Flute player

Excerpt: Flute Player
by Alice Woodrome

Four jackrabbits dangled from Gray Wolf’s hand as he walked toward the camp in the crisp autumn air. The brave had taken his cousin’s son hunting before dawn in the narrow band of woods along the river that flowed a short distance from the Lakota camp. He and Little Crow, a bright-eyed boy of thirteen winters, had followed the stream all morning that snaked through rolling grassy hills with hazy mountains in the distance. A barking dog announced their return and followed them when they entered the village of tepees.

Gray Wolf was uneasy about seeing his mother, Raven. Something disturbing had been in her manner yesterday. His father, Sleeping Bear, too. They’d seemed reluctant to meet his eyes. The knowing looks they gave each other. Something was in the air—and it wasn’t good.

Smoke borne from cooking fires all over the camp, awakened his hunger. A gust of wind swept a few dry leaves across their path into a fire pit, where they flared and perished in an instant.

While they walked through the camp, he nodded at Aurora, an old woman with white braids. She sat at the calf-skin door of her dwelling, sewing elk teeth onto the fringe of a deerskin shirt.

Gray Wolf handed two of the rabbits to Little Crow when they neared the circle of their relatives’ tepees.

“Can I say they were my kills?” Little Crow said smiling.

“You know the answer,” Gray Wolf winked at the boy.

“I’m glad the buffalo will be bigger targets,” the boy said.

Gray Wolf laughed and they parted with a smile and a wave.

Gray Wolf’s youngest cousin, Silent Turtle, sat close to a cooking fire, stringing a new bow with sinew and talking with a small group of friends. The young men laughed while they worked. White Moon was braiding fine rawhide strips into a bridle for his pony while Talking Eagle and the others were crafting arrows. They waved at Gray Wolf as he walked by. Silent Turtle called, “Did you see any deer, my cousin?”

Gray Wolf stopped and looked back for a moment, shook his head and sighed. “Not today—not for days.”

At a neighbor’s tepee, an elder kinswoman, Wise Pigeon, sat on a mat working at a loom. Three children were gathered around her, one rocking a mink-skin doll. They followed Gray Wolf with their eyes when he approached his mother’s tepee, his long braids swinging.

Raven, dressed in a grease-stained tunic and a blue quillwork necklace, stood a few steps from her dwelling, rendering elk fat in a large copper kettle above glowing coals. She lifted her gaze and smiled at her son.

Gray Wolf had seen his mother make pemmican many times. After she rendered the fat, she mixed it with the meat that had been drying, adding dried chokecherries before forming the mixture into cakes for their journey to a new hunting camp.

“Just rabbits again,” he said with a bitter smile and laid the animals on the ground. The warmth of the embers felt good on his chilled arms. “We followed elk tracks but saw only rabbits and a porcupine.”

Looking down at the gutted rabbits, Raven wiped her brow with her sleeve. “It will be plenty for our meal tonight, and the skins will make warm moccasins for your father.” She nodded toward a small earthen bowl containing a piece of roasted duck. “There is a little meat left for you, and a few plums Laughing Bird gathered yesterday. Your aunt has been generous with us.” Raven cut small pieces from a slab of elk fat into the sizzling pot while she spoke. “I prayed to the Great Spirit, Wakon Tanka, for another elk or deer. The only meat we have left is drying for our move; the corn we traded for is nearly gone. Even fruit and nuts are getting hard to find.”

A red-tailed hawk screeched as it soared over the trees at the camps’ edge. Gray Wolf looked up at the bird. “Brother hawk is getting hungry, too. We’ll have to hunt buffalo again soon to see us through the winter.” He frowned, “I fear even the deer and elk have left early for their winter range.”

With the back of her hand, Raven brushed a silver-streaked braid over her shoulder. “Sleeping Bear thinks the buffalo are no more than three days off. We will move very soon, and I have so much to do before we go.” She paused, blinked at her son, and added, “And no daughters to help.”

The young warrior unsheathed his knife as he folded his long legs with one graceful motion and sat beside the matriarch of the family. He began skinning the rabbits, hoping no one would see him doing woman’s work. “I will eat later.”

Raven looked down at her only child, took a deep breath, then lifted her chin. She had many reasons to be proud. Gray Wolf was a strapping young man, robust and handsome in buckskins, with expressive eyes. Her son was not only well-respected for his hunting prowess and bravery, but for the beautiful music he made. No one in the village could play the siyotanka flute with such feeling and skill. Gray Wolf was a son to make a mother’s heart sing.

She glanced to a distant part of the village when children’s laughter rang through the air. Several young boys were playing shinny with a buckskin ball and sticks under the wide blue sky. A young kinswoman, wearing a cradleboard on her back with a sleeping baby, was just returning to a neighboring tepee with a basket of timpsula roots she had dug for her family.

Raven sighed and a wistful expression came over her face. Gray Wolf had seen that look many times. He knew what was coming.

“Why do you not choose a maiden and give your father and me grandchildren?” Raven said, stirring the pot.

She had scolded her son many times for prolonging her wait. Most of her kinswomen had little ones who played in front of their tepees. Her closest sister already had three growing grandchildren, and even her youngest sister awaited her first grandchild’s birth. Yet her accomplished son seemed too shy to ever make a match and begin a family.

“In time, my mother.” He threw a rabbit’s foot to the waiting dog.

“It has been five winters since your vision quest. You have been a man for many moons now.” The grease in the cooking pot crackled when Raven dropped in more fat. “What about Running Doe? Is she not attractive?” She waited for an answer.

“Yes, but I do not want to marry Running Doe.”

“Then her sister perhaps? Scarlet Bird is a fine girl. She will be a dutiful wife.”

“No,  I will not marry her either.”

“You want a family, do you not?”

He nodded. Raven was right—as she always was.

She cut the last of the fat into the blackened pot and looked down at her son, who had skillfully pulled the skin from the first rabbit in one piece and started on the other. He threw another morsel to the dog, who devoured it in a gulp, and waited for the next.

Wiping her hands on a squirrel pelt, Raven frowned at her son. “It is time. Your father is beginning to make plans for you.” She pointed to an elk skin stretched out in the sun between pine branches near their dwelling. “We have the last skin drying now. It will be a fine tepee.”

Gray Wolf’s face dropped. “You cannot mean—”

“The lodge poles have been prepared, as well as the sinew to join the pieces. We will smoke the hides early tomorrow, and then my sisters and I will begin the stitching.” Raven raised her brows. “Your father has set a day.”

A cold gust of wind blew through the camp, fanning the cooking coals into flames that sent sparks into the air.

“No, Mother!” Gray Wolf said with panic in his voice. He rose to his feet. “Please, talk to him. I will choose my own wife.”

“Then do it—soon, my son.” Raven said in a sharp tone. “He wants the tepee for your bride ready to take with us when the buffalo scouts return. It will be erected at the new camp when we arrive. If you have not chosen a maiden by then, he will offer five ponies to White Moose for one of his daughters.”

“I do not want to marry either of White Moose’s daughters. Mother, tell him. He will listen to you.”

“Yes, Sleeping Bear does listen to me.” She resumed stirring. “He wanted to offer only three ponies, but they are a good family, and both maidens are virtuous and diligent in their work.” Without looking at her son, she added, “It is time for you to marry. Your cousins all have wives and children. Even Laughing Coyote’s wife is swelling with new life. It is time you brought children into our family.”

“But I already have a maiden in mind: The niece of Black Badger.”

Raven’s eyes darted toward her son. “Yellow Leaf?”

“Yes, but I wanted to wait to tell you until the time was right.”

The dog barked and moved closer, then sat with its head resting between its paws, eying the rabbits.

Raven shook her head. “Your father will not approach Black Badger. Sleeping Bear is a proud man. I would not wish for him to be humbled on the whim of that willful maiden. Black Badger is weak, and will not be firm with Yellow Leaf.”

“I’m not asking for my father to speak to Black Badger—I just need him to wait—to give me time to court Yellow Leaf properly. She is the maiden my heart wants—no one else—and she is just as virtuous and diligent as the daughters of White Moose.”

“Has she given you reason to think she might agree to be your wife?”

“No, my mother. But she will.” Gray Wolf inhaled deeply. “When I am worthy of her, we will marry.”

Raven let out a loud breath, put her left hand on her hip, and pointed the spoon at her son. “You are already worthy of any maiden in the village. Have you not proven yourself in battle with the Chippewa and the Pawnee?”

“Yes, but—”

“But what?” She closed her eyes momentarily and shook her head. “Any man would be honored to bless a union between you and a maiden in his family, including Black Badger.” She looked away for a moment, then added. “Yellow Leaf is a fine girl with many virtues, but she is stubborn. I think she intends to remain unmarried, my son.”

It was a fair assumption. She had refused two suitors already since coming to the village the previous winter to help with her aunt’s children. Both warriors had been worthy candidates with plenty of ponies to offer her family and splendid tepees for the bride. Some in the small community whispered that Yellow Leaf had really come because she’d rejected the chief’s son in her own village. Her aunt and uncle had been long-suffering, but many people frowned on them for indulging their headstrong niece.

“Please, Mother,” Gray Wolf pleaded. “I need time. Please ask my father to wait. Then he can speak to Black Badger instead.”

“You’ve had enough time. When we arrive at our new camp, you will marry—it has been decided.” Raven pressed her lips into a resolute line. “The daughters of White Moose are ready for marriage—and you have put it off long enough.”

He knew his mother would have her way. Sleeping Bear would not wait, neither would he deliver ponies and a marriage proposal to a family who had rebuffed two admirable warriors—without some assurance that it would be accepted. Gray Wolf saw all too clearly that his mother was behind it all. She wanted grandchildren, and Sleeping Bear would do what Raven wanted.

Gray Wolf hung his head. “I cannot be happy with another maiden. I would wait as long as it takes for Yellow Leaf.”

Raven lowered her brows and studied her son for a few moments. Her expression softened, as did her words. “Listen to me, my son.” She put both her hands on his cheeks and looked deep into his eyes—then whispered. “If your heart must have this maiden, you will speak to her yourself before your father talks with White Moose.”

“Speak to her?” Gray Wolf drew his brows together. “But that would be against our fathers’ traditions. I could not—”

Raven interrupted. “There is a time for tradition, and there is a time for boldness, my son. If Yellow Leaf is willing, then I will talk to Sleeping Bear about it—but not before.”

To read the Flute Player click here.

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