Bent Willows: Ⅰ

By: Eric Griggs

SStrong Eyes usually saw changes before any of the rest. First he noticed them in the color of the morning sky, slinging the straps of his reed basket over bare shoulders to follow the narrow path down to the the river.

As he waded into the misty waters of the weir, he gathered several fat trout. Each had swum unwittingly into his trap.

He placed each one gently in the basket, and gave thanks for their sacrifice. Silently he smiled in gratitude for the Great Spirit’s kindness. Today’s catch was especially big — there would be plenty enough to trade.

to Chapter II → forward

He heard a strange rustling from the hilltop that overlooked the river. Too noisy for a deer, he thought, and certainly not the distinctive footfalls of a man.

At once, the form of a great sow appeared in black silhouette against the crimson sky beyond.

She was clearly a stranger here, not one of the hairless pigs of the white man. A powerful, resilient beast, she was the kind to face a man head-on.

Suddenly, a warm gust arose from the south. The black tendrils of the man’s hair flapped in the wind like great black arms of a hungry spider reaching out to wrest the beast from its place on high.

In the distance rose the doleful howl of a coyote. The great pig stared. Her eyes were fixed in the trickster’s direction, her mind riveted on the coming fight.

Strong Eyes stood transfixed. Knee-deep in the chilly water, he was unable to divine the meaning of the spirit-songs all around him.

ItIt t was barely light enough to begin.

“Aww mama, must we tend to washin’ all day?” the girl whined, spitting out a ringlet of her own dark blond curls. She would rather spit curls all morning long than strap that itchy bonnet on again, especially when chores were involved.

“Hush-up now girl, I won’t have my young’uns in dirty clothes, especially not in public. You still wanna visit with Sally tomorrow after church, don’tcha?”

“Yessum,” the girl agreed.

“Besides,” her mother continued, “I hear the townfolk have finally found us a new schoolteacher. You’d best learn how to step-quick them chores if’n you wanna attend lessons with the others.”

“Really?”

The girl considered the possibilities. In her eleven years, she’d seen maybe eighteen months of formal schooling. Teachers were in short supply in the new territories; the good ones usually picked better-paying situations in big towns.

Writing on chalkboards and working through musty primers were not ideal pastimes.

All at once she realized: a new schoolteacher meant time away from the farm, viable excuses to avoid chores, and a chance to make some new friends!

“Oh how wonderful!” she crowed. She picked up the basket of washing and skipped away. A stiff cotton line stretched taut between the corner of her clapboard home and the lonely pecan tree.

She decided to pass the time by reciting nursery rhymes in time to her laundry-hanging motions.

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,“ she began, pinning up the left leg of her daddy’s overalls. By the time the king’s men had given up and decided to scramble some eggs, she was halfway through the socks.

Behind the late-August clouds, the morning sun now bathed the gently rolling hills in warm shades of gold and cerise.

“This little piggy went to market,” she giggled, remembering the fat Turner boy from the General Store, his pudgy fingers locked tight to a stick of horehound candy.

She reached for her petticoats.

“This little piggy had roast beef,” she chanted pinning the shift up on one side with a wooden clothespin. Her stomach rumbled, breakfast not yet ready. “And this little piggy had none.”

Just as she reached for another clothespin, a little boy came running up from beside the house, “And this little piggy went wheeeeeeee wheeeeee wheeeeeee!”

“Oh Billy! You done gone and scared me half to death!” The girl smiled broadly while play-acting as if she were frightened.

Moments later, a huge gust of wind snatched her linen undergarment from the line. The pale white petticoat soared up into the air, a billowy apparition stark against the crimson glow of dawn.

“Quick Grace, catch it before it shoots off to Californee!” the little boy squealed.

The pair joined hands and raced off in pursuit.

“T“These seem to me rather cruel circumstances for her,” the woman said, her silvery hair drawn tight in a bun. “What professional teacher would wish to be uprooted and set-down to work in this drafty box?”

“Drafty? Drafty you say?” The young carpenter ran his fingers along the beams and wooden panels of the one-room schoolhouse.

On days like this, the sturdy building served double-duty as the town council’s meeting room.

The rabble in the saloon sometimes kicked up too much raucous for a serious discussion of town business.

“I’ll have you know my daddy felled each and ever’ one. He split these here beams with his bare hands. Well, his hands and his axe.”

“Now Cecil,” the lanky minister interjected. “Nobody’s criticizing your daddy’s fine craftsmanship. The Almighty himself even makes provision for spring wool and green leaves . . . all in his own wond’rous and divine time. Surely you admit these sturdy walls are tad overdue for some tendin’?”

“True,” Cecil dutifully conceded, “maybe we best ort’a plan a workin’ day or two ‘twixt now and whatever time winter decides to set in. A hair of fixin’ and she’ll be right as rain.”

“Indeed,” the dignified lady in Mauveine agreed.

She now wore the rich purple hue to her few formal engagements. It had taken several seasons for the bolts of this fashionable shade, debuted first by the Queen, to reach the hinterlands of Bent Willows.

“But where will she stay?” the lady continued, “We can’t just pluck her up out of civilization and expose her to the elements. What a pity to drag her out so far, only to lose her to pleurisy, dropsy, or somesuch.”

“Now don’t you fret none, Lavinia. Our cousin back East tells me she’s fit as a fiddle,” the bovine sheriff lowed. “Why, with all the yeller-fever and consumption blowing through Baltimore, she orta’ feel right comfy here, what with our general lack of pestilence and so forth.”

“I reckon we could hire a room for her down at the saloon. At least ’til we can spiff things up in here,” Cecil suggested.

“Then we’ll hang up a fancy dividin’ curtain, requisition her a fine sleepin’ cot, and she’ll be happy as clam.”

Startled, the minister’s eyebrows rose as quickly as his congregation did to the opening chords of the Doxology

“Surely you don’t mean to suggest . . .”

“U“Unacceptable!” Mrs. Fleischman interrupted rapping the desktop with her be-gloved hand.

“Well if anybody’s got a better idea,” bleated the sheriff, “I’m all ears.”

“All ears for certain,” the elderly lady scolded, “. . . big hairy ears, crusty red nose, all adorning that empty bull-head of yours.”

The lady ceremoniously rose from her chair. “That’s it. She will stay at my house, at least until we can locate proper accommodations for a young woman of her station.”

“I swear Lavinia,” the sheriff bellowed, “. . . if’n you wern’t my own daggum’ sister I’d . . .”

Then everything is settled Hoyt,” the minister cleverly interrupted.

Hoyt glared at Lavinia and spat a mass of tobacco juice. The amber liquid landed with a soft splat in the spittoon half a room away. Hoyt’s aim, as usual, was perfect.

“Our new schoolmistress will stay with Mrs. Fleischman temporarily while Cecil organizes a work detail,” the minister summarized. “His boys will first lay in some firewood, then we’ll undertake a few minor repairs to this fine hall.”

“We haven’t much time,” Mrs. Fleischman declared. “The Cimarron Zephyr arrives Tuesday ‘round noon and she’ll be aboard.”

“ I’ll have my girl Susannah make ready the second parlor. It’s no proper bedroom, but we’ll make her comfortable for the time being.”

“Fine! I’ll announce the plans tomorrow,” the minister said, “and make the rounds afterwards. We’ll take-up a special collection to help settle-in our new neighbor.”

Cecil rapped the iron flue hanging over the pot-bellied stove. A hole burst open, filling his face and the surrounding floor with soot.

“Well, I guess we all know what I’m fixin’ to do now.”

OOutside, the sun had long fallen below the horizon. The women gathered around the communal fire, chewing sinew and fashioning various articles of utility and beauty.

A girl played a happy tune on a reed flute, as her mind drifted along with thoughts of adventure.

The men and boys wrestled and shared tales (largely fictional) of conquests past.

It was not yet the time to make ready for winter, and the members of the tribe enjoyed the camaraderie of this late summer night.

Strong Eyes silently entered the tent of Blue Spider, bearing with him the fattest of the fish he’d caught and cleaned earlier. He presented it to the wizened old man seated inside. A broad and toothless smile spread across the elder’s face as his coal-black eyes glinted with joy. He twisted at his gray mane of hair and called out for his niece.

“Thank you,” the old man said in the soft tongue of their ancestors as he signaled for the quiet girl to prepare the fish. “It is a boon for an old man like me to enjoy such a family. I cannot chew the meat of buffalo any more, but fish . . . ahh, the fish makes me glad.”

“Old one,” Strong Eyes began, choosing the most deferential of titles, “I am going to the village of the white man to make trade. Great Fire has given me permission, but I wanted your wisdom before I go.”

The young man spoke of the signs he had seen earlier by the river. Blue Spider closed his eyes in silence for what seemed like an eternity. Strong Eyes knew better than to interrupt, even though he wondered at one point if the old man had drifted off to sleep.

The old man’s eyes opened once again as he began to speak, “Long ago, before our people settled here, the red sky came down to touch the waters of the great river to the south. There, our people met the first white man. Their faces were covered in black hair like the bear. Some of these men were as the wild sow in your vision, honest and forthright. They traded horses and other things of great value; with men like these, we lived in peace.”

“I am glad, old one,” Strong Eyes replied, exhaling a sigh of relief.

BBut something was not right. Now he saw sadness in the old man’s eyes.

“Yet,” the old man continued, “there were others. Like the distant coyote you heard today, these white men arrived late, full of deceit. Much sickness and sorrow followed them. They made war with our people who came north — here.”

“How can I find the wisdom in all of these things, Blue Spider?”

“The world is large young one, and you are called Strong Eyes. You must learn how each one is to be called. Let two moons pass before you go to the village of the white man.”

“Tomorrow, consider the sow and the next day, think of the coyote. In this fashion, prepare your eyes to see.”

The girl returned with the freshly prepared fish and a gourd of strong corn-water. Huddled together inside the old man’s warm tent, the three ate mostly in silence. Outside, the melody of the reed flute floated up into the starry sky, covering faint howls from far away.

This is the first chapter in a collaborative storytelling effort with e-friends, James Finn, Saoirse, and Chloe Cuthbert.

Here is the next chapter:

Juxtaposeur, technical analyst, process engineer, poet wordsmith, INTJ, Anansi, MBTI certified practitioner & team-builder, certifiable fabulist & Uppity Queer™