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Braids and Coils

by Meredith Harmon 6 months ago in Historical
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For my ancestors

The braid I actually wore to my grandmother's funeral, and a pot made by my cousin, Tammy Zettlemoyer, in traditional Pennsylvania Dutch motifs.

The gathering was small this year. Many tribes stayed home, or very close to home, to defend and rebuild. Many, many people were taken by the raids from the outsiders. Most should be buried with their ancestors now...well, those that could be found. Many younglings were missing as well. It did not bode well, though the outsiders had now been quiet for the last few months.

Kaiatan counted braid colors as he sadly walked the main path. Only a double hand's worth of tribe-peoples gathered, when there were at least five double hands the year before? How many gone? How many stories lost to the peoples forever? Ai, his steps were heavy indeed as the seriousness of the loss settled on his bones.

One thing struck his mind when he turned at the edge of the encampment - of all the different tribe colors, one was vastly outnumbering all the others. Everywhere he looked, the bottom bead on every third braid he saw was green-and-brown striped. He looked again, this time looking at the next bead's colors...most were white, denoting adult status, but there were quite a few black ones too, meaning they'd brought their children as well.

Numbers were never strong in his head, but simple sums were not above him. And this meant...

The whole tribe was here. All of them. Looking healthy, and well fed, and happy. None left behind in their lands to defend against the outsiders? And enough food for all of them? What?

His sandals were following the story right to their camp entrance. Obeisance, a few quiet words with elders, knowing smiles and nods towards their crafters' tents set up to the side near the stream, and there she was.

She'd brought clay with her, and was adding a few drops of water to the coil and placing it with firm hands onto the support she'd built. A nice sturdy cooking pot, traditional fat-belly shape, showing two bright-eyed children at each hip how to do it well and precise. A small stack of other vessels lay in the sun, drying, and a few even had the marks of the designs that would denote maker and location. His eyes tracked her beads: green and brown for Kista tribe, white for adult, black for widowed, clay brown for potter - and there, the fifth bead of honor: bright gold, winking in the sun.

Gold. The sign of the highest honor any tribe could give one of its own.

Most elders only ever saw clear crystal for the fifth to denote their venerable age, or perhaps silver for Honored Tribesman if they proved wise before their years. Women might aspire to copper, maybe, if they bred enough to bring ten children into adulthood. Gold was for the best warriors, and those whose sacrifice was considered so great that many were saved by their actions. Or those whose ideas were so great that their ways of life were changed forever, for the better. The herb concoctions that stopped spreading-death, or metal forging that gave you the strongest steel, or a way to cut the belly to save a child without killing the mother.

Gold? For a potter?

He tingled. The story, it was Right Here. In front of him.

He sat, and he waited. She knew why he was there, and unless he missed his guess, there would be others before evening who had followed the same clues as to how Kista Tribe, an unremarked group till now, had suddenly achieved dominance in the clans. He watched her work patiently, appreciating the skill of a crafter at her best. The call for food came from the center fire pit, and he left only to collect a bowl - the same potter's work, unless he missed his guess - and paid for it in his craft with a hand of stories of the news from other tribes whose members talked to him. His own braid - red / yellow stripe for Petalla tribe, white, gray for unaffiliated status, blue glass for storyteller, no honor bead for he was very young - dangled at the side of his chest on a longer strip of hair; the rest was gathered in a tidy knot at the base of his skull. He caught sidelong glances from others in this tribe. He smiled in return at all who looked at him, but did not respond by hand or voice to stay near the fire. The story was not there.

When he went to clean his bowl and return it, he got another surprise - one of the merchants of the clan, his red bead prominently displayed, stopped him when the bowl was scoured properly. "Keep the bowl as a gift, friend," he said softly, and tapped his arm twice in the traditional way to end a bargaining session. "You will see, and it is only proper, you were the first one to See. Meten is almost done with her bowl, and others have arrived for the tale, go and join them and be well." They clapped forearms in leave-taking, with the merchant touching his shoulder for extra honor.

The bowl was beautiful, with sharp incised lines, an old plain-to-mountain pattern, one he found personally pleasing. Three colors of paste made the outside design, but the inside was left bare, to show the unusual blue-gray color of the tribe's own clay pits. Interesting, intricate, and unusual.

As he'd said, others had gathered, and many of their own as well. He automatically looked at their occupation-beads as he settled on the grass - ah, yes, all of them were members whose tasks would take them off tribe lands to interact with others, and he bet with himself they were memorizing the story so they could tell it themselves in later times.

Once the pot was smoothed well with a shaping stone, one of the girls collected all the tools and the other gently took and added it to the drying rack. An Elder - an Elder?? - knelt and gave her a bowl of food, which she consumed neatly while another brought her a water gourd. As with her work she wasted no time, and he noted her poise and calm as she ate, knowing she was the focus of so many pairs of eyes. He could read a crowd, it was part of his training, and all he knew was flying on the wind. What crafter, protected by tribe and clan, was not shy of strangers? Did the battles with the outsiders change them all so much, that what he thought he knew was gone?

But the potter was shifting, stretching, and folded her arms in traditional storytelling form, and he stilled himself to listen and remember all:

"I am Meten, a potter for my clan. You know our lands are on the outer edge of the places claimed by our tribes, near the deep canyons, and we were hit hard and repeatedly by raids from the outsiders. We fought as best we could, and though we took losses, we made then pay for every body they left broken in the sun."

There were murmurs of savage agreement from the listeners.

"As you know, the outsiders didn't just let raid do their bloody talking for them. You know of the weakness they spread, of healthy peoples wasting and dying and no one knew why. We did not know, in our clan, for we seemed to go on as before. But our healers were called out time and again to our neighbors for it, and I think they were slowly going mad trying to find the cause. Some were brought back to be treated, and they slowly recovered, but no one knew why. Till they returned to their own, and they wasted away again. Maddening. Our pain was great, seeing others' pain."

Again a response from the crowd, the shu-shu noise one makes to comfort grief.

"And then - the day of the great raid. Our main camp was hidden, as is proper, but we still needed supplies, so some of us would split off with a warrior band to gather what we need. We did not know we were also being hunted, just as we ourselves hunted the herds. They came to wipe us off our land." Her face closed in remembrance, and she swayed with the force of it, and the crowd swayed with her. "They came for all, slaughtered whom they would, and took our children. They took my daughters." The two girls who'd been by her side all day half-bowed at the recognition. "Our warriors were elsewhere, later they said they were drawn away as a distraction. All I knew was that when I returned to camp from collecting my colors for the pots, all was burned, my heart-flowers were gone, and my husband lay bleeding like a broken doll in front of what was left of our tent."

Shu-shu, said the crowd softly. We grieve with you, we sway with you, as if we were there beside you.

"If they'd killed my children, I would have laid down with them and my husband and taken his knife to my throat to join them in the long journey. As it was, I was angry, my girls were gone to the wind. And in their arrogance, for they knew the warriors were far away, they left a trail a baby could follow. So I took my husband's knife and the pack that was already on my back, and with little thought I left to bring my girls back."

Kai-ka noises from the listeners; so one would say when confronted with surprise. A potter, taking the role of a hunter-warrior? Kai-ka, indeed.

"So I tracked them, I did. My father was a great warrior, he had a gold honor-bead by his four-hands summer. He taught all who came his way, including all his children. His heart, I think a part beats in me. He figured, learning is not a waste, nor will it get in the way of later learning, all of of a seamless piece in this world, yes? So I tracked, and I stayed quiet, and I hid my traces and hoped for strength. For what would I do when I caught them? Challenge them to a clay-shaping contest?"

Hai-ha, said the crowd.

"One thing I saw, as I traveled - their traces began to fade, the farther they got from camp. As if they either realized their mistake, or were setting a trap. Guess which one I suspected? And I knew those lands, I have traveled them all my life, to collect what I need for my pots. I knew we were close to the narrow rivers, that cut through the soft soil. Ahead was one rather deep cut where we made many herd kills, and I suspected they were leading me to the same death.

"To the north a bit was a smaller cut, one that would surprise you by opening into a nice valley with a clear well. It was hard to find, but with so many of us dead, we didn't patrol as well as we could, and I thought they would have taken it as their own. From where I was there was a faint trail that led along a cliff I knew well, for there was a line of yellow rock there that is used in crafting. But, here, I will tell you a secret - it is also very poisonous, only a little in a cooking pot will kill the tribe. Our healers know, of course, and its taste gives it away. But, there was another rock in my pack, the blue you all love, and it is just as deadly - but it only tastes like good salt. Unless you look for traces of color in your food, it is hard to detect, and its source is rare, and who would suspect any of having it here?"

Who, indeed?

"See, I will tell you a further secret. We potters have long known that the colors on our wares that you love so well, the green and the blue and the shiny black and the yellow-orange and the shiny red, all are very poisonous in large quantities. We love the peoples, for even out-clans are our cousins. We would not let you use something so unsafe. Yes, we tell you the colors are hard to find, and that is very true, the holes we dig them out of are small and dangerous. But if we use those colors too much with the clay, it leaks into your food, and that is deadly."

Nods of understanding. Some had known, or suspected such.

"And that gave me a bit of pause as I walked. The sickness taking the tribes, could it be one of those, or something like it? Could it be fought? I thought of these things as I climbed the cliff to the hidden valley, for if the outsiders brought in a new rock or herb, we might not be able to detect it, or counter it.

"And I found them, in a large camp, tucked into that valley. They did not see me, thinking the cliff was too difficult a route, that it need not be protected. Guards, yes, but on the real paths. A camp getting ready for a meal, just as if they were almost real people."

Snorts of denial from the listeners.

"Our younglings were staked here and there in camp, some with the marks of being beaten from trying to fight to escape. But alive, and could be led home if I was strong enough. I had thought as I traveled, and I remembered a thing about that valley - the way the wind blew, there was only one good spot to build a fire, otherwise the smoke would stay and fill it to the brim, as if it were one of these cooking pots. That spot was very close to my hands on the rim of the cliff, and there was some powdered blue rock in my pack.

"The bushes concealed my approach, and adding and stirring the powder was childishly easy. I had to hope no one would notice the color change in the pot, and we know the food only tastes better, like we added tasty salt. I snuck back to the bushes, and gave the ku-ku-coo-eee call, to warn the younglings. I had to hope they understood."

Ku-ku-coo-eee, the crowd responded softly. Thus the cuckoo calls, to warn of evil and danger, to keep quiet and still. Most importantly, to keep your mouth shut.

"The only warning I could give, over and over, like we teach our younglings. I would call, and pause and watch to see if any would investigate, and call again. Some heard me, but no one came to check. Praise our ancestors for ignorant outsiders." She raised her hands in double blessing, and the audience joined her. "I could see our littles' heads become more alert, but they knew better than to track straight to my hiding place. They looked sideways, but most slowly settled on the ground and pretended to sleep. Only a few of the ones far away were restless, I do not know if they ever heard me or not. They were some of the hard-headed ones in our tribe, who knew better than their elders in all things, neh?

"So when it was time for the meal, wooden bowls were brought out. Our younglings got last scrapings, so I did not think it a hardship when most pretended upset bellies from the pain of losing their tribe. Indeed, many of the younglings of their own camp grabbed the bowls and added it to their own, and ate it in front of our littles to mock them.

"I just waited. They did not sense me, lying in the bushes at the cliff. Our little ones were brave, and sat quietly, watching all with wide eyes waiting for what would happen. What did happen is the camp going about tasks, and making more food, which I also dosed, and the guards came in later and ate. And they got ready for sleeping.

"And I waited.

"And the fires died, and they were not refreshed.

"And morning came, and no one stirred in camp. And our younglings, seeing the same things I saw, began trying to pull out the stakes or saw through their cords or even chew their way out, and I came and cut those horrid thongs away from them, and nothing else stirred in camp the whole time. I would rather have screamed and cut my way through the camp from one end to the other unleashing blood and pain and destruction, but I know. I know I would not have lasted long, and we would still be fighting the outsiders, and more of us would have joined our ancestors."

There was silence. The listeners were surprised by the sudden strange ending. Even Meten herself looked a little uncomfortable at the ending. For a few beats, she was silent, but then continued:

"Only a few of our younglings did not listen to me, and ate the food, and died with our enemy. I could not perform the proper rites alone, so I carried them to the side and the younglings helped me pile brush over them in the hopes that scavengers would go for the easy food, giving our warriors time to return for them. We collected food, and I told the littles to gather small things easy to carry from the tents as treasure, and I went looking for any who might be alive. I found none, but I did find some dressed differently enough that I guessed them to be Elders or their healers, or someone of importance. Of those, I collected anything that I thought would interest our wise ones."

Heu-heh, so we say for those that are clever, and so we said it to her as she finished her tale.

"The warriors had returned to our camp when we straggled in, and oh they were furious and joyous all at once! Some went to collect our dead in the valley, as they had already done for the ones in our small camp, including my husband. And we returned with hearts both light and heavy, for we now had the way to defeat our enemies for good, but we paid a great price for that knowledge.

"This story I told to the elders, and we opened our packs to show what we brought with us. The warriors had also taken more, and most of their supplies were given to what tribe remained, while the younglings were allowed to keep what they took for themselves. What I had of the things was their shaman's kit. With a root in it, that when prepared by freeze and thaw, and squeezed into water, caused the wasting sickness."

Murmurs, a wave of it, through the crowd.

"And a cure? Indeed, in the very pots that come from our lands. Our clay deposits have the cure, and it leaches into our very food and binds to the juice. We have brought many for trade, we shall not drive you hard, we need to share our great fortune to bring back healing to the tribes."

He chuckled at the sales pitch, but he could not fault them for wanting a token in return for the time and effort put into these most excellent pots. He stepped back from the merchant frenzy, and noticed also that the potter had started to slip away as well. He circled, touched her arm in reverence.

"Ai?" She glanced at his braid. "Yes, Storyteller, what more can I tell you?"

"Your gold bead. Your tribe was not wealthy before, so it's not like they can pick extras off a tree for you. Who gave it to you?"

"Ai, the Elders." She shook her head, and the top bead glittered in the firelight; the story had gone on long enough for the sun to set. "They actually opened the Box of Ancestors, and picked out my father's braid, and gave me his. Our braids will be entwined when I die." A small tear trickled down her cheek. "I loved my father well, and I miss him, and I hope he is watching as I wear his bead with honor."

Greatly touched, he tapped her shoulder for extra honor, and steepled his fingers for an Obeisance Bow. "You have given many of us life, and renewed health, and I will tell your story with pleasure. Well met, Meten of the Kista Tribe. May I see you again when the clans gather."

She nodded and gave a small smile, and she kissed her fingers and tapped the bowl in his hands twice. "My work is in good hands, be well as you walk to world's paths."

And he left, the story tingling on his tongue, to return to camp.

Author's notes:

In Peru, in the Altiplano area, if you are served potatoes with a clay sauce, dip in and use it liberally. Ancient potatoes are still poisonous, though we've bred it out of some species over the years. Legend says that we humans learned the trick by observing llamas eating the poisonous tubers, then licking clay deposits.

When Pompey tried to conquer them, the Persians planted "mad honey" - the bees harvested their supplies from rhododendron bushes, which are poisonous - for the Romans to find and eat. Romans had a sweet tooth, and ate it without thinking about traps, and were poisoned, and it is written that 1000 troops succumbed to the trick.

Where I live, the local ancient clay pits are still active, and they produce a beautiful blue-gray color. The local Lenni Lenape tribe used them, and I still collect small portions to make clay pots. My own occupation-bead, however, would be yellow for fiber spinning, or twisted blue-and-clear for glass bead making.


About the author

Meredith Harmon

Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.

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