Authors: Jimmy Fox
“All right, all right, just kidding,” Hawty said, laughing. “I’m sure you don’t need any encouragement, with that galloping libido you have. And quit hurting that scrawny body of yours. You can’t even load a microfilm reel, in the state you’re in now. What a fine team we make: I’m in a wheelchair, and you’ve got one good arm!”
After his conversation with Hawty, Nick rushed over to Annie Oakley, Holly’s room. On Holly’s phone, a snazzy smart one that made his “feature” phone look very dumb indeed, the two women prattled about girlish things, Nick assumed, and they shared quite a few chuckles, apparently at his expense, before getting down to the nuts-and-bolts technical issues. Nick was bored until Holly mentioned “zipping” and “unzipping,” which drew his gaze to her jeans and turned his mind down carnal byroads having nothing to do with the ultimate genealogical destination. She caught him staring; both of them blushed and pretended it didn’t happen.
It proved difficult to get a good enough cell signal—Hawty theorized that there weren’t many towers in the rural area—but eventually the data flowed miraculously through the hotspot gizmo and into Holly’s notebook computer.
Nick had escaped the sentence of a hard cast. Instead, his doctor had fitted him with a semi-flexible one strapped to his torso with an itchy arrangement of plastic, Velcro, and textiles he’d never seen before and wished he never had. The contraption was extremely uncomfortable, especially after a couple of hours in a chair, reading the screen of Holly’s computer, which sat amid her video equipment.
“How do I get back to page three?” Nick asked.
“Roll that ball at the bottom of the keyboard, and then click the menu down . . .”
“Click on the ‘Go To’ command . . .”
“‘Go to, go to’? Sounds downright Elizabethan. Ah-ha! Got it.”
“Great. Now be quiet while I try to crack
That made the second woman in one night to tell him to shut up. Maybe he should try being the strong-and-silent type. Trouble was, he wasn’t particularly strong, either.
Holly was much better at Spanish than he was. She worked patiently by the room’s inadequate lamp light on the copied pages containing the names he’d found in the
Legajos de Luisiana
at the Sangfleuve Parish Courthouse—a goodly number of Katogoula and Yaknelousa names, but also those of Quinahoa slave families the Kentucky trader had seen among the Katogoula, forty years after the epic battle. Holly’s sagging, squeaky queen-size bed was littered with legal pads, a well-thumbed Spanish dictionary, and guides to Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Mobilian Jargon.
Nick, for his part, pored over the French of the journal pages Hawty had zapped across cyberspace. Within the gracefully written sentences of the accomplished penman, the clerk of Mézières, were other names of Katogoula from 1768, or what the clerk determined these names, strange to him, sounded like in his native tongue. Chiefs, great warriors, female leaders of the matrilineal clans. . . . And—he grinned—a detailed description of the Vulture Cult!
He read slowly at first; but his speed and excitement increased as he became familiar with the clerk’s style. Soon he hardly needed to touch the pocketsize French dictionary at his hand. This, to him, was the payoff, the beauty, the thrilling secret allure of genealogy: reawakening an
eye-witness reporter from the past, sitting with him in an imaginary tavern at a rough-hewn table over flagons of ale, seeing through his eyes, hearing through his ears, with incomparable immediacy, times, places, and ideas lost to those of us imprisoned in the now.
Luevenia Silsby’s accusation still rang in his mind. Was he responsible for the plague of misfortune that had struck the Katogoula? He did feel guilty . . . but not for the reasons she’d put forward. He could feel the proximity of the killer in the chill down his spine, the same chill he felt at the imminence of an intuitive leap that suddenly, irrefutably, joined distant generations of a family. The killer’s identity lay somewhere in the genealogical record, and he was missing it! He needed more than a flash of a badge on Nooj’s chest, or suspicions about Tommy Shawe, or the recollected image of—perhaps—Miss Luevie’s hands, more than just coincidences that probably in the end meant nothing. He needed to hold up the lantern of Cartesian Doubt, illuminating seemingly insignificant facts, testing them against his knowledge and experience, finally discovering the truth . . . perhaps, in a 1768 journal.
The French clerk revealed his mingled fascination and revulsion when writing about the ancient tribal undertakers, the Vulture Cult. Yet, like so many of those adventurous men of that age of discovery, titled and humble ones alike, who saw people and practices no other European could have dreamed of, the clerk knew he was writing for posterity.
Sometime around midnight Nick realized that for some minutes he’d been staring at the screen without comprehending anything at all.
“Enough!” he declared. “I can’t take any more written words—in any language.” He’d compiled a list of fifty-three names, translated into his best guess of the English equivalent.
He trudged over to Holly’s bed and cleared a place to sit among the books and legal pads.
“Same here,” she moaned. “This is about to drive me batty.” She slapped down a dog-eared pamphlet and slowly rolled her head and flexed her shoulders. “The Kentucky trader mentions a language used by Katogoula and Yaknelousa masters and their Quinahoa slaves or servants, but I’m not sure if he means Mobilian Jargon or an entirely different slave language. Mobilian Jargon—or a variant of it—did serve as a master/ slave language, but they called it”—she yawned—“
, I’m pretty sure.”
to you, too.”
“Maybe you need to copy some more pages of the
for me to work with . . . how do you feel?”
He leaned back on two pillows she’d propped for him against the headboard. “Almost as bad as I probably look. Does your face hurt?”
She shook her head. “Not really. Wonder if it’ll scar.” She’d managed to wash off the brown antiseptic.
He gently touched her speckled cheeks, which had begun a scabby healing process beneath the small bandages. She didn’t wince much. Tough girl.
“Did you find anything?”
“Great stuff,” he said after a satisfying yawn. “You were right about the Vulture Cult as an immigrant practice. For years a Yaknelousa religious aristocracy held the sacerdotal reins. They’d been both chiefs and shamans in their own independent tribe, but gave up political power when the two tribes merged and the Katogoula adopted major aspects of their religion. My reporter, the clerk, thinks this merger happened in the late seventeenth century, just as the Europeans started to upset the balance of tribal power.”
“Hmm.” Holly scribbled on a yellow pad and bit the eraser, thinking. “I need to work that into my documentary script. That’s important.”
“I also found lots of names that so far don’t mean much to me. Big Owl, Fast Snake, Thirsty Beaver, Long Black Feather . . . those are the
ones I remember at the moment. My brain feels like cold grits. I think Long Black Feather was a leader of the Vulture Cult for decades.”
“Clan totems, I bet,” Holly said. “Southeastern Indians organized themselves by clans below the tribal level. If you belonged to the Owl or Snake or Wind clan, that’s where your loyalties were, as much as with your flesh and blood, maybe more so.”
“Oh, a smarty-pants, eh?” Holly wisecracked. “Yes, most were matrilineal before the white man came; the husband joined the wife’s clan and allegiance passed from mother to child. What do you do with the names now?”
“I’ll check to see if anyone in the present-day core families mentions them in family lore. It would be nice to find them on federal Indian rolls, especially the transitional ones that record when a Katogoula family began using English surnames. Then we’ll know where this family was living, what localities and sources to check for more family data. These names will become reference points for future membership, targets to trace back to.”
“The government didn’t consider the Katogoula a real tribe,” Holly said. “I didn’t think they were enumerated separately.”
“They weren’t. On and off for a couple of centuries they lived among the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Chitiko-Tiloasha. The rolls and associated case files of those tribes can sometimes hold good Katogoula info. Let’s say Tall Worm—”
“‘Tall Worm’!?” She laughed, making the rickety bed squeak. “You wouldn’t catch me in that clan.”
“Whatever,” he said, trying to suppress his own mirth. “I made him up. Let’s say we found Tall Worm in our clerk’s journal of 1768. On an 1858 Mississippi Choctaw removal roll a mixed-blood Choctaw testifies that Tall Worm, of unknown heritage, was his grandfather.”
She nodded. “I’m with you so far.”
“The grail in American Indian research is finding the full-blooded tribal ancestor—and in 1768, Tall Worm was probably full-blooded. Now we have a historical Katogoula linked to a line possibly surviving into modern times. With that information, we can figure out the exact Katogoula blood quantum of later descendants—if and when they get interested in their ancestry. The federal records are massive, but sometimes an odd source like this clerk’s journal is better than a ton of National Archives paper.”
“So what would he be, our 1858 man?” Holly asked. “I wonder how Tall Worm and his wife—”
“Yes, Mrs. Worm.” She playfully threw a wadded sheet of paper at him. “I wonder how they would have felt about the future of their line. There was already intermarriage with bigger tribes, and in their generation or the next, maybe with whites. Did they feel that their Katogoula heritage was dying? What did they teach their children? What would their descendants call themselves today: Katogoula, Choctaw, white?”
“All three. None of the above. The soul doesn’t follow rules of genealogical evidence.” Nick leaned back, sighing from fatigue. “And take it from me, sometimes the soul doesn’t want to know. I need to get back to New Orleans, sift through a few hundred of my favorite micro-films. . . . Well, a few dozen, at least.
a good night’s sleep.”
“But you’ve been fired, haven’t you?” Holly said. “They can’t fire
; I’m not working for the tribe. Anyway, I have almost enough footage to finish the documentary. Now all I need is some historic filler. The photos and paintings at Tadbull Hall would be just perfect. . . . Oh, I’m sorry. Were you asleep?”
“Holly, Holly, give it a rest, okay. You’re tired, I’m tired. We’ve been working for hours, non-stop. It’s been a hell of a day. This isn’t the time
to start again with that documentary of yours.” The pain medicine was about to pull him under the calm surface of sleep. “Shhh. Try to relax, so I can.” He scrunched deeper into the pillows.
Finally, he’d been able to shush a woman for a change. He began to drift off, relishing this small victory, not concerned in the least that he was a trespasser in this bed. The overpowering desire to sleep made all counter-arguments irrelevant.
“Why are you so interested? In the Katogoula, I mean. Why do all this work when they want you out of here?”
“Because I’m such a nice guy,” Nick said, his undamaged arm slung over the bridge of his nose.
“Are you?” she asked in his ear.
. He gave up any idea of a blissful catnap.
“When you know me better, you tell me. . . . I’m curious, for one thing. Curious by nature, I guess. For another, Tommy will probably get control again and rehire me; he’s a fighter, below his laid-back exterior. And then, there’s that nagging small question of who tried to nail me with a trashcan. I’m a little ticked off about that.
“Those are the selfish reasons,” he said, now staring at the water-stained ceiling. “I’d like to believe I’m still here because I take genealogy seriously. When someone asks me to explore his family history, I become a surgeon who opens up a patient to see what’s in there, what malignant misconceptions and blockages of ignorance and fear need to be treated with truth. I can’t just walk away, leave the patient on the table. Sometimes I swear I’m holding a family’s heart in my hands, feeling it beat with an ageless, stubborn vigor. . . . Chief Claude of the Chitiko-Tiloasha calls me the Midwife-of-Yesterday Man.”
A sure sexual turnoff, that title!
But when he looked over at Holly, propped on an elbow, he saw that the jade jewels of her eyes swam in crystalline pools of tears.
“How sweet,” she managed to whisper in a voice choked with feeling. “I’m glad you survived to be ticked off. Especially now that we’re getting to be such good friends.” She leaned over and kissed him. Her hair dusting his face was a warm, glittering, coppery avalanche of fragrant flowers, with just a hint of smoke. “You can stay—not on the sofa this time. If you want.”
“Oh yeah, I want,” Nick answered, drawing her down to him again, kissing her between words. “I want, I want, I want . . .”
al watched Joel Shostermann lick the tip of his left index finger and bring it down to polish the inch-square surface of the gold ring on the fourth finger of his right hand. The incised logo of Luck o’ the Draw International, she noted, was already spotless and gleaming. Shostermann moved the ring a fraction of an inch. At last, it pleased him.