My grandson, James, visited yesterday, asking how there came to be Shawnee blood in the family. He wants to join the Ohio Remnant Band. It’s the descendants of the Shawnee who passed as white farmers when Andrew Jackson ordered relocation. Now, this new generation is piecing together a history for themselves. They're collecting the stories, digging up old records, tracing Shawnee bloodlines through families that have kept secrets for three, maybe four generations.
James is nineteen, full of questions about his place in the world. I saw in his eyes how much he wants to join that remnant band. He'd already been to their meetings. He told them there's Shawnee in him, coming from his grandfather--a fact there's no reason for me to hide anymore. My grandson sat on the porch with me, chattering away about the harvest ceremony he'd seen, his teeth flashing, his hands moving like frantic birds.
So I told him the story about how I came to know I'm half Shawnee. The story makes his mother a quarter Shawnee and him an eighth. I guess most of the Shawnee around here are pretty watered down by now, and a sixteenth is all you need to join up. But I don't think the story will help him. You need papers to join the band, and the papers say my father is Clarence Sherman, a white man. All I have is the story to prove otherwise. So I gave my grandson what I could.
I told James to be careful how he uses the story. I don't know if the Shawnee council members have learned how to feel the truth a story carries, and even if they learned it, a story can only tell a truth a person's ready to hear. If you're not ready, all you hear is something made up. So I told my grandson not to tell the story to the council until they already trust him, then the story will confirm what their instincts have already told them.
It was how I learned the story about Billy Walters--a full blood Shawnee and part-time bootlegger who was my real father. But before I could hear this story, I first had to learn to trust the one who'd tell it to me. And it was some stories about a dog that made me trust him.
The dog was Bird, a chocolate Lab I got as payment for building a kennel for Mrs. Pritcherd. She was a round-faced, large-hipped widow who lived on the edge of town. She'd taken up breeding labs, figuring to sell them to folks who lived in town and went field hunting of a weekend. She'd bred her yellow bitch and gave me first pick of the litter. Some were chocolate, some yellow. I chose the one that pounced on his brothers and sisters, biting their ears, barking a little chirp.
I carried the pup home under my jacket. He bit off two buttons on my shirt and worked his head between the fabric, rooting under my shirt all the way to my arm pit. His nose was cold and his tongue got to tickling. I must have looked drunk or crazy on the side of the road, trying to pry him out of my shirt.
My father, he was stern. He took one look at the dog and just shook his head. "That's a bird dog," he said. He spit tobacco in the grass. His overalls hung loose and he crossed his arms under the bib the way he sometimes did. "What's wrong with you, Martin?" he said. "There ain't no use for a bird dog 'round here."
It was true. We lived in a holler that followed Dry Run Creek, which wasn't nothing but a gulch of rocks that snaked through the hills and carried water maybe three weeks out of the year. The only flat land was along the creek bed, and we used that for field corn or potatoes--the rest was wooded hills. There weren't any marshes or fields within fifteen miles for hunting birds. The only birds worth hunting in the hills were wild turkey--gobblers, they called them--and you couldn't hunt them with a Lab.
My father kept four Gray Tick Hounds in a pen by the barn for coon or squirrel hunting. He fed them corn bread of a morning, still warm from the pan. But Bird was my dog, and he got scraps, mostly. Bird ran loose and stayed away from the hounds on account of their wailing and barking. Mostly he followed me.
And that's what happened the day I took my father's Winchester into the woods. As soon as Bird saw me heading to the line of spruce at the base of the hill, he came running, leaving paw prints in the dusting of snow. His breath trailed in a mist from his snout. His brown fur shimmered over his ribs. I told him to go back. I shushed him with my hand. "Go on home, Bird," I said. "Stay." Bird sat in the snow and drummed his front paws on the ground. "Stay," I said. He closed his mouth. He stared up at me and cocked his ears, his eyes wide. His whole body was tense, ready to bolt in whatever direction I took.
And I gave in. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure my father wasn't watching. If he saw Bird come with me, he'd chase me down and call me back. He'd say that stupid dog would spook a deer, maybe even run it. He'd say I was wasting time and ammunition. I only hoped he wouldn't go to the base of the woods that day and see the tracks in the snow, heading into the woods side by side.
Dad wanted meat with every shot. It was December, and he hadn't worked since October. It was four long months before March when Logan Lumber promised to hire him on again. It was his idea that I go to the mineral lick by the spring that day to get a deer, and he put three rounds in the rifle, more than I should need. Shooting a deer at the lick shouldn't take but one shot, he'd told me. You get a clear shot, or you don't take one.
I was twelve. It was the first time I'd hunted without my father, and I figured I could keep Bird still while we waited for a deer to stop at the lick. I'd gotten Bird to lay quiet at my feet plenty of times.
In the woods that day, the dusting of snow was a white cover broken and chipped by the dark edges of leaves and logs on the ground. Snow clung to the west side of tree trunks and filled the elbows and Y's in the branches. Bird stayed a few yards in front of me, running with his snout to the ground, rooting in the leaves. Now and then he'd stop and look back--snow covering his nose--to make sure I was following.
Leaves crunched under my boots. My cheeks and nose stung with the cold. I had no gloves and the rifle was too heavy to carry with one hand, so both hands were chilled the air, and I shifted the heavy, oiled barrel from one palm to the other when the sting of the dark steel was too much.
It was nearly four in the afternoon, and I needed to get to the lick before dusk when the deer would follow their trail to a clearing on the ridge. The lick was at a spring on the edge of our property, where water seeped year-round from the hillside. The sandy rock around the spring was pocked with holes the deer had licked. Some of the holes were a foot across. I'd seen a doe kneeling on her front legs with her entire head in one of the holes, her head bobbing with each swipe of her tongue.
My father had built a stand out of wild grass and branches about seventy feet from the lick. If the wind wasn't working against us, the deer would never know we were there. The only problem was, while they licked, their backs were to us and there was no way to get a true shot. So my father gave me half a bag of table salt to pour on the ground next to the lick. A deer would give me a full side view if it stopped to lick up the salt. With the salt, there weren't many excuses for a missed shot, that much was clear to me when he handed me the bag.
I got to the lick before dusk and sifted the salt on a rock beside the spring. Then I stepped behind the stand, leaned the rifle against a tree, brushed the snow from a log and sat, my neck buried in my shoulders. I raised the collar of my coat up and wished my hat went over my ears. Bird sat in front of me, his ears back, and panted with his mouth spread in what I always thought of as a smile. He lay in the leaves beside me, and I took my belt off, slid my knife from it, and looped the belt around Bird's neck. When a deer came, I figured I'd step on the belt and keep Bird's head down, letting him know he had to stay. As long as his panting settled, no deer would know he was there.
The problem with stand hunting is the waiting. Snow drifted through the air, but I couldn't tell if it was falling or just blowing from the trees. The air had that chilled, winter smell to it. So clean and cold, it had an edge that hurt if you breathed too fast.
I cupped my hands under Bird's soft, bird-fetching mouth, then slid my fingers into the thick fur around his neck, leaning over and pressing my lips to his head. He stopped panting and let me bury my fingers in his fur. I was hoping his heat would loosen my fingers. They were so cold the skin burned. The joints of my knuckles kinked.
Cold, brittle joints reminded me of my mother, who had rheumatism so bad she could hardly get out of bed some mornings, and no matter how good the day was for her, she could never get into bed at night without help, her hips were so stiff. I had four older sisters, but two were married and gone, and--though I was small--when my father was away, I was the only one strong enough to lift her into bed at night. I never let on how it made my back strain and my arms ache to do it.
Several weeks before I took Bird hunting at the lick, I gathered my mother in my arms and eased her to the mattress, smelling the soap on her face, and she said, "If I were a dog or a mule crippling around like this, your father would shoot me." She couldn't even get her arms around me, but left them limp by her side. "But I'm his wife, so I'm safe from that."
I set her down as slow as I could because her joints often snagged with sharp pains that made her wince. She straightened the nightgown over her legs and tried to slide her toes under the sheet. "I wasn't always this way," she said, as if I was seeing her knotted knees and bent toes for the first time
"I know," I said.
She settled onto the pillow and gazed toward the window. "When I first felt this coming on, I knew what it was. My Grandma Bates had it so bad, she couldn't walk. Couldn't even open her fingers. So I tried to take everythin' in I could while I had the chance. I walked six miles to a lumber camp one day, just to see Clarence, thinkin' I could sit up with him by a fire and stay with him in a tent. I left Hattie in charge of the girls and told her I'd be back the next day. Clarence thought I was crazy and borrowed a team of horses and a wagon to drive me back that evening. But I loved walking. I walked everywhere. And in summer, I swam. In Laurel Creek. In Stillman's pond. Anywhere I could. I stretched out my arms and kicked my legs, easing through the water like I was half fish."
She glanced up at me. "You probably don't remember me that way," she said.
"I remember you swinging under the oak," I said. It was the only memory I had of my mother in fluid motion, sitting on the swing, her toes pointed to the sky, her head thrown back.
I heard leaves rustling and grabbed the rifle. I stood slowly and slid the safety off. My heart started pounding, and I remembered what my father had said about buck fever, that if you care too much about your shot, you won't get it, that you got to fool yourself into not caring to keep the jitters away.
I stepped on the belt around Bird's neck, keeping his head down and gazed into the woods along the deer path. I lifted the rifle to my shoulder and could smell wood smoke in the stock. At home, the rifle hung over the mantle on a rack my father had made of deer hoofs, their ankle joints turned up like hooks. There were no notches on the stock of the rifle like some men make to mark their kills. Dad said if you kept a gun long enough, you shouldn't have room to notch all your kills. And he'd had this gun since he was my age, he told me. Bought at Slater's Dry Good store with hard-earned money from making hay for farmers around town. It was the kind of payment he thought I should have gotten from Mrs. Pritcherd instead of a useless bird dog.
The sun was down below the hill, and the entire woods were in shadow, the tree branches rising in a pattern of dark streaks against the sky.
There was no motion in the woods, except for drifting snow. All I heard was my own breathing and my heart thudding in my head.
The steps came again, this time from behind me. I spun around and saw a woman walking towards me. She wore a long wool coat and her pants were tucked into thick boots. Her black hair was pulled tight over her head.
I knew her only as Esther, a woman who lived in a cabin on the hill above the Stoneburners' place. She lived in the cabin with an old man people called Walters. People said Walters was an Indian, said the woman was, too, come from Oklahoma to take care of the old man. Nobody knew the woman's last name, but people called her Esther Stoneburner, all the same. Assuming she must be of some relation to them.
She made her way up the hill toward the stand, her dark eyes fixed on my face. She wore thick mittens made of animal hide--probably rabbit--and she held a muzzle-loaded rifle at her side.
"This here is our land and our stand," I said.
"I'm not hunting deer today," she said. She smiled. Her front teeth were long and narrow, but there were no teeth along the sides of her mouth, so there was a gap between her front and back teeth, like the spot you put the bridle in a horse’s mouth.
"I see you’re baiting the deer with a little salt," she said. The steam of her breath hovered in front of her mouth. She shifted the rifle from one hand to the other.
"I'd appreciate it if you went on in that direction," I said, pointing west. "I'm expecting deer to come up from there," I said, sweeping my arm east, "and I don't need you spooking them."
"That's a big gun for such a little boy," she said.
"I can handle it," I said.
She smiled and went in the very direction I'd asked her to avoid, a tight, black braid of hair dangling down her back, her boots crunching the snow and leaves.
There were only about forty-five minutes of sunlight left, and I was afraid I'd been too late to catch the deer on their way to the clearing at the top of the hill. They grazed up there on wild grass. I was about ready to head up there to take my chances at a shot when a doe came along the path. She stopped at the mineral lick, her haunches toward me. The white from her belly followed the curve of her hind quarters up to the underside of her tail.
I raised the rifle to take aim, but there was a snow flake in the site. I moved slowly to clear the site, then carefully raised the rifle again, putting the hind quarter of the deer in the "V" of the site, waiting for her to turn and give me a clear shot.
My heart was chugging in my chest, and each pulse echoed with a thud in my ears. I cared too much about this one. I wanted to bring home a deer, to get that nod from my father that said I'd done something to be proud of, to hear the hum in his throat while we ate the loin and backstrap.
My left arm ached with the weight of the rifle. I listened to the tongue of the doe flop against her nostrils while she licked and wondered how long it would take her to notice the salt. Then I realized I wasn't standing on the belt around Bird's neck and hoped he wouldn't stir.
Bird must have figured out I was aiming at an animal because he shifted in the leaves, and the doe's head bolted up. She turned toward me, her ears perked.
I had a shot. I held my breath, trying to steady the rifle, and I began to squeeze one off.
The rest happened fast, but even to this day I see every detail separate, as if they didn't happen in a single moment but with a pause of a breath or two between them.
Bird stood and started after the deer. I don't know why I didn't fire before the doe snorted and raised her flag, or perhaps I did, perhaps I got the shot off just as she sensed the danger, perhaps it all happened at the same moment and not separate as it replays in my memory. But I remember seeing the doe spring to run before feeling the jolt of the rifle snap my shoulder.
The doe spun and dropped. I'd hit her. But before I took in a breath, she rose to her feet again and sprung away.
Bird lit out after her without a bark, the hair on his neck raised, my belt dangling from his neck.
I called for Bird. The last thing I needed was him chasing that deer farther away. He stopped when the deer was out of sight and came back to me, and I took the belt from his neck and threaded it through the loops of my pants and the sheath of my knife, looking at the blood trail.
I started tracking the doe, knowing my father had heard the shot, knowing as the time passed and I didn't come down the hill with a deer, he'd figure I'd missed. And now it would take at least a second shot to get the deer, if I could track it down before nightfall.
This was when a bird-dog--well trained for tracking--would have come in handy. To track the deer's scent silently--no barking like my father's hounds--then freeze and point when the deer was close. But I hadn't trained Bird for hunting. He wasn't a work dog, as my father had often reminded me, but a freeloader.
Bird gave up on the trail of the deer and stayed by my side, now and then rooting the leaves with his nose, picking up the scent of who knows what--squirrel, coon, fox--everything but the deer I'd shot, whose trail would vanish and shift now and then, and I'd walk in circles with my head down, until a hoof print in the snow or spot of blood would show the pattern of her leaps.
I followed the deer's tracks over the ridge, onto Stoneburner land. My father didn't like the Stoneburners. There'd been some bad blood over the years. My father once shot two of their sheep that were in our field corn, and the sheriff made my father pay for them. My dad didn't even get to keep the meat.
A rifle shot pounded then echoed through the woods. It came from a gully ahead of me, and when I topped the crest and looked into the ravine, I saw Esther Stoneburner, leaning over the deer, smearing something on its nose.
I ran down the gully toward her, my knees giving with my weight, my eyes fixed on the roots, rocks, and dead wood covered in the snow. I caught tree trunks on the way down to help keep my balance, sending snow falling onto my shoulders and down my neck. When I got to the woman, she was standing over the deer, gazing down at the brown hide. There were yellow streaks out of each nostril. I hadn't seen what she'd done to the deer as I ran down the ravine, and it wasn't until months later that I learned it was corn meal, smeared during a prayer for the doe. A snow flake fell into the doe's open eye and melted. Her fur ruffled in a breeze that swept by. I saw the exit wound of my shot, square in the gut. The woman's shot was just behind the front leg. A heart shot.
"That's my deer," I said.
"That's yer gut shot there," she said. "But I ain't so sure about the deer."
I'd heard of disputes like this, where someone else claims your kill, or finishes off your wounded target. My uncles told of fights over carcasses in the Wayne County forest during hunting season, where no one could take possession simply because of land rights. And here I was on Stoneburner land with no real claim to the deer.
Bird sniffed her way toward the woman, his neck stretched. The woman pulled off a mitten and offered her palm for Bird to smell. Then she swept the hand over his head. Bird let her stroke his ear for a moment, then eased toward the carcass, sniffing loudly.
"If it's your deer," she said, "why don't you field dress it?"
I slid the knife out of the sheath on my belt and knelt beside the deer. I scanned the white fur of the belly and chest, and I suddenly forgot how to start the cut. My hands were shaking, my mouth was dry.
"Here," she said. "Give me that knife before you cut your arm off."
She took the knife and cut the deer from crotch to lower throat. Steam rose as she pulled out the entrails. She poked the knife in the carcass to cut the membranes that held the organs in place. She worked fast, but didn't nick anything. The first time I'd field dressed a deer, I cut into the intestines and the kidneys and my father pushed me out of the way to finish the job, saying I was spoiling the meat and stinking up the whole county.
She held the heart in her hand. Steam rose from it and blood trickled down her hand, around her wrist. "Tell you what," she said. "For the heart, liver and the loin, I'll help you get this deer home."
I knew I couldn't give up the loin. My father would kill me for losing the best part to a Stoneburner.
"I don't think I owe you anything," I said. "And I certainly ain't giving up the loin."
"This deer could’ve run for days with a gut shot like that," she said. She set the heart down in the snow. "You probably never would've found her."
"I'd a tracked her," I said.
She smiled. "For the heart, liver, and the hide, then," she said. She took up leaves covered in snow and wrung her hands in them. The sight of it made my own hands ache and burn with cold. "My place is right down this gully," she said, pointing with her chin. "I'll skin her there, and I'll loan you a sled to get her home. Without a sled, yer not gonna get her home in one trip."
She had a point. If I'd killed the deer at the lick, I could have field dressed her, staked open her carcass and gotten my dad to help me get her home. But I didn't want to have to bring him to Stoneburner land, and I didn't want to make two trips with night coming.
The woman found a thick branch that was still green and strong, and we tied the hoofs around it with twine she had in her pockets. We put the branch on our shoulders and carried the doe down the gully, the neck and head of the deer dangling upside down, almost touching the ground. I carried the Winchester in one hand, and held the branch with the other. Bird kept by my heels, too tired to run or sniff.
The woman led. She was taller than me, so the weight of the deer angled down the branch onto my shoulder. My palm and fingers were rubbing raw against the cold bark of the branch. The woman's pace was fast. She pulled me along. I nearly tripped several times. My feet were numb in the cold, and each time I struck a rock or root, needles jabbed my toes.
I finally had to ask her to stop, so I could lean the rifle against a tree and shift the branch to my other shoulder. She told me to leave the rifle there, that I could follow our tracks and get it on my way back, but I wasn't about to leave my father's Winchester '92 anywhere.
The dusk was deepening. The woods were full of long shadows that made the snow blue. It would be a clear night. Stars already dotted the sky, which was in that in between time when it was neither blue nor black but the color of frozen lake water.
When we reached the cabin, she stopped abruptly and set down her end of the branch; the deer collapsed onto the snow.
The Walters cabin was in a small clearing beside a creek. It was a notch cabin with white chinked between the logs. The area around the front of the cabin was cleared of leaves and dead wood. I'd seen the cabin before. As a kid, I'd snuck with my friend, Lyle Presser, to get a glance at the Indians. But neither of us dared get as close as the wood pile where I now stood, and we never saw anyone that day.
In the snow, there were footprints along the porch and around the woodpile, but they seemed to be from the same boots the woman wore, and I thought maybe she lived alone, maybe the old man had passed away.
I tried to choke down my panting, embarrassed that I had a hard time keeping up with the woman. My mouth was so dry from breathing hard that I considered scooping up some snow to eat it, but I didn't want the cold to hit my stomach. My toes were cold enough. I didn't need a cold, sick stomach for dragging the deer home. I put my hands on my hips, bent over and tried to slow my breathing.
"While I'm skinning her, why don't you step inside," she said. She took her mittens off and put them on the wood pile. "There's someone there whose been wanting to meet you for a long time."
"That's okay," I said. "I'll help with the skinning."
Bird wasn't so shy. He sniffed around the cabin and climbed the porch steps. His paws slid on the floorboards, his nails clicked.
There was a rope hanging over a tree branch, its end attached to a log. The woman untied the end and wrapped the rope around the deer's hind legs.
"I work best alone," she said, tying a quick knot around the doe's legs. "And there's always some coffee warm in the pot."
The promise of coffee wetting my mouth and warming my throat made me pause to think. I'm sure she saw the desire in my face.
"Go ahead," she said.
I went to the cabin and crossed the porch. Bird nosed to the door, ready to lead the way into the cabin. I told him to stay, and he backed away, his ears back, his eyes wide. Beside the cabin, I saw a trail to the outhouse, with two sets of boot tracks, one of them the woman's, so I knew there'd be only one other person in the cabin, someone who only got out to use the outhouse. I opened the door and glanced in. The room was dark and smelled of wood smoke and coal oil.
"Come in," I heard someone say. "Close the door."
I stepped into the cabin, and as my eyes adjusted, I made out the shape of a man sitting by a cook stove. On a table, a coal-oil lamp burned. The man leaned toward the lamp, and the deep creases on his cheeks and forehead made long, thick shadows.
"You're Martin," he said.
"And you're--" I paused. I didn't want to say Old Man Walters. I wasn't even sure that Walters was really his name. "Mr. Walters," I said finally.
He smiled. There wasn't a single tooth in his mouth. "I've wanted to meet you for a long time," he said. The hard places of his words were softened by his gums. "There are things I need to tell you." He stood slowly, using his hands on the table top to push himself up. He wore a red-plaid hunter's jacket over a brown shirt. He walked to the window and gazed out. His white hair was greased down from his forehead to his neck. "That's a good size doe," he said. "Is it hers or yours?"
"I shot it, but it run off and she finished it off," I said.
"All she wants is the hide, I suppose," he said, still facing the window.
"The hide, liver, and heart," I said.
He turned toward me, smiling, as if tasting what the woman would do with the organs. With his teeth gone, the heart would work down easy if it were cooked right.
I glanced at the coffee pot on the cook stove.
"Help yourself," he said. "There are mugs on the stove top."
I went to the cook stove and poured coffee into a tin mug. Heat radiated from the stove and warmed my face and hands with a sting.
The cabin was all one room. The stove on one end, a bed on the other. The walls were white plaster, and I thought how cold those walls would be, the plaster soaking in the winter air. Beside the bed two deer hides and what looked like a bear hide hung on the wall, covering a window, probably to keep an arm or leg from touching the cold plaster during the night. The bed itself was covered with a quilt.
Other than the bed and the table where the old man sat, the only furniture was a pine cabinet by the stove, and a bench in front of the fire place, where smoke curled from embers.
"That's a good looking bird dog out there," he said, sitting back in the chair by the table. "You hunting birds and shooting deer?"
"No. I just brung him along," I said, still standing by the stove, letting the heat soak into me. "I shouldn't have. He spoiled my shot." I put the mug to my lips and took a sip. "My father don't understand why I keep a bird dog at all," I said The steam from the mug rose around my cheeks. "And he'll be pretty mad when he finds out I took him deer hunting."
"He don't understand," the old man said. He lips collapsed in wrinkles over his mouth. "Do you know where dog comes from?" he asked.
It seemed an odd question. I shrugged.
"Have a seat," he said, motioning to the chair across from him at the table.
I took the seat, thinking it the polite thing to do, my hands cupped around the tin mug. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then he looked toward the stove behind me.
"This is an old story," he said. "With names from a long time ago. Names like Nanabooshow," he said. He leaned forward in his chair. "Nobody knows how Nanabooshow became, but he was there when Kisalamukahan dreamed up the things to fill the world." He glanced at me and blinked slowly. "Can you say that?" he asked. "Kisalamukahan?" His lips flapped and collapsed as he said the name, and I repeated it as best I could, willing to humor the old man a little, especially if I could warm myself in the process.
He smiled and continued. "Whatever Kisalamukahan thought up, became. And everything Kisalamuchahan made, Nanabooshow liked."
The old man leaned back into his chair, and I understood the story would be a long one, so I sipped coffee, thinking I had a little time before the doe was skinned.
"So," the old man said, "when Kisalamukahan thought up Magua, the Bear, Nanabooshow decided he wanted to make Bear. So he thought and thought as hard as he could." The old man put his hands to his head, then turned them out, as if throwing a thought into the air. "But it came out Raccoon." He shrugged, smiling.
"When Kisalamukahan thought up Deer, Nanabooshow was excited. 'Oh'" the old man's voice became higher. "'I want to make a deer. I really, really want to make a deer,' Nanabooshow said. So he thought and thought and thought," the old man put his fingers to his forehead, then flicked the thought into the air. "And it came out Muskrat."
The old man smiled, and I couldn't help but smile also, not so much because of the story but because of his enthusiasm for it.
The story continued with more parings of animals. Bobcat and Squirrel, Copperhead and Worm, and the old man made Nanabooshow more and more excited with each attempt to make an animal.
I began to suspect the old man was a little touched in the head, and that the woman had sent me in simply to give him company. My mind drifted to my father, how he would have started in the woods to find me by now, how he'd see the tracks of Bird and know I'd wasted ammunition.
"This went on for days," the old man said, "until finally, Kisalamukahan thought up human beings." The old man's voice gained force, his eyes widened. "And Nanabooshow liked human beings most of all and noticed they looked a lot like him. So Nanabooshow wanted to make him some human beings to be his friends. He'd been lonely and needed friends. So he thought and thought and thought and thought," he tapped his fingers on his forehead and threw his arms out this time, as if tossing a great thought as far as he could. He paused with his hands out, then dropped them. "But it came out Dog." The old man shrugged.
He smiled and brought his hands together, interlacing his fingers. "And that is why people and dogs are always together," he said.
He chuckled, his smile revealing the ridge of his bottom gums, but when he saw I was still staring blank-faced, his face drooped.
It wasn't that I didn't like the story. I was thinking of the walk home. It was almost dark, and I had to drag a carcass over two miles, much of it up hill. I was thinking about the skinning, how it could have been done in the woods, a quarter mile closer to my house. And I knew my father was grumbling by now.
"There's more," he said.
"There doesn't need to be," I said, glancing toward the door, thinking the old man was like so many others I knew, wanting company simply to talk, simply to hear his own voice. "I should probably get outside."
"You've hardly touched your coffee," he said. "Drink while I tell this one. This one you'll like."
The tin mug had warmed my hands, and I thought of the touch of the cold carcass. I sank into my seat and took another sip of coffee. If the woman had sent me in here to entertain the old man, if she wanted to do the skinning all herself and let me get warm, then I would sit through one more story and drink hot coffee.
"Now," the old man said. "Kohkumthena, our Grandmother, loved the dog that her silly grandson made so much, she took a little dog as her companion."
This time the old man leaned toward me, telling the story without changing his voice or moving his hands, the words rolling from his tongue.
"Kohkumthena also loved the people that Kisalamukahan thought up," he said, staring straight at me, "so she decided she would bring them all home to her where they could live in the Bibadinsawin Wachita--the way Kiji Manito made them to live. So she began to make a basket to scoop them up to her and so end the world." The old man continued to lean forward, keeping my gaze in his, as if to keep my mind from wandering this time.
"At the end of the day," the old man said, his lips sliding over his toothless gums, "she had only two rows of the basket left to make and she set it aside to finish the next day. But that night, her little dog played with the basket and unraveled it, so Kohkumthena had to start all over. And the little dog does this every night, and Kohkumthena loves her little dog so much, she does not punish him."
He relaxed into his chair, leaning back. "And that is why we always have one more day to live here in this world. Because of Kohkumthena's little dog, we have one more day."
He smiled, crossing his arms. "Probably the deer is skinned by now," he said. "You can come back anytime," he said. "Anytime."
I went to the door, thinking I'd only come back if I wanted to hear more Indian fairy tales, which wasn't likely. Outside, Bird was sitting in the yard, facing the cabin door. He came to me, his tail wagging, and sniffed my shoes. The deer hung from its back legs, its pale red meat exposed, its hide gone clear to its ears.
The woman had set a wooden box with sled legs under the deer. She untied the rope from the tree trunk and began lowering the carcass toward the sled. "So you two finally met," she said, guiding the rope in bloody hands. "Steady her onto the sled," she said.
I guided the snout beyond the sled, letting the torso lower into the box. A rope for pulling the sled was tied through holes in the box, and I knew I was going to have a long walk home with that rope in my bare hands.
"You brought me here on purpose," I said as she untied the rope from the deer's legs. "We could've skinned this deer on the hill."
"Yes, but you needed the sled," she said. "And he's been saying for years that he wants to meet you." She untied the rope from the deer's legs. "He's been wanting to tell you some things."
My hands and feet were warm, and I didn't want to seem ungrateful for the sled. But the stories the old man told me were not the kind of stories a person would wait years to tell someone. "We carried that deer a quarter mile so he could tell me some stories about dogs?"
"He told you dog stories?" she said. "Was Nanabooshow in them?"
She smiled, taking her mittens off the wood pile. "Uncle does a good Nanabooshow," she said. She tossed me her mittens. "You can bring them back with the sled," she said. "I got more."
I put the mittens on--they were lined with rabbit fur.
"Uncle hardly ever tells the story he wants to," she said, handing me the rope of the sled. "He tells the story that comes."
I took the rope and glanced at Esther's face. Her eyes held mine in a stare, then she looked toward the cabin, and my gaze followed hers. The windows were dark, but I knew the old man was watching us. I could feel him standing in the dark room, getting a last glance at me and my dog as we headed into the woods.
The old man must have known the dog stories would pull at me, would tug and turn in my head, and that I'd come back for more. And eventually, he would tell me the story he had wanted to tell: about his son, Billy Walters, who had been a farmer, hunter, and bootlegger and was shot in the back while tending a sixty-gallon still in the woods. But--in addition to all that--his son had been my mother's lover before I was born. The way the old man told it, he was my grandfather, his son was my father. That story came out a few months later, over a talk by his fireplace, and more pieces of the story were told gradually, over evenings on his porch, or during walks through the woods.
The story filled an empty spot in my gut, like a place an organ should have been but there had only been a gap of shadows. It explained why I was shorter and darker than my sisters. Why my father cut a look from the corner of his eye at me, like he smelled something rotting under his feet.
Many years later, when I grew to understand desire and loss, I added parts to the story about my mother and Billy Walters, until the story lives in me vivid as a memory, and finally I can't remember which parts the old man told me and which parts I imagined. But it doesn't matter because it’s all true.
I can feel the story. The way Billy Walters thought of Josephine Sherman all day, how he ached for her he thought about her so much. And every evening at dusk, he walked over the hill and sat in the pines on the edge of our yard, watching the window. Some days, the lamp was not there, and he had to walk back over the hill, the ache for the woman settling in his groin like heavy stones. But when the lamp was there, he came to the window and knocked lightly, and he watched the woman's nightgown flow and shift behind the thick, wavy glass. She moved the lamp away, so he could stand on the wood box and climb in. The woman's body was warm to his touch. When they were linked, her legs and hips pivoted and slid around him. She moved with slow, underwater motions, and all Billy Walters could do was hold on and keep his breath from seeping out of him entirely, afraid he might drown in her. And when he left to walk back over the hill, his limbs dragged and his head swam, and he could still smell her dampness on his fingers.
I told a long version of that story to my grandson, James, making Billy Walter's desire for the woman so vivid, James felt it swelling in his own belly--even though the woman was his great grandmother, even though she died before he was born, her joints so stiff she couldn't walk, her hands closed like claws.
But the story of Billy Walter’s desire for my mother is not the story I will tell you now. I did not know that story on the evening I dragged a deer home on a sled. Turning away from the cabin, I wasn't thinking about any story except the one I would make up to explain to my father why I was bringing home a skinned doe.
The part about the Stoneburner woman finishing off the deer and taking the hide and organs I would tell. It was the only way to explain the missing hide. I would lengthen the part about arguing over the loin, making it seem I'd bargained well. But the first part, about Bird spoiling my shot, I'd change. I'd tell him the rifle was too heavy and I held it so long waiting for the deer to turn, the rifle wavered when I fired. And the last part, about meeting the old man, that part made no sense at all, so I would leave it out entirely. There was no point to the old man's stories about dogs.
I pulled the sled into the woods, and Bird took a few steps in front of me, then turned, his ears perked, his eyes wide, as if to say, "You coming? Am I going the right way?"
His mouth was spread into a wide, dog grin, his tongue jutted as he panted. Once again, his body was tense, ready to lunge ahead in whatever direction I took. He was just excited for another trip. Unaware that he'd ruined my shot and caused this whole mess. Wanting nothing more than to run beside me through the woods. And I had to admit to myself that I'd wanted him along from the beginning, from the moment he came running at the base of the hill--so much I'd been willing to risk missing my first deer, so much I was going to lie to my father to defend him. And that was when the dog stories from the old man took hold with a snap, and in the next few days, they pulled at me, turning in my head over and over, like fish on taut lines rising in dark water, until I knew when I took the sled and the mittens back, I would knock on the door at the cabin and hear the old man's voice invite me in.
Dog Stories is dedicated to Fred Shaw
The Shawnee Nation
Ohio United Remnant Band