a short story | historical fiction, native american, literary
This tale explores the role of nature and fantastical elements in Native American story-telling. Set along the Catawba River in 18th-century North America, the narrator is a small boy whose father has gone to war. His village; the Iswa tribe, has been in a continuous state of unrest with the Iroquois Nation of the North. After countless raids and many dead, his family is fearful that Noshi–his father and possibly the last hope for the Kawahcatawbas to survive–will not return, taking solace in visions and faith to bring him home.
photograph by Vijay Somalinga
The Seneca have been raiding our villages for decades.
They come in the silent night when children sleep to cricket symphonies. They wake to their mothers’ screams and their fathers howling into battle.
They come in the absence of our warriors, which dwindle in numbers from the white man’s fever. I am not old enough to fight, but I am wise enough to see that the Kawahcatawbas, the people of the river, will not defeat the Iroquois Nation of the North. The Iswa promised the settlers we would stay in our territories along the Catawba River, the Iroquois to remain beyond the Potomac, but they come through the trees, emerging like the otter to the bank from the gleaming river.
Noshi has been missing for months; one of our village’s strongest fighters and my mother’s life mate. Viho, my older brother, looks after her, washing her hair in the Catawba. He stares wide-eyed like the owl through the night.
My mother is Muna, an overflowing spring. She sees visions of our father: he is dragged through the dry, frigid dirt of the northern coast, neither dead nor living. She rocks back and forth by the fire, farming the flames, holding the infant Shilah as she sings.
Our sister, Nova, hums beside her. She believes father lives, and she has dreamt of Noshi: he overpowers the Seneca warriors and dives into the Potomac under a veil of the first rainfall, dodging a net of bullets and arrows as they curve behind him.
Muna begged him not to go; to protect the widowed mothers and fatherless children of the village. He refused, holding her at dawn in his ruby-scarred arms. “We are Iswa,” he said. “We will fight to keep blood from the river. Theirs will taste like our dead, and they will drown in the tears of our widows.”
I had sat upon the skins and furs laid out along the dirt, scratching at a stain of blood not left by animal, and cried. Mother picked me up, and my legs fell below her tot belly, Shilah just a promise then. Viho stood beside her with broad shoulders; without emotion. Nova wrapped her arms around our father’s waist, her coo low. Noshi kissed each of us that day, twice for mother, one for her lips and another for her belly. He left, his eyes kept to the land. Nineteen other men followed him, some older than he, and a few even younger than Viho.
Our father’s shadow flickered through the trees until he disappeared into the blinding daylight. We resumed our strength; we chanted nightly to Manatou and His Son to bring Noshi back to us. If he did not return, Viho would become the village leader, and I would become our family’s protector. Without a warrior to teach us how to fight, the Seneca might come to butcher our mother, our sister, and our baby brother before our eyes. Then, the Kawahcatawbas would be forever lost; returned to the soil like the harvest.
The images haunt me, and I disguise my fear, playing with mother’s hands as she rests from skinning rabbits. She loves us, but she is losing herself with the eastern wind. And it carries pieces of her far from the Catawba.
Once she finally sleeps, Viho comes to me with roasted meat, a rabbit leg coated in spices given to us by the white men. It is charred by the fire. He tells me he has seen father.
My heart races and I stand: “Where is he, brother? Where have you seen him?”
Viho takes my arm, bringing me back to the ground, and lifts the leg toward my mouth. “Eat,” he orders. “You will need your strength.”
I do as I am told, taking large bites of the stringy texture, swallowing and gulping so that I can receive my reward. Where is our father? Where is Noshi?
“I have had a vision,” Viho begins.
I shake my head. Both Nova and our mother have had countless dreams of father, none have come to pass.
“No,” he grabs my arm, squeezing me tightly. “I have seen father, like the elders do in the smoke. I have seen Noshi in my mind. He killed seven of the Seneca. They were accompanied by a white man with spectacles. He wore shoes. The white man fell to his knees and bowed to father. Father let him live.
“But then, he was surprised by more Seneca warriors and made to surrender, his comrades dead along the forest floor. He was bound and starved, walking hundreds of miles from the colony of Carolina to the front of Iroquois. They were going to burn him, maybe feast on his flesh!”
I coughed, gagging at the thought of that horrible ritual: a champion’s trophy in warfare.
Viho patted my back and resumed, “Do not fear, Muraco. Father unties himself as he is brought to the altar! And darts faster than any stag. He dives into the river, like Nova said, unscathed by the bullets and the arrows. He reaches the other side and looks to his captors. He howls vengeance to the stars.” Viho mimicked the howl, clenching his fists and smiling, skin caught in his teeth.
“He is coming home?” I ask, shaking Viho’s forearms, tears filling my eyes with both pride and want for my warrior-father.
“First, he must strip the scalps of every Seneca he sees from there to the Catawba, clothing himself and taking provisions. Then, he will not sleep. He will move on, taken over by the spirit of war and find the bodies of the men he first devoured in fair pitched battle. Then, he will dig them up, take their scalps, and burn their remains so that their awful flesh cannot become one with the earth. Only then will he come home.”
Viho and I sat in silence. I imagined father’s journey, the blood on his hands, and the fire in his heart. Viho smiled to himself, certain that what he had seen was real.
We could not sleep, not now, not after this prophecy had ignited the air, its images dancing in the smoke. We would not tell anyone, not even Nova, in fear that we might wait for a deadman. His ashes could scatter the grounds of the north, unable to speak true tales of his passing; unable to reunite with mother in the afterlife, and we would die counting the suns.
As the light broke over the river, mother awoke, disappearing from our beds. She walked toward the water without speaking. I watched her, my eyes heavy and stale.
Her stare was drawing a figure in front of her, a man she longed for. She plucked him from the smoke; she made him real. She stepped into the cool rushing water, the pressure of its life carrying her forward.
And then, dark hair emerged from the surface. She knelt into the river and let out a cry of disbelief. Our father rose to her lips like a great spirit of the river. He embraced her, lifting her up and leaning back into the water. They both submerged, wrapping around each other as the river carried them off–two fish following each other’s tails.
My brother and I ran to the water’s edge, scouting downriver for the bobbing heads of our mother and father.
But they were gone, and the Seneca would come again.