The days following the valley incident were shameful. I was subjected to a loud lecture from Pa after he heard of me dealing with outside womenfolk, and they practically gave me all of my siblings’ chores on top of my own to keep me occupied. Isaiah was once again in charge of all our business transactions, and I was forbidden from leaving the colony. It was torture, especially when rumors spread that I had serenaded a valley woman. But I couldn’t get the image of Amadahy out of my head. It gave me hope that my folks were wrong and we could get along with the valley people. They had given up on assimilation because of their past experiences, but I just wanted to coexist, really.
I knew I could get through to people in other ways, to show that we weren’t what people made us out to be, especially with the Cherokee. Pa said that the valley Cherokee used to treat us with kindness, even trade with us, but that with all the conflicts with the whites, they, too, grew wary of outsiders. Though the more I thought about it, the more I thought that being overly cautious sounded like our people, and why we rarely went to the valley anymore except when necessary. Most of my people preferred being secluded in our mountaintop colony anyway.
Hawktail Ridge was a small colony of about five families. Pa and Mama said that they had moved here over ten years ago when the white settlers pushed them off of the creek beds high into the mountains. The Crow family, the Charmer’s kin, were up here before anybody supposedly, and they welcomed anyone who was willing to become a neighbor. The Charmer, whose first name was Estella, I believe, had always claimed that she was on the ridge when the Cherokees had killed their first Spaniard. According to Isaiah, that was over two hundred years ago, and while our people were known for living long lives, we didn’t live nigh that long. Nonetheless, she had been our granny woman ever since we settled here.
Five of my older brothers lived in separate houses with their wives. Isaiah’s wife, Mabel, was just as cordial and charming as him, but she had a firm hand in the way she wanted her house run. Her kin, the Collinses, were the quiet types, but they never hesitated to help out the colony when extra work units were needed. Next was my brother Amos and his wife, Jencie. Jencie was the explosive one of the bunch, at least among all of my sisters-in-law. Her kin were the Mullins family, known to be kind of rowdy and the best distillers for miles. Gabe, my next brother and his wife, Ora, kept to themselves a lot, mostly focused on keeping good fields and good children. My next two brothers, Jack and Rino, had no children with their wives. While they enjoyed living near family, they seemed happily complacent with the way life had worked out for them. I got ten nieces and nephews out of all of those marriages.
My parents, Vardan, my younger sister, Delilah, and I were the only ones who still lived in the main house. It’s crazy to think that at one point in time we lived comfortably with ten people in that tiny cabin. Vardan and I were the closest out of all of us boys, but he was only two years older than me, which was probably why. He adamantly refused to settle down and get married, being perfectly happy with hunting and fishing. Pa and Mama had had just about enough of him, I think, and were probably trying to push him off on some poor girl that could deal with his wandering tendencies. I was next in line for the big marriage talk, and Mama had her eyes set on a neighboring girl for me, Kyrie. Kyrie was one of the few girls in the colony that would actually give me the time of day when we were kids, but we had drifted apart as we got older. I was also opposed to the arrangement due to the fact that she was my second cousin. Her family, the Bells, were relatives of ours and rather good people, but I, like Vardan, was nowhere near ready to start having a family of my own.
Our cabin sat hidden on a hill surrounded by trees, and all of my brothers lived on the hill above us, their houses facing ours, making communication rather easy. A dirt-and-moss path was carved out of the side of the mountain, and down to the right on the ledge below us lived the Bells. The road went from their ring of cabins and curved around the left side of the mountain to the Collins’ places, with the Mullinses being on the hill above them. Farthest away from us were the Crows, who lived in a hollow down the road with mountains on three sides and a cliff on the other. Everyone was within walking or hollering distance, and we usually gathered in Crow Hollow to hold our parties and dances.
A mile or two away from the Bell place was a small springhouse guarding a deer path that curved in all directions, which was usually where we left for town should we need to go. The springhouse gave us water most of the time, but if it rained hard, the whole thing became overrun and clogged with mud and we had to go to the river to fetch water. There were talks of building a pump or a well on our land, though it never came to fruition, but we wished for one, especially since the river was an hour-long trek down a steep mud path that was even more vertical going back up.
On one such day on the riverbank, I encountered Kyrie on the edge of the river, her feet dangling in the water. We rarely spoke to each other anymore, especially after hearing of our possible betrothal, so I silently filled my buckets to lug back up the side of the hill.
“I heard you got to go to town,” she finally said, her voice hushed.
“Sounds exciting.” She was probably getting pressure to settle down, like all of us kids were, and a trip to town or elsewhere was a needed break from mountain life.
“You act like something’s bothering you,” I told her, for she kept her eyes focused on the water.
“It’s just . . . my Pa told me I shouldn’t talk to you much anymore. I think he doesn’t want me to marry you after your Mama suggested it. He says we’re Indian Melungeons, but you and your Pa are Negro Melungeons, and he reckons that it has to do with you being so dark skinned.”
Her words hit me like a punch in the chest. I wasn’t too supportive of the idea of marriage either, but I had always seen us as equals. To think we were becoming so low as to judge each other by the color of our skin. “Don’t talk to me, then. If you think like that.”
“I don’t know what he’s on about. The liquor makes him angry sometimes.” Her black hair hung over her face, and her voice was barely above a whisper. “I know he gets worried about handing me off. But everyone thinks you’re so . . . different. Not just because of your looks, but you don’t really fit in here.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but I had heard enough. I turned away from her, shame churning in my stomach as I started my climb back home. Even among my own people I was too different. But in the valley was someone who wanted to see me again, and open opportunities for me to succeed. It seemed almost like everything was timed to pull me back down the mountain into that new world. But was this what Amadahy found so strange about me? Could she tell that I didn’t fit in?
A few days of chopping wood, hauling water, doing laundry, and overthinking everything made me want to march back down to the valley below. I knew it was a stupid idea, and nothing was instant or guaranteed, but the thought of it all, of the stares, of Calhoun, of Amadahy’s kindness, and what Kyrie had said about what her kin thought of me, made me want to go back instead of run away from it. My folks could keep me busy with work, but my curiosity burned at me even more. I had to go back down there. Was I going to get myself killed? Possibly. If the townspeople didn’t kill me, my parents surely would. It had to be proven to me that I could fit in, or I needed to know for a fact that I would never be welcome among them, as I had always been told.
My fifteenth birthday passed by as any other day would. Despite all the expectations my people put on that age, I was treated as if nothing was different about me. I decided that if I didn’t go back to the valley below then, I never would. As the sun fell beneath the land and I finished my chores, I snuck along the back side of the house and down the hill. I looked across the road to be sure no one saw me, then slid down a deer path into the trees. I didn’t go into the valley, but stayed at the edge of the woods, scouting out how to possibly go about my upcoming mission. The trees aided me in hiding out from view, but in the darkness, I noticed that I had successfully tracked my way down to the edge of Cedar Hill. However, as I looked out into the circle of cabins, that familiar lump rose in my throat, and my stomach turned over.
Quickly ducking into the shadow of a sycamore, I felt the abrupt need to condemn my curiosity and near fervor for life outside; I was an idiot. It never failed: every time got excited about something, I would overcorrect and then chicken out at the last minute. But the lure of seeing how the valley people lived was too enticing to me, not to mention seeing Amadahy again. From the outside, it didn’t seem all that different—we just were a bit more far removed. Some of our cabins weren’t as nice as these, but it’s not like we lived in caves, like so many people apparently thought. They had land to farm, a water source, everything we had. They did have lamps in the windows, a luxury we lacked, but what we owned shouldn’t have set us so apart.
Forgetting my fear for a moment, and unable to contain my curiosity, I crept closer to the edge of the woods. My bit of bravery was shattered when I heard a door slam from one of the houses, and I jumped back into my hiding spot. Looking from behind the rocks at the edge of the forest, I saw Amadahy, the main reason for my horribly planned return to the valley. She shouted something in Cherokee toward the cabin, shrugged, and to my dismay, began heading toward me.
I stepped back farther into the shadows, hoping she wouldn’t see me, and heaved a silent sigh of relief when she stopped at the water pump a few feet away. I still hoped I wouldn’t be noticed and remained as still and silent as I could. Maybe I would confront her again someday, but now was not that time.
This was a stupid idea, Silas. You need to stop thinking that you can be smart about these kinds of things, I thought. It was time to head home. No more sudden trips down the mountain.
Moving as stealthily as possible, I made my way a decent distance back into the woods when I suddenly tripped over a large stone, which caused me to slide a bit down the slope and roll into the side of a tree.
I covered my mouth to keep from cursing aloud, not just from the pain, but because of the loud thud I made when my back made contact with the trunk. Maybe the calling whip-poor-wills would mask my clumsy noises, but as it went with my luck, that was an all too hopeful wish that nature would be on my side.
She looked up from the pump and lifted the lantern. She had heard me, but if I stayed still enough, maybe she’d assume it was a deer.
“Is someone there?”
Christ. Keep quiet. Don’t move.
Footsteps. She was coming closer. “Hello?”
My heart was racing, but I swore it actually stopped the minute I felt her hand touch my arm and the glare of the lantern flashed in my eyes.
“Holy—!” She screamed, jumping back on her heels, her hand to her chest. But then she squinted, and a mixed look of surprise and horror arose on her face.
“What are you doing here?”
I decided to act like nothing was suspicious. “What? I can’t walk through the woods at night?”
Her expression didn’t soften in the slightest. “Are you following me?”
I snorted. “No.”
“You really are strange, you know that?” she whispered, her voice hissing low to keep anyone from hearing. “I know I said I wanted to see you again, but, good lord, you took my word literally. Maybe those stories have some truth to them.”
“What stories?” She kept talking about stories, but so far, all I’d heard was that we lived in trees and caves.
She withdrew her lamp. “About how your kind lurks in the shadows, waiting for opportune moments to unleash chaos. You deny civilization and wait to lure people into the woods, never to be seen again. Some say you’re all man-eaters.” Her voice reminded me of how I usually went about telling my younger sister bedtime stories.
The beginnings of laughter caught in my throat. I wanted to know who the first person was to come up with that, but I was actually more disappointed than offended. “And where did you hear all of that?”
“My father told me.” Her posture straightened, as if she somehow had to defend his word.
“And who told him?”
“I don’t know. And you didn’t answer my question. Why are you here?”
I shrugged and leaned against a tree. “I told you. I’m taking a walk. And you seem to have come up with more colorful reasons to believe anyway, so I don’t know why you’re asking.”
She began to speak but stopped herself, then rephrased. “No, wait. I suppose I mean, what are you doing back in the valley? Why would you come back without a reason?”
“What’s it to you?” She was prying, probably trying to prove her crazy cannibal-kidnapper theory.
“It’s just strange that you came back down here.”
“Is it? I don’t find it strange at all, really. Just ’cause people stare at you and call you names doesn’t mean you have to close yourself away. Besides, you were kind to me, and that’s more than enough.”
For the first time, she looked away from me. Her mouth flattened into a line, and her eyes calmed a little.
“And,” I began, “why should I let people tell me what to do and where to go? That’s no way to live.”
For some reason, I felt like I wanted to spill my guts to her, like she would possibly understand. But how could she, with her being told all those fairy tales about us being dark-skinned monsters in the woods?
And why was she staring at me like that? “Hey!” I waved my hand in front of her eyes, “What’re you looking at?”
“Just . . . your eyes.” She pointed, like something was wrong with them.
“The stories said you all have blue or gray eyes.”
“Does that make us more savage or something?”
She shook her head. “No . . . I’ve just never seen such blue eyes before. They say that if you see a Melungeon, their gaze never leaves your mind.”
That word again. It hurt still, but it seemed less cruel when it wasn’t being hurled directly as an insult. Though all her stories were making me laugh at how utterly foolish they were.
I shook my head, amused. “So I guess that means you’ll never forget me, then?”
She scoffed again, but then she smirked. “Maybe so.”
In that moment, I swear she smiled. She quickly cleared her throat and asked, “So what are you, then?”
“I don’t know. But if I have to tell people something to get them to not see themselves as better than me, then that’s what I’ll tell them.”
“So are you a Negro?”
I shrugged and looked toward the treetops, hoping maybe the stars had the answer. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
The lantern was hanging by her side now, and the flame flickered. “You don’t know?”
“Nope. Never have. Probably never will. I’ve supposedly got Indian blood, maybe even Spanish or Portuguese, but only God knows what we are.” I was starting to feel like I was saying too much, but it was like my Mama always said, I could never stop running my mouth.
She didn’t speak. “All I know is that valley folks call us Melungeons. I would much rather get called Indian than that.”
Her features relaxed a bit. “Do you want to be Cherokee?”
I was starting to think she wasn’t actually listening to what I was saying. “I just answered you.”
She dropped the lantern on the ground. “No, I mean do you want to learn to be a Cherokee?”
The cries of night birds broke the silence that followed, and the trees creaked and moaned in a sudden breeze. She blinked at me expectantly, but I wasn’t expecting the question she had just asked me.
“Uh . . . what, now?”
“Do you want to learn to be a real Cherokee? It’s a simple question.”
I scoffed. “It ain’t no simple question. That’s like asking me if I want to learn to be white.”
“Well, would you if people didn’t hate you anymore? For being a Melungeon?”
“We both know that that would never happen. I have to look the part, too, you know. And why are you asking me these things?”
She picked up the lantern and hung it on a branch. “It’s just what you said about not worrying about what people say about you. If you had the chance to convince others you weren’t below them because of your color, would you? Even if you had to lie?”
I felt a smile pull at my lips. “Why do you want to know?”
She smiled back at me, though it was still a bit of a mischievous grin. “Because I think that’s why you’re really here. You wouldn’t come back just for the fun of it, or because I told you to.”
My head tilted back against the tree. “I don’t want to learn how to be one of you. Y’all’ve got no obligation to teach somebody like me.”
Her hands toyed with her braid before resting on her hips. “Well, I personally think that if you’re going to lie about being one of us, you should at least get it right.”
“You want to teach me? Are you trying to make me more ‘civilized’?”
Another grin came over her face, and she chuckled. “You could use a bit of civilizing. You look like you just crawled out of the bushes.”
“I actually did,” I responded, smiling.
Suddenly, an idea came to my mind, an idea that was most likely incredibly stupid, much like all my others, but I felt the need to bring it up. “Actually, I have a bit of a deal for you.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she tilted her head. “What kind of deal?”
“Is that suspicion I hear?”
“Well, considering who it’s coming from . . .”
A stifled laugh escaped my throat, and she backed away a few steps.
“What’s so funny?”
“You act like you know me.”
Her mouth gaped in an offended manner before she regained her confident shell. “I reckon it doesn’t take much to know the real you. Now what is your deal?”
“You can teach me to be a proper Cherokee and make me ‘fit for your society,’ but you will have to learn a bit from me to bust those fairy tales of yours. I think you’d be surprised at how little there is to civilize.”
At first, she hesitated, but I noticed that burning curiosity had returned to her eyes. While not lacking a bit of hesitation, it seemed to overwhelm her a bit.
Suddenly, she extended her hand out toward me. “I will shake on it, on one condition. My family can’t know I’m associating with you. This ‘process’ of ours will have to be secret. We can meet around sundown for a few hours. Deal?”
My parents couldn’t know about it either. It made sense to me, and I agreed with her catch. We locked hands. “Deal.”
She took the lantern from its perch and lifted the bucket by the pump. “We’ll meet here, two days from now. Sundown.”
The water sloshed as she walked back toward the house, the night birds singing louder and louder now. I climbed up the hill and looked back toward the valley, the glow of the lamps and candles in the windows dimming. My attention focused on the moon. It was full, casting a silver light on the mountains as the clouds rolled overhead. Shaking my head at the botched negotiation that just took place, the serenity of the woods at night only brought about one thought in my mind.
“Lord help us. We’re both stupid.”