Cleansed by Fire
It was fall; Chota buzzed with morning activities: people gathered water, collected wood and shook nuts from fallen pinecones for the winter. Wild Rose, despondent, stepped from her lodge followed by The Irishman who pulled up his trousers as if he’d just conquered the world.
Her face expressed the cost her Cherokee soul bore for being The Irishman’s wife; sullen and tense, she had lost her golden Cherokee pride. He had touched her again and walked from the lodge in silence.
She made her way into the woods to refresh herself, forget the night, to escape into the sanctuary the forest. She came face to face with a large rattlesnake. The snake rattled, warning her of danger. She ignored the warning as if inviting the snake to bite her and end her misery. The two locked in a deadly dance. The snake struck, missed and recoiled. Wild Rose got down on her hands and knees, approached the deadly snake on her belly. She was another blood animal. A Cherokee. A force. The rattler struck again, and she miraculously caught it behind its head. The strong muscular body writhed and coiled in anger. She grabbed the coiling body and cautiously made her way back to her lodge.
Stepping quietly to the back of her lodge, still clutching the rattlesnake, she thought, this will end the poison on me and my children.
Suddenly she was face to face with The Irishman. He jumped back.
“What be ya a doin’ wit dat snake? Kill me wit it?” She smiled at the thought and called out,
“Litli Welo, Kasewini!”
Moments later Litli Welo and Kasewini appeared.
“Yes Mother,” they answered. As she held out the snake she said, “Come, we must take the poisons from your mouth so you will not have the rotted teeth like the white man.”
Litli Well and Kasewini stepped up and chewed on the flesh of the squirming rattlesnake. As they finished, each spat on the ground. She held the snake high above her head and called out in Cherokee, “Snake, take the poison and spoilage from our mouths!”
Wild Rose then chewed on the snake herself and spat on the ground. The Irishman seemed in a state of shock.
“Do you want to clean your mouth of spoilage?” she asked. The Irishman shook his head no. She shrugged her shoulders and laid the snake on the ground.
The Irishman shuffled backwards as the snake meandered out of sight. He turned and ran toward the front of the lodge where he snatched up a crock jug and took a long swig. He smirked, hiding his insecurities behind his cocky facade. He took another swig, wiping his mouth on the dirty sleeve of his muslin blouse. He rubbed his dirty oily hair violently in a frustrated fit, then halted suspiciously peering around at his surroundings. The convulsion over, he picked up a stick and stirred the smoldering embers. As he stared intently into the bed of fiery coals he became even more infuriated.
Wild Rose slipped away from her lodge and walked slowly through town, not speaking nor looking up. She took a nervous glance over her shoulder to see if he followed. Seeing that he still lounged on the blanket sipping whiskey, she hurried her pace and quickly covered the short distance until she could no longer see him. Once out of sight, her face and body relaxed; a Cherokee pleasure returned to her as she watched the women skinning hides and preparing meals around open fires.
As a hunting party led by Big-Man, Ole Hood and Big Foot left town and she wondered if her Cherokee life would ever return to her. She smiled. She thought so. She was Cherokee. She will be again. She spoke to several townspeople.
The other Cherokee do not return the gesture; they turned their backs: the reality of what had become her life lived strong around her. As long as The Irishman was her husband, her life will never be normal. This she knew. But she did not know how to make him not her husband. She she entered the woods again, depressed with the knowledge.
She wandered through the trees to the river’s edge and peered into the crystal clear waters, at her sacred place, but today even the large rock in the river did not give her peace.
Yet she noticed something seemed different, moving as if stalking prey, she discovered a white shale necklace coiled on the rock like a snake. She reached down to examine the necklace, touching it with her fingertips. As if bitten, she yanked her hand back, and looked around to see if anyone watched her. She was alone. She reached down and picked it up from the rock and let it fall from her hand and dangle from her delicate fingers. She held the two-foot long necklace up to the morning light closely examining long strand of white shale.
“Even the Yundi Tsuni (Little People) taunt me,” she thought.“If not the Yundi Tsuni,” she wondered. “ Who could have left the necklace?”
Upon further examination she uttered softly, “It is something very familiar about this necklace.” She wondered if this was the necklace Isaac had in his pocket that night at the settlement and again in his fist that night at the Great Island?
She clutched the necklace tightly in both hands, held it to her breasts and looked about fearfully.
“If not Isaac who? What if it was left by the Yundi Tsuni?” Nervously worrying of offending the Yundi Tsuni, she knelt down bowing her head asking aloud.
“Yundi Tsuni, with your blessing I request this necklace?” She lifted her coal black eyes, gazing into the deep blue sky: tears rolled down her cheeks, joy filled her soul. She fell backward onto the knee-high grass with a throaty giggle. She felt the excitement of a young girl as she gazed at the clouds passing overhead. She could not contain the strange mixture of laughter, tears of joy. As she lay in the grass the sun warmed her face. She became drowsy and fell into a deep sleep.
Yet when she awoke reality overcame her. She jumped up franticly, took in her surroundings as if lost.
“Was this a dream?” She examined the necklace in her hands and her smile returned. She put the necklace around her neck, stripped her clothes and stepped into the water for her daily cleansing.
After bathing she sauntered along the river, feeling truly alive, she laughed and fondled the necklace: as she walked further on through the town, the people she greeted were perplexed by her childlike manner, but her mind was finally clear.
A clenched jaw and a tightened face replaced the smile as she approached the lodge. Joy was replaced by the reality of The Irishman and what has become of her life. She trudged on, her shrunken spirit enveloping her, haunting her once again. The Irishman was drunk. She removed the necklace and hid it in the pocket of her vest. The Irishman stumbled about the front of the lodge in a drunken stupor. He saw her standing at the rear of the lodge.
“Nancy! Where the hell ya be so long?”
She cringed at the name, Nancy, and replied curtly, “My Sacred Place for daily cleansing.”
She walked toward him but as she passed the grungy Irishman he grabbed her arm. He clutched her in a bear hug around the waist kissing and slobbering on her neck and shoulders. She pushed him away, turning her face away in disgust. The townspeople in the area witnessed his sickening advances but turned their back to her. She was again humiliated by his actions and continued pushing against his chest, but he persisted.
“I will show you your sacred place!,” He cried.
With one last push Wild Rose broke free, but he reached out, grabbed her arm, snatched her around and threw her backwards through the door. She disappeared into the darkness of the lodge as the The Irishman stood in the doorway slightly aroused and staring at her with his contemptuous superior gaze. He pulled his dirty shirt up over his head and dropped it to the ground. The buffalo robe door flap closed behind him as he pushed his way into the room.
“Get out ya little heathens! Get out of my sight!”He yelled at the children as he grabbed Catherine and pushed her outside she stumbled into hard ash covered ground. He dragged Little Fellow by the arm before shoving him out. Little Fellow landed hard on the ground beside her.
Shortly after sunset a deeply distressed Wild Rose emerged from her lodge. Moments later The Irishman stepped out, he reached down snatched up his shirt from the ground and put it on. Catherine and Little Fellow shrunk at the sight of him and rushed to their mother’s side, wrapping their arms around her. She comforted her children in Cherokee.
“I am fine. Go back in the lodge.” The children skirted around The Irishman before slipping back into the lodge.
The Irishman snatched a couple of pieces of wood from the diminishing woodpile and threw a log on the fire. He snatched up a crock jug and drank. Wild Rose busied herself around the outside of the lodge, but soon slid out of sight. She worked her way to the rear of the lodge. The Irishman, suspecting something, snuck to the other side of the lodge and hid in the shadows near the rear corner. Very nervous, she worked her way cautiously along the rear wall. When she reached the corner The Irishman jumped out grabbing her by both arms and pinned her against the wall.
“Where are ya be a going, Nancy?” he taunted venomously.
She jerked away and ran through town, covering her face to hide her shame. On passing Big-Man’s trading post, she looked to see if Big-Man had returned from hunting. His horse was tied to a post out front, but Big-Man was nowhere to be found. She took a few steps, but stopped as Alissah’ held her baby on her hip and stepped out of the trading post.
Wild Rose wiped the tears that welled in her eyes before turning back to face Alissah’, she walked over to within a few feet of her. Alissah’ stood in the doorway of the trading post; her belongings were stacked neatly outside the door. Wild Rose was apprehensive as she looked up at Alissah’.
“O-si-yo,” Wild Rose said warmly.
“O-si-yo. What do you want?” Alissah’ replied coarsely in Cherokee.
“I must talk to Big-Man.” Wild Rose humbly begged in Cherokee.
“What do you want with my husband, you have a husband?” Alissah’ replied coldly in Cherokee. Wild Rose turned to walk away but Alissah’ saw her distress, and lost much of the edge from her coarse tone and called out in Cherokee, “I am not blind. I have seen the way you look at one another.”
Wild Rose turned to face her, apologetic and humble in Cherokee, “This was never meant to be.” Alissah’ retorted in Cherokee, “Yes it was. I saw the way you looked at one another when first he came to Chota. I will keep no man that wants another woman of higher standing. Big- Man is no longer my husband. I set him free. He is yours.”
“But I am shunned and no longer Beloved Woman,” she replied.
“Take him!” Alissah’ cried in anger. Wild Rose humbly replied, “Wah-doe Alissah’.”
While holding her child she reached down gathering the last of her belongings, Alissah’ said in Cherokee. “He is at his Sacred Place by the river. You know the place I have seen you there many times.”
Alissah’ walked next door to her lodge and spoke without looking at her says softly in Cherokee, “Go to him.”
Alissah’ disappeared inside her lodge leaving Wild Rose alone to contemplate. She walked in circles, stunned by Alissah’s gesture. She gathered her senses as she looked to the East and saw an orange, harvest moon ignite the evening sky.
She worked her way slowly through town so as not to attract attention. However, once near the trees her pace quickened till she ran. She ran past the few townspeople who were mulling about. They looked at her as if she has completely gone mad. As she reached deeper into the woods, she stopped to catch her breath and contemplate what might be.
The Irishman staggered back and forth near the lodge, still drinking. His suspicions increased.
“Big-Man! Dat bitch!” He took another sip, corked the jug and threw it down, grabbing up his flintlock pistol from inside the cart. He staggered through town waving his pistol wildly. He caught a glimpse of her entering the woods. He picked up his quickened clumsy pace and took a separate trail to cut her off. When he reached a vantage point, he stopped to catch his breath.
As the moon reflected off the water, a knee-deep fog rolled in and covered the ground. Wild Rose continued her quest to find Big-Man while her mind raced in deep thought: for the first time in a long time she contemplated the promise of a future. She stopped momentarily, removing the necklace from her vest pocket. She examined the necklace, clutched it tightly as if this delicate strand of white shale was her only lifeline.
Suddenly she saw Big-Man bathing in the waist-deep river less than twenty yards away. Her long wait was over. Her pulse quickened as she watched him step out of the river. He wiped the excess water from his body with his hands, ringing the water from the long single braided ponytail dangling from his topknot. He walked over to the rock using it as a seat leaving only his upper torso in sight. The deep grass and a light fog covered the lower half of his body. He worked his damp body into his buckskin pants, and then he sat and stared at the reflection of the moon dancing on the water. She was unsure of herself and filled with self doubt; she dropped her head and turned to leave and stepped on a dry twig. The twig snapped!
Big-Man jumped to his feet and searched for the source of the sound. He saw the silhouette of Wild Rose’s back lit by the rising full moon seeping through the trees. Their eyes lock, staring intently at one another, neither can breathe, neither can move.
Wild Rose ran to Big Man and he received her in a warm passionate embrace. He saw that she clutched the string of white shale. Gently reaching down, he lifted the end of the necklace up letting it dangle between them as he studied it closely. He looked up into her eyes and asks in Cherokee, “Where did you find this?”
Her face tightened, confused by the question.
“I found them laying here on this rock, my sacred place. Why?” she asked.
The tension lasted for several moments as they both gazed at one another in bewilderment. He smiled and took the necklace from her delicate hands shaking his head in disbelief. He said in Cherokee, “Believing you were lost to me I threw this necklace into the river as I was leaving the Great Island that night so long ago.”
He lifted the necklace over her head and placed the strand around her neck.
“I am glad the Yundi Tsuni look over us.” She smiled up at Big-Man.
“Wa-do Yundi Tsuni!”
The necklace dropped down her neck, coming to rest across her breasts. She released the fish-bones holding her long pony-tail and her hair fell across her shoulders, outlining the necklace.
As The Irishman snaked his way through the woods he could hear them talk. He cocked the pistol, but ducked behind a tree to calculate his next move. He saw they were so consumed with one another their normal alertness had disappeared. The Irishman peeked from around the tree, looked down at his pistol and loathing filled him like a plague. He lifted the pistol and aimed it at Big-Man’s wide bronzed back. His breathing intensified and his hands trembled; if he missed, Big Man would have grounds to torture and kill him. He blinked into the blurry fog, lowered the trembling pistol to his knees. Even in his drunken stupor, he knew he is no good against a better man, he knew he can only bully women and children and staggered away in disgust. The clouds cover the moon darkening the woods. The Irishman slinked away like a dog vanishing into the darkness.
The clouds slid away and the moon revealed the two lovers sharing a long passionate kiss. Wild Rose took a step backwards, released the silver broach at the front of her buckskin vest as it fell to the ground she pulled the leather string releasing the knee length breach clout reveling her completely nude body in the moonlight. Big-Man lifted her up as she wrapped her legs around his bare muscular body. He slowly lay her down softly on the cool grass, where they are consumed by fog.
Several hours later Wild Rose was still wrapped in Big Man’s arms.
“I must return to my lodge,” she said.
“The Irishman is drunk and alone with my children.”
Isaac reluctantly nods, “tuh-huh.”
Their embrace over she quickly dressed. Isaac remained at the river as she walked away.
She hurriedly made her way through town searching for signs of The Irishman. She hesitantly approached the lodge, stopping a safe distance away to survey the situation once more before entering. She removed the necklace, admiring it briefly before placing it in her vest pocket.
The fire in front of the lodge has diminished to only glowing embers but she sees no sign of The Irishman. She walked from the darkness of the shadows into the faint glow of the embers.
She approached the door of her lodge and cautiously pulled back the buffalo robe covering the doorway. A burst of firelight illuminated her two children sleeping peacefully on the river cane bed. She walked quietly to her children, leaning over and kissing both of them gently on the forehead. She was pleased. They are safe. She turned to her river cane bed in the opposite corner of the room. Still fully clothed, she lay down and covered herself with a wool trade blanket, her back to the door. Almost asleep, she heard The Irishman cursing as he stumbled home outside. She shuttered as the familiar sick feeling returns deep within her belly. He threw several pieces of wood on the popping fire; she pulled the blanket up tight around her chin, evermore alert and wary.
Outside, the Irishman plopped to the ground in front of the fire. He grabbed his crock jug, drank and stared as if in thought. After several more drinks, he wiped his mouth. He slammed a crock jug against the rocks in the fire pit and called out in a loud slurred voice, “Where’s be me other jug?
Consumed by fear once again, she rolled over peeking over the edge of her blanket. The fire outside had flickered back to life, a small beam of light pierced a crack at the corner doorway and lit her troubled face. Through the crack, she caught glimpses of him staggering about, throwing more logs on the fire.
All of a sudden the buffalo robe covering the doorway jerked open; the fire outlined the Irishman’s short stubby body. His drunken eyes searched the room. Wild Rose pretended to be asleep as he staggered in and fell to the floor cursing. The Irishman wobbled on his hands and knees and crawled towards her bed. He brought himself to a semi-erect stance leering over her bed. His grotesque breath made her wretch and she curled into a tight ball, pretending to sleep. He leaned over slobbering on her. She found it strange that during the last three months she had become accustom to the distinct smell of whiskey on his foul breath.
Yet tonight, after the clean smell of Big Man, the smell of whiskey gagged her. He reached under the blanket, groped for her breasts and thigh; she attempted to knock his hand away. Furious, he jerked the blanket off and slapped her repeatedly about the face. The children started crying.
“You are my wife. You are not the wife of Big Man.” He screamed as he slapped her head back and forth.
Little Fellow sprang like a cougar and jumped on The Irishman’s back to defend his mother. The Irishman flung the child across the room and he slammed into the wall. The Irishman grabbed Wild Rose by the hair and jerked her from the bed. Frantic, she reached for her flint knife, but couldn’t find it. He smiled bringing her knife up to her face.
“Ya be a looking for dis, now would ya? Ya dropped it at da river! But dat’s not all ya be a dropping at da river tonight! Now tis it?”
He grabbed her hair, dragged her across the dirt floor; she fought back wildly scratching at his hands and arms. At the lodge’s doorway, she gained her footing, she sank her fingernails deeply in the soft tissue of his face. Her eagle-like talons ripped the soft flesh of his cheek.
Suddenly he dropped her, wincing and screaming in pain. He swung his fist and struck her solidly in the mouth and nose. She slumped to the floor bleeding. Her body listless, he snatched her up by the hair and leg, slinging her out the doorway and out of the lodge.
She landed with a thud in a cloud of white ash dust sprawled face down on the ground. The Irishman staggered out of the lodge, stood over her and screamed, “Ya be a calln’ ya’self a wife? Ya be nothing more than Big-Man’s whore!”
Weakened by the blow, her legs wobbling, she slowly regained her footing and tried to stand but The Irishman slammed her across the face with the back of his hand, knocking her down again. As she lie face up in the ash, he reached down and grabbed the front of her buckskin vest. The silver broach binding the vest ripped away, flying off into the darkness. Releasing the vest, he grabbed another a fist full of hair, jerked her up, flung her over on her belly, he latched on from behind, wrapping his arm around her neck choking her. She gasped for air till her body was limp. He took her by the arm and leg and slung her limp body towards the fire. Falling short of his intended target, she landed face down on the stones at the edge of the fire, the flames singes the ends of her hair.
Her battered, bruised and bleeding face was crusted with the dust of white ash and blood. She feebly tried to push herself erect. After several tries she finally mustered the strength to mange a staggering half-erect stance. Dazed, she stumbled, blood flowing from her mouth and nose, yet The Irishman continued his assault. It was clear now that he meant to kill her. Slowly. Deliberately. He slapped her to the ground again, kickings her in the stomach, stopping only to catch his breath.
Exhausted, The Irishman staggered over to the cart and jerked out another jug of whiskey. He grabbed the corncob cork with his teeth, he popped it out and spit it on the ground. He leaned against the cart for support, taking a long slow swig. He stared in disgust at her sprawled half-naked body on the ash-covered ground, her face less than a foot from the fire.
She coughed and gasped for air as she gathered the last of her strength. She planted both of her hands firmly on the ground and slowly pushed her nude torso up by her trembling arms. As she rose from the ash like an apparition, the reflection of the fire in her piercing black eyes was a dim flicker compared to the fire of hate filling her Cherokee soul. She gained her strength from the centuries of Cherokee women before her and stood. She moved slowly but deliberately into the lodge.
Once inside, she hurriedly gathered The Irishman’s clothes, musket, powder horn and the remainder of his belongings. She held tightly to his belongings, staggering towards the door, pushed the buffalo robe aside with her elbow. The Irishman’s back silhouetted against the flaming fire. The crock jug cradled in his arm, in a drunken stupor he laughed sadistically.
She stepped cat-like from her lodge, hesitating for a second.
He mumbled. “I guess I be a shown her who be head of da house and it be no damn woman!” He released another laugh that echoed in her Cherokee soul. A strange demonic feeling came to her; she dropped his belongings to the ground, gathered the last of her strength, jumped up into the air and kicked him in the back with both feet, sending him face first into the fire.
The whiskey and The Irishman erupted in torrent of flames. He kicked and thrashed against the fire, but was still in flames as he rolled out of the fire pit. He slapped at his burning clothing screaming hysterically. Wild Rose stood above him covered in white ash: a ghostly apparition. She methodically picked up his belongings scattered about on the ground. She grimaced in pain, as she stood fully erect then forced one foot in front of the other and slowly made it over to edge of the fire.
As she stood there with his belongings, she lifted her lifeless eyes and stared across the fire at The Irishman.
She cried out for all to hear in Cherokee. “I am no weak white woman! I reclaim my soul from the curse of the white man’s stench! I am a Tsalagi woman! As Tsalagi, abuse of a woman is punishment by fire! Cleansed by fire, my balance is restored!”
She tossed his belongings onto the fire. The flames engulfed all that he has. Wild Rose stood tall staring at the Irishman when the powder horn exploded sending fire flying everywhere.
The Irishman covered his head to protect himself. She stood tall totally unaffected calling out once more.
“I am not your wife! Your wife lives in a jug! I rid my lodge of you and your belongings! You are no longer my husband! I no longer carry the curse of the white man’s stench on my body or my soul!”
His burned and distorted face was drenched with fear, but The Irishman managed to gain his footing: he screamed in pain, and stumbled away into the darkness like a dog for the second time that day.
The explosion and the screaming woke the town. Tame Doe wrapped a blanket around herself and stepped from her lodge. The scattered fire at the far end of town filled her with fear for her daughter.
She whispered, “Nan-ya’Hee’…”
As she ran through town; she passed Big-Man in front of his trading post and runs by Alissah’ in front of her lodge.
Edging cautiously closer, Tame Doe stepped into the fleeting light of the scattered fire outside of her daughter’s lodge: Wild Rose stood bruised and battered in the remnants of the fire light. Approaching slowly Tame Doe took her blanket and wrapped it around Wild Rose’s nude body as townspeople gather around.
Wild Rose was triumphant. A Cherokee Woman. She cried for all to hear:
“The fire has burned away the curse of the white man’s stench and my shame.”
Hesitant to approach at first, Big-Man ran up to Wild Rose and swept her up in his arms and called out.
“Litli Welo! Kasewini! Gah’-loo-juh!”
Big-Man and Wild Rose disappeared into the darkness followed by Catherine and Little Fellow.
Having followed Big-Man, Alissah’ remained hidden in the shadows at the corner of Wild Rose’s lodge holding her child. She was saddened by the night’s events and she turned to leave she stepped on something sharp with her bare feet; she looked down and finds a silver broach lying in the dust. She picked it up. She recognized it as Wild Rose’s silver broach. With broach in hand she walked slowly back toward her lodge with her child on her hip. Reaching Big-Man’s trading post, she starts to knock but hesitates. She placed Wild Rose’s silver broach on a keg beside the door and returns silently to her lodge.