by Geary Hobson
One day, while I was skinning some coons by my back door, I heared my two dogs bark in that way they got to let me know a stranger is coming. I ducked around to the front of the house to see who it be, and it was this old white man dressed in a brown suit and toting a brown leather briefcase. He was tall and thin, with a full head of white-gray hair and he had a slight stoop to him. We nodded to each other and then he say, real gentlemanly and in a voice that showed right away he wudn't no Louisiana man, "Do I have the honor of addressing Thomas Darko?"
"Yes," I say. "I am Thomas Darko."
"Mr. Darko, I am Dr. William Allerton Payne, of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.," he said. Then he added, with a sad but friendly smile, "We had the honor of meeting one another many years ago, but I expect you probably don't recall it."
"No, sir," I say. "I can't say as I do." And it was true. I couldn't recall ever seeing this feller before, much less meet him.
"Well, I'm not surprised. You were a very small boy then. I was here visiting your parents and grandfather—please pardon the possible rudeness in my mentioning of them— I was visiting them, as I say, as well as meeting numerous Biloxi and Tunica folks along with your Ofo relatives."
"Well, yes, sir," I say. "That mus'' all been a long time ago. All my folks, sir, have all passed on."
"Yes, I know, Mr. Darko. That is why I'm here. And, please, will you accept my condolences on their behalf?"
I nodded my head for his respect.
He went on to tell me that he was representing the Smithsonian in a new program they was setting up having to do with Indian languages. He say they was recording languages with tape recorders, making records and dictionaries and such, and that was why he come to see me.
"You are, by all accounts, Mr. Darko," he said, "the last speaker of the Ofo language."
Now I knowed nobody else around Sherrillton talked Ofo, not since Mama and them all got killed in that truck wreck, but I knowed in a vague way of some other relatives living away from Sherrillton who I thought still might talk it.
"Well, now, sir," I said, "they's my Aunt Gustine, over at Shreveport, and all her kids. What about them?"
"I'm sorry to say, sir," Dr. Payne said, "your Aunt Augustine passed away ten years ago and apparently none of her four children grew up learning any of the Ofo language at all." He paused and then added, "I'm sorry, sir. I perceive you had not heard of your aunt's death?"
"No, I never," I said. "I appreciate you telling me."
"I certainly didn't intend to be simply the harbinger of sad tidings," he said. "I hope I haven't offended you by my intrusiveness."
"No, sir," I said. "I am not at all offended, and I be thankful for your words." Then I thought to add, "What about my cousin, Rejean LeGarde over in Longview, Texas? I knowed he used to know some Ofo, but not a lot."
Dr. Payne ducked his head slightly and coughed, then he say, "Again, I'm sorry to say, Mr. LeGarde passed on about five years ago."
I set there a minute, thinking.
"Then I am all alone."
"Yes, it would appear so, sir. You are the last of the Ofos."
Then he begged my pardon and ast to be excused while he went back to his car, he say, to git something he forgit to bring with him. Instead, I think he jist want to give me some time to myself. Cause when he come back in about five minutes, I never seen anything he bring back with him, and he left that brown leather briefcase on my front door step. Anyhow, I appreciated his thoughtfulness, and while he was gone I thought about all of them now gone—Mama, Papa, Rejean, Aunt Gustine, Grandpapa Arceneaux, and all my brothers and sisters—and I specs I felt more than ever before like a lonesome pine tree. But when Dr. Payne come back, I remember my manners and I invite him in for some coffee or ice tea. He say thanks much, he would like some ice tea, say he too old to drank coffee in the late part of the day, but he say he love ice tea. Me, too. Especially since I give up whiskey-drinking some time back, why, ice tea, with a lot of sugar in it, made up for it, I specs.
I got him to stay to supper. I put some fresh coon meat in a stew I had slow-cooking on my kitchen stove, made a pan of corn bread, and we had more ice tea. In the meantime, Dr. Payne told me about the purpose of his visit. Seem like he wanted me to come to Washington, D.C., for a while to help preserve the Ofo language on records and help them make a dictionary. I give it some thought, liked the idea of traveling again, but I wondered about the good of saving a language on records and in a dictionary when they wudn't nobody but me left to talk it. He say that In the Name of Science was the reason, almost like he was talking about a church or something. He say I would git paid good, have my hotel paid for, too, and would be contributing to Science. He say for me to mull it over and let him know in the morning. I invited him to stay the night, but he say he already have a hotel room in Alexandria and would come back in the morning. But before he left, he showed me a book he dug out of that brown leather briefcase, and in it they was a picture of my Mama and Papa and all of us younguns, and they was Grandpapa Arceneaux, too. Dr. Payne told me how he taken that picture when he visit in 1909 , when he first come to our country as a young scholar of our ways. Now, I never had no pictures of any of my family at all, and seeing them all like this was a little too much for me. They was Papa, wearing a white shirt all buttoned up to the neck and wearing his little-bitty black dribbly moustache, and Mama, a lot taller than him, wearing a white blouse with long sleeves and all buttoned up to the neck, too, and her hair in a bun, Grandpapa in dark overalls and a ragged suit coat, my spindly brothers Leland and Andrew and Baptiste Junior, and my twin sisters Martha and Marie. Dr. Payne pointed out the two littlest kids in the picture, and they was me and my little sister Camille. In the picture I was a scrawny little duck-egg-looking thang, all eyes and a bowl-over-the-head haircut and dark-skinned as a dirt-dauber, and Camille was a fat little two-year-old holding onto a cornshuck doll. Before he left to go back to his hotel room, Dr. Payne give me the book with the picture in it, told me it was mine to keep, and that night I read some of it. It was about little groups of Indian people in places like Louisiana and Arkansas and Texas—where they wudn't sposed to be no Indian people left. They was even a picture of John Desriusseaux—or Old Man Jack Darrysaw, as people call him—and one of Jed Thompson, two of the Quapaw people I meet years ago in Arkansas. Sesostre Youchicant, a long-time Tunica chief, was there, too, and Chief Volcine Chiki and Chief Eli Barbry, what was also Chiefs of the Tunicas, too. I already knowed what I would tell Dr. Payne in the morning.
From Last of the Ofos, Univ. Arizona Press.
© 1999 Geary Hobson
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