When the Upper and Lower Worlds of the Southeastern Indians collide in the Between World, there is a reaction in This World. Our ancestors called it "Huksuba." Today we say "chaos." Huksuba, or chaos, occurs when Indians and Non-Indians bang their heads together in search of cross-cultural understanding. The sound is often a dull thud, and the lesson leaves us all with a bad headache.
First there is the 2 am heartbeat. The sound of my own breathing keeps me from sleep. I leave my bed for the comfort of the heated outdoor swimming pool, and the relentless motion of water.
In New Orleans, during February, delicate lukewarm rain falls. Fog exists. The night sky, neon and purple fire, compete for the senses.
In the central courtyard of the old world hotel, green French shutters hang on eighteenth century windows. A black woman peers from behind a shuttered window. She stares at me floating alone in the heated outdoor pool.
This gilded black figure throws a red swatch of cloth tied with chicken feathers out the window. The cloth flies away.
I continue in silence, pretending to ignore the tease. Intrigued only by steaming water. Intimate with my own nakedness.
Again, there is a summons. A moment of red. A moment of deafness, and a crowless rooster flies from the arms of the black woman. She is craving attention. She will get it. Enough is enough.
Onto the courtyard with much ado, marched green-footed doormen, with blue-tattooed mouths. Heartbeat for heartbeat, two-by-two, they are turtles in disguise.
Ancient ones out of the mud of the Mississippi River, they stand ready and watching over me. They've come to remind her that the conquering hordes only thought the Choctaw camps were abandoned and the dogs were mute, and the stains on their hands, red-colored and blue, were sweet scent.
"After all," I whisper aloud. "Have you ever seen what a turtle does to the reckless fowl who lands in its water space?"
Soon the black woman departs, laughing. The joke is on her.
The next day, I catch a flight out of New Orleans bound for Dallas Texas. On the plane, a beautiful Haitian flight attendant offers me a strong red drink. Red again.
Her voice is lilting and mysterious. She cups her hands around my hands when she gives me the red drink. I swallow it without breathing.
In New Orleans, everyone I know is drunk fifty-percent of the time. I myself, am drunk fifty-percent of the time. Naw'lins people say "likkah" for liquor. Absolute for vodka.
I pass out thinking about the smoothness of the Haitian woman's hands and how her long, slender fingers remind me of the ancient Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Beinville. His hands are said to have helped shape the "New World."
Bienville still roams the streets of New Orleans, the city he platted out of swamp land in 1718. I saw him one night on d'Iberville street in the French Quarter. Ears back, eyes rolling in his head, he more resembled a tree frog hugging a lamppost than a jazzman fingering a saxophone. But it was him.
My Choctaw ancestors called Bienville, Filanchi, which is short for "Our Frenchman, the Nail Bitter." They liked him, although he was nervous and could never take a joke. The first time they invited him for dinner he started making problems that have continued until now.
Back in the old days, dining with the tribe was not at all like having dinner with your next-door neighbor. No, Choctaw dinners were meant to be experienced. These weeklong elaborately arranged soirees were evenings of collective communication. Dinner guest were always selected carefully, juxtaposing good jokers with good listeners. Guests were also expected to report in great detail about other tribal groups, gossip being one of our favorite sports. However, what Bienville did before the meal had begun was to toss some third rate glass beads on the ground and ask if my relatives would trade them for "un morceau de terre." (A morsel of land somewhere.)
This glitch in decorum put a damper on the cross-cultural understanding between the French and Choctaw peoples. Such was this breach of etiquette that my relatives decided to have some fun with him.
"You want us to exchange land for these flimsy discount beads? What kind of chicanery are you trying to pull on vos amis les sauvages." (Your friends, the savages?)
"Ne vendez pas la peau de l'ours avant de l'avoir tuée.' " Do not sell the bearskin before you've killed the bear." "N'est pas mon ami?" said my grandmother. She loved to mock his speech.
"Besides," she continued, "the English traders are giving us some terrific deals on black powder muskets." (You may or may not remember that the rivalry between the French and the English traders in the early eighteenth century was at a fever pitch at this time.)
At this point Bienville's expression underwent a complete and violent change. He started in on my relatives and would not let up.
"When zee English, and your friends, zee Chickasaws, were beating the shish kebob out of you in 1702, who came in with zee foreign policy muscle to save your corn, your potatoes, your tomatoes, your pumpkins, your beans, and your yellow-squashed asses? Just who?" shouted the little Frenchmen with confidence.
Bienville pointed to my relatives seated before him he continued. "Just who used zheir swag to provide you with weapons and gun powder, interest free? Tell me? Any one of you who zhinks t was zee English, raise your hands!
"Ah-h-h Ha, no takers! Bon. We are getting somewhere. Just who. . ."
My grandmother near went deaf from listening to this tirade. Before Filanchi could tune-up for another crybaby episode she called together a special session of all the men and women to decide what to do with him. Some wanted to kill him right on the spot, others thought of torture. Elder heads prevailed and they decided to have some fun with him. Sort of. They traded him the swampland that belonged to our cousins, the Bayougoulas. That's right. Swamp land.
In return, my relatives received some first rate axes, some metal pots, and a dozen used musket rifles. They also took the flimsy glass beads off his hands. When my relatives told the Bayougoulas what happened, they all went four-paws-up laughing because the land that had been traded was a huge flood plain. Six months out of every year it was knee deep in water, snakes and alligators. Nowhere were there more mosquitoes than on that piece of land. Most days of the year the air was so thick with them that you couldn't distinguish one person from another ten paces a way.
Naturally my relatives shared the trade goods with the Bayougoulas and the whole wheedling affair was largely forgotten by both peoples. Then one afternoon a group of Choctaws were tramping though the area and stumbled across Filanchi and his soldiers camping; now get this, in two feet of water. Imagine their surprise. My grandfather called to him from higher ground. (He was not an imbecile, after all.)
"Filanchi, what are you doing down there?"
Well, he started in on Grandfather just like he had Grandmother. He was flailing his hands like a lunatic and babbling on and on. The gist of his harangue, and I hope I'm not misquoting him, was that the land was his. The end.
"Messieurs Choctaws, as you remember, I have traded for zeese land fair and square, and by our Holy Reverend Father, I will defend it to zee death."
Filanchi then went on to say that the bayous had overflowed so furiously that he and his men had been four months in waist high water. My grandfather had to turn away to keep from laughing himself silly.
Filanchi staggered. "You're femmes assured me zhat zeese place was never inundated. Look at zeese mess! I don't understand? Zeese is all your fault."
Poor thing. He could barely see to curse my grandfather because the mosquitoes had stung him in both eyes, and he had tried to cover his swollen face with a sort of bandage-like-thing. It was in this sad moment that we realized the truth of the matter. Our Frenchman, The Nail Biter, did not have all his oars in the water. Since advice is the most repulsive of all faults, showing disrespect for the feathers of common sense in others, my relatives left him there soaked to the skin, standing in the middle of "New France." And it wasn't until much later that we realized the joke was on us.
Now, as I have said into eternity, there was a continual rhythm of give and take among Indian tribes in the southeast. We gave, they gave. That's how things had been done for about 2,000 years, until Filanchi showed up. I'm not kidding; no one had ever wanted land forever. This was an anomaly. This changed all rules of government-to-government cooperation. We had no idea how to proceed.
Oh, I take that back. My relatives had come across this kind of thing before. Grandmother loved to tell the story about these people, I think they were from Spain or Portugal, anyway, they ventured into our territory and just demanded all the tribe's gold. Choctaws never did have any. Not really. Occasionally they could trade for it down South, but my relatives never had any use for it. These spiritual shoppers however would not take no for an answer. First they begged, pestered, then threatened:
"O nos dais el maldito oro, o os cortamos el cuello!"
Finally our men gave in. They heated up the gold into a fiery red liquid and poured it down the tourist's throats.
As I chuckle to myself about Grandmother's story, I began to lose my concentration. I believe I am back at my writing desk, working on another chapter of my novel, or filming a scene of an avant-garde video I want to produce. But my mind is in chaos. Suddenly, Bienville steps into my brain with his saxophone hooked on his neck chain. He begins playing a little melody, but he stops long enough to deliver narration into an invisible microphone:
"It is morning. A young woman is window-shopping in zee French Quarter. In zee background zhere are other stores, other shops, but zhey are out of focus. Zhere are other people milling around, but zhey are in zee background and blurred.
"La femme stops in front of a large storefront window. She is wearing a white raincoat and carrying a white plastic umbrella.
"Our heroine stares into the bedroom shop window. She sees zhere are two intertwined, faceless figures lying on zee bed. Zee figures are covered completely by white cotton sheets and beneath the sheets zhey are wearing white full-body stockings. Zee white rain woman believes zhey are two murdered corpses, until zhey begin coupling as if by an automated timer."
He plays another riff on his saxophone, then continues his soliloquy:
"Zee stocking people begin to make love. One tenderly mounts zee other. Zhey hunch slowly in heartbeat rhythm. Zhe lover's faces and hair color remain anonymous to our heroine, her breathing quickens and she wets her lips with her tongue and chants in sync with the rhythmic lovers, fuck me. Fuck me."
"Oh God, zeese is good!" says Bienville.
"Help," I holler and sit straight up in my seat.
I'm confused. Maybe I'm drunk? Just as I think I've come to my senses someone shakes me awake.
It looks like a bug-eyed man, with thick wide lips, wearing cowboy clothes and an obnoxious leather belt with the capital letters B-u-l-l etched across the silver buckle.
"Are you practicing safe sex, gal? Holy Cow. Look out the window. The earth is much bigger than I guessed. Wait until Grandmother hears about this"
I slap myself in the face, but this thing is still seated next to me.
"Do I know you?" I ask. "And what do you mean was I practicing safe sex?"
"Of course you know me. But I don't know what I mean. Not anymore. Thoughts just pop in my head. I guess it's because you are thinking about sex and water, and power. I just say what pops in my head.
"Rivvit, rivvit . . . . . . . Oops."
This thing cups it'd slender hands over its mouth and shyly looks at me. Then it chatters on like I am an old friend. It isn't even speaking a language, although it is mimicking a language. Every few phrases are in English but they are gibberish.
"You know," it says, "I think cats and alligators are related. They have those same funny eyes. Slanted pupils. And, you know alligators and birds are related. Hollow bones. I think cats could fly once upon a time. You know how they're always climbing trees and they don't mind when you throw them off buildings. Wow! Look down zhere. Is that a lake?"
"Rivvit, rivvit. . . . . .ah, excuse me,"
I am alive. I am flying in an airplane somewhere over Louisiana and Texas. However, judging from this thing's obsession with cats, I realize I'm staring at an ancient French frog, a hold over from last night's spirit world rivalry.
You see, cats held great mystery to the eighteenth century French people. Cats appealed to poets like Baudelaire, and yet to the citizens of Aix-en-Provence, cats were used like baseballs before cheering crowds as they smacked kitten and tomcat alike into the nearest wall. But that's not the worst of it. They also ate their brains when they wanted to be invisible, provided the gray matter was still hot.
The French also made a mixed drink from cat feces and red wine that they called a tonic for colic. (And they called Indians, les sauvages.)
It was the French who coined the phrase, "Patient as a cat whose paws are being grilled." They also believed that cats were witches in disguise, so brave French men and women devised remedies to save themselves from danger by maiming, "Kitty-kitty."
They cut kitty's tails, clipped kitty's ears, smash kitty's legs, tore or burned kitty's fur, and hanged kitty until almost dead. The thinking in France, at the time was that a mutilated housecat would be too embarrassed to walk into a church and cast a spell. Go figure?
The cat was also symbolic of "Old World" sexual culture: Le chat, la chatte, le minuet, is short for the English expression, "pussy." If a Frenchman petted a kitten, he would have success in courting a mate. If a French woman stepped on a cat's tail she would not get her man.
Cats were strictly "Old World" thing. So were barnyard chickens. Both were foreign imports to the "New World." I am proud to say that the Indians never ate cats. We preferred deer, bear, buffalo, corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peaches, pecans, and of course, the turkey. As far as the Choctaws were concerned, chickens were entirely too small to satisfy serious Choctaw diners.
After looking more closely at the French frog seated next to me, I recognized "it" for whom it was. Bienville, that big phony, was disguised as a bullfrog. I glance around the cabin for the Haitian woman, knowing she is in on this nightmare, but she's nowhere to be found.
Now he starts in on me, just like he had Grandmother. "You know I like flying," he says coyly. "Of course, this can't compare to riding in a red, 1963 Ford Galaxy convertible with the top down listening to Nancy Sinatra sing, "These Boots Are Made For Walking."
"I love my cowboy boots. Whadda you think of them?
"I sing myself electronic!
"You know why Sitting Bull was a star? It was because he had a good public relations man.
"Reality is a rubber band you can pull in any direction."
I clinched my fists and scream. "Shut up, shut up, shut up. I want you to shut up and go away. What do you want? Who sent you?"
A different flight attendant walked past us, and we both smiled at her as if nothing was wrong. He looks away, rueful and uneasy, and bites a loose fingernail. Finally he pulls his wide lips together, until his mouth resembles an egg. "You should have remembered that for every action there is a reaction. I don't know how much that vulgar display of alchemy in the swimming pool cost you last night. I think you've lost Grandmother's respect. She said you always act like 'Puss 'n Boots'."
"My grandmother told you no such thing. If you don't stop lying I'm going to put you in a mayonnaise jar and screw the lid on tight."
My threat has little impact. The banter finally stops because he pulls a tiny saxophone from underneath his seat and begins playing Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster. And I closed my eyes and try to dream him away.
The memories that will come back to me when I dream are so far removed by generations that the pain of them is no longer present. They roll forward like silent videos of something that happened, not to me, not to my bones that inhabit these memories, but to the part of me they are.
My first memories are of complete darkness. You would not call them memories, but something given by blood from her, while she still carried me in her body.
First, there is the sound of water and heartbeat. A call from the Upper World to the Lower World. Choctaws crawled up through the mud of the Nanih Waiya, and into the sun's light. We washed ourselves off and combed our long hairs. Some of us lived like crayfish. Some of us lived like turtles. Some of us lived like raccoons. Some of us lived like coiled snakes end to end. Some of us lived like people. We danced, prayed, practiced our songs, learned to hunt, and grew the tall green corn that balanced our lives for 2000 years before the whites forcibly removed us to Oklahoma. After the long walk on the trail of bad memories and tears to "Indian Territory" our past experiences seemed to change us.
I can still see my relatives now, walking west at sunset. Fireballs are bursting around their heads. Then my grandmother falls down. Something is wrong with her.
"Get up, Grandmother, get up. I pull at her shoulders but she doesn't move. "Somebody help her." Suddenly, I am running for help. In the next moment, someone shakes me awake. The frog has disappeared, but the woman from the hotel courtyard is sitting next to me.
"You called?" she asked. "Haven't you forgotten that the French took some of your relatives to Haiti where they continue to live, even today? How could you forget that we are sisters? Maybe the joke is on you, after all?
I start to laugh at myself.
"Are you finished with me?" I ask, trying to hide my embarrassment.
"Not yet," she answers. "Come with me."
I follow her to the first class section of the plane. Sitting in the front row was my Grandmother watching, "Star Wars" on the big screen. When she turns to look at me, her warm smile pulls me down beside her.
"I love this movie, don't you?" she whispers. "Darth Vader wears such wonderful headgear."
"Grandmother, what are you doing here?" I ask.
"First, she played a joke," she says pointing with her lips at my relative. "Then you forgot your sense of humor, and now I'm finishing this joke. We all must work hand in hand. Besides it was time for Bienville to return to his group. Enough's enough. Shu-u-sh-h, this is where they blow the Death Star to pieces," she says.
I look at her with wonder. "Grandmother, I don't know what to think about anything anymore."
She turns from the movie and continues whispering. "Never forget we are all alive! All people, all animals, all living things; and what you do here affects all of us everywhere. What we do affects you, too."
She pats my face and begins talking in a normal voice. "Our ancestors survived wars, the Europeans, diseases, and removal from our homelands. Now, my group, which is many generations older than your group, is learning how to survive the chaos of all these ethnocentric angels. It's what we've started to call, "a cross-cultural afterlife, living challenge."
She smiles and gently says, "It beats banging our heads together."
With that, she grabs my sister's hands and my hands, and the three of us watch Darth Vader alone zooming across the universe in a tiny spaceship. In the tribal ethos, being isolated form one's relatives is the worse horror we can imagine, so we hold each other tight in the scary parts and wonder what will happen next.
Originally published in Callaloo, 1994, Volume 17, Number 1, ISSN: 0161-2492.
© 1994 LeAnne Howe, all rights reserved and retained.
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