William Sanders’s first novel, Journey to Fusang, was published in 1988, and garnered acclaim for its irreverent portrait of an alternate world in which the Western Hemisphere was settled by Asians and Arabs. His second novel, The Wild Blue and the Gray,proposed with equal imagination a triumphant Confederate States of America coming to the aid of the French and British in World War I. As Will Sundown, he has written the military science-fiction novel Pockets of Resistance and its sequel The Hellbound Train. His short fiction, which has appeared in Asimov’s, To-morrow, and the anthologies Alternate Generals and Wheel of Fortune, has three times been selected for inclusion in The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He won the 1998 Sidewise Award for alternate history. In addition to many nonfiction books, he is the author of Blood Autumn, a murder mystery set in Oklahoma featuring writer-detective Taggart Roper.
SO THE WHITE MEN are back! And trying once again to build themselves a town, without so much as asking anyone’s permission. I wonder how long they will stay this time. It sounds as if these have no more sense than the ones who came before.
They certainly pick the strangest places to settle. Last time it was that island, where anyone could have told them the weather is bad and the land is no good for corn. Now they have invaded Powhatan’s country, and from what you say, they seem to have angered him already. Of course that has never been hard to do.
Oh, yes, we hear about these matters up in the hills. Not many of us actually visit the coastal country—I don’t suppose there are ten people in this town, counting myself, who have even seen the sea—but you know how these stories travel. We have heard all about your neighbor Powhatan, and you eastern people are welcome to him. Was there ever a chief so hungry for power? Not in my memory, and I have lived a long time.
But we were speaking of the white men. As you say, they are a strange people indeed. For all their amazing weapons and other possessions, they seem to be ignorant of the simplest things. I think a half-grown boy would know more about how to survive. Or how to behave toward other people in their own country.
And yet they are not the fools they appear. Not all of them, at least. The only one I ever knew was a remarkably wise man in many ways.
Do not make that gesture at me. I tell you that there was a white man who lived right here in our town, for more than ten winters, and I came to know him well.
* * *
I REMEMBER THE DAY they brought him in. I was sitting in front of my house, working on a fish spear, when I heard the shouting from the direction of the town gate. Bigkiller and his party, I guessed, returning from their raid on the Tuscaroras. People were running toward the gate, pouring out of the houses, everyone eager for a look.
I stayed where I was. I could tell by the sound that the raid had been successful—no women were screaming, so none of our people had been killed or seriously hurt—and I didn’t feel like spending the rest of the day listening to Bigkiller bragging about his latest exploits.
But a young boy came up and said, “They need you, Uncle. Prisoners.”
So I put my spear aside and got up and followed him, wondering once again why no one around this place could be bothered to learn to speak Tuscarora. After all, it is not so different from our tongue, not nearly as hard as Catawba or Maskogi or Shawano. Or your own language, which as you see I still speak poorly.
The captives were standing just inside the gate, guarded by a couple of Bigkiller’s brothers, who were holding war clubs and looking fierce, as well as pleased with themselves. There was a big crowd of people by now and I had to push my way through before I could see the prisoners. There were a couple of scared-looking Tuscarora women—one young and pretty, the other almost my age and ugly as an alligator—and a small boy with his fist stuck in his mouth. Not much, I thought, to show for all this noise and fuss.
Then I saw the white man.
Do you know, it didn’t occur to me at first that that was what he was. After all, white men were very rare creatures in those days, even more so than now. Hardly anyone had actually seen one, and quite a few people refused to believe they existed at all.
Besides, he wasn’t really white—not the kind of fish-belly white that I’d always imagined, when people talked about white men—at least where it showed. His face was a strange reddish color, like a boiled crawfish, with little bits of skin peeling from his nose. His arms and legs, where they stuck out from under the single buckskin garment he wore, were so dirty and covered with bruises that it was hard to tell what color the skin was. Of course that was true of all of the captives; Bigkiller and his warriors had not been gentle.
His hair was dark brown rather than black, which I thought was unusual for a Tuscarora, though you do see Leni Lenapes and a few Shawanos with lighter hair. It was pretty thin above his forehead, and the scalp beneath showed through, a nasty bright pink. I looked at that and at the red peeling skin of his face, and thought: well done, Bigkiller, you’ve brought home a sick man. Some lowland skin disease, and what a job it’s going to be purifying everything after he dies. . . .
That was when he turned and looked at me with those blue eyes. Yes, blue. I don’t blame you; I didn’t believe that story either, until I saw for myself. The white men have eyes the color of a sunny sky. I tell you, it is a weird thing to see when you’re not ready for it.
Bigkiller came through the crowd, looking at me and laughing. “Look what we caught, Uncle,” he said, and pointed with his spear. “A white man!”
“I knew that,” I said, a little crossly. I hated it when he called me “Uncle.” I hated it when anyone did it, except children—I was not yet that old—but I hated it worse when it came from Bigkiller. Even if he was my nephew.
“He was with the Tuscaroras,” one of the warriors, Muskrat by name, told me. “These two women had him carrying firewood—”
“Never mind that.” Bigkiller gave Muskrat a bad look. No need to tell the whole town that this brave raid deep into Tuscarora country had amounted to nothing more than the ambush and kidnapping of a small wood-gathering party.
To me Bigkiller said, “Well, Uncle, you’re the one who knows all tongues. Can you talk with this white-skin?”
I stepped closer and studied the stranger, who looked back at me with those impossible eyes. He seemed unafraid, but who could read expressions on such an unnatural face?
“Who are you and where do you come from?” I asked in Tuscarora.
He smiled and shook his head, not speaking. The woman beside him, the older one, spoke up suddenly. “He doesn’t know our language,” she said. “Only a few words, and then you have to talk slow and loud, and kick him a little.”
“Nobody in our town could talk with him,” the younger woman added. “Our chief speaks a little of your language, and one family has a Catawba slave, and he couldn’t understand them either.”
By now the crowd was getting noisy, everyone pushing and jostling, trying to get a look at the white man. Everyone was talking, too, saying the silliest things. Old Otter, the elder medicine man, wanted to cut the white man to see what color his blood was. An old woman asked Muskrat to strip him naked and find out if he was white all over, though I guessed she was really more interested in learning what his male parts looked like.
The young Tuscarora woman said, “Are they going to kill him?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Maybe.”
“They shouldn’t,” she said. “He’s a good slave. He’s a hard worker, and he can really sing and dance.”
I translated this, and to my surprise Muskrat said, “It is true that he is stronger than he looks. He put up a good fight, with no weapon but a stick of firewood. Why do you think I’m holding this club left-handed?” He held up his right arm, which was swollen and dark below the elbow. “He almost broke my arm.”
“He did show spirit,” Bigkiller agreed. “He could have run away, but he stayed and fought to protect the women. That was well done for a slave.”
I looked at the white man again. He didn’t look all that impressive, being no more than medium size and pretty thin, but I could see there were real muscles under that strange skin.
“He can do tricks, too,” the young Tuscarora woman added. “He walks on his hands, and—”
The older woman grunted loudly. “He’s bad luck, that’s what he is. We’ve had nothing but trouble since he came. Look at us now.”
I passed all this along to Bigkiller. “I don’t know,” he said. “I was going to kill him, but maybe I should keep him as a slave. After all, what other chief among the People has a white slave?”
A woman’s voice said, “What’s going on here?”
I didn’t turn around. I didn’t have to. There was no one in our town who would not have known that voice. Suddenly everyone got very quiet.
My sister Tsigeyu came through the crowd, everyone moving quickly out of her way, and stopped in front of the white man. She looked him up and down and he looked back at her, still smiling, as if pleased to meet her. That showed real courage. Naturally he had no way of knowing that she was the Clan Mother of the Wolf Clan—which, if you don’t know, means she was by far the most powerful person in our town—but just the sight of her would have made most people uneasy. Tsigeyu was a big woman, not fat but big like a big man, with a face like a limestone cliff. And eyes that went right through you and made your bones go cold. She died a couple of years ago, but at the time I am telling about she was still in the prime of life, and such gray hairs as she had she wore like eagle feathers.
She said, “For me? Why, thank you, Bigkiller.”
Bigkiller opened his mouth and shut it. Tsigeyu was the only living creature he feared. He had more reason than most, since she was his mother.
Muskrat muttered something about having the right to kill the prisoner for having injured him.
Tsigeyu looked at Muskrat. Muskrat got a few fingers shorter, or that was how it looked. But after a moment she said, “It is true you are the nearest thing to a wounded warrior among this brave little war party.” She gestured at the young Tuscarora woman. “So I think you should get to keep this girl, here.”
Muskrat looked a good deal happier.
“The rest of you can decide among yourselves who gets the other woman, and the boy.” Tsigeyu turned to me. “My brother, I want you to take charge of this white man for now. Try to teach him to speak properly. You can do it if anyone can.”
KNOWE ALL ENGLISH AND OTHER CHRISTIAN MEN:
That I an Englishman and Subjeckt of Her Maiestie Queene Elizabeth, did by Misadventure come to this country of Virginnia in the Yeere of Our Lord 1591: and after greate Hardshipp ar-riued amongst these Indians. Who haue done me no Harme, but rather shewed me most exelent Kindnesse, sans the which I were like to haue dyed in this Wildernesse. Wherefore, good Frend, I coniure you, that you offer these poore Sauages no Offence, nor do them Iniurie: but rather vse them generously and iustly, as they haue me.
Look at this. Did you ever see the like? He made these marks himself on this deerskin, using a sharpened turkey feather and some black paint that he cooked up from burned wood and oak galls. And he told me to keep it safe, and that if other white men came this way I should show it to them, and it would tell them his story.
Yes, I suppose it must be like a wampum belt, in a way. Or those little pictures and secret marks that the wise elders of the Leni Lenapes use to record their tribe’s history. So clearly he was some sort of didahnuwisgi, a medicine man, even though he did not look old enough to have received such an important teaching.
He was always making these little marks, scratching away on whatever he could get—skins, mostly, or mulberry bark. People thought he was crazy, and I let them, because if they had known the truth not even Tsigeyu could have saved him from being killed for a witch.
But all that came later, during the winter, after he had begun to learn our language and I his. On that first day I was only interested in getting him away from that crowd before there was more trouble. I could see that Otter was working himself up to make one of his speeches, and if nothing else that meant there was a danger of being talked to death.
Inside my house I gave the stranger a gourd of water. When he had eased his thirst I pointed to myself. “Mouse,” I said, very slowly and carefully. “Tsis-de-tsi.”
He was quick. “Tsisdetsi,” he repeated. He got the tones wrong, but it was close enough for a beginning.
I held my hands up under my chin like paws, and pulled my upper lip back to show my front teeth, and crossed my eyes. I waggled one hand behind me to represent a long tail. “Tsisdetsi,” I said again.
He laughed out loud. “Tsisdetsi,” he said. “Mus!”
He raised his hand and stroked his face for a moment, as if thinking of something. Then without warning he turned and grabbed my best war spear off the wall. My bowels went loose, but he made no move to attack me. Instead he began shaking the weapon above his head with one hand, slapping himself on the chest with the other. “Tsagspa,” he cried. “Tsagspa.”
Crazy as a dog on a hot day, I thought at first. They must have hit him too hard. Then I realized what was happening, and felt almost dizzy. It is no small honor when any man tells you his secret war name—but a stranger, and a prisoner!
“Digatsisdi atelvhusgo’i,” I said, when I could finally speak. “Shakes Spear!”
I am him that was call’d William Shakspere, of Stratford-upon-Auon, late of London: a Player, of Lord Strange his Company, and thereby hangs a Tale.
Look there, where I am pointing. That is his name! He showed me that, and he even offered to teach me how to make the marks for my own. Naturally I refused—think what an enemy could do with something like that!
When I pointed this out, he laughed and said I might be right. For, he said, many a man of his sort had had bad luck with other people making use of his name.
It hapt that our Company was in Portsmouth, hauing beene there engaug’d: but then were forbid to play, the Mayor and Corporation of that towne being of the Puritann perswasion. For which cause we were left altogether bankrupt: so that some of our Players did pawne their Cloathing for monny to return Home.
Perhaps someone had cursed him, since he sometimes said that he had never meant to leave his own country. It was the fault of the Puritans, he said. He did not explain what this meant, but once he mentioned that his wife and her family were Puritans. So obviously this is simply the name of his wife’s clan. Poor fellow, no wonder he left home. The same thing happened to an uncle of mine. When your wife’s clan decides to get rid of you, you don’t have a chance.
But I, being made foolish by strong Drinke, did conceive to hyde my selfe on a Ship bownd for London. Which did seeme a good Idea at the Time: but when I enquyr’d of some sea-faring men, they shewed me (in rogue Jest, or else mayhap I miscon-strew’d their Reply, for I was in sooth most outragiosly drunk) the Moonlight, which lay at the Docke. And so by night I stole aboord, and hid my selfe vnder a Boate: wherevpon the Wine did rush to my heade, and I fell asleepe, and wak’d not till the Morrow: to finde the Ship at sea and vnder Sayle, and the morning Sun at her backe.
Naturally it was a long time before we could understand each other well enough to discuss such things. Not as long as you might think, though. To begin with, I discovered that in fact he had picked up quite a bit of Tuscarora—pretending, like any smart captive, to understand less than he did. Besides that, he was a fast learner. You know that languages are my special medicine—I have heard them say that Mouse can talk to a stone, and get it to talk back—but Spearshaker was gifted too. By the time of the first snow, we could get along fairly well, in a mixture of his language and mine. And when words failed, he could express almost any idea, even tell a story, just by the movements of his hands and body and the expression of his face. That in itself was worth seeing.
When I was discouer’d the Master was most wroth, and commanded that I be put to the hardest Labours, and giuen onely the poorest leauings for food. So it went hard for me on that Voyage: but the Saylors learn’d that I could sing diuers Songs, and new Ballads from London, and then I was vsed better. Anon the Captaine, Mr. Edward Spicer, ask’d whether I had any skill in Armes. To which I reply’d, that a Player must needs be a Master of Fence, and of all other Artes martiall, forasmuch as we are wont to play Battles, Duelles, Murthers &c. And the Captaine said, that soone I should haue Opportunity to proue my selfe against true Aduer-saries and not in play, for we sayl’d for the Spanish Maine.
All this time, you understand, there was a great deal of talk concerning the white man. Most of the people came to like him, for he was a friendly fellow and a willing worker. And the Tuscarora girl was certainly right about his singing and dancing. Even Bigkiller had to laugh when Spearshaker went leaping and capering around the fire, and when he walked on his hands and clapped his feet together several women wet themselves—or so I heard.
His songs were strange to the ear, but enjoyable. I remember one we all liked:
But not everyone was happy about his presence among us. Many of the young men were angry that the women liked him so well, and now and then took him aside to prove it. And old Otter told everyone who would listen that once, long ago, a great band of white men had come up from the south, from the Timucua country, and destroyed the finest towns of the Maskogis, taking many away for slaves and killing the others. And this was true, because when the People moved south they found much of that country empty and ruined.
Spearshaker said that those people were of another tribe, with which his own nation was at war. But not everyone believed him, and Otter kept insisting that white men were simply too dangerous to have around. I began to fear for Spearshaker’s life.
At length we came vnto the Indies, being there joyn’d by the Hopewell and other Ships whose names I knowe not. And we attack’d the Spanish Convoy, and took the Galleon Buen Jesus, a rich Pryze: and so it came to pass that Will Shakspeare, Actor, did for his greate folly turn Pyrat vpon the salt Sea.
Then, early next spring, the Catawbas came.
This was no mere raid. They came in force and they hit us fast and hard, killing or capturing many of the people working in the fields before they could reach the town palisade. They rushed out of the woods and swarmed over the palisade like ants, and before we knew it we were fighting for our lives in front of our own houses.
That was when Spearshaker astonished us all. Without hesitating, he grabbed a long pole from the meat-drying racks and went after the nearest Catawba with it, jabbing him hard in the guts with the end, exactly as you would use a spear, and then clubbing him over the head. Then he picked up the Catawba’s bow and began shooting.
My friend, I have lived long and seen much, but I never was more surprised than that morning. This pale, helpless creature, who could not chip an arrowhead or build a proper fire or even take five steps off a trail without getting lost—he cut those Catawbas down like rotten cornstalks! He shot one man off the palisade, right over there, from clear down by the council house. I do not think he wasted a single shot. And when he was out of arrows, he picked up a war club from a fallen warrior and joined the rest of us in fighting off the remaining attackers.
Afterward, he seemed not to think he had done anything remarkable. He said that all the men of his land know stick-fighting and archery, which they learn as boys. “I could have done better,” he said, “with a long bow, and some proper arrows, from my own country.” And he looked sad, as he always did when he spoke of his home.
From that day there was no more talk against Spearshaker. Not long after, Tsigeyu announced that she was adopting him. Since this also made him Bigkiller’s brother, he was safe from anyone in our town. It also made me his uncle, but he was kind enough never to call me edutsi. We were friends.
Next we turn’d north for Virginnia, Capt. Spicer hauing a Commission from Sir Walter Ralegh to calle vpon the English that dwelt at Roanoke, to discouer their condition. The Gales were cruel all along that Coast, and we were oft in grave Peril: but after much trauail we reached Hatarask, where the Captaine sent a party in small Boates, to search out the passage betweene the Islands. And whilst we were thus employ’d, a sudden greate Wind arose and scattered the Boates, many being o’erturned and the Mariners drowned. But the Boate I was in was carry’d many Leagues westward, beyond sight of our Fellowes: so we were cast vpon the Shore of the Maine, and sought shelter in the Mouthe of a Riuer. Anon, going ashore, we were attack’d by Sauages: and all the men were slaine, save onely my selfe.
Poor fellow, he was still a long way from home, and small chance of ever seeing his own people again. At least he was better off than he had been with the Tuscaroras. Let alone those people on the coast, if they had caught him. Remember the whites who tried to build a town on that island north of Wococon, and how Powhatan had them all killed?
Yet hauing alone escap’d, and making my way for some dayes along the Riuer, I was surprized by Indians of another Nation: who did giue me hard vsage, as a Slaue, for well-nigh a Yeere. Vntil I was taken from them by these mine present sauage Hostes: amongst which, for my Sinnes, I am like to liue out my mortall dayes.
I used to have a big pile of these talking skins of his. Not that I ever expected to have a chance to show them to anyone who could understand them—I can’t believe the white men will ever come up into the hill country; they seem to have all they can do just to survive on the coast—but I kept them to remember Spearshaker by.
But the bugs and the mice got into them, and the bark sheets went moldy in the wet season, and now I have only this little bundle. And, as you see, some of these are no more than bits and pieces. Like this worm-eaten scrap:
as concerning these Indians (for so men call them: but if this be the Lande of India I am an Hebrewe Iewe) they are in their owne Tongue clept Anni-yawia. Which is, being interpreted, the True or Principall People. By other Tribes they are named Chelokee: but the meaning of this word my frend Mouse knoweth not, neyther whence deriued. They
I think one reason he spent so much time on his talking marks was that he was afraid he might forget his own language. I have seen this happen, with captives. That Tuscarora woman who was with him still lives here, and by now she can barely speak ten words of Tuscarora. Though Muskrat will tell you that she speaks our language entirely too well—but that is another story.
Spearshaker did teach me quite a lot of his own language—a very difficult one, unlike any I ever encountered—and I tried to speak it with him from time to time, but it can’t have been the same as talking with a man of his own kind. What does it sound like? Ah, I remember so little now. Let me see. . . . “Holt dai tong, dow hor-son nabe!” That means, “Shut up, you fool!”
He told me many stories about his native land and its marvels. Some I knew to be true, having heard of them from the coast folk: the great floating houses that spread their wings like birds to catch the wind, and the magic weapons that make thunder and lightning. Others were harder to believe, such as his tales about the woman chief of his tribe. Not a clan mother, but a real war chief, like Bigkiller or even Powhatan, and so powerful that any man—even an elder or a leading warrior—can lose his life merely for speaking against her.
He also claimed that the town he came from was so big that it held more people than all of the People’s towns put together. That is of course a lie, but you can’t blame a man for bragging on his own tribe.
But nothing, I think, was as strange as the plei.
Forgive me for using a word you do not know. But as far as I know there is no word in your language for what I am talking about. Nor in ours, and this is because the thing it means has never existed among our peoples. I think the Creator must have given this idea only to the whites, perhaps to compensate them for their poor sense of direction and that skin that burns in the sun.
It all began one evening, at the beginning of his second winter with us, when I came in from a council meeting and found him sitting by the fire, scratching away on a big sheet of mulberry bark. Just to be polite I said, “Gado hadvhne? What are you doing?”
Without looking up he said in his own language, “Raiting a plei.”
Now I knew what the first part meant; rai-ting is what the whites call it when they make those talking marks. But I had never heard the last word before, and I asked what it meant.
Spearshaker laid his turkey feather aside and sat up and looked at me. “Ah, Mouse,” he said, “how can I make you understand? This will be hard even for you.”
I sat down on the other side of the fire. “Try,” I said.
O what a fond and Moone-struck fool am I! Hath the aire of Virginnia addl’d my braine? Or did an Enemy smite me on the heade, and I knewe it not? For here in this wilde country, where e’en the Artes of Letters are altogether unknowne, I haue begun the writing of a Play. And sure it is I shall neuer see it acted, neyther shall any other man: wherefore ’tis Lunacy indeede. Yet me thinkes if I do it not, I am the more certain to go mad: for I find my selfe growing more like vnto these Indians, and I feare I may forget what manner of man I was. Therefore the Play’s the thing, whereby Ile saue my Minde by intentional folly: forsooth, there’s Method in my Madnesse.
Well, he was right. He talked far into the night, and the more he talked the less I understood. I asked more questions than a rattlesnake has scales, and the answers only left me more confused. It was a long time before I began to see it.
Didn’t you, as a child, pretend you were a warrior or a chief or maybe a medicine man, and make up stories and adventures for yourself? And your sisters had dolls that they gave names to, and talked to, and so on?
Or . . . let me try this another way. Don’t your people have dances, like our Bear Dance, in which a man imitates some sort of animal? And don’t your warriors sometimes dance around the fire acting out their own deeds, showing how they killed men or sneaked up on an enemy town—and maybe making it a little better than it really happened? Yes, it is the same with us.
Now this plei thing is a little like those dances, and a little like the pretending of children. A group of people dress up in fancy clothes and pretend to be other people, and pretend to do various things, and in this way they tell a story.
Yes, grown men. Yes, right up in front of everybody.
But understand, this isn’t a dance. Well, there is some singing and dancing, but mostly they just talk. And gesture, and make faces, and now and then pretend to kill each other. They do a lot of that last. I guess it is something like a war dance at that.
You’d be surprised what can be done in this way. A man like Spearshaker, who really knows how—ak-ta is what they are called—can make you see almost anything. He could imitate a man’s expression and voice and way of moving—or a woman’s—so well you’d swear he had turned into that person. He could make you think he was Bigkiller, standing right there in front of you, grunting and growling and waving his war club. He could do Blackfox’s funny walk, or Locust wiggling his eyebrows, or Tsigeyu crossing her arms and staring at somebody she didn’t like. He could even be Muskrat and his Tuscarora woman arguing, changing back and forth and doing both voices, till I laughed so hard my ribs hurt.
Now understand this. These akta people don’t just make up their words and actions as they go along, as children or dancers do. No, the whole story is already known to them, and each akta has words that must be said, and things that must be done, at exactly the right times. You may be sure this takes a good memory. They have as much to remember as the Master of the Green Corn Dance.
And so, to help them, one man puts the whole thing down in those little marks. Obviously this is a very important job, and Spearshaker said that it was only in recent times, two or three winters before leaving his native land, that he himself had been accounted worthy of this honor. Well, I had known he was a didahnvwisgi, but I hadn’t realized he was of such high rank.
I first purpos’d to compose some pretty conceited Comedy, like vnto my Loue’s Labour’s Lost: but alas, me seemes my Wit hath dry’d vp from Misfortune. Then I bethought my selfe of the Play of the Prince of Denmark, by Thomas Kyd: which I had been employ’d in reuising for our Company not long ere we departed London, and had oft said to Richard Burbage, that I trow I could write a Better. And so I haue commenced, and praye God I may compleat, my owne Tragedie of Prince Hamlet.
I asked what sort of stories his people told in this curious manner. That is something that always interests me—you can learn a lot about any tribe from their stories. Like the ones the Maskogis tell about Rabbit, or our own tale about the Thunder Boys, or—you know.
I don’t know what I was thinking. By then I should have known that white people do everything differently from everyone else in the world.
First he started to tell me about a dream somebody had on a summer night. That sounded good, but then it turned out to be about the Little People! Naturally I stopped him fast, and I told him that we do not talk about . . . them. I felt sorry for the poor man who dreamed about them, but there was no helping him now.
Then Spearshaker told me a couple of stories about famous chiefs of his own tribe. I couldn’t really follow this very well, partly because I knew so little about white laws and customs, but also because a lot of their chiefs seemed to have the same name. I never did understand whether there were two different chiefs named Ritsad, or just one with a very strange nature.
The oddest thing, though, was that none of these stories seemed to have any point. They didn’t tell you why the moon changes its face, or how the People were created, or where the mountains came from, or where the raccoon got his tail, or anything. They were just . . . stories. Like old women’s gossip.
Maybe I missed something.
To liue, or not to liue, there lyes the
To liue, or dye? Shall I
To dye or
To be or what? It
He certainly worked hard at his task. More often than not, I could hear him grinding his teeth and muttering to himself as he sat hunched over his marks. And now and then he would jump up and throw the sheet to the ground and run outside in the snow and the night wind, and I would hear him shouting in his own language. At least I took it to be his language, though the words were not among those I knew. Part of his medicine, no doubt, so I said nothing.
God’s Teethe! Haue I beene so long in this Wildernesse, that I haue forgot all Skill? I that could bombast out a lyne of blank Uerse as readily as a Fishe doth swimm, now fumble for Wordes like a Drunkard who cannot finde his owne Cod-peece with both Handes.
I’m telling you, it was a long winter.
For who would thus endure the Paines of time:
To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow,
That waite in patient and most grim Array,
Each arm’d with Speares and Arrowes of Misfortune,
Like Indians ambuscaded in the Forest?
But that the dread of something after Death,
That vndiscouered country, from whose Shores
No Traueller returnes, puzzels the Will,
And makes vs rather beare that which we knowe
Than wantonly embarke for the Vnknowne.
One evening, soon after the snows began to melt, I noticed that Spearshaker was not at his usual nightly work. He was just sitting there staring into the fire, not even looking at his skins and bark sheets, which were stacked beside him. The turkey feathers and black paint were nowhere in sight.
I said, “Is something wrong?” and then it came to me. “Finished?”
He let out a long sigh. “Yes,” he said. “Mo ful ai,” he added, which was something he often said, though I never quite got what it meant.
It was easy to see he was feeling bad. So I said, “Tell me the story.”
He didn’t want to, but finally he told it to me. He got pretty worked up as he went along, sometimes jumping up to act out an exciting part, till I thought he was going to wreck my house. Now and then he picked up a skin or mulberry-bark sheet and spoke the words, so I could hear the sound. I had thought I was learning his language pretty well, but I couldn’t understand one word in ten.
But the story itself was clear enough. There were parts I didn’t follow, but on the whole it was the best he’d ever told me. At the end I said, “Good story.”
He tilted his head to one side, like a bird. “Truly?”
“Doyu,” I said. I meant it, too.
He sighed again and picked up his pile of raiting. “I am a fool,” he said.
I saw that he was about to throw the whole thing into the fire, so I went over and took it from him. “This is a good thing,” I told him. “Be proud.”
“Why?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Who will ever see it? Only the bugs and the worms. And the mice,” he added, giving me his little smile.
I stood there, trying to think of something to make him feel better. Ninekiller’s oldest daughter had been making eyes at Spearshaker lately and I wondered if I should go get her. Then I looked down at what I was holding in my hands and it came to me.
“My friend,” I said, “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we put on your plei right here?”
And now is Lunacy compownded vpon Lunacy, Bedlam pyled on Bedlam: for I am embark’d on an Enterprize, the like of which this Globe hath neuer seene. Yet Ile undertake this Foolery, and flynch not: mayhap it will please these People, who are become my onely Frends. They shall haue of Will his best will.
It sounded simple when I heard myself say it. Doing it was another matter. First, there were people to be spoken with.
We Aniyuwiya like to keep everything loose and easy. Our chiefs have far less authority than yours, and even the power of the clan mothers has its limits. Our laws are few, and everyone knows what they are, so things tend to go along without much trouble.
But there were no rules for what we wanted to do, because it had never been done before. Besides, we were going to need the help of many people. So it seemed better to go carefully—but I admit I had no idea that our little proposal would create such a stir. In the end there was a regular meeting at the council house to talk it over.
Naturally it was Otter who made the biggest fuss. “This is white men’s medicine,” he shouted. “Do you want the People to become as weak and useless as the whites?”
“If it will make all our warriors shoot as straight as Spearshaker,” Bigkiller told him, “then it might be worth it.”
Otter waved his skinny old arms. He was so angry by now that his face was whiter than Spearshaker’s. “Then answer this,” he said. “How is it that this dance—”
“It’s not a dance,” I said. Usually I would not interrupt an elder in council, but if you waited for Otter to finish you might be there all night.
“Whatever you call it,” he said, “it’s close enough to a dance to be Bird Clan business, right? And you, Mouse, are Wolf Clan—as is your white friend, by adoption. So you have no right to do this thing.”
Old Dotsuya spoke up. She was the Bird Clan Mother, and the oldest person present. Maybe the oldest in town, now I think of it.
“The Bird Clan has no objection,” she said. “Mouse and Spearshaker have our permission to put on their plei. Which I, for one, would like to see. Nothing ever happens around this town.”
Tsigeyu spoke next. “Howa,” she said. “I agree. This sounds interesting.”
Of course Otter wasn’t willing to let it go so easily; he made quite a speech, going all the way back to the origins of the People and predicting every kind of calamity if this sacrilege was permitted. It didn’t do him much good, though. No one liked Otter, who had gotten both meaner and longer-winded with age, and who had never been a very good didahnvwisgi anyway. Besides, half the people in the council house were asleep long before he was done.
After the council gave its approval there was no trouble getting people to help. Rather we had more help than we needed. For days there was a crowd hanging around my house, wanting to be part of the plei. Bigkiller said if he could get that many people to join a war party, he could take care of the Catawbas for good.
And everyone wanted to be an akta. We were going to have to turn some people away, and we would have to be careful how we did it, or there would be trouble. I asked Spearshaker how many aktas we needed. “How many men, that is,” I added, as he began counting on his fingers. “The women are a different problem.”
He stopped counting and stared at me as if I were wearing owl feathers. Then he told me something so shocking you will hardly believe it. In his country, the women in a plei are actually men wearing women’s clothes!
I told him quick enough that the People don’t go in for that sort of thing—whatever they may get up to in certain other tribes—and he’d better not even talk about it around here. Do you know, he got so upset that it took me the rest of the day to talk him out of calling the whole thing off. . . .
Women! Mercifull Jesu! Women, on a Stage, acting in a Play! I shall feele like an Whore-Master!
Men or women, it was hard to know which people to choose. None of them had ever done anything like this before, so there was no way to know whether they would be any good or not. Spearshaker asked me questions about each person, in white language so no one would be offended: Is he quick to learn? Does he dance or sing well? Can he work with other people, and do as he is told? And he had them stand on one side of the stickball field, while he stood on the other, and made them speak their names and clans, to learn how well their voices carried.
I had thought age would come into it, since the plei included both older and younger people. But it turned out that Spearshaker knew an art of painting a man’s face, and putting white in his hair, till he might be mistaken for his own grandfather.
No doubt he could have done the same with women, but that wasn’t necessary. There were only two women’s parts in this story, and we gave the younger woman’s part to Ninekiller’s daughter Cricket—who would have hung upside-down in a tree like a possum if it would please Spearshaker—and the older to a cousin of mine, about my age, who had lost her husband to the Shawanos and wanted something to do.
For those who could not be aktas, there was plenty of other work. A big platform had to be built, with space cleared around it, and log benches for the people who would watch. There were torches to be prepared, since we would be doing it at night, and special clothes to be made, as well as things like fake spears so no one would get hurt.
Locust and Blackfox were particularly good workers; Spearshaker said it was as if they had been born for this. They even told him that if he still wanted to follow the custom of his own tribe, with men dressed as women, they would be willing to take those parts. Well, I always had wondered about those two.
But Spearshaker was working harder than anyone else. Besides being in charge of all the other preparations, he had to remake his whole plei to suit our needs. No doubt he had made a fine plei for white men, but for us, as it was, it would never do.
Many a Play haue I reuis’d and amended: cut short or long at the Company’s desyre, or alter’d this or that Speeche to please a Player: e’en carued the very Guttes out of a scene on command of the Office of the Reuels, for some imagin’d Sedition or vnseemely Speeche. But now must I out-do all I euer did before, in the making of my Hamlet into a thing comprehensible to the Anni-yawia. Scarce is there a line which doth not haue to be rewrit: yea, and much ta’en out intire: as, the Play within the Play, which Mouse saith, that none here will vnderstande. And the Scene must be mov’d from Denmark to Virginnia, and Elsinore Castle transformed into an Indian towne. For marry, it were Alchemy enow that I should transmute vnletter’d Sauages into tragick Actors: but to make royal Danskers of swart-fac’d Indians were beyond all Reason. (Speak’st thou now of Reason, Will Shakespere? Is’t not ouer-late for that?)
You should have seen us teaching the aktas their parts. First Spearshaker would look at the marks and say the words in his language. Then he would explain to me any parts I hadn’t understood—which was most of it, usually—and then I would translate the whole thing for the akta in our language. Or as close as I could get; there are some things you cannot really interpret. By now Spearshaker was fluent enough to help me.
Then the akta would try to say the words back to us, almost always getting it all wrong and having to start again. And later on all the people in the plei had to get together and speak their parts in order, and do all the things they would do in the plei, and that was like a bad dream. Not only did they forget their words; they bumped into each other and stepped on each other’s feet, and got carried away in the fight parts and nearly killed each other. And Spearshaker would jump up and down and pull his hair—which had already begun to fall out, for some reason—and sometimes weep, and when he had settled down we would try again.
Verily, my lot is harder than that of the Iewes of Moses. For Scripture saith, that Pharo did command that they make Brickes without Strawe, wherefore their trauail was greate: but now I must make my Brickes, euen without Mudd.
Let me tell you the story of Spearshaker’s plei.
Once there was a great war chief who was killed by his own brother. Not in a fight, but secretly, by poison. The brother took over as chief, and also took his dead brother’s woman, who didn’t object.
But the dead man had a son, a young warrior named Amaledi. One night the dead chief appeared to Amaledi and told him the whole story. And, of course, demanded that he do something about it.
Poor Amaledi was in a bad fix. Obviously he mustn’t go against his mother’s wishes, and kill her new man without her permission. On the other hand, no one wants to anger a ghost—and this one was plenty angry already.
So Amaledi couldn’t decide what to do. To make things worse, the bad brother had guessed that Amaledi knew something. He and this really nasty, windy old man named Quolonisi—sounds like Otter—began trying to get rid of Amaledi.
To protect himself Amaledi became a Crazy, doing and saying everything backward, or in ways that made no sense. This made his medicine strong enough to protect him from his uncle and Quolonisi, at least for a time.
Quolonisi had a daughter, Tsigalili, who wanted Amaledi for her man. But she didn’t want to live with a Crazy—who does?—and she kept coming around and crying and begging him to quit. At the same time his mother was giving him a hard time for being disrespectful toward her new man. And all the while the ghost kept showing up and yelling at Amaledi for taking so long. It got so bad Amaledi thought about killing himself, but then he realized that he would go to the spirit world, where his father would neverleave him alone.
So Amaledi thought of a plan. There was a big dance one night to honor the new chief, and some visiting singers from another town were going to take part. Amaledi took their lead singer aside and got him to change the song, telling him the new words had been given to him in a dream. And that night, with the dancers going around the fire and the women shaking the turtle shells and the whole town watching, the visiting leader sang:
“Now he pours it,
Now he is pouring the poison,
See, there are two brothers,
See, now there is one.”
That was when it all blew up like a hot rock in a fire. The bad chief jumped up and ran away from the dance grounds, afraid he had just been witched. Amaledi had a big argument with his mother and told her what he thought of the way she was acting. Then he killed Quolonisi. He said it was an accident but I think he was just tired of listening to the old fool.
Tsigalili couldn’t stand any more. She jumped into a waterfall and killed herself. There was a fine funeral.
Now Amaledi was determined to kill his uncle. The uncle was just as determined to kill Amaledi, but he was too big a coward to do it himself. So he got Quolonisi’s son Panther to call Amaledi out for a fight.
Panther was a good fighter and he was hot to kill Amaledi, because of his father and his sister. But the chief wasn’t taking any chances. He put some poison on Panther’s spear. He also had a gourd of water, with poison in it, in case nothing else worked.
So Amaledi and Panther painted their faces red and took their spears and faced each other, right in front of the chief’s house. Amaledi was just as good as Panther, but finally he got nicked on the arm. Before the poison could act, they got into some hand-to-hand wrestling, and the spears got mixed up. Now Panther took a couple of hits. Yes, with the poisoned spear.
Meanwhile Amaledi’s mother got thirsty and went over and took a drink, before anyone could stop her, from the poisoned gourd. Pretty soon she fell down. Amaledi and Panther stopped fighting and rushed over, but she was already dead.
By now they were both feeling the poison themselves. Panther fell down and died. So did Amaledi, but before he went down he got his uncle with the poisoned spear. So in the end everyone died.
Well, I suppose you had to be there.
And so ’tis afoote: to-morrow night we are to perform. Thank God Burbage cannot be there to witnesse it: for it were a Question which should come first, that he dye of Laughter, or I of Shame.
It was a warm and pleasant night. Everyone was there, even Otter. By the time it was dark all the seats were full and many people were standing, or sitting on the ground.
The platform had only been finished a few days before—with Bigkiller complaining about the waste of timber and labor, that could have gone into strengthening the town’s defenses—and it looked very fine. Locust and Blackfox had hung some reed mats on poles to represent the walls of houses, and also to give us a place to wait out of sight before going on. To keep the crowd from getting restless, Spearshaker had asked Dotsuya to have some Bird Clan men sing and dance while we were lighting the torches and making other last preparations.
Then it was time to begin.
What? Oh, no, I was not an akta. By now I knew the words to the whole plei, from having translated and repeated them so many times. So I stood behind a reed screen and called out the words, in a voice too low for the crowd to hear, when anyone forgot what came next.
Spearshaker, yes. He was the ghost. He had put some paint on his face that made it even whiter, and he did something with his voice that made the hair stand up on your neck.
But in fact everyone did very well, much better than I had expected. The only bad moment came when Amaledi—that was Tsigeyu’s son Hummingbird—shouted, “Na! Dili, dili!”—“There! A skunk, a skunk!”—and slammed his war club into the wall of the “chief’s house,” forgetting it was really just a reed mat. And Beartrack, who was being Quolonisi, took such a blow to the head that he was out for the rest of the plei. But it didn’t matter, since he had no more words to speak, and he made a very good dead man for Amaledi to drag out.
And the people loved it, all of it. How they laughed and laughed! I never heard so many laugh so hard for so long. At the end, when Amaledi fell dead between his mother and Panther and the platform was covered with corpses, there was so much howling and hooting you would have taken it for a hurricane. I looked out through the mats and saw Tsigeyu and Bigkiller holding on to each other to keep from falling off the bench. Warriors were wiping tears from their eyes and women were clutching themselves between the legs and old Dotsuya was lying on the ground kicking her feet like a baby.
I turned to Spearshaker, who was standing beside me. “See,” I said. “And you were afraid they wouldn’t understand it!”
AFTER THAT everything got confused for a while. Locust and Blackfox rushed up and dragged Spearshaker away, and the next time I saw him he was down in front of the platform with Tsigeyu embracing him and Bigkiller slapping him on the back. I couldn’t see his face, which was hidden by Tsigeyu’s very large front.
By then people were making a fuss over all of us. Even me. A Paint Clan woman, not bad-looking for her age, took me away for some attention. She was limber and had a lot of energy, so it was late by the time I finally got home.
Spearshaker was there, sitting by the fire. He didn’t look up when I came in. His face was so pale I thought at first he was still wearing his ghost paint.
I said, “Gusdi nusdi? Is something wrong?”
“They laughed,” he said. He didn’t sound happy about it.
“They laughed,” I agreed. “They laughed as they have never laughed before, every one of them. Except for Otter, and no one has ever seen him laugh.”
I sat down beside him. “You did something fine tonight, Spearshaker. You made the People happy. They have a hard life, and you made them laugh.”
He made a snorting sound. “Yes. They laughed to see us making fools of ourselves. Perhaps that is good.”
“No, no.” I saw it now. “Is that what you think? That they laughed because we did the plei so badly?”
I put my hand on his shoulder and turned him to face me. “My friend, no one there tonight ever saw a plei before, except for you. How would they know if it was bad? It was certainly the best plei they ever saw.”
He blinked slowly, like a turtle. I saw his eyes were red.
“Believe me, Spearshaker,” I told him, “they were laughing because it was such a funny story. And that was your doing.”
His expression was very strange indeed. “They thought it comical?”
“Well, who wouldn’t? All those crazy people up there, killing each other—and themselves—and then that part at the end, where everyone gets killed!” I had to stop and laugh, myself, remembering. “I tell you,” I said when I had my breath back, “even though I knew the whole thing by memory, I nearly lost control of myself a few times there.”
I got up. “Come, Spearshaker. You need to go to sleep. You have been working too hard.”
But he only put his head down in his hands and made some odd sounds in his throat, and muttered some words I did not know. And so I left him there and went to bed.
If I live until the mountains fall, I will never understand white men.
If I liue vntil our Saviour’s returne, I shall neuer vnderstande Indians. Warre they count as Sport, and bloody Murther an occasion of Merriment: ’tis because they hold Life itselfe but lightly, and think Death no greate matter neyther: and so that which we call Tragick, they take for Comedie. And though I be damned for’t, I cannot sweare that they haue not the Right of it.
Whatever happened that night, it changed something in Spearshaker. He lived with us for many more years, but never again did he make a plei for us.
That was sad, for we had all enjoyed the Amaledi story so much, and were hoping for more. And many people tried to get Spearshaker to change his mind—Tsigeyu actually begged him; I think it was the only time in her life she ever begged anyone for anything—but it did no good. He would not even talk about it.
And at last we realized that his medicine had gone, and we left him in peace. It is a terrible thing for a didahnvwisgi when his power leaves him. Perhaps his ancestors’ spirits were somehow offended by our plei. I hope not, since it was my idea.
That summer Ninekiller’s daughter Cricket became Spearshaker’s wife. I gave them my house, and moved in with the Paint Clan woman. I visited my friend often, and we talked of many things, but of one thing we never spoke.
Cricket told me he still made his talking marks, from time to time. If he ever tried to make another plei, though, he never told anyone.
I believe it was five winters ago—it was not more—when Cricket came in one day and found him dead. It was a strange thing, for he had not been sick, and was still a fairly young man. As far as anyone knew there was nothing wrong with him, except that his hair had fallen out.
I think his spirit simply decided to go back to his native land.
Cricket grieved for a long time. She still has not taken another husband. Did you happen to see a small boy with pale skin and brown hair, as you came through our town? That is their son Wili.
Look what Cricket gave me. This is the turkey feather that was in Spearshaker’s hand when she found him that day. And this is the piece of mulberry bark that was lying beside him. I will always wonder what it says.
Elizabethan spelling was fabulously irregular; the same person might spell the same word in various ways on a single page. Shakespeare’s own spelling is known only from the Quarto and Folio printings of the plays, and the published poetry; and no one knows how far this may have been altered by the printer. It is not even known how close the published texts are to Shakespeare’s original in wording, let alone spelling. All we have in his own hand is his signature, and this indicates that he spelled his own name differently almost every time he wrote it.
I have followed the spelling of the Folio for the most part, but felt free to use my own judgment and even whim, since that was what the original speller did.
I have, however, regularized spelling and punctuation to some extent, and modernized spelling and usage in some instances, so that the text would be readable. I assume this magazine’s readership is well-educated, but it seems unrealistic to expect them to be Elizabethan scholars.
Cherokee pronunciation is difficult to render in Roman letters. Even our own syllabary system of writing, invented in the nineteenth century by Sequoyah, does not entirely succeed, as there is no way to indicate the tones and glottal stops. I have followed, more or less, the standard system of transliteration, in which “v” is used for the nasal grunting vowel that has no English equivalent.
It hardly matters, since we do not know how sixteenth-century Cherokees pronounced the language. The sounds have changed considerably in the century and a half since the forced march to Oklahoma; what they were like four hundred years ago is highly conjectural. So is the location of the various tribes of Virginia and the Carolinas during this period; and, of course, so is their culture. (The Cherokees may not then have been the warlike tribe they later became—though, given the national penchant for names incorporating the verb “to kill,” this is unlikely.) The Catawbas were a very old and hated enemy.
Edward Spicer’s voyage to America to learn the fate of the Roanoke Colony—or rather his detour to Virginia after a successful privateering operation—did happen, including the bad weather and the loss of a couple of boats, though there is no record that any boat reached the mainland. The disappearance of the Roanoke colonists is a famous event. It is only conjecture—though based on considerable evidence, and accepted by many historians—that Powhatan had the colonists murdered, after they had taken sanctuary with a minor coastal tribe. Disney fantasies to the contrary, Powhatan was not a nice man.
I have accepted, for the sake of the story, the view of many scholars that Shakespeare first got the concept of Hamlet in the process of revising Thomas Kyd’s earlier play on the same subject. Thus he might well have had the general idea in his head as early as 1591—assuming, as most do, that by this time he was employed with a regular theatrical company—even though the historic Hamlet is generally agreed to have been written considerably later.
As to those who argue that William Shakespeare was not actually the author of Hamlet, but that the plays were written by Francis Bacon or the Earl of Southampton or Elvis Presley, one can only reply: Hah! And again, Hah!