Staring At the Sun As If Through a Smoke Hole

Miriam Buskirk pulled her mother away from the front room of their cabin and said, “Joshua just sits there staring. He sits so closely and stares at the fire. He lays in the fields at noon and stares at the sun. He stares at the river. He hasn’t said but five words since he got back and I couldn’t understand a one of them.”

Her mother Amanda put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and quietly said, “The poor boy has been living with the savages for nine months. Who knows what they did to Joshua, or what horrors he’s seen. For all we know he saw them kill your and his poor father, my beloved Marcus, and that’s enough to make anyone act queerly when they come back to civilization.”

They both turned when they heard the creak of the chair across the plank floor. They watched as sixteen-year-old Joshua Buskirk rose from where he’d been sitting for the past hour and shuffle toward the door. So close had he been to the flames, they had scorched the skin of his face red. With his head down, he mumbled something into his linsey-woolsey shirt and stepped out into the midday sun.

“There he goes again, Mother. How long do you think this will go on?” Miriam said.

Amanda Buskirk, watching her son disappear over the rise toward the east, seemingly to go meet the sun before noon, said, “Until it doesn’t I guess. At least I don’t worry as much about him running back to the Mohawk again. But just running…?” She left the remainder of that sentence to hang in the breeze from the open doorway just as Joshua disappeared again over the hill.

Joshua strode through the tall grass and wildflowers over the hill and plopped down in the bare spot he had made there after a fortnight of rejoining his mother and sister. As he leaned back, he was proud to see how he still hadn’t given up the beaded moccasins he wore when he returned to the Buskirk farm after traders sent out by the Great Patroon, Van Rensselaer, found him in the village of Ossernenon. 

*  *  *

“We thought you were dead, boy,” the fur trader Markus Eikenboom said to Joshua when he was allowed to speak to the boy. But Joshua was silent. 

“Don’t you know your own tongue anymore, boy?” Eikenboom said to even more silence. “Where is your father, son? The Patroon will want me to buy back his freedom, too.” 

Joshua turned and walked back to the lodge of the family that had adopted him, only saying one word: “kanién:tara.”

“What does that word mean?” Eikenboom asked his Mahican guide.

“River,” was his reply.

*  *  *

Joshua lay on his back and stared into the white disc of the sun as it crossed over the hilltop and moved what little shadow he threw from west-leaning to east. If his mother had let Miriam follow him, she would have seen him blinking as the sunlight teared in his eyes. When she had watched from afar, Miriam had told her mother, “Joshua just lies there like he is dead, Mother.”

After that day’s morning had passed into afternoon, Joshua arose from his place beneath the surrounding high grass and made his way down to the swift-flowing Schoharie Creek. It ran past the Buskirk farm on its way to marry with the river the Dutch had named for his people, for he still thought of the Kanien’kehá:ka as his family. Most especially since the death of his father.

That’s the one part of his old life with Miriam and Mother that stuck with him after he and his father were captured by a Mohawk hunting party while the Buskirk men were setting their own trap lines almost a year before. After the Mohawk warriors brought Joshua and Marcus to Ossernenon, each was suffering from the pace, rough treatment and, especially to Marcus Buskirk, the general arrogance of their captors.

“I am surprised these savages have not yet killed us, Joshua,” his father said on their first night in Ossernenon. 

“Perhaps they will let us go if we just do as they ask, Father,” Joshua said in the glow of the fire in this section of the longhouse where his captors’ family lived.

“Do not, under any circumstances, lower yourself to the level of these savages, Joshua. They are fit only as providers of furs to the Patroon and will be someday be subjugated to our strength soon enough. We should let them know we will not be cowed by their haughty and violent ways.”

“But the one they called Shawátis seems to have treat us better than the other men. Perhaps we can convince him to…”

“Enough, Joshua! We are Christian men and, as such, tower over these animals. Why, with but one dozen militiamen, I could wipe this valley clean of their pestilence,” Marcus Buskirk hissed. “And should I make my escape, that is exactly what I intend to do.”

Joshua stared at the flickers of sunlight on the Schoharie, lost in its hypnotic dance, as if it was how the light twinkled in the eyes of Shawátis’ children. Then he clenched shut his eyes and tried not to see that day when his father, sent out to gather squash and beans with the women, picked up a rock and brought it down upon the head of Shawátis’ oldest son, who was not quite Johua’s age, and had been guarding the women from any intruders from the forest. Marcus then ran from the field and headed for the river, leaving Joshua behind with the other boys, who were learning to make bows from one of the elders.

After a group of the men chased down and brought Joshua’s father back to the village, Marcus Buskirk’s face showed signs of a severe beating, though he was still alive. Not so Shawátis’ son, who had fallen dead from the blow Marcus had delivered.

“I should kill this man who took my son from me,” Shawátis said. “Or perhaps I should kill his son. Or even both, my grief is so deep.”

The men agreed and said the white man deserved any of those punishments. But then the grandfather of Shawátis’ clan stepped forward and said there might be a better way to solve this dilemma with some sort of natural justice.

“Let us make these two fight for the right to live. The boy has grown strong in our family in the months since he came to us. The man has grown more and more of a problem. If, Shawátis, you will agree, we will allow them to fight and then the victor will be allowed to stay, The loser, should he survive, I will leave to your best judgment.”

The men all yelled their consent, since their’s was a warrior society, enlightened and noble, but warriors nonetheless.

“Cannot war father,” Joshua shouted in his broken Mohawk. But Shawátis nodded in approval of the elder’s proposal. As the crowd of warriors pushed the Buskirks to the fire at the end of the longhouse, Joshua didn’t recognize the man through the flames as his father. 

It wasn’t the face swollen and bruised from the beating at the hands of the warriors. It wasn’t the ragged woolen clothes his father never stopped wearing in the months since their capture. It was his eyes, enraged, unknowing, mad, the eyes of a man who had killed a child earlier that day and looked like he would do it again. And then that man jumped through the fire at Joshua.

Knocked back onto the hard-packed dirt floor of the longhouse, Joshua looked up and blinked at the sun shining down into his eyes from the smoke hole in the roof. And then there was that face again.

“You’ll be better off dead than living with these savages, Joshua,” he heard his father say. Marcus Buskirk wrapped his hands around Joshua’s neck and squeezed. Joshua grabbed at his father’s arms to break his grasp. He scratched at the crazed eyes to no avail. Reaching back over his head, Joshua felt the cubby in which his Mohawk family stored firewood. He grabbed a piece of the kindling and swung with whatever strength he had left. His makeshift club found its mark on the side of his father’s head and the older Buskirk, still aching from his previous beating sagged.

Joshua scrambled to his knees and out of the longhouse, gasping and wheezing as many of the longhouse residents followed him into the sunlight. Not far away he could see the Schoharie and for a moment he wondered if his mother, somewhere downriver, knew if he still lived.

He felt his father’s fist on the back of his head and all went dark for a moment. Face down in the dirt, he dimly saw his father’s boots walking next to him and he saw the rough hand in the ragged sleeve pick up another rock and expected to hear the sound of the rock on his skull and that would be it.

But the sound of a rock hitting bone did not proclaim Joshua’s death. Rather it was the end of Shawátis’ war club coming down upon Marcus Buskirk’s head that cracked through Joshua’s foggy consciousness. He saw the men lift the body of the raggedy man who once loved him, often disciplined him like an Old Testament elder, and had just tried to kill him as Abraham would have Isaac, but for the intercession of God. And now God had interceded in Joshua’s death at the hand of his father.

“I did not like that man and I should have killed him when we caught him trapping in our country,” Shawátis said. “A man who would kill a child, one who was protecting his little sisters, is not a man, is not someone who should live with civilized people. I am sorry, young Yoshoo, but he had to die. Now, if you wish, you may join my family.” 

Joshua pondered this each day since he had been returned to his family’s farm on the Schoharie. Every day, just as he had in Ossernenon. But here it felt different, as if he really didn’t belong there anymore. The widower Cornelius De Groot from the farm just downriver from the Buskirks’ had already been sniffing around Amanda for months, according to Joshua’s sister, even with the fate of Marcus still unknown.

A dugout canoe lurched upstream from around the bend in the creek. In it, three young Kanien’kehá:ka were paddling their way back from the mouth of the Schoharie where it emptied in the Mohawk River.

Joshua raced to the river bank, waving and shouted, “Kwe. Hánio kén:thon, iatate’kén:’a.”

The young men looked up to see the white boy greeting them and asking them to come near. Curious, they paddled closer, yet stayed in deeper water.

“Where are you headed, brothers?” Joshua asked.

“Home to Ossernenon. Aren’t you..?”

“Yes, I am the son of Shawátis. Could you take me with you upriver?” Joshua said.

“If you wish,” said the young Mohawk in he bow of the dugout. “Where is it you need to go.”

“Home. To Ossernenon,” Joshua said before he waded into the Schoharie, looked once more at the sun as it began its decline over the hill, behind which his mother placed another log on the fire.

Well, so much for writing a story a day in May. Lost my mojo, as you probably can tell from this very fast free write first draft I began this rainy afternoon. There was no prompt that I know of. I just needed to write a story. So I did. Maybe. Hey, it’s a true first draft. Check your Hemingway quotes for what these are worth.

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Dreams of Wolf Creek, Kansas

The Wolf River, Kansas by Albert Bierstadt, c. 1859

I sometimes dream of eastern Kansas,
in those days before the wars,
when the white men fought each other
to be the right men behind the doors,
deciding the lives of men red and black,
to remain the preeminent beast,
over this land he said God was his alone,
from the left coast to the east.

I think of the man in the village,
sitting on the bluff above Wolf Creek,
and how once he ruled wherever he stood,
a wandering Pawnee being anything but meek.
And I know his time is passing,
his wandering no more his choice.
Soon the white man will fight everyone
over the black man who still had no voice.

In my dream the lodges moved westward,
if they ever moved at all.
Because illness, greed and the great lord God
seemingly turned on the Pawnee, Otoe and Kaw.
And that’s why I dream of eastern Kansas
in those days before the wars,
because a native man might still call his own
his land, his freedom and his lores.

Free-write rhyming thing, an exercise I tried to get the juices flowing. For whatever reason, the name William Stafford and the words “Lawrence, Kansas” kept clanging in my head. I searched for some art that might help stimulate some creative spark and found that picture by Albert Bierstadt of Wolf River in Kansas, circa 1859. Then I let loose the reins and my claybank muse cantered me here.

Faces False and True

Iroquois False Face Mask

The lab smelled of dirt and plaster. It reminded Dr. Jacqueline Bird of the houses around the Akwesasne Reservation her father would help renovate on weekends to help pay for her education.

Jacquie smiled at the memory of her dad coming to the door covered in plaster dust save for his hands and eye sockets when she’d arrive with his lunch and a beer. Later, she’d spot the empties tossed in the haul-away dumpster. Their brown glass cast an amber glow onto the broken wall lath within, like browned ribs of the long-dead man arrayed before her on her work table.

“Daydreaming, Dr. Bird?” Jacquie’s boss Dr. Raoul Dumont said as he popped up behind her in the archeology/anthropology department lab in Syracuse. Her reverie disappeared like a puff of white dust from the protective plaster covering she blew off the remains of this soldier. She’d unearthed them herself from the dig site on the western shore of Lake George.

“Not exactly, Dr. Dumont. And I wish you wouldn’t jump up behind me like that while I’m cleaning and examining these remains. This man suffered enough without me further torturing his bones,” Jacquie said as she removed her safety glasses and appeared as the dusty echo of her father.

Dumont moved closer to Jacquie and reached out to move his finger down the page of her notes. As he did so, his hand once again brushed against Jacquie’s. His head floated just behind her right ear.

“So you believe this subject was scalped, Dr. Bird? You yourself have said that even postmortem head wounds can leave behind signs of hemorrhaging in the cranial etching. I do not see any signs of such hemorrhaging here. What proof do you have he experienced such torture? Couldn’t these just as easily be postmortem predation caused by scavenging…,” he paused and breathed “animals?” into Jacquie’s ear.

Jacquie recalled a conversation with her bachelor’s school friend Edie Blaine in the instant the hairs on her neck assumed an upright and locked positions.

Edie, a professor of anthropology at Dumont’s previous university, had warned her of Dumont’s reputation for harassing female students and colleagues alike.

“He gets away with so much because of his connections in the World Archeological Conference and the Society for American Archeology,” Edie told her. “Plus his uncle’s a ranking member of the Senate Education Committee. Connections and direct access to the money tree make him a tough little bastard to cut off for any university. Yours has more shine, so he jumped at the chance for more professional prestige and fresh sweater meat.”

“My report will prove my theory, Dr. Dumont. But let me show you how I believe my subject suffered at the hands of people may have been some of my ancestors,” Jacquie said.

Sliding from her stool, Jacquie looked Dumont in the eyes as she held a pointed probe in one hand and a scalpel in the other.

“I believe the man was a French Marine or Canadian like your forebears, sent down to stir up distrust among the Mohawk and English settlers on the southern end of the lake. I’ve seen wounds like this before and read documentation of their sources,” she said.

“And what, pray tell, was that, Dr. Bird?” Dumont said with an amused grin.

“In the documented case, the raiders kidnapped, raped or killed both white and native girls. My Mohawk ancestors captured one of them. As you know, theirs was a matriarchy of sorts and such crimes were often handled by the women of the clan. In this case,” Jacquie jabbed at Dumont’s crotch with her probe, “repeatedly piercing his pelvis with sewing needles, before removing his genitals. Very effective deterrent, don’t you think?”

Dumont recoiled from the probe poking at his crotch.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“They let him bleed out, hung from a rack like a deer. Before he expired, though, they removed the scalp from his exsanguinated skull, sewing it to his crotch, like a merkin. Hence, more pelvic scratches. Total demasculinization. Like to see the method they used?” Jacquie said, putting down her probe and reaching for Dumont’s toupee with scalpel still in hand.

“No! Thank you, Dr, Bird. I’ll leave you to your work,” Dumont said, looking like he’d seen a ghost. He scurried from the lab with his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

Jacquie returned to her work with a small smile. She saw the reflection of her dust-covered face on her blank computer screen and wiped the plaster from her cheeks.

“Have to call Daddy later to tell him how Granny’s stories of her grannies’ grannies’ grannies cut off another white dick today like they did in the old days,” Jacquie said to herself. Then she blew more dust off the bones of another man who didn’t recognize who he was dealing with.

Wanted to write up a quick flash piece for my friend Dan Mader’s weekly 2 Minutes. Go! flash fiction feature on his site, Unemployed Imagination. Wanted to keep it under 4,000 characters, but some first drafts just take on lives of their own. Not exactly sure where this came from, maybe a subconscious mashup of the current news and my penchant for frontier New York history. It’ll do in a pinch for a writer in the depressed doldrums.

Like Sun Flashing Upon the Mohawk

It was the smell that caught my attention first.

Not the usual smell of woodsmoke you’d expect from a farm settlement back along the Hudson. Nor the aroma of your mum’s cooking or baking on the breeze. No, this was an earthier smell, more like burnt meat, a grease fire and boiled out vegetable pots. This was the Mohawk town called Teatontaloga.

Strange how the longer I kneeled there in the hills above the north shore of the Mohawks’ River among the hemlock, hickory and spruce, the less offensive the smell became, tempered, as it were, by the scent of nature. I almost felt like dozing in this odd perfume, transfixed by the sparkle of the sun on the river.

But I could not afford the time to sleep. I had been sent out here to scout for the German colonists on their way up the Hudson with designs on settling land patents purchased from the old Dutch burghers in Albany. Traveling through the valley, for the past six days, keeping a cold camp, always alert lest I run across the trail of some Mohawk hunting party, I never allowed myself to sleep more than a few minutes at a time.

One more look at the sun flashing on the mouth of Schoharie Creek joining the river and I was ready to go. I’d seen what I needed to see. Then came that one big flash.

I awoke not feeling like I’d slept, but more like a a trussed up Christmas goose that had been dragged behind a wagon on Albany’s cobblestone main street. It was dark and smoky.  That smell I’d discovered from the hill above the river was stronger than ever and there was no forest to soften it. A dog growled next to me when I stirred.

“Finally awake I see,” said a voice in perfect English, if a Yorkshireman’s accent could be called perfect.

“What happened to me? Where am I? Who in the name of God are you?” I said, my head dully aching except where I imagine a rifle butt sparked the big flash then darkness.

“I should think what happened would be quite evident, young scout. I suspect you know where you are, as well. As to who I am, my Kanien’kéha family here call me Karawase, their word for ‘A New Way’.” Who I was back in Sheffield doesn’t much matter anymore,” the silhouette outlined by the glowing fire said.

“What do they plan to do with me?” I said.

“First, you are lucky to be alive to ask that question. Secondly, that is still being debated. Before the clan leaders make any decision on that, they want me to find out what you’re doing here,” Karawase said. “I suspect it might be something of the nefarious ilk, knowing my greedy and unconscionable English brethren as I do.”

“You appear to be an educated man, sir. I would hope that we could reach an understanding that the people who sent me here to scout this country would be more than willing to parley with your leaders to reach an accommodation in terms of…”

“Stealing their ancestral homes? I don’t believe that is possible, young scout. By the by, youngster, what is you’re name?” Karawase said, edging closer to me so finally I could see his features.

“My name is Jacob Brown. Actually, Jacob Braun. But since the Huron killed my Papa, my mother went back to her English roots and translated it.”

“I see. You’re also a man of two camps.”

“I suppose you could say that. But, my two camps aren’t making war against one another,” I replied.

“Not yet. But they will. It’s the way of the world, young Jacob Brown,” Karawase said, rubbing his fingers on a new tattoo he sported on his cheek. “So you’re representing English or German interests?”

“German. Families of Palatinites are coming upriver to Albany, looking to establish homes out here in these valleys. And they would like to make sure they can do that, raise their crops and families, without having to fear attacks from your people,” I said, figuring my recognizing his current status might soften him to my plight.

“It’s true that some of my people have taken a shine to the English trade representative, Mister Johnson. Or, should I say, he has taken a shine to us. But these Dutchman you describe will only foul our rivers and streams with their hogs and cattle, use up the land with their constant planting, never letting our Mother rest from her labors of feeding the people.”

“Not if I can spell out terms that the Mohawk can make, allowing them to come here and live in peace. Their coming here is a definite thing. The peace will be up to you.”

“That is quite true, Jacob Brown. For we are a great people, the Guardians of the Eastern Door of the Five Nations. It is our place to see that your western-advancing floods do not drown us with their foul smelling beasts and fouler smelling progeny.”

The entrance to the longhouse opened and a tall, lean man entered. He walked toward Karawase, ignoring my bound-up form on the mat next to the fire. He spoke softly but forcefully to Karawase, who replied in kind. This surprised me, for I never expected a white man to be so familiar with the savage red man.

Karawase leaned down after the man left, and said, “My brother, the son of my Kanien’kéha mother, asked me what we have been discussing. I told him what you told me and he would like to see you roasted over coals and fed to the dogs. Strictly as a means of ensuring you not only never return to Albany with your scouting account, but also to ensure your spirit never leaves this place, as well.”

His words turned my empty stomach into knots. I had already seen what the Abenaki and Seneca could do to a man, his color notwithstanding. I had also seen what the English could do to Delaware, Huron and even the unfortunate Mohawk who crossed the trail the whites were determined to own, as well as the hectares on both sides of it for miles.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Karawase.  You could be the man who helps the Mohawk become the wealthiest of the Five Nations, accepting tribute from the Palatinites for the meager amounts of land they need for their farms. They truck in fine silver and fabrics from Europe. The guns they make are legendary for their small size but powerful kick. Perfect for your people to defend, if not expand their reach to the south and west.”

“Jacob Brown, we can take those treasures from your Dutchman any time we have a mind to. We are not only Kanien’kéha, which you call Mohawk, but one of a confederacy of five nations that rule the lands from the north river you call Hudson’s to the biggest of the western lakes, from the northern mountains to the lands of the Cherokee. We are stewards of this country, given that charge by the Creator himself. We have never been defeated and never will, save for if one of our own nations aligns against us. And why would they do that? They wouldn’t. So, you Jacob Brown, man of two camps, I would prepare to see the light of the Creator this day. You seem to be a brave boy, but my brother has broken brave men many times. He is a fearsome warrior. I will ask him if I may kill you before he lets you suffer. You seem a nice enough chap,” Karawase said. And then he left the longhouse, the dog following him.

I looked down the smoky, dim length of the longhouse, realizing that the last smell I would inhale on this earth was the one that drew me to where I would die. I was both intrigued and repulsed that I would soon be another source of that burnt meat smell. I felt just the same about that German silver waiting for me back in Albany. How it more than likely would end up dangling from the ear of some Mohawk warrior. Or it could be pounded and shaped and used to decorate the fine Jaeger rifle he took from its Palatine owner.

If I was to fail in my mission, as I indeed had, I was happy for the promise of Karawase to dispatch me before I succumbed to the fires of hell on earth. I wondered if I would be able to see the flashes of light on the river once more before I went before the light of the Lord’s judgment.

Karawase threw aside the cover of the longhouse entrance and stood in the doorway, the light of dawn surrounding him like he was a saint, instead of a traitor to his people, which is what I imagined was why he lived among and abetted such savages that would cook a man for looking at where they lived.

“I have spoken with the elders and the old mothers who hold sway over the clans. They have decided you will not die the slow death my brother spoke so stridently for. At my claim for leniency, they wish to see you run through a long gauntlet from the center of the village and the river,” Karawase said. “Reach the river and you may float back to Albany.”

“This is good news,” I said.

“Depends on how quick and shifty you are, Jacob Brown. By my eye, the distance between here and the river is twenty rods if an inch. Easily half a furrow-long,” Karawase said.

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Aye, and a chance is all ye have.”

“When do I begin?”

“I’d say when the sun clears the hills to the east. Perhaps another hour or so.”

“I’ll be ready.”

That hour passed and I could hear a crowd milling, laughing, shouting outside the longhouse. Karawase and his brother entered and loosed my bindings, setting me on my feet for the first time since someone, I imagine Karawase, brought that musket butt down upon my head.

The crowd of people had strung themselves out in two lines snaking from the center of the village to the shore. I could not see the river from where I stood, nor would I until I made it to nearly the end of the gauntlet. If I made it.

“Are you ready, Jacob Brown?” Karawase said above the din of warriors hooting, women keening and youngsters laughing. All but the women were carrying switches of birch or elm. The men and older boys had something more resembling weapons, clubs or the like.

“I don’t expect I’d better not be ready, Karawase. I should thank you for saving me from the fire.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure this is going to have any better ending, Jacob Brown.”

“If I may, could you tell me what your name was before you became one of these barbarians?”

“You wouldn’t believe me, Jacob Brown.”

“Please. In case we don’t have another chance to talk.”

“You might not believe me, but it was Brown, Simon Brown. Now prepare yourself, boy. My brother and I will be waiting at the far end to see you make it to the river. Godspeed, Jacob Brown,” the man called Karawase said.

“I will, Simon. I will.”

And then he was gone. Two warriors ripped off my shirt, took my arms and stood me between the long lines of impatient savages looking to mete out their worst punishment on the white man who represented all the whites encroaching on their country. They didn’t know I was but one drop in an ocean whose tide was coming in from the Atlantic.

“Kanónhsa raksà:ʼa,” the biggest one grunted, and pushed me so hard I fell to the ground between the first couple of pairs on my run. They were older women with switches and they hit me with a fury of decades of pent-up anger. I rose to my feet and grabbed one of the switches and lunged forward, using the slender branch as one might a sword in warding off the cutting blows of the women and children.

My skin was aflame with small welts and scratches, but I was still alive. Up ahead, I could see I was coming to the older boys and men, who were waiting with angry faces and hooting and howling in such a frightening manner I almost soiled myself. But I plunged into their forest of branches and clubs.

I whipped my switch in the face of one of the boys and grabbed his club and swung it wildly around me to again deflect the worst of the blows. By now, my lungs were burning, as I had run a long way as fast as I could, bouncing from one side of the gauntlet to the other. My legs felt like tree trunks and I could taste blood. From where I did not know.

I looked up and could see the end of the lines ahead. And there was the Mohawk River. It sparkled like German silver and I had to fight to maintain my composure and best defensive parries and feints. I held off one warrior’s blow with my club, but felt the sting of a blade on my back from another. I turned for an instant and caught him a blow on the arm, whereupon his knife bounded to the ground ahead of me.

I ran best I could and picked it up and fought my way to the very last six men on the end of the line. Four of them crowded me and I battled my way through them and ran into Karawase’s brother, standing there in my path to the river.

The sun had climbed well above the hills now. I could feel it on my face. I could smell the mud and water waiting behind the savage in front of me. To my left, I saw Karawase, a club resting in his crossed arms. I dove at his brother, screaming like I was one of the Mohawks now. Perhaps this is how Simon Brown became Karawase. I’ll never know.

I charged the final warrior, as quickly as a desperate man could. I must have surprised him, because I got close to his body and his club came down dully on my back. I slashed his ribs with the knife and he went down, the smell of him, that same earthy smell from… Was it only day before yesterday?

I could see the river only a few yards away, see the sunlight flash in my eyes. I half-ran, half-staggered to its muddy margins. The sun above glared in my eyes and the moist smell of the Mohawk spoke of escape.

From the corner of my eye, I saw an Indian, a familiar form, rush toward me, his club raised above his head. The world suddenly lit up around me like a lightning flash. Then came the feeling of water on my face, beautiful, cool, like meine Mutter’s hands after drawing it from the creek called the Krum Kill.

And Crown Thy Good…

At the end of the bar, I saw old Mason Snyder sitting in his semi-usual ruminating funk, so I decided to slide my beer down there to here him out and see if we could repair the world a bit together.

After asking why the long face, Mase said, “Last week, I saw a study that broke down the average life expectancy in all the States and the spot with the longest living residents–at 85 years–was in some Colorado ski resort area, while the shortest are in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, where on average, people there can expect to live to age 67,” Mase said.

“Beyond the obvious disparity, is that what’s pissing you off so much?” I asked.

Mase had a long pull on his Bud, took a deep breath and said, “I saw some news bunny ask if the lives of Oglala Lakota County residents there were so short there because they died of boredom out there in the high plains.”

“Uh oh,” I said, knowing the righteous wrath coming in three, two,….

“Yeah, honey, the type of boredom that sets in where you have no prospects to change your life from the grinding poverty of being members of families who’ve essentially been prisoners of war for a century and a half. The type of boredom that drives people to drink and drug themselves into oblivion because they lost the home version of the Manifest Destiny game show. The type of boredom that causes kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation to kill themselves at a ridiculously high rate,” Mase said in his indignant and borderline angry tone when he talked about the treatment of America’s native people.

“That’s pretty tragic,” I said, feeling both sad and guilty watching Mase, who was of mixed Navaho and German heritage, take another gulp of his beer and the breath to go on.

“Oh, and by the way, Miss Talking Hairdo, that average life expectancy was for the whole of Oglala Lakota County, where
the numbers just a few years ago for Pine Ridge Reservation residents only were 52 years for women and fuckin’ 48 for men– 48 years of age and done,” Mase said, spun on his stool and stalked out the bar entrance.

“What the hell was Big Chief Bottom-of-the-Bottle going on about?” Charlie the bartender asked me in the wake of Mase’s diatribe on the mistreatment of red folks by the sorry-ass  Great White (absentee) Father over the years.

“C’mon we’re as guilty as any White Americans in not doing enough–or anything–to help these fellow Americans live better, safer, healthier lives,” I said in my own Mase-stoked righteously indignant tone.

“Yeah, well you tell him for me if he–and you, for that matter–expects to get his firewater in my joint anymore, he’d better keep it down or, better yet, take his whiny shit to some liberal fern bar, ’cause us real Americans don’t want to hear it,” Charlie said, flipping the channel from the fifth inning in Cleveland of another one-sided Mets matinee loss over to Fox News Channel.

A poor pass at my Day 24 effort for Story-A-Day May. The prompt was to write a “Sonnet Story,” one with 14 sentences and carried the sonnet structure, save for no rhyming or anything like that. Just twelve sentences of any length, with or without rhyme or meter. I don’t think I hit the mark of a Petrarchan nor Shakespearean sonnet, but at least it’s written and the data is absolutely correct…and shameful. 

Return of the Bungu

Birch Creek Pictograph panel. Birch Creek Valley, Idaho. 5.15.10

Dainape-wenoo’-mukua, Man Carrying Spirits on His Back, always looked around once again to see if he was followed before he entered. A great priest such as he could ill afford any mere hunter or child, let alone a woman, find the source of his dream medicine.

Man Carrying Spirits would part the bushes that hid the entrance to his sacred space within the bluffs above of the River That Moves Like a Snake. He carried with him a piece of wood the length of his arm whose end he’d dipped in pine pitch. With his fire-starter stones he’d spark a patch of dry grass and light his torch before entering the cave only he knew.

Pushing his torch before him and crawling into the small opening, Man Carrying Spirits could feel the cool breeze coming from within the cave on his face. It smelled of mud and moss and iron and it always gave him renewed vigor. Once through the opening, the priest was able to stand, for he had entered the first chamber of the spirits, the one he found as a boy and from which he carried home stones in a sack on his back that bore the marks of the Ancient Ones.

As he held his torch high, he could see the marks they painted onto the cave walls, circles and stick figures of men holding spears standing above other men who lay at their feet. But these paintings of victorious men at war were not the primary reason he came to his sacred space. That lay in the chamber behind a rock at the far end of the first gallery.

Pushing aside the rock, Man Carrying Spirits would feel the great whoosh of dank air, the breath of the ancients, blow his long hair from his face. It was as if they were saying, “Open your eyes, my son, to what we share only with you.”

As he stepped into the secret chamber, he’d quietly sing an incantation seeking guidance and the blessings of the Ancient Ones, for his people were hungry and game was growing scarce in their small hunting grounds. Man Carrying Spirits’ mission was to beseech the Ancient Ones to bring back the herds of buffalo and more elk and deer than the few his hunters could bring down with their spears and arrows.

Once again, he raised his torch, singing as he circled the chamber, its walls towering above him seemingly as tall as the bluffs within which they were hidden. No one would ever understand what he saw lit by the small circle of torchlight. He didn’t fully understand, but he knew they represented a powerful medicine only the Ancient Ones mastered.

On the wall were the faint drawings in charcoal and white and ochre mud of men chasing beasts Man Carrying Spirits had never seen, never considered possible to exist. There were scenes of great bison taller than a man hurtling over cliffs as men stampeded them forward, as his people hunted them to this day.

But mixed among these were fearsome beasts, some with horns growing from their noses, some like slender bison but their humps set further along their backs, some towering humped monsters with long horns extending from their mouths.

But the drawings that intrigued him most were of fat animals that resembled dogs, only much larger. Perhaps if these beasts would return to their hunting grounds, they would provide easier game to kill and more meat than The People could harvest from the deer and elk that had grown so scarce. He knew this animal would be the key to his people’s survival.

He reached into his parfleche sack and withdrew two small deerskin bags, one filled with bear grease and the other with mud from the place in the River that Runs Like a Snake where the mountain bled white along its banks.  He poured some of the dried mud powder into the grease and mixed it with his finger. He took a daub of that mixture and outlined and colored in the picture of the animal as he prayed to some great Dog God he thought held power over the animal. Then, gathering his things, he’d withdraw from the medicine chamber, push the rock over its entrance and crawl back into the sunlight beating upon the bluffs above the River that Runs Like a Snake.

But the hunting failed to improve and The People had to move further south, requiring Man Carrying Spirits to travel great distances back to his sacred place to pray and gather his spirit medicine.

Growing older, he decided to take on an apprentice who he believed could follow in his place as intermediary between The People and the spirit world. He chose young Daigwade-dugaani, Talks in the Night, who had always sat quietly listening as Man Carrying Spirits told tales of the ancient times and the great beasts that lived along with The People, but were no more.

The men would laugh at Man Carrying Spirits, claiming the old priest was going mad with age or had been touched by a bad spirit during one of his disappearances. But Talks in the Night was resolute in his faith in the old man.

On his first trip to Man Carrying Spirits’ sacred place, Talks in the Night was frightened by the drawings of monsters by the Ancient Ones.

“Don’t be afraid of these drawings, Grandson,” Man Carrying Spirits said. “They have great medicine, but were put here by the Ancient Ones for me to find and talk with them, beseeching them for the blessings they represent. Blessings in war, in hunting and in living as The People.”

“I see, Grandfather, but they are such odd and frightening creatures. Except that one,” Talks in the Night said, pointing to a depiction of Man Carrying Spirits’ Dog God. “That one speaks to my spirit, to my heart.”

“You feel the same as I do, Grandson. Should we encounter this creature again, it will bring great medicine to our people. I am certain of that.”

“I can see why you would not want to share this knowledge with The People. They would not understand and so would consider this an evil place, bewitched, full of bad medicine,” the apprentice said.

“But I knew you would see the drawings for what they are, connecting us to the ancient ones and their world,” Man Carrying Spirits said. “Come, let me teach you the incantation to summon the Dog God to return this fine animal to our people so they will not have empty stomachs in the winter.”

Before they left, Man Carrying Spirits dipped his finger into a mixture of grease and crushed charcoal and dabbed it upon the hindquarters of the white beast.

“This represents one more time I have prayed to the Dog God to bring this animal back to The People. Let us go home, Grandson.”

It came to pass that Man Carrying Spirits’ eyesight succumbed to his years and the world grew dark to him, so he relied on Talks in the Night not only as his apprentice, but his eyes as well. The old priest’s body could no longer accept the rigorous trip back to his sacred place. He would send Talks in the Night to invoke the ancient ones, certain they would listen to the boy whose spirit he felt was as pure as his own. The old priest would go as far as he could and then would wait in a shelter for the boy to return, then ask him what he had seen on his journey.

One day, having spent from dawn to dusk praying in the caves, Talks in the Night was almost back to the place he had left his teacher, when he heard the great noise, a pounding as if in his heart. As the sound grew closer, he thought it sounded something like the sound of the bozheena, the bison, when they ran during the hunt. But this was different, a sharper sound that startled him, so he climbed a tree to both hide and to give him a longer view of what was approaching.

He saw the dust cloud from behind the rise, but could not make out what was making it. Then he heard the snorting, and eventually, the scream. From around the bluff came a herd of animals fleeter than any bison, any deer, any elk he had ever seen. At the head of the herd ran an animal of almost white, save for its rear quarters, which bore the black spots Man Carrying Spirits dappled on the cave paintings.

It was the Dog God returning the magical creatures to His People, just as Man Carrying Spirits had prayed for and foretold. The beasts thundered by just below the branch upon which he crouched, their legs seemingly whirling like a child’s spinning wheel.

After they passed, Talks in the Night jumped from his perch and ran to the shelter of his teacher, but the old man was on the trail when he found him.

“Did you see them, Grandson? Did you see them? It was the Dog God and his herd, was it not? Nothing in our world sounds like that, screaming like the wind and rumbling like thunder. What did they look like, Grandson?”

“Just as the Ancient Ones and you drew them, Grandfather. Their leader, the Dog God himself, even bore the spots you put on his hindquarters. But these animals will be difficult to hunt, they are so big, so swift. They also are too beautiful, too full of strong medicine to hunt. They must have another reason for coming back to our country,” Talks in the Night said.

“As they ran past, I had a vision, Grandson. In my vision, I saw the Dog God and one of the Ancient Ones together, chasing down the bison, but the Ancient One was not running next to the Dog God. Somehow he seemed as one with him. Most curious,” the old man said.

“Shall we go back and tell The People of this miracle,” Grandfather?” the boy asked.

“Not yet, boy. I would like to capture one to bring back first. Otherwise, they would think us mad.

“We must chase one into one of the canyons with one door, then get a rope on it. We will pray that it sees we mean it no harm so it might not kills us,” Man Carrying Spirits said with a small laugh.

A week later, Talks in the Night was able to chase an inattentive one of the creatures, which he called a bungu, which was a contracted version of the words meaning “whirling legs,” into the box canyon and slip a rope over its head. Together, he and Man Carrying Spirits sang and talked to the beast until it quieted.

“Help me onto its back, Grandson. I wish to see if my vision was true,” Man Carrying Spirits said.

“Grandfather, you are a great priest. You brought the Dog God back to this country. But I fear this beast is too wild to accept you,” the boy said.

“We must have faith, boy. You believed in me and my visions before, it is now time for you to see my greatest one come to being.”

Drawing closer and closer, gently singing and holding a fistful of grass, the old priest reached out and felt the animal calmly snort as it smelled its first whiff of man. As Man Carrying Spirits drew closer to its side, his apprentice helped him to its back. The animal turned its head and snapped at the boy, but allowed the old man to sit on its back.

The Shoshone people would talk for generations about the first time they saw the animal we know as the horse and how Man Carrying Spirits rode upon its back to show how it would help feed The People, just as the old priest foretold.

My story-a-day prompt for Day 20 was to write a story that focuses on the discovery/invention/ramifications of something that shapes my characters’ physical world. I wondered what it must’ve been like to be the first Native American of your tribe to see the horse arrive in your country after the Spaniards brought them to Mexico and the American Southwest. I chose the Shoshone people of southern Idaho because I wanted to incorporate cave drawings representing original horses that roamed the Plains and left prehistoric North America for Asia over the land bridge. I discovered there were such drawings discovered near the Snake River. I’m sure paleontologists and anthropologists will poke more holes in the story than I provided, but, hot damn this was fun. 

The Dollmaker of the Onöndowága,

Iroquois False Face Society mask

He was a powerful shaman, a man of great spirit and fearsome medicine who The Creator imbued with the power to heal and the power to strike down.

And he was my grandfather.

The People called him The Doll Maker. And nobody dared wonder aloud why every doll he made had the same face. Except for me.

One night I said to him in his special hut in the furthest corner of the village from the palisade entrance, “Grandfather, why do all your medicine dolls have the same face when they are meant to represent different people and spirits?”

“That is not for you to know yet, Grandson. Soon enough, I shall reveal my secrets to one of you children, for someone must take my place when it is my time to join our fathers and their fathers’ fathers in the Land of the Dead,” he said, never moving a muscle as he stared into the small fire before him, save for his lips around his pipe.

“I see, Grandfather, it’s just that I never understood.”

“And perhaps you never will, Grandson. But, if the spirits of our ancestors place their hands upon you, you will be the one to whom I will share the secret of the dolls,” he said and closed his eyes as if in a trance.

“I know why he does it, give all the dolls the same faces,” my older brother Kakë:’ët neokë, White Deer, told me one night in our family’s portion of the longhouse. “It’s because he’s become so old and feeble he can no longer carve any face but that one. While I, on the other hand, have schooled myself in the carving art and have surpassed that old man. All I need is the knowledge of his incantations and medicine and I will succeed him as our clan’s shaman.”

White Deer pulled from beneath the bear robe on his pallet six small wooden doll heads, each carved to look like a member of our family. Their likenesses frightened this boy of eleven winters and I stepped away from them while not being able to tear my eyes from their piercing stares.

Hahji’, my brother, while your craftsmanship is great, you should not show those to anyone. And you should learn to keep your plans to yourself. The Grandfather hears with more than his old ears and he will punish you for speaking against him in such an arrogant way,” I said and walked to the other side of the fire to where my mother was nursing our baby sister.

Over the next few months, I began doing more and more chores for Grandfather, learning more about the history of our people and even some of the healing arts beyond those dispensed by the False Face Society, the masked healers who held ceremonies throughout the village in the green-up and harvest times.

Several men, including my father, were members of the False Face Society. Father said they all learned the story of the False Faces from The Grandfather. How the Creator, when he had finished forming the world, was wandering around admiring his work, when he encountered another being who said HE had created the world.

“In a competition to see which of them had the most power, each was to move a mountain, though they were supposed to turn their backs to the mountain while the other used their power. The stranger went first and moved the mountain but a little, yet he moved it. The Creator then took his turn and reminded the Stranger to keep his back turned. But the Stranger’s curiosity was too great. He turned before the Creator was done and was struck in the face by the mountain, leaving him disfigured. Despite The Stranger’s now hideous face, the Creator recognized his great powers, and decided to let him stay in the world to use those powers to heal and prevent storms from harming The People. In his honor, the False Face Society members carve their masks in their own special representation of the one now called Ethiso:da’, The Grandfather” Father said.

“And it was your Grandfather who taught three generations of our men how to carve our masks. No one was a better teacher or a better carver than our Grandfather,” Father said.

“White Deer feels he is a better and will succeed Grandfather as our great shaman,” I said.

“Your brother will become a great man among The People. His strength and confidence will serve him well in war and politics. But your baby sister stands a greater chance of becoming Shaman than White Deer,” Father said, and laughed. “And we shall keep that between the two of us, son.”

He sent me off to see to Grandfather’s comfort and needs. When I entered his hut, I saw Grandfather placing a new doll over by his carving knives. It had the same face as all the others, but it’s clothing looked familiar and on its hand it wore a bandage.

“That doll reminds me of White Deer. It even has the bandage he wears since he cut himself,” I noted.

“Perhaps he should be more heedful to what he has in his hands rather than dreaming of grasping for those things he cannot reach,” Grandfather said.

“Grandfather, did you…?”

“White Deer cut himself, Grandson. I only had the vision that he would and carved a remembrance of the act. Now come, look more closely at this doll,” he said.

I sat next to him and he showed me the doll, whose face looked like every other doll’s face.

“I have decided to begin teaching you how to carve, Grandson. You shall be my apprentice, my student, my successor,” he said.

“Grandfather, I am just a boy,” I said.

“Yes, but your heart and spirit are pure and have the welfare of all The People foremost at all times. Even as young as you are, you do not judge a man, woman or child by how he looks, but what lies beneath.”

With that, he tugged the face, the same face as every other doll, off the White Deer doll. Beneath it he had carved an exact likeness of my brother. He pulled the face off another and it was my face, painted a strong medicine red, beneath it.

“You will learn the carving and the medicine easily enough, Grandson. But you, above all my generations of children, have the greatest gift necessary to succeed me,” Grandfather said.

As you can see, The Grandfather taught me well. Oh, you see only one face on my dolls? True, but my brother, Chief White Deer, will attest to its striking resemblance to our Grandfather.

For Day 3 of Story-a-Day May, I was tasked to write something using the following prompt from author Kylie Quillinan:  “People called him The Doll Maker. Nobody ever wondered aloud why every doll had the same face.”  I decided to set t in the culture of the  Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy of my native New York State. Had a lot of fun taking a fantasy-like prompt and pulling it into my favorite genre., American Historical Fiction