Returning to one’s ancestral homeland offers time for reflection, but also reminds us that even these sacred places are often threatened. Read more →
They don’t know where they will go when they die. Ho’-wa ge a-the ta i te ts’a-bi-don i-ba-hon a-zhi a-ba o.
The day the death boats came, Meena helped me serve the noon meal. She was the only other Osage at Edwards, and she’d been there for a week. When the steam whistle sounded, we went up the slope behind the mission to the Cherokee, to the small knob along the Arkansas River. Asmell like the privies in summer made Meena choke, “What is that?” She looked over her shoulder. The Anna Belle’s engine fell silent, and the steamboat floated to the riverbank pulling two flatboats that left a wake curling across the gray water. We hurried down the hillside while the ship’s bell clanged. Black crewmen lowered the plank that hung like a hummingbird’s beak, but no passengers walked off. We crossed the drive so we could see the flatboats; each was as long as the dining hall. Women and children filled the decks from one side to the other with only two small flaps for cover. Some lay resting, while others leaned against the low sides. Many held babies; older boys and girls watched the landing. No one spoke.
“Where are the men?” Meena whispered. Some of the women wore dull calico skirts and others broadcloth. One lay with her eyes closed and her mouth slack. A child with a vest over little pants was leaning against her, his cheek on her thigh. I pulled my shawl closer.
Some were fair like the Cherokee people, others darker, but they all looked sallow. A handcart filled with wood rumbled up the plank. Men were emptying buckets from the flatboats, raising a sharp smell that touched the back of my throat. The crewmen began carrying those who had died onto the bank beside a tangle of wild grapevine and willow scrub. Five women’s bodies lay on the narrow silt. Blackbirds began to fill the cottonwoods while the men worked in the second flatboat. I put an arm around Meena; even the crewmen were silent. The birds called, and slops splashed into the water.
One of the mission workers lifted a woman onto the wagon. The skirt sagging beneath her was stained, and she seemed to be asleep. Achild with round cheeks and matted hair on his forehead began to scream watching her, and a girl picked him up. I raised my hand to greet her, but she didn’t respond. The crewmen had filled the wagon with the first load of sick women and children.
“What will they do with these dead?” Meena asked. “How will their spirits get home if no one helps them?” She squeezed my arm, but I couldn’t stop looking at the bodies on the bank. They seemed horrible and familiar, like they should have been asleep, but you knew they couldn’t move. The firs were dark against a cold sky. When the back of the wagon disappeared behind the first curve, we started walking. We watched the brothers carry the women into the boy’s schoolroom from the side of the dining hall. The missionary women were singing, “You have called us from Jordan’s bank,” the thin sound floating out from Amos’s cabin.
“We should go home,” I said.
Meena met my eyes. “Black Dog’s bands are leaving. My family is gone.” I knew she meant they had died. I remembered hearing about the raid and the mourning songs that filled our lodges.
The mission’s cook walked onto the porch of the boys’ cabin and gestured. She signaled again when we didn’t move. I tugged at the sleeve of my too-small frock and crossed the short distance as if it were the hottest day of summer. Cook wore her kitchen apron against a dark tan dress that was the same color as her eyes. She rested a hand on my arm, the small fingers pressing, turned and put an arm around Meena and started inside. I hung back.
“What about the sickness?” I thought about the little people who caused de-ko-ka, the illness that turned one’s waste to water.
“You won’t get what they have.” Her fingers wet my sleeve. Cook pulled me inside. “They have the flux. Just give them water.” She pressed a metal pail and a dipper into my hand. Some women lay with an arm bent as a headrest and others on their backs. I’d never been in the boy’s cabin: there was only the hearth, a desk, the benches stacked along one wall and the overwhelming smell.
The first woman had a blanket halfway over her head. I tucked my skirt around my legs, squatted and offered water, owv. The woman’s eyes stayed closed. I prayed to Wah-kon-tah and touched her. She straightened and took the dipper in a small hand that was dirty from the trip. She sank back. The next one seemed so sad I thought she must have left children behind. I looked up to meet the eyes of a thin woman in her middle years. She was leaning on an elbow, watching from the next row. I felt that my mother was watching me, felt the warmth around me. She had dark brown eyes, and she seemed to know me. By the time the sad woman finished drinking, the thin woman’s eyes had closed.
Cook brought a second bucket of water, her arm out against the weight, her mouth a firm line. The last time I’d felt I had a mother was with Claudine at Arkansas Post, when I slept in her cot in the kitchen. She wore a white cap on her head at night. She was warm, and I felt safe while she slept. Her side was like the ridge of a mountain between the world and me.
Ruby Hansen Murray (“They don’t know where they will go when they die.” and “Texier’s Travels”) is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation and a student in the MFA creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Four Winds literary magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, About Place, and Oregon Humanities magazine.