June 18, 1541, the first recorded Europeans crossed the Mississippi River into the densely populated land of Nine-Rivers Valley. Generations of sad winters have passed. It is now early summer in the southern foothills of the Ozark Mountains.
With every dream, she knew it was coming, but this time that made little difference. Manaha ran as fast as she had ever run. The ground shook as the lumbering rage closed in. A low growl swelled to a thundering roar, echoing on all sides.
Hot breath burned the back of her legs. She pushed herself harder. Jagged teeth tore across her heel. She pulled away, but only for a moment. Claws like knives sliced her shoulder and spun her around. One swipe and the giant beast ripped away her arm.
Manaha shuddered awake. The sounds around her were all familiar: the hiss of a pitch-pine fire, the soft song of others sleeping, and the call of night’s creatures outside the village-lodge. Wet with sweat, she threw back the bedcover and tried to sit up. She had grown accustomed to waking with stiffness. This was more—her arm would not move. Cradling it like a baby, she hobbled to the small fire in the center of the floor.
Four others without a clan slept on the benches lining the circular walls. Manaha carefully surrounded the flame with some kindling. It was summer, but she felt chilled.
Most of her life she had dreamed of a brown bear chasing her. Sometimes she ran fast. Other times she could hardly move. Even so, the bear had never caught her.
As the first morning light slid through the only door, Manaha stood, crossed her arms, bad over good, and crept out. She hurried around the plaza, following a wide, dusty path along the steep bank of the creek to the far side of the growing fields.
Over the short stalks of corn, whiffs of smoke from the nine lodges of her small village rose to the brightening sky. She tested her arm again. Nothing. What will happen when they find out about my arm? No matter how the others would react, she knew she had to tell the tribe about her dream.
That evening, she gathered with the others around the square-ground west of the plaza. In the warm months, the sunken clay-packed clearing, enclosed by four open-front sheds, served as the village council site. It once was a place of stories and words of wisdom. The sacred fire still burned in the center, but no one told stories anymore.
Now they gathered with a common face of despair to watch the flames consume wood like so many flickering memories. Her own memories, stirred by last night’s dream, forced her to look upon her people differently.
Manaha gathered her courage and stepped from under the thick thatched roof of the Blue Lodge. She pulled the woven scarf she always wore even tighter and marched to the center of the grounds with her arms hanging as if both were the same.
Stepping inside the fire-circle, she turned toward the White Lodge. “I wish to speak to the village.” She did not wait for a reply. “I must tell a dream that came to me last night.”
Voices of protest from the Red Lodge clamored above the murmurs of general disapproval. Ta-kawa of the Cougar clan, the best hunter of the village, shouted the loudest. “Go back to your place, woman! You have no right to speak before the village fire.”
“I must tell my dream,” she said.
“No. You cannot speak here.” Ta-kawa stood tall and proud of every war scar. “Tell your dream to an elder if you must.”
“Hold your tongue, warrior!” Hazaar commanded. The honored elder slowly rose from his position at the center of the White Lodge. Sad eyes, set deep in his taut, weathered face, drifted from lodge to lodge.
“She will tell her dream,” he said. “If it has meaning, it will be for each listener to regard or cast away, on their own.”
After both men sat down, Manaha breathed deeply and spoke out in a strong voice. She told of a great peaceful valley, where she found death, annihilation, and a brown bear. She stammered as she relived the pain of losing her arm. And she repeated what the Great Brown Bear told her: “Become the storyteller your people need, and you shall have your arm back.”
Manaha bowed her head. She could feel every eye staring at the arm hanging at her side. Murmurs swelled all about.
“There are no more brown bears,” Ta-kawa shouted above all the others. “Your dream means nothing here.” Manaha closed her eyes to her surroundings. After a moment, she bent over, cupped her hand, and extended her good arm to Mother Earth. Raising it to her face, she blew into her palm. Then in a sweeping circle, she cast the power of the dream to those gathered about. A second sweep circled slower, and the third silenced the last voice.
She spoke. “Grandfather told me long ago, ‘a man without a story is one without a past, and a man without a past is one without wisdom.’ If we do not teach the children as our elders taught us, all that has gone before will be lost.”
“Teach the past?” Ta-kawa shouted. “The past should be forgotten and with it any talk of the strangers. The deaths and the defeat of the ancestors have no honor here.”
“Listen, Ta-kawa. Listen all of you,” Hazaar said. “I believe the dream is a warning.”
They all turned to look at Hazaar. The elder held out his arms and opened both hands. “This was a family in Nine-Rivers Valley.” Wiggling his fingers, he said, “Brothers, mothers, sisters, children—this is a family before the strangers.”
Hazaar sadly studied each of his flexing fingers then slowly closed both fists one finger at a time except for the last one, wrinkled and bent. He held it up and turned it in front of his face. “When they left,” he said, “this is all that remained of that family.”
He walked the circle, pointing at each of the four sheds. “We are all that remain. Our ancestors were from different nations, but together we are the last people of Nine-Rivers Valley.
We cannot hold the gifts of our ancestors. We have lost them. We cannot visit their graves; there were none. We cannot speak their names because we have forgotten them. Stories are all we have.”
Morning found Manaha gathering wood on an island in Long Creek, downstream of the village. The large raised open plot, ringed in willows, was ignored by most. She felt close to her childhood there, separated from the world by a deep channel of simple creek water.
The council made the decision late in the night that she could tell her stories, but only at a fire outside the village. A high point near the center of the island was her choice. Manaha dropped her small collection of firewood and began digging a fire pit. As she struggled, her determination of last night gave way to apprehension. Why did I say those things in front of everyone?
Never had she stood before the tribe, and never had her words been so eloquent. Could the telling of the dream hold as much power as the dream itself?
The pit dug, she picked up her axe. She crossed the creek and wandered lost in a flood of doubt. No birds sang away her troubles. No coyote howled a resolution. No eagle flew overhead to show the way.
“What did I expect?” she asked. “Why was I given the dream?”
In the time between one step and the next, her thoughts cleared. A simple realization flowed over her. The dream came to me. I only have to believe, and like the dream, the words will come.
Turning back toward the island, she came upon a large red oak that had been struck by lightning. Split by the force, the charred tree lay in pieces all about, but for one large splinter that stood straight and defiant in the center of the once-great tree.
As she gathered a pile of broken branches, she sensed someone watching.
“I know you are there. What do you want?” she called.
Two girls and a boy edged into the opening. They wanted to sit at her story-fire, they said, and offered to carry wood.
“I have chosen a place near the center of the island for my fire,” she told them. “You may put the wood next to the pit.”
The children filled their arms and hurried away.
The spirits of the past were with her. They surely had led her to this lightning tree with the proud splinter still standing tall at its center. A piece of oak stouter than lightning should offer a bright flame and lend power to the telling of many stories.
She pounded at the splinter with her dull axe. Her useless arm flopped about until she tied it to her side with leather twine from her pouch. She swung the axe until the last standing piece of the great oak fell. It was flat-sided, wide across the bottom and lighter than she had expected. She dragged it in one piece all the way to the island.
In the center of the fire pit, she placed a large slice cut from the bottom of the splinter. Everything had to be proper, just as her grandfather had shown her: each piece selected and carefully stacked. When she finished, she walked down to the creek to wash.
Children soon began to gather quietly around the unlit fire, their probing eyes watching Manaha. She did not see the boy who had helped with the firewood, but the two girls were there, smiling up at her. Manaha exhaled and turned away to Father Sun.
In the warmth of the day’s last breath, Manaha caught the scent of her grandfather and knew then where to begin. With her back to the children, she prayed so all could hear:
It is not the death;
it is the sadness that stole my hopes.
It is not the misery;
it is the sadness that stole my tears.
It is not the hunger;
it is the sadness that stole my strength.
Great Spirit, hear this humble prayer;
carry away the never-ending sadness.
Manaha turned to the circle of listeners. “Some of you may have heard an elder recite that prayer to the setting sun. It speaks of a time long ago and to the loss of our ancestors.”
She slowly circled the pit, lighting the kindling. Soon a fire crackled and popped. Manaha returned to the storyteller’s place as the sky smoldered in a soft purple glow behind her. In front, the fire lit young faces aglow with curiosity.
“Our people have always told stories. Telling is how the Old Ones remember, and listening is how you, the Young Ones, will learn.” For a moment, the flames pulled her deep into her own youth. The children began to stir. Her voice returned, strong and determined.
“I, Manaha, shall tell the stories I lived and the ones I learned from my grandfather who witnessed the arrival and journeyed with Hernando de Soto, the one our ancestors called the Son of the Sun.”
CHAPTER 2: ISLAND IN THE SKY
Manaha’s childhood: forty-nine years after the Spanish arrival.
As a child, I lived alone with Tatianto, whom I called Grandfather and who called me Nanza. One morning, late in the season of my twelfth winter, Grandfather woke me early.
“I will be gone all day,” he said. “Before sunset, meet me on top of Narras.”
Narras was a high, narrow ridge that stood in a crook of the winding Buffalo River on the edge of the valley we both called home.
This was a sacred place to him, but the skeleton of a long-dead mountain to me. Its soil had fallen away, exposing bony rocks to the sun and the wind. Grandfather went there often to lament and to be with the spirits of the past.
He had told me many times, “You are too young to climb the sacred mountain.”
Now he had instructed me to meet him there. I knew the importance of this event. My emotions leaped from fear to hope and back again. The day lasted longer than the patience of my youth. I was at the Narras early. I walked around its base to the Buffalo River, keeping an eye on the rim for Grandfather.
From the bend in the river, it is possible to see both the north and south side of Narras. One side followed the old trail that I had just walked, and the other bordered the churning river. At the water’s edge, I could see its highest point almost straight above me. More than once, I saw Grandfather standing on that ledge, but not today. I ran all the way back around to where the trail to the top of Narras started.
The beginning is not difficult. When Grandfather left me alone in the valley I had climbed the lower part several times. The roots of an old cedar tree growing into the rocks made the first steps easy and tempting. Above that, layers of rock formed natural steps worn by the wind and Grandfather.
The climb went quickly until the point where I could see no other place to grab. I tried to convince myself that I had always turned back at that point because of guilt rather than fear.
I had no reason to feel guilty now. Fear alone tested my resolve and seized me as tightly as I gripped the rock. My fingers crept across the surface as I searched for a handhold, a crack in the rock. I could not see the handhold, but I could feel its strength as I pulled myself up and found more, but none within an easy grasp. The rock face began to slope inward. Soon, I could crawl. I stood and laughed at myself for having given up in the past.
A grove of trees shared the high ground with me. Short with thick trunks, twisted but strong, they seemed as old as the mountain. Their gnarled branches forced me to stoop as I followed a well-traveled path.
A few steps into the tiny forest, the view opened to clear sky and a straight drop to the river. Wind rushing up from the blue waters below chilled my face and stole my breath. My legs buckled. Never had I witnessed a more powerful sight. I cowered back and hugged the closest tree.
Rooted to its trunk, I took in the beauty of Mother Earth. The Buffalo River snaked around hills and valleys until it stretched out of eyesight and beyond my knowledge. Off to my right, Tatianto’s valley, the world I did know, lay peacefully in the crease of two great mountains. The boundary between the worlds, known and unknown was a ledge no wider than a single stride.
Across that narrow rim and up another steep climb loomed the top of Narras, Grandfather’s sacred place. The path twisted and turned before me. Patches of grass grew between the rocks, but either side fell away to jagged cliffs.
A crow’s caws drew my attention.
“Haw ... haw ... haw,” I called back, thrilled to be looking down on his flight as he soared over the river and disappeared into a darkening forest.
“I cannot be afraid,” I said and straightened up. I let go of the last branch and focused on my next steps. Few had been taken when I heard the crow again, returning to taunt me.
Circling overhead, he called out, “Caw, caw, who is proud, now? Who is brave, little girl? Caw, caw, caw.”
I tried not to listen as he flew closer. “You are in the world of the Winged Ones now. Look up to me, the Mighty Crow. Caw.”
I held my arms out like a soaring bird but looked only at the path. Before I reached the other side, I stopped and gazed out over the river into the unknown from the world of the Winged Ones. It was a grand view, but brief. I lunged forward and grabbed the rock wall. I might have shown courage to the crow, but I had proven little to myself.
My legs shook, but I could not turn back. I forced myself to reach up. Like a snail, I clung with my whole body. The crow gave one last caw and flew off downriver.
I pushed up and up, determined to reach the sacred grounds. At the top, I peered over. An island of rock in a lake of sky lay before me. Grandfather stood at the other end, his back to me, arms lifted. Faint sunlight glowed over everything in both worlds, and Grandfather seemed to float between the two.
Without a thought for myself, I climbed on top and walked toward him. He lowered his arms. The vision of his power faded. Fear drained the strength from my body.
The land under me was so scant that I could see death on either side. I fell to my knees and reached for all the earth I could grab.
“Nanza, look into my eyes,” Grandfather said.
His voice gave me balance.
“Do not look away.” He picked me up and carried me on his back down the rock wall and across the rim. He sat me down at the edge of the stunted forest, facing west. In the last light of the day, he began to sing.
I had never heard him sing before, nor had I heard the language he used. He sang to Father Sun while the yellow disk slid toward the distant mountains. Wisps of clouds drifted in the golden light like giant flames from a world on fire. I remember well what he said when he finished his song.
“My child, whom I rescued, raised, and will always cherish, you have shown great courage and strength in climbing to the top of Narras. Use that power well—hear and remember every word.”
Turning from me, he said, “Time has come for the story I kept far too long.”
After a painful pause, he raised his arms and said, “Let the trees and the ancient mountains be a circle of listeners and the Great Father Sun our story-fire. May the spirits of all the wise and honorable men who sat at the fires of my youth hear these words as truth.”