Lyla Mae Muncy meets her first love at Falls Creek Baptist Assembly Summer Bible Church Camp—and regrets it on their awkward first date. After years of being nagged about lumpy gravy, abused wife Lois pulls out a shotgun to wrap up breakfast her way. In a tender moment, an old man speaks from beyond the grave about his wife’s final goodbye at his funeral. Experience, memory, and town-consciousness bind this collection of ten stories spanning twenty-five years in fictitious Cedar, Oklahoma. From the fears and discoveries of childhood, through the revelations of adolescence, into the troubled years of adulthood and decline into old age and death, Rilla Askew uncannily makes each of her characters’ experiences our own.
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By Rilla Askew
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1992 Rilla Askew
All rights reserved.
The Killing Blanket
This is an old story.
White man does a good job turning the people against themselves. Here's how he done it one time.
My daddy told me this story.
There was a lot of fighting back then. It was like that all over. Some of the people wanted to cut up the land, make allotments to the different families, do like the whites and act like they owned it. Said it would be good for the people. Said it was no choice anyhow. This was back yonder—1892, I think it was. Back when the Nation was all in one piece.
So some of the Choctaws wanted allotments, but there were plenty others thought it was a bad thing. Tribal election was coming, and the people were divided. Anger and bitterness cut hard between them. Some said it was on account of outsiders living in the Nation. Three whites for every Choctaw lived here by then. Carried their United States dollars in with them. Married our women. Paid money to build their houses then wanted papers to say they owned it. Paid money to trade here. Snuck around against our laws and sold the people Choctaw beer. These whites wanted allotments, wanted to see the Nation cut into pieces. They wanted to see the people stirred up.
Other Choctaws, a bunch of them mixed bloods, they said the people had to see what was coming, take advantage, get profit from the land before the white man took it anyhow. They said the Choctaw had to adapt.
Now, in that time two men lived near this place here called Cedar, and these two men were friends. One of them's name was Silan Lewis, and the other was Moshulatubbee District Sheriff Tecumseh Moore. These men grew up together, played stickball together at Skullyville. Their folks come over the trail together in the first year of the removals, when so many died in the blizzards and floods. They'd known each other a long time. Tecumseh Moore didn't practice any politics but just kept the peace in the District. Silan Lewis was a farmer, a pureblood, married to a white woman, and he was one of the Choctaws who believed allotments was bad.
Silan Lewis and some others made it up that they'd just have to kill a bunch of these Choctaw Progressives who favored allotments, worry the rest of them, stop all this talk about cutting up the homeland. They were going to do these executions at night. Some of them were going to strike in Cedar County, some in Nashoba, Sans Bois, Jack's Fork, Kiamitia. All over the Choctaw Nation. All on the same night. It'd be done and over with then. The people would go back to living and taking care of themselves then. That's what Silan Lewis and these others thought.
So they made it up, and come time on that night, nine men rode west through the long valleys south of the Sans Bois. This was the time of the high corn before harvest, and it was hot.
My daddy told it to me this way.
The land was different then. The earth had not turned over and grown up clawed and scrabby. The rocks were buried deeper. The water wasn't brown then. This is how they say. Them that went with Silan Lewis had to go over by Hartshorne and kill Joe Hokolutubbee and then get on over to McAlester and kill some others, that was their job, so they had to ride fast. It was a long way to Hartshorne in that time. They crossed over the Little Fourche Maline—it wasn't called that then but I don't know now what it was called—and a yellow panther jumped down off a tree limb onto Eli Holbird's back. They were slowed there to cross the water and they passed under some sycamores and this cat fell down silent from fifty feet up that tree maybe, because the trees were all that tall and taller then, and it landed on Eli Holbird's back. Holbird fell off sideways and the cat sprung off quiet into the night, never let out a sound. They all thought Holbird was dead, but he was just stunned and come to afterwhile and they rode on west again.
But they all knew that to be a bad sign. No panther jumps on a man riding with eight other men and horses.
When they got to Joe Hokolutubbee's they found him sleeping on the porch. Silan Lewis went in first. He went in close enough to see the outline of Joe's body on a bed there in the corner. Joe must've heard him. Who is it? he called out in the dark. Joe sat up, said it again. Who is it? Who's there? Silan Lewis never answered. He fired one shot. That signaled the others and everybody went in firing. They shot Joseph Hokolutubbee all to pieces there on the dark porch. He never even got up from the bed.
Then they rode on again.
Rode west towards McAlester.
They were set to kill three or four others. They believed that all over the Three Districts other Choctaws were carrying out their executions in the night, same way they'd all made it up together. But it didn't happen like that.
Somebody must've told. Time they got to McAlester, the men they were set to execute were all hiding out. They couldn't find nobody to kill. A fella rode in from Tuskahoma and told how all over the Nation the Progressives were either lined up to fight or else hiding out like rabbits. So they knew there was some serious trouble.
They had a standoff there at McAlester for a time. Both sides come together and faced off at McAlester, men from both parties camped out west of town. They sat looking at each other, hundreds of armed Choctaws ready to fight and kill one another. They sat that way for four days.
They never did fight. That's one part of this story.
They started in talking. Afterwhile they finally settled that they'd break up and go home to their families, and Silan Lewis and his bunch would go to trial for the death of Deputy Sheriff Joseph Hokolutubbee.
So the men who rode with Silan Lewis surrendered.
Silan himself was getting his horse shod one cold morning in South McAlester, and Tecumseh Moore come along and nodded his head at him. Silan paid off the blacksmith and saddled up his red mare, mounted her, followed Moore back to Hartshorne, where the other riders were under guard. The two were quiet on the way from McAlester to Hartshorne. They neither one said a word. Tecumseh Moore kept his back to Silan Lewis, walked his horse slow in the dirt of the road.
So it come about there was a trial. A lot of talk, a lot of words in the newspapers. The United States government come in on it. The papers took sides and stirred up the people. Each side called the other Buzzards and Skunks.
Choctaw court said the men who killed Joe Hokolutubbee had to be shot. Some of the people said that was right. Others said no, they ought to only receive one hundred lashes. But the court said they had to be shot.
The United States government come in on it again.
There was more trials and papers and lawyering.
Come down to only Silan Lewis and one other was set to be executed.
Come down to it finally, Silan Lewis was the only one they said had to be shot.
So Silan Lewis went back home to wait for the day of his execution. He stayed home for one season and a little more, and then after harvest and just before winter and more than two years after the death of Joe Hokolutubbee, Silan Lewis hitched up his team and set out from the house with his wife sitting silent and staring in the wagon beside him.
There were some in the Nation had already forgot the old ways. They tried to talk Silan Lewis into running. Said he ought to keep going in that wagon and head on down into Texas. Said it was no sense anymore in a man traveling headlong to his own death. But Silan Lewis kept to the old ways. The shame was going to kill him if he went down to Texas, so there he'd be dead anyhow but with shame and not honor. It wasn't any kind of choice for a man. Him and his wife drove twenty miles in one day and set up camp near the courthouse alongside the creek.
Now, Tecumseh Moore let it be known about that if anybody wanted to rescue Silan Lewis, why, him and his men would give him up without a fight. That would happen sometimes back in those days, a man who was set to get executed might get took off on horseback by his friends just before he got shot. Most of the people thought that would happen with Silan Lewis. Choctaw government thought it would happen and that's how come them to send in the lighthorsemen. They were swarming around all over the place. Tecumseh Moore thought it would happen. He believed it would happen. He didn't want to shoot his old friend.
He waited past the time when the sun reached its high point. That was the time set for the execution. The day was a color like the breast of a mourning dove, grayish-like brown shaded nearly to pink. Tecumseh Moore acted like he couldn't see when the sun reached its high point, but the sun was one light spot trying to burn through the skymist and anybody could see it. He had them read the death sentence two or three times. The lighthorsemen pranced their horses in and out amongst the people. The people talked in low voices, and then their voices started rising like the slow rise of wind.
Tecumseh Moore could see there wasn't any help for it. He said, I'm not going to shoot this man, we've been friends all my life. He appointed Deputy Sheriff Lyman Pusley to do the shooting, and sent for the blanket.
They spread the blanket according to law on the ground at the side of the courthouse. The people gathered in a great circle all around. Silan Lewis took off his jacket and sat on the blanket. He didn't look at his wife. Didn't look at anybody, just stared between the legs of the people at the courthouse wall straight ahead. His wife stood inside the circle of people. She didn't act like anything but looked across to the other side of the circle with eyes like a blind woman. Eli Holbird took Silan's boots off him. He was the only one of the eight men who helped him kill Joe Hokolutubbee to show up for his execution. Least he was the only one anybody saw. Holbird held Silan's boots and went over and stood in the circle next to Silan's wife.
One Choctaw man stretched Silan Lewis's legs out in front of him on the blanket. Silan sat up straight. Two others held Silan's arms stretched out on either side of him. Another man walked up behind him and bent over his shoulder and opened his shirt. The shirt was white. This man dipped his fingers in a tin of white powder and put his fingers on Silan Lewis's chest and drew a white circle over the place he figured Silan's heart to be. Silan kept his eyes open and steady on the wall of the courthouse. He sat stiff, his shirt and the powdered circle glaring white, answering each other against the brown of his skin.
Tecumseh Moore looked up the road and down the road. His eyes searched the hills cradling the courthouse on all sides. The people were silent like wind that drops and goes still in the last minute before a twister. There was no sound of horses running. No movement on the road or among the oaks and cedars on the hills. Sheriff Moore waited for some sign of rescue. The pale disk of sun slid long past the high point, and there was no sound. Lyman Pusley held his Winchester ready. Sheriff Moore raised his arm finally, and still there was no movement.
Then a high keening cry came, first light and faraway-sounding so that the sheriff didn't know where it came from, and then close by, high-pitched, tortured, with no stops for breath in between. It came from the closed lips and dead eyes of Silan Lewis's white wife.
Tecumseh Moore swooped his arm down.
Lyman Pusley fired his rifle.
Smoke puffed from the mouth of the rifle, and the white circle on Silan Lewis's chest exploded into red. He jerked back and sprawled face up, arms open, on the blanket. Those two Choctaws still had hold of his hands.
But Silan Lewis wasn't dead yet.
His wife's high cry dropped low and snarling in her belly like the growl of a hurt dog. Silan Lewis jerked and twitched on the blanket, and the two men held him down by the arms. The people watched, silent, and one or two of them walked away.
Still Silan Lewis wouldn't die.
Tecumseh Moore looked at him twitching on the blanket, not living and not dying. Silan Lewis made no sound.
After too much time passed, Sheriff Moore knew again that there wasn't any help for it. He went over and knelt on the blanket. He put the palm of his left hand over the mouth of his friend, and felt the warm breath pushing against it. Silan's eyes were glazed over, but he turned them from the sky to look up at Tecumseh Moore's eyes.
Sheriff Tecumseh Moore saw it then.
He saw it like a memory he'd nearly forgotten.
How there was no reason for the people to be all turned against themselves and killing each other. How Silan Lewis had no call to shoot Joe Hokolutubbee in his bed on his dark porch. How Lyman Pusley had no call to shoot Silan Lewis. How in the old time in the old Nation, in the homeland where the bones of the ancestors were buried, in okla falaya by the Tombigbee waters, in the long-ago time the Choctaw knew how to fight and kill enemies. How enemies were always, in the old time, only others and not the Choctaw people themselves.
And how it was when the white man wanted the land of the old Nation that the people first came to be divided. How the white man said to some of them, here, you give us this land and we'll give you this other, and it will belong to the Choctaw as long as the waters run. How the white man had a good trick then to give whiskey to some and money to others, how he'd name some of them chiefs who had no right or honor to be named so, for the one purpose of getting those Choctaws to sign papers of lies giving away the people's land. How it was the people divided that was the first sign of the loss of the old Nation, before so many died on the long trail of tears when the people left the bones of the old ones and came up the great river, removed by the white soldiers to the new land.
Tecumseh Moore felt the warm living breath of Silan Lewis, felt him jerking and shaking.
He closed the fingers of his right hand over the nose of Silan Lewis and squeezed shut the air holes and twisted his palm into Silan Lewis's mouth. Silan's eyes stayed open, looking up at the eyes of my grandfather, and his twitches and spasms grew slower and softer. My grandfather knew then that he knelt on the death blanket with his killing hand on his friend's mouth because the Choctaw had not known how to turn back that good trick of the white man. They hadn't known how to keep him from turning the people against themselves.
So not long after the death of Silan Lewis the United States government passed the law allowing allotments and carved up the Nation. Not too long after that the land was all gone out of the people's hands. Like some of 'em said, it wasn't any choice anyhow.
Well, this story's an old one.
It happened a long time ago.
Back when our words okla humma that called us the red people had not yet turned over to mean white man's land.CHAPTER 2
Ways Without Words 1961
Hamp Humphrey's small white frame house sat just back from the footpath that led into town. In summer we traipsed up and down that footpath a dozen times a day on milk-and-bread errands for our mothers or penny-nail errands for our fathers or the more important business of trudging up to Sanger's gas station on the highway for candy bars and pop. Always on our back-and-forth journeys we'd find Hamp Humphrey sitting in his great iron lawn chair under the elm tree in his front yard. It never mattered about the weather: on the haziest, hottest dog day in August old Hamp would still be there, fanning himself feebly with a cardboard church fan on a stick. The rasping voices of locusts in his elm tree would make the air seem to weigh more, and Hamp would slur out a greeting to us as we passed. Most of us would stop and shake hands, not only for the good reason that we'd been taught that way but also because our small fists would come away from the encounter clutching shiny nickels and dimes, placed there by the great palsied red slabs of Hamp Humphrey's hands.
Some of the younger children were afraid of Hamp and would cross over to the far side of the road and walk in the drainage ditch rather than pass his house alone, but most of us understood him to be harmless, just a large uncomfortable man with quaking hands and a thick, slurring tongue. Some of us had heard through the whispers in our kitchens that he'd gotten that way from falling off a house when he was a boy. Some said, no it wasn't a house, it was a horse. Some said, oh yeah, you're full of baloney, I know from my daddy good and well it was a tractor; others said oil rig; still others swore he had been injured in the war. The only thing any of us understood for certain was that he'd been born normal and some unaccountable accident in life had turned him into the thing he'd become.
Hamp's body was soft and egg-shaped, his head a smooth oval crisscrossed with sparse yellow hairs. His face, in summer or winter, was a heavy, dull reddish color and his tongue lolled out thick and red between his lips when he spoke. We could not make anything of his words—just long, drawn-out moaned words made of nothing but vowels—but we knew from experience to nod and say, yes sir, Mr. Hamp sir, it surely is warm today, when we stood in front of his chair waiting to shake his hand. He held his head cocked always a little to the side and folded down on his chest, and when we agreed with him about the weather he would smile and wag it sadly from side to side.
Excerpted from Strange Business by Rilla Askew. Copyright © 1992 Rilla Askew. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA 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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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Killing Blanket,
Ways Without Words 1961,
The Hawk in the Dream 1964,
In the Town of Ramona 1967,
Walked Through in Darkness 1970,
Irrevocable Acts 1976,
Mr. Alford's Funeral 1981,
Hat Trick 1983,
Strange Business 1986,