Great-grandfather spent his final summer under the big oak tree in our backyard sharing his stories with me. He was too old to work the fields; I too young. Great-grandfather was an artist, and his tales were more than words coming from a mouth. They became images, emotions, a woven tapestry taking flight. I eagerly soared along.
He was a giant, a legend, in his buckskin shirt that smelled of sweat and smoke. He was a portrait; a proud head of long white hair framed his dark, creased face. I remember him keeping a twist of homegrown in his belt pouch. He would cut off a biggish piece and champ it between his mostly toothless jaws a minute until he worked up his first good spit. He would wipe his chin, look down at me, and say, “This is a story of our people.”
Great-grandfather’s mother had been one of the people and he got the stories from her. He was the last one in our family who was really one of the people. His son, my grandfather, was lean and dark and as tough as seasoned saddle leather, but because he worked in town at the factory during winter months and wore store-bought clothes and shoes, people called him normal. By the time my dad, and then I, came along, we were so normal we could be mistaken for just about anyone. But people knew we weren’t.
Normal is a funny word that is meant to sound kindly, or even complimentary. But underneath, everyone knows it is only a reminder that you are different, and so it actually is a sneaky, venomous word. But it is just a word and eventually I learned it is okay to be different; it is natural. We are the same, but we are different. My differences I carry down deep, deeper even than my heart, which is still a part of me. My differences are bigger than me, and I thank Great-grandfather for that. I think he knew his time was short and that summer was my last and only chance to hear about the days that had disappeared forever.
I am the keeper of the stories now. I don’t think Great-grandfather would mind me sharing this one. It is one I remember best, because it was about a kid like me. A kid who was different.
There was a happy break in the routine of the people this day. For time beyond memory they had lived here where river met sea and each day was much like the one before, and that was right and as it should be. But today was different, and joyful words came easily, spreading and rippling and leaving a wake of good cheer. A son had been born to the chief, and though he already had many sons, there was always pleasure in one more. Surely there would be a feast to celebrate.
Then, like a sudden squall from the sea, a cloud of dark news turned their faces downward and caused lips to press tight, stopping the smiles and laughter that had tempted the attention of a jealous god.
It was whispered the baby was not normal. One leg was crooked and ended in a twisted and shortened foot. And since the chief immediately pretended the previous nine months had not happened, so too did the village. The baby no longer existed as one of the people; it would live or die according to fate.
But there was one who stepped in. The baby’s grandmother, the mother of the chief, decided the baby must live. And since she was the widow of one chief and the mother of another, the people did not go against her. So the baby survived.
The boy was called Badfoot in their language and was excluded from both the life of a chief’s son as well as the life of a normal boy. In his first few years he was as a partly seen spirit, moving on the fringe, and when someone took accidental notice of him they turned away, ashamed.
He was set apart by all but his mother, who nursed him but whose affections and attentions eventually moved on. And by his grandmother, who by long years of custom and aided by a loud, commanding voice had gained a measure of authority with the people. Grandmother took an interest in the boy and it was she who raised him.
When Badfoot was old enough to learn walking, he wailed with frustration because he couldn’t keep his balance or move as quickly as the other boys. Plopping to the ground to continue crawling, Grandmother picked him up. “You are a chief’s son. You must not give up.”
Grandmother knew the boy’s prospects were bleak, for a man needed a wife and children and grandchildren. A man alone was not natural. When Badfoot was old enough to reason, she told him, “You are different and always will be. They will not let you be a fisher or hunter. You must learn to look ahead; you must strengthen your mind as the other boys strengthen their bodies.”
She set him to memorizing the stories of the people. Every new moon, the village would build up a fire and listen to one of the elders speak of the making of the world, or this hero or that legend. Badfoot delighted in those nights, sitting in the front row next to Grandmother, devouring all he heard. The boy was quick of mind and obedient, and always the following morning he sat with Grandmother as she worked and was made to recite back what he had heard.
It was around Badfoot’s tenth summer that the others came. Down the coast from the north, in a single boat much larger than any seen before, pushed by the wind. Men came from the boat, men with hair all over their faces and wearing rough brown robes. Some of them carried things of black leather. With them was a cousin of the people, who knew enough of the language of the others that he could take their words and turn them into words everyone in the village could understand.
The others made their camp, and since they built their own shelters and had brought their own food, the people did not interfere. For in truth, the people were peaceful. There had been no war or fighting or even raiding in the memory of any who now lived.
Through the interpreter, the others invited the people to come to their camp, to sit and listen. They told stories from the black leather things and at first many were curious. But the stories were about strange people in strange lands with strange beliefs, and after listening politely, most from the village never returned. But there was a group of older women led by Grandmother who came often.
She always brought Badfoot with her and she pushed him not only to learn the stories they told, but through the interpreter also their language. The others stayed for a season and then moved on. They did this for three years and after that time, Badfoot could speak the strange language.
During that last summer with the others, Grandmother asked for one of the stories from the black leather to be told and re-told. It was a story about a young son of an important man who had many older brothers who hated him and wanted him dead. A story that ended in the young son becoming an important man himself. The name of the boy in the story was difficult to pronounce, but Grandmother mastered it and taught Badfoot to say it properly as well.
Grandmother went to her son the chief and told him, “Badfoot is no name for a chieftain’s son. Are you ever going to give him a name?” She knew he would not but was clever with her plan.
The chief only grunted and shook his head. He did not like being reminded of the boy with the bad foot that scampered around with his off-balance clumping.
“Then I will give him a name. He will be called Joseph.”
The chief wanted to argue. He was the chief after all. But after a moment of consideration, he only shrugged. Grandmother could call the boy whatever she wanted. Even that foreign word.
It was with pride that the boy received his name. Some of the women acknowledged him now, for Grandmother’s sake. A few even tried out the new name, but at best it came out as “Gosep.” So the boy became Joseph, or sometimes Gosep.
Joseph began to leave childhood behind. He had spent years learning to do things other boys scorned. Women’s work. Always Grandmother pushed him. “You must. You are a chief’s son.” He learned how to prepare and cook food. How to craft all the necessities that men used but were above making themselves. He learned how to weave, how to plant and harvest. But now he felt the urge to explore, to be free of Grandmother’s shadow.
The work Joseph loved best was gathering eggs. Behind the beach and on both sides of the river rose tall, steep cliffs pockmarked with holes and cracks where sea-birds nested every spring. His bad foot did not hinder him in climbing, if he went slowly and deliberately. His hands and arms were strong, and when the birds came, crowding the cliff faces and filling the air with their raucous calling, he would hang an empty flax sack over his neck and climb the cliffs.
Picking an egg here, two eggs there, ignoring the loud panicked squawking, he would gather in one day enough for the entire village to get a bite or two with the evening meal. Those nights almost made up for all the others, for Joseph felt included, and as he lay on his bed mat after sundown his heart surged with joy to hear his name spoken with kindness.
So, this day in spring, the day when everything changed, Joseph slung an empty sack and began climbing. No longer a child, not yet a man, Joseph felt more and more the need to find space, to be alone. He gathered only a few eggs on his way to the top of the cliff.
I would live up here if I could. Alone with the sun and sea-breeze. Above it all, safe.
Joseph sat in the thick green turf, content, feeling as if all were right in the world. The sun sparkled on the waves below, as countless golden stars, living, then dying, then living again. Fishing boats bobbed, the men working their nets. Clusters of women worked here and there in the shade, and small children scurried and played around the huts.
Then, Joseph’s eye caught a strangeness on the horizon out to sea. Something dark that should not be. Like a long, long cloud moving rapidly, swelling. The boy stared, unable to think or move. His mouth dropped open when he finally realized what he was seeing: a giant wave stretching right and left as far as he could see. And how fast it was coming!
Joseph sprang to his feet and hobbled along the cliff’s edge, shouting, waving arms, trying desperately to get the attention of someone, anyone, below. But they were too far, the wind coming in from the sea too strong. His only answer was the screeching of a gull. By the time the onrushing wave was close enough for those below to finally notice, it was far too late.
The tsunami slammed into shore with all the momentum of the faraway earthquake that had spawned it the night before. Nothing stood before it. Even high above on the cliff top, the force of its impact drove Joseph to his knees.
Wailing, he covered his face with his hands, trying to shut out what was happening below. How long he lay there trembling he did not know, but the shake and rumble of the ground seemed to go on forever, until a few final vibrations tapered into silence. Again, he was alone with just the sun and wind.
How comforting the thick grass felt. He wanted to just lie there until Grandmother called out for him. But there was no calling, no sound at all, not even from the birds.
“You are a chief’s son.” His voice sounded whispery and thin. But it was enough. He pushed himself up and peered over the cliff’s edge, then quickly turned away. He didn’t want to see yet.
Joseph climbed down slowly, keeping his mind empty. In his heart was a tiny, defiant seed of hope. But at the bottom he had no choice, and he turned to face what was there.
Everything that he had known was gone or destroyed. There was nothing left but snapped-off trees and a beach strewn with jumbled piles of wood and reed and seaweed. No huts, no people, not even the stones from the great fire circle.
Dazed, Joseph wandered the wreckage. How could everyone disappear as if they had never been? Realization hit Joseph. “Bodies float. They were all taken out to sea.”
He stood there, in what had been the center of the village, staring at nothing. What was there to do about it? How to go on? Anyone else of the people would have surely accepted their fate and simply sat down and waited for nature to take its course, to eventually take them to be with the rest. But Joseph was different.
“You are a chief’s son.” Giving in, giving up, never crossed his mind. He imagined what Grandmother would say, what she would tell him to do. He suddenly missed her with a great and terrible ache.
He took a deep breath. Yes, he would go on. He felt better, clearer, as if a great decision had been made. That’s when the long rays of the afternoon sun glinted off something near his feet. Bending down, he saw a small hump in the wet sand with something gold poking through.
He knew what it was even before he dug it out, before he touched the cold, heavy gold. His father’s torc! The ancient mark of a chieftain. It must have been too heavy for even the mighty wave to move.
The very earliest stories told of a time when the people lived far to the south in the jungle. They built strange pyramids and did wicked things Joseph didn’t understand, like carve hearts out of living victims. This torc came from those days, those legends. Any of Joseph’s people would instantly recognize its significance.
With reverence, he carefully brushed off the sand and held it up to the sun. Made from a single, thick strand of heavy gold, it had a flat, beaten circle the size of a gull’s egg at its bottom, where it would hang just above the wearer’s heart.
Joseph’s mouth went dry. His heart hammered. I am not just a chief’s son anymore. I am a chief.
This revelation brought a change in Joseph. He did not consider how the others would laugh. He put his mind to work as Grandmother had taught. All the rest of the day and all the long night he tried to imagine possibilities, tried to look ahead not just a day or two, or even from one moon to the next, but even further. Satisfied at last, he rested.
A full season passed in which Joseph did nothing but work hard, from first light to sundown, and often beyond. Because of his years with Grandmother, he knew how to make and use tools, how to craft the necessities of life. He was ready for the next part of his plan. He would leave tomorrow.
Morning mist pooled in the low areas. Pink light spread above the cliffs, but the sun had not yet shone its face when Joseph loaded the last basket into his dugout and stood back to admire the load. He would barely have room to squeeze himself in, with all the smoked fish, flint tools, flaxen nets, woven mats, and other crafted goods.
He grunted with effort as he pushed the heavy-laden boat into the surf. He would go south, both the current and winds would aid him this time of year. And so he began paddling, keeping close to shore.
Near evening on the third day, back aching, hands blistered, lips burnt by sun and salt, Joseph finally saw what he had been hoping to find. He turned the heavy dugout towards shore and the village of huts that looked so much like home, ignoring a sudden, sharp stab of doubt.
Joseph reached a hand up to touch the heavy gold around his neck. Reassured, he simply sat and waited to be noticed. The boat ground to a sandy halt, its rear gently rising and falling with the waves. Then shouts and calls broke out from the village.
It all looked and sounded so familiar. Joseph swallowed down a lump. He climbed from the dugout on stiff legs and when he stood before them, all saw the torc around his neck. The quick jabbering of questions ceased and silence fell. Some in the crowd lowered their eyes. Joseph stood and waited.
The crowd parted and a small group of men came forward. The chief and two elders. “Welcome, cousin.” Yet their faces were wary. Curiosity warred with custom, but curiosity won. “What brings you, cousin?”
Joseph let out a breath. The first challenge was past, and he could say what he came to say. “I come in search of a bride.”
All eyes opened wide in wonder, and everyone now took in the fully laden boat. Bridal gifts from a young chief. A very young chief.
But no one spoke against him, despite his youth and his unannounced arrival. Besides, he wore a torc, and who would claim to be a chief and wear a chief’s torc who was not? It was not in their scope of experience to question. Yet it was a matter that must be decided.
The chief shared a look with his elders then turned back to Joseph. “Come, sit at my fire. Fill your belly, sleep in my hut. Tomorrow will bring a new day.”
Joseph spoke sparingly at the meal. He diverted talk away from his past. But he would not lie, and so in the end he said, “There was tragedy in my village and that is why there is no escort for a chief’s son. Yet it is a bountiful place, with more food than can be eaten. But no suitable brides.”
The next morning Joseph was asked to wait while the chief conferred with his elders. He kept his face blank, trying to appear confident and unworried. But his hands were gripped into fists and inside he seethed with worry. What if this failed? What if they questioned him further, or denied him outright, sending him away empty-handed?
The wait felt excruciatingly long to Joseph. Finally, a movement from the center of the village brought low chatter, and then the crowd parted. Joseph felt a great surge of relief when he saw the chief approach, for beside him walked a young maiden, head down. She had plump arms and the curve of her hips quickened Joseph’s pulse.
“We accept your gifts. Here is your bride.” With those words, the deal was done and the girl looked up.
Joseph realized at once he was not being honored. The girl’s face was covered in deep, discolored pox scars. Her shy smile revealed bad teeth, yellow and crooked. So, they had given him a bride, but the worst one. But Joseph felt no resentment, only relief. He looked into the girl’s face and gave his own smile to reassure her. Her eyes deepened into black pools of gratitude and shone with kindness. Joseph knew from this moment she was his. He felt his heart flip.
Joseph took her hand. “It is good.”
By custom, the girl wished to bring her parents to the home of her husband. Though they looked none too pleased to be leaving, they came. Joseph noted with approval that, though they were elderly, they were yet both strong of limb. Joseph, well pleased, led the others to their new home.
With the disaster of the giant wave in mind, Joseph wanted his new village to be up the river a short distance. The four of them erected a small hut for the older couple and then a much larger one for the chief. “For all of our children to come,” he told his blushing bride.
She and he were joined together, and on their first night alone in their new home they spent much of the night in quiet, excited discovery. Drifting off to sleep at last, as if dreaming, Joseph saw two points of silver glinting in the shadowy darkness. Even in darkness her eyes shine as starlight, and his heart was full for this young girl.
His whisper made them sparkle. “Your name does not match your beauty.”
The next morning, Joseph called the other three to him. He wore his chief’s torc, and placing his hands on his wife’s head announced, “From today, through all the rest of your days, your name shall be Star Eyes.” The girl’s face lit with pride and though her father looked puzzled, her mother added her own smile.
Four pairs of hands now worked according to the chief’s plan. The two men worked the fishing nets and the women worked in camp. Joseph drove them hard, but they lived and ate well. This place where river met sea was doubly bountiful. By the following spring, Joseph was ready to paddle south along the coast once more. This time, his bride’s father went with him and they took two dugouts full of goods.
They spent one night at his wife’s old village. Joseph told the people there, “We still have more food than we can eat. Take these gifts. Any who wish to come live with us will have more than enough.” Joseph gave to the village a basket of smoked fish and some crafted goods.
The two men continued on and did the same to the next village, and then the next, and then one more before their gifts ran out. At each place Joseph told the people the same thing. “We have more room and more food than we need. If any want to join us, find our village north along the coast where a great river runs between cliffs to the sea.”
Each visit was met with suspicion. This was something new, something different. It just wasn’t the way things were done. But his gifts were accepted. And this strange, limping man did wear a chief’s torc.
It was the storytelling that brought Joseph true acceptance. He waited until all were fed, and the chief and elders had their say, welcoming their guest. Then he threw more wood on the fire. Joseph knew the larger fire made the stories better. The higher flames and wildly dancing shadows freed imagination. Especially the children’s.
Once all were settled, he stood and assumed the speaker’s position. Always the same beginning. “This is a story of our people.” Because Joseph had so much practice and because in his travels he picked up new bits, or better ways to tell them, his stories held the people enthralled, young and old alike.
So the reputation of Joseph Badfoot spread, the chief who was gift-giver and storyteller. His village grew and prospered. Each spring he went south again, pushing a bit further every year. Children raced to meet him at water’s edge, and all looked forward to an evening of feasting and storytelling.
By the time Joseph and Star Eyes had their fifth child, his village was the largest along the coast. The name of Badfoot was well-known and he was spoken of as a far-seer, for he alone of all the people thought and spoke of the days ahead.
During this time of travel and sharing, more news came concerning the others. Everywhere the people were being pushed aside. Often there was fighting and killing and always defeat for the people. The others were coming closer, and this too Joseph spent much thought on.
The following spring, Star Eyes convinced Joseph to stay home. “We have plenty. And the people grumble to work so hard only to have you give it away. And the others are closer.”
“Let our people complain. They will anyway. But perhaps you are right.”
Star Eyes was content to have her husband home. Spring passed and so did summer. But when the days shortened and the morning air grew crisp and flocks of birds began to first gather for their flight south, Joseph began to feel restless.
He had trouble sleeping the night through. He woke and could not go back to sleep. During the day his mouth was full of sharp words. It is only the changing of the season, he told himself. But the feeling only grew. And then the dream came.
In his sleep, a vision was revealed to Joseph. He was as a flying bird looking down the long length of coast. Above the cliffs rose an enormous face covered in hair, then a giant shoulder, and then an arm. The arm swept forward, pushing before it all of the people left in the world. Joseph’s people and all their cousins were tumbled and rolled right to the edge of the sea and then into it.
On his sleeping mat, Joseph let out a loud moan. Star Eyes, wakened by his tossing, watched her husband fearfully. Was he ill, or worse, the victim of an evil spirit?
In his dream, Joseph saw countless brown heads with wet black hair bobbing in the sea, crying out, thrashing, sinking. One by one, the heads disappeared under the surface until all were gone. Nothing left but the sea and the hairy face looking down from the cliff.
Joseph woke before first light, the dream alive in his mind. He thought of Grandmother. He felt as a child again, looking for someone larger, someone with the answers. He could almost hear her voice. You are chief.
Joseph spent the day in thought. He found a place in the shade and sat until darkness again fell. He sat so long those in the village took note, and worried whispers passed from hut to hut.
That night Joseph told Star Eyes, “I must go north. The winds and current have changed with the season and will aid me. I go to find the others.”
Star Eyes gasped, her eyes wide. This was worse than having her husband gone for a moon or two in the spring. Everyone knew the stories about the others. She wanted to argue, but the chief’s word was above all else.
Joseph’s look of determination softened. She was Star Eyes, his beloved, and so he explained. “You know I learned their talk when I was small. I can remember some of it yet. I would go to talk to them. In this way I might help our people.” He did not mention the dream.
The people were silent as they watched their chief depart. The chill autumn wind pushed him quickly up the coast and he soon disappeared in the thin morning mist.
Alone in the empty dugout, he made rapid progress. In only two days he came to a village of the people. Drawing near, his heart tightened; his eyes darted to find the source of trouble. The village had been burnt and there was nothing left but blackened remains.
Joseph beached his dugout and made his way cautiously through the sand. The hairs on his neck stood up. Something deadly wrong had happened. Was danger still nearby? Ears and eyes straining, he quickly checked for what sign he could find. More than once he looked back at the dugout as if to reassure himself it was there.
In the end, he found nothing. Ashes were cold; rain and tide had destroyed or made vague any tracks. He called out and heard no answer. Back in his dugout, he didn’t stop paddling until he was well away. There had been a feeling of evil about the place.
He made quiet, cold camps for three more nights and then came upon another village ruined like the first. At this one he did not stop. Two days later the strong winds and currents brought him to the place of the others.
He saw the pier first. He didn’t know the word for it, only that it was a long timbered thing thrusting far out into the sea, to where the water was deep. Large boats were tied to its end.
The current was rushing Joseph’s dugout straight for the pier. A small but insistent voice whispered from somewhere deep. Turn back.
But no, he had come this far; he would persist. He bent to the sack of provisions at his feet and took out the heavy gold torc. He would face whatever was ahead with his head up, as a chief. Maybe it would be enough.
Joseph’s dugout bumped into the pier with a thump. He turned its nose and let the surf take him to the beach. That’s when he noticed this wasn’t a village at all, but a fortress. Above the beach was a highland, and dominating the horizon was a long wall of timber poles. He saw a gate standing open in the center of the wall and men coming out. By the time he stepped onto the beach, the men had drawn near.
These others had hair on their faces like the ones from his youth. But instead of rough brown robes, they wore matching colored outfits and carried heavy weapons instead of black leather. Their faces lacked kindness; their approach was confident and aggressive. They must be the warriors of the others.
Joseph fought down a rising fear. The largest of the others, a man with small eyes and a cruel face, came right up to Joseph. Instinctively Joseph took a step back, turning to look at his dugout.
“Oh no you don’t.” Laughter from the others. Hands gripped Joseph, turning him roughly. The words sounded odd and rushed, yet he understood them. He was forced to raise his head. When he did, all eyes went to his neck.
Naked greed replaced laughter. “Wait, I come as a friend!” That was what Joseph tried to say. What came out and what they heard, he never knew. He was spun around, saw a swift motion coming, and then was felled by a tremendous blow. All went dark.
Joseph woke with a throbbing headache and for a few moments could not understand where he was or why he hurt. Then his blurred vision cleared. He sat in the corner of a large pen of tall timbered poles and was surrounded by many others of his people. Everywhere was filth and a stench of unwashed bodies and refuse lay heavy in his nostrils. He reached back and felt his head. His fingertips came back bloody. His torc was gone.
I’ve been robbed and made prisoner. Star Eyes had been right. Everywhere men looked down at the ground, spiritless. Women sat rocking whimpering children. There was no talking, no shouting, no crying out. Joseph could see these people had been here some time.
Bruised and dull, Joseph sank back against the rough timber, feeling the bark dig into his back. He did not care. He was too weary to stand or even to talk. He closed his eyes and sank into blackness once more.
Joseph was awakened the next morning by the noisy bustle of his people being chivvied into lines. Others with their heavy weapons were leading groups of prisoners out through the open gate. When one of the others came to Joseph and leaned over to prod him, a voice stopped the man. “Leave that one. He knows our language. He won’t be going to the block.”
When the soldiers had finished and shut the gate, only two remained inside the pen. Joseph saw a thin old man sitting against the far wall. He pushed himself up and went over to the man, who looked up when Joseph’s shadow fell across his face.
Joseph’s eyes opened wide in recognition. It was the interpreter from his youth. Older, thinner, hard-used, but the same man. Unable to shake the fog and make sense of the rapid, awful changes to his world, Joseph sank to the ground. The old man grunted.
“What is this place?”
The old man took a long time to answer and when he did, his words were slow and labored. “It is where the others bring our people. From wherever they find them, they bring them here. Once a moon they are taken out and sold as slaves.”
Joseph’s face twisted, his stomach tightened. “Sold to who?”
“I do not know. Friends of the others.”
That explained the burnt villages. “Why don’t they fight?”
The old man grunted again. “The others hang those who fight.”
“What is hang?”
“They tie a rope tight around your neck and dangle you from a pole until you die.”
Joseph closed his eyes to shut out this grim place that only grew worse.
“Why do we remain, you and I?”
“They keep me because I know their talk. I am to be useful to them. Why you were left I do not know.” The old man looked down at Joseph’s foot. “Because you would make a poor slave?”
But Joseph knew. They must have heard enough at the beach, before they robbed him.
Joseph and the old man were moved to a small wooden building. Their new prison was four walls and a roof. A guard with his weapon was put at their door, day and night.
Days passed, the slave pen remained empty, and Joseph overheard enough to begin to understand. The guards were not careful with their words in front of two such abject prisoners. Also, the old man was sly in asking questions.
Joseph knew that he and the old man were being kept for something that would happen in the spring. Finally, the old man overheard talk of a fleet, and the spring tides.
“What is fleet?” Joseph asked the old man later.
“Many boats, many of their large boats that will carry their warriors. You and I are to go with them. They have need of us, who can speak the language.”
Joseph pondered this. Finally, he came to the conclusion that the others were not raiding one village at a time anymore, but planned on one big campaign, to sweep all the people from the coast. They were leaving when the spring tide changed. Maybe three moons from now. His people would have no warning. He remembered his dream.
It was clear what he must do. And there was no time to wait. He convinced the old man to help him that very night.
Late that night, as Joseph feigned sleep on one side of the hut, the old man began moaning and crying out loudly that he was ill. The guard outside pounded on the walls, shouting at them for quiet, for whoever was crying out to cease their complaining.
But the old man only wailed louder, and when the angry, bearded face thrust through the open door, the old man was holding his stomach tightly, rolling back and forth on his mat. He appeared to be dying.
The bearded face glanced over at Joseph’s still form once, then came into the room. He stood over the old man, weapon raised. But before he could beat the old man for disobedience, Joseph leapt up with both fists gripped together. He brought his arms over his head and then clubbed the man in the back of the neck with all the anger and hatred and fear he could summon.
The guard dropped as if his legs had been turned to twine. Joseph took only one brief moment before racing out. “Are you sure?”
The old man nodded, making no attempt to rise. “My strength is gone. Go.”
Joseph ran through the shadows towards the sea. The yards were empty and quiet and all was still. Joseph knew there were men stationed at the gate, so he made for a far corner of the stockade.
Fear gave him the energy to scale the rough timber and he dropped over the other side. The very air felt different to him. He was in the world again, free.
At the pier, the familiar slapping of waves filled his ears and his heart. Starlight glinted off the surf. His eyes ran along the dark length. There! He saw his old dugout bobbing among the bigger boats. A few moments later he was leaning forward on the seat, straining to paddle as hard as he ever had.
How many days he paddled, Joseph did not know. He had no food. He stopped every night whenever he saw a river or stream. So he had water twice a day, evening and morning.
One evening, his body weary and aching, he could not unclench the claws that his hands had become, so wrapped around the paddle were they. With the paddle held awkwardly across his chest, he knelt and drank his fill of fresh water. So too did he lie, blistered hands unable to let go of the wooden shaft.
It was the next day his vision began to blur. He came around a small headland and there before him was another fortress of the others! Had he in his weary confusion been turned around? Heart racing, unable to make a decision, he stopped paddling and sat in the dugout, blinking. Then, just as quickly, the fortress was gone and the beach was empty. That was also about the time he began talking to himself.
“Can’t trust anything I see,” he kept reminding himself through cracked lips. “Keep head down, keep paddling.”
For the first time since his youth, his foot troubled him. It mocked him, becoming a throbbing accusation that he wasn’t strong enough. “Can’t give in. Son of a chief.”
It was the sound of voices that finally got through to him. His ears still worked fine; they were not part of the deceptions employed by his rebellious body. The cries from his own people out working the nets jerked him upright, making him wince in pain. His neck had cramped from days of looking down.
Four men carried him to Star Eyes. Joseph was semi-conscious, and when he heard the voice of his wife, he opened his eyes. He could not speak, nor could he see her tears, but his gaunt face smiled.
After only one day of rest, Joseph insisted he be let up so he could go south. He was too weak to rise on his own, and it was easy for Star Eyes to press him back down. “You must rest.”
But on the second day, Joseph was coherent enough to explain. “Our time is short. Our people must be warned. I would have them all come here, where we are safest.” But Star Eyes would not let anyone else minister to her husband, and no one else yet knew the dire news. She ignored his pleas and fed him broth and herbs.
Joseph would not stay down, but when he finally rose, his legs were too weak and he fell to the ground. Then he did something he had never done.
“Star Eyes, I need your help. Help me. Word must go and it must go this very day.”
So Star Eyes went to two strong men she had known long, men she could trust. She brought them to Joseph, who told them everything.
With the sun already westering, a single dugout left the village. Joseph sat idle in the middle, while two strong men paddled vigorously, one in the front and one in the rear. The dugout fairly flew along the tops of the waves, leaving a creamy wake behind.
At their first stop, children rushed to surround Joseph. Instead of joy, his heart was filled with sadness. How bleak their future seemed to him. He asked for all to gather, though it was not yet evening.
“Time grows short. The others are coming. This I have seen, in a dream vision. This I have heard, with my own ears from their own mouths. I was a prisoner, but escaped. They come with the spring tides. They come to burn and destroy. They come to take you prisoner, to sell you as slaves. This I know as truth, as true as the tide.”
Concern, fear, disbelief, even defiance were the responses from the people. Yet they let Joseph have his say.
“Come to my village. If we all join, we may be too strong for the others. They may see our strength and pass us by.”
Voices were raised in answer. The loudest came from the young men. “Let them come. We will fight! It is better to fight and die.”
Many heads nodded in agreement. Even the chief and elders thought this the natural way. But Joseph had thought longer than they. “Good for you to say ‘fight or die.’ Though you are not warriors.” Joseph held up his hand to stay the angry retorts.
“We are not warriors. Not anymore. We are peaceful. All here have heard the stories. Everywhere the others come, they sweep the people before them. Even when they face warriors. Some of our cousins are in truth mighty warriors, yet in the end they too have been overcome.”
Joseph paused and all could see weary sadness on his face. “It is your choice to say ‘fight or die,’ but what about the children? Who speaks for them? When the others come, when all you warriors have fought and died and all that is left are the weak or old or very young? At the least send your children to me.” With this, Joseph sat down to show he had said what he came to say. Let them argue, let them decide. His work was done here, he would move on in the morning to the next village.
Joseph Badfoot spread his warning to all the people he could. He returned home weary of body and spirit. “Many heard, few listened,” he told Star Eyes. Yet there were those who came, and more every day. Many women brought their children to his village between the cliff walls.
His village swelled with refugees. And though they were mostly too old or too young to fight, he put them to work. Across the river valley, in imitation of the others, he had them put up a wall. Poles of rough timber were sunk into the ground, and for two hundred steps on each side of the river the wall stretched to meet the high cliffs.
When the others came, they anchored their large boats in deep water. Men came ashore, but only a small group. They scouted up the river and then retreated to the beach. Back on their boats the word was passed. This village was many hundreds strong and sat behind walls. It would cost many lives to take.
So the boats pulled up their anchors and went south. Word came back to Joseph’s people throughout the spring and into summer as survivors trickled in. All the villages to the south were gone, burnt, destroyed. There had been much death and sorrow and all who were captured were taken away.
Joseph did not see the warriors of the others come again during his lifetime. He lived to an old age, with many children and grandchildren. He never made another trip, but his village survived and thrived, there where river met sea. Chief Joseph Badfoot for a time saved his people, saved the children, and kept the stories alive.
That is how Great-grandfather always ended the story. But I add a bit more. There is no happy ending. Nowhere did the people have victory when the others came. From sea to sea, they swept all aside. Even Joseph Badfoot’s village in time was overcome.
It is the nature of things. All things fade. Even the empires of today will one day be in the past. And what is left to show they have been? Their blood and heritage through their children. And their stories.
Because of Joseph Badfoot, some of our blood and stories survived. Still to this day, every generation or so, along the coast a child of the people is born with a bad foot. And boy or girl, they are called Joseph, and the name is held in high honor.
RF Thomas is an author who enjoys a modest portion of Native American heritage and currently lives in Central Illinois. His published works can be seen at rf-thomas.com .
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Joseph Badfoot”:
Author RF Thomas’s unnamed narrator takes us on a journey of courage and determination in the face of prejudice and near overwhelming odds. It also sadly reflects the deeper and all-too-common theme throughout history of man’s ability to do evil. But this powerful tale gives us hope by reminding us that remembering our past can save us.