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Excerpt

Even As We Breathe

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

September 9, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle's novel, Even As We Breathe. Clapsaddle's Going to Water won the Morning Star Award for Creative Writing from the Native American Literature Symposium and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. She is coeditor of the Journal of Cherokee Studies and serves on the board of trustees for the North Carolina Writers' Network.

I don’t remember the day my father died. I don’t remember Lishie standing at the clothesline when the soldier came to tell her the news. I don’t remember the way she nodded her graying head, turned, went back to pinning shirts and skirts, unable to cry for a long while. I don’t remember how relieved Lishie was that his body, under the circumstances, would be returned when so many others were not. I don’t remember my father’s face cradled in the pine casket by one of Lishie’s special quilts. I don’t remember any of that. Barely four months old at the time, I couldn’t have. I’ve reconstructed images from stories and pictures and stitched them into one of Lishie’s quilts.

I do not remember the paleness of the pine box as it was precariously lowered into the deep earthen hole. I do not remember Preacherman sprinkling dry specks of red clay on top, an act that later seemed terribly disrespectful to my six-year-old self when Lishie explained it to me at an aunt’s funeral—an act that made me wonder if my father deserved such treatment.

I don’t remember Preacherman announcing, “Dust to dust,” but he must have.

Sometimes I think that I remember smells, but only when I smell them at new funerals.

Grease.

Lilies.

Tobacco.

Vanilla.

Fresh dirt. Pine sap.

I remember one taste, though it must have just been repeated so many times after that day that I’ve convinced myself of it—the bitterest salt I have ever tasted—Lishie’s tear when she scooped me up and held me so tightly that my open lips smashed into her cheek.

I do not remember the paleness of the pine box as it was precariously lowered into the deep earthen hole.

“You were his,” I think I remember her saying. “You are mine,” I am certain I remember her saying. Even though all of this is surely impossible. I don’t remember my uncle Bud, or rather his shadow, jutting from the doorway. But there has always been a shadow between him and me, between him and my father; so it must have been there that day.

I don’t remember the many different scales of cries from many different throats.

Gunshots surely rang—must have been twenty-one, three from seven men. I seem to remember more.

Lishie wailed.

Bud shouted, garbled and wet.

Too young to even crawl, I could swear I remember running past folded arms and hiding beneath one of Lishie’s special quilts until a new sun rose and all I could smell was coffee.

I awoke to find Lishie had curled herself around me, indistinguishable from her homespun patchwork.

That’s the impossible memory I’ve crafted. No amount of time visiting Bud’s house changed that.

I wonder if the bones of my father are exposed and clean now. I picture a perfect white skeleton, fully intact, framed within the pine coffin—like the one I saw in anatomy class. So perfectly preserved, the bones could teach. I know it sounds odd to speak of my father like that, but you have to understand, I never knew him in the flesh. I never felt the breath of his lungs. His memory is as much a skeleton as his body.

Yet Lishie was always present. It was as if she radiated—sometimes even radiated right through me. I remember walking in her door after I returned from junior college. I hadn’t said a word, and I surely hadn’t made up my mind if I was ever going back. She looked up from where she sat in her rocking chair, sighed a heavy sigh, and let her hands fall from her quilting to rest in her lap. “Oh, Cowney,” she whispered. That is all she said, but I knew she knew everything. She understood far more than even I did about how I was feeling or how I would come to feel. I knew then and there that I wasn’t going back because she knew it first. She wasn’t judging me or even pitying me. She just stirred within me until it was all sorted out.

Except for the valley land that began pimpling with improvised storefronts, Cherokee was not the Cherokee of today. Cherokee was mud-chinked log cabins burrowed into mountain hollers, surprising expanses of neat garden rows jutting across rare unwooded land at the end of roughly carved dirt roads—half washed away in the spring and summer and impassable with snow in the winter. But no matter where human life chose to carve its mark on the land, it did not stray far from water—creek, river, stream, or fall—follow one and you would find Cherokee. You would find the smoke from woodstoves. You would find red clay ground into a fine, ginger dust coating the surface of life. And you could not find it directly from any highway. To trust a road is still a road when it looks like a creek is not and has never been for the tourist’s heart. Yet it is only that trust that will get you from a road sign to a home. Or, in my case, from Lishie’s, where I lived, to Bud’s, where I worked.

Bud’s cabin was short of breath, strangled by the dust of his daily existence and by the humid draft of his lungs. He was the only man I knew whose sweat seemed to flow simultaneously from the pores of his body and the foulness of his words. I grabbed the besom from beside the front door and walked out to sweep the porch.

“I guess you’re glad you’re a gimp, for once in your life.” My uncle Bud sure had a way with words. “Weren’t for that skee-jawed foot of yours, you’d be knee-deep in Nazis.” He tossed a tattered, two-day-old newspaper onto a pile, a collection of three months’ worth of international posturing and local weather reports, each paper a near carbon copy of the one that lay beneath it.

I shrugged. He wasn’t asking a question. He never really asked questions.

“You can thank your momma for that. She was in too big of a hurry to get you out.”

He reminded me of this often.

I grunted so the words forming on my tongue couldn’t slip through my lips. These were not debates. Not even arguments. Bud was Bud and my only purpose, in his mind, was to be an echo in his presence. If I had cared more about him, I might’ve tried to offer my opinion once in a while. But I found it no real victory to earn him as an ally, so I echoed. He was a cavern whose hollow center managed to trap errant winds. I drank his vibrations. Still, he was mostly right. Since birth, the bones of my left foot have conspired against my body’s natural compass and collectively pointed outward, tempting me to lead my life in circles.

“Better a penguin than a pigeon,” my mother was said to have remarked when the midwife laid me in her arms. They both knew then that the foot would never fully correct itself. The midwife had seen too many births and she recounted all similar situations to everyone in attendance. My mother prayed for a “remarkable son.” She confessed it to the midwife as if she had signed a legal contract with God. These were stories Lishie told me, not Bud.

Perhaps my foot could have been corrected, but the week following my birth was spent trying to save my mother’s life rather than tending to the nonessentials of me. Deep down, I still felt that urgency to protect my mother as Bud placed his irresponsible blame, but I just echoed.

“I reckon ’bout all your cousins are over yonder now. You best believe that means you’ve got twice the work to do ’round here. Uncle Sam may let you off the hook, but you’re going to need more than a twisted flipper to just lay up here all summer. We got a lot of work to tend to ’fore harvest.”

“Or before I leave for school.”

“Yeah, I’m not holding my breath for that one.”

Bud always spoke like I had shied from work, that I had refused to cut and hang tobacco or hoe the tater garden or milk old Bess. My disabled foot translated to disabled resolve in his book. The only work he recognized as work was within his gaze. I would spend hours, overtime even, at the inn, but he couldn’t attest to my efforts. So it was as if I was on some sort of holiday while he waited at home listing the chores in preparation for my return. He certainly didn’t think doing my schoolwork was praiseworthy. This led me to stop altogether when I was with him. Lishie didn’t seem to mind me reading or doing arithmetic at the table. I think she might’ve even liked it. She said my mother used to write poetry—though I’ve never seen any trace of it.

“I’ll tell you one thing. Back in my day, you’d have to have more than just one gimp limb to keep you from shippin’ off to fight for your country.” Bud punctuated his statement with the ping of the spittoon. He rubbed his knees, acknowledging his gout flare-ups he blamed on old war injuries. Again, no proof of that.

I rolled my eyes but kept my head down so he wouldn’t launch into the long version of his tired lecture.

“Hell. If it wasn’t for guys like me and your dad, this wouldn’t even be your country.” And again, Bud was only half right. All Indians were finally recognized as US citizens following World War I partially because of the service of so many volunteers like Bud and my father; but I was fairly certain it would have happened without Bud’s contribution. The only letter sent home that ever arrived from my father mentioning Bud’s service insinuated that Bud spent more time trying not to get kicked out of the infirmary than he did working a post. Lishie used to show me the letter when I got sad. Still, Bud and his brother had volunteered, even when they were told that they would not be conscripted. Lishie always said it was because they liked to fight and it didn’t matter who or for whom. I think it also had something to do with not having a job. The war was over for all intents and purposes when they arrived in Europe.

Outside Bud’s cabin, the black-capped chickadee whistled a lonesome song, the notes piercing and unrequited. The indigo bunting darted between tree limbs like the woodland sprite I had once seen in a book Lishie brought home from the Goat Man peddler.

Lishie had asked a cousin in Charleston to write her when the Goat Man made his way through their city so that she might time his arrival in Cherokee. Even though exhibiting amazingly accurate travel estimations, Lishie made futile journeys to town three times before he arrived and she was able to trade a month’s worth of savings from her humble mending services for the volume. The copy was well worn and two pages were completely missing, but what remained seemed magical and questionable in the context of Lishie’s conservative religious practices. This was a woman who damn near burned Ulysses when she found it (and read nearly a quarter of it overnight) among the books I overconfidently resolved to complete before the age of twenty after my teacher, Miss Majorie, assured me I was bright enough to do so. Joyce being “the Devil’s whisperer,” according to Lishie, I barely glimpsed the final pages before the book was confiscated. Perhaps the bunting-esque spirits of a fairy tale were somehow godlier than man’s quest for godliness.

The indigo bunting reminded me that the merging of the forest’s stillness and its interruption marked by fierce velocity was what made the woods the wilderness. Hovering just outside Hawthorne’s darkness, though less romantic than Sherwood Forest, it was a wood not yet known in literature or picture shows. Now, I know what you must be thinking. That all sounds starry-eyed, maybe even romantic. But that’s why you need the stories of this place. No outsiders seemed to know what I knew, what we knew about these woods. Few outsiders knew the contradictions of poison oak and healing salves growing side by side, or the way in which grapevines have nothing to do with eating and so much to do with flying. And that . . . well, that was fine by me then. But you will need to know.

I was also one of the few who recognized old man Tsa Tsi’s capuchin monkey, Edgar, simply by the way the tree branches bent overhead. Tsa Tsi, or George (his English name), was one of those fixture characters many of us have known in our childhood. He was a man who never seemed to age nor would ever die. As a child, I was perpetually nervous in his presence, fearful he could see deep to the root of my motivations and ambitions and judge them ceaselessly without saying a word. One sideways glance from the old man and I was transformed. I never actually saw him move from one place to the other, now that I think about it. I can’t recall when or how I met him or when I decided we should go on conversing like lifelong friends. Of course, there were lots of folks like that back then. Formal introductions weren’t needed. Just like I never introduced myself to the stream below my house or my great-aunts that I saw maybe once or twice in my lifetime. Some things, some people just seem to always have existed within our own sphere of being, indefinable by common terms of friendship or familial relationship. Just people, peopling our world. And of course, I still laugh to think that such an apathetic man cared for a ridiculous monkey named Edgar. But as a child, it all made perfect sense. Edgar’s leap caused the limbs of the trees to dip much lower than a squirrel’s jump, though he was also far less clumsy than the local woodland flyers. He made very little noise. Tsa Tsi insisted it was because he was deaf. I wasn’t so sure about that because I couldn’t figure how a monkey could survive the panthers if he couldn’t hear them sneaking up on him. I’ve never heard that monkeys have a strong sense of smell. I’m pretty certain Edgar was quiet because Edgar had to be quiet. To survive. I know a little something about that.

Often, standing on the porch, even though I could not see his tiny black, brown, and white body, I could see his path zigzagging back to Tsa Tsi’s place over the hill. Pines bending. Oak leaves dancing. Maples swaying as if a strong gust of wind had managed to coil its way within the confines of the forest. His movement was in such congruence with the treetops I couldn’t help but feel he was naturally meant to be there.

I guess it’s safe to say that the old man was the only one around who kept a monkey as a pet and the only monkey owner in the whole wide world who thought it perfectly natural to let said pet roam at will. Edgar caused more than one hunter to go into near cardiac arrest a time or two. But more folks in the area by then knew to be on the watch for him and would relay sightings to Tsa Tsi so he wouldn’t worry. Not that he was prone to worrying.

A few years back, while I was up at his place helping to split wood, the old man, sitting on a stump rolling cigarette after cigarette, told me how he came to acquire Edgar. It seems that the carnival was making its way through Cherokee one summer. Early ’30s, late ’20s . . . something like that. The carnival wasn’t stopping here for a show because no one in Cherokee had any money anyway, but sometimes it would set up camp for performers to rest before moving on to another town for a week of shows. Edgar was a trained tightrope walker, wore a top hat and tiny red vest. Unfortunately, he also had a problematic tendency to lift ladies’ skirts and nip at children who tried to pet him. The carnival manager kept him in a miniscule metal cage for those reasons. “Weren’t fit for a possum.” Tsa Tsi shook his head, thinking back.

Tsa Tsi told me that one day while the carnies were in camp, he went down to see if they might be interested in buying some wild greens or deer jerky. “They paid a fair price for fresh goods.” He told me that the place looked pretty deserted, so he eased his way into one of the larger circus-style tents for a look-see. When he saw Edgar the first time, the monkey was clenching the bars of his cage and shaking the entire structure so hard that the bottom kept lifting from the ground. As Edgar saw Tsa Tsi enter the tent and approach his cage, Edgar just stopped, and as Tsa Tsi says (though who’s to know what’s really true), “he began to grin like a fool” at Tsa Tsi and calmed right down.

It all seems like a crazy story to me (and probably you) now, but the old man did tell me something that I took to heart. We were sitting outside the trading post on a split-log bench. I sipped an RC Cola, desperate to cool off from the walk down the mountain and he, as he always did, seemed to have been sitting there his whole life. I took a long drink as Tsa Tsi picked up the story at its midpoint.

“And right then I knew what I had to do. See, Pap used to tell me about sneaking down to the stockade and taking food to his older brother and his family right before they moved ’em west during the Removal. He used to tell me that the government had made an animal of his brother and that he knew he could never get caught or he’d become one too. So he hid out in the mountains and later stayed with a family who’d been traded a small piece of land ’cause freedom was worth more than life.”

And that’s why old man Tsa Tsi never left the Qualla Boundary either and how he came to end up with a capuchin monkey named Edgar, who I’m guessing he just up and stole—because Tsa Tsi wasn’t much for negotiations with white folk.

I asked him once why he’d named him Edgar. He told me that he’d named him after Edgar Allan Poe. I don’t know what I think about that. Wouldn’t have suspected Tsa Tsi to have even read Poe; but then again, Tsa Tsi didn’t seem to fit into molds so easily.

Now, as for Edgar, he was even more adventurous than Tsa Tsi and loved to explore and that’s why he nearly sent quite a few people to an early grave. Edgar had been seen as far away as Tennessee and Georgia. He always made his way back to Tsa Tsi, though. He might be gone a whole month, but he’d come ambling into Tsa Tsi’s cabin, hungry as hell, no worse for the wear. So I think Tsa Tsi saw no point in keeping him tied or locked up, and the rest of us got to enjoy having our very own capuchin monkey hanging out in our woods. We didn’t even have to go to a zoo for a taste of the exotic.

Ever since I could remember, I wanted to escape Cherokee, and that feeling of suffocation just kept growing with my body. But just as I was about to finally get out, at least for a summer, I felt as if I was rushing carelessly out of the woods, saw briars pricking my bare forearms and legs, leaving trickles of blood to mix with the sweat of haste. I started thinking of all the things I would miss, like ripe berries left on the bush. Lishie’s hand over her mouth when she got tickled. The way a cool mist rises from the Oconaluftee as if sighing at the rising sun. The chattering of the indigo buntings. And a place where a monkey could scamper across oak and maple limbs like a tightrope performer. If I thought too much about the sweetness of my place in the world, I might never be able to leave it.

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Excerpted from Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, University Press of Kentucky. 




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