The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 182

   

He hadn’t spoken at all for the first few days of surveying, terribly relieved not to have to. Now he was beginning to talk again, though—disliking the hoarse, mangled sound of the words, but not so bothered, since there was no one else to hear.

He heard the gurgle then of water over stones, and burst through a screen of willow saplings to find the stream at his feet, sun sparking off the water. He knelt and drank and splashed his face, then chose the spots along the bank from which to take his sightings. He dug the ledger book, ink, and quill from the leather bag over his shoulder, and fished the astrolabe out of his shirt.

He had a song in his head—again. They sneaked in when he wasn’t looking, melodies singing in his inner ear like sirens from the rocks, ready to dash him in pieces.

Not this one, though. He smiled to himself, as he nudged the bar of the astrolabe and sighted on a tree on the opposite bank. It was a children’s song, one of the counting songs Bree sang to Jemmy. One of those terrible songs that got into one’s head and wouldn’t get out again. As he took his sightings and made the notations in his book, he chanted under his breath, ignoring the cracked distortion of the sounds.

“The . . . ants go . . . mar-shing . . . one . . . by one.”

Five thousand acres. What in hell was he to do with it? What in hell was he to do, period?

“Down . . . to . . . the gr-grround . . . to ggetout . . . atha RAIN . . . bum, bum, bum . . .”

I DISCOVERED QUICKLY why my name had appeared to have significance to Tsatsa’wi; the name of the village was Kalanun’yi—Raventown. I didn’t see any ravens as we rode in, but did hear one, calling hoarsely from the trees.

The village lay in a charming location; a narrow river valley at the foot of a smallish mountain. The town itself was surrounded by a small spread of fields and orchards. A middling stream ran past it, dropping down a small cataract and flowing off down the valley into what looked from a distance like a huge thicket of bamboo—a canebrake, it was called, the leafy giant canes glowing dusty gold in the sun of early afternoon.

We were greeted with cordial enthusiasm by the residents of the town, lavishly fed and entertained for a day and a night. In the afternoon of the second day, we were invited to join in what I gathered was a petition to whichever Cherokee deity was in charge of hunting, to invoke favor and protection for the expedition against the ghost-bear that was to take place next day.

It had not occurred to me, prior to meeting Jackson Jolly, that there might be as much variance in talent among Indian shaman as there was among the Christian clergy. I had by this time encountered several of both species, but buffered by the mysteries of language, had not previously realized that a calling as shaman did not necessarily guarantee a person the possession of personal magnetism, spiritual power, or a gift for preaching.

Watching a slow glaze spread across the features of the people packed into Peter Bewlie’s wife’s father’s house, I realized now that whatever his personal charm or connections with the spirit world, Jackson Jolly was sadly lacking in the last of these talents.

I had noticed a certain look of resignation on the faces of some of the congregation as the shaman took his place before the hearth, clad in a shawl-like blanket of red flannel, and wearing a mask carved in the semblance of a bird’s face. As he began to speak, in a loud, droning voice, the woman next to me shifted her weight heavily from one leg to the other and sighed.

The sighing was contagious, but it wasn’t as bad as the yawning. Within minutes, half the people around me were gaping, eyes watering like fountains. My own jaw muscles ached from being clenched, and I saw Jamie blinking like an owl.

Jolly was undoubtedly a sincere shaman; he also appeared to be a boring one. The only person who appeared riveted by his petitions was Jemmy, who perched in Brianna’s arms, mouth hanging open in awe.

The chant for bear-hunting was a fairly monotonous one, featuring endless repetitions of “He! Hayuya’haniwa, hayuya’haniwa, hayuya’haniwa . . .” Then slight variations on the theme, each verse ending up with a rousing—and rather startling—“Yoho!”, as though we were all about to set sail on the Spanish main with a bottle of rum.

The congregation exhibited more enthusiasm during this song, though, and it finally dawned on me that what was wrong was probably not with the shaman himself. The ghost-bear had been plaguing the village for months; they must have gone through this particular ceremony several times, already, with no success. No, it wasn’t that Jackson Jolly was a poor preacher; only that his congregation was suffering a lack of faith.

After the conclusion of the song, Jolly stamped fiercely on the hearth as punctuation to something he was saying, then took a sage-wand from his pouch, thrust it into the fire, and began to march round the room, waving the smoke over the congregation. The crowd parted politely as he marched up to Jamie and circled him and the Beardsley twins several times, chanting and perfuming them with wafts of fragrant smoke.

Jemmy thought this intensely funny. So did his mother, who was standing on my other side, vibrating with suppressed giggling. Jamie stood tall and straight, looking extremely dignified, as Jolly—who was quite short—hopped around him like a toad, lifting the tail of his coat to perfume his backside. I didn’t dare catch Brianna’s eye.

This phase of the ceremony complete, Jolly regained his position by the fire and began to sing again. The woman next to me shut her eyes and grimaced slightly.

My back was beginning to ache. At long last, the shaman concluded his proceedings with a shout. He then retired into the offing and took off his mask, wiping the sweat of righteous labor from his brow and looking pleased with himself. The headman of the village then stepped up to speak, and people began to shift and stir.

I stretched, as unobtrusively as possible, wondering what there might be for supper. Distracted by these musings, I didn’t at first notice that the shiftings and stirrings were becoming more pronounced. Then the woman beside me straightened up abruptly and said something loud, in a tone of command. She cocked her head to one side, listening.

The headman stopped talking at once, and all around me people began to look upward. Bodies grew rigid and eyes grew wide. I heard it, too, and a sudden shiver raised gooseflesh on my forearms. The air was filled with a rush of wings.

“What on earth is that?” Brianna whispered to me, looking upward like everyone else. “The descent of the Holy Ghost?”

I had no idea, but it was getting louder—much louder. The air was beginning to vibrate, and the noise was like a long, continuous roll of thunder.

“Tsiskwa!” shouted a man in the crowd, and all of a sudden there was a stampede for the door.

Rushing out of the house, I thought at first that a storm had come suddenly upon us. The sky was dark, the air filled with thunder, and a strange, dim light flickered over everything. But there was no moisture in the air, and a peculiar smell filled my nose—not rain. Definitely not rain.

“Birds, my god, it’s birds!” I barely heard Brianna behind me, among the chorus of amazement all around. Everyone stood in the street, looking up. Several children, frightened by the noise and darkness, started to cry.

It was unnerving. I had never seen anything like it—nor had most of the Cherokee, judging from their reaction. It felt as though the ground was shaking; the air was certainly shaking, vibrating to the clap of wings like a drum being slapped with frantic hands. I could feel the pulse of it on my skin, and the cloth of my kerchief tugged, wanting to rise on the wind.

The paralysis of the crowd didn’t last long. There were shouts here and there, and all of a sudden, people were rushing up and down the street, charging into their houses and racing out again, with bows. Within seconds, a perfect hail of arrows was zipping up into the cloud of birds, and feathered bodies plopped out of the sky to land in limp, blood-soaked blobs, pierced with arrows.

Bodies weren’t the only thing plopping out of the sky. A juicy dropping struck my shoulder, and I could see a rain of falling particles, a noxious precipitation from the thundering flock overhead, raising tiny puffs of dust from the street as the droppings struck. Down feathers shed from the passing birds floated in the air like dandelion seeds, and here and there, larger feathers knocked from tails and wings spiraled down like miniature lances, bobbing in the wind. I hastily backed up, taking shelter under the eaves of a house with Brianna and Jemmy.

We watched from our refuge in awe, as the villagers jostled each other in the street, archers shooting as fast as they could, one arrow following on the heels of another. Jamie, Peter Bewlie, and Josiah had all run for their guns, and were among the crowd, blasting away, not even troubling to aim. It wasn’t necessary; no one could miss. Children, streaked with bird droppings, dodged and darted through the crowd, picking up the fallen birds, piling them in heaps by the doorsteps of the houses.

It must have lasted for nearly half an hour. We crouched under the eaves, half-deafened by the noise, hypnotized by the unceasing rush overhead. After the first fright, Jemmy stopped crying, but huddled close in his mother’s arms, head buried under the drape of her kerchief.

It was impossible to make out individual birds in that violent cascade; it was no more than a river of feathers that filled the sky from one side to the other. Above the thunder of the wings, I could hear the birds calling to each other, a constant susurrus of sound, like a wind storm rushing through the forest.

At last—at long last—the great flock passed, stray birds trailing from the ragged fringe of it as it crossed the mountain and disappeared.

The village sighed as one. I saw people rubbing at their ears, trying to get rid of the clap and echo of the flight. In the midst of the crowd, Jackson Jolly stood beaming, liberally plastered with down feathers and bird droppings, eyes glowing. He spread out his arms and said something, and the people nearby murmured in response.

“We are blessed,” Tsatsa’wi’s sister translated for me, looking deeply impressed. She nodded at Jamie and the Beardsley twins. “The Ancient White has sent us a great sign. They will find the evil bear, surely.”

I nodded, still feeling slightly stunned. Beside me, Brianna stooped and picked up a dead bird, holding it by the slender arrow that pierced it through. It was a plump thing, and very pretty, with a delicate, smoky-blue head and buff-colored breast feathers, the wing plumage a soft reddish-brown. The head lolled limp, the eyes covered by fragile, wrinkled gray-blue lids.

“It is, isn’t it?” she said, softly.

“I think it must be,” I answered, just as softly. Gingerly, I put out a finger and touched the smooth plumage. As signs and portents went, I was unsure whether this one was a good omen, or not. I had never seen one before, but I was quite sure that the bird I touched was a passenger pigeon.

THE HUNTERS SET FORTH before dawn the next day. Brianna parted reluctantly from Jemmy, but swung up into her saddle with a lightness that made me think she wouldn’t pine for him while hunting. As for Jemmy himself, he was much too absorbed in rifling the baskets under the bed platform to take much notice of his mother’s leaving.

The women spent the day in plucking, roasting, smoking, and preserving the pigeons with wood-ash; the air was filled with drifting down and the scent of grilled pigeon livers was thick in the air, as the whole village gorged on this delicacy. For my part, I helped with the pigeons, interspersing this work with entertaining conversation and profitable barter, only pausing now and then to look toward the mountain where the hunters had gone, and say a brief silent prayer for their well-being—and Roger’s.

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