Jinx Micco walked the path to her Craftsman cottage, breathing a sigh of false relief. It used to be that after work, when she could be alone with her thoughts, was her favorite part of the day. But that had changed around the time her latest column was printed. She fumbled in her messenger bag for her keys, ignoring the ugly garden beds beside the doorway. If her great-aunt Angie had still been tending them, the beds would have overflowed with long-lashed black-eyed Susans and heavy-headed sunflowers. But nothing grew in those old plots now except for the odd clump of scrub grass, which Jinx knew her great-aunt would have immediately plucked.
She stepped into the husk of a house, inhaling in the musty smell of plaster. The place was hers now, its walls covered with a faded floral wallpaper, its furniture curve-backed and overstuffed, its rayon Kmart curtains edged in scratchy lace. Photographs of family members, framed and mounted, crowded the walls. Jinx was not a lace-and-flowers kind of person, but she had kept it all anyway. She hadn’t changed a thing in this house since the inheritance—not the curtains, not the dishes, not the harvest-gold appliances. The 1920s cottage looked exactly as Aunt Angie had left it.
Jinx changed out of her cargo pants and slipped into comfy cutoff sweats. She unwound her hair from its braid to let it fall loosely around her face, a shade browner after countless walks in another Oklahoma summer. She sat in her great-aunt’s easy chair and dove into one of Deb’s charbroiled burgers, watching a rerun of Charlie’s Angels on the old rabbit-ear TV. She wished she had strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert. She was sure she had ordered a slice, but instead she had to settle for a handful of Now & Laters, her annoyance rising each time she unwrapped a single candy square.
Jinx washed her dinner plate, switched off the television, and raised the stiff windows. A moist breeze ruffled the curtains as she settled into her great-aunt’s study to start her evening’s work.
Angie Micco had been a pack rat, collecting any and every book on Muscogee history, saving each Sunday issue of the Muskogee Phoenix, and scouting out past editions of old Creek-area newspapers. She had century-old back issues of the Phoenix, the Eufaula Indian Journal, the Muskogee Comet, and the Muskogee Cimeter stacked to the roofline of the terra-cotta bungalow. Leaning over an open book at her great-aunt’s desk, Jinx tried to focus on her research. But she couldn’t shake the nagging sense that something was wrong. Ever since her last column, she had felt out of sorts. The source of her discomfort was not internal, like a stomachache or guilt pang; it was external, like a free-floating irritant. And now she was up against a deadline for her next installment of the “Indian Country Yesterday” column she had created. Her editor, a third cousin through a second marriage, was getting antsy. Read, she told herself. Focus.
She was supposed to be researching the Green Peach War of 1882, a major event in late-nineteenth-century Creek history. “Traditional” Creeks led by Chief Isparhecher, the ousted judge who wanted to maintain a tribal government, had waged a flash battle with “progressive” Creeks led by Principal Chief Checote, who wanted to run the Creek government like the United States. The traditionalists were the heroes of the story, the progressives glorified sellouts. Gray was just not a color she believed in. Back when she was taking graduate school seminars, she had never been one of those hesitant students who had trouble making up or speaking her mind. One professor who she knew didn’t think she belonged there had even called her work “potentially polemical.” She had shot back that he was “potentially racist” and asked why no Native American historians were on his syllabus. When it came to the black-and-white of Creek history, Jinx took a hard line. He gave her a C in the class, tantamount to an F in graduate school, and wrote in the margin of her final paper that her analysis “lacked sufficient nuance.”
Jinx leaned sideways and plucked the folder on Chief Isparhecher from the People drawer of her great-aunt’s filing cabinet. She loved that Aunt Angie had kept paper files on historical figures in the Creek Nation. She skimmed an old clipping on Isparhecher and his motley crew of anti-assimilationist activists, squinting at the tiny print and pushing back a loose skein of hair. She jotted down interesting points on her legal pad. Later, she would turn those ideas into an argument and send in her next column for the Muscogee Nation News.
Jinx’s hand itched. Her legs were cramped. The pen felt awkward in her hand. Something was wrong in her great-aunt’s house that night. Something was out of balance, like a dish off a shelf, a door off its hinge, a weed in the garden.
“Morning, Deb,” Jinx said from her perch on a stool at the L-shaped diner counter.
Deb Tom was a big-boned woman with bay-brown skin and silver hair that rolled down her back in waves. Some tribal members considered it unfortunate that she had such prominent Black ancestry, but they didn’t dare show their feelings out in the open. Deb’s words could be sharper than her homemade hot sauce, and the helpings just as generous. And Deb didn’t hesitate to throw offending customers out of her café and on to the street corner. Everybody loved Deb’s home-style cooking too much to cross her. That’s why Jinx was there.
“Well, well, if it ain’t Jinx Micco. Didn’t think I’d see you around ’til dinnertime.” Deb held a coffeepot in one hand, made the rounds refilling mugs, and took her own sweet time circling back to Jinx. “Coffee?” Deb said. She knew Jinx didn’t drink it.
“I’m saving myself for Coke, and I’m here because I can’t shake what you said about my last column.”
Deb was a regular reader of “Indian Country Yesterday” and one of Jinx’s biggest fans. But she had given Jinx flack for the piece on Afro-Creek Christians that mentioned a mission-school student back East. Deb had taken offense—unwarranted offense in Jinx’s mind—at the nature of the subject matter, probably because she was a descendant of Cow Tom, a famous Black Creek interpreter from the nineteenth century. The subject of race among the Creeks made Deb touchy.
Deb placed the coffeepot on the burner.
“Are you going to tell me what pissed you off?” Jinx said to Deb Tom’s back. “If you were mad enough at me to forget my dessert, don’t you think I have a right to know why?”
Deb held her stance for a moment, then turned to face Jinx. “You didn’t have to be so hard on her. Telling the story like Mary Ann betrayed her own mama. The way I read it, you made that lone girl responsible for the entire downfall of traditional Creek religion.”
Sam Sells, a retired breakfast regular who always took Deb’s side, turned his eyes away from his eggs to glare at Jinx.
Jinx lowered her voice. “The story wasn’t even really about her. It was about the Methodist missionaries’ failed attempts at converting Southern Creeks in the early 1800s. I had to explain that Creek traditionalists rejected Christianity, and that the Black people Creeks owned as slaves were the first to accept the faith, because that’s the way it happened. Those first enslaved converts paved the way for Creek conversion to Christianity. Mary Ann Battis was just an interesting example of the larger phenomenon. A part-Creek child of a Native mother and Black father who wanted to stay behind with white missionaries while her mom was removed to Indian Territory? It made for a punchy conclusion. That’s all. I think you should forgive me and let me order pancakes and a Coke.”
Deb was staring, unimpressed with Jinx’s argument and command of the facts. “That’s exactly what I mean. You see her life as no big deal, but she was big to somebody. What you wrote might be all anybody remembers about that girl. They’ll say she was a sellout who rejected her own mama in a nation that reckoned kin along the mama’s bloodlines. And they’ll say she was Black, because that’s the secret sauce of your tribal traitor story.” Deb threw her hand on her hip. “Benny,” she called back to the kitchen, “go ahead and get Jinx’s order up!”
Jinx blinked, diving for cover into the glass of icy Coke that Deb set before her. After a long moment, she looked up again. “I don’t care that Battis was Black. I mean, I do care, but I don’t care. She was just as much Indian as you or me.”
“Don’t you dare try that color-blind crap on me. I know you too well, Jennifer Inez Micco, ever since you was a baby. And I can’t say I’ve noticed you calling any of your other Indian figures, no matter how mixed with white they were, ‘part-Creek’ in your column.” Deb paused, then dropped the grenade she had been hiding in her apron pocket all along. “Like auntie, like niece.”
Copyright © 2023 by Tiya Miles. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.