Tuesday, March 23, 2010

2010 R. Darryl Fisher Creative Writing Contest -- First Prize in Fiction

by Nikki Peterson (Norman North)

It was a bitter cold night, but my husband and I’d disposed of our blankets after those first few cases of pox appeared. Folk wouldn’t listen to us about it, though whenever they complained of the cold I’d remind them of the dreadful hot summer we spent in the camps, of the mosquitoes and the stench. People have forgotten a lot of things since our lives were all cast into disarray, and seemingly they’ve forgotten how to revere the advice of an old woman, too. But I didn’t live to this age by accident.

The boy who’d interrupted my firelight sewing shifted from foot to foot, jaw tight as a snare. “I was told you have a knack with medicine and herbs. I want you to take a look at my mother.”

“There are doctors with the wagon train, doctors with full equipment and medicines and such,” I pointed out, because I felt I ought to.

He grimaced. He was tall enough to be around fifteen but his face didn’t have that angular gauntness that the men’s all have – he looked hungry in the way children do, big empty eyes eating up his face. “White doctors. I wouldn’t trust them with a dog. I want you to do it.”

I understood that. I certainly wouldn’t want those men poking and prodding at me the way they did with their bayonets that first morning when they came to our homes. I’d been having enough frightful dreams lately, of standing naked while parts of my body were sold off as food, of purplish pale faces vying for the best bits just like they did with our land. What spirit was foolish enough to think those dream signs would help me, I can’t fathom – I already knew full well I was in danger.

I stood up and went to fetch my bag of herbs. “Take me to her. I’ll do what I can. What’s your name, child?” His shoulders went even stiffer and I quickly regretted calling him that. Even in the face of all this weariness and dying young people are touchy.

“Wasatuna,” he said gruffly, and strode into the darkness without so much as looking me in the eye. I followed, praying the Great Spirit wouldn’t give me a dying woman tonight. If there’s anything worse than marching on through all this sickness it’s leaving our relations’ bodies behind us in unfamiliar soil.

They were among the first few Cherokee families to be rounded up for removal. Their summer house didn’t look ready to be abandoned; most of their things were still inside, the open door a gaping mouth frozen in mid-sentence. The glare of the sun gave a hard, stony cast to the white soldiers’ sallow faces. Bayonets flashed like silver fish.

The family was silent as they were marched from their town at gunpoint except for the baby. The woman pressed it firmly against her as it wailed. Her eyes were sharp pinpoints of reflected light in the shadows suspended like dark curtains from her brow. The soldiers watched the man and his grown son suspiciously; they moved like restless horses. The boy in his early teens did not shake, but seemed full of tremors.

The day grew late and their feet grew tired. Abruptly, the woman sat down on a log and started to undress the squalling baby; its cloth had to be changed. The soldiers stared at her. She sat straight-backed and looked at no one, her mouth firm.

One of the three white soldiers that accompanied their group came and stood over her, barking what was clearly an order. She ignored him, her hands unhurried. He took hold of her upper arm and repeated the order. Without looking up, she tried gently to pull away.

As the second soldier brought the horse whip, the third raised his gun to warn the two men, who had made sudden motions. The boy stared, his eyes shining darkly like frozen leaf litter. The woman covered the baby with her body, clenching her jaw; but the soldier who’d grabbed her raised his hand. The two of them grabbed her by the arms – she struggled to keep hold of the baby – and pulled her over to the horse, then started to force her on. As they raised her onto the horse’s back it shuffled nervously to the side. Everything wobbled for a moment, the vibrations of a war drum; then the baby dropped, landing on its head several feet away. It didn’t cry anymore.

Everyone stared mutely.

And then the man called Tsali and his son had wrested the gun from the third soldier. Tsali struck him across the head with the butt, his face strangely contorted, and he fell. As soon as the woman had seized the baby’s lifeless doll body and scrambled away, the other two men were shot.

And then everyone was running.

Wasatuna’s mother, Awenasa, had pneumonia. It didn’t appear as bad as I was afraid it might be. She was awfully thin, but so were we all. Her eyes were faint dots of light in circles of shadow like charcoal smears. Her coughing made me wince in sympathy.

“You’ll want to give her boneset tea,” I told Wasatuna, looking through my bag, “And white pine to help with the coughing…”

The woman lying on the blanket turned her head toward me slowly, the rest of her not moving.
“You can speak to me directly,” she told me, her voice thick with phlegm. “I may be an invalid, but I am not deaf.”

You see what I mean about people forgetting what respect is due an old woman! I paid her no attention, just asked Wasatuna for a pot to brew tea in. He nodded and went to get it. He and the woman never looked at or spoke to each other, yet I had some odd feeling that they were privy to some nasty secret about me, or they were having a conversation I couldn’t hear.

The white man looked the Cherokee man over, appraising him like a nugget of gold. The Cherokee man stared over the white man’s shoulder in the direction of the glowing horizon.

“You know the area,” the interpreter said to Euchella. Colonel William S. Foster rubbed his nose and chin as he resumed speaking.

“You know the habits of these people. If you and your band were to track down these fugitives, we would be willing to… overlook your continued residence here.”

Euchella unconsciously shifted on his feet, feeling the earth underneath. Slowly, he nodded. “I even know what they look like. Tsali, his son Nantayalee – I know them.”

As we waited for the water to boil, I tried to get the sullen boy to speak to me. “Is she your only relation here?” I asked quietly as he stared into the fire. Flames twisted across his big empty eyes. He nodded.

“Was it that way when you first left?”

He didn’t say a word. He didn’t even move. I can’t abide silence, especially when I need talk to distract me from the cold chilling my insides and stiffening my joints. I was about to start humming when he finally spoke.

“I’m tired of knowing my bones are going to be buried in some place I don’t know.”
“Don’t speak like that,” I told him, “It does you no good.”

He brooded for a moment. “My bones aren’t even my bones anymore. I’m not anything anymore, not without a place to go back to.” He rested his bony elbows on his thighs, a scraggy stray dog of a boy. I’ve seen people do this before, get so listless with misery that they don’t care if they make a cursed bit of sense or not.

“Yes you are,” I told him. “You’re your mother’s son.” I could feel the woman’s half-open eyes on us from the other side of the fire. Flames crackled in the quiet.

I fidgeted about with my bag. “For every disease, there is a cure, you know,” I told Wasatuna. “For every sickness that enters the world, the plants will make a medicine for it. They help keep the balance, help keep suffering from overwhelming the world.”

He actually smiled, a scornful little twist of the mouth, but still a smile. “It’s too bad that we haven’t found them all, then.”

I thought of the pox, and of summer in those festering, disease-ridden camps. “Mayhap where we’re going we can find a few more. Shorten the list.”

Tsali and his family met Euchella’s band willingly, with trust, expecting to be given aid. And then the guns came out.

The fugitives were bound and blindfolded. The hands that ushered them through the blackness were gentle but impassive, like the hands of doctors. The ground seemed to tip wildly beneath their feet, a world that had lost all balance. They were all forced to kneel in a row. And then –
“No! No. They just want the two men. Spare the woman and – no, he’s only a child! – spare the boy.”

The woman and her son were pulled away, their bodies limp and slow to respond. There were two shots.

When they took the boy’s blindfold off afterward, he seemed not present. His big, empty eyes, staring at nothing, seemed to devour his face.

“One more thing I want you to remember – it does you no good acting forsaken. However bad this gets, as long as the sun lives in the east and the moon in the west, the Great Spirit will know you as one of our people, depend on it.” He hadn’t taken to any of my reassurances so far, but I hated to give up on him. It wasn’t right for a youth to be so morose, not even in times like these.
He shook his head, mouth all twisted. “If that was ever true, it isn’t anymore.” I must admit I was getting impatient with the poor young man. “I hate to think what you must have lost to make you feel that way. But, seeing as you’ve no wish to discuss it, I’ll leave it be.” I gave him my herbs. “Don’t think you’re rid of me yet. I’ll want to keep watch over your mother. This forced marching will not be easy on her.”

He nodded. Then, thanking me, he pressed my hand awkwardly in his before he turned away.

As the old woman left, the boy sat on his haunches in front of their fire. The orange light tinged his body’s outline like the edges and slopes of a red stone hill under the moon, the sole distinct form in a blind landscape of leaden black.

He and his mother looked at each other without words, faces hard. Their eyes were the starving eyes of stray dogs; they looked sick with the ceaseless trembling and tilting of the world beneath them, which had continued since the day of the firing squad. Around them the plants withered in the cold, those that had not been already trampled by the masses of displaced people with winter chills curdling in their bellies like wriggling silver fish.

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