Bethany House Publishers
"It should be remembered that hundreds of people of African ancestry also walked the Trail of Tears with the Cherokee during the forced removal of 1838-1839. Although we know about the terrible human suffering of our native people and the members of other tribes during the removal, we rarely hear of those black people who also suffered."
—Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People
In the East, it is the movement of the Atlantic waters that brings land storms. Black, heavy clouds thrown about by the ocean sweep in and overtake the sun, darkening the skies. It is hard to predict the weather, with the ocean running things. But here in the West, you can see storms coming from far off, rolling in gray and angry, fighting with the dust. I sit on my porch, here, and watch them.
There has never been a better brother than Abraham. Even now, all these many years later, I miss him. I try to remember that he had to go ahead of me, but I still miss him.
When I remember how things were long ago—I remember that we were free, at least for a while. Not free like now, but free. There were no fences. And even back then, we had the well.
What I remember most often is the dancing stream waters, clean enough to see the pebbles on the bottom, and fish swimming—darting, nibbling at rocks. I remember three boys wading at the edge of the stream, laughing boys grabbing at fish. There was sunshine and laughter.
There were mountains. Green—grass, trees and such—stretched on forever until it met with the blue of the sky. Gray clouds would blow in with rain and, just as quickly, roll back out again.
I would take everything back if I could. I would make everything be like it was, I would never have touched the honey.
But, wait, before I get ahead of myself, before I tell the story before it's ready to be told.
I'm an old woman and I do that sometimes.
I do not know exactly when I was born. I do know that I am very, very old. I speak the language of the People, Tsalagi—even now, though I've spoken English for a long time, my thoughts are still Cherokee. Their ways are my ways.
I was born before cars. I was born before the War Between the States. Long ago, many of the old ones used to live to see more than a hundred summers, and I think I must be like them. I have seen babies born, I have seen death, and I have walked the Trail of Tears—Nunna daul Isunyi—The Trail Where We Cried.
I have been a slave and I have been free. This is my story, the story of my family, the good and the bad of it.
I tell my story so that maybe someone else will live.
Some of my ancestors, they tell me, came from over the great waters, taken from their home faraway in Africa. I do not know that language, or the clan. But the people I do know have been here always, like the waters. I am Armentia. I am Cherokee, Aniyunwiya, one of The Principal People, and I am Black.
And with all I have to tell, the greatest truth is that there was never a better brother than Abraham. Of course, Abraham was not his real name. A name is a sacred thing, my mother and all the old ones told me. Your name is who you are and your name in the mouth of your enemies can be your undoing. Of course, some people now say that what they told me back then is just superstition, but I still believe. So, a real name is never told among anyone except the real people, the Cherokee people, The Principal People.
But, again, don't let me get ahead. I'm old and sometimes I wander.
Like I said, I was born before cars. Nowadays—it's been nigh almost twenty years since the turn of the twentieth century—we might see a car or two in a week's time. They come and when they go, they shake everything around them—like stones in a pond, or too big fish in a stream. Who knows? A time may come when we might see that many of the machines every day. It's hard to believe, but I have seen many things I would not have believed to see.
We lived, back then, in what is now called North Carolina. Of course, back then Cherokee people were spread all up and down North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, even Alabama and Kentucky—no boundaries. Our home didn't have the state names back then. The green of the southern Appalachian Mountains was our home.
It was different than it is now. Today it is so loud you cannot think, with the car horns, radios. Even inside the cabin, the house, there is always noise, some humming that won't let you think.
But years ago, before fences and wires, when people lived to be old, it was quiet. It was quiet enough to hear the frogs croaking, to hear a bird's wings flapping and to know what kind it was. It was quiet enough to hear that there was water nearby, quiet enough to hear the wind talk.
The day I want to tell you about first, well, it was in the days when there were no fences, when all the land and all the good of the land belonged to all the people in common, and when there were not as many White people as now. The Principal People didn't pay for land to own, water, or fire back then. The Great One gave and we received. It was in the days when we lived on the land that the Great One gave to us, when we lived on the land that held the dust and the bones of our fathers.
I think I had seen eight or nine summers then. And I could run then! Oh, I was fast! You might look at my shriveled skin and my knotty knees now and not believe it, but you'd be fooling yourself! I was so fast I could almost outrun the waters.
If you look at my ankle you can still see a star-shaped scar. See, right there. I got that scar running one day. Hit a stick so hard and quick, it made a star. Child, I tell you I was fast!
But I could not run like Abraham, who taught me how to run. He really could outrun the waters! Bless my soul, that boy could outrun anything ... almost anything.
We were part of the Deer Clan. You know there were seven Cherokee clans back then. There was the Blue Clan that made medicine from a blue plant and the Long Hair Clan that wore their hair in fancy ways. Those Long Hairs could put on a show, even the way they walked was like they were dancing and showing off. Then there was the Bird Clan that hunted birds and flew with messages from place to place, while the Red Clan were healers. There was the Bear Clan and the Wolf Clan—where most war chiefs came from. But we were the Deer Clan—we caught them and we could run like them. But Abraham was fastest.
At the Green Corn Festival there was no one faster than Abraham. People would gather from all over to eat together, tell stories together. It was a big time held when the first green appeared on the corn. Part of the festival was games, and Abraham was always fastest. Folks came from all over to celebrate, and we prayed, we cleansed ourselves from our wrong in the waters. At the seven-sided council house, inside there was a fire, an eternal flame, a sacred fire that was the beginning of all the fires in every village. Though I only saw it once myself, they say that living flame traveled with us on the Trail Where We Cried. They say that eternal flame still burns today.
I know many of these things because my mother taught me. Among our people, it is women who teach, women who pass on life. It is women who pass on land. At least, that is how it was before things changed, before our lives changed.
But that day I remember, the one I'm trying to tell you about, was a warm day. Not hot, though most of the trees were still green and had their leaves, but not so hot I wanted to sit in the mud.
The three boys left the flat place where we lived, where our log houses were, and they walked between trees, puffing their chests out like men. They were older than me, but they were not men, though they walked proud like they had wives and children. See, they weren't old enough yet that they had to work in the cornfields or the cotton fields. The day was coming soon when they would work long hours, but then they still had some free time. They might tend sheep or watch over the milking cows, but they did not work like men, or like our father who tended the horses.
I had already brought the people working in the fields water from the well—that was my sometimes job. After that, I sat playing with the doll I had. It was a corncob, you know, dressed in scraps of cloth. When I caught sight of the boys, I followed them first with my eyes through the corn rows at the rim of the clearing where we lived with other families. Then when no one was looking, I followed behind the three boys through the corn rows, into the woods, ducking behind trees, standing still and letting the wind talk over my breathing. I didn't want them to hear me and chase me away, chase me back to my dolls and the other younger girls. Abraham always said that, for a girl, I was good at keeping still.
The forest floor was covered with old leaves and pine needles and helped me follow without being heard. The sun was my friend and came down through the leaves and boughs to help me see the way to go.
Soon I knew where they were headed. I could hear the waters dancing and talking ahead. The three boys did the things boys always do, wrestling with each other, laughing and trying to outdo each other, trying to be men.
When they got to the stream, they waded in, not trying to be quiet anymore. But I stayed back at the edge of the woods, using a large rock and the trees to cover me.
The three boys waded at the edge of the stream, grasping at fish, but grabbing more handfuls of water than trout. Soon they were wet well above the knees.
Johnnie Freeman—we always said his whole name—was the first to fall in the water and Golden Bear laughed, pointing at him.
Johnnie Freeman was my brother's best friend. Even when I was a girl, I thought Johnnie Freeman was beautiful, and if things hadn't changed, when I was a woman, I am sure I would have married him. Against the sun, he was black and smooth and his hair was like a sheep's wool. He was skinny like Abraham, but he had broad shoulders. And he had beautiful lips, like berries, stained like he'd been eating purple berries. I'm telling you, I would have married that boy.
Golden Bear's missionary name was Timothy, but everyone still called him Golden Bear. No one kept his name a secret. He was too funny for anyone to want to curse. His skin was like copper, but it always looked like the sun lay on his head and shoulders like a blanket. That was the golden part. He was golden, but he also had a little round belly, like a cub that had eaten too many berries. His whole family had that same look—except for his mother who was lean and quiet. And sometimes when he played in the games—the games the men and boys played on special days—he looked just like his name, a round Golden Bear.
Johnnie Freeman and Golden Bear were doing more splashing than fish catching. Abraham was doing what he usually did when he was with his friends, pointing and laughing as though he had never seen a better show.
Sometimes when I saw him that way, laughing with his friends without me, though I liked them all, something inside me got mad. Maybe there was some sickness on my name, but Abraham was my brother. I was jealous. He belonged to me.
Abraham shook his head at his friends, laughing like he was an uncle, like he was one of their teachers. "Left up to you two, we would be going back empty-handed!" He puffed out his skinny chest while he pointed to the three fish he had already managed to catch. "Good thing there is a man along!" The three pretended they were men, though they were no more than three summers older than me.
Johnnie Freeman was wet up to his navel. "You wouldn't have those fish if we didn't scare them your way."
"And you wouldn't know how to catch fish if I hadn't taught you how!" Water trickled down Golden Bear's straight black hair to his shoulders, down his chest, then curved around his belly. "Don't lose your head, little man!"
Then they were all in the water. Sometimes they couldn't be seen over the rock that hid me, then I would see them rising from the water like three strange, great, laughing fish.
Abraham was so beautiful that day. He was the color of leaves in the fall—brown, gold, and red. His hair was black, like Golden Bear's and Johnnie Freeman's, but when it was wet, it was shiny and curly, like our mother's.
They rolled in the water, splashing and warning away any fish or birds that they might have caught.
I had been hiding so well, but jealousy routed me out. "Usdi!" I stood up. "Hey, little babies!" I knew it would get them mad, especially since I was younger. "You can catch each other, but even the dumb fish are too wise to be caught by you!"
Johnnie Freeman, Golden Bear, and Abraham froze, caught, their eyes on me. Which was, of course, what I wanted. "You were so loud even a girl, a little girl, could follow you," I taunted them.
Abraham was smiling now, kind of like he was proud of me. Even Johnnie Freeman grinned, all his white teeth showing. But Golden Bear tried to act like a man. He puffed out his chest and pointed at me. "Armentia, you should not be here!" He looked at Johnnie Freeman and Abraham to back him up. "You should be with the other little girls, playing with dolls, learning to cook and weave." He threw his hands in the air. "Learning women's ways."
I shook my skinny little girl's hips, mocking him. "Learning women's ways!" I wiggled my stomach, poking it out like I had eaten too many berries. "You are no man to teach me, to tell me what to do. Instead of playing with boys, you should be playing with bears!" I lifted my hands like claws, hunched my back, wiggled my belly again, then wiggled my pretend tail while I took lumbering steps on top of the rock. "You should be playing and learning the ways of your people, the bears!"
Golden Bear acted like an insulted cub and gave chase. He charged out of the waters after me. Scampering up the banks like a mad little bear, he ran toward me. But as I've said, I could run.
See, Abraham, my guard taught me. My brother's real name was The One Who Guards His Family. My mother said the Creator sent him ahead of me to watch over me. "Some girls don't have brothers before them," she said. "But you have a brother to go ahead of you, to protect you, to shine the light ahead."
So, Abraham taught me to run.
Now, Golden Bear was fast, even with his belly. He was a proud member of the Deer Clan. But even though I was a little girl, because of Abraham, I was faster.
I could hear Golden Bear's footsteps pounding behind me. He whooped, like he was chasing his enemy, to frighten me. "I'm going to catch you, little fox, and make soup from you!"
I knew Golden Bear was only teasing. He wouldn't hurt me any more than Abraham would. He was only chasing me because his pride was wounded. But my legs didn't know the difference, so I ran so fast my little feet almost liked to set the grass on fire!
I could hear Johnnie Freeman behind us laughing. "Whoo hoo! Look at that girl run!" If things hadn't changed, I tell you, I would have married him!
But the voice I could hear most clearly was Abraham's. "Run, Armentia! Don't look back! Run!"
I picked them up and put them down as fast as I could, hearing my heart keeping time! I knew if I could reach the clearing, I would be safe. Golden Bear would not touch me, not even to tickle me, in front of the people. I headed for the cornfield, pushing my way through the rows, the hard green stalks fighting against me. I could hear Golden Bear's feet so close behind me. I could feel his hands reaching out to grab me.
Abraham's voice was not far behind him. "Keep running, Armentia!"
I dodged in and out amongst the stalks, some of them slapping me in the face. Why hadn't I just stayed quiet behind the rock? I kept running, thinking of the clearing ahead—if I could make it there I would be safe—with Abraham's voice in my ears. But I knew Golden Bear, even with his jiggling belly, was not far behind.
When I was six steps from the clearing, I felt his fingers, like bear claws, on my shoulders!
I ducked like Abraham told me and burst into the clearing, running straight to where my mother was grinding corn. "Need—some—help, Mother?" I panted out the words and plopped down on the ground beside her, my chest heaving. I grabbed an ear of corn from the stack in front of her, looked over my shoulder, sticking out my tongue at Golden Bear.
Of course, my mother was wiser than I wanted her to be at that moment. "Girl, where have you been?" She brushed her curly black hair away from her forehead and out of her eyes with the back of her hand. "Who are you running from? Are you bothering the boys?" She wore two heavy braids that hung down her back to her waist. Her hair was so thick, sometimes in summer it gave her headaches. She looked at me and sniffed. "You have been running with the boys and you smell like a little goat! What have you been up to?"
"Mother, see the fish!" Before my mother could grind the truth out of me, Abraham, my protector, was at my shoulder, dangling his new caught fish. He leaned down from where he stood and briefly touched his forehead to my mother's. It was his special greeting for her. "See the fish?" he repeated while straightening himself. "Armentia caught one of them." He showed her the smallest of the three.
My mother looked at him, at me, then back to him. "Oh, get away, One Who Guards His Family!" She smiled at him. "You will say anything to protect this one." She pointed with her grinding stone. "You don't fool me."
"No, really," Abraham lied for me. "I am teaching her to catch fish. Maybe I will teach her to hunt. Who knows what the winters ahead will bring? She is a girl, but she will have to be ready."
My mother smiled, her head down, still grinding corn. "You don't fool me, Abraham. Things are the way they have always been. We are the people and this is the land the Great One has made for us to share. There is growing time and harvest time and the time when the snow falls. It is as it has always been, nothing will change. The sky is blue, the birds sing, and the land will always belong to all the people," she nodded. "The well will always be deep, and you will always protect her. The One Who Guards His Family will always go ahead of his sister."
In the middle of the clearing where we lived, there was a well. It was the well that I drew water from for the workers. The well provided water for our family and all the families nearby, so that we did not always have to go to the stream for water. It was a deep, deep hole. There were large gray stones piled around it. If you peeked over the side, there was nothing to see but deep, deep black. It looked like hopeless nothing, like an empty heart, except that if you dropped a wooden bucket tied with a rope to the bottom of the well and pulled that bucket back to the top, that bucket would be filled with water like crystal, cold and clear. It was almost sweet.
"Even that well is not as deep as Abraham's love for his sister." My mother smiled at me. "So deep he tells tales for her. Things will always be the same." She set the ground corn aside. She would make corn cakes, wrap them in lettuce and cook them in ashes from the fire. "It was the same with my brothers, with your uncles."
Abraham touched a free hand to my shoulder and then joined me, sitting at our mother's feet.
"You see, this is Armentia's fish," he still insisted. "The little one. The other two are mine."
My mother began scraping corn kernels from some of the cobs. She dropped them in the pot of water boiling over the outside fire. It was still too warm to cook inside, so the flame made the air shimmy like waves in the stream. She shook her head at Abraham. "You do not fool me."
"And coming back, we practiced our running."
My mother began to hum. She added ground hickory nuts to the boiling corn. Abraham and I nodded to each other. She was making hickory nut grot. We would be eating good tonight, our bellies full like Golden Bear's.
Of course, we always ate real good. There was always fish, or deer, or wild pig, or rabbit, and corn bread cooked over the fire, or in it, like tonight. There were wild greens that the women plucked from the ground, and the three sisters—the beans, corn, and squash. There was plenty to eat. She cooked enough for our family—my father, my mother, my brother, and me—and she also cooked enough for Mama Emma and Papa. They lived in the bigger house, the main house next to ours.
Mama Emma and Papa were mixed blood, half White. My Mama Emma's name was Emma Sanders and my Papa's was John. I don't believe they had real names, Cherokee names, but I called them Mama Emma and Papa. Mama Emma wanted it that way. She didn't have any children, and sometimes she pretended I was her little girl and let me sleep in the main house with her and Papa instead of sleeping in my family's smaller family house. She held my face in her hands and rocked me in her arms. She combed my hair, pulling her fingers through my curls.
She bought me fancy dresses, and she taught me the Cherokee alphabet. She even promised that, when I was older, she would teach me to read. When she let me sleep in the larger house—it had two big rooms—I slept in my own little bed. She hugged me, kissed me, and tucked me in.
"Armentia must be able to run." Abraham was still talking, twisted in his own story, like he was telling a dream he could see ahead. "Who can tell what things will come?"
My mother laughed and waved Abraham away. "You were born an old man, Abraham. An old spirit speaks through your mouth. Go find your father. He is tending horses. We will be eating soon."
* * *
At dinnertime, I ate fish and too much hickory nut grot until my stomach was like Golden Bear's. My father laughed at me, blowing out his cheeks to make his face round.
That night, I slept at the bigger house, at the main house with Mama Emma. Her and Papa's house had a large stone fireplace, freestanding beds, and a table with chairs—one chair that I usually sat in.
Tucked in my bed, a bed with nice sheets, I looked out the window at the sky. It was black with many, many stars like shining pebbles in the stream. I fell asleep watching while Mama Emma pulled and carded thread from sheep's wool. For a while, by lamplight, my own mother sat with her, weaving the thread into cloth. While they worked together, for as long as I was able to keep my eyes open, I counted shelves of golden jars of honey stacked against the wall.
We were a beloved family. We were all Kituwah's children.
Abraham's Well by Sharon Ewell Foster
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764228870
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.