Born on the Trail of Tears
Excerpt from Chapter Eight
Kokuma stood on the rocky ledge, fifty feet above the rolling rapids of a river. She stared at the far side where a grassy plain stretched away to the west.
Always going west, away from the cotton fields, away from the rice paddies, away from slavery, she kept on the move. She put everything human behind her, but the danger was always there, threatening to catch up.
She knew what happened to runaway slaves; her life would be over if she were caught, and for her, there was no disguise. Proud enough of her black skin, it would be the death of her.
Glancing down the river, she looked for a way across, but she saw no easy fording place.
She never heard the gunshot, only felt a hard impact against the middle of her back, then blood shooting out of her chest.
There was no pain as she crumpled forward and fell toward the raging water. The sting of the bullet was on its way through the network of nerves, but her brain had already shut down before she hit the icy December water.
Cold water on a person’s face sets off a biological defensive response known as the mammalian diving reflex. This reaction is a hard-wired response to sinking into cold water. The heart and lungs begin to shut down while blood is redirected to the core of the body to protect important organs. If the person is conscious when she hits the water, she might gasp for air and suck in water instead.
Kokuma was unconscious before hitting the river. She went under the freezing water all the way to the gravel bottom where the current carried her downstream.
An unconscious person can survive as long as twenty minutes in icy water before the body cries out for oxygen and the lungs are forced to suck in something, even if its water.
The swift current swept her body along the bottom of the river, crashing her into submerged boulders and scraping her against dead tree trunks.
She was almost a half mile downstream before the river swept around a tight bend, washing her limp body onto a gravel bar on the west side of the river.
As Kokuma lay there, half way out of the water, her lungs took a shallow breath and her heart quivered in a weak attempt to circulate her blood, but her eyes were closed, her mind dark.
Vultures have two ways of finding a dead animal; by sight and by scent.
They are attracted to rotting carrion, which they can smell from miles away. Or, while circling in their normal airborne search pattern, they might see an animal lying in a lifeless pose.
An animal doesn’t normally sleep in a sprawled position out in the open. When they need sleep, they’ll find a protected place in the forest to hide away while resting.
A creature lying in the open and not moving for a long period of time, signals to circling vultures that it’s time for a meal.
Kokuma lay on the riverbank for hours, bleeding but unmoving.
The first vulture glided to an awkward landing just a few feet away from her lifeless hand.
The baldheaded scavenger waddled closer, wary of anything unusual. And this dead animal was certainly strange.
He pecked at the hand, getting no response.
Another vulture, seeing his brother about to dine on fresh meat, landed close by and hopped toward the body.
The first bird opened his huge beak to bite into the hand, but before his ugly mouth could close on his dinner, an arrow pierced his head from eye to eye.
He let out a screeching yelp, then flopped around on the ground, trying to grasp the shaft of the arrow with his claws.
His brother vulture took a running start, flapping his long wings in a desperate attempt to escape the fate of his comrade.
A second arrow hit the bird in the chest and cut into his heart, sending him into a writhing ball of dirty feathers. He was dead before he hit the water.
Other vultures circled overhead, but judiciously remained high in the air.
All was quiet on the riverbank with the only sound coming from the tumbling water of the river.
A man emerged from the woods, his arrow cocked and ready as he surveyed the gravel bar from left to right.
He approached the body, and satisfied no one else was nearby, he laid down his bow and pressed his fingers to the person’s throat.
Feeling a weak pulse, he rolled the person over and caught his breath; it was a woman!
* * * * *
The warmth of the crackling fire felt good. The aroma of cooking meat was even better.
Kokuma opened her eyes, staring up at a starry sky. Bare branches reached overhead like a hundred gnarled fingers grasping for the twinkling pinpoints of light.
Except for the popping of pine knots in the fire, there was no sound.
Sensing danger, she remained still, closing her eyes.
They hadn’t killed her so they were probably taking her back to the plantation for a reward.
Better to let them think she was still out until she could assess the situation.
Her wrists and ankles were not bound; she could feel that, and they had covered with some sort of animal fur. Why?
As her mind became more aware of her surrounding, the pain came in waves. She felt the desperate urge to cry out and reach to her chest. It required a supreme effort to remain still and quiet.
Her back, too, felt as if a sharp stake pierced her body. What happened?
She strained to hear them move or talk, but there was nothing; no hint of who or how many there were.
Opening her eyes a slit, she glanced to the side, seeing only blurry flames.
Her vision began to clear and she could make out two long sticks leaning over the fire with dripping chunks of meat cooking above the flames.
She caught her breath when something moved.
A man knelt beside the hearth, reaching to touch the meat.
Apparently it wasn’t done. He sat back in the dirt, cross-legged.
He had long black hair tied back with a beaded head band. Bare to the waist, he wore a deerskin breechcloth.
Kokuma kept her eyes on him as she slipped her hand up to her chest beneath the fur, feeling for the wound that throbbed with every beat of her heart.
Between her breast she felt a poultice of mud and leaves.
He had treated her wounds. Why?
The young man’s skin was not white or black, but a deep tan.
With movements as smooth and fluid as that of a young gazelle, he knelt and took the stick from the fire.
Biting into the meat, he seemed satisfied that is was cooked well enough.
He stood and came to her side. On his knees and sitting back on his heels, he offered the skewered food to her.
He knew I was awake!
She tried to reach for the meat but couldn’t even move the fur blanket aside. She cried out, not caring now who heard her. The pain was excruciating.
He pulled the meat off the end of the stick and held it to her lips.
She bit into it almost taking his fingers.
Hot juices filled her mouth as she chewed the tender meat. She swallowed and lifted her head, wanting more.
With his hand behind her neck, he supported her head as she ate the second bite, then he held a leather cup to her lips, giving her water.
She dropped her head back, exhausted from the tiny effort of eating and drinking.
He spoke a few words, but they were like nothing she had ever heard before.
All she could do was shake her head.
He reached back to take a second stick from the fire. After touching the meat, he shook his fingers and said something.
“Moto sana.” (Too hot) she said in Swahili.
He touched the meat again. “Moto sana.”
Again she tried to move the fur from her chest, but the pain was too much.
Kokuma didn’t know how long she had been out, but once again his hand was behind her neck and he was pressing the meat to her lips.
It was cold now, but she was starving. She took the whole piece in her mouth, chewing eagerly.
“Chakula kizuri.” (Good food.)
“Chakula kizuri,” she corrected him.
“Chakula kizuri,” he said.
She smiled and nodded.
“Awi inage ehi hawiya.” (deer meat) he said in Cherokee.
“Awi inage ehi haya.”
“Awi inage ehi hawiya,” he said.
“Awi inage ehi hawiya.”
“Osdv.” (Good) he said.
He smiled and held the leather cup to her lips.
When she woke, it was daylight but snowing.
He had arranged an animal skin overhead to keep the snow off.
He sat beside her with a thick fur robe over his shoulders. There was also a second fur covering her.
The fire was built up, keeping the chill away.
“Uyosi?” He made an eating motion.
He unwrapped a small bundle; it was corn. He held it out to her.
She tried to lift her hand, but still, the pain stopped her. Tears ran down her cheeks. She shook her head; she couldn’t even feed herself.
He fed her the soft yellow kernels, one at a time.
* * * * *
It was night again and bitter cold.
Kokuma felt his warm body close to hers.
She turned her head to see his sleeping face just inches away.
Young. No more than eighteen seasons. Same as me. He came beside me to share our warmth.
Rolling her head, she saw the fire still burned, but it was nearly out.
She slept again.
* * * * *
Hours passed, maybe days. She had no way of knowing.
The sun shown bright, the snow was deep and sparkling in the sunshine.
The fire burned high and felt very good.
He was on his knees beside her, changing the poultice on her chest.
She watched his face as he concentrated on her wound.
The pain was still present, but with his tender caring hands, it was bearable.
He glanced at her eyes and smiled. Speaking a few words, he lifted her shoulder.
She knew he wanted to check the wound in her back. With an extreme effort and with his help, she rolled to her side. She was as weak as a newborn baby.
He removed the old mudpack and replaced it with a fresh one, then, holding it in place, he gently lowered her onto her back.
She wanted to know his name and how he found her. Why did he save her life and take care of her, and a hundred other questions, but she didn’t have the words or the strength. All she could do was say her name, “Kokuma.”
She nodded. In slow motion, she moved her hand to touch her chest. “Kokuma.”
“Vahali.” He touched his chest.
“Kokuma.” She pointed to herself, then to him. “Vahali.”
He said something more, but she was exhausted.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them to his soft touch on her shoulder.
Taking a rolled length of deer skin from a hearth stone, he unrolled it and showed her a thick
pancake. He tore off a piece and held it to her lips.
It was warm and sweet.
“Mmm. Hii ni nzuri sana.” (This is so good.)
He smiled and gave her more.
She slept again and when she woke, he was gone.
The fire was only a pile of embers.
Snow fell again, threatening to extinguish the fire.
She couldn’t lie in his bed forever, even though it was soft and warm.
There was a pile of sticks nearby, almost covered in new snow.
She glanced from the wood to the fire; it might as well have been a mile away.
Rolling to a sitting position, she felt the poultice fall away from her back. The one on her chest fell away too. She caught it and set it aside in the snow. There was dried blood on it. Quite a lot.
Glancing down at the hole in her chest, she saw it still bled, but not so much.
She sat for a moment, breathing hard.
Feeling very little warmth from the dying fire, she had to do something.
Unable to stand, she crawled in the snow to the pile of sticks.
Taking one, she got close enough to toss it onto the fire.
There was a hiss of steam as the snow from the stick hit the hot embers.
After resting, she took another stick to the fire, then another.
Soon the fire blazed, melting the snow on the hearth stones.
Kokuma glanced at the warm bed, but knew she could never crawl that far. She collapsed in the snow, curling into a fetal position.
* * * * *
She woke in his bed with Vahali pressing against her back, closer this time; his body curved to fit her spoon shape.
Such a perfect feeling.
Never had a man treated her with tenderness.
She gazed at the fire, wanting nothing but this moment to stretch into a lifetime.
She noticed a dead animal lying on the other side of the fire. It was a deer, already gutted.
Her hunger returned, but the comfort of Vahali’s presence negated her body’s needs. She sighed and closed her eyes.