The sunset was beautiful, as always. The evening sun cast the whole valley in shades of orange, pink, and gold. Light filtered through rustling leaves in the late autumn breeze, and shadows danced on the forest floor. Too bad this wonderful setting was broken by Amadahy’s nagging.
“No, no, no. Say it again. If I ask you, Osigwotsu? You say . . . ?”
“Osi . . . uh . . . Osigwa?”
“You keep saying that, but just telling me ‘no’ isn’t helping.”
“I’m not telling you ‘no.’ I’m encouraging you.”
“No offense, Amadahy, but telling me ‘nuh-uh’ every time I try to say something isn’t encouraging.”
She rolled her eyes and collapsed her head into her hands. “Oh, for the love of God, Silas, Nv v is Cherokee for almost. I’m telling you that you almost have it right!”
This was getting ridiculous. “Then you should have taught me that word first!”
“I did! Why are you such an idiot!”
“Maybe I’d actually learn something if you weren’t such a bad teacher!”
Most of our “lessons” went like this. In hindsight, Amadahy and I were much too similar in temperament, and this caused us to butt heads like angry sheep. We both had fiery tempers, and since books and such were passions of hers, I looked like a piece of livestock to her when the learning process began. We would start slow, end up bickering, then go home taking nothing from it. Our third meeting was so bad that the next time we met, Amadahy brought her ball stick with her, caked with fresh mud from a game that had just finished. I swore that one day we’d both show up with hunting rifles as safety precautions. Yet something was weirdly satisfying about us yelling at each other for a few hours, and something about it made us want to keep meeting. We could have given up on each other at any time, me being too “savage” and her being too easy to criticize and anger, but we didn’t. And I don’t think either of us could explain it. Of course, usually any good feelings quickly avalanched into a hoarsely whispered screaming match since it had to be “secret.”
But still, we still kept coming back. She more determined than before to teach me the ways of her people, and me to teach her the ways of mine. One evening, she brought a sheet of paper with writing on it and handed it to me.
“I thought you might learn better if I wrote stuff down for you to memorize. That way you don’t have to only practice when you’re with me.”
I took the sheet, staring at the symbols written on it. Her handwriting was curly and delicate, but that didn’t change the fact that I had no idea where to begin. The curled strokes frightened me, and my mind raced to try to find some memory in my brain that could decipher this code. Nothing.
“Silas?” She had noticed my distress. “What’s the matter?”
My teeth clamped down onto my tongue as I continuously scanned the paper, looking for an answer.
Finally, I spoke. “Oh, it’s just . . . hard for me to read your writing.” It wasn’t necessarily a lie.
Lifting the paper from my grip, she glanced at it, then to me. “You can’t read, can you?”
I turned my eyes downward, warmth rising in my cheeks. Whether it was from the humid air or the shame of my own stupidity, I wasn’t sure. I just knew I didn’t want to see the look on her face.
“You never learned?” she muttered, to which I shook my head and sighed.
“Nobody ever taught me.”
She set the paper on the ground and dropped a stone over it to keep it from blowing away. “Do you want me to teach you? I can. The missionaries taught me.”
“No! No, no . . . you don’t have to do that.”
“I will, though,” she said, her voice slightly empathetic. “It will help you if you know how.”
“It’s fine. No need to make this more trouble than it’s worth.”
A sigh emerged from her throat, and her face wrinkled into the frustrated scowl I was becoming so accustomed to.
“But I will. If you want to learn, you should. After all, it was part of our agreement.”
Right. Our agreement was for us to teach each other, and I reckon that probably included her teaching me how to read.
“All right, but I have to warn you, I’m pretty slow.” I thought that poking fun at myself would help reduce the tension I was sensing. It didn’t.
“It will take time.” Digging through her bag, she pulled out another piece of paper, this one covered in even stranger curlier shapes. “This is the Cherokee alphabet. You should learn this one, too.”
“Wait, wait. You want me to learn to read in two languages? Do I look like someone that can pick that up?”
“Yes, yes, you do.”
“You waltzed into town like it was nothing despite never having been outside your own home. If you have the gall to do that, then you can learn to read.”
I swallowed a lump in my throat. “I reckon so.”
We ended early. The sun was still setting when I led her back to the edge of the woods. As usual, we only exchanged looks. The difference this time was that as she walked away, she turned back and flashed a smile at me.
For a second, I thought my heart had skipped a beat, but I just assumed it was from the hike. Bashful and tired from trying to learn the English and the Cherokee alphabet, I trudged back toward the mountain path. This was going to be a long road, but I hoped that I could learn and show the valley people—white and Cherokee alike—that I was equal to them.
My inner muddling was broken by shouting. “Hey, you! C’mere before I drag you over here!”
Not thinking anything of it, or thinking that the voice wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, I kept weaving in between trees around the valley.
“Hey, Melungeon! I’m talkin’ to you!”
I turned toward the voice to see a bearded mountain man stomping toward me, shotgun in hand.
“I told you to get over here, boy!” he growled, grabbing ahold of my shirt.
“You’re the one who burned down the Smiths’ storehouse, ain’t you? People’ve seen you sneakin’ around the woods at night!”
“Storehouse? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
He dragged me toward the muddy road by my collar. “We know you done it!” he spat, “All the people in town said they saw you sneakin’ around the Smith property the night it was burned!”
I tried my best to wring myself free of his grip, but the more I fought back, the tighter it became. My heartbeat seemed to become deafening in my ears, and my fear intensified when I saw that he was taking me back into Ellistown.
“Wait,” I said, but I was sure he didn’t hear me. I tried to plant my feet in the muddy street, but he yanked me forward, jerking me off balance.
After getting splattered with mud and God knows what else, the stranger threw me into the center of town. Much to my horror, the square was filled with angry townspeople, though luckily none were carrying torches or pitchforks . . . yet.
“I found him!” screamed the man. “He was sneakin’ around in the woods, spyin’ on us all!”
My whole body started to go numb with fear, and I felt like my spine was made of jelly.
A few of the townspeople that had gathered cheered in affirmation of my accuser. I opened my mouth in attempts to plea with them, but their accusations continued. “I didn’t burn no storehouse. You must have me confused with someone else.” My voice shook as I spoke, and as much as I attempted to make it sound more angry, it was obvious how scared I was.
The man pointed the barrel of his gun toward me. “Quit lyin’! We all know that’s what you dirty Melungeons are known for!”
“There’s no way I could’ve done it, though. If y’all would just listen!”
“We should just hang him now, save us any future trouble,” a voice in the crowd mumbled, to which a range of agreements sounded. My heart quickly jumped in my throat, and I debated on running or somehow fighting back, but if I ran, they’d follow me. If I fought back, they’d shoot me. I knew I wasn’t articulate enough to plead with them, nor smart enough to get myself out of this mess.
“Hold on!” someone called out from behind me. It was Amadahy.
“I can prove he didn’t burn down the Smiths’ storehouse,” she began but was interrupted by the man with the gun, who at this point I assumed was Mr. Smith himself. “How do you know? Did you do it?”
She frowned, and her black eyes flashed at the man. “I would never do such a thing. But I know he didn’t do it because the night it burned, he was with me at my home.”
“What’s he doing with a little squaw like you?”
Her face twisted into an expression of disgust. “I ain’t no squaw, for one. And two, I’m civilizing him.”
The settlers burst into laughter, “Civilizing him! An Indian civilizing a Melungeon! That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!”
Amadahy looked as offended as I probably did in that moment, and I personally felt that if we had the chance, we would actually go and torch their buildings, just to get even. While my mouth and antics have gotten me in all sorts of trouble, I knew I probably had to talk her down before she killed someone.
“What’s going on here?” This voice was new.
A woman of about twenty-five stood on the edge of the crowd. She was pale-skinned like most of the settlers, but her cheeks were covered in freckles. When she raised her voice, many of the townspeople turned to her in awe, and I assumed she was a respected figure among them.
“Doctor.” Amadahy half curtsied to the woman, but the yelling man scowled toward her.
The doctor looked at him, then the crowd of people, before pointing toward me. “What is your quarrel with this young man?”
“He’s a sneaky Melungeon!” someone in the crowd shouted, even though it didn’t really answer her question. I decided to speak, if my voice would let me.
“They say I burned down some storehouse. But I never did no such thing.”
Amadahy added, “I said he’s been with me, which is the truth. But they don’t believe that either.”
“It’s ’cause no Cherokee in their right mind would associate with mountain savages like him!” The original bearded man spat as he jabbed his finger toward the two of us.
“How would you know?” the doctor asked, “Are you their chief?”
“No, but not even the slaves want anything to do with the Melungeons! The Indians shan’t either!”
My ears had begun to ring, mostly out of anger at the idiocy of the mob but also out of fear that they were going to hang me from the nearest tree. Or maybe it was my mind trying to keep me from hearing anything.
“But if they aren’t to be associated with, according to you,” the doctor said, “why would this young lady here have any reason to lie about where he was? Why is she not joining you in your scorn?”
That one really got them, especially when it was pointed out that there were no other Cherokee present to contradict Amadahy’s story. The doctor continued on, “I suggest you leave this young man to his own business until you find evidence of him burning down Mr. Smith’s storehouse. If my memory serves me correctly, Smith is fond of his pipe, so perhaps it was an accident that you are trying to pin on an innocent person because you don’t like how he looks.”
Many of the people there seemed to honestly think about what she said, but some scowled and stormed off. After the crowd had moved on, the doctor brushed off her skirt and turned to us. “Are you two all right?”
“Fine,” Amadahy said. “Though I still want to give that man a good beating for calling me a squaw.”
The doctor chuckled, her freckles wrinkling on her cheeks. “Now, now, Amadahy. I’m sure you’ll get the chance to get him back later. And you, young man? I hope they didn’t hurt you.”
I tried to get some of the mud off my shirt, but to no avail. “I’m fine, ma’am. I reckon I’m getting a bit used to being called all those names and getting thrown in the mud.”
“Well, just because you’re used to it doesn’t mean it should happen.” She looked me over. “Though I do wonder, why are you two together? I’m not doubting your alibi, but it is strange. Particularly because I know that Amadahy here isn’t fond of people.”
Amadahy huffed and turned away, and the doctor laughed. “My point exactly. But I suggest you two run along and go home before you get into any more trouble.”
“We will,” we both said before looking at one another.
“You all right?” Amadahy asked.
“Yeah. You?” I was still panicking on the inside, but I didn’t want her to see.
She nodded. “I’m fine. I’ve been called worse than that, but they had no right to treat you that way.”
“Says the girl who treated me the same way last week.”
“I didn’t call you any names.”
“You called me Melungeon.”
Her eyes widened, and her lips pursed. “I suppose I did. Well, I am sorry for that.”
I turned from her and started back toward the edge of the woods. “Sure you are. But if we are going to keep this up, it seems like we’ll need to be a bit more secretive about it.”
“Agreed.” Her voice was still filled with strife. “Maybe we should hold off for a while.”
“Whatever you want,” I responded. “It don’t matter to me either way.”
“Let’s not meet for a while,” she said. “Let’s wait until all this dust settles.”
“Sounds as good an idea as any.”
I left her then, wanting to escape the confines of Ellistown as quickly as possible.
It was well after dark when I returned home, and my mother was standing on the porch waiting, a pine lantern hanging from her wrist.
“Where have you been? You missed supper.”
“I was just down by the river again.” I really hated lying to her, but I didn’t want to get beaten more than I already had.
Her eyes narrowed, and she huffed a sigh. “And I see you ruined your shirt. You know we can’t afford to get you new clothes.”
“I was gonna wash it,” I replied bluntly, knowing all too well my mother was a constant worrier. “It’s just mud. It’ll come off.”
“Well, take it off before you come in. We don’t need you trackin’ all that in the house.”
“The floor’s made of dirt, anyway,” I muttered as I did what she asked, not really seeing the problem with me tracking more dirt on top of dirt. The main room of the house was smoky and reeked of pine, mainly from the thick clouds of black that the pinewood torches spat everywhere. Everyone was preparing for bed except my youngest sister, Delilah. She sat on a thin blanket playing with a cornhusk doll, but she jumped up when she heard the front door slam.
She walked over to me and stared at me like she always did when I had been gone most of the day, the gold light reflecting off of her big green eyes. “Si,” she said as she reached upward, her way of telling me that she wanted me to pick her up.
Delilah and I had an odd relationship, probably because we were the two youngest. We had an eight-year difference between us, and because most of my brothers besides Vardan were so much older, I helped raise her a lot of the time. She always came to me for things rather than Pa or Mama, particularly because I would give her the attention she wanted. When I reached for her, my mother scolded her.
“Delilah, don’t be climbin’ on your brother like that. Especially since he’s been rollin’ around in the mud.”
I frowned and balanced my sister on my hip, not appreciating my mother’s bluntness. “She just missed me today, is all. Didn’t you?”
Delilah nodded, and I heard Pa clear his throat after taking a sip of his coffee. “Speaking of, where’d you run off to today? You was supposed to help make supper tonight. Remember?”
“I was down at the river,” I repeated, hoping my lie would be believed. “I’ve been trying to clear my head.”
“You’ve been distant,” Ma started as she poked at the fire. “Maybe you need to go see the Charmer so you can be back to your old self.”
“I don’t got no money to pay her,” I said as I attempted to sit with my sister latched onto me. I ended up standing, “And she gives me a fright most of the time.”
“She’s wise,” my mother said. “She knows what’s good for you.”
“Sure she does,” I muttered, not terribly convinced that a toothless old woman who labeled marks on your skin as signs of impending doom was to be taken seriously. “Just throw some salt in the fire or somethin’. That should take care of it.”
“That’s to bless the churn, dear.”
“Then we’ll be blessed and have good butter. Problem solved.”
My mother shook her head in false exasperation before I turned to climb the ladder to the small loft for bed. The day’s events had left me exhausted, and it wasn’t long before I fell asleep despite all the stress still weighing on my mind.
I was woken early; it was Saturday, our last working day of the week, so we had plenty to do before the sun went down.
Since I hadn’t prepared supper the night before or helped with any of the evening chores for that matter, I was sent to hunt for berries and greens, but not before I was shoved in a long-sleeved tunic and a ratty, oversized straw hat that I despised more than anything on God’s great Earth.
“To keep the sun from kissin’ you,” my mother always said to try to make me less grumpy about wearing it. “Since it’s got the habit of smotherin’ you till you’re blacker than a buckeye.” Her logic never helped on the matter, particularly because it would also drive my siblings to taunt me and call me “Blackie.”
The light was intense that morning, and I knew that the supposed magical powers of the devil-hat probably wouldn’t end up working anyway. From the edges of the dirt path I tried to see down past the river, even though I knew my efforts would be in vain. I could hear the whisper of the rapids, but from where we were, no other signs of life seemed to exist, even though Ellistown was right across the mountain. It had only been a night since the mob, but I thought of Amadahy. She was most likely still stewing over the incident, but I also wondered if she was still invested in our secret engagement, even though we had put our meetings on hold. I thought about what the settlers had said, about the ridiculousness of an Indian teaching someone like me to fit in, and I prayed that what they said wasn’t true.
I returned home to a variety of indoor chores, but I was thankful for the rays that came through our arched front windows, even if it did make the dust on our shelves worse. My parents saw the sun as an enemy of mine, but I always met it with a smile. Soon the skies darkened to lavender, and we gathered our lanterns to go to the river to bathe. Many families hauled water in large pails up the hill for their weekly baths, but our family was so large that it was easier for us to just make one trip rather than ten to fill a tub, weather permitting. And when we bathed in the river, there was plenty of clean water for everyone.
Privacy was something we weren’t used to among each other since we all crowded into one room together, and despite the modesty we usually upheld when dressing, we never saw nakedness as anything to really be ashamed of. Mama always insisted that we use the soap she made rather than the lye soap we bought in town, mostly because she thought it smelled better and she didn’t want her children showing up to church “smelling like pigs.” The cool water was refreshing, as always, and I made sure that any remnants of mud from the night before were washed away. After the hike back up and a fresh meal, I fell asleep easily.
Crashes and screams shot me out of my sleep. When I came to my senses, I heard my father and elder brothers shouting outside among many voices clamoring. I jumped from the loft and saw my sister crouched in the farthest corner of the cabin with my mother, who was fighting back sobs. A group of men with rifles had knocked down the door and cornered them.
They shouted at all of us. “Line up! Every woman and child outside!” One of the men grabbed me and dragged me out. I saw a faint orange glow from the neighbors’ cabin. The view from our windows was horrific.
Our neighbors’ cabins were collapsing under the roar of flames. Men from Ellistown raised torches and rifles before shouting war-like cries and charging anyone who got in their way. My sister and my mother stood in the grass, dejected and afraid, and Pa and Vardan came rushing over when they saw that we had been pulled into the line of fire. No doubt they were helping the other men defend the colony, but I wonder why they hadn’t woken me to help? Nevertheless, I stood in front of my family attempting to protect them, teeth clenched to hide my fear. My mother tried to pull me back, but I stood my ground.
“Silas,” she whimpered, “don’t . . .”
“Stand behind me, Silas,” Pa said, aiming his rifle. “And don’t move a muscle, you hear?”
A ring of enraged, drunk settlers surrounded us and poked at all of us with their bayonets. The flames flashed against their faces, making their sadistic grins all the more sinister, like something out of a nightmare. All of the men reeked of whiskey, and most of them had been present at the mob in town the day before. “There’s a whole litter of ’em,” one said. “And there’s the one that burned down Smith’s storehouse!”
The look my family gave me was one of shock and horror. I swallowed hard, wanting to shout at them that I was innocent, but my mouth quickly went dry as I gulped in fearful breaths, and I couldn’t muster the words.
The raiders all cackled as they circled us, and the same bearded man who had dragged me into town stomped over and pointed his rifle toward Pa and Vardan.
“I’d put those down if I were you. It’d be terrible if we had to open fire on your family.”
He motioned his head toward our house, and a number of men neared it with torches. The flames of the other homes and the brush around them had flickered in a sudden gust of wind, leaving all of us shadowed in the darkness of the mountain night for an instant. I knew that since Pa and Vardan were such good hunters, they didn’t need to see the men to tell where they were, and since most of them were drunk, their steps thunked against the ground, and their breaths were ragged.
“Light it!” he shouted to them, and the open flames were thrown through our windows. The house started to crackle, and smoke billowed out into the sky. Fire overtook the entire house. The whole ridge was lit like a beacon to signal the valley that we were being disposed of, and in the black night, it seemed like we had almost been condemned to hell itself.
“That’ll teach ’em!” one of the raiders shouted.
A shriek sounded from my mother’s throat. “No, no! Please, God, no!”
“Line back up!” he shouted as they corralled us together, the barrels of their guns pointed to kill.
“Retribution,” he said, “for thinkin’ you could fool with the civilized kind.”
Tears stung at the corner of my eyes, and I couldn’t catch my breath. My legs shook beneath me, but I didn’t want to falter in front of them. Suddenly, I saw Delilah run back toward the house to try to save anything important, but I grabbed her to keep her from darting into the flames. Pa took her from my grasp, her sobs of fear a haunting sound against the rest of the devastation.
I was yanked back into the dirt and was met with the end of a bayonet. The man that had led the valley mob stomped over and grabbed me by my throat. I tried to break free, but the more I struggled, the tighter his grip became.
The bearded man said, “I think you should join your folks in the fire. Seems punishment enough for the likes of you.”
“Don’t you lay a finger on my brother!” Vardan pointed his rifle at the men, but with my other brothers occupied at the other side of the ridge protecting their own families, we didn’t have the numbers or the gun power to stand up to them successfully. The man howled in laughter and dropped me to the ground in a coughing heap. My legs trembled, but I stood up and planted my feet into the dirt.
“I’m not going anywhere. You want to kill them, you’ll have to go through me.” My voice shook, but I had to be brave. I had to protect my family.
My heartbeat quickened when the tip of a bayonet poked at my chest. “Well, that’s too damned bad.” One man said, “It looks like you don’t have anything to defend them with.”
My other brothers finally came to our aid and gathered around my family, and I knew that they’d have to take us all down if they wanted to succeed. Gunshots suddenly rang out in the chaos, sending the night birds flying, screeching into the black sky. In a near single-file line, all six of my brothers and my father stood in front of my mother and sister like a firing squad, the wisps of gunsmoke blended with the smoke of the flames, and the bodies of most of the Ellistown men dropped to the ground. The sudden execution diverted the attention of the men nearest me, and as soon as they turned around, my mother shouted at me.