The old man tongued the glue of sleep on his lips. It dampened the dried spittle enough for Tsani Waya to rub the white crumbling, clay-like crust into little strings with his fingers. It was time, he thought. Time. Today. A good day to die.
He wiped his fingers on his shirt and pushed the covers to the side, worming himself from the comfort of his feather mattress and the nest of woolen blankets that smelled of wood smoke and sweat and midnight bed blossoms.
He sighed and shuffled across the cold wooden floor to the ancient wood stove. He grew up with that stove, his mother cooking on it, heating water, warming the cabin. The fire had burned out but he had stoked it well the night before and the cast iron was still warm. Retrieving the porcelain percolator from the top of the stove, he poured the last of the coffee into a cup stained with crackled caffeine web feet and swished the tepid black liquid between his teeth, washing away the bitter taste of black oak and dried yellow root that had leached from his belly during the night.
Carefully placing the cup on the table, he looked around at the clutter. He saw what they would they see, the ones that would come, the ones that always came when someone died on the Cherokee Indian reservation. Not a lot, really. It was what he needed, the wood frame bed with sleep-worn quilts, the painted kitchen table with the top covered in linoleum curling at the edges, the army trunk with the rusted hinges, the pine shelves where he kept his blankets and clothes and stored the mason jars of corn and beans and pickled cucumbers, and there, near the stove, the rocking chair.
Handmade it was, the rocking chair. His finest work. Native black oak from the Appalachians, strong, sturdy. Cut with sweat and blood. Soaked with man soup. Aged like Grandfather Mountain until the wood turned hard, as hard as iron.
The rocker stood out in the muddle. A thing of beauty in the middle of the clutter of life. He found it mildly amusing that a simple thing like life could create so much muddle. He thought about straightening things a bit but decided to leave it be. If he cleaned everything now, no one would recognize the place when they came to get his body.
He crossed the room and opened the only door, peering into the gray beyond the faint reflection of lantern light dithering on the porch. Soon, it would be dawn, the sun stirring and then lifting the blue haze burrowing into the Smokies, the ancestral home, the Smoky Mountains. His nose sucked in the damp blue fog and felt it burrow deep into his throat. The taste of tomorrow was already strong, the scent of night slipping away in the wisps of fog languishing over the thistledown dew.
An owl hooted and in the distance, a baby cried. Tsani was not surprised. He had expected the omen and now, he heard it for himself. He remembered the joke his grandfather had made about the baby crying in the forest. “Gohikikv kakvkovi,” he said softly, speaking in Cherokee. “Long time haven’t seen you,” Tsani repeated in English, respectfully, in case the English-speaking spirits were listening. One never knew, but there were stories. "Long time haven't seen you," grandfather had said, not in English, but Cherokee, and now, he, Tsani Waya, was repeating the words in both languages.
Just in case.
Tsani pulled on his old wool sweater that smelled of kanesga, the valley hay turning gold with age, and found a bite of cold chestnut bread wrapped in foil in one of the pockets. From Sunday a week, it was. Too old to eat now. He tossed the bread outside for the birds and dropped the lump of foil into the waste box. It was time to get ready, time to walk the eight miles down the mountain to the village and say goodbye.
Tsani Waya ruffled the long dark hair on his grandson’s head. “Tsanisana katsu.”
Hey, Poppa," Bobby said from under the hood of the old truck. "I didn't see you come up."
Tsani knew that Bobby had not seen him arrive because Tsani had seen that Bobby was doing something to the engine that Bobby thought was important. Tsani knew as only a father could know that Bobby was doing something that Bobby thought was important. "Well, you appear to be seeing me now," Tsani said in English.
“You know Charlie doesn’t understand Indian, Poppa,” Bobby said.
Tsani grunted. He suspected that his grandson didn’t understand Indian because no one thought it was necessary anymore. “He should be taught Cherokee,” the old man said to no one in particular. He looked back down at his grandson. “Tsali, where’s your grandmother?” he said again, in English but stressing Little Charlie’s Indian name.
The boy pointed in the general direction of the manufactured house that the family shared with Sue Wachacha, the maternal grandmother.
“You want something to eat, Poppa?” Bobby asked.
“No, I’m fine. I ate last night up at the cabin. Rabbit stew. It was good.”
“How’s everything up on the mountain?”
“Well, it was dry, but then it rained and everything got wet.”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard, too,” Bobby said. “You know, you might oughta think about maybe moving down a little closer to where we could take care of you if something was to happen.”
Tsani nodded. “Not much point in that now. I heard a baby crying in the woods last night.”
Bobby crunched his eyes, frowned and threw his rag into the gap between the engine and the front grill. “Aw, Poppa, you’re imaging things,” Bobby rolled his eyes. “That’s an old man’s tale.”
“Well, likely you hadn’t noticed,” Tsani’s eyes twinkled, “me being so handsome and all, but your old man is an old man.”
“Poppa, nobody believes that stuff anymore. Babies crying. It's nonsense. There ain’t no little people in the woods. They don’t capture a baby’s first cry out of the pouch and then keep it until sixty or seventy years later. And they sure don’t come calling to give it back to you when it’s time to put you in a basket in the ground. And no white man's going to die with you. Just wistful thinking, that's all. Trash talk. Urban legends. You can't take no white man to the grave with you when you die. Look at you, anyhow. You look as good or better than you did last time I saw you.”
“That’s true enough,” Tsani agreed, “but all the same, I thought you should know. You and Mary Ellen. And Sue. Had to come see her, too.”
“Ah, what’s the use?” Bobby shrugged. “Sue’s as crazy as you are. Haven’t you heard? Age happens. We get old. We don’t always feel ourselves getting old, but we do. It’s like getting hungry. Sometimes you don’t know you’re hungry until you sit down at the table. Oh, yeah, before I forget, speaking of hungry, Mary Ellen said to invite you for Sunday dinner. I sold one of my carvings, the owl with the broken wing. You remember it. Got a good price for it, too. Best yet, I’m thinking. Might even do another one. Mary Ellen’s fixing a big old ham. Pinto beans. Turnip greens. Fresh corn on the cob. Fry bread.”
“Tell Mary Ellen I’ll have to miss it,” Tsani said. “That owl you carved, it was good. I felt the spirit of the owl in the carving. I think you get it from my father, capturing life in the wood. So much work. An owl. A good owl, its spirit living in the wood. I suspect a rich white lady will buy the owl and it will have a good home. Still have to talk to Sue, though.” Tsani looked down at his grandson. “You know where Sue might be?”
“She’s on the back porch, grandpa,” Little Charlie said helpfully.
“Wado, Tsali,” Tsani smiled.
Bobby rolled his eyes and turned to his son. “Your grandfather is speaking Indian again. He said, ‘Thank you, Charlie.'”
“Wado, Qwa-qwa,” Tsani added.
Bobby rapped the engine block with a wrench. “Enough already, Poppa.” Bobby had said more than once that he didn’t need to speak Cherokee to be Cherokee. And he sure didn’t have to have some silly Cherokee name. “I’ve asked you not to call me that.”
“Qwa-qwa? It’s your name,” Tsani grinned at his son.
“It’s a bird’s name,” Bobby said derisively.
“Qwa-qwa is Cherokee for Robert,” Tsani whispered to Tsali. “It also happens to mean Robin. Your daddy thinks I’m naming him a bird, but I’m not. You have to say, tsi-tsi to make him a bird. Tsi-tsi-qua-qua. Now that’s a robin.”
Little Charlie grinned back, not quite understanding but certainly warming to the shared conspiracy between him and his grandfather that they shared a common adversary.
Tsani tapped the young boy on the shoulder, nodded and walked around the house, heading toward the back porch, a hint of a grin twitching the corners of his lips. He was thinking about this one night during the Fall Festival when he and Sue had secretly borrowed one of Henry Doublehead’s wool blankets and slipped off to where the new tourist village was being built. They managed to return it early the next morning without being caught, and later that same day, they spied Henry at the blowgun competition, wrapped up in the very same blanket.
“What are you laughing at, you old fool?” Sue interrupted from her rocking chair on the back porch.
“I was just remembering about that time way back when we borrowed old Henry Doublehead’s blanket from his clothesline to put on the ground so we wouldn’t have to wallow in the dirt, and how we snuck it back so he wouldn’t know what we did, and then he wound up wearing it the next day at the festival. He never did figure out what we used it for.”
“Foolishness,” she grumbled. “You’re too old for it and that’s all you can think about?”
“Well, can’t say I’m too old for it,” Tsani winked, pausing on the red clay at the foot of the steps. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t still be thinking about it. Might take a little longer, that’s all.” He took a deep breath. “Pretty basket you’re weaving.”
“Ski,” she said, using the informal Cherokee expression for thanks. “It’s for Homer. He bought Bobby’s owl, you know.”
“Yeah, I heard. Said he got a good price for it. The spirit of the owl will live for a long time in that carving." Tsani nodded his head. "I heard about that big old ham for Sunday dinner, too.”
“You want something to eat?”
“Didn’t come to eat. Come to say goodbye.”
“Where you off to?”
“It’s my time,” he said softly. “I won’t be coming down off the mountain anymore.”
“More foolishness,” she sighed.
“It's true, Sushani Wachacha. I was up early this morning, before the dawn. I could smell things, taste things, and I could see, see far like when I was a boy.” Tsani paused, watching the old woman in the cane chair rocking back and forth and weaving a basket from stained oak strips. “And I heard a baby cry.”
The rocking stopped. She looked at him, her eyes searching his face and then she nodded. She understood.
“Have you told Bobby and Mary Ellen?” she asked quietly.
“Mentioned it to Bobby. ‘Spect he’ll tell Mary Ellen, but you know how they are. Not much faith in the old ways.”
"Do you know which Yoni it will be?" Sushani was referring to how some of the shamans believed that whenever a Cherokee died, somewhere nearby, a white man also died in retribution for all of the crimes that the white man had perpertrated against the real people.
"Hahno," Tsani answered softly.
"I hope it's one of those yoni doctors up at the hospital. They make you wait something fierce and then don't even give you any herbs."
"Not my doings," Tsani said. "What is, is."
“Well, I’m not going to get up, Tsani Waya,” she said, “so you’re just going to have to come up here on the porch for a minute.” He did as she asked, bending over when she tugged his sleeve. She held her cheek for him to kiss and touched his face with her hands. “Osiqwu.” She blinked, irritated by the sprites in the corners of her eyes.
“Yes. All right.” The old man straightened and slowly climbed back down the stairs. “I’ll be fine.” He paused and looked up at her. She was so young and beautiful. Like that night on the blanket, naked in the mountain moonlight. “Tsohiyusesdi,” he said. “Goodbye, Sue. Noquu diquenvsv dagesi.” Yes, he was going home, now.
“Hawa,” she whispered. “Dodadagohvi.” Goodbye.
“It isn’t fair, Homer.”
The whinning voice belonged to a young man waving his arms and complaining to an older man at the back of the trading post. “I came to the reservation to set up a business and help the Indians, but so far, all I’ve done is spend mone. I'm like lard dancing on a hot skillet--working my tail off for next to nothing.”
Neither the young man with the whinny voice nor the older man with the bemused look on his face noticed Tsani Waya standing just inside the door of the ancient store. Since they were already talking when Tsani arrived, Tsani had remained silent. It was Cherokee custom. To intrude would be rude, even if they were white. He would wait until someone saw him and acknowledged his presence. Tsani didn’t know who the agitated young man was but Homer, the older man, was a friend.
“I’m going to go broke, I just know it.” The young man was saying.
“Around here, you can sure do that without half trying,” Homer agreed. “What’s happened to you now?”
“You know that Indian that shaves half his head and drinks all the time? Spud or whatever?”
“You mean the fellow they call Tater?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Can you imagine such a thing? Named after a vegetable. I though Indians were supposed to have animal names. You know, birds and sna,kes, not vegetables. And a root vegetable at that. Anyway, this Indian they call Tater comes in my store Wednesday with two handmade baskets. Both oak. Purple and green. Real nice for fall. So he wants a hundred for the pair and I try forty and we haggle back and forth for a while, and he finally takes fifty. Good deal for both of us, right?”
“It sounds all right to me, Bert.”
“Wasn’t all right at all. Next day, yesterday it was, three of the biggest bucks on this reservation come in and said they was T-T-Tater’s brothers and that they’d heard I bought some of their mother’s baskets from Tater, which she didn’t know nothing about and they wanted me to give them a hundred dollars for the baskets or else give them back the baskets.”
Tsani could see that Homer was having difficulty suppressing a grin as the younger man worked himself into a stuttering frenzy, stopping his tirade in mid huff only to suck in sufficient air to ramp up his rant a notch. “So I told them right up f-f-fr-front that I bought those baskets in good f-f-faith and that they had no call to talk me about something they ought to settle out with their b-b-brother.”
Homer coughed. “So then what happened?”
“You wouldn’t believe it,” Bert shook his head. “This big ugly one leans over the counter close enough that I could smell the wa-wa-whiskey on his breath and he says to me, ‘No, Mister F-F-Fontaine. If you gave T-T-Tater money, then you’re the one that has to get up with Tater. I think we’re gonna get momma’s baskets and let her decide who she wants to sell them to.’ I mean I had no choice, him being half-drunk and the other two probably crazy.”
“You gave them back the baskets?”
“D-D-Darned right, I did. I wasn’t looking to get sca-sca-scalped.”
“Oh, I don’t think . . ..”
“You didn’t see the way they were carrying on, Homer. Now, I’m out both the baskets and my fifty bucks.”
Homer shook his head and turned toward the front of the store to suppress a grin, his eyes lighting up as he spotted the old man standing by the door. “Johnny Wolf,” Homer smiled warmly. “Kaltsete.”
Although Homer Youngblood was white, he was one of the reservation’s own. Homer had come to the reservation fifty years earlier—he liked to say it was because of lust, which was likely true since everyone knew Homer had fallen in love with a local girl, an Indian girl, Tallulah she was called, named after the falls down in Georgia in what used to be Cherokee land. Before the white men stole it. Long time ago.
Tallulah and Homer married, and he was so much in love with her he decided to stay on Indian land and even learned to speak Cherokee. They bought an old, rundown trading post and worked on it day and night, fixing it up, getting it ready for the tourists. They stocked it with real native crafts—not the trinkets and baubles produced in factories and imported from the Indians’ slant-eyed cousins from across the sea. Real arts, actual crafts. That’s how they did it. They earned a name for themselves, selling only authentic Indian crafts. And they were the only trading post owners on the reservation that bought baskets and carvings in advance, on the come as it where, especially when someone needed money and trust to get through the winter.
“Kaltsete. Come in,” Homer repeated in English, making a point to come from behind the counter to grab Tsani’s hand. “You’re looking good, old man." Homer nodded toward the young man. "This here is Bert Fontaine. He bought the Red Chief trading post down the road. Meet Johnny Wolf, Bert.”
“You’re not selling baskets, are you?” Bert eyed Tsani nervously.
Homer shook his head. “Johnny, here, was one of the best hunters on the reservation before he retired to his cabin up on Rattlesnake. I sure sold a lot of Johnny’s bear claw necklaces over the years.”
“I’m pretty well stocked up on furs right now,” Bert said, heading for the door. “Claws, too. I’m going over to the council house to see the chief about those Tater brothers. There’s got to be something he can do about this.”
“There’s a fellow with a tightly strung bow,” Tsani grinned after Bert disappeared.
“Yeah, I give him about six months,” Homer chuckled. “Say, what brings you down off the mountain?”
“A man has to visit his old friends every now and then,” Tsani said. He knew he couldn’t tell Homer about him dying. Although Homer was about as near to being an Indian as a white man could get, whites could never understand the old ways. With Homer, he had to say goodbye by saying hello, and Tsani knew that tomorrow, Homer would understand today. Whites always understood today tomorrow, when they understood at all.
“I seem to think you might have down off the mountain to loaf around a bit,” Homer laughed.
“That’s what’s wrong with the reservation anymore. Loafing sure ain’t what it used to be,” Tsani grinned. “Time was when you could come down to the village, stand around a little, lie a lot, and look at a pretty girl or two. No more, though. Now, everybody’s in a hurry. Always rushing off somewhere. Nobody knows how to loaf anymore.”
“I guess you don’t see the young people hanging around like I do.”
“That ain’t loafing,” Tsnai disagreed. “No sir. That’s just plain lazy. There’s a lot of difference between being lazy and loafing.”
Homer’s eyes twinkled. “I suspect you have to be an Indian to know the difference.”
Tsani nodded and smiled broadly. “I suppose,” he said.
Col. Morris D. Whiteside, USA, Ret., personal affairs director, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, and currently assigned to Qualla Boundary, Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina, hated Fridays.
No matter how hard he tried, Col. Whiteside could never make it through a Friday without becoming upset. Indians needing rent money. Indians needing a check cashed. Indians needing food for the weekend. Indians needing a ride somewhere. Indian this, Indian that. Indians, Indians, Indians. Damned reservation was full of Indians and apparently, there wasn’t anything Congress could do about it.
He should have studied anthropology. There would still be Indians but the only ones he’d have to worry about were the dead ones.
The colonel climbed into the government car and lit a cigar. Martha, his wife, hated the smell of cigars and she even refused to let him smoke in his own house. He patted his pocket to make sure the Form 615-A was there. It was. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t chase after some senile old Indian, but Johnny Wolf hadn’t signed up for next month’s commodities and the super was worried about some investigation the senate was doing on the BIA’s treatment of elderly Indians. Damned if this didn’t happen every time the country elected a horde of liberals. Bunch of nit-huggers, those Demon-crats.
He sighed. Two more years and freedom. Double-dipping would pay off. He'd get both of his retirements and buy that restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, where there were no mountains and precious few Indians.
Pulling onto the highway, Col. Whiteside drove across the bridge and up Aquoni Road to the Yellowhill Community Center. Indian Joe had been hanging around the BIA office earlier and said that Wolf was at the center playing mumblety-peg. What was with Indians and knives, anyway? Every dang one of them had to have a knife. Even Johnny Wolf carried a knife. Wore it on his belt. The old fool would probably cut off one of his toes one of these days. Easing into a parking slot, Col. Whiteside spotted Danny Cucumber coming out of the building. “Hey, Danny,” he called.
The burley, black-headed boy ambled over to the car. “How you doing, Whitey?”
“Whiteside. It’s Whiteside,” the colonel scowled. "Colonel Whiteside."
“Oh, yeah. That’s what I said,” Danny said in wide-eyed innocence.
Indians always looked innocent, Whiteside thought. Some kind of trick they learned in the womb. That’s the way they came into the world, wide-eyed and innocent. Slap them on the butt and they even cried wide-eyed and innocent. “Listen, Danny. Is old man Johnny Wolf in there?”
“Well, he was.”
“What does ‘was’ mean?” Whiteside asked. He had traveled all over the world, but he had never met a race of people that could contort English like the Cherokee. How and why they did it was a complete mystery--probably had to do with the way their convoluted brains were wired. Patience, he thought. If he was going to get somewhere with this kid, he would have to be very precise. “Was he in there when you came out, or was he in there a while ago?”
“He was awhile ago.”
“Then he left?”
“What does that mean?”
“What does what mean?”
“Reckon. You said, you reckon. What did you reckon? Did he leave or didn’t he?”
“Didn’t see him leave,” the boy said, “but after a while, he wasn’t there, so I reckon he must have left.”
“Whiteside puffed his cigar. Innocent nit, he thought. “Do you happen to know where he went?” the colonel asked evenly.
“Well, I heard him say he was going up to Big Cove to see Cowanih. Course, he didn’t say when, just that he was.”
Whiteside sighed. “Did Wolf happen to mention anyplace else he might be going, or thinking about going, or maybe even someplace he wasn’t going?”
“No,” Danny said thoughtfully, “he didn’t say nothing about no place he wasn’t not gonna go. He did act kind of strange, though.”
The colonel pumped his cigar. Strange? Oh, that was rich. “What do you mean by strange, Danny?” he asked, knowing he was exposing his flank. Oh, what the devil? Two more years and he’d have his own Barney’s 50-cent Hamburger and Shake franchise. In Savannah. Far, far away from the reservation. And circle-talking Indians.
“He gave it all away,” Danny said.
“All what away?” His hair cringed. Or his brain. Or maybe it was his eyebrows scrunching into hairballs. One thing for sure, his mind warped in agony: Oh, Lord, take me to Savannah. A place where there are no mountains.
“All the money, ” Danny said.
“All what money?” Whiteside asked from the fog of Savannah. Far from the reservation. And precious few Indians.
Danny rolled his wide, black, innocent eyes. “Kinda funny, it was. I mean if you think about it. Mr. Wolf, he won a bunch of money playing mumblety-peg. I mean, he’s always been pretty good but this was about the best anybody’s ever seen. Everybody said that. Then he gave it all away. Every cent. Said he didn’t need money anymore.”
“Do you know what he meant by that?”
“He said something about him not needing money anymore, not with him dying and all.”
“He said he was dying?”
“Well, not exactly. He just said it had been preying on his mind lately, dying and all, and how this was as good a day as any to be dying, dying being the natural way of things and all. And all.”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, Danny. We’re all dying. Some of us are just dying faster than others.” Whiteside stopped himself. “Ah, forget what I said. Johnny was probably just talking. Anyway, thanks for your help". He shouldn’t have said it, but the words came out of his mouth before he could catch his tongue. "If you ever need anything, you let me know, you hear?”
“’S-all right,” Danny said, then adding, “Say, you know there is one thing.”
Whiteside flinched. He should have known. He instinctively felt his pocket for loose change. “What can I do for you?”
“Could you let me hold a dollar ‘til next week? Talking like this has given me a real thirst for a grape soda. Sure would be nice. I mean, we talked for a pretty long time.”
“That we did,” Whiteside said. He found four quarters and a dime, surrendered the change to the wide-eyed innocent, and headed for Big Cove road and Cowanih’s trailer. Maybe if the kid drank enough grape soda with all the corn syrup and calories, he'd get fat like most Indians. Diabetes. Jesus, what a thought. Bad. Diabetes. Number one killer of Indians. What the hell was he thinking?
Tsani found Cowanih stacking beer cans around the bottom of his trailer so Tsani sat down on the flat rock by the path and waited for Conwanih to finish. Conwanih wasn’t a real medicine man, not like the old ones who lived in the mountains, but he did know a lot and the tourists came every summer to buy his yellowroot and berry powder and listen to his tales. And he was Tsani’s oldest friend.
Cowanih carefully placed another can and turned to Tsani. “Siyo,” he said. Hello.
“Siyo,” Tsani nodded.
“Usihwa talugisgi eskvsi.”
Tsani looked down at his feet, spotted the empty beer can and passed it to Cowanih who added it to his stash. Cowanih liked to keep watch over his beer cans until he could turn them in for cash money.
“Utsetsdi tsiyadinvtanv usv tsigesv?i.” Cowanih mumbled when he was done.
Tsani smiled. Cowanih couldn’t even drive, much less run over a possum, so the medicine man had to be talking about some dream or the other. “Uhyvsdeda askaya tsa?sv tsikowhtiha.”
“I haven’t had a drink in three days,” Cowanih protested. “No, I forgot. I’ve slept since then. Make that two days. Do you want a beer?” Without waiting for an answer, he ducked into his trailer and reappeared moments later with two gleaming cans. “It was the biggest possum I’ve ever seen,” he said, “handing one of the cans to Tsani.
Tsani took the can but he didn’t open it. “Come, sit with me,” he said, waving toward an empty milk case nearby. “Usdi adlohyihv gatvgi?a.”
Cowanih sat down on the case and took a swallow of his beer, wiping his mouth with back of his hand as he took a few minutes to absorb what Tsani had just told him. “Do you hear the baby crying now?”
“Not right now,” Tsani said. “This morning. Up on Rattlesnake.”
Cowanih gazed at him thoughtfully, clutching the beer can with both hands. Slowly, he nodded. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. It’s the same as grandfather said.”
"And the Yoni?"
“All life is that. Usquanigodiyu. Mysterious. Until the dawn." Cowanih stared at the ground for a moment, thinking. "A fine man, your grandfather. A good man.” Cowanih straightened his shoulders. He looked at his beer.
“Wado,” Tsani nodded. “Thank you. I’d like you to speak for me, old friend.”
“Hawa,” the medicine man coughed. He paused, sucked in his breath, and then slowly, deliberately turned over his can. The remaining beer sputtered out, foaming, pouring onto the ground in a sparkling, splashing puddle of yellow that quickly turned red on the clay. “I’ll have to get ready,” he said. “Have to gather the woods. Seven different kinds. Of course, you know that. Plants. Much to do.”
From the road below, a car horn honked, a door slammed. Tsani watched the BIA man climb up the hill, the colonel puffing on a well-chewed cigar. It was amazing, Tsani thought, how the whites had taken to smoking and dipping and chewing. Tobacco was the Indian’s gift to the white man. It was truly a great gift.
Cowanih rose to his feet, set the empty beer can in its place with the others and headed for his trailer door.
“Johnny Wolf,” Whiteside huffed. “What’s this I hear about you checking out on us?” His eyes fell on the unopened beer can next to Tsani. “Oh, for crying out loud. As if we don’t have trouble around here without seeing you drink yourself to death.”
Tsani laughed. That was the first truly amusing thing he had heard all afternoon. It occurred to him that Whiteside might not understand today tomorrow at all. “It just happens to be my time,” Tsani said.
Whiteside damaged his cigar some more. “Tell you what, Johnny. I’ve got some papers for you to sign. It’s for your commodities for next month. We got new rules from Washington. Have to account for everything. The super says you’ll have to sign them if you want your food. Butter, flour, peanut butter, you know what all.”
“I won’t need commodities next month,” Tsani replied. “Give them to folks who can use them.”
“Can’t do that. Government says you have to take the commodities that are assigned to you, cheese and shortening and cornmeal, and you have to sign this paper. Gonna be some beans, too. Pintos. And sausage patties.”
“Does the government say I have to take the commodities if I’m dead?”
Fool Indian, Whiteside thought. Lord, what he wouldn’t give to be in Savannah, Georgia, right now. “If you don’t sign the papers, you’re going to starve to death,” the colonel sputtered.
“Seems like even the government ought to understand that a man can’t starve to death if he’s already dead,” Tsani said thoughtfully.
“Well, if you think you’re gonna die,” Whiteside said, “at least let me take you to the hospital.”
Tsani shook his head back and forth. He certainly didn’t want to go to the Indian Health Service Hospital. “No,” Tsani said, “seems like more folks go in there alive than what comes out.”
Col. Whiteside swallowed. “But you said you were dying anyway. So what’s the difference?”
“I was talking about dying,” Tsani said. “I didn’t a word about getting killed.”
Tsani was only a short distance from his cabin when he paused on the trail to rest. “Takiawega,” he sighed. He was tired. Old and tired. The full moon was silver white in the crisp darkening that marked the end of the day. He smelled the evening approaching in wisps of twilight soft as mist, felt tomorrow’s frost being born tonight. Hmm, he thought. Might even drop below freezing before dawn. Early this year.
The old things were coming back now, just the way grandfather said they would. The stories the old ones told, how the spirits in the mountains hear the cry of a newborn Cherokee baby, how they treasured and nurtured and held the sound in the heart of the earth through echoing summers of childhood and youth, keeping it safe as the baby grew older, to manhood and older, older still, until it came time for the old man to hear the baby cry again, his own voice, his own cry echoing, surrendered and returning at last, the circle closing, closing still, and then complete.
That was the joke that his grandfather had told. “Gohikikv kakvkovi,” in Cherokee. “Long time haven’t seen you,” in English. Birth and death, the baby and the elder, they were the same. He was the baby, then and now. To join the generations that came before and the sons and daughters yet to come, he must leave as he came, becoming once more the spirit of life.
Tsani heard the drums now, the soft rhythms rising gently from the mountains and valleys. He saw the young man coming down the trail from the cabin, skin brown against the bleached leather apron, moccasins tied snuggly around his feet, a bear claw necklace spaced with bits of beaver fur around his neck. Tsani nodded and he knew it was time. The young warrior was one of the Nunnehi, the Immortals.
“The drums are calling, grandfather,” the young man smiled warmly. “Do you feel like dancing?”
“My heart feels like dancing, but my feet are deaf,” Tsani said. “They’re too old to hear the drums.”
The Immortal laughed. “Come with me, grandfather. I’ll take you to the townhouse, to Nikwasi. Your grandfather is there and your father.”
“My father?” Tsani said slowly. “From the war?”
“Yes. He came home. All of your fathers came home. Come. Your mothers have prepared a feast. We’ll eat corn and fat deer, wisi cooked in bear grease, ramps, bean and chestnut breads. We’ll dance and tell stories.”
Tsani nodded and smiled. He was going home, to the mountains, to rejoin the clan. The Immortal and the old man walked up the trail together. To the mountain. Talking.
Col. Whiteside bent over and wiped the red mud from his boot with an old newspaper. Just his luck. Naturally, the ground had to thaw out today. “We ought to tear this place down after the funeral,” he muttered, scraping the last of the mud from his sole on the top edge of the step and climbing onto the porch. Everything smelled old. Filthy cabin should have been condemned years ago. At least he was getting out of another tedious Sunday harangue at the only Baptist Church within twenty miles.
“Are you about through in there?” he asked, staring through the open door.
The young, Indian Health Service doctor was leaning over the table, scribbling on a piece of paper. Tsani Waya was sitting in an old rocking chair, a faint smile etched on his face, eyes closed, his wrinkled hands clutching a hand-carved stone pipe. If it were not for the stillness, the sense of time frozen in some forgotten memory, the old man could have been asleep.
Whiteside shuddered. Amazing. The old fool just up and died. Just like that. Some kind of Indian trick. He hoped the doctor wouldn’t ask for an autopsy. It would just upset the Indians, the old ones especially. They liked to bury their dead as soon as possible, a custom that Whiteside wholeheartedly endorsed. Otherwise, the reservation would erupt with rumors of somebody seeing the dead man walking or hunting in the woods or passing some superstitious ninny on some midnight trail.
Walking Indians, his regular army butt. It was best to squelch the rumors before they started. The next thing you know some old crackpipe medicine man would go and revive the old curse about some white man having to die just because some damn fool Indian bought himself a burial basket and set every last nit to talking and making side bets and looking at normal people funny.
“I’d say the old man died in his sleep,” the doctor sniffed. “Natural causes.”
Whiteside came into the cabin. “I don’t know about natural causes,” Whiteside said. “I think the old boy willed himself dead. An Indian death wish.”
“Be careful what you wish for?” the doctor grinned. “Actually, I’ve read about this sort of thing, but mostly it’s just native America mumbo-jumbo. Anyway, I can’t put ‘Death by Wishing’ on the certificate. We’ll just let it go as heart failure.” He tapped the pen against the table. “Speaking of wishes, I wish I could pinpoint the time of death a little closer.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s been below freezing up here for the last couple of nights, but he’s showing signs of decomp which indicates he died while it was still warm and then froze up later. That would put the time of death sometime Thursday night.”
“Can’t be,” Whiteside said, gazing down at the body. “He was down in the village Friday. I saw him myself up at old man Cowanih’s trailer that afternoon.”
“Well, I’d rather not, considering how the Indians feel about it, but it’s gonna take an autopsy then.”
Oh, crap, Whiteside thought. He glanced around the cabin, looking at the shelves with stacks of cans and jars and folded up blankets, at the linoleum-topped table with a jar of canned peaches, salt and pepper shakers, a cold cup of coffee. “Wait a minute,” Whiteside said. He was staring at the old iron stove. The grating was shoved closed. “Let’s see something here.” He pulled open the door of the stove and peered inside. “Just as I suspected.” The stove was full of ashes. “I think I know what happened here,” he said.
“Go on.” The doctor was intrigued.
“Here’s what I think. Friday night, the old man was sitting here by the stove, keeping warm, probably drifting in and out of sleep. Sometime that night, he must have filled the stove full of wood and closed the grating in order to bank the fire for the next day. Then he died. In a warm cabin. The stove kept him from freezing that night and I’ll bet he probably didn’t start freezing up until late in the day Saturday.”
“Hmm,” the doctor nodded. “Friday night dead, but the stove was hot. Cabin warm. Saturday daytime, dead; cabin cooling down. Froze up that night.”
“Works for me,” Whiteside agreed. “I’d say he died sometime late Friday, Friday night. Then froze up Saturday night.”
The doctor shrugged. “Sure. Why not? Friday night’s as good a time as any.”
“I think we can skip it,” the doctor said.
Whiteside turned from the room and walked back onto the porch, gazing beyond the mud to the trees, listening to the rustle of the leaves in the mountain breeze. The Indians said they could hear drumbeats in the forests, ancient tom-toms measuring the rhythms of life and death. Whiteside heard nothing. The Indians were crazy.
He looked down at the mud and grimaced. He would have to walk through it again. Funny. The only footprints in the mud and on the porch were his and the doctor’s. That old quack of a medicine man who reported Tsani’s death at the bureau earlier that morning must have been up here while everything was still frozen. Imagine that, walking eight miles up the mountain only to find the man you were coming to see was dead.
The doctor joined him on the porch. “All finished,” he said, shoving papers in an envelop. “Can’t get over how good he looks—like he’s about to get up and walk away.”
The colonel looked at the young doctor. “Don’t tell me you’re starting to believe all that crap about Indians wandering around in the woods after they’re dead looking for some white man to take with them?”
“Naw. He isn’t going anywhere. Not on his own, anyway. And, as far as I know, every non-Indian on Qualla is as healthy as a horse.” The doctor slipped out of his coat and glanced up at the clear blue sky. The sun was already high and warm and the chill of the night was slipping away. “Nice day to get in a round of golf,” he observed.
Col. Whiteside bit the tip off a cigar and headed for the doctor’s jeep. Time to let the family come up now, stick the old nit in the ground, the sooner the better. He took off his coat, plopped into the passenger seat and grimaced at the twinge of pain in his chest. Must have pulled a muscle. Naw. Probably just heartburn. Damn Indians. He fished his lighter from his pants pocket and torched the end of his cigar.
“You know what the Indians says about tobacco, don’t you?” the doctor said, climbing behind the wheel and nodding at Whiteside’s cigar. His tone was obviously disapproving.
“Yeah. They say tobacco is the Indian’s gift to the white man. It's an old joke.”
“Well, don’t you think that’s ironic?” the doctor asked.
“Sure. Who would have thought Indians would have a sense of humor?”
Whiteside caught the doctor giving him a startled look, but Whiteside didn’t care. He’d be in Savannah, Georgia, soon, making a mint with Barney’s 50-cent burgers.
The colonel rolled the cigar in the flame as he settled down for the ride back down the mountain. Yep, a round of golf was a great idea. He took another puff of his cigar and closed his eyes. He could see himself out there on the golf course. Oh, yeah, a pretty day, today. Nice and warm. A good day to be alive. He swallowed a gulp of air and held it for a moment, then tried to burp. No good. He should have taken an antacid before even leaving out this morning but this whole Tsani dying thing had thrown him off.
The jeep hit a rut and squirted out mud clods as its wheels did a diddy on the dirt road. Seems like the doctor could go a little faster, Whiteside thought. The twinge in his chest was getting worse by the minute.
Copyright 2010 by Daniel E. Speers
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