War and History Fiction posted May 16, 2012


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1779, Finger Lakes Region of New York

Water Spirit

by humpwhistle

           






1779, Central New York Colony

           
It is just false dawn, and the smoky fog settles thicker upon the still water.  I paddle silently, confidently, using only my instincts and the sound of the water lapping the shoreline to keep from running aground.  I am at home on The Spirit’s Handprint.  This is my world. 
           
The edging light now enables me to see tree tops, and I know I have steered my tiny vessel well. There is not a tree in these vast forests I don’t recognize and have not slept beneath.  Just as there is not a single drop of water in this land of lakes, I have not criss-crossed many times over.    
           
To the red people who try to hang on to these ancestral lands I am known by many names.  None of them flattering. None of them spoken aloud.  To the white settlers who fight to take lands like pups fight to take a teat, I am called Big Head, or just as often, Hump.  These names are accurate, and I have come to accept my lot.   I have no people.  I am a thing apart, a hideous mistake of nature.  My only tribe is the forest, my clansmen these lakes.  Though even the lakes cannot stand to look at me, but conspire with the sun to make sure I never forget what I look like.
           
My mother was a disgraced Tuscarora.  My father?  Some evil spirit, I suppose.  How else to explain their deformed, abomination of a spawn?  The village tried to make accommodations, but Mother and her monster had to be cast from the village, blamed for two years of poor harvests and even poorer hunting.  The mother lasted in exile for only three more winters.  So I, the monster, was alone, too ugly even for death to take in.  So I had no choice but to survive.  I became a shadow in the woods, a spirit on the water; a thing never seen, but always watched for. 
           
This is the third morning in a row I’ve made this voyage, and if Turtle has not yet found my signal, I will be forced to paddle again tomorrow.  After that, I fear it will be too late for my warning to do any good.  The Iroquois living on The Spirit’s Handprint---what the whites call the Finger Lakes---are in more trouble than they realize. 
           
Though I still can’t see past the fog, I sense Elbow Point juts just ahead.  I let my paddle drag on the left side of the bark canoe.  If Turtle has found my signal requesting a meet, he will be waiting for me on the inside crook of the elbow, so I must skirt the fist, and approach from the north.
           
I’m hoping this fog is a good omen.  It would be very dangerous for Turtle to be seen with me.  Normally a generous and kind people, the tribes of the Six Nations can find no generous way to explain the evil that must have conjured me.  None but Turtle, now an important man, will approach me.  I’m not sure if friend is the correct word for our secret, if infrequent companionship--what would a monster know of friendship?  But even since childhood, when we devised our signaling system, Turtle has treated me more with curiosity than unkindness.  That has to be enough when there is nothing else. 
           
When I’m certain I’ve cleared the point, I switch my paddle to the right and let the canoe drift toward the rocky beach still seen.  Just before I swing my legs into the water to pull the boat ashore, a large hand emerges from the fog, grabs the prow of the boat pulling it, and me, up toward the landing.  I leap out so my weight will not cause the rocks to damage the thin bark.
           
When the canoe is secure, Turtle embraces me; an act that, if seen by another Iroquois, would certainly mean both of our deaths.  I remain still inside his grasp.  Human contact is foreign and frightening to me.  He releases me, and I step back.   He stares into my good eye.  “Brother,” he says.  I turn away.  I cannot reply in kind.  From him the word ‘brother’ is a charity, but for me to return it an insult.
           
I urge him to follow me into the trees.  “We must not be seen …”   In truth, I do not wish to taunt him with my deformities. How dare I?  My shame consumes me.  I climb the bank and find a fallen log.  I sit heavily, facing away.  My breath is uneven.  Carrying my hump over uneven land has gotten more difficult with every winter.  Turtle and I will soon reach our fiftieth years.  
           
“Soldiers come,” I tell him abruptly, even as I speak to the forest.
           
From the corner of my eye I see that Turtle nods solemnly.  “This is the urgent news I lose sleep to hear?”
           
I smile.  Since we were children Turtle could make me feel foolish without making me feel a fool.  “You sleep too much, old man. Your wife probably lies awake longing for a younger husband to warm her in the robes while you snore.” 
           
Turtle turns slightly so I will not see his smile.  “I think I heard you say something, but dogs are not allowed to speak of my wife.”
           
I have killed other men for speaking to me that way, from Turtle I feel only a playful sting.  But it is time to be serious again.  “Many soldiers, Turtle, not just the local militia.  A real army is marching hard from the south, Americans.  Your raids on the settlements may please your British allies, but they have brought the real war to The Spirit’s Handprint.” 
           
I sense he is finally listening, and he is troubled.   “Even if this is so, how would the Big Head hear of it?”  There is nothing playful in this sting.  He only uses that name when he is angry. 
           
“You cannot hide an army, Turtle.”
           
“So, you have seen this army?”
           
I point southeast.  “Two, three days march.”

He is quiet for a while.  “And you know they are coming to punish the Iroquois?”
           
I look up to the canopy.  “The squirrels seem peaceful.”
           
He grunts and his voice becomes mocking.  “And the Americans share their battle plans with the Big Head, now?  Or perhaps they have made you a chief?”
           
The mockery hurts.  “They never saw me, Turtle.  Most people do not see what they fear. But still I can hear.  What I tell you is the truth.”
           
He turns his back.  “So why do you not show yourself and scare the whole army back to where it came from?  Surely you could do that.   You are scary enough.  Is that too much to do  for your Iroquois brothers?”
           
I let anger pitch my voice.  “Perhaps not, if I had Iroquois brothers.”
           
The Iroquois softens his tone.  “So, why do you bother to warn me?”
           
I look at the ground and speak softly.  “I tell Turtle to pay what I owe.”
           
He spits his words.  “What could one such as you possibly owe me?”
           
“Friendship.”  The word has never passed my lips before, and the presumption shames me.
           
Turtle begins to say something, but stops.  He paces. “Good,” he says finally, “we have an army, too.  We will fight.  We shall see whose army is the bravest.”
           
I do not move or speak.
           
He growls and paces again.  “Do you doubt our courage, Big Head?”  He strides hard, and speaks too loudly.  “Tell me, brother, do you doubt Iroquois courage?”
           
Who am I to make such judgments?  “ An army comes, Turtle.  I have told you.  Now I must go.”
           
He is even angrier now.  “We are an army!  We are the Six Nations!  And we have powerful allies.  Talk to me no more of this rebel army of yours.  We fight with the army of the great King George.”
             
I match his anger.  “For,Turtle, not with.  You fight for the Redcoats.” 
           
He stops pacing, stares at me, and again I am ashamed.
           
“But will the Redcoats fight for you?”
           
He considers the ramifications of what I ask.  “And you are certain this army is coming to fight the Iroquois?”
           
I rise from the log, and nod.  “The Iroquois fight for the British.  You have taken sides in a war where the only winners will be white.”  I carefully scuttle down the bank to my canoe.  Turtle follows.
           
“We will fight, Big Head.  Tell them the Six Nations fight.”
           
I push the boat out onto the lake, and wade beside it.  The fog is much thinner now.  The fist of the point is clearly visible.  “You tell them, Turtle.  I have paid my debt.  It is no longer my business.”  I jump into the canoe and begin to paddle. 
           
“The Iroquois will fight, Big Head.  You will see.”
           
The fist of Elbow Point is just off my right paddle.  From behind I hear, “I will look for your signals, brother.  I will wait of word.”
           
The canoe glides smoothly, but feels heavy.
 
 


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The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as The Six Nations managed to hang onto their lands in the Finger Lakes Region during nearly two centuries of European-American encroachment. Continental Army Major General John Sullivan's scorch and burn campaign of 1779, changed all that. This fiction is just my way attempt to put people back in history.
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