The following is fiction based on truth. Shegoestowater usually has essays based on mysterious experiences of the author. However the fiction in our other blog, yawpsong.com, is being used for a work in progress.
Here, then, is a family story, embellished to become fiction. Some of facts were changed, but circumstances are real.
JOSIE AND MICKEY 1928
Josie said she wasn’t going to live on some g.d. reservation. Her years in the convent had taught her to stay strong and resourceful.
With the money she had earned and tucked away when they let her out, she bought a house in Independence. Where she could live that way, she said. Independent.
To be self – sufficient, she said, sprinkling the seed out for the chickens, watching them squabble over it, a look of amusement in her eyes. Go ahead, eat each other, she said harshly when one, then two, began to peck at one another.
From the chicken coop she went to put the epsom salts around her prize roses. Then bent to pull away dry leaves from the lovage and from the Cherokee medicine herbs she had planted to doctor folks who needed it. She could barely remember her mother who had passed to Spirit just before she was sent away. But she remembered some of the herbs her mother had grown at the points of the four directions.
There was aloe for burns, and lemon balm for calming, planted in the South. There was comfrey and boneset, for helping bones to heal. In the west there was blue cohosh for women’s needs and for a baby’s colic, echinacea for sore throats. And blackberries to be used for soothing tea. In the north she had planted chamomile for skin rashes, and feverfew for fevers and headaches; she gave this to her daughter June who had given her this young granddaughter, Mickey, to watch over while June was off who knows where to find work. At least that’s what June had told her. Maybe in St. Louis.
June got migraines. Butterburr for migraines was there, but June wasn’t. She wondered if June would be able to work, she got so sick with them.
This time of the year she thought about Lettuce, nickname for her late daughter Leticia, who came to her once in a while in a dream, and this made Josie grumpy and testy because she’d never forgiven Leticia for leaving. She’d come in a dream as if taunting Josie. As if saying: you are so mean you couldn’t keep me. Is how Josie read it.
Back to the garden; in the east were sage and the now drooping Sunflowers, which provided beauty and handfuls of seeds for her granddaughter to chew on.
Josie pulled up some carrots and potatoes. The corn had long – since shed its ears, some of which she had dried and put away. She gathered some remaining onions and put them on the big table ‘til she could wash ‘em in the deep sink that stood right at the door.
Like her father the white trader, Josie knew how to trade. She had traded the butcher some of her home brew for a side of beef that was out now in the cold shed.
The big steel blade came down as she cut the round steak into stew-size pieces.
Granddaughter Mickey, tall for her age, watched as Josie sprinkled some flour on the big wood table, dredged the meat in it, and threw the meat into the sizzling bacon grease.
She liked the sound of it sizzling, the smell of it browning.
Make yourself useful, Josie said to the girl, get that step stool and go wash the potatoes and carrots.
Mickey dragged the step stool with her four year old arms. Josie put the apron over her like a bib, gave her a yellow bristled brush, showed her how to scrub the earth – scented brown skins, pull off the root knobs. She gave her a big metal bowl to put them in, and turned to brown more meat in the big cast iron pot atop the wood burning stove. She added a few more logs to the fire beneath the burners. She poured water into the big pot.
Hurry up now, she told the girl – she was a danged pretty little one, but needed to learn not to be spoiled.
OK Mama, Mickey’s chubby fingers grasping a carrot. Josie had told her, when June left: your mama is gone so you’ll call me Mama. OK Mama, Mickey answered right away. She already knew to do as she was told.
A spoiled child turns into a rotten adult, Josie believed. Work and tendin’ to business, that’s what made a person worthwhile.
Even if tendin’ to business meant sellin’ moonshine.
There at the convent she’d seen how they did it, down in that basement. When they threw her down there they’d tell her it was her job to watch it. She guessed that this was important to them, for when it was ready, buyers came around the back to get it. And after that, the rooms got warmer for a while; and they had eggs once a week.
Down in the basement, Josie thought of her beautiful Cherokee mother, who had gone to Spirit, which was why she ended up there. Her daddy couldn’t keep her, youngest one of 5 other brothers and sisters. They had all been enrolled, her mother saw to that. But even though it was dark and cold, Josie wouldn’t let herself cry.
She would not.
Mickey, whose real name was Violet, watched everything her grandmother did. She saw how, when the time came for some chicken to eat, grandma Josie grabbed the squawking chicken and swooped down with the axe, leaving the bird headless, its body twitching.
Then Mickey, her beautiful raven hair cut in a bowl around her chubby face and somewhat slanted eyes (you musta been a throwback, Josie said to her later) – helped pluck the feathers for that poultry meal.
Josie could make a crust without a recipe, throwin’ flour on the big wood table, cutting in some oleomargarine, rolling it out, sprinkling in a little water.
Mickey never did learn to make pie crust. But one day in that year of 1928, she decided to help Mama Josie by taking the axe and chopping at a chicken. Unfortunately it was the anniversary of Leticia’s death, and a bad day for Mickey to try it.
I make chicken! she told Josie, holding the bloody axe.
Josie ran out to see a bleeding hen staggering around the dirt in the yard.
She grabbed the axe from the frightened girl and finished the job, and went after Mickey wielding the axe as the girl ran and climbed up a tree. Josie hollered from below.
Wastin’ a meal! We can’t eat that chicken now, it’s spoiled! You’d better stay up there or I’ll get you, agalayvwi!
Then Josie turned around to the empty space behind her and said: You shut up Leticia, just shut up! Damn you for dyin’!
And she stormed back into the house and slammed the door.
Up in the tree Mickey heard crashes and booms and bangs and then silence, and then, she heard what sounded like sobbing. And then, after a while, nothing.
Mickey sat perched in that tree for hours. Bruno, the big- headed bullish brown and white mutt with one brown patch over his eye guarding her below.
She stayed up there a long time, until out came Josie again, to chop wood for the fire. She wasn’t hollerin’ now, instead she was laughing and muttering in Cherokee, a ga la yv wi! Foolish one! Lettuce, do you believe that girl? Choppin’ at the chicken like that?
Josie went back in again, and never once came to look up at her.
Then Josie came out again in her apron, pouring potato peelings on the compost pile. And later, pulling out more carrots from the hardening ground.
Mickey had only been livin’ there for six months, since her mother June left and disappeared. But already she knew the importance of waitin’ til someone got over bein’ mad. She’d wait some more.
Finally, just before dark, remembering the word for tomorrow – su na le – that Josie had taught her, Mickey reached out for the branch she needed to begin to climb down. Her small foot with the lace – up brown shoes was numb, and she shook it.
She reached it finally down to the next branch, finally falling to the hard ground, then sitting up and feeling the mutt Bruno licking her face.
She wiped the leaves and dirt from her gray woolen leggings knowing that Mama wouldn’t let her in dirty.
Quietly she got up and went to the creaky back door and opened it. The smell of soup filled the air; it smelled of cabbage and potatoes and meat. And of forgiveness.
Josie kept stirring the pot while Mickey waited, one hand on the doorknob ready to run if need be.
Come in and set the table for supper, Josie said.
Copyright Suzanne Zahrt Murphy 2013 All Rights Reserved
Previously published in Yellow Medicine Review, Fall, 2013
In memory of Josephine, half- Cherokee great grandmother; rest in peace.