On January 1, 2016, two of my pieces were published in Issue 3 of the online literary magazine, Firefly Magazine, A Journal of Luminous Writing. I wrote the poem, Spirit Awakening, in 1994. I wrote the featured short story, Nu Na Da Ul Tsun Yi (The Place Where They Cried), after my husband and I, along with his son Bryan, rode the annual Trail of Tears motorcycle ride from Chattanooga, TN to Florence, AL.
Becoming published this year was a first for me. Although I had a creative non-fiction piece published in MORE Magazine’s Member Voices titled The Pull of Strays, in my mind this piece was a means for me to test the waters of exposure…to share my writing with others without fully committing to rejection of my work.
As a latecomer to the publishing world, it became essential that I get serious about my writing. But after completing the first draft of my first novel in January 2015, a project that took four months to write, my writing was tabled while we grieved some losses and adjusted to changes in what is this thing we call Life.
We have but a small window of time to fulfill our purpose. If I could go back and start earlier, I would. But I’m doing it now.
Still, writing is just like anything else. If you stop, it is hard to get back in a good habit that will yield results. Much like exercise, eating healthy, playing a sport or a musical instrument, writing requires daily application and commitment for a successful outcome.
In October of last year I made a promise to myself to learn as much as I could about the art and craft of writing, as well as the business behind selling my work.
Robert Lee Brewer, Senior Content Editor, Writer’s Digest Community, conducted the 2015 October Platform Challenge on his Writer’s Digest, There Are No Rules Blog. My participation in this challenge opened my world as a writer. As per Robert’s advice, my social media world expanded and my platform has grown stronger. In my continuing quest to improve upon my writer’s platform, I have transitioned from writer to published author.
While I am still basking in the glow of being published and knowing that someone out there valued my work, I know it is not enough for me. If there is one takeaway from my experiences in 2015, it is I must continue to write and share my work. It is no longer enough to put my thoughts on paper and collect them in countless journals that only I will see.
Time waits for no one.
The next step is paid and published author.
Nu na da ul tsun yi (The Place Where They Cried)
We arrived in this strange land two nights ago. There is a full moon tonight. Its reflection shimmers on the waters of the Tennessee River below us, glittering like silver fish in a stream.
We are cold and famished. My father and some other men have taken their bows and rifles to hunt for small game while my mother has made a camp for us. The fire is warm, but it cannot touch the chill in our hearts. We move about trying to keep warm, gathering kindling and chopping wood, collecting dried leaves to put beneath our bedding, and bringing water up to Mama from the edge of the frigid river.
My brother Hoyt is angry. He did not get to go with Papa and the others to hunt. Papa told him to look after his clan. I know he is not angry with Papa. Hoyt is angry because his heart is heavy. Sorrow envelopes all of us like the icy wind around our heads and hands and feet.
In late November some white men came to our village in Tennessee with papers in their hands and told us we had to leave. Our clan lived on a small ridge between two high mountains, the only home any of us had ever known. My people fought with the white men so we could stay on our land, keep speaking our language, and teach our children The Way. In the end, after so many broken promises, we are told we have a new home in a new land out west, in a place called Indian Territory. We are not convinced this new home will be a peaceful place. We are skeptical of the white man’s promises. He does not know how to keep his word.
My little brother Jesse died on the journey several days ago. He was a baby and had just learned to walk. He caught a fever and soon he was unable to breathe. We buried him next to a large oak on a bluff overlooking another part of the Tennessee River, the same river we have traveled to this strange place.
Mama has hardly spoken since that day. Grief had already stolen most of her words because she left her mother and aunt and my oldest sister behind. Grandma and Aunt Neva refused to leave their home. They and many other Cherokee who had also refused to leave were forced to abandon their villages and homes to go to a camp deemed appropriate by the white men.
My sister, she is called Sara, she also stayed in Tennessee. Her husband William is half white. His Cherokee mother married an Irish man called Robert, who came from North Carolina. William is a coal miner. They have a small parcel of land and a house, with a barn and some livestock. Sara wept quietly as we all packed our things and began our journey west. She did not want to go, but she did not want to stay. Now her spirit is wandering between two places.
My best friend Lucy fell and broke her leg the first day we started our journey. We had climbed a tall, hollowed out tree while our families waited for the soldiers to tell us where to go next, and her foot slipped on the high branch. I heard her leg bone crack when she landed on the hard ground. She became feverish and began to speak about terrifying things, such as the killing of women and children and the death of the Cherokee and The Way. She cursed at unseen men who came to do unjust things to her. She died two days later. Her mother refused to leave her gravesite. Instead, she lay beside the grave and began to wail and moan, pulling her hair and pounding her stomach with her fists. During the night, Lucy’s father took his hunting knife and cut her throat. He said his wife was no good anymore, that her spirit was with their dead daughter, and her heart could not be unbroken.
As I gather more water for Mama, I look out over the river in the bright moonlight. My heart is heavy. I turned sixteen last turn of the moon, and now I am in a place unfamiliar to me for the first time, trying to help my family, and not able to make sense of anything. I can hear moans and cries coming from the many hundreds of my people behind me above the edge of the riverbank. Every hour or so, I hear a scream or a shriek, and I know that another spirit has left yet another body of one of our own. The sorrow lingers like thick, black smoke.
I shiver as I carry the deerskin containers of water back to camp. I begin to cough, and Mama calls me over to sit in front of the fire. She wraps me in a blanket she wove on her loom. It has many meaningful colors and symbols upon it. It tells a story of our people. We are part of the a ni tsi s qua, the Bird clan. The blanket tells the story of how our people, The Cherokee, Tsa la gi, were born. There are pictures of the Little People and the Four Points of the Earth. I hold tightly to this blanket and accept the warmth.
As I watch the flames flicker in the cold night, I think about what will become of us. We were told the land we are travelling toward is much like our home in the mountains. They said there are good places to hunt and fish, to grow food, and space to build another village. I cannot imagine it. All I can see in my mind’s eye is our thatched roof home in the tiny village we were forced to leave. Hot tears run from my eyes and form tracks on my face through layers of dust. The farther west we go the more dust seems to collect on our clothes and skin, hovering in the air in tiny clouds formed out of nowhere. I wipe my face with the back of my sleeve and lay down on the bearskins Mama has laid out for me.
My mother is calling out to me, “Ellie. Ellie! Wake up!”
It is morning, and the sun is peeking above the trees on the other side of the river. Papa is smoking his pipe and Hoyt is whittling. Mama begins to sing an old Cherokee song as she moves about the camp, preparing our breakfast. We have some fresh squirrel meat and corn, but not enough. Papa’s dark eyes see far beyond us to the future. I can tell that his vision makes him sad.
Mama’s voice is soothing. “Wen de ya ho, wen de ya ho…” She sings the old Cherokee morning song, which is sung at weddings. It translates as, “I am of the Great Spirit!” I listen and rock back and forth, holding my knees, weeping softly.
There are several fresh graves on the outskirts of our camp.
So much sorrow in this place, where we wait for the boat to come and take us to another place where there is sure to be more sorrow.
The small town nearby is called Waterloo. My people call it The Place Where They Cried. Some of the people here have been kind, some have not. Many white people stood along the trail and watched us trudge onward, with tears in their eyes. We kept putting one foot in front of the other, when we could, and refused to let them see our own tears.
Papa begins to move about the camp and Mama stops singing. We will soon pack our camp and wait. The boat should be arriving soon.
I look in the direction from which we came. My heart is back there, at my home. The farther we move away from it, the larger the hole becomes inside my belly and heart.
Looking down at my feet, I spy my baby brother’s rattle beside me in the dirt. Hoyt made it for him out of some deer hide, a stick and some dried corn. I pick it up and brush off the dirt, revealing a picture of a black bear. Hoyt painted the picture onto the hide after it had dried good and hard. I shake it a bit, and the dried corn makes the rattling sound that had stopped the day my baby brother became so sick.
I stand up to walk over to Mama, and hand the rattle to her. Her deep brown eyes brush past me in a caress. She nods as she takes it and puts it in her pocket and she begins to sing again as she trudges over to the cook fire and pours water on the hot coals. Steam follows a hiss and rises up in the air above her.
I take Mama’s deerskin containers down to the river to fetch more water. My legs are tired but my back is strong as I scoop the water.
Before I head back to our camp, I watch as the sun begins to show the way of the river before me. The waters are moving swiftly as the morning light dances across the rivulets of water in reds, oranges and deep yellows.
Soon it will carry us to the new place we cannot yet see.
As I turn to carry the water back to Mama, I know in my heart we will continue to carry the tears from this place where our spirits cry out for the old ways and our people, as we continue to lose them one by one, along this treacherous journey.