Sample text for People of the weeping eye / W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear.


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Prologue

The second week of October was always special for Mary Wet Bear. In her little frame house outside Tishumingo City, in Oklahoma, she began making pottery in midsummer. She did it in the old way, digging her own clay, washing it, and screening it through fabric. She formed the bowls with paddle and anvil. Then she incised the outside with a pointed piece of turkey bone, or a bit of copper wire.

She fired them in her yard, using hardwood to create the bed of coals, and poplar to finish the process. Lastly, she dropped a dried corncob inside to burn hot and seal the clay. These vessels she carefully stored away, wrapping them in newspaper and setting them to the side on the floorboards of her creaky wooden porch. As each one was finished, she would look out at the apple tree, and watch the ripening fruit. When the fall colors came, and the apples had either fallen or been collected for preserves and pies, she would load her wrapped pots, one by one, onto the floor of her old Ford van. Inside, she would already have stowed her bedroll, Coleman stove, and lantern. The folded white canvas vendor’s tent fit neatly under the wooden bed her cousin had built into the van’s rear. She left the big blue plastic cooler by the side door to be filled at a Safeway in Tuscaloosa.

Then she would start the engine and pull out of her narrow dirt driveway. The Ford van would nose its way down the drive, its sides caressed by thick stands of lilac. Peering through the cracked windshield, she would follow the back roads east.

I-20 would have been faster, but the narrow county lanes winding from Oklahoma through Arkansas and Louisiana suited her just fine. She liked this route, far from the main thoroughfares. It reminded her of the old days, and left her marveling at the path her ancestors had taken on their journey west from the ancestral homelands.

In Mississippi, she would stare at her worn road atlas and pick the least-traveled path toward Tupelo. In one of the state parks outside the city, she would camp for a night, sitting on her cooler, listening to the Spirits of the Old Ones. At times, if she was quiet, and drove thoughts of Washington, television shows, and the radio news from her souls, she would see them.

The spirits of the Chickasaw still lingered in the deep forests and the swamps; their dark forms would flit between the oaks, shagbark hickory, and pines. The city of Tupelo, Mississippi, itself had been placed near a spot labeled Chickasaw Old Fields on the ancient maps.

Sometimes she would Sing to the ephemeral ghosts, sensing their curiosity and delight as they crept closer to her van. She still knew some of the old Songs—had learned them at her grandmother’s knee on long-vanished nights in the Oklahoma summer. And when she packed to continue her journey, she left offerings of cornmeal and tobacco from cigarettes she had peeled free of paper.

Crossing the divide east of the Tombigbee, she wound through the forested hills to Tuscaloosa, and the final leg. Through her window she would watch the trees, stare out into the white man’s fields, and wave at the stolid-faced blacks who watched her pass.

Even these newcomers had grown old in a land without time.

She had first come to Tuscaloosa in the early fifties to study history. At the university, she had stumbled across a book, a big thing, written by a white man. The title had sounded exotic: Certain Aboriginal Remains of the Black Warrior River. The author had been a rich northern adventurer named Clarence B. Moore. She had stared at the drawings of decorated pottery, the fine stone axes, and the copper ax heads.

A voice had whispered to her souls, familiar, haunting.

The next day, she had driven south to Moundville: the little town beside the great mound complex.

It was while walking through the grass-covered earthen mounds that she had heard the Singing. Only when she walked down to the river, along the slumped bluff, did she see the swirling water.

“Are you there?” she had called.

As the river’s surface smoothed, the Song had slowly faded away.

Later, while she was asking among the historians and elders of her people, no one could tell her anything of the place, or of the people who once lived there. Not even the archaeologists who periodically took their students to dig and sift the soil could be certain. But she knew. She had heard the Song.

Then had come marriage, children, and finally retirement to her little house outside Tishumingo City.

A magazine ad had finally brought her back. It boasted “The Moundville Native American Festival.”

So she had come. The Moundville Archaeological Park now had a campground, and vendors: other people like her, who heard the call of the Spirits.

With her cooler full, Mary Wet Bear paid her fees, drove to the campground, and chose her usual spot. That night, in the company of her fellow artisans, she sat in the light of her Coleman lantern and ate peaches from her cooler, then cooked a catfish she’d bought frozen. They told the old stories, exhibited the fine shell carvings, stickball racquets, and atlatls they had brought to hawk to tourists and students.

On the third day of the festival, she woke to a cloudless sky, the breeze blowing up from the gulf. She had had two good days, selling enough of her traditional brownware pottery to at least pay her gas back home.

That morning, she had dressed in a gay red skirt with flying serpents embroidered in black patterns. She chose her ruffled white blouse, braided her long gray hair, and pinned a beadwork barrette in the back. In the truck mirror she fastened on the silver serpent earrings a friend had made for her, copied from a design in one of Mary’s Moundville books.

Moundville lives during the festival. She spent the morning with flute music drifting in from the stage behind the museum. Children were playing stickball, and the smell of fry bread and roasting corn hung on the air. Most of her time was spent ensuring that the hordes of schoolchildren didn’t break her pottery. Trade was slow.

“Watch my stuff, huh?” she called across to Dan and Vicki Townsend. “I’m going for a walk.”

The shell carver gave her the high sign, and she settled a sheet over her goods.

She walked slowly, taking her time, smelling wood smoke from Mary Newman’s pottery exhibit as it mixed with the odors that food vendors depended on to tempt an empty belly. Cheap flutes were for sale to the children; and—much to her distress—too many had bought them. Toots and shrill tweets could only be endured for so long.

Passing the flint knappers, she stopped for a moment, listening to the snap and glassy ring of their work. They plied their trade in a midst of shattered stone, tapping away with batons, pressing flakes, and grinding edges.

She ended up behind the conference center, overlooking the river. Stone riprap had been dropped here to keep the current from chewing relentlessly away at the high bluff.

The water rolled sluggishly, softly lapping at the sandy beach below. How many years had it been since she heard the Song rising from those depths? Time, so much time. She’d been a young woman then, rich with life and brimming with promise.

“Are you an Indian?”

The boy was ten, maybe eleven, dressed in a red T-shirt that advertised swamp rat in big blocky letters. His baggy jeans dropped in folds around expensive running shoes that sparkled with little lights each time he took a step. What his parents had paid for those would have covered her rural Oklahoma bills for two months.

“I’m Chickasaw,” she told him.

“How come you look like everybody else?”

“Many of my ancestors are white.”

“Then, you’re not a real Indian.”

“Is that a fact? What makes an Indian?”

“The way they look.”

“Oh? I’m glad it finally got so simple.”

She turned her eyes back to the river.

“Why are you here?”

“My people come from here.”

“How do you know that?”

“I know.”

“My teacher is Mr. Roberts. He says that no one knows who lived here.”

“I do. And the archaeologists are pretty sure.”

“He says that archaeologists can make up anything they want. That all they have is little pieces of pottery and broken stones.”

“Perhaps Mr. Roberts doesn’t know as much about archaeology as he thinks he does.”

“Are you saying he’s dumb?”

She considered that. “Not dumb. Ignorant, most likely. Archaeologists work under very strict guidelines. They have a booth set up over by Mound B. You should go ask them. What they can tell you might be surprising.”

He shrugged. “Too many people there.”

She shot him a sidelong glance. “Shouldn’t you be with your class?”

The boy glanced around nervously. “The bus doesn’t leave until two.” He showed her his watch—a gaudy thing made of bright yellow plastic. Then he looked back toward the site. “Who’d want to live here?”

“Myself, I wonder who’d want to live in New York. People make the kinds of homes that suit them. But here, all you see is the foundations. The palaces, temples, houses, and grain bins are gone. This was a big city once. Everything you see out there beyond the river was cornfields. People came from all over the United States to trade at Moundville. Even from as far away as Wisconsin.”

“How? They didn’t have roads.”

“They had rivers. They still do. Some things never change.” She pointed to where a barge, pushed by a tug, had just rounded the far bend of the river. “See. We still move goods the same way the Indians did.”

“But we’ve got cities. They just had tents.”

“Look,” she told him. “We don’t do a very good job of reconstructing Indian cities. You go someplace like Williamsburg, and you’ll see a Colonial town, just like it was. Old forts and Western towns are rebuilt as tourist attractions. Americans don’t celebrate our Indian heritage.”

“They’ve got those little huts with statues in them.” He pointed over toward one of the exhibits.

“My people didn’t live quite like that. When people show ancient Indians, they make everything brown and dirty.” She frowned. “Did you see the sandstone paint palette up at the museum?”

“The one with the eye in the hand?”

“That’s it. It was a paint palette for mixing colors. My people had superbly carved and painted wooden statues of Spirit animals and mythical heroes. They raised them before their houses and temples. They wore beautifully dyed cloth, and painted bright designs on hides. They lived in a world of color.” She turned him, pointing. “Up there, on top of that hump of dirt, would have been a tall building with a huge steep roof that shot up into the sky. And over there, that’s where the stone workers cut and carved stone.”

“And you know all this?”

“I do.”

“Why don’t they show it that way?”

“Because most people have no idea that we have a rich cultural past before Columbus. They would rather dream of the Mayans, or the Egyptians, as if truly great cultures flourished everywhere but here. Like your teacher, they walk ignorantly over the land, thinking it was nothing but wilderness. This river behind me, the banks were filled with towns. Your Mr. Roberts would be shocked.” She looked out at the river, watching the barge pass accompanied by the roar of diesels.

He looked skeptically up at her. “Then, where did they all go?”

“Most of them became people like me.” She gestured out at the land. “But back then the people living here were the Alabama, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. You’ve heard of them?”

He nodded.

“Well, there you go.”

“In school, Mr. Roberts said that when the white people came, all the Indians died.”

“Many did, but a lot of us survived. And if you really think about it, we did pretty good. It’s been five hundred years . . . and we’re still here. Even after the diseases, the wars, and every other thing.”

“Do you live here?”

“Oklahoma. But I come for the festival every year.”

“Why?”

“For the trade,” she said. “Because there is Power in it.”

“Power? You get rich?”

“No, I put my souls in order.”

“You mean your soul.”

“No, souls. Like the Ancestors, I have two. Some, like the Yuchi, thought they had as many as four.”

“People only have one. I learned that in church.”

“Then answer me this: Why do people make those little shrines along the roads where someone dies; and then they place more flowers on the grave, and keep a dead person’s possessions? Can the soul be in all those places at once? You know, hanging around the side of the road, at the grave, and in Grandma’s old music box?”

“The soul goes to God,” he said with authority.

“Then why are people driven to place memorials in so many places? If it’s not for the different souls of the dead, who’s it for?”

He screwed his face up, trying to find an answer.

“Look, uh . . . What’s your name?”

“Joshua.”

“Look, Joshua, you’ve got to learn to think on your own. That’s a gift Breath Giver has imparted to each one of us. All of your life, people like Mr. Roberts are going to be telling you things. Some are true, and some aren’t.” She paused. “I first came here fifty years ago, and I heard something, felt something, and it changed my life. Maybe that’s why you came today.”

“I came because it’s field day.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Maybe. Or perhaps it was Spirit Power that brought you here. Maybe you were sent here today, to meet me, to hear these things because somehow, in spite of all the noise from the radio, movies, and video games, you will remember. Sometime in the future, you’ll say, ‘That old Indian woman taught me to see the world differently.’ And all along, it was Power moving you. Don’t ever underestimate Power.”

“What’s Power if it isn’t money?”

“It’s the breath that God breathed into this entire marvelous Creation.”

She reached into her purse, removing a clay gorget on a string. She made these by the hundreds, pressing a blob of clay into a mold; then she fired the pieces and strung them on fishing line. This one was a simple cross contained in a circle.

He took it, frowning at the design.

“The circle is emblematic of the world. The cross portrays the four directions: east, south, west, and north. At the center burns the sacred fire that was given to us by God. You keep that. And years from now, when you hold it, you will remember this day. And, if you’re lucky, how it changed your life.”

He looked up at her as he ran his fingers over the clay relief. “Do you think this place changed a lot of lives?”

“Oh, yes. And when you start back to find your teacher, you look around at the mounds, at the open spaces. When you do, look back through time. If you can free your imagination, you’ll see those places full of people, with great buildings, and tall granaries. People lived here in all of the ways humans do. They loved, and fought, and died, and laughed, and cried.”

She looked at the boy, feeling a shift in time, her souls having the briefest glimpse of the past.

“Joshua, this was the home of my ancestors.” She spread her arms. “They did marvelous things! Terrible things, filled with blood and pain, and suffering. They took this land, and built a city while living in the fading shadow of Cahokia. If you close your eyes and smell, you can catch the odor of fire and smoke. Treachery occurred here, and undying love. Heroes and cowards walked this very soil. It was a center for people. Living, breathing human beings like you and me. Can you feel it? The blood and spirit, the chaos and beauty? Magic happened.” She pointed. “Just out there, in that river before you.”

“But it’s gone.”

“No, it lives. Only your city senses are closed to it.”

She hesitated, hearing the faint Song from the river. “And, Joshua, if you can empty your mind—cease listening like a white man—you will find that quiet place inside. When you do, you will hear their voices. Even today.”

He mumbled his thanks and walked away, his eyes fixed on the sacred-fire gorget she’d given him.

She turned back to the river. The current seemed to swell and shift, eddying sideways and around.

“Did he understand? Or is he lost like so many of these kids today? In the battle for his soul, will the video games win, or will he taste the elixir of Spirit Power? Will he ever take the time to find himself?”

The Song grew louder, and she squinted down at the water.

Something moved in the river, slipping along below the surface. Sunlight glittered on the shifting current, and she swore she saw rainbow colors sliding in the depths. Was that a sparkle of sunlight, or a great crystalline eye watching her?

“Is that your Song, Grandfather?”

The water swirled, sucked, and smoothed.

“Oh, what a story you could tell.”

The Singing grew fainter, and the thing was gone.

Copyright © 2008 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear.
All rights reserved.



Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Indians of North America -- Fiction.
Mississippian culture -- Fiction.