“Dearbaby Destroytown” by Gretchen Potter

Gretchen Potter

This National Indigenous Peoples Day, we return to Gretchen Potter’s tremendous fiction piece “Dearbaby Destroytown,” first published in Room 44.3 Indigenous Brilliance. May it guide us to stand in solidarity with and uplift Indigenous peoples, and to work in service of decolonizing efforts always.



Dear girl, it is too late for many of us, and I don’t mean only the Destroytown family—I mean everyone at Barren Creek. Many things have happened here since the nation won that land claims case, Dearbaby—the reservation has been barricaded by people carrying guns, houses have been burned down, men have lost their minds, sons have been murdered, and daughters taken away. I won’t pretend that we tried to help. No, we kept ourselves apart. Our family has kept its distance from the rest of Barren Creek for the most part. Don’t mistake that for us thinking we’re any better than anyone else, though you will hear otherwise. Things could have been different. We might’ve been able to help. We didn’t. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Long ago, all Seneca babies—maybe even all Indian babies—were born with the blue spot, the one that looks like a fading bruise on a baby’s back, just above his bottom. It usually disappears by the time the baby’s a toddler. Sometimes, this blue spot has caused us problems because people who don’t know about it think we are the ones putting bruises on our babies and they try to take them away. The whites have a long story of taking our babies away, blue spots or not. Once in a while, a blue spot will have an outline as if someone had traced it with a marker. We call those babies the marked ones. You, my dearest, are one of them.

The mark runs in the Destroytown family here at Barren Creek, and in some of our cousins on the Canadian side of our territory, but most of us don’t talk about it. We barely whisper about it, and then, only when we absolutely have to. It’s the family burden, our vulnerability and our superpower. We hold our breath as we inspect our newborns, we check for ten fingers, ten toes, and then flip the baby over and pray for no tracing on the blue spot. Don’t misunderstand, my girl; the mark is not bad. It just makes life more…well, just more. Each of us marked ones has a power, a special talent. It might not show itself right away but it will. You’ll probably know what yours is by the time you read this, but it may take your entire lifetime to understand it. I am almost seventy years old and still learning about mine.

Dearbaby, I’m beginning to feel guilty. You’ve been here for three months, and I still cannot decide on a first name for you. I’ve been calling you Dearbaby, and it seems to fit—you are a sweet baby—but I need to give you a proper name. You’ll discover that naming is not one of my strengths. I am on my fifth cat named Cat though I call this one Cat Five. He doesn’t seem to mind. He’s a fat, lazy cat untroubled by anything except an empty food dish. He seems to like you. Even when you fuss and cry, he leaps into your bassinet with you. I’ve banned him from our bedroom though. It may be an old wives’ tale about cats stealing the breath of babies, but it doesn’t hurt to be extra careful.

I can’t believe how much my life has changed with you—me, an old spinster, became a mother overnight. I never even had a houseplant before you and only dared to have one cat at a time. It’s easier that way for me, as you will see. By the time you can read this, you’ll probably already know most of this, but I’m an old woman so this is my insurance. You need to know so much, and I’m forgetful.

Me, I can smell sickness and death. I was eight years old when I discovered this. We had gone to visit an auntie who lives at Six Nations, and as soon as I walked into her house, I smelled it everywhere—this overwhelming, putrid odour of rotting flesh, as if the walls were filled with hundreds of dead, decomposing mice. I screamed and ran outside. Once my mother quieted me down and I told her about the rotten smell, she explained. My aunt was dying of cancer. And, my mother told me, I was a marked one, and it seemed that I had just discovered my talent. She said that as if it was something to celebrate. I was lucky, I had a secret power. But I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to smell death.

Much later, I grew to appreciate my talent, and I became a nurse, even wished I could go to medical school until I realized I couldn’t bear to tell people they were going to die. For me, once I smell a person’s sickness, even if it’s a complete stranger, I feel such tenderness and love. I can’t help it. Even if we don’t know each other, our relationship is more intimate than you can imagine, and that sick person becomes very dear to me. It’s as if that person has told me her deepest, most guarded secret, something never before shared with anyone else. All I want to do is to love and protect that person as fiercely as a mother would a child.

Just so you don’t think I’m completely provincial, know that I have travelled the world. I’ve seen war up close. I have fallen in love countless times, with both men and women. A person’s strengths and weaknesses are never more obvious than when death looms. I’ve never really coupled up, or had children, or even lived with anyone besides my parents and my sisters and an occasional cat. I couldn’t. Being close to people, physically close, is hard for me. Long ago, I accepted the fact that being a marked one meant a different life. I figured I would always live alone, forever to be that crazy ole rez auntie in the lonely little cabin by the creek.

But then you came. They left you with me when your mom died because your dad still hadn’t turned up and plus, she’d named me as your guardian. No one argued about it, although my sister, who is your grandma, looked like she wanted to beat me about the head with a stick. She has since succumbed to her grief, crying by day, gambling by night, just like in a story, and I imagine she will eventually come for you. Until then, I will care for you. I never knew I had missed this. Motherhood, I’d always imagined, was mostly a burden. But I didn’t know it also was this.

I never knew I wanted to kiss a baby hundreds of times in a day, I never knew I could sit for hours just holding you while you sleep, inspecting your tiny, perfect features and smelling your fresh baby smell. I never knew I could feel the urgent power of a mama bear, ready to claw my way through the body of any threat, or the time-stopping joy I could feel from simply seeing you smile. I never knew this kind of love could transcend time and space and make me feel limitless. Your happy essence spread throughout the universe like the light from the celestial tree, filled with everything from hope to despair, a joy like no other, plus the deepest trust and deepest fear. My caretaking before had mostly been for those whose lives held no more potential, whose paths were leading them to death, and this kind of love was always a pitiful, doomed sort of love. You, Dearbaby, have changed all this.

Your mom must’ve thought I was the best person to help you with your talent since I’m known as something of a family expert. Although, the label of expert is a trapdoor. It doesn’t always mean what you think, and falling through can be dangerous. I still haven’t figured out how it is that your mom couldn’t save her own life. Her talent was to see into the future. And yet, she died of ovarian cancer the day you were born. You didn’t even have the chance to nurse, really. What’s strange is that I never even smelled her sickness until the day she died.


You are the most amazing baby in the world. I’m sure all new mothers think this, but I have good reason: I’ve discovered your talent. What a shame your mom isn’t alive to see this. She would have been so proud of you, Dearbaby.

I had been getting a little worried because I smelled sickness in our house. And it was strong, nearly at the highest level. I have a system to rank illnesses and with impending death, I can even predict, with about ninety-percent accuracy, how much time, in weeks and sometimes days, the dying one has left. I first learned I could do this when I was a young nurse in the Korean War. In the beginning, I was off by weeks but I diligently took notes, tracked my predictions, worked out the kinks, and eventually I improved my score. It was the only way I could make sense of that thing, the war. That war, by the way, was the only time I took a true chance at love, but I learned to never do that again.

He was Indian too, but not from here. He was a Lakota fellow who’d come in with simple injuries and he had the kind of presence that made you swoon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and movie-star handsome. More than that, though, he had these eyes that looked at you with kindness, but also a dash of mischief, and a crooked smile that made your stomach flutter. We talked and laughed and cried through the nights. We flirted through the days. I don’t know if it was because I was so homesick but time with him made me feel like everything was going to be okay. Being with him felt like home. I didn’t have to explain things to him. I felt safe. I felt loved. When Lance asked me to take his hand in marriage, I agreed before my inside voice had a chance to protest.

An army chaplain performed a quick ceremony to hold us over until we could have a real wedding. I know. It’s a dumb romantic story, and who knows, maybe my old broken mind is making this up to soothe myself, but I remember marrying that beautiful, kind-hearted man and feeling on top of the world, war-zone be damned.

We had one glorious night together. And the next morning, he succumbed to some unforeseen heart condition. I never even smelled it coming. If I had paid better attention, maybe I could have warned the doctors. Maybe I could have saved Lance. I’ve always wondered whether it was my fault, maybe entangling his body into mine that night is what cost him his life. Maybe all my carrying of everyone’s death and sickness somehow poisoned the man I loved. After Lance, I decided never to let someone in again. Never, until you. Ahh. I’ve never told anyone about Lance before, but you might as well know that I’m not a complete spinster.

I never, ever talked about how I knew these things, not even to Lance, because we marked ones should never fully reveal ourselves. Nevertheless, the doctors depended on me when the wounded came in—who to treat first, who wasn’t worth the energy. Choosing which soldiers got a fighting chance exhausted me, but I kept telling myself that sometimes it takes the sacrifice of one life to save another. There is only so much healing energy, and so many doctors in a battle zone, to go around. Sometimes, no matter what you do, some won’t survive.

When I smelled traces of death in our home, I took you to the doctors at the clinic for checkups almost every week. I could barely admit it to myself, but the tainted scent told me the sick one only had about two months left. I was terrified it was you.

“Symptoms? She doesn’t have any, but I’m sure she’s sick.” I didn’t think to make something up. They were nice enough, and took your temperature and examined you, but they looked at me with a raised eyebrow and sent us home with brochures on parenting.

I thought I was going batty. Maybe all those years of smelling death had taken its toll and made my senses haywire, but then I noticed that Cat Five looked rather thin all of a sudden. I took him to the vet, and when she told me the cat had a tumour in his stomach and should be put down, I nearly whooped with relief and joy. She shot me the same raised eyebrow they gave me at the clinic.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m one of those people who laughs when she means to cry.” The vet sent me home with Cat Five and said to take my time saying goodbye. She figured the cat had a few more pain-free weeks.

By the time I got Cat Five home, I did start to feel sentimental. He was the best cat I’d ever had, and I’d grown quite fond of him. Besides, you and he seemed to get on so well, and you’re so smart that I knew you would notice his departure and would deeply feel his loss. So, I lifted the bedroom ban and let him sleep in the bassinet with you. You loved it! You cooed at him, grabbed at his fur, and slept with your chubby little arm between his paws. Cat Five seemed to love it too. He gained weight and didn’t seem to be feeling any pain. I took him back to the vet a few weeks later to be put down, and the stunned doctor gave me the news. Cat Five’s cancer was completely gone. It was my turn to flash her the raised eyebrow.

That’s when I realized it. You, Dearbaby, have the power to heal. To be certain, I experimented. I brought you a dying plant, an injured bird, and a cousin’s feverish four-year-old. All three of them got better. Instantly. As soon as your tiny, perfect fingers touched them, I smelled that they’d been healed. No more sour, stale odours. Instead, they gave off the most intensely delicious scents. Nothing smells better to me than health—it smells like a fresh rain on a clover meadow, or violets you’ve accidentally crushed under your picnic blanket, or roasted marshmallows over a campfire, or freshly baked bread, or coffee brewing when you’re still snuggled in bed, or the pages of a brand new book. You made them smell like those magnificent things, like the incenses of life.

Then I took you into the nursing home where I used to work. Same results. But I noticed that with each healing you seemed to be more tired. You started to sleep all the time, like when you were a newborn. You kept your eyes closed, eyes that you used to keep open, even when you could barely stay awake, because you were afraid of missing something. I played with you, tickled your belly, made funny faces, and you dutifully opened your mouth, but the quick smile that used to come, didn’t. Then, I began to smell it again, the moldy, decaying smell of sickness. I wished for your mom to be here, so she could see into our future and tell me what I should do.

Perhaps it’s because you are so young, so small and vulnerable, but healing others seems to be making you sick. I’ve decided you can’t afford to heal yet. You need your energy to grow. I have bandaged your hands with gauze to prevent your fingers from touching anyone who is sick. I can’t allow you to give away your strength with any incidental healing, so I’m going to keep you at home, alone with me. I am so afraid, more than I’ve ever been before, even in wartime. I can’t bear the thought of losing you.


The odour is overwhelming. It reminds me of the first time I smelled death at my aunt’s house. I’m confused, though. You, with your ever-bandaged hands, are getting stronger every day. You’re laughing again, more alert and perceptive than ever before. Maybe you’re sick but you’re healing yourself so quickly your scent hasn’t caught up yet. Or maybe my powers are plain off. Why not? After all, everything else in my body is deteriorating; my mind is not as quick as it used to be, I have aches and pains I never used to have, I can’t eat or sleep like I used to, and my reflexes are slow. I suppose that’s all part of getting older.


I am so stupid. It’s me. What I smell, that nauseating odour of decay, is my own death. I smell it when I’m in bed or in the kitchen or in the bathroom, whether you or Cat Five are with me or not. I smell it in the garden and in the woods and when I’m in town getting groceries. I can’t escape it, that awful, heavy, hundreds of dead, stinking mice in the walls kind of odour. It’s as if all my years of smelling death have infected my own body. You can’t spend a lifetime looking for something and not expect to eventually find it at home. Or to have it find you. The thing is, I never even considered that I would smell my own death coming. All my life, I’ve been so immersed in the suffering and sickness and dying of other people that I had forgotten about my own, forgotten about the eventuality of it. And now, I have so little time left to live. Less than a day, I’d say, if my system still works.

I think I understand now what happened to your mother. She must have seen how sick she would become and the power you would have. She must have known that as long as you were inside her, you would hold off the cancer. I’m guessing she saw that I would need healing, and she hoped our connection, besides saving my life, would help us both put our powers to the best use. But what she didn’t see was that I would take so long to understand. She should have told me.

I should have asked.

It’s too late now.

As I said, many things have happened here at Barren Creek, and we did nothing. What if we had looked after—and by this, I mean properly “looked after”—our neighbours? In the language, the old language, the verb “to raise children” is something akin to the English one “to look after.” Except in Seneca, it’s not as simplistic. It holds layers of meanings. As you would expect, it means to watch over or to take care of someone, with the idea of loving, nurturing, protecting. It also means to look, to physically look, at someone or something with your eyes the way you look at your child’s first step. And it means to look like, as in to resemble someone. Another nuance of the verb has to do with time and history, although no linguist today would ever admit it. To look after suggests looking at something that comes behind you. This can mean the past. And the future. Everything you do in the present moment of looking after someone is inextricably linked to both the past and the future. Everything. This is probably the most important aspect of the word for us in Seneca, though it has since been lost. I’m grateful to have remembered this.

This morning, I unbound your hands, your sweet Dearbaby healing hands, and pressed your tiny, perfect fingers against my lips. I can’t help but cry at the thought of how different things could have been, with your mother, with me. I feel sorry for myself, not because I’ll be dead soon—I’m prepared for that, and frankly, have lived long enough—but because I will miss your growing up. I feel sad for you, my Dearbaby. You will have lost two mothers in your eight short months. But, my beloved, you are a marked one, you have more extraordinary powers than any of us, and you will make a marked difference in the world. I am taking you, with this journal, to my sister, your grandmother, with the hopes that she will raise you in a new Destroytown family tradition, one where people share their powers to create more in the world rather than less, where people use their powers to look after one another.

Gretchen Potter is a writer, educator, and citizen of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation from western New York State. She lives in Southern California with her three children, three cats, and a flock of chickens. You’ll find her fiction in Room Magazine, About Place Journal, and The Hopkins Review. Gretchen has received fellowship support from Tin House, American Short Fiction, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Key West Literary Workshop, the Barbara Deming Foundation, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and the Elizabeth George Foundation, as well as residencies from Hedgebrook, Storyknife, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She’s completing a linked story collection about the chaos that follows when a Seneca tribe wins a major land claims case. Her debut picture book is forthcoming from Lee & Low Books in 2025 and her next project is a novel—an intergenerational family epic narrated by a stolen cigar store Indian statue.

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