“Where did the boy go?” an angry voice asked.
“He can’t be far. Grab him as soon as you see him!” The voice that answered was calm but cold.
They were, indeed, close to Okwaho’s hiding place in the blackberry tangles. It was not yet the time of the fall rains, when it would be safe to burn away the dried undergrowth. So the half-green bushes on his side of the trail were still thick. Even now, with the midday light of Elder Brother Sun shining brightly down on the land, it was dark within the bushes where he hid.
He began to sing—not out loud, but inside his mind. Songs have power. His uncle, At the Edge of the Sky, had taught him that, praised him for his singing.
You will not see me.
You will not see me.
You will pass on by.
You will pass on by.
They were getting even closer. Though they were not speaking now, he could hear not only their feet crushing the twigs on the path but also their heavy breathing.
If I hadn’t crawled in here, he thought, I’d be caught now. A captive like Tawis. The thought of what had just happened to his friend troubled him more than what might happen to him.
The two of them had gone together to the stream that flowed into the small river near their village. They knew that fishing there would be better, that at this time of the year big trout sometimes left the main water to run upstream into the creeks. It had not been that far for them to walk, no longer than the time for Elder Brother Sun to rise another hand’s width up into the sky. And despite the fact that there was always the threat of enemies, things had been calm for their little community since the decision to leave the big village of Onondaga.
There were only fourteen families, fifty people altogether, who made that decision. It had been suggested first by the women who were the heads of those families and the men had agreed. All of them had lost friends and family members to the conflict that never ended. As long as they remained in the big village, led by Atatarho, their giant chief whose every thought was of war, more of those they loved would die.
Burnt Hair and Okwaho’s father, Holds the Door Open, had been chosen to announce their decision to the great chief. Atatarho had stared at them with anger in his eyes. For a few breaths it seemed as if he would either forbid them to leave or have them punished. Then the giant war chief had shaken his head, the black snakes tied into his hair writhing as he did so.
“You are no help to me if you will not fight,” Atatarho growled. “Go. See what your foolish decision brings you. But your dogs cannot go with you. They stay here. They will help guard our village from enemies, and take the place of you weaklings.”
As the group left the village, no one had spoken to wish them a good journey and good health. Instead, everyone who was not coming with them looked away. All except one person: Clouds Forming, who was the best friend of Okwaho and Tawis. She stood defiantly at the gate, watching them depart. Though she did not speak aloud, Okwaho saw the words she was forming with her mouth.
Be strong, my brothers. We will meet again.
When the fourteen families decided to leave the big village, the family of Clouds Forming had not agreed to go with them. They were of the same clan and family as Atatarho, the powerful warrior chief. There was no way anyone in his family could go against their kinsman’s word. Even if they had not feared his anger, their first loyalty was to their powerful relative.
It had been five moons since their departure from the big village. The hard times of constant fighting that cost the lives of so many had seemed far behind them to the two boys. It was the sort of warm day that sometimes comes after the leaves have begun to change color. The stream where they knew there were big trout was not that far from their hidden village. Surely no danger could come to them there.
Even so, Okwaho and Tawis had been careful. They’d waited, looking around and listening before leaving the shelter of the forest and walking out onto the meadow that had been left when an old beaver dam had finally collapsed. The narrow but deep stream that wound its way through that meadow had spots eroded out under its banks by the current where good-sized fish might be found.
The two of them had walked along either side of the stream, staying low, moving slowly and keeping their eyes on the water. They knew that fish could feel the vibration of heavy feet and hide before being seen. Still, every time they caught sight of a trout facing into the current, tail moving lazily, that fish would quickly see them and dart for safety under a stone or under the stream bank.
Most of those fish were small, no bigger than the width of two hands, so they kept going. Then, just past the place where the spring-fed stream widened, they both saw it. A brook trout near the surface. Facing upstream, watching for any food the stream might bring its way, it was almost as long as one of Okwaho’s arms. Big enough to provide a meal for both their families.
Sensing their presence, the trout dove, its square tail sending up a plume of spray.
“THERE!” Tawis had shouted. Then, realizing he needed to be quieter, he lowered his voice. “Under the stream bank on your side,” he said, pointing with his lips toward the other place where a big old birch tree grew, its feathery roots caressed by the current. “Go for him. I’ll keep watch.”
Okwaho nodded and slid carefully into the water. For the type of fishing they were doing, being slow and quiet was important. He put his feet down on the stream bottom, finding his balance. The cool water was up to his waist. A song came into his mind, one for the big fish. It was a song that would calm it, ask it to give itself to them, thank its spirit for the sacrifice of its flesh.
Singing that new song softly, Okwaho began to move forward, first one foot and then the other, like a stalking heron.
Okwaho looked up at Tawis on the other side, the stream wider here than an agile man could clear with a running jump.
Tawis nodded. “There,” he said. “You are in the right place.”
“Keep watch,” Okwaho said. He began taking deep breaths. One, two, three, four. When his lungs were full, he leaned forward, bending his knees until his head was underwater.
He could see the dark hole circled by a tangle of tree roots. It was deeper than he’d thought. He’d have to pull his whole body inside to reach the huge trout.
Okwaho had not worried about how long that would take. He was very good at holding his breath for a long time. Also, as he moved forward, he could see a shaft of light from overhead at the back of the hole. It was open there to the air between the thick roots on the back of the large bankside birch. If he ran out of breath, all he had to do was stand up to get his head and shoulders out of the water. That shaft of light reflected off the tail of the big trout. The rest of its body was hidden where it had nosed into a crevice at the back of the hole.
My friend, Okwaho thought, sending his thought to the fish, Swift Swimmer, I ask that you let me catch you. My family needs your help to provide food for us.
Hooking one leg under a nearby root to keep himself from floating upward, he reached both hands forward slowly. He began to move his fingers as he touched the big fish, caressing its slippery side as he worked his way up toward its gills. Feeling the quiver of its life between his hands, he grasped it firmly, pulling it out of its hiding place. It didn’t struggle, as if it was showing its agreement to be their food, knowing that they would respect it. That when it was taken from the water and the quiver of life left it, Tawis and he would speak those ancient words: May your spirit continue to swim.
Thank you for giving yourself to me, Okwaho thought as he turned inside the hole, holding the big trout to his chest, his fingers inside its gill slits. He made ready to thrust himself out and up to the surface.
But then he’d heard a sound. Even underwater, the sound reached him. It was a shout.
And at that same moment he felt the thudding vibrations of heavy feet.
He let go of the trout. He’d almost run out of breath, but he didn’t dare leave the hole under the bank. That shout from Tawis had been meant as a warning. He pushed backward toward the place where the hole opened up between the tree roots. Then he stood up slowly so that his head broke the surface without making a sound.
He shook his head to clear the water from his ears. All that he could see to either side were the roots of the birch tree. It meant that he could not be seen. But he could hear. And what he heard made his heart pound.
“Where is your friend?” a harsh angry voice said.
“I was alone,” answered a voice Okwaho recognized immediately as that of Tawis. “I was looking for fish by myself.”
“Hah,” another voice answered, a voice that sounded as cold as a winter wind. Like the first one who spoke, his accent was not that of an Onondaga. It sounded like that of one of the Standing Stone Nation, the Oneidas. “Do not lie to us. We saw two of you.”
“No,” Tawis said, his voice stubborn. “I was alone.”
That word was followed by a sharp slapping sound. Though he could not see what had just happened with his eyes, Okwaho saw it all too clearly in his mind. His loyal friend was being hit for his defiance.
If only Clouds Forming had been with us, Okwaho thought. She would have kept watch while we fished. With her keen eyes and ears she would have sensed trouble.
Then another voice spoke, one that was calmer than the first two.
“Do not strike the boy again. He did not cry out when you hit him. I like that. I like his courage. Maybe my mother will adopt him.”
“I have a mother already,” Tawis replied.
The third man laughed. “Listen to him. Brave.”
Okwaho reached up to grasp the roots above him. There looked to be enough space for him to pull himself up. He put one foot on a root that extended underwater, then lifted himself a finger’s width at a time. Before long, his head and shoulders were above water. Still without making a sound, he pushed and pulled himself farther up until his whole upper body was out. The wide tree trunk still blocked his view. He leaned carefully to one side to look around the old tree. Now he could see the opposite bank.
There stood the three men, at the edge of the stream. One of them, perhaps the one with the calm voice, was holding Tawis by one arm. He was a tall, good-looking man, with blue curving lines, each ending in a star, tattooed across his cheeks. There was a smile on his face. In another circumstance, he appeared to be someone who would be pleasant to meet. That was not true of the other two men. One of them, the broad-shouldered one with big muscles, wore a scowl on his face. The second man was the tallest of the three. His head was shaved and half of his face was painted black. His face was expressionless, his eyes shining like those of a snake.
“It will do you no good to stay silent,” he said. “Even if your friend gets away now, we will get him later. We’ve seen how small your little village is. When we decide to come back with a large war party, we will get him after we have killed your few warriors.”
Hearing those words, Okwaho’s heart sank. I should go back to our little village and warn everyone. But how can I leave Tawis?
Not sure what he should do, Okwaho pulled himself up a little farther, starting to swing up and free his legs. But as he did so, one of the roots he was holding broke with a sharp snap. Okwaho froze.
Three pairs of eyes turned quickly in his direction. But not the eyes of Tawis.
“RUN!” Tawis shouted as he yanked his arm so quickly that he freed himself from the grasp of Calm Voice. Then he threw himself at the legs of the other two, sending them backward into the stream.
Okwaho had no weapon. He was only a boy and they were three grown men. And so, not so much because he wished to save himself, but more because he wanted to honor his friend’s brave sacrifice, he knew he should do as Tawis said. He pushed himself up, scrambled to his feet.
“Hah-ah,” Calm Voice laughed, grabbing Tawis by both arms. “You see what I mean. My mother will love this boy. You two catch his friend. Running will dry you out.”
Okwaho had run as hard as he could, but his legs were not as long as those of the men pursuing him. Even though what Tawis had done gave him a head start, he knew from the sounds behind him they were gaining on him. So he had taken shelter in the bushes, hearing their voices come closer.
Okwaho clenched his fists. If only I were a grown man. If only I had a weapon with me. Then I would make them sorry.
Usually Okwaho was aggressive or ready to fight. He was not like Clouds Forming. A girl of the same age as him, she had been Okwaho’s second-best friend. Gentle and strong, she was the perfect match for the both of them. She knew just what to say or do to calm Okwaho when he was angry, encourage Tawis when he was uncertain. She was also funny, always saying something to make them laugh. The three of them had always done things together before his family left the big village. Whenever they played such games as throwing spears or shooting arrows, it was Clouds Forming who was always best.
“Perhaps,” she used to say to Okwaho, “when we are grown, I will be the one to go out and fight enemies while you will stay home and sing songs to our children.”
Such teasing had never bothered him. Let her fight if she wanted to fight. The one thing he could do much better than her was to make up songs. In fact, Clouds Forming admired him for that—despite her teasing. In one of her rare serious moments, she told him that.
“Being able to make up songs as you do, Okwaho,” she said, placing her finger gently on his lips, “that is truly a gift from our Creator.”
Okwaho always used to think that was what he wanted to do—make songs. He could still be a good hunter and one day a good father and uncle, but the thing he would do best of all would be the making of songs.
That was what he used to think. But now, now, his hands wanted nothing more than to hold a bow and loose one arrow after another at those enemies, those arrogant Standing Stone men.
It was no surprise that Standing Stone warriors had come into Onondaga lands to raid them. Less than a moon ago, Atatarho had led a hundred of his men on a raid against the nearest Standing Stone village, a long day’s walk from Onondaga. Word of that raid sent out by Atatarho had reached their little community, even though none of their people took part in it. They heard how five Oneida boys and two women had been brought back—either to be adopted or treated as slaves. The Onondaga warriors who secretly visited relatives in their breakaway community had boasted of killing two Oneida men, as well.
But even though they’d heard word of that raid, no one in Okwaho’s small village of only ten handfuls of people had expected they would be the target of any revenge attack. Everyone knew those fifty had left Onondaga to get away from fighting. They only wanted peace to grow their crops, hunt and fish, and take care of their families. Surely any raid would be against the big town of Onondaga, with its more than one thousand people. Not their tiny village. Also, they had thought it was well hidden—far back from any of the main trails.
We were wrong, Okwaho thought as he stayed crouched down in the thick tangle of the blackberry bushes. Wrong. You cannot escape war.
“See how the leaves on the trail are scuffed here?” Angry Voice growled. Even nearer to Okwaho than before. Too near.
“Ah,” Cold Voice replied. “Yes. See that broken branch? And then the next? He went off the trail that way. We’ll have him soon.”
No. You won’t. I broke those branches to lead you away from where I am now.
He kept his head down, his eyes closed, the words of the song—you will pass on by—repeating in his head.
An enemy may feel your gaze. That was what At the Edge of the Sky taught him. For just a moment Okwaho felt again the pain of his uncle’s death—at the hands of Standing Stone men like those now hunting him. It was like something smoldering inside him, that pain that he felt grow hotter every day, ready to burst into the flame of revenge.
It is not right that we seek to kill each other. Those had been his mother’s words, even after her brother’s body was brought back to their camp. How could she still believe that?
“Follow me,” Cold Voice said. He sounded eager now. “He must be cutting across to the river trail.”
“We’ll catch him before he reaches the water,” Angry Voice snarled.
Okwaho waited until the sounds of thudding feet could no longer be heard. Then he lifted his head slightly to peer up through a squinted eye. Neither of the men could be seen. But he did not rise up from where he lay. Never assume that an enemy is not trying to deceive you by pretending to give up the chase and merely waiting for you to show yourself.
He silently counted, slowly breathing in and out, until he reached ten. A chickadee came fluttering in and landed on a blackberry cane a hand’s width from his face. It cocked its head to look at him.
“A-dee-dee-dee?” it said, as if to ask why he was still hiding. Then it began to pick at a dried berry.
“A-dee-dee-dee,” Okwaho sang back to the bird, whose song was a message that the danger was past. “A-dee-dee-dee.”
Chickadees were known to be friends of human beings, more so than any other bird. Okwaho knew the story of how, in the most ancient times, it was the chickadees who did something wonderful. It happened when the Good Mind, one of the twin boys who were the first to walk the earth in the shape of men, found himself in a contest with his grandmother, Sky Woman. She wrongly blamed the Good Mind for the death of his mother. She wanted to end all life on the earth and to then return to the sky. The Good Mind did not think that was right and convinced his grandmother to play the Bowl Game. Whichever of them did best would decide what would happen to all of Creation.
Back then, as now, that game was played using peach stones painted black on one side and white on the other. They would be placed in a wooden bowl. When that bowl was struck on the ground, the peach stones would be flipped up. The way they landed—with most either white side or black side up—would determine the winner.
When it was the Good Mind’s turn, a flock of chickadees came and landed on his shoulder.We will sacrifice our own heads to use as stones in the game, they said. And they did just that. When the bowl was struck on the ground, their black and white heads flew up into the air singing and landed in just such a way that the Good Mind won.
It was said that losing the Bowl Game changed his grandmother’s mind. Not only did she allow life to continue, when she returned to the sky, she became Grandmother Moon, looking down on the earth with a kind face.
Okwaho nodded at the chickadee. “Niaweh, little brother,” he whispered. “Thank you for letting me know it is safe now to come out of my hiding place.”
Still, despite the small black-capped bird’s reassurance, Okwaho moved out slowly—a finger’s width at a time—making almost no sound at all as he crawled from beneath the shelter of the thick tangle of blackberry canes. Staying on his belly, he pulled himself along a narrow tunnel that had been made by other creatures—rabbits probably—that used what had been his hiding place as their own safe haven. One sharp thorn scratched his cheek, but he paid no attention to it. A true warrior ignores pain.
A small red trickle of blood marked his face when he finally emerged. When he reached up a finger to touch it, he felt it leave a red line across his cheek—like one of the lines of red paint men put on their faces to show they are going to fight. He dropped his hand. He would leave that bloody line there.
According to the story his uncle had told him, those lines of red paint made on the faces of the warriors of all five of the nations—that had once lived together as brothers—came to be because of one man. Long ago, that young man fought a monster bear and defeated it—using only a stone knife. Before the young man’s knife found the huge animal’s heart, that bear’s claws had raked across the man’s face leaving lines of blood. Signs of courage, of determination to fight and win.
Okwaho came out of the tunnel through the blackberry vines. He looked either way, seeing no one. Still, he crouched for a moment on the trail, thinking about what he should do next. Should he follow the trail that led straight to their little village?
The men who’d chased him might be turning back now. Not having seen him or found his trail, they might now be placing themselves to wait between where they had last seen him and his village downstream on Long Creek.
Once again, he wished that he were older, that he had a bow and arrows, a spear or a war club.
When you strike an enemy with a club, aim for the temple. That is where your enemy’s skull will be the weakest.
That was what his uncle had told him, easily tossing his own war club with the round stone fastened in its head from one hand to the other as he spoke.
He pictured himself creeping up on them from behind—then striking!
But he was not a grown man.
It would take longer, but making a big circle would be the safest and wisest thing for Okwaho to do. He should head directly away from his home and then gradually turn to swing wide and approach it from the other direction. He might still reach home before Grandmother Moon’s face rose into the sky.
Okwaho stood, took a deep breath, turned, and began to run.
Copyright © 2020 by Joseph Bruchac. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.