Brandon Hobson on Recovering Cherokee Myths from His Grandfather’s Notebook

"This notebook has become my passion. Discovering it has changed my life."

Why did I see these visions in the night? I saw government wagons and oxcarts and soldiers with rifles. I heard the crying of children and saw our feeble elders being lifted into the wagons. I saw a flash of light across the sky. A pale mist swirled before me like a small tornado, holding the image of someone I recognized: my son, a strange vision unlike anything I had ever seen before. I wasn’t able to speak or call his name, and in an instant he was gone, dissolved into the night. Across the land I heard the wailing of someone in pain.

“We are Ani-yun’ wiya, the principal people!” I shouted.

But when I spoke I heard no language, no sounds of words. Instead I heard from my mouth a tiresome roar. The soldiers must not have heard me, as I was very far away. I shouted again—“Ani-yun’ wiya!”—and this time not a roar or even a growl but a weary moan. Nobody seemed to hear me. I became frightened of myself, and for a moment I wondered if I had changed form or identity. As I examined myself, I saw I wore a buckskin, and I could not feel my skin. Clearly, I was a spirit of some sort. A spirit able to move, see, and speak. When I walked, my footsteps made no sound, though I felt the earth beneath my feet. I stomped my foot on the rocks and grass and heard nothing. I tried to adjust to the elements, breathing deep. I did not hunger or thirst, but I could not recognize my surroundings. I cried out in Cherokee like a wounded dog and heard my voice trail off.

Again I was faced with the question of my identity. It seemed I could not think clearly.

Where was I?

And what was the reason for my spirit awakening?

I did not recognize my hands or my legs or my feet, though I saw myself as a strong, fierce presence. The air sharpened the sting in my eyes and I knelt down and felt the ground for dirt, which I rubbed together in my hands to create heat. I placed my palms on both eyes, and when I opened them this time I saw that I was on my own land, near the spot of my burial. Then I saw the spirits of those who had died before me, warriors, hundreds of them. I saw their sleek figures and raven-black hair and a thick, swirling dust building behind them. They wielded black and red clubs, the colors of courage and blood. They were watching me from a distance—for what reason I do not know. And I could hear them calling out:

Ayanuli Hanigi! Ayanuli Hanigi!
Walk fast! Walk fast!

In the distance I saw fires aroused from smoldering coals. I saw Dragging Canoe and his father, Chief Attakullakulla, holding their clubs. I saw the Wolf Clan warrior Five Killer and his wolf, Black Fire. I began to walk to them, but before I could reach them, a great wind came up and they transformed themselves into a flock of blackbirds and flew away. So it was that I was left alone in the night near a stream reflecting the quivering moonlight. I approached the water and leaned over to look at my reflection—my immaculate reflection! The image peering back at me in the water was not the face I had during my life, but some hazy figure whose eyes I could not see.

In death, as we slept beneath the earth, with the worms and the cold mud and rocks, to the soulful howl of the coyotes and the drumming of our people, as we slept beneath the feet of our people who stomped the ground and shook the heavens, I felt my wife’s suffering.

I stood and looked to the sky, where I saw two twinkling lights in the darkness. The question of what my purpose was for returning to earth loomed in my head and I heard the howling of a wolf across the stream and saw that the wolf appeared to be in pain, lying on its side. I found I could walk through the stream in shallow water, though I felt no bottom to it. I crossed the water to the wolf, which howled again in pain, and I could see that the skin on the wolf’s neck had been ripped off, exposing blood and bone. I knelt down to the wolf and placed my hand on the wound, which made the wolf stop howling. Then the wolf spoke:

“There is a great sadness coming on the people and this land,” he said. “Your people will be forced to leave, to move west, and many will suffer and die.”

I did not speak to the wolf, but he knew I did not trust him.

He said: “If you want a sign that I speak the truth, you must first throw me into the water.”

“For what purpose?” I said.

“Throw me into the water and it shall be known,” the wolf said.

So I did as instructed, lifting the wolf and placing him in the shallow water, where he let out a high-pitched scream, and I was afraid I’d hurt the wolf, but he told me: “Look now at my neck.” And as I did so, I saw that the wound had healed. Then I stood back and the wolf came out of the water and shook his body dry.

“For this I will protect your family,” he said. “For this, because you are a spirit, you should know that you can transform yourself into a creature for eternity. Now go to your family in the mountains.”

The wolf started to walk off, and I shouted to him: “Wolf, how do I change my form?”

He turned his head and looked back at me: “Believe you have wings and you fly. Believe you are an animal and you roar. Believe you are dead in the mud and you sleep with the worms in the mud.”

You should understand some humans are tricksters disguised as animals. Many of these tricksters are coyotes, foxes, sometimes birds. But I believed the wolf! Looking into the distance, I recognized the mountains and followed the trail leading to them. I never tired. I walked and walked. Along the way, I stopped and washed my hair in a stream. My reflection was too dark to see, even in moonlight. The water rippled. I cupped water in my hands and drank as I had done in my life. Despite the winter, the water running down my chest and back didn’t feel cold. I stood and began following the trail. As I walked I never grew fatigued—I felt as though I could walk all night. I could lift the heavy rocks around me and build barricades, shelters. The more I walked, the more my strength grew beyond anything I’d felt.

I saw the spirits of those who had died before me, warriors, hundreds of them. I saw their sleek figures and raven-black hair and a thick, swirling dust building behind them.

In the ground I saw wagon ruts. I saw footsteps, handprints, all leading toward the mountain, and I knew the soldiers were looking for those hiding in the caves in the mountain. I leaned down and smoothed them out with my hands. It was urgent I erase any tracks they could find. I knelt down and smoothed the dirt. I kept smoothing it and, strangely, my back was not in pain as it had once been during my lifetime. I got down on my hands and kissed the land, our land. They wouldn’t steal it from us. They wouldn’t, I was certain. This must’ve been my purpose in awakening, to keep them from pushing us out.

I remained kneeling in the dirt, crawling like a wounded dog, smoothing out the footprints and wagon ruts. My back and body remained strong. Time was unknown to me, and I kept crawling and smoothing dirt for what must’ve been hours without pain or fatigue. After a while I stood and saw that the sun was on the horizon and realized I had been crawling all night. I was near the mountain now, and my body felt better than it ever had, so I began to run. I ran toward the mountain as fast as I could run, and the wind in my hair felt like hands, as if I were being guided. I was not out of breath when I reached the mountain. I was still not tired, not even breathing heavy, and in the morning’s dim sunlight I could now see my skin was gray, ghostly.

In the cave my daughter was sleeping, covered with blankets. I stood and watched her for a long time. I did not wake her. Soon I moved quietly toward her and knelt down. I reached out and touched her hair lightly with my hand. I was happy I could feel her hair in my fingers. I touched her back gently, then her forehead. She stirred in her sleep from my touch and, quite suddenly with her eyes still closed, swatted at my hand. I should tell you, Sonja, her hand passed right through mine! This was very disheartening for me because I knew I could touch and feel but people weren’t able to touch or feel me. Perhaps this is the way of the spirits when we roam about the earth to see our families. I can tell you that it was sad, at least in that moment, but I was happy to feel my daughter’s hair and see her. Then I stood and saw my wife across the cave, stripping corn.

The beautiful woman, her hair hanging down her body, facing away from me. I moved silently so I could see her face. I wanted to embrace her, but I knew she could feel me and it would disturb her forever, so I remained at a distance. I was very quiet. My feet made no sound as I sat and watched her. I thought of when we grew corn and squash, sunflowers and pumpkins, when we dressed deerskins together, when we walked at night together to be alone. Then I began to silently weep. I lay down beside my daughter and wept—for her, for my wife, for our people hiding in the mountain. I wept for the people who were beaten. I wept for the people who were already in wagons and walking west. I wept for all who were suffering and dying. I wept for my son.

I got down on my hands and kissed the land, our land. They wouldn’t steal it from us. They wouldn’t, I was certain. This must’ve been my purpose in awakening, to keep them from pushing us out.

I spent all day at the mountain, following them and watching them. My wife began to weep, telling our daughter about my wife’s parents going west. They were too old and would not return to us, and I saw my daughter’s eyes grow sad as she lowered her head. Then they went out to gather sticks with some of the others, and the men went into the woods to hunt. I stayed and watched my daughter play and all the while felt at ease knowing they were safe, at least for the time being, as the soldiers were gathering the others to migrate. I began to understand too my purpose for returning, and that this purpose had to do with justice for our people. I sat in a darkened cave and meditated the rest of the sunlight on this, and when I came out I could see the orange sun on the horizon to the west. I moved across the mountain to my wife and daughter, who were sitting with others by a small fire, eating. I heard laughter from children, the most pleasing sound.

After bidding a silent goodbye to my wife and daughter, I left the mountain and headed back to the wagons. In the morning light I ran along the trail and felt as though I were gliding with my arms spread like wings. Time—whatever time I experienced—seemed to move slowly during this run, and I had a strange and intense vision of people walking wearily through the snow. On and on they trudged, hunched forward in the wind. I saw a storm coming from the west. I saw people falling to their knees, dying in the rain. I saw the guards with their rifles and the scowls on their faces, and I felt the misery sweep over everyone like a cold wind. I saw the terror and brutality and heard the crying of infants and children. I saw the guards with their beards whom I would soon see face-to-face, this I knew as a spirit, the men whose presence would send me spiraling into the night in a fit of anger, the ones I vowed revenge on, the ones who slept with their ugly mouths open and their white bellies uncovered, their jugs empty, their bodies drunk and freckled and light haired and stinking with sweat and evil.

I saw too the manifestations of others like me—the roaring bear in the woods; the soulful, howling coyote; the eagle circling in the endless sky—and I knew I was not alone. A curiosity came over me when I saw these things, and for a moment I felt my anger lift away in the silence of the night. I was calmed by the sounds and visions of the night as I moved forward. I thought of what I taught my children: harmony, peace. Anger is like flooding water, building and building to destruction. What do I do next? Do I wander like a free spirit or do I seek justice? I stood in silence, looking to the yonder sky as Dragging Canoe had taught me as a child.

ETERNAL SKY SPIRIT

I have heard that lost silence. You have not heard it because you have not been dead.
–Tenskwatana, Shawnee (1775–1836)

There is no death, only a change of worlds.
–Chief Seattle, 1854

The question as to whether I should confront the soldiers and kill the ones who executed my son and me occurred to me over and over as I neared the stockade. But I was never a violent man and could not see myself as a violent spirit. Still, I found myself walking to the stockade where the wagons were being loaded by guards. I moved quietly, knowing they would not see me, or so I thought, but when I found myself hissing the closer I got to them, I knew they could hear me, knew my sound was threatening or at least fearful because one of the guards responded to me.

“Listen to that,” one guard said to the other.

“I don’t see anything,” the other said, looking in my direction.

“But did you hear it?”

Brandon Hobson
Brandon Hobson
Brandon Hobson is the author of the novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, and other books. He has won a Pushcart Prize, and his work has appeared in magazines such as The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, Conjunctions, NOON, Post Road, and in many other places. He is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, OR.





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