Hey readers! I've been MIA, I know. It's because of the MFA, not be confused with Mark's MBA, or his CFA. I'm applying to about 8 schools for my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. It's been consuming!! I will blog more about it, but I wanted to post my writing, in case anyone out there in cyber space wanted to read one of my latest pieces, and give feedback on it. Be honest. I have a lot to lose. =)
My right leg grew numb right before the sun descended. We have been walking for almost eight hours, Nalih in the cradleboard, Sicqueyah by my side. Their father, my husband, Chief Junaluska, is leading us back to our home, back to the land of the blue mist. Months ago, the white men came into our village, hollering and waving their guns. We had been holding our breath, hoping that moment, foretold through the anxious whispers of the elders, would never come. For many years, it looked like it would not, especially after the court of the white man recognized our nation and our people as sovereign. When that happened, my people rejoiced and planted their corn, thanking the Great Spirit for provision. But I felt the earth shiver. The animals chattered and gossiped nervously as they collected their winter stores. And then one night, the white men, angry and frightened themselves, fired shots, and growled orders. Their message was one of peace, but their distorted faces shone with hatred. They had come to lead us towards the setting sun, to a land of promise and plenty and pasture. But we already live in that land, and we call it sha-cona-ge, land of the blue mist.
And now, we are walking back. As soon as Junaluska was able to mobilize enough of our people, we left Nunna daul Tsuny, "The Trail Where They Cried." Even though the soldiers knew he was plotting something, their eyes spoke of the collective fear of Junaluska. Their words cloaked my people, keeping them warm with lullabies of submission and false hope, yet they would not look at Junaluska. "The punishment that awaits a deserter is death of the whole family, and the organizer will be the one to kill!" they would yell to the wind whenever they trotted past us. Further up the line, I would see those same soldiers speak in mockingly soft tones to the broken, telling them of the glory of the land in the West. They did not want our people to break entirely, because deaths and burials slowed down the entire procession. I believe they just did not want to hear our people wail, mourning their dead. I have lost count, but I think that more than 1,000 have frozen, starved, or drowned since we started. Many of my people have lost their spirit. Junaluska is not afraid though. He was not afraid when he stormed a fort defended by many Creek, even though they outnumbered his warriors. He was not afraid when the lone wolf with wild eyes came into our camp and sidled up to Sicqueyah, quietly enticing him to follow, to be dinner. No, Junaluska is of the AniWaya, Wolf Clan. He looked that beast in the eyes, deeply, in a language that transcended human understanding, and Sicqueyah and I watched the animal back away, as if under a spell. I am AniGatogewi, Wild Potato Clan. We are keepers and protectors of the earth. I do not speak wolf.
We are told that the people who left before us fared much worse. The soldiers of the white man's nation have been so ignorant of survival in these parts, especially in the winter, that many of our people are dead. So John Ross, the Chief of our Nation, pleaded with white men to let us lead ourselves, but this has proven unbearable as well. So we escaped in the moonless night, without the notice of our leader, Jesse Bushyhead. He is a young man, one of the Paint Clan, but a man of the Christian god, and many do not trust him. I see in his heart that he wants to do well in the sight of my people, his people, and I know he is good because he still calls us Aniyunwiya, the principle people, when the white men are not near. White men call us Cherokee. That is what the Creek have named us, and Creek are our bitter enemies. Jesse pleaded with us as we walked, begging us to consider the land and the freedom we would have in our new home. But we no longer believed him, so we ceased listening. Someone usually started singing, first low and long notes, and then the rest of us joined in, and our voices grew together, until no one was distinguishable from another, and the song was loud and sharp, like our pain.
Now, we do not have to listen to Jesse Bushyhead. The only sounds are our feet, shuffling from fatigue, our teeth clacking from cold, and our babies, wailing because they are hungry. Though it is winter, we have little covering because of the abruptness of our departure. The white men dragged us out of bed, leaving many grasping for furs and coverings and understanding. I was able to take the cradleboard, so Nalih is warm, but the rest of us have just our cabin moccasins - thin, worn, and out of place in this rocky terrain. Though Nalih cannot feel the sting of cold, she feels the pang of famine. Though we have escaped, we still must retrace our journey back to the land of the blue mist, and through the unfamiliar territory that is the the space between here and there. We are not nomads, and many of us are unaccustomed to foraging for meals. Our brave leader, Junaluska, is without his bow or arrow, and the fruit trees are bare. My husband says he will find fish, as soon as we cross the water. That should be soon.
“Tsi, my love,” Junaluska spoke softly into my ear. He had left Black Fox, Lnoli, at the front of pack, and fell into line with me, Nalih, and Sicqueyah. He slid his arm under my hair and cradled the back of my head in his palm. His strong hands held me as I relaxed my neck and closed my eyes. “You are tired. We will eat soon. I smell the river nearby, and I will catch enough for all fifty of us to eat.”
I looked ahead, to the strong men in front of us, and then glanced behind, my eyes lingering on the dozens of children too big for cradleboards, but too small to keep pace. I sighed. I am wife of Junaluska, of the fearless Wolf Clan. Junaluska, who didn’t seem to notice that when we married, he became part of Wild Potato Clan. Junaluska, who risked son, daughter, and wife, to live once again in the land of the blue mist, with its streams and hills and familiar woods. I could not say to him that this escape would surely bring death to our party of warriors and their families. I could not tell him that to catch and prepare and cook fish for fifty people would take almost an entire day. And that we must eat daily if we were to survive. I could not tell him, because he already knew. So I did not.
“Yes, tsi, my love. I am tired. But you are brave. Go, find the river with Lnoli and we will be right behind you.” Junaluska, posture strong and tall, looked straight ahead toward the horizon, but smiled a broad, toothy grin. He was fierce warrior, undaunted leader, but I knew my praise and support were the foundation for his success. I did not take this responsibility lightly. I felt his warm fingers trace down my back, and then go, as he left me to resume his position at the head of the line. Junaluska, the author of this escape, the protector of its fate.
It has been three days since Junaluska said he would find us food. The air is icy but dry, and there is not snow, nor stream, to be found to boil for water. The women have been gathering sumac berries, cattail roots, and wild onions, which is all we can gather in this strange land. We have set up a very basic camp, and some men leave each day in the early hours, to search for food. They cannot understand why game is so scarce in these woods. The rest of the men, those too weak to travel, spend the day tending the fire and making tools from rocks and fallen wood. The children have not fared well. We lost a girl yesterday, Tlaqua, daughter of Wesa. Junaluska feels personally responsible. He spent days trying to convince Wesa to escape with us. She was reluctant, because her husband was not with us. He was thrown in the stockades somewhere near home, because he tried to kill the man who dragged his daughter out of their cabin. Wesa has not spoken to him since the white men led him away, but she believe that he would follow the trail as soon as he could, to be with them, and she couldn't bear the thought of missing him. There was little energy, and less hope, as we buried the girl in a shallow grave. We did not have extra worn clothing to wear in mourning, nor the willow root we needed to carry out our customs for those who have passed, but Wesa is doing her part, and has cut off her hair and does not stop wailing. None of the women can console her; she won’t eat the meager rations we have. Junaluska’s furrowed brow speaks to us. He will not tolerate any more death.
Sicqueyah stands by my side and does not speak anymore. His eyes are dull and he sucks on his thumb so much that the skin is flaking off and I am fearful that he may suck down to the bone. His skin clings to his frame like a hide to a drum. I try to pull him close and share my heat, but I don’t know that I have any to spare. Nalih, on the other hand, is hearty, and though she cries occasionally, is content to mash sumac berries between her gums and examine the beads on her tightly bound cradleboard. I am wife of Junaluska, and they are children of Junaluska, so we must be strong. The other families look to us, to find some hope they may borrow, or energy they may feed off. I feel such pity for the women. Many are younger than me, and thankfully only a few have children, but they had just entered society as adults, with talents as weavers, tanners, farmers, and lovers. I watch their hands search for, gather, and prepare the little that we find, and I am saddened. I feel them wondering--I feel the trees throbbing with the question--I feel the men daring not ask, “What will happen when we return?” Will there be a society for us to re-enter? Did the Aniyunwiya hiding in the hills survive? There is no answer. But at least it is a better question than, “What will happen if we do not return?”
Junaluska arrived to camp at dusk on the third day with a buck. I did not ask how they were able to catch it, but I believe one of the men made a blowgun just yesterday. I am proud of the skills of my people. Many went to sleep while Junaluska, Lnoli, and I worked through the night and cleaned the buck. The two men spoke in hushed voices, while I pretended not to hear. They had seen men on horseback. White men. Perhaps just hunters, or perhaps they were looking for deserters. The weight of this thought was crushing, so I threw my efforts into preparing the buck. I knew it would feed us all, and the hide would keep some warm. This could be what we need to make the return journey home. The men’s voices rose, and Lnoli told us that before we escaped, we had been walking on the trail for seven weeks, which means it should take us seven weeks to return home, but Junaluska thinks he can lead us back in fewer. The white men took us the long way. Junaluska will take us the right way.
Spirits were high when my people awoke the next morning. Lnoli fell asleep as the sun rose, but the stew he prepared for the morning, with our wild onions and tubers from the cattail, and now with the meat, was nourishment to both body and soul. The women spent the morning carving bowls and utensils from the antlers and hooves, while the men made more blow-guns and prepared the hide of the buck. No one spoke of the party on horses the men had seen the day before. Sicqueyah is still lethargic, and though he sipped some broth, he refuses to eat. His hair began falling out in small clumps the day before, and he no longer stands by my side. He sits in front of the dancing fire, looking through it, and sometimes I wonder its movement speaks to him, tells him things he dare not repeat. His thumb turned red and purple, and I had one of the young men dig some goldenseal to treat the now-festering wound. Sicqueya does not sleep at night anymore, but instead plants himself before the fire, trancelike. I try not to sleep, so that he won't be so alone, but fatigue engulfs me. When I awake in the inky blackness, I pick him up and pace the fire, holding him with my hip, singing low, sweet songs, while I pray to the Great Spirit, and the God of Jesse Bushyhead, just in case they are not the same.
Junaluska watches us from afar. He will not come near our boy, and I think it is because he senses a Spirit of Death. Junaluska’s brother died when he was just three years old, the same age as Sicqueyah, and I fear there may be a Spirit afflicting our family. But Junaluska would not say this, because he is Wolf Clan. Strong warrior. Leader of this escape back to the land of the blue mist, and he has promised that we will all make it. When we return to the hills, he says, we will force the white man off our land. He reminds us of President Andrew Jackson’s words to him, words that Junaluska took as promise. The Great White Chief told him that as long as the grass grows and the sun shines, they would be friends, and our people would have a home in the hills. He reminds us that he saved the Chief’s life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and that when he speaks to President Andrew Jackson about this, we will be farmers, and hill singers in our little corner of Big Cove once again. So I choose not to remind Junaluska, fearless warrior, that his own name means “One Who Tries but fails.”
We have smoked and dried the meat, raised the spirits of our company, and are half way to the hills, Junaluska says. Sicqueyah has made no improvements, but he has not worsened. Nalih has spoken several words, like agi'a, eat, and tsi, love. Her spirit is strong. She will be a fighter like her father. I have begun to smell the sweat of Spring through the soil’s pores. I can see the trillium, the lady slipper orchids, and the bloodroot thrusting their heads into the world after a long winter’s nap. Lnoli has seen fox tracks, and the strong young men claim to sense bear. The soles of our feet are so calloused that I hardly notice a change in terrain, but today I felt the distinct squish of a thawing earth. Just as the crust of our land is breaking up and making room for life and growth, so I feel our hearts are too. We are no longer afraid of what may be when we reach our hills. Junaluska daily weaves tales of how Aniyunwiya conquered bear, moutain, and eagle. Our people feel empowered, re-connected, safe.
My husband is a great story-teller, but I noticed he did not include the legend of Kanati and Selu, husband and wife who daily provided ample food for their family, only to be sacrificed by the gods, because their greedy children tried to learn the secrets of their provision. Selu’s final words to her daughters pronounce their grim fate. In order to eat again, the girls must drag their mother’s dead body around the earth to scatter corn seeds and produce a crop.
Sicqueyah does not hear his father's stories, but he hears fire. I watch him when the men stack wood at dusk. It is the only time he moves. Sicqueyah rocks gently near the fire pit, with his head between his knees, and thumb in his mouth. He will not look up until the crackle of the fire drowns out the voices of the camp. And then, the only place he looks is up. His eyes anxiously follow the smoky tails that float into the night. The blaze cries out, but I do not speak fire.
I cannot find Sicqueyah. I cry for Junaluska but he does not answer. Thick smoke fills my lungs and chokes me.
The fire smolders and it is dark. I hear Nalih’s cries somewhere in the distance. Bodies of young Aniyunwiya warriors are strewn about me. A horse, bleeding from its stomach, twitches behind the fire pit. I feel the side of my face, and pull away a hand tainted with warm, sticky blood. My head throbs. I pull my body upwards, but I can only manage enough strength to raise to my knees. The stench coming from the fire gags me, but I am drawn to the glowing red embers. An elbow and some melted skin point to me, and what’s left of the arm, makes a triangle. Arm ends in balled fist. Next to skull. Sicqueyah.
White man. I hear Selu.