weakens individuals, but it’s essential to note that the initial cause of this weakness comes from entities outside the community. Seemingly the only thing that distracts the buffalo from their individual pain is a reminder of the natural world.
Pauline goes to Fleur’s cabin with the goal of converting those inside. Fleur opens the door and Pauline sees that she’s clearly hungry, though surviving despite the difficult times, and is also pregnant. Pauline asks if she can come in, and Fleur calls her a Morrissey. Pauline enters anyway, asking for something to eat. Eli refuses to acknowledge Pauline. Fleur removes her headscarf to remind Pauline of her bald head. Pauline is surprised that she is being taken as a Morrissey, and claims she left them behind because she couldn’t fend off Napoleon forever. Fleur smirks at her and then at Eli, as though she knows different.
Even though Pauline recognizes that Fleur is pregnant and hungry, she still asks the people in the Pillager cabin to share their food with her. Pauline is surprised that Fleur views her as a Morrissey, unaware that living with the family and bearing one of their children—a secret that Pauline doesn’t realize Fleur knows—would align her with them in others’ eyes. Pauline continues as an outsider to the private relationship between Fleur and Eli.
Fleur brings up Marie, and Pauline claims to know nothing about her, but Fleur identifies that this can’t be true—because Pauline has already revealed she knows the baby was a girl. She says that the baby has a Puyat mouth, but “hers hasn’t told any lies.” Fleur allows Pauline to sit near the fire and feeds her bannock.
Pauline is caught in her lie when she identifies the gender of the baby before Fleur mentions it. Fleur acknowledges that the child must be Pauline’s, but she still feeds Pauline, showing Fleur’s willingness to be generous once she has established her power.
Nanapush, who spends much of his time at the Pillager cabin and is there now, mocks Pauline, asking to see her hairshirt. She reveals that she has made herself underwear of scratchy potato sacks, and he suggests she might like the feeling. Pauline contests, saying her suffering is a gift to God. Nanapush continues teasing her, but Margaret tells him to stop. Margaret then dishes out some watery soup to all of them, skipping her own bowl. Nanapush hands most of his plate back to Margaret, who eats a spoonful and gives the rest to Fleur, claiming that she ate while she cooked.
Nanapush is judgmental of Pauline’s commitment to Catholicism, perhaps convinced that her interest in the order is only an interest in her own survival. He sees her actions as falsely pious, and Pauline proves too proud not to mention the uncomfortable underwear she hides beneath her clothes as a constant punishment. Margaret’s commitment to providing for the family and going hungry so that they might have enough shows a humbler (and more effective) type of sacrifice.
Pauline continues to visit Fleur’s cabin, and Nanapush notices that she wears her shoes on the wrong feet, another way of punishing herself as an offering to God. Pauline does this only when away from the convent, because the Mother Superior discourages these strange acts of penance. Nanapush tells Pauline she is unusual, and Pauline feels proud that he could be noticing that she is chosen. In fact, he is observing that she never allows herself to go to the outhouse. Indeed, Pauline only allows herself to use the outhouse twice a day. Pauline admonishes Nanapush for his crude comments, and he stops.
Mother Superior’s advice to stop the unusual offerings to God shows that Pauline is failing to follow orders and has some alternative purpose in causing herself such discomfort. When Nanapush calls Pauline strange, she feels a surge of pride, but really Nanapush’s comment is tied to his trickster ways, hiding his observation of another one of her abstinences. Pauline is offended by the way Nanapush acknowledges what she’s doing, though she clearly wants people to notice.
Nanapush, though, has not given up on teasing Pauline. On a day when Pauline needs badly to use the outhouse, Nanapush brews some sugary sassafras to tempt her, and Pauline can’t resist and drinks several cups. Nanapush then begins to tell a story of a girl slowly flooded by water, and Pauline begins to pray the rosary in her head. The only way for the girl to save herself from drowning is by grabbing something that sticks out of the water, which the girl does. Pauline feels the need to pee grow and grow, tapping her feet anxiously, as Nanapush tells the story of the water rising. When the water finally retreats, the girl makes good on her promise and copulates with the thing that was sticking out of the water.
Nanapush’s mischief shines in this scene. He plies Pauline with a delicious beverage and then tells a story that focuses on water and also sexual innuendo, trying to get Pauline to pee herself while also teasing about her supposed abstinence from sexual relations, though it’s clear the inhabitants of the Pillager cabin know that Pauline bore a child. Copulating with a being that lives in the water also echoes the rumors of Fleur having sex with the lake monster. Nanapush’s teasing of Pauline is mostly harmless, as there’s no logical reason she can’t use the outhouse.
Nanapush tells that nine months later the girl bore a child, and he pulls a condom from his pocket. He begins to fill the condom with the tea, and says that the child was made of nothing but water. Pauline is in agony, and the condom bursts, spilling tea everywhere. Pauline runs from the room, having wet herself.
Nanapush continues his teasing of Pauline by showing that the birth in his story could have been prevented with a condom—but Catholics don’t believe in contraception, so this is offensive to Pauline. Nanapush goes even further in filling the condom with tea in the same way Pauline’s bladder has filled to bursting.
Back at the convent, Pauline imposes new limits on her life. She won’t allow herself to move at night while she tries to sleep. She plunges her hands into icy buckets of water in the morning. She denies herself most food and drink, having only hot water and small bits of bread. She sews burrs and grass into her dress to irritate her skin and allows her toenails to grow uncomfortably long. She also makes herself suffer Nanapush’s insults to her as he refuses to allow her inside because of her stinking underwear, but she still won’t allow herself to wash.
Pauline, having broken her vow by accidentally urinating, makes up new forms of punishment for herself. Her urination in the previous scene has also revealed a secondary form of self-flagellation: Pauline refuses to wash both herself and her clothes, and so the way she is punishing herself is also a punishment to those around her, as they have to smell her dirty body.
Fleur offers to wash Pauline’s clothes so that she can come inside. Fleur tells Lulu to gather snow to melt into water from outside. Margaret leaves, accompanying Eli and Nector to town to sell some wood to pay the land fees. Pauline allows herself to undress, and hands her clothes to Fleur. Fleur and Lulu wash Pauline, but Pauline reminds herself not to enjoy the experience. When Fleur begins to wash her hair though, she can’t help but feel pleasure. Pauline uses the outhouse, and Fleur gives her floursacks to wear for underwear instead of the potato sacks.
Fleur makes another concession to Pauline in offering to do the washing so Pauline doesn’t break her vow of not washing herself. This vow ultimately makes more work for others, but Pauline sees it as a sacrifice. Though Pauline tries not to enjoy the gentle touch of Fleur and Lulu washing her, eventually she cannot help but enjoy the bath, and she accepts the gift of softer fabric for underwear, no longer denying herself these comforts.
Pauline then notices that Fleur is bleeding, and Fleur asks Pauline to retrieve some alder for her to stop the premature birth. In the lean-to, Pauline sees how little they have to eat for the rest of the winter. She knocks many of the containers to the floor looking for the alder. She grabs something that she is unsure is the alder, and begins to boil it. Lulu puts on her thin patent leather shoes and goes to Margaret’s house to retrieve the others. Fleur tells Pauline to get moss to plug the bleeding. Pauline fumbles through the actions that Fleur directs her to take. It seems as though it is taking too long for Margaret and Nanapush to arrive. Fleur holds onto Pauline and repeats the word “no” as the baby emerges.
Fleur relies on Native treatments to address her premature labor, but Pauline is unable to distinguish the different substances stored in the food shed. Pauline is careless in the way she hunts for the alder, perhaps punishing the residents of the Pillager cabin for the way they have failed to embrace her and her religion. Instead of admitting to Fleur that she can’t find the alder, she boils a different substance that likely won’t do any good, and could even cause harm. Lulu, out of her mother’s control, makes the foolish decision of wearing her thin shoes out into the snow, showing her desire for a connection to white civilization that has been muted by her mother’s discipline.
Fleur grabs the child and tries to resuscitate it. Finally, it cries. Fleur then goes to the lean-to to gather more roots and powders, aware and angry that Pauline boiled the wrong thing. She boils a new mixture and drinks it down. She tries to give the baby some of the cooled liquid, too. Pauline worries that Fleur has died, until she stands and staggers across the room. Fleur stands over Pauline, threatening to kill her as well if she and the baby die, believing that Pauline’s bumbling attempts were not genuine. Pauline sits dazed in the glow of the baby’s serpent eyes. Fleur then plunges a knife down and it pins Pauline’s skirt to the floor. Fleur opens the door to leave the cabin, and Pauline is freed. Pauline follows the mother and child down to a road by the lake in the biting wind and snow. The beaten, icy path makes it clear Fleur has made this journey before. Pauline imitates Fleur’s method of tying bark to her feet as snowshoes.
Fleur figures out that she cannot rely on Pauline to help save the baby, but she is also exhausted from the effort of giving birth, and possibly close to death herself from hemorrhage. Pauline does nothing to try to help the dying pair, and Fleur tries to pin Pauline in place so that she can escape with the baby without Pauline’s bad luck following them. Pauline seeing the eyes of the baby as a serpent shows that she believes the father of the child to be the lake monster, something she thinks might be confirmed by Fleur’s trek down to the lake. Pauline is curious how she has never seen such a well-trod path, but she follows after Fleur, curious to see what will happen, and perhaps wanting to gain insight into Fleur’s powers.
Pauline is surprised at all the Indians she sees on this path with them. She sees buffalo and unfarmed land. She sees no fences or tracks. Pauline realizes the others she sees are the dead she has blessed, and sees her own mother and father, too. She begs Fleur to turn back, but they approach a fire where they see the three men from the butcher shop playing a game together. Fleur asks them to deal her in, and she loses the first round. A woman emerges to take the baby from Fleur, signifying the death of the baby. Lily then pulls out a lock of Lulu’s hair and a patent leather shoe, and Fleur plays now for Lulu’s life. She wins with four queens and a wild, saving Lulu’s life.
The path that the women travel is actually the path to the land of the dead, and the scenery around them shows a life that is far in the past before the advent of white civilization. Pauline worries that their journey means they are all dying, and thinks she can reverse these events by returning to the Pillager cabin. The men from the butcher shop continue the poker game they were playing in the meat locker during the storm, but the stakes are higher here, as Fleur gambles for the lives of her children.
The men look at Pauline, and she is no longer invisible. She can tell they know it was her who sealed them in the meat locker on the day of the storm. Fleur and Pauline race back to the cabin just before Margaret arrives. Pauline finds that her skirts are again pinned by the knife Fleur plunged into the floor. Margaret stokes the fire, warms the medicine, and rails against Pauline for not doing a better job of helping Fleur birth her baby. Pauline frees herself and goes to Fleur’s side to try to baptize the dead baby, but Fleur bats her away. Margaret wraps the baby in a box and gives it to Eli, who ties the tiny coffin high in the trees, out of reach of the forest animals.
Whereas Pauline was once invisible as a non-threat and non-sexual being, now the men are aware of the true threat she poses—delivering people to death. Pauline and Fleur arrive back to the cabin just before Margaret’s arrival, suggesting that their journey might only have been spiritual, not physical, as no one witnessed their absence from the cabin, and Pauline somehow became re-pinned by the knife. Fleur rejects Pauline’s attempt to baptize the dead baby, wanting the child to have nothing to do with the Catholic church. The ground is too cold to bury the baby, so instead she is hoisted into the trees in the native tradition, an image that already haunts Pauline because of the way her own family was put to rest.
Pauline sees herself out, saying she’ll send Father Damien and Bernadette. Margaret, holding a knife, spits on Pauline’s shoes and then her veil, and Pauline holds out her hands, tempting Margaret to stab a stigmata (the wounds of Christ on the cross) into her hands as punishment, but Pauline claps her palms together at the last moment and runs out the door, avoiding injury. At the convent she scrapes her hands raw on the ice caking the bucket of water, until Mother Superior tells her to go to sleep.
Margaret believes that Pauline is to blame for poorly following Fleur’s instructions. She insults her, but Pauline is less brave than she believes herself to be, and withdraws her request to be punished in the image of Christ. Instead, she attempts to deliver her own punishment under the watch of the Mother Superior, who Pauline knows will tell her to cease her actions.