Kana'ti crouched, waiting for the dawn. His bare feet anchored on tree roots protruding from the steep, muddy bank of the coosa like ancient arthritic fingers. He was still, quiet, as natural to the valley as the massive poplar tree he leaned on. The rough bark, deeply furrowed, grabbed his smooth dark shoulder, steadied him. He was invisible, wrapped in a stand of younger black willow and redbud saplings, growing abundant under the taller, dense canopy. He wondered if he died there, would he grow into the poplar and live forever towering over the valley? It appealed to him, but dying could wait. At sixteen, life offered too much. He relished the cool water of the coosa, hunting, exploring the ancestral caves and, most of all, Ahyoka from the bird clan. She fevered him. She may not know it, but he would marry her. Her face formed in the water's reflection, her body in the wind rustled tops of the grasses.
His legs burned from the two-mile run from the village over the western ridge. He longed to stand but waited for game as the moving water and solitude calmed him. His father told him patience and remembering were the best skills of the hunter. The patience to wait for prey, the intellect to remember their movements and their habits, gain the advantage. Today would be a good day.
The dawn came. Rain east cleared the sky and swelled the water, covering all but the most elevated sand bars. Currents and eddies, surface and deep, moved like liquid snakes. The rising sun pierced the tree's leaf heavy limbs, spotlighting the saplings and thick grasses below. Where the undulating surface water pieces turned to it, light flashed. A redbird sang a morning song on a branch, feet from his head. The redbird, daughter of the sun, was a good omen. He studied the bird until it quieted, then flew away, its red body illuminated as it pierced the sun's slanting rays amid the trees. He would tell Ahyoka a redbird sat with him. She would be pleased.
Fifty yards north, near the bend, the coosa captured the sound of movement and brought it to him. He turned from the bird to see tall reed stalks leaning toward the water. His patience had paid off. Something big coming to drink. Deer, bear, hog? He gripped the bow at his side, grabbed a sourwood arrow from the quiver behind his left shoulder and readied it on his draw string, standing to a half crouch, then froze. An unrecognizable language rode the water and echoed in the coosa's tree and rock lined chamber. Unnatural. He stood straight, concealed by the poplar. He was not afraid. He feared nothing in the valley.
He saw what he had never seen.
A man, strangely covered, stepped through the thick reeds on the water's edge, then moved onto the sand bar into a dipping ray of light speaking the strange language to no one Kana'ti could see. The man scanned the vegetated and stone lined banks, hands on his hips. Four more strangers emerged, pulling six horses. The old warriors said the eastern people killed natives with a fire spitting stick. To Kana'ti, storytelling to scare children from wandering. Were the stories true? The strangers spread onto the sand bar, pulling horses laden with objects as foreign as their voices. The horses drank. The men knelt by the flowing water, splashing their bearded faces. Two carried a strange long stick with a widened end. Could that be the fire stick?
Near the men, the large flat stone where he often watched the water pass until he fell asleep - the Sleeping Rock – jutted over the water three men high. It would provide a safe, hidden view of the strangers if he was careful, lying low like a snake. The men were loud, consumed with their own actions. It should be easy to reach it unnoticed. He slinked through the brush. Twice he made a mistake - the crack of a dead branch under his left heel, the snap back of a low-lying limb. His father would have scolded him. He was certain they heard him, even if he could not be seen, any warrior from his village would have. But they did not hear him. They did not see him. In less than a minute he was crawling onto the Sleeping Rock like a lizard, moving only when the men turned away. He lay prone near the edge, peering down on the strangers. If discovered, he would sprint to the winding, dipping trails. They could not catch him. He watched, listened. The redbird returned, perched on a cedar branch, looked upon him and then the men. From below, the strange voices came, clearer than before.
"Where is Henry?" The first man from the reeds said. Kana'ti could see him clearer now. He was older, his face worn, stern, confident. The chief. Another man, younger, long haired, wiping his neck with a rag wet from the creek water, responded.
"He is always wandering. Will you not speak to your son, John?"
"It would be in vain, Mr. Weatherby." The chief said, shaking his head, looking up at a large jutting rock that held his gaze. He had seen nothing like on it on their journey. The land was beautiful, mirroring areas of Ulster where he wandered as a boy in the woods around Yorkshire.
"Young Henry is nigh on fourteen and, in his mind, a man. No lessons to learn." The chief said.
The man grunted, wiped his face and neck with the cold water, then spat into it.
"Let the horse's drink. Take a brief rest. We have a lot to see in this valley." The chief said. "Find Henry Cyrus, but do not wander about shouting for him. This is Cherokee land. Shawnee too." The other man stood, nodded, then moved across the sand bar out of sight.
Kana'ti eased his head back up, fascinated by the oddly covered men and the items laden on their horses. The long fire sticks were the most fascinating. Two other men filled canteens, then splashed their face and neck like the second man. Kana'ti watch them with great interest as they moved to their horses, passing a fifth man, older and fatter than the rest. The fat man waded waist deep into the moving green water then slipped, submerging to his neck before righting himself. The two men at the horses laughed. The chief did not. Kana'ti smiled. He knew that hole. Despite the chief's instruction for silence, the fat man spit a series of loud angry bursts, as he fought the current back to the sandbar. Kana'ti judged that man not long for the valley.
As the last of the fat man's profanities dissipated through the trees and skipped down the water until dying, Kana'ti's hair stood up on his neck. He placed his cheek back to the cold stone, then turned his eyes over his right shoulder.
A boy stood where the Sleeping Rock entered the thick vegetation of the bank. Kana'ti rolled to his back and eased up into a half recline, cursing himself for his carelessness, ashamed to be discovered while consumed with the men below. A third insult to his father. More curious than frightened, he studied the boy as the boy studied him. The boy was small, thin, and wore the same strange coverings, even one on his head. The boy pointed the strange stick out in front of him at Kana'ti, but Kana'ti could see that he did not have eyes of a hunter. The stick wavered in the boy's trembling hands. Down below, the men carried on, oblivious.
The boy took in the flesh and bone version of the crazed savage he had been told about his whole life. Savage baby killer. Cannibal. This one was younger, like him. The first he had ever seen. He stood trance like, shocked by the sudden discovery. The savage looked as curiously surprised as he and something in his eyes told him this was no savage. The boy lowered his weapon.
Kana'ti sat up. He calculated a quick leap to his left, then to the thick bank. He would be on the trail before the boy could react, then to the village over the ridge to tell his people about these strangers and his escape. It would be a great story. They would mobilize the men. All eyes would be on him, especially Ahyoka's. He grabbed his bow lying flat on the stone next to him and pushed his body up.
A crack snapped the air. Kana'ti flinched. His first thought was a beaver had slapped his tail on the coosa, but he knew no beavers in this part of the valley. The boy, startled, squinted, scrunched his shoulders, and turned to his right. A figure stood hidden in the thick brush. Kana'ti recognized him. The long-haired man who had wiped his neck and disappeared, now pointing the strange stick at him. Smoke oozed from it. Kana'ti could not get up. Searing pain screamed from the middle of him. Blood left his skin in dark runnels down his side. He probed the hole in his flesh with his finger, then quickly retracted it - the pain more than anything he had ever known. Dark red blood formed a pool on the Sleeping Rock. The syrupy liquid oozed in all directions, filling the contours of the stone until emptying off the sides onto the coosa's bank, onto the root fingers of the large red oak that stood by the Sleeping Rock.
The men below shouted. The long-haired man pushed through thick cedar branches and hovering smoke, then stepped onto the Sleeping Rock.
"Henry. Go to your father." The man said.
"Mr. Weatherby I… is he a Cherok…." The man nodded in the direction he had come before the boy could finish.
"He is a savage, a godless savage. That is what he is. All he will ever be. He will be no more shortly." The man said.
The boy gave Kana'ti a last look, then disappeared into the brush through the fading smoke.
"I will kill more like you." The man said with an arrogance and evil Kana'ti recognized. An inflection of voice and curl of lip that is the same regardless of language.
"You should know that Cyrus Weatherby..." The man pointed to his chest as he emphasized Cyrus Weatherby with a long thumb, dark with dirt under the nail. "… is out to kill every one of you godless bastards."
The evil man spit. A thick, mucus filled projectile landed somewhere below Kana'ti's chin. He did not feel it and did not care. The blood flowed from him in parallel to the water flowing in the coosa below the Sleeping Rock. He had never felt so weak. It stole his fight, his pride. Copper tasting fluid filled his mouth. He turned his head to spit but could not. The searing pain began to ease. He could see the evil man's lips moving, shouting, but he could not hear him. The chief and the boy appeared next the evil man. They looked upon him. The chief man appeared to be talking sternly to the evil man, but Kana'ti could not hear him.
A serene rustle of moving water and a whistling breeze through the high leaves sang to him. He turned to the branch where the red bird had been. It had flown away. Through an opening in the rising trees, the bluest morning sky held his dark brown eyes. Moving into it, like a giant passing cloud, the face of Ahyoka. She spoke to him.
Be still Kana'ti. Be still. Her face was more beautiful than he had ever seen it.
A flash of lightning jolted him awake. Rain touched him, but different than before. He could not see. He tried to move but could not. I must be dead. This is death. A sightless, unmoving existence, forever. It was not what he was told it would be. He must have angered the spirits somehow. He remembered laying on the Sleeping Rock, weak, the man, the cy… rus..wethby, with the stinging stick, standing over him. It took great effort to open, focus his eyes, gauge his surroundings, as if peering through a waterfall. His vision sharpened, enough for him to determine he was in the red oak tree. The tree that had stood by the Sleeping Rock for two hundred years, a partner, wood to rock. Why would they put me here, these strange men?
Below him, through several branches, the rock sat as it had done for hundreds of years, but its edges moved, shifted. He tried to grab it with his mind, gain balance, find the stains of his blood, but there were none. He listened for the men, the horses, but heard nothing but the coosa's flowing water and the normal sounds of the valley. But now, they were amplified to him, like the echoing, concentrated sounds dancing through the rock caves. Multiple pieces of vision, fractures of sunlight on the coosa, filled his eyes. He was, at once, high enough to see the Sleeping Rock below, yet so low it shadowed him. He could see nothing but clouds above him, yet also the coosa flowing near his face, the trees of the valley before him, a redbird on his arm, inches from his eye, paying him no attention.
He saw all things at once.
He screamed but heard no sound from himself.
The shock of his new death state was too much and he fell into a sleep.
He awoke to voices. He remembered, understood, though some words were fleeting. At his feet, or what he thought were his feet - his low - were people, his people, moving through the forest to the west.
Help me, I am hurt. Here I am! He screamed to them.
They passed inches away on the path behind the Sleeping Rock and the red oak, some touching him, but they did not hear. He tried to reach for them, but his arms, so many arms, would not respond. He watched as they moved past, carrying all their belongings, helpless.
Why do they leave the valley? We have never left the valley.
A word that was not as fleeting, mother, gained his attention from his low and, for an instant, he could see the face of a woman, the first woman he ever saw, smiling at him, then it was gone.
"What is it, mother?" A young girl, not much younger than him, said to a woman kneeling on the Sleeping Rock, touching its surface, closing her eyes.
"A young man died here a long time ago." She said. "A great brave hunter with pleasant eyes. I would stare at him across the fire. Before your father. Kana'ti. His name was Kana'ti."
She turned her head all around, taking in the Sleeping Rock and all around it for one last time. When she turned to him, he knew her. Older, but still beautiful. So beautiful. More beautiful. His heart danced and ached, but he could not feel it beat.
I am here Ahyola. It is Kana'ti, I am here!
Ahyola touched the Sleeping Rock once more, stood, then moved toward him. She placed her hand on him to steady herself as she stepped off the Sleeping Rock toward the path, tears in her eyes. So close, the honeysuckle smell of her skin brought him back to the field where they first kissed. So close, the scar on her forehead from a childhood fall clearly visible. He tried to hold her but could not. He screamed again, Ahyola it is me, Kana'ti. Can you not see me?
She grasped the girl's hand and mother and daughter moved through the forest toward the others. He watched them from his low and then his high until they were small as rabbits, then disappeared. The pain in his heart, the aching loneliness so great and unyielding, unending, he could not bear it and he fell into the sleep again.
The sound of children laughing awakened him, though he knew not what it was. His first instinct was to scream again.
Ay..Ayo……….it is me Kana…..Kan….it….si….em
But he could not remember the faces, the names, even his own, and the language eluded him. It was unimportant. Something deep in him, somewhere, told him he was something different. Not Keetoowa, not bird or bear. He was what was. He could see clearly. No struggle like before, no panic, the low, the high, the all around.
His low showed him two familiar creatures. Living things. Small, defenseless, shrilling like birds as they swirled around his low like leaves. It gave him pleasure. These two small young things that danced around him, climbed on him… the… the… children. Yes, that was it. The boy, the girl. Children. It came to him not as words but as an understanding, like everything now in the valley he understood many things in an ancient way that both scared and surprised him.
The children came to him through many seasons. He knew it passed but he counted no time, no months, no years, only the changes that came in an unending passage like the water through the coosa. The passing of the sun, falling snow, and the time when pieces of him fell to the ground and he felt naked. He would watch from his low when they played and from his high when they returned through the sun drenched or snow-covered grass fields and plantings to the structure in the distance where the…the… people, yes the people, the man and the woman moved and sometimes called the children's names. This was how it was until the children came no more and he did not see them from his low or his high. It saddened him. Two more seasons came and the one who moved in the plantings, the woman, was gone like the children.
Now all he could see from the high was the man.
From his high and his all-around, he could see others like him fall, hear the crack and their screams as they hit the ground, feel the ground shake through the soil and stone. The valley was being eaten, replaced with the plantings and the structures the people moved in and out of, constantly swelling, like a flooding coosa.
It saddened him, so he slept.
He awoke to a great pain in the snow season. From his low, a part of him screamed. He had never felt such pain. He vaguely recalled a great pain in the long past but did not remember what it was. He looked upon the one hurting him from his low. The man was harming him. He screamed until his arm was gone and the pulse of it throbbed through him. He watched the man move away in a crouch, the piece of him dragged across the snow-covered ground toward the structure, leaving long scratches like scars. He watched from his low, then his high.
This time, he did not sleep.
He focused on the piece of him as the man carried it away, then he became it.
From it, he saw the snow, then the gray sky from where he had never seen it before. The man's face, fleeting, old, his hands, wrinkled like bark, passed before his vision. He could see, for he was the piece, and he could see his all-around from it.
He was brought into the structure he had watched for years from his high. Inside, dark and damp, pieces of things like him lay everywhere in heaps, shaped and carved. He could smell their suffering. Other things he did not know. The old man cut him more into pieces of five. He screamed in pain with every pull and push from the thing he did not know. The man then took one of the five pieces of him to a table and sat in front of it.
As he did before, he moved his being to the piece the man moved to the table.
From the outside, a sound came.
"Hello, you there?"
He heard but could not see from the piece of him on the table, so he became the rest of him near the coosa, but the pain did not leave when he did. He could feel the pain from every cut, from every piece of him, wherever it was.
From his high at the water, he could see a man come to structure, carrying something that he did not know from the distance. The man moved into the structure, so he returned to his piece there.
"Aye, in here." The old man said.
Into the structure came the man, younger, speaking to the old man.
"You the gunsmith?"
"Aye. Best smith in Kentucky anyway."
"So I was told." The man said, as he unwrapped a cloth around a long object.
"I am Thomas Hicks from the valley over. I am in need of replacing the stock and lock on this long rifle." The man handed the rifle to the old man, who turned it in his leathery hands.
From the piece of him on the table, he watched with no understanding. The strange object familiar, but of no consequence to him.
"Repair will be no trouble for Cyrus Weatherby." The old man said, tapping his chest.
"Need a week. Cost you a shilling or two sacks of potatoes. Would rather the potatoes."
The man nodded and left.
Something deep in him stirred, in all the five pieces of him there and the rest of him at the coosa.
Cy…rus Weath…by. The sound burned him, but he did not know why.
The old man's spotted face, inches from him, scowled and moved like sliding mud in his vision as he was turned repeatedly on the table.
Then the cutting began again. Sharp. The pain came hot, searing, worse than the first and second cuttings, the burning shaving of his skin. He watched as smaller pieces of him flew in the air onto the old man's gnarled hands, some to the table, some to the dirt floor.
The old man, satisfied with his butchering, turned this piece of him up on the table like a tree and he and the old man became still. Now this piece of him had a high and a low, his high more pointed, bare. The old man touched the tip of his high with a crooked finger, the nail choked with dirt. Behind it he saw the black eyes, the smirking face.
It came to him like the thousand flashes of the sky lightning he had watched from his high for countless years, countless seasons.
This was the Cy… rus Weath..by that killed me! That took my Ahyola away!
From the coosa, the rest of him waved its countless arms as if a great wind passed on it alone. The wind in the rest of the valley was quiet. No sounds of birds, animals could be heard. Even the coosa slowed it timeless flow to a stop, as if it was a lake. Everything from the all-around paused to respect what was happening in the structure.
The pieces of him on the dirt floor vibrated. The piece of him on the table moved, alive, in the old man's hands. The old man's faced contorted into an expression of amazement as he leaned in closer to the piece he held, as if his eye's needed confirmation from what his hands already knew.
Cyrus Weatherby. I know you.
The burning, vibrating piece of him on the table, with his pointed high, flew up from the old man's hands with the stored anger of fifty-five years, jamming its bare pointed tip into the old man's left eye, the eye that lined up the fire stick for his death. His high struck with force, the force of a butchered nature's justice. The old man's eye socket cracked, then splintered outward, misshaping the skull like a swelling carcass as he fell off his stool, straight back and down to the dirt floor with a thud. The thick weight thud of something dead.
The old man's face stared up into the dark of the structure, his right eye locked in a countenance of horror and shock.
A week later, the man came for his rifle, carrying two sacks of potatoes. Inside, the bloated, stinking body of the old man lay still and stiff as the Sleeping Rock. The man recoiled back to the door, swung it open and vomited, hands on his knees. Wiping his mouth, he stood and turned in amazement to the great sound of a giant red oak near the creek moving and twisting as if in a great storm, all other trees around it still as frozen ice.
I am Kana'ti. I remember.
Patience and remembering were the best skills of the hunter.
His father told him that.