The Old Man-
The large sycamore bent over the water like a crooked old woman. Its paper-white bark sharply contrasted against the deep shadows cast by its own large leaves. Tiny sand-colored balls, seeds for the next tree, hung from the tips of each branch like fuzzy, tiny apples. They plopped into the water, sinking just beneath the surface before popping back up again to ride the current downstream. I watched them float away. Tiny jack salmon, silver bellied and green striped, darted at each pod, following it a few feet, before coming back to the shade of the giant tree, waiting for the next plop into the water from above.
The feet of the sycamore, sprawling and tangled, snaked their way from the steep slope where they grew out of the flint and granite stones, into the cool clear water. Tsi-dvn (ᏥᏍᏛᎾ) – the crayfish lived here. He made his home in the soft gray mud between the roots where he found protection from raccoons, snakes and humans that couldn’t navigate the maze of tangled tendrils.
“The Old Man is happy we are here” she said. My great-grandmother’s words made me smile.
“How does he know we’re here?” I asked, looking puzzled. I didn’t see an old man, much less a happy one.
“The Old Man always knows when we come,” Que-di said.
“Look at the fish playing and tsi-dvn eating. He is alive here. That is how I know he is happy.”
I looked into the deep clear water. It was so pure I could see the fish in every detail, six feet below us, near the beige jumbled stones lying on the bottom. My grandmother told me that the sky came down with the sun to give the water color. She said blue, from heaven, and yellow sun’s fire mixed together to give the old man the color of a soldier fish’s belly, deep sequined turquoise.
“The Water Treatment”
The Old Man was called Oo-la-ni-gi-dv (ᎤᎳᏂᎩᏛ) –Powerful. He could bring back the spirit of someone lost, heal sickness and cleanse a-dvn-to (ᎠᏓᏅᏙ) -the soul. From a young age I learned that he cleansed us when we “went to water”. I remember the day Que-di taught me what “the water treatment.”
The wind laughed at us that day as she stepped slowly into the icy arms of the Old Man. It was late November, near my seventh birthday, but already tiny white disks of snow, spiraling down like round feathers, fell from the sky and melted into his body. Quedi always wore a long, below-the-knee cotton dress. She tucked her dress between her legs. I laughed because it was funny to see she actually had legs. She laughed at me staring at her. Her white hair, made even whiter by the sifting snow, was pulled back tight into a long braid that had been coiled into a large bun at the nape of her neck.
About four feet from the rocky bank, she stopped and turned to face the east. Her old body didn’t shiver. Slowly she reached into the crisp liquid and brought it to her lips. She blew on it and said a prayer in the old language, before there was Cherokee. Back when the blue light that lit the sky lived on the Earth with humans and animals, allowing them to speak to each other. She brought her hands to her head and poured the old man’s life over her hair, caressing it with her brown fingers as it trickled off each strand and back into his arms. She repeated this four times, each time facing one of the four directions, east, then west, south and finally north.
“Nu-lv- come here.” She called and motioned. Without even thinking about it, I stepped into the water. The old man grabbed my legs. The cold squeezed me tightly, but I wasn’t afraid. Que-di knelt into the water, cupped it in her red hands, and brought it, shining and placid, to her lips. Her breath, white and opaque, like smoke from a cedar fire, skimmed over the top of her fingers, into my face. She brought her hands to my head, beautiful words spilling from her lips, tiny pools of water, released and running down my neck, back to the old man. Warmth engulfed me. The Old Man knew my name.
Waiting for Us
After that day, we would go to the water every time the moon changed his face from a small silver sliver, to a round yellow ball. I would look up into the sparkled night sky, waiting for when the moon would make the black of night into dim blue, light enough for the trees to make shadows in the middle of the night. Que-di said when I saw the shadows; the Old Man would be waiting for us. The next morning we would go.
The walk to the creek wasn’t far. With every season there was always something new to see. In the summer, we would walk along the dusty narrow road, past the old white church house, across the low, stone bridge, along the edge of the cattails, to the sycamore tree that reached into the water. Her dog, Tsu-tsi-Boy, part everything, would run in front of us, barking at every bird that flew into the sky, or every brown blade of sun-scorched grass that twisted in the hot air.
Over time, our walks took longer and longer and as every season passed Que-di would look out through the trees and tell me about her life. She would tell me stories about the power of the Old Man and how he never goes away. She told me about Tsa-n-so-ni, her father and Ke-hi-di her mother. She told me about the day when she learned the water treatment from Ke-hi-di, in the month the ducks come back, April. That was her birthday month too.
I heard her stories over and over until they were part of me. It seemed over time, every time she told them, her steps became softer. The dust would gather on her black leather shoes, thick and powdery and with every telling it gathered more as if it wanted to hear them too.
Her walking stick, made from yellow dogwood, was twisted and knotty and naturally bent at the top into a handle. First used only as way to shoo Tsu-tsi out of the way, over time it became another leg. Whenever she walked, it took the first step. When we reached the water, the crooked stick would be left on the bank. She said she didn’t need it with the old man to hold her up. In time, I would help the Old Man hold her up.
One day, Que-di stopped walking with me to see the Old Man. She said her legs were too old. I would have to go for her. I did. Every time I went, I came home to tell her that the Old Man was happy. I had seen the jack salmon chasing make-believe, tsi-dvn in the tangled feet of the sycamore and the Old Man, turquoise and deep. I would carefully tote a jar of water home so she could, in her own way, visit with the Old Man.
When Que-di died, we brought the Old Man to see her. My grandfather cried. Mama cried as she washed her, caressed by the old man’s puddled fingers. The Old Man’s tiny silver drops ran off of her face and settled close to her. Her long white hair, always in a bun, was now strait and shiny from his cool smile. I knew she was happy. The old man knew her name and now she knew his.