Monday, January 24, 2011

Charged to Find the Sea

Great Sun City
September, 1805

[Note here: Ohio River and lower Mississippi = Great (Sun) River. Upper Mississippi = Moon River. Missouri River = Canoe River.]

In that region where the Sun River bends west and joins the Moon River, the world is flat; so the people build hills to reach the sky. Tall Talon stood at the top of the Mound of the Great Sun, watching the sun fall into the blue distance across the wide, wide fields. From here, it was the sky that really surrounded you; the world was just a small earthen platter you happened to be standing on. The Mound of the Moon and the Mound of the Kings stood off to his left and right, capped with halls of earth and painted wood, and the sun lit them and turned them gold. Below, the City of the Great Sun sprawled around the rivers, crawling with citizens and slaves going about the business of the day.

The man called Clark came to him, smiling slightly. Tall Talon returned the smile and nodded his welcome. They could say nothing more, since there was no one to interpret for them. Clark drew out a finger-sized wrapping of tobacco, lit the end of it, and put it in his mouth. Tall Talon had seen the white men do this a number of times over the last week as be brought them down the Moon River from Pier Town; they seemed to smoke whenever they felt like it, instead of only during meetings or rituals of significance. To Tall Talon it seemed somehow disrespectful to the plant. But it was not his business. He and Clark stood in silence, and waited for the sun to go down, and the feasting to begin.

Together they walked in and took their places at the great table, which was the longest of three in the great hall. The Great Sun was already at its head, wearing his crown of eagle feathers and turquoise; he gestured for Tall Talon and Clark to take their seats on either side of him, next to Lewis and Tall Talon's brother, Falling Cloud. The Great Sun called for Sacagawea to stand next to him and translate for them all.

When all were seated, the Great Sun gestured for the feast to be served; and the slaves brought turkey and fish, corn, beans, and squash, pumpkin and meal cakes and meat of the bison and bear...

"This is the best meal I've had in a year," said Sacagawea, translating for Lewis. "It's been a long, difficult journey."

"So, tell us about the lands of the white men," said the Great Sun graciously.

Lewis smiled. "I don't know how much you would believe," he said. "We have many wonders you do not have here. For example..." He pulled his knife out of his belt and placed it on the table. "This blade is made of metal," he said. "It is very strong, very sharp." He demonstrated by using it on his meat. The Great Sun's eyebrows went up.

"And we have guns," said Clark. "Tall Talon here probably told you about them; we showed them to him on the way down."

The Great Sun nodded. "I would like to see a demonstration, perhaps tomorrow."

"Certainly," said Lewis. He went on to say a few words about the tall brick, stone, and wood houses of the white man, and the great sailing ships, and even tried to describe writing and democracy, but the translation soon got bogged down. "Tell me a bit about your own country," he said at last.

"This is the land of the Great Sun," said the Great Sun. "From the Five Lakes to the north to the Sea in the south, from the mountains in the east to the mountains in the west, all this land is ours. It is a good land; the sun and waters are plentiful, and the earth is rich. The Creator Sun gave us this land, and showed us how to hunt and fish and draw plants from the soil. And he gave us the horse, which at first brought sickness, but now is our greatest friend."

"The horse brought sickness?" asked Clark.

"There is a story," said the Great Sun, "but it is long and I am not the best storyteller. That would be my son Tall Talon." He smiled. "But briefly, the horse came to us from the south, from the lands of the Natchez. This was a long time ago -- six or seven grandfathers. At first the horse was feared; but then we learned to tame and ride it. And many of us began to keep horses on our farms. But then it became clear that the horse brought sickness with it: a terrible sickness with no cure. The Great Sun at that time was a wicked man, who did not hear the words of the heavens properly; and people said that the horse was sent to bring us sickness as punishment. And so many of them killed their horses and threw them in the river."

The Great Sun paused to take a bite. Clark said, "But you clearly use many horses now."

"Oh yes," said the Great Sun. "The story is not finished. So it happened that the Sun sent a messenger to a young man who lived in the north east -- a man of the Lakota tribe. And the messenger said to him, 'You are now the Great Sun. You can ride the horses, and no sickness will come to you. Ride to Great Sun City, and take your rightful place there.' So he gathered up what horses he could, and learned to ride them, and he did not get sick. And he and his people rode south down the Canoe River and the people were afraid -- but hopeful, because it was clear that these Lakota could ride the horses and not be sick. And the young man became the Great Sun; and since that time there has been no sickness. I am his descendant."

"That is a fascinating story," said Lewis. "You are an excellent storyteller."

The Great Sun smiled. "And you are polite to say so," he said. "But now it is your turn again. Tell us about your journey, and your plans."

"It's been long, long and hard," said Lewis. "We left over a year ago. The mountains are very tall, very steep, very dry."

"We had to turn back at one point," said Clark. "We hadn't brought enough food. Up in the high passes, it's so dry and the air is so thin, hardly anything grows. We were eating horses and candles by the time we got out of there."


"A light," said Lewis. "It works by burning wax. Such as bees make."

"So you were eating beeswax?"

"Yes, we had run out of other food. So we came back home, got more supplies, and tried again. And then we made it -- barely." He gave a sad smile. "Our guide did not."

"But you have this young woman and her child," said the Great Sun. Sacagawea smiled as she translated.

"We met her a long time after we came over the mountains," said Clark. "We found the Canoe River and came down it, and met her up in Shoshone territory. She's guided us the rest of the way here."

"And now you are here," said the Great Sun. "Bringing a message of peace and greeting from President Jefferson, you say."

"That's right," said Lewis. "The United States are interested in this region, opening up trade and so on."

"Excellent; and we will speak much more of this. But not at dinner," said the Great Sun firmly. "Dinner is for storytelling and laughter. So tell me: have you come far enough? Have you seen enough?"

"No indeed," said Lewis. "We are charged to find the sea."

"The sea?" said the Great Sun. "You mean the sea to the west? That is a long journey. There are more mountains to cross, and many strong and dangerous tribes there. It is a poor and backward area, compared to this. Why would you go there?"

"Well," said Clark, "the President is interested in trade; he wants to know if there's an easy way to get from sea to sea by water. He also wants to know what else is out here -- what kinds of trees, what kinds of metals -- gold, silver, turquoise, and so on. He wants to know what tribes there are. He wants to know if other white men are here. That sort of thing."

The Great Sun's eyes narrowed for just a moment, and then he smiled again. "A man with a mind full of curiosity," he said. "A noble pursuit. And do you have a guide to take you to the far west?"

Tall Talon's ears pricked and he sat up a little straighter.

"We have Sacagawea," said Lewis. "But she has no idea about the lands to the west of here. She is in our employ, and has been crucial to the success of our mission, so we will not leave her behind. But it would be helpful to have a guide that knows the way over the mountains. Are you offering such a guide?"

Tall Talon leaned forward. "Father," he said, "If I may suggest. I have been up the Sun River many times with our trade barges. I have spoken often with the Middle Waters People and the Long House People. I have visited all of the Five Lakes. There is -- if I may say -- no one who knows the lands better than I."

The Great Sun smiled. "You are charitable to offer yourself so readily, my son," he said. "But I need you here with me. This will be a dangerous journey, and none might return. And with your hand as it is... you are not always helpful. I cannot risk you in that way."

"Then let me go, father," said Falling Cloud. "I have been almost everywhere Tall Talon has been."

The Great Sun laughed. "You have!" he said. "You are young, but you are strong and brave and good in a fight. Yes, Lewis and Clark, I think we have found your guide."

Tall Talon leaned back slowly, eyes on his food. The talk swirled around him, and the cocoa and honey drinks were brought out for dessert, but his eyes stayed down, falling sometimes to his withered hand.

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