Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Brearley School, New York, NY
Educator: Thomas March
Category: Short Story
The Rabbit and the Alligator
Every night before bed, Heno and I would ask Father for the story. And every night, no matter how tired he was from hunting or a council meeting, he would tell us. We would encircle the fire in our home and listen to Father, the crinkling and crackling of the logs accompanying his tale. “The Rabbit,” he would say, “a wily animal, asked the Alligator if he feared the Horned Serpent. The Alligator proudly denied it. The Rabbit wanted to scare the Alligator, so he told him that when the Horned Serpent comes, smoke rises from the deepest pits of the Earth and the birds fly west. The Alligator, still untouched by the Rabbit’s prickly warning, denied the Rabbit’s claim once more. But the Rabbit was in the mood for a scheme. He told the Alligator to lay in a field of high grass and await the Horned Serpent. At once, in a spectacle of bravery, the Alligator bounded to the middle of a field of high grass surrounded by outstretched trees. As soon as the Alligator was gone, the Rabbit set fire to field, causing smoke to rise in waves, polluting the air in anticipation of the Horned Serpent. The Alligator, realizing what the Rabbit had done, ran away fearfully from the fire, following the birds, shrews, and buffalo in a herd that took him as far west as the Sun can see.”
“Why did the Alligator run if he was so proud?” I would ask, as if I hadn’t heard the story every day for eleven years.
“Fear makes you weak. Do not let it enclose you, spiral around you like smoke rising from the deep Earth’s hearth. Fight back, my girl, Sekolko, my purple martin, just as your namesake dives from the heavens, an angel with wings tucked, to return to her nest and protect the fledglings. Do not fly west with the others, Sek, face the fire and the smoke will clear.”
He would pull me into his blanketing arms as I traced the tattoos that decorated his skin. A flower for Mama, petals plucked off, drifting down his left arm, his archer’s arm. She loves him, she loves him not. She loves him. A purple martin bird for me and a maple leaf for my brother Heno on his left chest protected his heart, each thump a beating drum signaling his attack on all those who harm his sweet maple and loyal martin. Eagle feathers on his forearm guiding the decisions of the Beloved Men, the ink brushing against the laws he passed and the papers he signed as Mikko Hese, the leader of the Muscogee people. Maize, beans, and squash, the three pillars with which my ancestors built our community, in formation on his shoulder which harvests the midsummer sprouts at the time of the Busk. Then, after I had followed the ink across all of his skin, Mama would pry me from Father’s sleeping arms and tuck me into bed.* * * The Busk festival took place in the town’s center, the central Grandfather fire the focal point of the scene. Father, with Heno clinging to his back, cleaned the firepit, struck down new logs and struck up the Grandfather fire to keep the village warm as we purified our plots and our pasts. Mama and I participated in the preparation, the cleaning of our homes and our neighbors’ homes, breaking worn pots that cooked the stew of last years harvest, helping the old make the new.
“Mama?” I asked. She turned from gathering the straw that had fallen from the domed roof of our dwelling. She could recognize my oncoming curiosity. “Why do we have the Busk festival each year?”
“To celebrate the first fruits of the midsummer crops, and, just as the fruits of the Earth are reborn, we may be forgiven of our faults and begin the harvest fresh.” Mama knew everything. About history, about family, even why the Sun woke up by my window after falling asleep by hers.
“You always told me that our bad actions must be punished, so why should we be pardoned only because the fruits are pardoned too?”
“You’re a bright girl, Sekolko. Justice is the truth, but we must live with the earth in order to live on it. Go on, now,” she said as she placed the final piece of straw into her basket, “The festival is starting.”
At the festival, each member of the Beloved Men gave a lecture, telling stories of our ancestors and tales of Sister Sun and Brother Moon, passing around the purifying medicine of the gulf holly leaf. “One sip,” Mama used to say, “lasts the whole year, as long was we remember why we sipped it.” But, when the medicine vase reached Father, he drained his cup, his forehead frustrated with the bitter taste.
The stomp dancers assumed their posts, their line of men looped into a circle, spiraling around the center. They began to stomp rhythmically, chanting every four beats, as the spiral spun, each encircling the other, until they were one entity, moving as a whole. They kept time, their leather moccasins pulsating above the Earth, giving her a heartbeat and the energy to live. Mama and Heno signaled for me to join the breathing spiral, but I declined, still concerned by Father’s empty cup.
I slithered behind the long log table meant to seat the Beloved Men and their fellow leaders.
“Tenetke, I don’t think signing that treaty was the best we could do for our people,” Menewa said to Father.
“Ceding the land of our ancestors, land that we have cultivated for our maize, to these white men who have no idea how to connect with our Earth! They will ruin what your Father, what your Grandfather, even what the first Mikko Hese fought to gain and worked to protect,” Yaholo shouted from the end of the log table. The fringes of Father’s matchcoat brushed against my forehead as he fidgeted with frustration. Sometimes, the adults of our village, while the children lingered in dreams, whispered about the white men, spinning distant tales from a trembling mouth to an anxious ear, but the men had always been remote, like billowing smoke. A child only truly knows heat once they have touched fire.
“Listen, friends,” Father said, “and please trust that I had our people’s best interests in mind. If we hadn’t signed the treaty, the white men would have taken everything away by force, killing more men, women and children than the Sun can count on her rays. My job as Mikko Hese, just as those before me, is to protect our people and make decisions that will help our legacy live on. We signed the treaty so that we can debate at our long log table at next summer’s Busk, and every summer until the corn stops sprouting.”
The other men, convinced by his wisdom, settled into their chairs and eagerly cut into the venison Father had caught that morning. The smell of meat only made my stomach more uneasy. How could Father just hand our home away with a swipe of a pen? Just one mark, pointless but permanent, handed the fate of our people, of Mama, of Heno, of myself, into the unforgiving arms of these white invaders. Anger boiled and steam billowed through me. My heart thumped in time with the stomp dancers.
What does this mean for us? Must I take my final breath of fresh Muscogean air? When will the smell of maize, Sun’s rays and hundreds of years of history vanish from my nose forever? Does Mama know? Questions churned with emotion. I wanted to confront Father, to ask, to cry, to swoop down from the sky and protect my nest. But I was afraid.
I trusted Father, our people respected him. He had lead our people through uprisings, resolved our complaints, pacified our cries, been a warrior during war and a leader during loss and here he stood. We stood, a people with history, a people with tradition, a family as permanent as the ink that illuminated Father’s skin. I tried not to think about when the men would come. I only tried to savor what would remain. * * * The white men’s mad recklessness ravaged our village in the dark. They tore apart my neighbor’s home first, ripping the mud walls from the framework, leaving nothing behind. I was the first to hear their cries. I rushed to Father’s bed and shook him. He shot out of bed and jumped for the axe he kept by his bedside. I hushed him, told him what I had heard. He slipped his bone-fixed knife into his waistband as if I couldn’t see. As if I didn’t know the blade’s plan.
I grabbed what I could, some clothes and some food, even though I knew they would no longer be mine when the men attacked. Father woke up Mama, who roused Heno, until my whole family huddled in the living room, Father’s face bent, brutal. I heard their boots at the doorstep. I looked back at Father, but quickly turned away, not wanting his last image of me to be fear.
The first man wore a coat, a bloodstained blue, and a rifle. The trigger, the barrel, the bullet, all harmless apart but lethal together. He yelled, pointed, his face ruffled with anger, in a language I couldn’t understand. The steady hand of the second man, youthful but not naïve, pushed us outside our home. I saw our peaceful village, what my family and our ancestors had worked to build since the sun could rise, turn red at the hands of the unforgiving men. They burned our homes, our temple, places we were raised to respect. These men weren’t raised by Mama. These men were brought up by the shadow that lingers at night, watching, waiting. These men were nurtured by Anger, drank sour milk from her breast, and she watched as she transfigured their persons in her image, pups following their mama. Their mama, not my Mama.
A river bled from Mama’s eyes, each drop piercing my soul, as they ripped Father from her arms and ordered the women and children to line up in the village center where breadcrumbs and venison fat littered the ground. They stifled our tears, gagged any who protested. The first man’s voice boomed, but the noise was unheard over the roaring fires. His soldiers, since I assumed the first man was the commander, grabbed us by the thin fabric of our sleep-gowns and turned us around. I could see Father watching them, waiting for one to lay a hand on Mama. One did.
At once, like a roll of thunder, Father broke through the crowd of men and lunged at the man who touched Mama. He grabbed his knife from his trousers and stabbed the man through the throat, once, twice, again, and again. She loves him. She loves him not. She– The commander shot right through Father and blood streamed from the flower, petals plucked off. Another man held me still. He made me watch as Father fell to the ground, as his blood soiled the spawning morning dew, forming a puddle in a ditch in front of the temple. Mama screamed. Heno cried and turned away. I froze.
We marched that entire morning, stopping only once for some crumbs and a drop of water while the white men swigged their wine and cooked their rabbit. The walking continued in the afternoon, our soles tired and broken. I walked beside Heno, holding his hand and carrying him when he was tired. Mama lagged behind. I slowed, clutching Heno’s hand, until I kept pace with Mama. I draped her hand over mine as we walked, a chain stronger than bullets. As the sun began to set, Heno asked me for the story. I knew I could never tell it as good as Father had, with the different voices for each character, uncovering a new detail each time, but I had to try. Reflected by Heno’s eager eyes, Sister Sun’s fingertips brushed the horizon. I began.
“The Alligator is the bravest leader of the forest. He knows how to hunt, which trees provide the most shade, even the names of all the different animals in his forest. One day the wily Rabbit, wanting to frighten the Alligator, asks him if he feared the Horned Serpent. The Alligator says he feared no one. The Rabbit tells the Alligator that when the Horned Serpent comes, smoke will rise from the Earth and all the animals in the forest will flee to the West and the Alligator will have to face the Horned Serpent alone. Still this does not spark fear in the Alligator. The Rabbit challenges the Alligator to await the Horned Serpent in the center of the forest and, of course, the Alligator agrees. At once, the Rabbit sets fire to field, causing smoke to rise in waves, polluting the air in anticipation of the Horned Serpent-”
My mind knew the story but my heart had to rewrite it. Just as the purple martin rushes from the heavens to protect her nest, I must fight to protect our people. The nest is not the twigs interlaced in a delicate pattern, it is the eggs and the fledglings that need the mother’s care and warmth, that the purple martin plunges to preserve. The Rabbit tried to break the Alligator, tried to encircle him in fear and make him flee west. But fear doesn’t make you weak, brave doesn’t mean fearless. We must harness that fear. The Muscogee people won’t burn with the field if we become the flames ourselves. For the first time, a window didn’t hinder the warm touch of the rising sun. Father didn’t know how to harness the blaze, but we will learn.
“But the Alligator knew that the Rabbit doesn’t always have to win.”