Family Lessons

Traditional Since When by LeRoy Grafe of the Institute of American Indian Arts
Traditional Since When by LeRoy Grafe of the Institute of American Indian Arts

When I saw the Hails’ wagon moving up the drive, Meena’s head beside the old woman in a gray shawl, I ran toward the director’s house. My Osage sister waved and dropped to the ground, her green dress straining across narrow shoulders as she turned to help Sarah, the missionary’s wife. Brother Amos came onto the porch pulling on a brown coat. The men embraced and spoke to the woman in a low murmur.

Meena was the only Osage I saw, a relative of my mother’s. I was surrounded by Cherokees and a few Mvskokes coming north to settle. “Hawey,” she said. When she put her arms around me it was like being embraced by a swan, strong but light at the same time, and I held on. Hail’s wife called from the wagon, her voice startling like a heron’s cry.

We talked in low voices all the time we worked, feeding the cook fire and carrying water. She leaned on the counter, her hands on a tray. We walked through thick humidity with the noon meal, porridge and molasses for the old woman, who didn’t come to the dining hall. The sun was like burning metal. Meena said Sarah didn’t get out of bed for days. She lingered at the bottom of the steps to the director’s cabin holding the lunch tray. The windows were open, but there was no breeze.

The Hails had been at Edwards Mission for weeks planning how to get money from the East. They were supposed to have a mission for our people, but the Osages had gone north. Late afternoon the sky darkened and the air thickened with gnats. We had scalded chickens in the side yard and were pulling feathers from yellow-pink skin. I spoke into the stink asking Meena to tell me again about the last Osages she’d seen. I believed she must have heard where my family was. Not all of us were in the raid when I was taken. The Osages’ several bands took southern and northern routes to the buffalo herds and traveled all over this country along the Arkansas and the Neosho. They were always moving, trading, getting salt, and going to harvest their corn. She said what she did each time I asked, “They don’t come near the mission.”

“Then how did you get there?” I said, and wished I hadn’t. Meena was quiet, while my fingers worried pinfeathers. I knew her mother was sick with fever when she brought Meena to the Hails.

“They had a few Wah Zha Zhi students—you know, like Talee,” she said. “When the people found out about the strappings, how even the little children had to be still all the time, they realized the ishtáhi were too strange.” We sat with the burned-nasty smell around us, looking at the nubbed skin on the scrawny bird for a long moment.

“When are we going to get out of here?” I asked. She held up the chicken so that the wings fell away from the body, the curve of hinged skin falling open. “Maybe you can live here,” I said. That’s when she told me that the Hails had adopted her, smiling awkwardly—as if I would envy her. I wanted to slap her.

In the morning, Meena was quiet when she cleared tables in the dining room. I started to list the things we’d need to go north. I told her if we didn’t hurry we would never catch up with the tribe.

“Everything is different.” Her voice rose as she said, “You’ve been gone too long.” She held a serving bowl, and I grabbed it and walked quickly to the counter. She followed me. Cook raised an eyebrow in our direction and went on working, her knife whittling chicken from bone.

“Sister,” Meena said, softly. “Maria?” It was the first time she’d used my new name. “I think both your mother and your brother are gone.” She reached into the space between us, but didn’t touch me. Her hand rested flat on the counter, her fingers spread a little.

“How do you know?” I tried to picture my mother’s face, the part in her hair lined with red for the sun’s journey, but I couldn’t. The last time we’d been together we had hidden from the Cherokee men through the night in a thicket of scrubby oak. In the years I’d been at the mission, I tried to believe that my family remembered me, the same way I carried them, but I slid into disbelief. When Meena didn’t answer, I walked around her into the dining room. Her words were like an arrow working into my flesh, but I didn’t believe her. I wasn’t sure why she thought they had passed, but I felt them still alive. I stopped talking to her. It made me sick that Meena was here with a block of silence between us.

Once my father’s sister grumbled about the share of a buffalo bull she received. My mother was angry, but she arranged a feast. I was young, but I remember my eldest uncle giving a long prayer about generosity. When he was finished, my mother asked her younger brother Can-za-hi to speak. His talk was short, but I remember us standing together, the kind words on the surface percolating into the layers below. He said we needed each other. We belonged together, and we were strong together. We gave my aunty a good blanket to thank her for the work she had done. If I were at home, my mother would have made me fix things with Meena. I was humiliated to realize that even if I wanted to, I didn’t know how to make things right.

Ruby Hansen Murray (Osage) is a student in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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