Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 174

   

“And my brother—he was sachem then, and my other brother war chief—said that this was foolishness. Destroy us with tools? Eat us? The whites do not consume the hearts of their enemies, even in battle.

“The young men listened; they listen to anyone with a loud voice. But the older ones looked at the stranger with a narrow eye, and said nothing.

“He knew,” she said, and the old lady nodded emphatically, speaking almost faster than her granddaughter could translate. “He knew what would happen—that the British and the French would fight with each other, and would seek our help, each against the other. He said that that would be the time; when they fought each other, then we must rise up against them both and cast them out.

“Tawineonawira—Otter-Tooth—that was his name—said to me, ‘You live in the moment. You know the past, but you don’t look to the future. Your men say, “We need nothing this season,” and so they will not move. Your women think it is easier to cook in a iron kettle than to make clay pots. You don’t see what will happen because of your laziness, your greed.’

“ ‘It’s not true,’ I said to him. ‘We are not lazy. We scrape hides, we dry the meat and the corn, we press the oil from sunflowers and put it in jars; we take heed for the next season—always. If we didn’t, we would die. And what have pots and kettles to do with it?’

“He laughed at that, but his eyes were sad. He was not always fierce with me, you see.” The young woman’s eyes slid toward her grandmother at this, but then she looked away, eyes once more on her lap.

“ ‘A woman’s heed,’ he said, and shook his head. ‘You think of things to eat, what to wear. None of this matters. Men can’t think of such things.’

“ ‘You can be Hodeenosaunee and think this?’ I said. ‘Where do you come from that you don’t take heed of what the women think?’

“He shook his head again and said, ‘You cannot see far enough.’ I asked him how far then did he see, but he would not answer me.”

I knew the answer to that, and my skin prickled with gooseflesh, too, in spite of the fire. I knew too bloody well how far he’d seen—and how dangerous the view was from that particular precipice.

“But nothing I said was any use,” the old lady continued, “nor what my brothers said. Otter-Tooth grew more angry. One day he came out and danced the war dance. He was painted—his arms and legs were striped with red—and he sang and shouted through the village. Everyone came out to watch, to see who would follow him, and when he drove his tomahawk into the war tree and shouted that he went to gain horses and plunder from the Shawnee, a number of the young men followed him.

“They were gone for the rising and setting of a moon, and came back with horses, and with scalps. White scalps, and my brothers were angry. It would bring soldiers from the fort, they said—or revenge parties from the Treaty Line settlements, where they had taken the scalps.

“Otter-Tooth answered boldly that he hoped this was so; then we would be forced to fight. And he said plainly that he would lead such raids again—again and again, until the whole land was roused and we saw that it was as he said; that we must kill the O’seronni or die ourselves.

“No one could stop him doing what he said, and there were a few of the young men whose blood was hot; they would follow him, no matter what anyone said. My brother the sachem made his medicine tent, and called the Great Turtle to counsel with him. He stayed in the tent for a day and a night. The tent shook and heaved, and voices came out of it, and the people were afraid.

“When my brother came out of the tent, he said that Otter-Tooth must leave the village. He would do what he would do, but we would not let him bring destruction to us. He caused disharmony among the people; he must go.

“Otter-Tooth became more angry then than we had ever seen him. He stood up in the center of the village and he shouted until the veins stood out in his neck and his eyes were red with rage.” The girl’s voice dropped. “He shouted terrible things.

“Then he became very quiet, and we were afraid. He said things that took the hearts from our bodies. Even those who had followed him were afraid of him, then.

“He didn’t sleep or eat. For all of a day, and all of a night, and all of the next day, he went on talking, walking round and round the village, stopping at the doors of the houses and talking, until the people in the house drove him away. And then he left.

“But he came back again. And again. He would go away, and hide in the forest, but then he would be back again, by the fires at night, thin and hungry, with his eyes glowing like a fox’s, always talking. His voice filled the village at night, and no one could sleep.

“We began to know that he had an evil spirit in him; perhaps it was Atatarho, from whose head Hiawatha combed the snakes; perhaps the snakes had come to this man, looking for a home. Finally, my brother the war chief said that it must stop; he must leave or we would kill him.”

Tewaktenyonh paused. Her fingers, which had stroked the wampum continuously, as though she drew strength from it for her story, were now still.

“He was a stranger,” she said softly. “But he didn’t know he was a stranger. I think he never understood.”

At the other end of the longhouse the drinking party was growing riotous; all the men were laughing, rocking to and fro with mirth. I could hear the girl Emily’s voice, higher, laughing with them. Tewaktenyonh glanced that way, frowning slightly.

Mice were creeping briskly up and down my spine. A stranger. An Indian, by his face, by his speech; his slightly strange speech. An Indian—with silver fillings in his teeth. No, he hadn’t understood. He had thought they were his people, after all. Knowing what their future held, he had come to try to save them. How could he believe that they meant to do him harm?

But they had meant it. They stripped him, said Tewaktenyonh, her face remote. They tied him to a pole in the center of the village, and painted his face with an ink made from soot and oak galls.

“Black is for death; prisoners who are to be killed are always painted so,” the girl said. One eyebrow lifted slightly. “You knew this when you met the man on the mountain?”

I shook my head, mute. The opal had grown warm in my palm, slick with sweat.

They had tortured him for a time; prodding his nak*d body with sharpened sticks, and then with hot embers, so that blisters rose up and burst, and his skin hung in tatters. He stood this well, not crying out, and this pleased them. He seemed still strong, so they left him overnight, still tied to the pole.

“In the morning, he was gone.” The old woman’s face was smooth with secrets. If she had been pleased, or relieved, or distressed by the escape, no one would ever have known.

“I said that they should not follow him, but my brother said it was no good; he would only come back again, if we did not finish the matter.”

So a party of warriors left the village, on Otter-Tooth’s track. Bloody as he was, it was not difficult to follow.

“They chased him to the south. They thought to catch him, time after time, but he was strong. He ran on. For four days, they followed him, and finally they caught him, in a grove of aspens, leafless in the snow and their branches white as finger bones.”

She saw the question in my eyes at this, and nodded.

“My brother the war chief was there. He told me, afterward.

“He was alone, and unarmed. He had no chance, and knew it. But he faced them nonetheless—and he talked. Even after one of the men had struck him in the mouth with a war club, he talked through the blood, spitting out words with his broken teeth.

“He was a brave man,” she said, reflectively. “He didn’t beg. He told them the same things he had said before, but my brother said this time it was different. Before, he had been hot as fire; dying, he was cold as snow—and because they were so cold, his words terrified the warriors.

“Even when the stranger lay dead in the snow, his words seemed to go on ringing in the warriors’ ears. They lay down to sleep, but his voice talked to them in their dreams, and kept them from sleeping. You will be forgotten, he said. The Nations of the Iroquois will be no more. No one will tell your stories. Everything you are and have been will be lost.

“They turned toward home, but his voice followed them. At night, they could not sleep for the evil words in their ears. In the day, they heard cries and whispers from the trees along their trail. Some of them said it was only ravens calling, but others said no, they heard him plainly.

“At last, my brother said it was clear this man was a sorcerer.”

The old lady glanced sharply at me. Je suis une sorciere, I’d said. I swallowed, and my hand went to the amulet at my neck.

“The thing to do, my brother said, was to cut off his head, and then he would talk no more. So they went back, and they cut off his head, and tied it in the branches of a spruce. But when they slept that night, they still heard his voice, and they woke with shriveled hearts. The ravens had picked out his eyes, but the head still spoke.

“One man, very brave, said he would take the head, and bury it far away.” She smiled briefly. “This brave man was my husband. He wrapped the head in a piece of deerskin, and he ran with it, far to the south, and the head still talking under his arm all the time, so he had to put plugs of beeswax in his ears. At last he saw a very big red cedar tree, and he knew this was the place, because the red cedar has a strong spirit for healing.

“So he buried the head under the tree’s roots, and when he took the beeswax from his ears, he could hear nothing but the wind and water. So he came home, and no one has spoken the name of Otter-Tooth in this village, from that day until this one.”

The girl finished this, eyes on her grandmother. Evidently this was true; she had never heard this story.

I swallowed, and tried to get a clear breath. The smoke had ceased to rise as she talked; it had gathered instead in a low cloud overhead, and the air was thick with narcotic perfume.

The hilarity from the drinking circle had lessened. One of the men got up and, stumbling, went outside. Two more lay on their sides by the fire, half asleep.

“And this?” I said, holding out the opal. “You’ve seen it? It was his?”

Tewaktenyonh reached out as though to touch the stone, but then drew back.

“There is a legend,” the girl said softly, not taking her eyes from the opal. “Magic snakes carry stones in their heads. If you kill such a snake and take the stone, it will give you great power.” She shifted uneasily, and I had no trouble imagining with her the size of the snake that might have carried a stone like this.

The old lady spoke suddenly, nodding at the stone. The girl jumped, but repeated the words obediently.

“It was his,” she said. “He called it his tika-ba.”

I looked at the interpreter, but she shook her head. “Tika-ba,” she said, enunciating clearly. “This is not an English word?”

I shook my head.

Her story finished, the old woman sat back in her furs, watching me with deep speculation. Her eyes rested on the amulet around my neck.

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