by Carolyn Dunn
The Little Ones could not resist Nanyehi’s beautiful soul, and they took pity upon her. They made magic again, changing Nanyehi into a great serpent and her beloved Bowlegs into a rattlesnake. They sent the snakes to Redbird’s house, where they knew the Sun would not expect to find them.
In their haste to finish the job, the snakes came upon Redbird and charged their venom into her blood. When they’d returned to the Little Ones, the Sun arrived and found her daughter dead. The Sun went into Redbird’s house and grieved. The people no longer died from her heat, but the world became dark and cold because the Sun’s grief over her daughter was too great.
The Little Ones could see Nanyehi and Bowlegs coming towards them for days. They were human now, but bore the mark of the snake as payment for the Little Ones’ magic. The people had been burnt, now they perished in ice. The sun had vanished from the sky. There was much to be said for the magic of the Yunwitsansdi. Powerful magic indeed.
Now the Peace Chief begged for help to make the Sun appear once more, so the Little Ones gave sticks to Nanyehi and Bowlegs with which to bring Redbird back home. They would go to the Darkening Land, Tsusgina’i, the Ghost Country. There Nanyehi would find Redbird dancing in the ghost circle. They would bring a cedar box with them, put the Redbird in it, and bring her home.
Easy enough. Nanyehi’s confidence and trust of the Little Ones was pure. She and Bowlegs would make the trip to Tsusgina’i and bring Redbird home.
Night is a time of dreams. The world is now at rest around us. The rain has stopped, but I close my eyes and I can still hear it falling. Grief killed Johnny Emmanuel, Carlisle’s father, that long–legged Cherokee man. A grief so great it built within him and caused him to bend, to give in. Johnny’s heart didn’t give up, it just broke, and there was no fixing it this time.
Leaves crack, dry and brittle underneath my feet. Behind me, in our little City house, Carlisle lies sleeping — the sheets like gossamer, like spider threads, windblown, on the cold night breeze. I should be with her, beneath the sheets. I should be sleeping too.
But the night calls me out. It is a time of dreams, a time of in–betweens. It is a time where borders are blurred and people and spirits are one. Suddenly there are a thousand tiny sparkles of light giving up names and remembering, and within me I call on the ancestors, my Muskogees, and those old Cherokees, those Choctaws who came before me. I look ahead of me and suddenly I see my Carlisle, tall against the tallest trees, legs long like Johnny’s.She is staring at something. I turn behind me and see nothing but stars and dust.
And then they are. Moving from stars and swirling upon smoke and ash. As I move closer, I can see them. Yunwitsansdi. Their faces pinched in darkness. I turn back to Carlisle and find she is speaking to them, and they are singing. Touching her face, their breath upon her arms, her legs, her breasts.
I move to her. There’s no wind, no air, and I’m finding it hard to breathe. I hear the singing growing louder. Pcvi howe, pcvi howe. Go there. Make me invincible. It is Carlisle singing now, not them. They are the ones who taught us the songs. She turns to me, her eyes black as darkest night, and I am lost.
"Ashes," I hear her whisper between the songs, and yet her lips don’t move. "Ashes. Washing in ash."
I look around as I reach her. The trees all have a blanket of ash, washed white in the moonlight, and she’s still singing. Where the Little People have touched Carlisle, their marks remain. Red diamonds borne into flesh. She’s speaking to me but I can’t hear what she’s saying. I don’t understand her. I don’t understand any of this. I only see the diamondback marks on her flesh, and the Little People with no mouths moving in song.
The Darkening Land was full of the light of fire, and ash, and Nanyehi and Bowlegs were not afraid. They came to the arbor, came to the place of dancing and saw the ghosts there, their dancing light and free, spider webs on wind, dancing light as air. The Peace Chief and the War Chief came to the circle and sat, watching the dance. None of the ghosts seemed to notice them, for Nanyehi and Bowlegs bore the marks of the Underwater–world, that of the Little Ones.
They saw Redbird dancing in the ash–light, and reached out to tap her with their sticks. Nanyehi took hold of Redbird’s wrist and Bowlegs pushed the girl into the cedar box, then he shut the lid fast and the two of them ran for the land of the People. As they got closer to the People, the ghost-girl in the box began to shriek. "Stop! Stop! I’m so hungry," she cried, but Nanyehi and Bowlegs kept on running. In the darkness they were running, as Redbird cried, "Stop! Stop! I’m thirsty!" Nanyehiand Bowlegs kept their pace, but Redbird’s moans and wails grew stronger.As they came to the border of the Darkening Land the girl’s wails grew even louder. "Air!" she cried, "I am smothering!" Afraid that the ghost was really dying, Bowlegs stopped and lifted the lid for a spot of air. As he did so, they heard the sound "Hwish! Hwish! Hwish!". . .and into the ash trees the Redbird flew, never to return home.
I can see Carlisle moving ahead of me on the path into the trees white with ash, and yet I can also feel her beside me, her flesh pressed to mine in our bed. I hear our dreaming. . .breath–signs of sleep and I turn over, away from her, Sometimes I can’t see between the dreams and the days. Our lives seem to be taking shape in the old stories we both know in our sleep. A mourning dove calls me on. Where Carlisle has touched me, black diamonds sprout upon my skin.
The leaves snap and crack under my feet. I look down. I’m not wearing any shoes, but I feel nothing against the ash–covered ground where the earth touches the tallest trees. The brightness of the ash is fading now as we move closer under the blanket of trees, hidden from the white light of the moon. I don’t want any part of this magic, I’m thinking, but I love her and I will follow her.
I can hear them now, over the singing, those spirits calling her name. I can’t see them with my eyes but I can see them in other ways. I feel their hair upon my skin, taste their breath in the white ash. I can smell them upon me.
My eyes are on Carlisle the whole way, and when I think I may be losing her I wish her closer and she is closer. They mean her no harm. I am not so sure about what they mean me.
We come to an open place in the trees, and there is suddenly a lighter part to this darkness; yet there is no light shining down, no moon or stars above. I know who is here. I know who they are, all of them: the ancestors and everyone and everything who came before, bodies burnt by fire and ice and grassland flames, skin torn by Long Knife and musket. They are dancing in the ghosted darkness, and the singing keeps them moving. There is no moon in the Land of the Dead, and they’re singing, singing us forward. Carlisle moves through the arbor and I’m behind her. I won’t let her go.
I know what she is after. I can feel it in my blood. There’s a patch of wet ash next to the dancers. She moves forward, sits there in the dampness, the ghost light of the dancers illuminating her face. That’s how I know the difference between the living and the dancers. Their faces remain in shadow.
Carlisle waits. She watches.
I sit next to her.
The ghost light shimmers across her face. I turn away and watch the dancers. Emmanuels. Greens. Harjos. Andersons. . . I know them but I don’t want to know them. Someday the spirits will tell the story about how the Little People sent the adder and the rattlesnake to get the daughter of the Sun from the Darkening Land. The Daughter of the Sun did not want to come back. But the serpents, they made her.