by Carolyn Dunn
The Sun grieved and grieved for her daughter. She would not come out, no matter how her grandchildren pleaded. Bowlegs searched for Redbird in the ash trees until he became gaunt and a ghost himself. Heartbroken, Nanyehi begged the Little Ones one more time for peace among the People. The Little Ones told her that to make payment, the People must send ten of their strongest men warriors and ten of their most beautiful women warriors to the house of the Sun, where they would dance and sing to coax her to smile once again. They followed the Little People’s instructions until the warriors were ragged with exhaustion, but at last the Sun entered the Land of the People and the long cold was finally ended.Nanyehi had led her people to the light. But not without sacrifice.
The dancers dance closer now. The ghost light flashes against Carlisle’s eyes. Suddenly, she’s leaping forward, moving across the circle. None of them seems to notice her. Not even Carlisle’s sister, Kim, who acts like she’s not there. I leap up too, and as I look across the circle, one of them is watching me. It’s Teya Lee, Carlisle’s grandmother. I know instantly Teya Lee does not want to give her son up, even to his daughter.
Carlisle takes hold of Johnny’s arm. She pulls him out of the circle, and before he knows what’s hit him she’s got him running with her down the path. I back away from Teya Lee’s dark face. Beyond her, the dancers are moving slow. I feel their eyes upon me. They know I do not belong there. . .here. . .in the Land of the Dead. I belong with Carlisle. With the living.
I run toward Carlisle. I can see her nightgown trailing gossamer in the wind, hair flying dark feathers down her back. Johnny’s ghost doesn’t say a word. Carlisle’s living grip is too hard, we are running too fast. We come to those ash–like trees, and there’s the sound of my breath and Carlisle’s breath and my heart and her heart and they’re beating the same. We run from the whispers and songs of the Land of the Dead, leave it behind us.
As soon as we reach the edge of the woods, Johnny starts wailing like I’ve never heard before. "Stop!" he cries, "I need my breath! I left my breath behind!"
Carlisle keeps running, I keep running. She knows the story now. If we stop, even for a moment, she will lose him. He’ll go back.
The trees of ash are behind us now. The ground is covered in moonlight. We’re getting closer. I can feel it. I can almost see the light on Johnny’s face. I can see his eyes now.
"Stop!" he yells. "I can’t breathe!"
Ahead of me, Carlisle hesitates. That moment, the space of a small glimmer of hesitation, is all it takes. Her grip is broken and Johnny’s spirit moves away from her. I can no longer see his face.
"Daddy!" she screams, her words ripping my heart. "Daddy! Come back!" She reaches for him, but her hands can’t catch him. "Don’t leave me again, God damn it! You come back here to me and Mama right now!" she cries, "do you hear me?!" Tears are streaming down her cheeks. "I can’t let you go!"
He’s slipping away.
"Come back here! Grandma doesn’t need you, Sister doesn’t need you! Shit, Daddy, do you hear me? Don’t leave again!"
He’s gone. But I can hear his voice on the wind, whispering in the moonlight. The dust and ash stir up at our feet. "Bebe, noja. . .noja. . ."
Payment is demanded, must be made. The Little Ones, they are no exception. Sometimes it is a soul, sometimes it is a life. There is a difference between the two and the Yunwitsansdi are clever enough to know the difference. Does the story end here? It never ends. Ask Bowlegs. He still wanders, looking for Redbird. He is a pale shadow of the former great War Chief. A ghost caught between light and ash. What would it be for Carlisle and me? Would we also be caught between Tsusgina’i and the world in which ghosts are nothing but painful reminders of what we had lost?
It’s Carlisle’s crying that wakes me up. I reach around her, pull her naked to me, rest my chin upon her shoulder. The water of her tears touches me and her hands wrap around mine. I feel like she could take over my soul, the way her eyes close when her skin presses against mine. I kiss the top of her shoulder. She makes no sound. I lick the dusting of ash where her neck and shoulder meet. I start to sing. "Ma ki no, tla la ga his. . ." I can swear, somewhere in the night, beyond the City lights, past the dark of the woods, I can hear turtle shell rattles.They’re out there, the little ones, singing their magic and calling to her. I move against her, singing into her ear, where she will hear only my voice.
"Bebe, noja. Noja, noja. . ."
Mother has gone to find turtle shells.
She says she’ll be back tomorrow.
Noja, noja. . .
I keep her steady against me, diving deep. I will anchor here, safe in her home. Keep her safe from the spirits who want her so much. She’s my wife now, not Johnny’s daughter anymore, not Yunwitsansdi. I will give her my soul, my life.
She sighs against my arm. There’s a long tradition of strong women in her family. Testimony to the strength of mothers, I suppose, but it is me who sings her home.