Both men made me promises. They said it would be better, that there would be bounty. And space, so much space between homes.
That little was true. I counted the stars as we walked. My steps more numerous than those ancestors whose footsteps we followed until Dancing Rabbit Creek cut through the heartland. The trail beyond burned fresh with tears of the dead as they mourned the living.
They said our green corn would blossom from the world below. That the Unknown Woman was waiting to reconnect This World with that above. They said we would be rich with gold.
They fed us dirt. The earth poisoned with the blood of our people. They told us our skin matched the land, a symbolic gesture from their mysterious god. They said we were doing the right thing. I told them their flesh matched the bones of my mother and father I carried on my back, their souls condemned to walk This World until I collected the blood payment of our enemies. I looked them in the eye and swore my restitution.
They told me they would kill me for my tongue. Mute me like the buffalo whose graveyard we tread holding our breath, dragging our children through the headstones with burning eyes squeezed shut to shelter their minds from the putrid air. They are tired, but our babies have seen worse.
You eye my daughter. You say you’ll trade me a deerskin for her. You say I’ll need it to warm me through the winter and in the cold of the night you came searching. I let you have me as I watched over my sleeping darling, but you took her anyway and I cry it is far away from here.
He was the red devil they told us we would all one day meet in this life or the next. The demon they promised their god could save us from. C’est la vie, he said, raising his thin eyebrow to parallel to his curling matchstick grin.
I looked to the sky and remembered a story my grandmother once told me about the bear who invited the rabbit to dinner. The bear cut from his own leg a small sliver of meat that he cooked carefully over a fire and fed to his guest. The food satiated the rabbit who graciously reciprocated the invitation. When the bear was out walking one day, he remembered the rabbit and stopped by his home. The rabbit received him kindly and cut from his left abdomen a steak and prepared it for the bear, who claimed it did not fill his belly. The rabbit took from his right side the same cut and gave it to the bear who was still not satisfied and questioned how the rabbit could allow his guest to leave hungry. So the rabbit boiled a large pot of water and hopped in. The bear left nothing but bones.
He was the savage come into my home calling me uncouth.
I touched the bulge of my belly, unable to stomach him. I had eaten nothing but jimsonweed since the last full moon and switched to black beans once my uterus insisted on holding, trusting in my elders’ wisdom to ensure a boy so I would not have to smother my child in the night.
No tongue will tell you who you are. No words scratched upon a piece of paper can dictate your future, my grandfather said as he watched the church burn, the remains of the registrars floating through the air. So long as you have one drop of red in your veins you will be tinted, never one of them, never pure.
When my mother married a German soldier, they ran for the mountains and raised my brother and me from the earth up, surviving on their blister-torn hands performing the work most did not care to know existed. They told us little of our origins, concealing the truth with time, hoping to blend and be forgotten. Hoping to be left alone. But at night, Nanih Waiya coaxes my reversion. Her whispers are the wind outside my window.
Never enough for one. Always too much for the other.
Undocumented. They say I don’t exist, the very government who snatched my home whilst swearing to protect. Your roots are the two feet you cannot exchange, my grandfather told me the day my grandmother lost her mind and ripped out every strand of hair on her head. But you always can choose on which leg to stand.
Edited by Joyce Chen.
Featured image provided by the author.