Read an Excerpt
By Jon L. Gibson
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSpirit Child
The red-winged snake fluttered in the bushes overhanging the flooded bank. Cloud Bringer and his paternal nephews, both Esteemed warriors, heard a tiny cry, followed by a scraping sound like tree limbs rubbing together.
"There," said Cloud Bringer, his black eyes peering at the movement in the leaves, "next to the dead cypress tree. See, there it is again."
The warriors paddled harder, sending the dugout knifing through the storm-swollen water toward the red figure bobbing up and down in the thick bushes.
Uprooted cypress and tupelo gum trees littered the shores of Grand Lake, and broken limbs floated everywhere, buoyed by still-green leaves. Dead fish caught in the current streamed through the big lake until their silver sides merged with the silver surface of distant waters. The mighty alligator floated by motionless, its hurricane-stilled eyes attracting swarms of green flies.
"Uncle, look, a dugout is caught in the bushes."
Waves slapped against the snared dugout, and the red emblem painted on its prow rolled and pitched with the motion. It was a strange figure-a winged rattlesnake biting its tail, the snake Cloud Bringer saw in the bushes. The image was unknownto the Many Waters People, as they called themselves. Friends and foes throughout the rest of the great swamp, the tall grass, and the waving grass called them the People of the Lakes.
Frantically pulling away the branches, the searchers freed the dugout but drew back instantly for lying in the boat were two canebrake rattlers, tails buzzing, slit eyes fixed on the men. They guarded a large split cane basket.
"Let us leave this place," exclaimed one of the warriors, "Spirit snakes protect the basket. Their bite will steal our shadows and send us to the Wasteland."
A small cry came from inside the basket, and, as if a cue, the rattlers slithered over the sides of the canoe and dropped into the choppy water.
Pulling the basket closer with his paddle, Cloud Bringer craned to see inside. His eyes widened as he saw the tiny sun-lit face and arms reaching for him. Still, he did not pick up the golden-faced baby until the sun completely illuminated the interior of the basket. He did not fear snakebite-he knew the medicines and healing words-but he did not know what other power, good or bad, might be lurking in the basket with the baby.
When he was convinced there was nothing else in the basket, Cloud Bringer gently untied the soft leather strap holding the baby in his makeshift cradle. He saw the snake design on the baby's deerskin tunic, the same design as on the dugout. Strange clothes, but the clothes were not what filled the men with concern. A streak as white as feathers of the Great White Heron ran through the baby's hair, and there was more, the baby's eyes-one was brown, but the other was as blue as the waters of Grand Lake on a cloudless day. The Many Waters People's babies always had black hair and black eyes.
And those bicolored eyes looked straight into Cloud Bringer's. The baby, who looked to be about a year old, held up its small arms wanting to be picked up. Cloud Bringer lifted the baby to his shoulder.
The men looked at each other in amazement. The baby had uttered two syllables, soft but absolutely clear and unmistakable.
The Ancients' word for father!
Cloud Bringer's heart touched the clouds. The baby called him father in the old language. From that moment on, the old man and baby were tied together with a bond stronger than life itself.
"Nephews," said Cloud Bringer, "Sun Woman sends us to search for her and Great Sun's lost baby daughter, who was carried away by the Mighty Wind and instead we find a spirit child."
"What should we do with him, uncle?"
"We need to ask Old Traveler," he said.
Cloud Bringer laid the baby on the bottom of the dugout and raised his thin arms toward the sky.
"Hear this man, Old Traveler, Great Spirit, Knower of All Things, who is this child? Where does he come from? Why do you send him to us now in the aftermath of the Mighty Wind?"
The men waited, intently listening, watching, waiting. The dugout pitched in the waves. A solitary tree duck preened its feathers in a distant cypress tree. High feathery clouds slowly drifted by, but Old Traveler did not answer.
Finally, Cloud Bringer spoke: "Nephews, let us take the spirit child to Bent Woman. She will know why the baby was sent to us and why he speaks the ancient language. She will see the future and tell us what we must do with the child."
The men paddled through the debris-filled lake. A lookout at the landing saw the child on Cloud Bringer's shoulder and summoned the villagers, who jubilantly rushed to the lake bank thinking the baby was the Sun family's lost daughter. Great Sun and Sun Woman, his wife, waded out into the lake awaiting the dugout. As it neared the shore, unbridled joy turned into abysmal shock. The child in Cloud Bringer's arms was not their daughter. The Sun family suffered the stabbing pain of losing a child for a second time. They collapsed in the shallow water, smearing their faces and hair with handfuls of mud from the lake bottom.
A loud wail went up from the assembled throng. Always Frowning and Fire Watcher, Great Sun's younger brothers, waded into the lake and led the Sun family to the shore.
Bareheaded and mud-caked, Great Sun looked like an ordinary man, a father trying to endure the heart-wrenching agony of losing his child twice on consecutive days. But he was not ordinary. In the people's tradition, he was divine. His line was descended directly from Old Traveler, the creator, through his spiritual mother, Noon-Day-Sun, who lights the day.
Fighting to regain his composure, Great Sun asked Cloud Bringer: "Whose child is this?"
"I do not know, Great Sun" answered Cloud Bringer, "We found the baby near Fish Island."
"Where are the parents?" asked Great Sun.
"The child was alone in a dugout. It was adrift but had gotten trapped in some bushes."
The baby stirred on Cloud Bringer's shoulder, and Great Sun held out his arms to take the child.
Cloud Bringer handed the infant to Great Sun, who recoiled in shock when he saw the baby's eyes and white-streaked hair. Holding the baby at arm's length, he asked Sun Woman to remove the baby's tunic. He raised the boy child above his head, inspecting him for other abnormalities.
"Healer, what manner of child have you brought us?" said Great Sun.
"A spirit child!"
Uneasiness ran through the villagers, and speculation raged.
"He is a water spirit from the submerged village in the middle of the lake," said Three Fingers, the village's best alligator hunter.
"No, he comes from the Upper World. See how a shooting star scorched his hair and blinded one of his eyes," explained a narrow-faced woman.
"I am afraid of him," said a young mother, gathering her children around her legs. "He looks like a witch."
"People, he is a lost, helpless baby, delivered to us on the Mighty Wind," said Cloud Bringer's sister.
"Ah-e," replied Cloud Bringer. "Do not fear him. He is one of us. Rattlesnakes protected him, which makes him a Snake, one of our most honored clans."
"Snakes protected him?" inquired a tribal councilman, one of the Beloved Men. "Then surely, he is special. We must hold council to talk about this spirit child."
"The child is everyone's concern," said Great Sun. "All who wish to speak should be permitted. People, reassemble in the plaza when Noon-Day-Sun's shadow reaches the village pole."
Always Frowning, Great Sun's middle brother and the Village Keeper, rushed to the plaza along with his assistant and two Red Stick slaves and began removing broken limbs, downed lodge posts, and scattered piles of thatch and other debris, clearing an area for the people to gather. He scrounged mats from the ruins of the temple so Great Sun and Sun Woman would not have to sit on the wet ground.
"The Beloved Men will either have to find mats for themselves or get their rear ends wet," he thought, smiling. "I am glad that Great Sun did not tell me to prepare his litter because it was stored in the temple anteroom, which is now scattered among the crowns of the live oaks on the edge of the plaza. Thank goodness, the old sun's bones had already been moved from the temple or his shadows would have never found each other, forever doomed to wander the land crying for his bones."
Always Frowning knew Great Sun did not want to hold a formal council meeting without the sanctioning power of the sacred fire, which had been doused when the temple blew away. Great Sun had already sent runners to the villages at Prairie Landing and Red Earth to secure renewing coals from their fires. Everyone knew that without the sacred fire, the village was vulnerable to all manner of malady, especially of the supernatural kind.
"The grounds are as clean as I can make them on such short notice," he said, trying to convince himself. "I hope Great Sun approves."
People began drifting into the plaza, followed by a palatable cloud of anxiety. There was muted talk, even fear of the child, whom many felt was a bad omen, coming as he had during the Mighty Wind that knocked down their village and stole Great Sun's daughter. Great Sun and Sun Woman entered the plaza, forsaking litters and warriors' shoulders. Neither wore their public garments or headdresses. They took seats on the mats that Always Frowning placed next to the village pole, which had survived the Mighty Wind, unscathed. The divine couple came as sad parents who had lost a child, and the people felt their pain.
Great Sun opened the meeting, speaking slowly in the formal deep-throated speech he used in public gatherings.
"People of Grand Lake village, we have suffered the loss of our homes and possessions, the fish are all dead, and the animals scattered. A sharp cane knife stabs at your Sun's heart. His precious daughter no longer warms his arms and makes him laugh."
He fought the lump rising in his throat.
"The ways of Old Traveler sometimes are hard to understand, even for his earthly son. One day after the Mighty Wind takes away my child, he sends us another marked by his own hand.
"I wish to know what the Many Waters People think about this infant. We must decide whether to adopt him into the tribe or return him to the lake. I ask our honored Snakebite healer, Cloud Bringer, to speak with us now."
Great Sun returned to his mat, and Cloud Bringer approached the village pole and struck it three times with his feathered cane.
"Hai, hear this man," he said. "I stand before you with a heavy heart. I grieve for my cousin's missing daughter. Though I do not have a true child, I have doctored so many of your sons and daughters that I feel like they are mine. I suffer each time Old Traveler decides to take one of our little ones before they have completed their life's journey. So, I too have lost many of my children, and my heart bears the sorrow for them all.
"The Mighty Wind brings us a spirit child, one who carries the words of the Ancients on his lips. I think the Ancients speak to us through him.
"My nephews and I found him strapped in a basket guarded by two rattlesnakes, but when the snakes saw that we meant no harm, they left him in our care. When I gathered him in my arms, he called me father in the old language. I believe this is a sign that Old Traveler intends for me to raise this child as my own. In my old age, the creator gives me the son I always wanted.
"Hai, I have spoken."
Great Sun then asked Bent Woman, the fearsome village prophet, to address the people. She took the strange baby from the wet nurse and hobbled to the village pole. She pursed her lips, spitting a thick, brown stream of tobacco juice on the sacred pole. Silence gripped the crowd. From bravest warrior to shyest toddler, all stood in awe, partly of the powerful prophet and partly of the spirit baby with the white-streaked hair and eyes of different colors.
The spirit baby did not cry, not even when Bent Woman held him high for the people to see.
"Hear my words, people of Grand Lake village," Bent Woman began.
"Old Traveler gave First People their civil laws and religious commandments, but, soon, believing themselves just as wise as he, they created their own laws patterned after their selfish hearts. When Old Traveler saw their folly, he grew sad, but his sadness turned to anger as First People continued to turn from him and his teachings. He decided to send a great flood to rid the world of these bad-hearted people."
Bent Woman paused and stared at the strange infant cradled in her arms. For a long while, the only sounds were the crackling fire and a dog barking at the landing.
"Is she asleep?" asked a big-eyed child pulling on his mother's hand.
"No! She's old. She forgot the rest of the story," answered his bored adolescent sister.
"Be quiet, both of you," whispered their mother. "She will finish the story when she gets ready."
Bent Woman's eyes fluttered, her head shook, and she bared her yellowed teeth in a silent grimace before she resumed her story.
"Among these law-breakers were two good people, a man and a woman. They watched the water rise in Grand Lake, and the woman begged Old Traveler to tell them how to save themselves. Knowing they were the only two law-abiding people left, Old Traveler came to the woman in a dream and told her to fashion a large clay pot. He instructed her and her husband to climb into the pot, which was beginning to float on the flood waters pouring into the village. Rising water covered the lodges. Soon even the tops of the tallest cypress trees disappeared, and the good woman and good man found themselves floating alone on a great lake without shores. No other people survived. Their dugouts were all eaten by flying white ants.
"Hear me, people of Grand Lake village, Old Traveler speaks to us through the lesson of the great flood.
"Swimming alongside the clay pot were two rattlesnakes. Old Traveler sent snakes to guide and protect the good man and good woman, just as he sent snakes to guide and protect the baby.
"The baby is not a spirit. He is not evil. Rattlesnakes protect him, just as they protect our most powerful clan, the Snake People. If they had not been guardians, the baby's inner shadow would be wandering the Wastelands now instead of being here with us.
"The white streak in his hair is the mark of Lightning-Spirit-Bird, powerful sister of Thunderer and Noon-Day-Sun. It is meant to remind us that he came to us during the Mighty Wind when Lightning-Spirit-Bird filled the night with her jagged light spears and wind from her great wings. His brown eye is for seeing during the day, his blue eye carries the color of the daytime sky, so he can see in the dark. Old Traveler himself marked the baby so the people can see how special he is-he is destined to be all-seeing, a great prophet of the Many Waters People.
"Old Traveler takes away Great Sun's infant daughter. He extinguishes the sacred fire on her shoulder-the red birthmark showing her divinity-just as he extinguished the sacred fire in the temple. Then he feels sorry for us and gives us another baby, one marked by his own hand, too. I asked the spirits if this was a fair exchange, could any living child really replace the Sun child. They are silent. I am sure they will give us our answer in time. I have spoken."
Finished, Bent Woman joined Cloud Bringer at Great Sun's side. The baby she carried in her arms clearly was awake but made no sound. She handed him to Cloud Bringer and shuffled through the plaza, mumbling incoherently. The throng parted ahead of her and watched nervously while she disappeared into the live oak shadows.
Great Sun called on Tattooed-All-Around to speak for the Beloved Men.
The old man struck the village pole, and the people respectfully fell quiet.
Excerpted from Spirit Wind by Jon L. Gibson Copyright © 2009 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.