Anna leans her rifle against a tree. She punches a hole in the creek ice, rolls up her sleeve, dips her arm into freezing water that chills her blood, and makes her tremble, and stars her body with pain. She wriggles her fingers around. No cress she might gather, no mats of creek lettuce. She hears the ring of creek-water tumbling over stones, the softer notes as it passes over mud. She walks ten paces downstream and punches another hole, walks and punches again. When her fingers are too stiff and cold for a fist, she pounds the ice with the flat of her hand. This time, the creek refuses her, will not crack, will not open. She holds her ear to the ice, can’t hear anything. Creek without tongue, without flow.
No ramps in the woods, no green nubs of trout lily. Under the ice-crusted beeches that glint and drip, not one stem or stalk. And no tracks, no cone middens, no scat. She meets a jay pecking a bank of snow, gives it the dab of lard from the food she brought, enough for a day or two, if she eats small.
She steps over the winter-ravaged fence, its rails sagging or snow-snapped. She lays her rifle in snow the color of side-meat gravy, and then she lays alongside it. There is a shadow in her. If she stays here, she could become a pillar of ice, a lump of crystals gleaming in the sun, and leave the fevers of the log house, the food whimpers, baby squalls, sour wash, the onion poultices smeared on the chests of the men who won’t get up. The older one lame, filmy-eyed. The younger broody, shiftless since his crop failed, his gun got wet, fired wrong, flinted his face. Dock and sorrel when spring comes, he says. Make a meal of that. Father and son, both widowers when Anna met them. She chose the younger, thought he would be kinder, more tolerable. A good farm, he had promised her. Near Osceola, where there’s a church, a trade post that’s well-stocked. The farm was all locusts, sumacs, second growth. Osceola was fifteen miles away; when Anna got there, she saw the church boarded-up, no sign of people, the trade post a shack with a leaky roof. She didn’t go again.
In her snow bed, Anna thinks about Gandy Creek looping like unspooled thread, then entering the blind valley, the mouth of the cave. Miles and miles underground, she’s heard. Anna dreams she follows the creek as it slips under the earth, a dark ribbon that she follows by tallow-light. And in that ribbon, there is her mortal body wading downstream. Mirrored behind her, there is a body of shimmer that minnows pass through, minnows so pale she sees the trace of blood vessels, branching and branching, slender threads. And at the creek’s outflow, she pours through, runs in the next valley, runs beyond Yokum Ridge.
Anna rises up, follows the creek upstream, away from the cave. The snow-patches crunch under her feet, the woods thicken, then grow sparse. A loud noise startles her, a snort makes her jump. She stiffens, plants her feet, holds her breath. She hears the feathery sound of snow-siftings. Something shakes a pine tree. She sees an antler tip. A flared nostril. A bull elk steps into view, stops in front of the tree, browses the pine limbs. First she’s seen in twenty years, a rare and lordly beast, lordly the way he holds his head and great antlers. Long-legged, thick in the chest. The trees diminish behind him. His undercoat is like wool, his tail and rump-patch a creamy yellow, his neck-mane and winter hairs shaggy, the deep brown of walnut dye. He returns her stare with large, fierce eyes, and then he grunts, shakes his head, browses again, as if he pardons her. His antlers, nearly as tall as he, curve like the prow of a ship. Anna stares at his antlers, tries to follow the maze of branches and tines, and then she feels dizzy.
Anna remembers cringing the first time she shot a squirrel. Remembers feeding her babies watery gravy, corn-cakes thin as paper, roots scrawny and colorless. She bites her cool lip. There is blood spraying when she shoots, the rifle-kick that staggers her into the snow, the elk falling to his knees, and a cloud of steam.
The men will not get up from their pallets at the hearth when Anna returns. Babies fussy, fire almost out, Anna with blood in her hair, freighted with all the meat she can carry. The younger one will say, his voice like a mosquito’s whine, butcher when the moon is full, else the meat will shrink. Older will say, last herd I knew of kept to the barrens west of Red Sulphur Springs, my uncle told me, I was a boy. Younger will say, I’m glad I taught you to shoot. You got four squirrels that first day. Your aim was always true. He paints a pretty picture, his talk is fine, but he doesn’t fool Anna anymore. She will feed him elk heart and liver, give him herbs, mix yellowroot and kill-devil rum if the herbs fail, get him strong again.
She strains, and shoves, and gets the bull elk onto his side. His antlers snags in the galax-vines. Careful not to pierce the guts, she cuts from the breastbone down. She ties his haunches with leg-skins, hangs them in the pine. She turns for home with her apron full of meat.
In the months to come, when Anna’s babies need her, when her milk dries up, when there is a shadow in her, when the garden struggles, new potatoes no bigger than peas, she will have some elk meat that she’s hidden away, and her picture of the underground creek, running and running beneath the shell of the earth.
Cherokee Removal: Tik-i-kiski
As if looking up through a skin of ice, through torn webs. Seeing a cloud break from another cloud, little brown birds bringing grass-spears to a branch. Tik-i-kiski cannot say what moved him from the summer-house to the hill behind the cornfield, or how long he’s been here. Ferns in hemlock shade. Minutes, or hours, or days. He cannot walk or lift himself.
Left among shield-ferns, yana utsesta, ferns for bears to rest on. Once, soldiers swarmed in and forced his grandson’s family to leave supper. After that, Tik-i-kiski was alone, stranded in his bed. And he was in the dark. He could see a few cracks of light where the daubing had crumbled; the rest of the cabin was dark.
Then the door flared open, and the sun poured in. There were squatters jabbering. A white rolled the cider barrel away and stole the door. His flame-haired woman snatched the bean pot from the table, and then she plucked the quilt from Tik-i-kiski.
A jar-fly whines. Long ribbons of cloud wave and wave like hairs snagged and ripped. He drifts into half-awake fog, pond water, creek ice, shimmer of willow leaves, fern fringe.
Once, years ago, his legs failed, became two dead fish. He knew what to do: he carved and put up pegs around his bed, pulled himself up, and shifted to his chair, and then back to his bed. When his arms weakened and he could no longer pull himself up, he asked for gourds to be hung on the pegs. And turkey feathers, and otter-skins. And an old hornet nest that he wanted for a dance mask.
Tik-i-kiski rests among shield-ferns, spindly hemlocks. A jar-fly whines. Long ribbons of cloud wave and wave like hairs snagged and ripped. He drifts into half-awake fog, pond water, creek ice, shimmer of willow leaves, fern fringe.
Perhaps his children and his grandchildren are alive; perhaps they are being held in the camp.
The ground hums, and ferns stir, and the feet of small creatures brush the grasses.
Tik-i-kiski remembers stories about the Little People, women with river-names and men with names like thunder, said to be mischief-makers and also friends of the lost.
He lifts his head and whistles, but it’s only children, the missionary’s children. Almost stepping on Tik-i-kiski, they drop their basket that holds not a morsel or crumb. It’s said that the missionary forgets his wheat crop and his hungry family, he is always riding, begging the people of the nation to put their names and X’s on his long paper.
Tik-i-kiski looks at the children’s rabbit-faces, straw-hair, ice-pellet-eyes, features that are the same as the sqatters’. They have no food to take home, no water to offer him, but they promise to help, say that their mother will bring a wagon. Tik-i-kiski watches the fern tips, little birds flapping from a limb.
We’ll carry you to your family, the girl says. To the camp at Rattlesnake Springs.
Cherokee Removal: Mary and Eli
These whites camp in Mary’s pasture, break the fence, and dig holes they do not fill in. These whites want the meat without the hunt, the harvest without planting: to wade into Yahoola Creek and stumble over eggs of gold rising at their feet. Pit sinkers and quartz stampers, panners and sand washers. They build shanties, saloons, and tenpin alleys; they wager on dice and chuck-a-luck. They launch barges on the Chestatee, and send men down in iron bells to rake the riverbed. They clear swaths of trees. They ravage the hills with blasted water. And raise heaps of gravel, wasted soil, and streaky clay. And change the color and the course of branches and streams.
Eli tells Mary to be prudent. Offer the trespassers new potatoes and bean bread, he says. He talks about moving west, following the sun’s daughter to Tsusginai. Mary finds the front window shattered, and dead crows in the fish trap, and in her garden, a drunkard tangled in the melon vines, fast asleep. Her husband says that he worries about the treaty that Major Ridge favors, the surveys, and starting again in ghost land. Mary tells him to give the treaty-makers his name.
William Woolfitt is the author of the poetry collections Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014) and Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, forthcoming). His fiction chapbook The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014) won the Epiphany Editions contest. His stories have appeared in Blackbird, Image, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Epoch. He is the recipient of the Howard Nemerov Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Denny C. Plattner Award from Appalachian Heritage. He edits Speaking of Marvels, a blog that features interviews with chapbook and novella authors.