The Moon-Eyed Ones
It is a mystery of how these mountains came to be. The native tribes all have their tales of hills being carved from the wings of giant buzzards, large serpents, and other fantastic stories like that. The incoming whites believed that the world was created, and that God had placed the blue, rolling peaks here for some all-knowing purpose we were all unaware of. They all even had legends of how we all got here to this remote, and vertical frontier. The Indians have always been here, and have an almost cosmic and spiritual right to this land, down to the last cove and creek hidden under the trees. The whites had some idea that they could just rip that rug out from under them, and that a long, terrifying journey by sea somehow made them more entitled to it. Then there were us. Portuguese, Indians...Melungeons. We go by many names, some nicer than others. Sure, we were here after the Indians but before the whites, and we dressed different than the Indians and worshipped the same God the whites did, though we shared more with the nearby tribes than anything. But no one knows where we came from or how we got here. But all we know is that we are at home in the mountains, and whether we are Indian or some breed of white man, we all have a story on how we made it here and how we survived in the land closest to Heaven, but as harsh as Hell. This here is mine.
It all began at that time of year when the mountains begin to slowly change from blue to gold. Fitting, since my people’s biggest trading season was in the autumn. My sixteenth birthday was only a few months away, and after looking at the seasons changing again through our cabin’s arched, dusty windows, I realized--- I had never seen anything other than this view. The river, which we used as a sacred space, existed as my boundary. To go any further would warrant one of my older siblings to drag me back up the rocky hill by the collar of my shirt.
I had the darkest complexion out of the lot of us, a trait from Pa’s side of the family. Mama got lucky with olive skin and dark auburn hair, and the majority of my siblings inherited these traits except for my youngest sister and me.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. There’s no question as to whether Mama was loyal. She’d rather chop off her own arm than stray. The oddity of varying skin tones was just something that happened in a family like ours. On errand days when I was stuck at home, Pa used to corner me and ask prodding questions in regard to race and origin.
“Silas…if anyone asks, what are you?”
“A person.” It really was the simplest answer.
“No.” He’d shake his head, “I mean about your color. What d’you tell them?”
Hell if I knew. “Indian…?”
“That’s right, boy. You’re Indian, Cherokee. And don’t you forget it.” He’d nod satisfyingly as he smoked his pipe.
Though looking back, I reckon Cherokee worked best. I had the look for it anyway. But my unruly, wavy brown hair and blue eyes would probably give me away since not many full or mixed bloods had traits like that. No one ever came to our alcove of Hawktail Ridge before, save for a few travelling tradesmen and missionaries. They didn’t stay long, if at all. So, I figured I’d never have to worry about the questions I was always warned about.
Then there were the tales of the names. As I said before, I’ve been called by many names in my past, but most of them were ones I could have lived well without.
“If you go to the settlement, they’ll spit on you.” Mama would say, “Call you terrible things like gypsy, negro, or…Melungeon.”
I didn’t believe her at the time. The autumn I turned fifteen, I was finally allowed to go to the town below to trade. Pa figured I was plenty old enough to go wherever I pleased, but he told me this with a look of dread on his face. I promised I’d behave myself, but mostly because money and food were at stake, but I never would have expected that going to trade a simple sack of ginseng and a few pieces of silver would change my life forever.
Mama always made us go to the water to pray. We would always face East, because “that's where all light comes from, so that's where God is,” she told us. To the East, no matter where we were. Not just in honor of God, but to always be reminded where we were going, but most importantly, to never forget where we had been. Beyond the tree-covered hills, you could hear the river whispering among the singing birds. It surrounded our mountain on both sides, providing not just protection, but solace and peace. I hated it. The river was full and cool this time of year, and we purified ourselves the way Mama taught us before bowing to the East in respect to Heaven. Though we were the only family on the ridge to do something like this. Most people did the East-facing practice as well, but used the iron bell in the center of the village to dictate when to offer up prayers. Many families in our colony sang hymns as a way to ask for blessings, but in our family we saved hymns for Sundays, as my parents believed singing in a large group made the effect of the hymn greater. I often hummed to myself whichever one I felt described my situation best at the time. That day I had chosen the last verse of "Guide Me, Thou Great Jehovah," hoping maybe I could find some comfort remaining where I was or wherever I was planned to go. The bell tolled suddenly, echoing through the ravine, prayer was over. We began the long walk upward to home.
Other groups of our people lived further west, but my family and a few others stayed east, close to where the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia met. Something seemed different about the whole ridge that season. The mountains were swiftly changing from blue to gold, and the air grew cooler and sweeter every day. I had decided. I needed to get off the ridge. I needed to see what waited beyond our isolated mountain island, to go on a journey of some kind. I was a man now, right? Just knowing that there was another world out there made me antsy. If I had to be trapped in the woods for the rest of my life, I'd probably lose my mind.
“No. No. A thousand times no. Absolutely not.”
“No buts, Silas. I can't allow you to set foot down there. There's no telling what those folk will do.”
She was just trying to scare me. “How do you know what they'll do? Maybe things aren't like they used to be. Pa, will you tell her that I'd be fine?”
He wasn't convinced by my begging, and casually lit a cigarette. “They'd hang him...or just shoot him.”
Her eyes widened and she nodded in agreement. “You see?”
“Ugh, just one time, please! Have someone go with me or something. Just please get me off of this god-forsaken mountain!” My voice had gotten louder than I had expected, and my older brother Vardan was smiling at the whole spectacle from the loft. He seemed to be the only one enjoying the scene.
“So, you want to be one of them?” That was the dreaded question, and it always came out of nowhere. The one that ended all arguments in the house to do with the valley. Pa was known for being wary of outsiders, and his quickly flamed temper didn't help.
“So you do, then.”
My chest tightened. I didn't even know why I was getting so worked up over this.
“I don't want to be one of...them. I just don't want be stuck up here forever. Please, just let me go once, try to earn some money. And if they stone me or spit on me, I never have to go down in the valley again. Just once.”
“Why not let him go?” It was Vardan.
Vardan was the “luckiest” one out of all of us kids. He got pale olive skin, gray eyes, and auburn hair; all genes from Mama's side. The only thing that distinguished him as a Melungeon was the coppery tone his skin took in the summer. “If he really wants to go, why not let him when we have to make our next trade? He's marrying age now, maybe he'll even meet a nice girl who doesn't care about him being dark.”
He winked at me. “Besides, since he's old enough, he could technically go without your permission.”
I glared up at him. “Easy for you to say, you can pass. I just don't think that they'll treat me as bad as you say...times change.”
Mama sighed, shaking her head as she wiped her hands on her apron. “I just don't know. You remember what happened to us, and you were just a child then. And if someone hurt you...”
“But that was ten years ago, Mama. I'd be careful! And I could just use what Pa taught me and tell everyone I'm Indian. Indians get treated better, right?”
No response. “...Right?”
She lowered her head, still shaking. “I...Ezekiel, what do you think?”
I looked expectantly at my father. What he said was law. He was my last chance. “It seems his mind's made up, he's goin' to go down there whether we say he can or not. But if something happens to you, don't say we didn't warn you.”
It wasn't quite the response I had hoped for, but it was good enough for me.
Pa allowing me to go down to the valley wasn't well taken by the family. My oldest brother Isaiah had heard news that the head government passed a law that was making certain Indians move out west so more white people could move in. On top of that, they decided that all of us “colored” folk could no longer vote or hold ourselves up in court. This obviously made Mama a nervous wreck, but Isaiah promised he'd look after me and make sure I didn't get myself into any unneeded trouble. After all, he could pass for white, too, so he usually didn't get questioned too often. I, of course, was too excited to worry about what people would think of me. I would finally get to see the outside world after ten years. Ten, long, agonizing years.
The trip down the mountain was a bit longer than I recalled, but it wasn't too difficult to navigate. The road was an underbrush path that curved wildly down the hill, nearly straight up and down. A few small cliffs and rocky impasses interrupted the descent, but it wasn't like we couldn't climb over or around them; we were people of the mountains after all. It was mostly a clunky walk for me because I was forced to wear shoes. I had nothing against the practice, but I lost my sense of grace that I usually had when barefoot. Stockings and shoes themselves were luxuries for us, and we all made sure we had one nice pair for the two most important occasions: church and going to town.
Isaiah made sure to run through the directions with me in case we would get separated once we neared the outskirts. I knew my way after a certain point, but this was new territory for me, so I needed to be sure to remember everything he told me. The scent of smoke caught my attention as we neared the edge of the forest, and sounds unfamiliar to me reached my ears for the first time since I was a child.
And that's when the nerves began to set in. I was all tough when I was high up on our mountain stronghold, but down among other people I was just a kid that couldn't live up to his fighting words. My teeth clenched, and I couldn't help but feel a little skittish in this new place. Even though the buildings looked the same as ours, just the fact that they were valley buildings left me in awe. The expanse of the town was so…flat. No grass existed in the boundaries of the fort wall, only mud and maybe a stray bunch of wildflowers, but to be honest, I think that the flowers wouldn't bloom in such a downtrodden village. The stench of animals and woodsmoke almost made it impossible to breathe, and I couldn't believe how loud everything was, I couldn't even hear the birds over the people talking. My footsteps halted and I tried to get my senses together before they made me dizzy and so I could get my sudden fear and confusion under control. A few people gasped and glared at me when we first walked into town and my heart dropped into my guts.
“I-I don't think this was such a good idea after all...I don't think I can do this....”
“Too late to back out now,” Isaiah whispered in my ear as he pushed me onward with his fist in my back, “Just act natural. Act like you belong. You'll be fine.”
I straightened up and tried to act like I wasn't the only dark-skinned person around, but it was obvious, to say the least. I avoided eye contact with most of the people, and no one had directly called us out yet, but even when looking at the ground, I could tell I was being watched. Isaiah led me to a small cabin on the outskirts. On the front porch sat an older, bearded man dressed as if he hadn't bought new clothes since the Revolution. His eyes widened and his pipe dropped from his lips when he caught sight of me.
“Vanover, what the hell do you think you're doin'? Who is this?”
My brother shoved me toward the man as I attempted a rather sloppy bow. “Mr. Calhoun, this is my kid brother, Silas. He's looking to trade a few things today. It’s his first time in the valley in a while.”
Calhoun scanned me, gripping his pipe in his wrinkled hands. His piercing brown stare out of red eyes made me nervous, like looking down a rabid dog or an angry bear. “Brother, huh? I dunno...awful swarthy, ain't he? You know I'd never hear the end of it for trading with a ni—I mean, someone as dark as him. It's hard enough already with you'ns being ridge folk and all.”
“But he’s pretty savvy with the valley ways.” Isaiah explained, as cool-headed as ever, “Give him today and you’ll see. And you won't have to worry about him getting into trouble, on account of you havin' me around.” And that was a downright lie.
Calhoun ran his hand over his graying beard, scowling a bit. He knew that if he turned me away, he'd probably lose valuables from the ridge. “So what’d you bring in today, kid?”
Silently, I dropped the sack that I had lugged down the mountain and opened it. “Mostly ginseng…and some silver.”
Calhoun’s eyes widened and sparkled. “God almighty, look at all that ‘sang! You hunt all that yourself?”
I shook my head. “With the folks, of course.”
The old trader grinned like a fox. “You know, despite how you’uns look, you Vanovers never disappoint me.” He rubbed his hands together as if he was trying to warm himself over a fire, “Haul that inside, kid, and my shopkeep will see what he can get you.” He sat back down in his chair, and I swear I heard him mumble something about “those good-for-nothing gypsies.”
I followed Isaiah inside, still a bit uneasy about this whole setup. “Why do you work with him? He seems really...” I paused, looking for the right word to describe him, “Unpleasant.”
“He's the owner of the trading post, the only man for miles that will let us trade, Silas. He doesn't make good deals, but it's better than nothing at all. Part of living life between home and the valley is that you learn to be grateful for the little things that you can get. Hopefully you'll understand soon.”
I swung the sack onto the counter, and a white boy with curly, blonde hair greeted me. Come to find out, his name was Bailey, and he worked as Calhoun’s apprentice. He had come west from North Carolina, picking up some Indian languages on the way, and honed the art of trade and commerce in the mountains. At least, this is what Isaiah told me. He was much friendlier than Calhoun, but it was obvious how tense he was at our presence in the post.
“Would you boys like cash or credit for this?” He asked.
“Um…” I looked at Isaiah, who responded, “Credit.”
Bartering was a terrifying ordeal for me, since I didn’t know what our shipment was worth, nor was I sure what anything else was worth or cost with hard money. After a few minutes of stuttering and gabbling, I fell back to let my brother handle the official matters, while I looked around for supplies I knew we needed. The post was like a haven in the bustling town. I took a deep breath; instead of manure, the cedar walls mixed with cinnamon, instead of jabbering people and barking dogs, it was silent, save for metal chimes tinkling as they blew in the breeze. I was amazed at how much they had there. Although I expected a wide range of items by knowing our list of must-haves, I couldn't help touching everything. Clear jars of bright red hot peppers, strips of fatback wrapped in paper, ceramic jugs for water or liquor, iron skillets bigger than a grown man's head, fabric of all colors and textures, beads, and even books, which caught my attention the most. The only book I had really seen was the Bible, so being able to look through other writings was a new discovery. Some had drawings of far away places or brave men fighting off cruel beasts, but past the etchings, I was lost as to what they actually entailed. But the leather bindings and shining scrollwork on the covers fascinated me, and I continued to pick up one after the other to see if I could pick up any clues without knowing the words.
As I set a rather thick book back on the dusty shelf, another pair of people walked into the post, breaking the quiet I was enjoying.
“Shiyo!” Bailey said to the visitors, “Oshigwotsu, Inola?”
An old, tanned woman neared the counter. “Oshigwo. Ihina?” She said.
“Osd. S’gi.” That was all I could manage to hear before the shopkeep and the woman flew off into a full conversation in their mysterious language far too quickly for me to even understand. I noticed that Isaiah smiled and stepped away to look at some tools, allowing the others to banter.
The sound of boots clacked on the wood floor nearest me, and I was taken aback at a girl about my age reaching for a book above her. A loose, dark braid hung over her shoulders beneath a blue kerchief, and her dress was a bright pink calico framed with white and blue diamond patterns. Her skin was darker than the whites, but her features were similar to many of the girls in our village. One of us, maybe? Whether she was or not, she was definitely beautiful. I wanted to talk to her, but how do you talk to an outlander? 'Just say anything', I thought.
“Whatcha reading?” I asked her, suddenly embarrassed at my awkward attempts at conversation.
“This one is King Arthur, I think.”
“Oh…” I had no idea what that meant, “Is it any good?”
“From what I’ve heard. Would you like to take a look?” She went to hand it to me, but I shook my head. “No…I’m just looking.”
Her shoulders bobbed in a shrug, and she moved down the shelves to look at the cookware. Her eyes didn’t leave a stack of mixing bowls when she said, “You know, I don’t think I know much, but I doubt you’ll get anywhere with that cookbook in your hands.”
I looked down at the simple cover and sighed. Although I did cook for my family a good deal of the time, it was probably some sort of oddity to see a teenage boy reading a cookbook of all things. “So that’s what this is…”
“Unless you plan on hitting someone with it.” She said, smirking.
Warmth rose up into my face as I placed it back on the shelf and she neared me again. “You’re a strange looking fellow, not like the other people here. Are you new to these parts? I don't think I've seen you at this post before.”
My shoulders tensed at her observation, but calmed when she stuck her hand out stiffly, with intent for a handshake. “My name is Amadahy Kingfisher. And you are?”
“Silas Vanover…” I returned her shake, and her grip was much too firm.
She curtsied slightly. “It’s a pleasure, Mr. Vanover. You enjoy reading I assume?”
“Not much…” I said, “I just like looking at things.”
“And are you new to Ellistown?”
“Sort of.” I responded, pushing a chunk of hair out of my eyes.
“Where are you from? You look like you might be a mixed-blood from a neighboring tribe.”
“I reckon so…” I mumbled, not really following her, “But I live up in the mountains. On a ridge.”
“Ridge? Hawktail Ridge?”
My brows furrowed. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
Her whole demeanor suddenly changed. She stepped back from me, her mouth hanging open slightly, her eyes wide with shock. “You’re one of them…you’re a Melungeon!”
My glance shot back over to my brother, hoping he didn't hear someone utter the forbidden word.
“Shh!” I hushed her. “Don’t say that word. I’m Indian.”
Amadahy cupped her hand over her mouth and looked over at the counter, my brother, the old woman, and Bailey had continued on. “I’ve heard about your people, but I’ve never seen one before!”
“You’ve heard about us?”
“My father told me about your kind. Said you were dangerous.”
A frown pulled at my mouth. “We ain’t dangerous. We just don’t like being threatened.”
“Were you the people run out of town all those years ago?” She asked.
“I-I don’t know. Can we not talk about that?” I remembered hearing Pa and Mama talk about being excommunicated from church and forced to give up their land, but I didn’t know that it was such widespread news.
She didn’t speak, but I cleared my throat and asked, “So where are you from?”
Her head nodded forward as if to point north. “Atsinahi. Cedar Hill. The Cherokee village out of town.”
I nodded silently in response. Who would have known that Pa’s Indian ploy didn’t work on actual Indians? A low rumbling in my stomach suddenly broke my thoughts, which was loud enough for Amadahy to hear. “Have you not eaten?” She asked.
“Not since before sun-up.” I said, hoping that placing my hand there would stop it from making noise.
“That was over six hours ago. Hold on a minute.” She turned and walked up to the counter and began talking to the old woman in what I believe was Cherokee. I saw Amadahy point to me and nod. After a few minutes, she pulled me over to the counter. “Silas, was it? This is my grandmother, Inola.”
I half-nodded, half-bowed to her, and she said something I didn’t understand. “It’s nice to meet you.” I replied, hoping not to seem too stupid.
“We thought it would be a good idea for you to come over to our house for dinner,” Amadahy began, “After all, I bet it’s a long hike up the mountain, and you don’t want to be doing that on an empty stomach.”
Her kindness baffled me, but was refreshing from Calhoun’s gruffness and the piercing stares of the settlers. “Sounds fine to me, but I have to ask my brother, first.”
Isaiah turned around from his tools. “I’ve heard everything. I reckon it’s alright with me, but we don’t want to impose.”
Inola shook her head, having Amadahy translate. “It’s not a problem. After all, it’s the Cherokee way to feed the hungry and offer hospitality. Why don’t you boys finish your business and then we can be on our way.”
We picked up an array of spices, fabric, and tools for our own use. Isaiah claimed it was the most successful day we had in a long time, and my heart practically burst at hearing that. Town itself wasn’t so scary now that I thought about it. The main road only housed the trading post, a jail, and a few other buildings with unknown purposes. Most of the cabins sat on the hills above the drag or outside of town. To be honest, it wasn’t terribly different from our own village, and people willing, I could probably feel right at home, after getting used to the commotion.
As Amadahy led us toward the ring of Cherokee cabins, the sounds and smells of a different world drifted to us. The smoke of Cedar Hill was much sweeter than that of Ellistown’s, and the blend of people and animal scents didn’t hit you in the face like they did behind the fort walls. Everything mixed like it did in nature, from the birds singing, to fires crackling, and the sounds of laughter. The grass and trees softened the transition to civilization, something that almost seemed like a distant memory to me.
The Kingfisher cabin was slightly smaller than ours. Inola walked up the steps to greet whoever was inside, while Amadahy had us drop our haul in the yard. “Wait here.”
Though as we stood there, I noticed something painfully similar to Ellistown: the staring. Those who were working or playing outside stopped to observe us, and any who had gotten a glimpse from their doorways had come out to whisper about us, too. Granted, I didn’t understand Cherokee, so I didn’t know if what they were saying was good or bad. I thought I saw a motion for us to come in, so I hopped up the porch steps and walked in the house. A turbaned man stood from the table and said in a heavy accent, “No! You stay outside.”
I recoiled back out onto the porch, confused about my etiquette and the apparent intrusion I made into the house. Amadahy called back to him, while he and Inola began what sounded like a very heated conversation. The younger rolled her eyes and came outside with three plates balanced on her arm and in her hands.
“Sorry, boys. Looks like we’ll be having a picnic.”
We sat on the porch edge with our meals, and she pointed out everything. “This is deer meat, bean bread, hominy, and squash. For dessert we have apples or peaches if you like. Hope you enjoy it.”
The food was delicious, especially so after going so long without a full meal. Amadahy spoke up suddenly, “I’m sorry my father was rude to you. He’s wary of outsiders, so that’s why we’re eating on the porch.”
“It’s fine.” Isaiah said, being as charming as always, “It’s his house, so we’ll follow his rules.”
“Though it’s actually my grandmother’s house…” Amadahy mumbled. She leaned in as I took a bite of bread. “Though the reason I wanted to bring you here was so I could learn more about you.”
I swallowed. “Me?”
She nodded, “I’m curious,” she said, keeping her voice low, “About your people and who you really are. I hope you don’t mind me asking.”
“I reckon not…”
“There’s just something odd about you, Silas.”
“Like the fact that I was trying to read a cookbook?” I asked.
She chuckled. “Well, yes. I wouldn’t consider it prime reading material.”
Isaiah had been trying to listen to our talk, but we kept it hushed enough that he couldn’t hear.
“Well, to be honest, I haven’t read a lot. And I actually enjoy cooking a little bit.” I said this while forcing a laugh, as if I were joking.
“Well, it isn’t that. Just something.”
“Is that a compliment or…?”
Amadahy smirked, then sat upright again so she could finish her meal. I quietly ate mine, assuming she didn’t intend to answer my question. Was there something odd about me? If so, what was it, and why didn’t she want to tell me?
We gathered our things and began to head out, but she stopped me. She stood on her tiptoes and whispered to me again, “I hope to see you soon, boy from the mountains.”
My face felt hot again, and I heard Isaiah whistle and chuckle. I knelt down and pulled a silver bracelet I had made that the post hadn’t taken. It had violets and vines carved on its surface and I handed it to her. “Consider this a thank you for the meal,” I said, “And for making my first time in the valley a little easier.”
Her cheeks seemed to redden as she slowly clasped it around her wrist. “Thank you, Silas.”
“No, thank you, Amadahy.”
She waved goodbye to us as we walked away. We left Cedar Hill just as the sun was about to set, the sky now glowing orange and gold. Isaiah nudged me as we climbed the rock path. “Look at you being smooth today and meeting a girl. You’re going up in the world.”
“Oh, hush. Just don’t tell Pa or Mama.”
“Hmm…I think I’m liable to.” He said, grinning.
I jumped up on a rock edge and glared down at him. “You better not.”
“Better not what?” My heart dropped when I saw my mother on the edge of the road. She probably had come halfway to help us carry things, but instead was now giving me the questioning look I always dreaded as a kid. “Silas met a girl.” Isaiah blurted.
“For the love of…” As mature and as old as Isaiah was, he didn’t lose the need to tattle or tease all of us young’uns. I dropped my bag and threw my hands in the air, trying to brave my mother’s gaze. “It’s nothing, Mama. She was kind to me today, is all.” I turned my eyes back to my older brother, attempting to make my stare as venomous as possible. “Nothing more.”
“She invited him to dinner and whispered things to him, he even gave her one of those silver bracelets he made.” He said, smiling.
Before I could count to five, she had marched over and had an iron grip on my ear.
“Ow! What did I do?”
“Listen closely, boy. You ain’t to touch a valley woman, no matter how kind to you she is. You hear?”
I was sure she was going to rip my ear off with her bare hands. Isaiah tried to save me from her wrath, but we both knew all too well how futile those efforts were.
“Whoa, go easy on him, Mama. He did a good job today. You raised him with enough gumption and charm for ten men.”
She lowered her hand, but I had to check my ear for blood. “Well, all that gumption'll get him shot one of these days, talking to people like that. If one of the white men saw you with their women…”
I didn’t even have the chance to tell her that said woman was Cherokee. I reeled back when I saw her hand reach for me again, but she pulled me in by the collar. “We've got enough problems and we don't need you adding to them. Now get yourself home.”
Rubbing where she had left her mark on my ear, I slumped, defeated. “Yes, ma'am.”
It was back to the green-leafed prison for me.