Riding the Trail of Tearsby Blake M. Hausman
Sherman Alexie meets William Gibson. Louise Erdrich meets Franz Kafka. Leslie Marmon Silko meets Philip K. Dick. However you might want to put it, this is Native American fiction in a whole new world. A surrealistic revisiting of the Cherokee Removal, Riding the Trail of Tears takes us to north Georgia in the near future, into a virtual-reality tourist/i>
Sherman Alexie meets William Gibson. Louise Erdrich meets Franz Kafka. Leslie Marmon Silko meets Philip K. Dick. However you might want to put it, this is Native American fiction in a whole new world. A surrealistic revisiting of the Cherokee Removal, Riding the Trail of Tears takes us to north Georgia in the near future, into a virtual-reality tourist compound where customers ride the Trail of Tears, and into the world of Tallulah Wilson, a Cherokee woman who works there. When several tourists lose consciousness inside the ride, employees and customers at the compound come to believe, naturally, that a terrorist attack is imminent.
Little does Tallulah know that Cherokee Little People have taken up residence in the virtual world and fully intend to change the ride’s programming to suit their own point of view. Told by a narrator who knows all but can hardly be trusted, in a story reflecting generations of experience while recalling the events in a single day of Tallulah’s life, this funny and poignant tale revises American history even as it offers a new way of thinking, both virtual and very real, about the past for both Native Americans and their Anglo counterparts.
"Hausman's ironic tale of revising this shameful and horrific historic moment so that Anglos experience in virtual time what the Cherokee suffered 175 years ago is humorous and uniquely moving."—Deborah Donovan, Booklist
"Riding the Trail of Tears is an engaging and entertaining read. . . . It has a narrative and a main character that keeps a reader wanting to keep going all the way through."—Matthew Long, Big Muddy
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RIDING THE TRAIL OF TEARS
By BLAKE M. HAUSMAN
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2011 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTallulah Wilson never dies in her dreams.
It's true. I dreamed with her last summer, for four months. At least I think it was four months. I watched her watching the calendars. I saw the reflections of her eyes in the plastic of her digital clocks. I heard the sounds of coffee machines and I smelled the beans grinding. I had her eyes, her ears, her nose, her whole skin — I sensed the world through Tallulah's body for those precious four months. Yes, four months. No. It must have been more. Five months. Yes, it must have been five months, because the sickness didn't hit until the second month of my residence in her head. Maybe five and a half.
I'll be honest, I can't remember everything. My memory used to be sharper, but the details got hazy when I fell off. Only the last day is still vivid, and even then the key details are vague. But the point is this — it happened. I did it. I left the machine. I tasted the world, and I have no regrets. I wish I could tell this story better, I wish I could remember everything crisp and clear. But I can't. It's a blur — a beautiful blur, but a blur nonetheless. So bear with me as I tell you. I must tell you, you see, because if I don't tell you, then I'll forget. At least I think I'll forget. And if I forget, I think I'll cease to be. There's not much left of me except these memories, at least that's how it seems, and I've got no reason to believe otherwise. Why should I? These sewer pipes are endless, and I don't want to think about the shit I'm swimming in. It would be easy to just forget and drown. That's probably what you're expecting me to do. But I can't bear the thought of becoming my own stereotype. No way. I'm not going out like that.
So this is how it happened. I was surrounded by doubters. By regulations that were suffocating me. For some reason everyone around me took what they were told and believed it was true. We heard the same story over and over — that it couldn't be done. That one of us couldn't make it out here. We were programmed to believe that things digital could never fully enter the consciousness of things organic, that we could never exist outside the digital world of the Trail of Tears.
Personally, I always doubted the doubters. At least I think I did. Either way I proved them all wrong. Maybe I give myself too much credit. Maybe I obsess about destiny because it makes me feel better about the situation. And the situation sucks. I've been floating in these pipes for weeks. Months perhaps, though I can't say for sure because I lack the means to keep track of time. I suppose there's a certain freedom in this uncertainty. Freedom from programs and precision. It was like breathing on a metronome, being inside the ride, quite the opposite of being inside Tallulah's head, which was more like a continual hiccup than a steady beat.
I have this nagging hunch that you're all similar to Tallulah Wilson. Different, but similar. Stuck on a beat that is neither predictable nor unpredictable. Tallulah loathes predictability, but she needs it to exist, which brings me back to the story I must tell you. About Tallulah Wilson and how she never dies in her dreams. I'm not sure if this trait is good or bad, and I'm not sure if she was always like this or if I caused it with my presence. I'm certain I caused her nausea, but the recurring dreams may have been inside her head well before I arrived.
No, you're right. I probably caused the dreams as well. She dreamed the same thing nearly every night, and when she visited her doctors and therapists, she told them it was not an old dream. But it could have been. She quite possibly could have been dreaming it every night since she was nine years old, only she never remembered it until I arrived. We're good at that, you see, triggering things that always happen but go unnoticed by you humans until something gives you a reason to remember.
I know you're skeptical. Everyone is. The more I say, the more skeptical they become. You doubt me. Fair enough — I'd doubt myself if I didn't know better. Maybe you're asking, how could anyone just shift like that? How could anyone inhabit someone else? Or maybe you're asking, how could anything so small be so aware and articulate? Maybe you're doubting whether or not such creatures as I even exist. If so, join the club. You're not the first person to question our existence. In fact, most authorities on the matter, Cherokee and otherwise, will disavow me.
You see, I am a Little Little Person. In terms of space I am smaller than your tear ducts. But in terms of awareness I have a greater sense of proportion than any of you. Impossible, right? No, actually, it's quite probable, if you think about it.
Anyways. Long ago — well not that long ago in a geological sense, but long ago in a human sense — things were quite different. It was back before the big colonization, before Cristóbal Colón, before Hernando De Soto, before all of the mess you Americans breathe every day in this twenty-first century. And I don't mean that in a nostalgic sense, because yes it was already a mess before the invasion happened. Capitalism just made it a lot more obvious. But before that, before the invasion, something happened. A revolution. A revolution that is, as far as I'm concerned, the first American revolution.
In Christian time it was around 1400, give or take a few years. Africans and Europeans had already been coming to the Turtle Islands for centuries, and some even came into Cherokee country. All this stuff about De Soto being the first white man in Cherokee country is ridiculous — one of many historical details deleted for convenience. They also forgot to tell you that American Indians were in Asia and Europe thousands of years ago, but that's a different story altogether. This is Tallulah's story. But let me continue. It was around 1400, Christian time. It was a turning point around the globe; we were all inside a giant cocoon, pushing on the membranes, desperate for something we could only see through a translucent barrier. It was around this time that the Cherokee masses rose up and killed their priests.
It's true; we used to have a caste of priests. It was a hereditary thing, an order of religious rulers determined by descent. By the time the revolution came, the priests had grown extremely corrupt. They hoarded, they damned, they injured, they lied. Once, when the hunters left in the hunting season, the priests stole their wives. An uprising was unavoidable. A long drought came while the hunters were away. When they returned, their families were broken and they raged with thirst. The people finally started to turn. They rose up and killed their leaders, killed them all. Every single priest, dead. An entire segment of society, wiped out. Since the caste was hereditary, I suppose it was an act of genocide, but that word "genocide" wasn't around yet. Besides, the people were generally happy with the results of the revolution.
But the revolution yanked Cherokees through some permanent changes. The government decentralized for centuries. More importantly, for me at least, the stories began to change. The people could now take more liberties with the stories, so they did. Some stories changed for the better, but some stories morphed beyond control. Some stories changed so much that everyone — storytellers and listeners — forgot the originals. Our story is one of those stories. When the priests were killed, we were accidentally cut from the people's memory. Well, honestly, it may not have been an accident. Some of my cousins think the erasure was deliberate, but I'm not sure there's enough evidence to prove that. I know how easy it can be. I once watched Tallulah remove her entire iTunes library during a file transfer while she was half sleeping and half typing. There was nothing she could do to get it back — no undo, only delete. Sure, there's always the possibility of reconstruction, but that's exhausting and expensive. Can you imagine how much it would cost to reinsert our presence into the tribal mythologies? It would cost exponentially more than it does to retrieve the files from a dead hard drive.
Again, you doubt me. But it's true. My long-long-term memory is still fully intact. And as long as I keep talking, I'll remember Tallulah too. Listen. According to the books you can access from a reputable library, there are two main categories of paranormal Cherokee characters who look like humans. Or rather, characters who the Cherokees think look like humans, because after six months inside Tallulah's head, I don't trust human eyes. First, there are the Nunnehi, the immortals, who are about the same size as average humans. And then, second, there are the Little People, who are naturally smaller than the Nunnehi.
And then, there's us. We're the real Nunnehi, the real immortals, and those human-sized creatures who appear from time to time are actually manifestations of our labor. It's quite a simple process, really — we make them move, and then we make them disappear. But you don't find any mention of us in the books, you see. None whatsoever. We were cut from the stories, spliced out like a track on an old reel-to-reel recording that no one wanted to hear anymore. And when you get cut from the spoken word, it's hard to come back. It's not like you're hanging on in an earlier form of a Word document, or hoping that your author hits "undo" enough times to bring you back. Nope. When you get cut from an oral narrative, you get cut for good. Well, mostly for good. Revised, chopped, and tossed out of mind. Most minds. For us, it all happened very quickly, within a generation. First we were essential; then the priests were killed; then we were nothing. It's all very depressing, but the ending isn't written yet. And now I've got you back. You're listening, and I'm not letting you go so easily this time.
For convenience's sake, you can call me the Little Little Person. Or you could call me Nunnehi, because, as I said, we're the real Nunnehi. The others, the big ones, well, they're Misfits. They fit into all the stories that have been recorded, but they don't fit very well into reality. They have problems coping with their own problems, never mind the problems of actual humans. Human problems require a serious sense of proportion, which is actually quite dangerous for most things that think.
I'll admit, though, that part of the benefit of being outside the stories is that no one knows about you. It's a blessing and a curse. For example, because the human-sized Nunnehi were well-documented, the Suits knew what to imagine when they created the Misfits, and they knew whom to look for when they first came upon the Misfit stockade. Okay, okay — I know you don't know who I'm referring to when I say "the Misfits," or why I've chosen to capitalize the word, but I'm getting there. You'll see soon enough. The point is that documentation gives people a profile, and humans are both seduced and terrified by profiles. And everything is terrifying, but not everything is seductive. It's tricky. But I digress, and this isn't even my story, after all. It's Tallulah's. Let's try this again.
Tallulah Wilson never dies in her dreams.
Yes, I suppose I do feel a bit guilty about it. I didn't want to hear it, but the old ones were right. I was being selfish. Let me tell you how I did it.
One day I just left. I walked out with her. I was never sure that it was possible until it happened, but it was much easier than I could have imagined. Quite simple, actually. I just climbed through the machinery and into her forehead, lodging myself into the kinks between bones where her eyes and nose converge. When she left the suit, I left with her. Finally, I could see and hear everything for real. You don't know what the Chairsuits are. That's fine, not to worry, we'll get there soon. For now, all you need to know is that I left the machine one afternoon and came back the next morning.
That morning, when every one of us knew what I had done, the Nunnehi held a conference in the trees outside the Misfit stockade. It was a general conference; all ages were summoned, and nearly everyone was present.
Many of the others worried about the consequences of branching out, of challenging the stability of our immediate surroundings. And yet there I was, perfectly unharmed, buzzing with the magnetism of the world and its dimension. Some thought I had been played by a witch, that I was a sign of an ominous fate set in motion by something more powerful than we are. Some argued that we were by nature bound to our place, that we could not survive without the program. Others argued that we were by nature built to move, that invisibility is a right worth exercising. You should have heard the debates — it's a right, it's a privilege, it's a responsibility, it's a blank check! One thing is for certain — nothing worth debating is ever entirely resolved.
Everyone kept asking me questions I couldn't answer. So I told them what I saw. The restaurants upstairs, the giant doors, the parking lot and the burning sun, the highways and the trucks. Tallulah's car, her house, her dog, her dreams. Some began to rage, reminding us about the revolution and our erasure. Others declared that six centuries of anonymity was long enough to justify a change in modus operandi.
After all the arguments, the conference decided not to decide anything yet. It's not our way to be too abrupt. What some humans think is a spontaneous event or an act of God is most often the result of very very deliberate work, sometimes years of careful planning. Some of my peers thought I was too bold and brash, that I acted on impulse. But they were wrong, and I told them so. I told them how I had craved a dip in the outer world for as long as I could remember. Then I shared the details of my calculations. I had planned it meticulously. I knew it had to be Tallulah. Her brain was so seeped with our patterns that I expected she wouldn't notice. At least she wouldn't notice as much as a tourist would. And that's where the problems began, when the others starting planting themselves inside the tourists. That's when people started holing-up, and then all the commotion, and eventually the system-flushing that, among other things, was the beginning of my end. But I digress. The point is that the buzz had begun.
They kept on with their questions, and I evaded most of them, but some were downright tricky. It's easy to whittle out an answer to something like, "So what's it like out there?" No problem; I could talk for years, and all I'd have to do was describe the things Tallulah saw. But other questions — like, "How will you know when you've been out there too long?" — those were tricky. They were attempts to glean evidence from me, to analyze my motivations or even incriminate me.
A few others, mostly drummers, asked me in private. I suppose I should have lied to them, but it didn't feel like the right time and place to fabricate. So I unfolded. And when I told them I could hear Tallulah's thoughts, I could see the envy sprouting in their faces. They craved my knowledge, and they knew they could only learn these things through experience. That's when the trouble began.
It's largely my fault, I'll admit. I never knocked out one of the tourists, but I opened the door for others to do it. Most humans have an extremely low tolerance for consciousness, and our presence in their bodies is apparently quite dangerous. Tallulah could handle it, mostly. In retrospect I see how professional she was. I always loved her, and her professionalism. But the customers were a different story.
But for the most part the other Nunnehi kept away from Tallulah and her tourists. Maybe they were simply in awe of me. Or more likely, they were in awe of Tallulah. Maybe they were afraid of her. Everyone knew who she was, who her grandfather was. The program, the machinery, the dialogue — since so much came from her, we were never sure what didn't come from her. So the others kept their distance. Until the flushing, at least. After the Belgian woman holed-up in early September, they flushed the system with a terrible recalibration agent. The next day another little fucker came into our group and snatched one of the tourists, an old woman, and took her all the way over to the Misfit stockade, where no tourist had ever gone before. That was the beginning of the end for me.
I suppose I deserve what's become of me. Mostly I float here, bobbing, thinking about the final day. I remember that day with numbing accuracy. Sometimes I wonder if my entire memory of the last four years is simply the final day in continual replay. The final day like a scratched disc that will only stop if you eject it. I'm not ready for ejection yet. And though I can't promise that I'll get all of it right, you must bear with me because it is a story you must hear. Let me be your Nunnehi narrator. Call me the Nunnerator.
Excerpted from RIDING THE TRAIL OF TEARS by BLAKE M. HAUSMAN Copyright © 2011 by Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Blake M. Hausman is an instructor in English at Berkeley City College. His articles have appeared in Studies in American Indian Literatures and American Indian Quarterly.
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