An Air of Ruin, 1831 by Jennifer Kirkpatrick Brown

Jennifer Kirkpatrick Brown is an MFA candidate at George Mason University. She lives in Northern Virginia where she works for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Her fiction has appeared in Silk Road and The Antigonish Review.

In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed
a final and irrevocable adieu . . .
Alexis de Tocqueville

Choctaw do not speak the name of the dead. In accordance with this tradition I have taught myself to call her “Woman of the Stars.” Even when the image of her waiting in the shade enters my mind, these words arrive, her given name nothing but buried memory, blurred when it rises, like the writing on an old letter. The rest of that fall day in 1831 returns to me, clear and bright, like the sunshine that lit the scene of sadness, incongruous and unexpected after a humid cloud-filled night.

Having learned a bit of the Choctaw language surveying government lands in Tennessee, I found myself hired to accompany a wagon train of Indians going west to the Territory after the Removal Act. I watched the preparations from a nearby hill. Men loaded wagons with bags of rice and roasted corn; bright woven blankets; clothing, both ceremonial and everyday; iron tools; and pots for cooking. No one spoke, except when necessary, and some of the women cried as they packed the crates. Even the children sat quietly along the road they would soon walk, faces down, studying the ground. A woman with fine gray hair in plaits and a face of deep-set wrinkles sat behind them in a chair beneath a tall white pine, tranquil but taciturn, hands resting on a cane. Despite her age and apparent sadness, a loveliness shone from her; she exuded a sort of light, as if existing there in a state of grace. She barely moved, not even to wave away the swarms of gnats that plagued us.

Near her stood a young man called Kanchitubbee. He spoke some English and had translated for me once before. His muscles rippled, strong but lithe, lacking the remarkable size and power they would have in years to come. Blue-black hair fell to his shoulders. His mouth, which usually displayed a row of perfectly white teeth as he smiled, had closed and turned down at the corners. I called him to me.

“Who is she,” I asked, looking over at the tree.

He told me her name, the one I have tried to forget. “She is very loved,” he said.

I walked over to her. “You could stay here,” I said, in her language. “Why do you leave?”

“To be free,” she said, in English. I found this to be an extraordinary response, but couldn’t get any other answer from her—she bowed her head, placed her hands in her lap, and ceased to acknowledge me.

As the train began to move Kanchitubbee walked beneath the pine and found her sleeping. He roused her, and, to my astonishment, she did not climb into a wagon as the other elders did, but joined the walkers. She kept up, leaning heavily on her cane, the young man at her side.

We had almost made it to camp when she collapsed. There she lay beneath a carpet of stars that twinkled in the black almost moonless sky, the first death on what her chief would call the trail of tears. Watching from a respectful distance I pictured her soul rise to join the constellations—a woman of the stars.

What more can I say of this? Her death was only the first, and there were so many. I have returned to that place of departure many times, but I find only silence. Does the dust explain? Do the dry bones reply? Can the marching ghosts whisper stories light enough to ride the wind? Only the road remains now, adjacent pine trees still bearing witness with a slice of mountain sky—which is blue and cloudless and vault to everything.

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