Monday, November 15, 2010

How Empty Their Eyes Were

In a village of the Tsalagi (Cherokee)
May, 1541

Young Bear led them to the village, because he was well bandaged and he could walk. He called ahead of them as they went, warning everyone that they were coming. It wasn't long before some of the warriors came out to meet them, and questioned the Spanish (or rather, their guides, because the Spanish could not even speak the trade language). Young Bear's father, who also came, gathered him into his arms and carried him on his shoulders back to the village, and Young Bear sang all the way back through the forest and across the maize fields.

The warriors brought the Spaniards and their translators to the meeting house on the mound at the center of the village, where they were greeted and questioned by the clan elders. The Tsalagi gathered outside it in the village's central plaza, craning their necks and saying "Ssh!" and trying to hear what was going on inside. But crowds are impossible to keep silent, especially when children are present; so few of them could hear the guides describe the mighty, rich country called Spain, and its prosperous colonies far to the east and south, and its representative, Co-ro-na-do, who was visiting these lands with friendship and rich gifts, and who wished guidance and assistance in finding the famous and wealthy Seven Cities of Ci-bo-la. Had the great chiefs of the Tsalagi heard of them?

No, they had not. Nevertheless they welcomed the Spaniards to their village, and accepted their friendship, and were intrigued by their rich gifts (glass beads and similar baubles), and were happy to assist in any reasonable way. A feast was offered, and the Spanish (who were running short of ammunition and powder, and hadn't had meat for days) gratefully accepted.

Overall the Spanish were warmly welcomed, and not many of the Tsalagi saw how tired and haggard the guides looked, or how empty their eyes were.

Young Bear's older sister, Wildcat, was one who noticed. She was serving venison at the great table, and a young mustachioed Spanish man smiled at her. Although she did not think the hair on his face was particularly attractive, she was drawn to something in his lopsided smile. She smiled back, and saw he was wearing a strange necklace: a cross, wound round with writhing filaments, with what looked like a golden flower in the center. She was unfamiliar with gold or metallic jewelry, and to her, it looked as if it were made of frozen sunlight.

But he spoke no Tsalagi, and she spoke no Spanish, so she went over to one of the guides to try and get him to introduce her. He gave her one bored glance, and then ignored her. She became frustrated, continuing to tap his arm and whisper to him, until suddenly he moved like a snake and caught her arm. His eyes blazed at her and he hissed in the trade language, "Daughter, you lie with a Spaniard, and you will die. Sickness!"

She stood stunned a moment, unable to look away from those eyes, until at last they seemed to slowly drain of all emotion and feeling, as if the effort of his outburst had emptied him; and he looked away at nothing.

But speech is not always necessary between a man and a woman.

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