"Cherokee Rose," First Chapter
Comments are welcome using the contact form below. -- Enjoy the first chapter of this historical novel.
Chapter One — Celebration
In the Spring of 1838, the sweet smell of Winter Honeysuckle floats from creamy-white, two-lipped flowers over a freedman’s farm in Northwest Georgia. The luscious fragrance sweetens a families’ observance of the dawn of a fresh season.
They dedicate their miniature, antebellum cotton plantation with a ritualistic thanksgiving.
Ella Waters, an eighteen-year-old half Cherokee woman, performs the purifying Ribbon Dance and enjoys her folk’s Spring Green Corn Ceremony.
Her physical movements project purpose and self-control, unchallenged by significant deprivation or turmoil.
Dance, to this family's oldest daughter, defines her bearing and demands a well-organized, fastidious presentation, more science than art.
Delighted winter no longer imprisons, Ella’s full-blooded mother, her younger sisters Bella and Lisa, along with family friends, dance individual appreciations of the new season around a circle in a crosswise framed firepit.
Four logs, each aligned in a traditional cardinal direction, enclose a ceremonial bonfire square.
Slave women mingle with the siblings and other Indian wives, unusual but comfortable and reflective of the event’s host’s preferences.
Individuals wave sticks with colorful strips attached to their tips. A floating visual riot of primary color ribbons mix and float in the air with the scent of flowers and an aura of equality.
From the corners of the fire’s pit, long pine branches extend above the wives, the colors and the sparks. A quad-pod, tied by rope at the top, anchors the limbs and dangles bright colored straps and ripe yellow fresh cobs. In the breeze, they swing in rhythm with the celebrants.
Ella’s younger sibling, Bella, a shapely to a white man’s eye sixteen-year-old, with tentative steps, mimics her older sister’s dance moves.
She concentrates on her instructress but cannot suppress her indecisiveness and insecurity when she notices several men stare and follow her movements.
Lisa, fourteen, the youngest of the three dancing Waters sisters, experiences the men’s reactions. She glances at Ella, admires Bella, and laughs. The younger twirls toward a mature youth of her age who stares enthralled. She rattles leg shells and enjoys flirting.
The boy steps forward and the temptress, flush with experimentation but inexperienced and cautious, slips behind others and blends with dancing forms.
The exploratory teaser security distances from her adolescent target.
Across the fire pit, Ella points with a censuring glare.
Young sibling winks, giggles and waves ribbon sticks.
The mature daughter of the three slows pace as the youngest dances nearby. “You are fourteen years old, Lisa. Act that age. Don’t pretend you are older.”
The immature dancer flips ribbons in her sister’s direction. “At least, I’m not a biddy without a beau.”
The multi-color strips women pop upon the soil implies more than a decorative and festive addition to the dance. Their serious pageantry prepares the grounds for a renewal ritual.
Near the farm’s main cabin in a gold-dyed, ceremonial buckskin shirt, the Mekko, Benjamin Waters, surveys the festivities.
From his neck which exhibits old smallpox scars, a hand carved stone water spider medallion hangs on a leather strap. The carving displays quality detailed craftmanship exceeding normal native art.
This burly, ex-slave cotton farmer hosts his annual event from a hewn wood table.
He watches his Cherokee wife dance and beams a smile toward his three daughters.
The youngest throws a kiss and her parent claps.
The ceremony’s chief rubs bear oil on fire broiled slices of venison, corn, beans, squash, and pumpkin.
One of Benjamin’s slaves, Ezra, carries a pottery basin of the liquid grease at his landowner’s elbow.
“You are the Mekko today, Benjamin,” the slave whirls with the spirit of the dance and tips his bowl.
“Don’t spill that. It’s too hard to replace. Not many bears in Georgia these days,” the older man steadies the younger’s arm.
“I’ll be more careful. It is an honor to help. I was showing off before the wife.”
“That’s good. Celebrate the corn ceremony. This has been an excellent year and the cotton crop looks promising.”
“Promising…” the husband watches a youthful Cherokee woman support a swollen belly with one hand. She dances with the others, smiles, and waves ribbons at her husband. “… with a son,” the slave beams.
“Daughters are good too, don’t forget,” Benjamin interjects. “I wanted a boy but grew fond of daughters.” The Mekko grip’s the young man’s shoulder. “I promise, your baby will not suffer slavery.”
Ezra focuses on his owner. “Your people do not live as a slave. You care for us as family.”
“The world doesn’t treat slaves with grace. My girls, if I died, might sell the farm and property with no choice - which includes our workers. I cannot allow that to happen,” Benjamin replies.
“You educated me with your children, encouraged my marriage, and provided a home. I owe you and stand unworthy.”
The two work in silence.
The younger man changes mindset. “But if you were to die, life could become difficult.”
“I remember the day they gave you to me as a boy. I raised you, but you owe me nothing. You earned a comfortable lifestyle.” The Mekko’s tone becomes serious, “My will is legal by the white man’s code and filed with Judge Steel in Dahlonega. The document frees our slaves upon my death.”
Ezra stands silent for a moment. “Why wait for when you pass, Benjamin? Release everyone today.”
“I should and wish it were different. To buy seed each year, slaves as property serves as loan collateral. The brokers include my assets as security. With free workers, I couldn’t finance the cotton crop.”
“More white man rules,” the younger chuckles. “These laws, freedmen know.”
“Someday, you learn their ways and what’s legal. Be the Mekko of a clan. Wear the water spider.”
“I’ll be proud,” the assistant smiles.
“Try on the medallion,” Benjamin lifts the stone carving and drapes it over Ezra’s head onto the younger’s shoulders.
“The spirit of the talisman is native and not my heritage,” the younger comments. “Thank you for the thought. Today, you stay the Mekko, even if I wear your symbol.”
“I married a Cherokee girl when she was young. Before marriage, I realized our cultures must coexist. My new wife told me how the insignificant water spider brought fire to her people.” Benjamin expands the story. “Lightning struck a sycamore which stood in the water at the edge of a river. The tree burned. A brown crow flew in to capture the flame and scorched himself black, his color now. A barn owl saw this and struggled to catch the prize with its beak. The heat blackened its head feathers. Today, that bird is slick headed. Other animals tried and failed.”
Ezra preens and displays the medallion. His wife beams pride and his peers see.
Benjamin elbows his helper, which focuses Ezra’s attention. “This insignificant water insect saw failure by the others, wove a basket on her back, then seized the hot coals. Embers burned through the container. The lowly spider brought fire to the people, recognizable because she carries a mark.”
“Point of the story?” the young slave asks. “I believe you have one.”
“You are the brown crow, turned black by the soot. Ella is the barn owl that tried and failed. I know she will always try. The girl detests failure. Wear the water spider medallion. Catch her fires on your back.”
Ezra stares at his owner a moment, then takes the talisman from his neck.
He returns the engraved rock to Benjamin Waters, “An honor, Sir. It is a higher call than I can do. I am a slave on an insignificant cotton farm in an enormous world.”
“I don’t need a promise. From a small boy, I raised you. I know you as well as my own daughters. When necessary, you will execute my charge.”
The conversation stops as they hear a voice, loud enough that heads turn in attention.
“No move to Indian Territory! Protest forced removal!”
Under a tree, a representative of the Cherokee politician, John Ross, solicits petition signatures from a table.
A quill pen and an ink well wait atop the signing desk. “Fight the Treaty of New Echota! Support our most beloved leader!”
A volunteer steps forward, “I stand with Ross!” The signer flourishes the feather in the air. “I sign to stay in Georgia!”
Several others step into line.
Nearby, the only white attendee at the celebration, a sawn-off stump of a human, leans against a sycamore. In a heavy dark woolen suit with gray pants stuffed into boots, the man chews a wad of tobacco and watches the political action. His hand rests on a “Brown Bess,” a fine quality British Army muzzle loading, smoothbore flintlock tucked in his belt.
The petition representative recognizes the observer but does not use his name.
“Support the cause, Sir?” the solicitor extends a quill.
The bulky fellow spits nicotine slop onto the ground. “Name’s Whitley. I’m white if you ain’t noticed?”
“I see you are not a tribesman. Many outsiders are against forced removal,” the Ross supporter acknowledges.
“That so? Lot of ‘Twenty-Niner’ names on that paper?” the chewer bites off a fresh plug. Brown juice drips from the corner of his hairy mouth.
The prospector moniker reverberates.
Several Cherokee in the line suck in a breath and glance at the dark clad man.
“No Sir, afraid not. We have few miner signatures,” the representative answers. “Most want deportation. They came to mine for riches in our soil.”
“The gold that’s left is on Indian land.” Whitley steps from under the tree’s shade. Sunlight bathes his flat-brimmed hat. “So, we buy your property.”
Polite hostility in the conversation escalates to tension.
Other Cherokees stop activities and watch the signature table.
“Your government wants to take it without compensation,” the Ross organizer snarls. “That’s theft.”
“Your representatives signed the Treaty of New Echota and gave that property up,” Whitley eyes the political representative. “Yes, I know your John Ross doesn’t recognize the agreement and calls it stealing.”
“So, you will not sign our petition?” the tribal delegate grasps the document and shakes it in the air.
The ex-miner places one hand on his Brown Bess. “No, I’ll make a fair offer for your land. If you say no, President Van Buren takes it and gives the property to another white man.”
The conversation stimulates the audience, and grumbles rumble through the crowd - but the strain breaks.
“Begin the renewal ceremony!” the Mekko’s voice penetrates the turbulent atmosphere.
Tension surrounding the signature solicitation cools and observers return to celebrate.
Beyond the petition table and the ceremonial fire, many guest’s tents and lean-tos host small smoking campfires.
Women break from the Ribbon Dance, scramble to lodgings and emerge with used clothes or worn furniture. They fling the items into the bonfire, a time-honored renewal act.
With shards of pottery, the wives scoop coals. They return to renew their individual fires from the sacred flames.
Ella, Bella, and Lisa leave the circle. They walk together toward their log home. “I’m burning an ancient dress,” oldest presents an example for her younger sisters.
“You must think Paw will get you a fresh one,” the second girl, Bella, empathizes.
“How fun! I want new!” the youngest, Lisa, chimes into the talk with self-interest top of mind.
“We burn old things to renew our spirit, not for pleasure,” mature sibling stresses the symbology of their actions.
“You’re past any hope of renewal!” Her immature sister snips and spins out of striking distance. “That’s why no husband,” she sticks out her tongue.
Ella grabs for her imprudent younger one, but she escapes.
From the celebration’s hewn log food table, Benjamin Waters watches Dideyohvsgi (ᏗᏕᏲᎲᏍᎩ, Di-de-yo-huh-ss-gi, Teacher) sit on the families’ front porch.
This venerable friend wears traditional garb with shaman accessories, a medical pouch and gourd rattle. Two eagle feathers poke downward out of his gray hair.
The fifty-eight-year-old “medicine man” reads an issue of “Cherokee Phoenix,” dated “June 21, 1838, New Echota, Georgia.” He chews tobacco and studies.
The newspaper’s headline screams, “General Scott to move Indians to the territory.” The older Indian throws the newspaper onto the ground. He spits slimy juice on the story.
Dideyohvsgi notices Benjamin Waters, laughs and lifts a clay pot of Passv, a caffeine laden Yaupon Holly drink. Dark-colored liquid froths white. The shaman shakes the vessel, and its contents bubble frothier. He swigs a mouthful of the purgative.
From Benjamin’s side, Ezra places his bowl of bear grease on the rough-hewn log banquet table. He steps near the news reader. The slave scans the newspaper’s headline on the ground. “I hear that General Scott always obeys commands.”
“Especially presidential orders,” the shaman nods to the young man.
“What do you think might happen?”
“I don’t know. The Great Spirit hasn’t seen fit to tell me.”
With his soft soled moccasin, Ezra foot-smears the splattered tobacco spittle and browns out the headline in personal protest.
Dideyohvsgi slaps Ezra’s shoulder, laughs, and offers a swig of Passv, “The old ways return! Youth take a stand. Drink in honor of President Van Buren. That man could use a drink of Tsalagi (ᏣᎳᎩ, Cherokee) purgative!”
“Tradition won’t change with you wise medicine men still alive.” Ezra sips and coughs with the strength of the Passv. Embarrassed by the display of stomach weakness, the young slave checks to see if Benjamin Waters watches.
The Mekko presents his back as he hugs his wife and three daughters. He serves each venison and bear-oiled vegetables, symbolic atonement for sins. The family accepts the food with dignity and respect.
“I burned a dress in the renewal fire, Paw. Think I could get a new one?” Lisa glows up at her father.
“Yes. Your sisters, too. It has been a wonderful year. Come, stand with me and welcome our guests,” Benjamin spreads his arms to embrace slaves and visitor friends. They file through his open arms greeting. The Mekko embraces everyone and invites each to drink from the Passv pot.
The freedman encounters the miner turned land purchaser, “Mr. Whitley. I am surprised you celebrate the Green Corn Ceremony?”
“Am I not included?” the white man steels his body.
“This is our day of redemption. We accept every guest.” Benjamin does not hug this visitor.
“Have you considered my offer?” the buyer extends his hand.
The Meko pauses and ignores the handshake. “Yes. This farm is not available.”
Whitley’s face flushes red. He grasps the “Brown Bess,” tucked into his waistline.
The man controls anger. “President Van Buren is moving you Cherokees to the territory, ain’t you heard? This property will be much cheaper from the government, I suspect. Its wiser to reconsider? Take my fair offer, Mr. Waters.”
“Have you noticed that I am not a Tsalagi?” the landowner eyes the pistol in his guest’s belt.
Whitley looks at Ben’s wife and daughters and removes his hand from the weapon. “Your spouse and these girls are. Most say President Van Buren is not color blind, but I’m not one of those.”
Ella, beside her father, fixates a fearfull moment on the “Brown Bess” at the crude man’s waist as he moves away.
“Paw, that man,” oldest daughter’s lips move near her father’s ear. “That’s an awful weapon in his belt.”
Benjamin smiles at his eldest. “People use guns in this world. Those weapons may not appear deadly. They may claim to carry pistols for protection from serpents. Problem is the shooter chooses his own target.”
“You don’t strap one of those things around your waist?” Ella observes.
“No, I do not. Before I met your mother, I forget the number of snakes I killed. I hung my musket above the fireplace when we married and there it stays. But it thrills my soul that you are aware of weapons.” The father slips an arm around his girl. “Guns exist in a world beyond this corn ceremonies’ redemption.”
“Why, Paw? It’s not right.”
“Because brown, yellow, red, and black snakes live out there,” Benjamin Waters attempts an explanation. “Most are good. They eat rodents, rabbits, toads, worms and slugs. A few are poisonous and need killing.”
Ella watches Whitley mount his horse and turn the animal away from the celebration. “Who decides which snake’s die?”
“Too often, those with guns.”
“That man should never carry such power over anyone,” the daughter hugs her father’s waist.
“When it comes my time,” he wipes the sun’s heat and his anxiety sweat from his forehead with a forearm and pats Ella’s shoulder, “I hope when the time comes, someone as fair as you decides my fate.”