Whiteface - Part I
by Jared Oliver Adams
2nd Place - Best Story - 2011
Before Otter-in-the-grass, nobody among the Ka-akin peoples had ever chosen
more than one color. When he was ten moons old, he was presented to the chiefs
like any other baby, and like any other baby he was placed on the ground of the
meeting place in the middle of a circle. Around the edge of the circle were dry
piles of different-colored dyes, each hue mixed carefully to be pure in color. Some
of the piles were big and some small, but they were all placed with precision,
according to tradition.
Infant Otter-in-the-grass (and this was before he was given his name), sat still for
awhile and looked around, not at the dyes but at the people crowded along the
outside of the ring. He considered them with great wonder, for everyone in the
front row of onlookers had their faces covered in reddish mud to obscure their
identity to the child, and each shook a rattle so that the babe would not be
distracted by any sudden noises. Otter-in-the-grass watched them as many babies
had done before, but then he did something unheard of. He turned completely
around, crawled over to the back of the circle where all the rarest colors were, and
flopped down across three separate mounds of dye.
Neither the chiefs nor the sages knew how to interpret this, for at that time the
color a baby chose determined what his role in society would be. If he had plunged
his hand into the pile of red dye, then he would have been a war-chief; if yellow, a
peace-chief; if purple, a sage -- but as far as any observer could tell, he touched all
three colors at once.
The decision was made to train the child in all three disciplines, and he was given
the name Otter-in-the-grass, for an otter has three natures: it swims like a fish, has
fur like a squirrel, and interacts with its fellows like a man.
Otter-in-the-grass was a clever boy, and this training bore much fruit. As a peace-chief he became skilled at rationing food, smoothing over conflicts, and directing
trade. As a war-chief he became a master of weapons and tactics. And as a sage he
learned not only the lore of the Ka-akin, but that of the surrounding tribes as well.
Such was his success that the other clan chiefs of the Ka-akin began to fear that
one day he would set himself up as the sole ruler of the tribe, becoming like the
oppressive Chieftains of the neighboring peoples. Seeking to lessen his influence
while still respecting his colors, the chiefs decided to make for Otter a unique
position, that of an ambassador, for in this way they could use his great skills,
while at the same time keeping him from the village for long periods of time.
At this too Otter excelled. He opened many paths for trade, halted many wars
before they started, and his name was known among all the surrounding tribes. His
absence from the village had little effect on his popularity. Though the Ka-akin
said they respected all people the same, in truth they respected him the most.
Now, it came to pass that Otter married and had a son, and this is where the true
story starts, for this was the great crisis in Otter's life, the thing that made him the
man he is today.
Every hair on Otter's body tingled as his son was placed amid the circle of dyes
and the rattles started shaking. The entire tribe, even those from other villages, had
come to see what Otter's son would do. Half watched the baby, and half watched
Otter himself. Otter was aware of their looks, but his eyes were fixed on his son.
His firstborn son. His only son.
Next to Otter, his wife, Lake-blooming-flower, strained upward on her toes to see
above the shoulders of the man in front of her. Even with mud on their faces,
parents were not allowed to stand in the front row, lest the baby notice them and
crawl that way. Otter put his hand on Lake-bloom's shoulder and silently guided
her in front of him where she could see better.
Lake-bloom had borne their son with great courage, and it had cost her much. She
had bled for several days after bringing him into the world, and the Curers were
surprised she survived. Her stomach still pained her when she lifted things, and her
moon-flow had stopped altogether. They would have no other children. Their
infant son, sitting in the circle right now, would be their only heritage, and the
color he chose would determine what that heritage would be.
Otter was sure his son would pick black, for the boy was a natural hunter. He had
crawled for the first time in an effort to catch a sunning lizard, and though his
movements were clumsy, his eyes had been intent on his prey. A hunter for sure.
Sitting in the circle, Otter's son started to cry. Lake-bloom flinched forward a step
and clapped her hands over her breasts. Otter still had a hand on her shoulder. Her
muscles there were like the hard roots of oak trees.
Lake-bloom thought their son would choose yellow and become a peace-chief, but
then again that's what all mothers thought. Yellow was one of the three rare colors
though, and not only was the child always placed with his back to the rare colors,
but the three piles were very small and partially blocked on either side by large
mounds of black. It wasn't impossible for a child to crawl in between the two black
piles and get to the yellow, after all Otter had done it, but it was very uncommon.
His son would pick black, and he would be a great hunter-warrior. Otter-in-the-grass would lead him into battle even, and he would be there when his son first
shed enemy blood, be there to give him his first warrior tattoo.
To Otter's right was his father, Leaping-deer. Leaping-deer stood straight and
proud in spite of the grey hairs woven through the bun on his head. To him, black
and red were the only suitable options for his grandson, because they were the only
colors not put around the circle when the child was female. Leaping-deer's lips
were pressed together so hard that they were white around the edges.
Otter's son cried for a time, and when he stopped, his face was covered in snot and
tears. Then, his lip trembling, his face glistening, the boy put his arms out in front
of him to crawl. The onlookers gasped, the rattles continued to shake, and the baby
took a few steps forward to the large piles of black and brown dyes in front of him.
Choosing brown would make him a forager. It was a noble task, but not so noble as
being a hunter-warrior. Otter silently urged him to pick black.
Otter's son hesitated a mere handbreadth away from the brown and black piles,
then sat up as if considering his options. Slowly, he turned around to look behind
him. Then he started crawling again. Fast.
He had made up his mind, had chosen his color. At first Otter thought the boy was
going towards the blue, to be a crafter like his mother, but then he realized with
horror that his son was headed for the color right beside it: white. Before Otter had
the time for a thought other than panic, his only son stumbled and fell face-first
into the pile of white dye.
Too quickly. It happened too quickly.
The rattles halted abruptly, and there was nothing but shocked, motionless, silence.
Then the baby, Otter's baby, pulled his head up and started crying again, the white
powder clinging to his face like a mask. Lake-bloom batted Otter's hand from her
shoulder and darted towards their child, scuffing through piles of dye to pick him
up. The baby's cries gave the crowd permission to speak. All around the circle,
people called to those further back, telling them what had happened. "White," said
a dozen different voices, "he chose white."
The words were like a club to Otter's stomach. White, the unclean color of mold,
the dead color of sand where nothing grows, the color of bones left in the sun, the
color of froth coming from a sick animal's mouth. Whites were servants, but only
in things that were unclean. It was they who cured the animal hides in urine to
make them soft, they who kneaded feces into the ground at the base of the corn
plants to make them grow.
And there would be no redress. Otter's son hadn't simply brushed the pile as some
children did. No, there was no doubt. Otter's son had chosen white. And though
everyone insisted that the whites were just as important to their tribe as anyone
else, Otter knew the truth. His son would wear out his body doing the jobs nobody
else wanted to do, and he would die young from the unclean things he touched, just
as all whites did. He would have no tattoos, no stories told about him at the fire,
and no children to speak his name to the ancestors when he died.
For when the time came that Otter's son was old enough to take a wife, he would
be castrated instead.
People talked excitedly, and some came over to Otter, saying empty words,
meaningless words. "To some are given great tasks, and to others lowly, but each
has honor," said the sage in front of him. Otter wished to lash out at the man, to
take him by his white hair and smash his face into the ground. Instead, Otter
nodded, hands trembling at his sides.
When the time came for the other chiefs to pronounce his son's name, Otter
listened numbly. "Whiteface." That was the name they gave him. No animal name,
not even a plant name. He was just "Whiteface." Lake-bloom held the baby up to
each of the chiefs in turn and each put a hand on the baby's stomach, saying the
words of blessing.
Otter was a chief too though, and he had to give the blessing as well. Lake-bloom
brought the child to him last and Otter snatched the baby from her, scrubbed the
dye off his face with his fingers. It came off only partially, leaving smears and
streaks. "May our ancestors watch over you," said Otter to his son. He had been
looking forward to giving his son this blessing ever since he was born, and now the
words hurt to say. Tears threatened, but he clenched his jaw, held them back. "May
they make strong your arms, swift your feet, and steadfast your heart." He hesitated
then, and the other chiefs looked at him expectantly. The next part of the blessing
would bind his son to the color he had chosen. Did he dare continue? His son
squirmed in his arms and reached out for Otter's mud-covered face as if he wanted
to clean off the mud just as Otter had done for him with the dye.
"Courage," Lake-bloom whispered to Otter.
Yes, courage. Otter was a man and he would act as a man. There was time to
change this, time to train his child into somebody the tribe could not afford to cast
away. Others had tried, but Otter would succeed where they had failed. Courage.
Otter engulfed his son's hand in his own and brought it back to the boy's stomach.
The baby giggled. "May the ancestors who watch the dyes apply you wholly to
your task: body, mind, and spirit." But that task would not be that of the unclean.
Otter would train him as an ambassador, that was it. He would train him so well
that the other chiefs would have to allow him to change his colors. "May the
ancestors watch over you, Whiteface," my son, "and may you work as unto them."
Otter looked his boy in the eyes, and his boy looked back at him, listening. "May
your name be great in their sight."
The crowd stomped then, over and over, to awaken the ancestors buried in the
mounds overlooking the meeting place, to make the ancestors take notice of the
blessings spoken on Otter's child. Otter stomped as well and clutched his son to his
chest. "Wake ancestors," he said softly, under the rumbling stomps, "right this
When the stomping faded and people started to leave, Otter looked to the right and
saw his father. Leaping-deer was sitting on the ground as if his legs had buckled
under him. His back was hunched and his arms hung limply at his sides, hands
resting on the ground. Lake-bloom went over and knelt beside him. "Father
Leaping-deer," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder, but he didn't respond.
"Father," said Otter. "We will fix this. We will make it right. The ancestors will
not let this stand." But Leaping-deer continued to stare blankly at the piles of dye
before them. The dyes were being scooped up into baskets now. They wouldn't be
used for this ceremony again, but they could still be used on fabric.
"Father," Otter said again, but Leaping-deer just stared forward. People walked in
front of him, but his gaze didn't shift.
Lake-bloom and Otter-in-the-grass eventually left him to his grief. They went back
to their chikhee hut -- an open-air house with a thatched roof -- and put baby
Whiteface to sleep on his mat. Otter sat with his wife in silence then, idly eating
strips of venison as he considered how to make the other chiefs see that the
ancestors wished Whiteface a different course in life.
It would have to be something grand to get them to make such a break with
tradition, a truce sealed or a lucrative trade established. But if Whiteface could do
such a thing, then how could the chiefs possibly throw away his talents by insisting
he become one of the unclean? The task would require both rigorous training and
the blessings of the ancestors, but Otter knew they were on his side. He was sure.
They would not let his line be cut off.
For now though, Whiteface was just a babe. Otter-in-the-grass had time to decide
how to go about this. He filled a bowl with beans and venison and brought it out to
his father, Leaping-deer, who was still sitting at the meeting place just where
they'd left him. His staring eyes were red-rimmed, and he was deaf to Otter's pleas
to eat. Otter left the bowl on the ground beside his father's limp hand.
The next morning, Otter went to find his father still in the same place, gazing at the
spot where the dyes had been. The bowl was still beside him, full and swarming
with flies. This is how it was for four days. Leaping-deer ate nothing, drank
nothing, said nothing. And then, on the morning of the fifth day, Otter went out to
urge him to eat once again and found him collapsed on the ground, dead.
The unclean servants, the whites, prepared Leaping-deer's body and buried him in
the mound set aside for their family. He was buried with his bow and spear, with
eyes open so he could hunt in the afterlife. Otter spoke his name to the ancestors,
declaring his lineage back six generations as he had been taught, but all the while,
Otter thought of Whiteface.
If Otter failed, if Whiteface indeed became one of the unclean and was castrated,
then Whiteface would be the last buried here. There would be no sons and
grandsons to visit the mound. Leaping-deer, Otter, Whiteface --they would be the
ancestors of nobody. Nobody would listen to their words of wisdom. Nobody
would honor their mound.
Despair crept over Otter. What happened to an ancestor when his line was cut off?
What would become of him? Would he disappear? Become nothing? Would he die
a second death, a final death?
Otter wept bitterly then. He had held it in the day of Whiteface's naming, but it
came out now. Sobs racked him, ate at his stomach, brought him to his knees just
like his father. Lake-bloom stood by him all the while, a hand resting on his head.
And when the great well of tears inside finally dried up, Otter stood and hugged
her to him.
"You must divorce me," she said softly into his ear.
Otter flinched back, held her at arms length. "What are these words?" he said, but
he understood even as the question came out of his lips.
"My womb is dry," said Lake-bloom. "You must divorce me and take another
wife. You must have another child, many other children, and I cannot give them to
you. I am too weak to give them to you. Divorce me." Her cheeks were streaked
with tears, her eyes puffy with them.
Otter put a hand over her mouth to stop her foolish talk. "You are my wife," he
said. "Did I not give your father many valuable goods to take your face into my
hand?" He caressed her cheek, which was wet with tears. "Did I not declare my
loyalty to you in front of this, my father, who is now in the ground? Did I not lay
with you, and love you?"
She nodded, crying still more. "My womb is dry," she repeated. "My womb is
dry." But Otter just took her into his arms and held her, and every time she said
"My womb is dry," he said "You are my wife."
When Whiteface started speaking, Otter taught him not only the language of the
Ka-akin, but also the languages of the surrounding tribes. He taught him the lilting
Sopatke tongue, the speech of the Tumuacs, and the language of the Shell-People
who lived on the beaches to the south.
He taught Lake-bloom the languages too, so that when Otter had to leave for
several days to meet with other tribes, she could continue teaching in his stead. He
also took Whiteface to the fire at night where the sages told their wisdom tales.
When they went back to their chikhee hut afterwards, Otter asked him questions
about what the tales meant, and by the time Whiteface was six years old, he knew
It was then that Otter started taking Whiteface along with him as he settled disputes
around the village. The people delighted in how Otter would hear the problem and
ask his son what to do before passing judgment, but the other chiefs recognized it
for what it was.
"You are training him as a chief," they said.
But Otter denied this. "I am teaching him to settle disputes, and that is good
knowledge for any man, even one of the unclean."
The chiefs could not argue with his words, but they saw through him nonetheless.
"Teach him then," said the eldest chief, "but if he is old enough to learn from you,
then he is old enough to learn the ways of the white as well. We will assign him a
tutor early, for he seems a discerning child."
Otter took this blow as if it were acceptable, but it grieved him deeply. Normally, a
child was not assigned a tutor until they were eight years old, and Otter had been
counting on being Whiteface's only teacher until then. Thus started a silent battle
between Otter-in-the-grass and Whiteface's new tutor, Egret-fishing-among-the-reeds.
Egret demanded that Whiteface report every morning to the leather-tanning pits
west of the village to learn the work of a white. The tanning pits were far away
from any house, because they were unclean and smelled of the fermented urine
used to cure the leather. Otter brought his son out there the first day and watched
from the nearby woods as Egret began his instruction.
There were several clay-lined pits full of brownish-yellow filth, and other whites
stood at the edges of them, driving hides into the foul water with large branches.
Whiteface, however, was not given a branch. Egret ordered him to jump down into
the pit and churn the water with his feet. Egret himself stood on the pit's edge,
yelling at him to step higher, to push his feet down harder. Six-year-old Whiteface
did as he was told too, splashing himself as he drove the hide into the disgusting
water again and again. When Whiteface tired, Egret lashed him across the back
with a thick vine. It was all Otter could do to keep from rushing over and killing
This lasted all morning, and when Whiteface could march no longer in the putrid
water, he was made to bathe in a pond and then sit in the medicine tent for hours so
that he might be purified by the smoking herbs. When he emerged from the tent,
his eyes were red, he was covered in sweat, and he was too tired to walk. Otter
carried him back to the village in his arms.
For several weeks, Whiteface was too worn out at the end of the day for any of
Otter's lessons. He fell asleep right after getting home, often before he could eat. It
was necessary to appease the other chiefs in this way though, and eventually
Whiteface grew strong and was able again to have his secret training. Otter made
for him child-sized weapons and hid them in an isolated stretch of forest far to the
west. Instead of going back to the village after his daily purification, Otter took his
son to the forest, teaching him how to shoot a bow, how to throw a spear. There,
amidst the oak trees and the palmetto bushes, Otter labored to save his son from his
So it went for years. Every spare moment that Otter was not away from the village
was spent training his son. Though his skills with weapons were only average,
Whiteface learned the languages well, speaking even the harsh and awkward
tongue of the Shell-People with ease. Many people in the village remarked that
Whiteface had his father's wisdom too, and this pleased Otter very much, for this
was exactly the kind of sentiment he wished to foster.
When Whiteface was thirteen, the Sopatke attacked one of the Ka-akin villages to
the north, burning the thatched chikhee roofs with fire-arrows and killing many
warriors. The Ka-akin chiefs drove their arrows into the ground of the meeting
place to show that they would avenge the deaths, and the two tribes went to war.
At this, Otter-in-the-grass thanked the ancestors. His opportunity had come.
Now, the Sopatke were a brutal people, and their numbers were far greater than
that of the Ka-akin, but they had one weakness -- they were very superstitious.
They had threatened to attack before, but Otter had always kept them from it by
reminding them of the burial mounds that sat in every Ka-akin village. The
Sopatke were afraid above all else of vengeful spirits come back to life, and Otter
had expended much effort in making them believe that such spirits would emerge
from the burial mounds if the Sopatke were to ever attack the Ka-akin.
When the Sopatke did attack, Otter knew that the only way to repel them would be
to use their superstitions and realize their fears. The other three war-chiefs bowed
to his knowledge of the Sopatke, and he was given freedom to plan the endeavor
however he wished.
He evacuated the village closest to the one the Sopatke had just burned and
constructed several hollow mounds there. The most skilled hunter-warriors hid in
these mounds and rubbed blue dye into their skin so that their appearance was
strange and frightening.
These men stayed inside the mounds for two days while Otter and the other war-chiefs fought small battles to harry their enemy and drive them into place. When a
large group of Sopatke came to camp at the abandoned village, the warriors inside
the mounds waited until the darkest hour of night and burst forth. They killed many
men, some asleep and some paralyzed with fear, but they also made certain that
several escaped to spread panic.
That very night, Otter was meeting with the Sopatke war leader, Jhinn-alt, acting as
if he were offering the man conditions for a truce. They were meeting on neutral
land, a grassy pasture with a hill that allowed both parties to watch for ambush.
Though it was the middle of the night, the full moon provided ample light to see
by. Jhinn-alt was full of pride as Otter prostrated himself on the ground before him,
begging him to leave the Ka-akin alone. The night sounds of crickets and frogs
provided a background for his empty words.
When a Sopatke messenger came with news of the "demons from the ground,"
Jhinn-alt grew very still. "You have planned this," Jhinn-alt said to Otter. "You
seek to win this war by deception. If I had such little honor, I would kill you right
now." He kicked at the ground as if he were scuffing dust in Otter's direction, a
Sopatke insult. Then he turned to leave, motioning for the messenger and the five
warriors with him to follow.
That was when Whiteface emerged from the side of the hill.
He had been hiding there in a small hollow where he could hear what was going
on, but it looked as if he appeared from the air. He was painted blue as the other
warriors had been, but special care had been taken to make him appear not as a
man, but as a beastly spirit. Rows of shark teeth protruded from his mouth at
different angles. They had been scrounged from necklaces and fishing hooks alike
and tied atop his normal teeth. With sap, the ridged scales of an alligator's back
had been stuck to his cheeks and brow, his arms, his chest, and his back. These
protrusions were painted blue also, so that they blended in and looked as if they
were part of his skin. A black snake had been killed and coiled around his neck so
that the head hung down onto his breastbone, and he held in one hand a dead
buzzard and in the other a dead turtle, shorn of its shell.
Otter did not have to try very hard to act scared, for his son's appearance was
gruesome indeed in the moonlight. When Whiteface spoke, Jhinn-alt trembled.
"Who is this who tramples my ground?" said Whiteface in the Sopatke tongue. The
Curers had mixed a vile drink that made his voice scratchy and inhuman.
Jhinn-alt didn't answer, and Whiteface took a step forward. He raised the dead
shell-less turtle, and slung it at the man's feet. The war leader jumped as it hit the
ground wetly. "Seek your omens, Wise One," said Whiteface. "What does the
turtle without a shell say of your future?"
In Sopatke lore, the turtle without its shell was a sign of unnatural evil. It was said
that a Sopatke would starve before eating turtle meat. Jhinn-alt said nothing
though. He stood there as if rooted, the five warriors with him looking around
wildly for other evil spirits. Behind them, the messenger who had witnessed the
warriors bursting from the mounds turned wordlessly and ran away.
When the man was gone and all was silent for several moments, Whiteface lifted
the buzzard by one of its legs, causing the neck to dangle freely. "Seek your
omens, Wise One. Who shall eat the flesh of the buzzard when it falls from the
sky? Will its own kind devour it?" The Sopatke believed that buzzards harvested
the souls of the dead along with their meat. When a buzzard itself died, however,
the first spirit to arrive at the corpse could eat all of the souls the buzzard had taken
and thus gain physical form. To kill a buzzard was to release a physical spirit into
Otter resisted the urge to smile and took a shaking step back instead. His son was
Whiteface let the buzzard slide from his grip and onto the grass. Jhinn-alt watched
with wide eyes as Whiteface took a stone from his belt and smashed the buzzard's
head. Whiteface raised the rock. "This stone is yours," he said to Jhinn-alt,
stepping closer. "You have crushed the head of the buzzard and its blood is on
you." Whiteface stepped closer still, and Otter braced himself to jump forward, his
eyes on Jhinn'alt's knife.
Whiteface held the rock in front of the Jhinn-alt's face. "Take it," rasped
Jhinn-alt stumbled back from him.
"Take it," Whiteface said, louder. But the war leader shook his head. All of his five
guards had their spears pointed at Whiteface now, but the arms holding them were
"Take it!" Whiteface shouted, and his voice cracked, making it a deathly shriek.
Jhinn-alt was trembling now. He worked his knife from its sheath and threw it to
the ground, motioned for his guards to do the same with their spears. When
Whiteface held up the rock again, Jhinn-alt backed away with his empty hands up
in front of him. He and his guards walked like that until they were a faraway speck
entering the forest line and they disappeared from view.
Otter waited until they were out of sight for a count of ten hundreds before he
turned to his son and finally allowed himself to smile.
In two days the Sopatke were completely gone from Ka-akin lands. When the
people returned to the evacuated villages, they found that the Sopatke had broken
their spears and piled them atop the burial mounds. There were also heaps of
braided hair, cut from their heads to show the spirits their remorse.
The Ka-akin had won the war. Otter's war, however, was not yet done. "See how
my son has acted admirably," he said to the full council of chiefs and sages. They
were assembled in the meeting house, a low building with an earthen floor and a
peaked roof that reached all the way to the ground. Though the night was warm, a
small fire burned and all of the men and women of the council sat around it. "He
did what no other man could do. It was he who defeated the Sopatke."
One of the sages objected to this. "It was your plan, Otter-in-the-grass," she said.
"Yes," agreed one of the war-chiefs. "You planned this in all its aspects. It was not
the work of this boy. He was simply saying the words you put into his mouth."
When the war-chief said this, Otter fought down a wave of panic. After all he had
accomplished, would they still deny his request for his son? "Without knowing the
language, he would not have been able to do as he did," said Otter. "Jhinn-alt
would have seen him for a fraud."
"And who taught him the language?" asked the Eldest chief. An enemy warrior had
tried to scalp Eldest once and there was a faded scar across his forehead under his
"I did," said Otter, "but it was his quick mind that allowed him to learn it, the mind
given him by the ancestors. He knows other languages too."
"And why teach the boy these languages in the first place if not to go against the
ancestors?" said Eldest. "A white needs no such knowledge."
Otter had been thinking about this very night for over thirteen years. His heart
pounded with fear, but he was ready for their questions. "I taught him the
languages of the surrounding tribes so that he might better train the slaves of war
that work alongside the unclean."
Eldest shook his head and laughed in response. "Do you think you will fool us
Otter? Do you think you are the only one with wisdom in him to discern when he is
being led along? We know what you seek for your son. Your intentions are plain to
us. Why not ask what you will, and wait on our response?"
Otter took a deep breath to keep the words from gushing out of him. "You must see
now that without an ambassador who knew the customs of the Sopatke, we would
have perished at their hands. And yet when I die, who shall replace me? If you wait
for another child to choose three colors it will not happen. Why not let my son take
this position? Let him abandon the work than any man can do, and instead become
One of the war-chiefs whose sons had all chosen blue and become crafters stood
up, brushing his head against the sloping thatch of the ceiling. His name was
Blood-in-his-eyes, for when he was a baby he had a sickness that made his eyes
red, and when he had chosen red as his color, the sages said the sickness had been
a sign. "What you are asking is shameful and full of pride," said Blood-in-his-eyes.
"I will not put my smile on it. We are not the Sopatke with their all-powerful
Chieftain, or the Shell-people with their dynasties. And what insures this but the
dyes? To change your son's color would destroy our whole society."
Several in the meeting house agreed with him, and Otter rushed to defend himself.
"Who then shall I teach the ways of an ambassador? Shall I teach you and keep
you from the task you have been given? Shall I choose a peace-chief and take him
away from governing his village? Or perhaps I should take a sage, and steal his
counsel away from the people while I show him how to make battle plans and
calculate trade agreements?"
"Better that then spurning the dyes just so your son can have a job you approve
of," said Blood-in-his-eyes.
"This isn't about what I approve of," said Otter. "It's about what the tribe needs.
And it needs another ambassador."
Blood-in-his-eyes spat on the ground in front of Otter's crossed legs. "What of my
firstborn? Shall I take his grinding bowl away and clean the dye off his hands and
give him a spear? Will we call him a hunter-warrior then? Will we allow him to
reenact the ceremony of the dyes as an adult, picking any color he desires?" The
man turned in a circle, facing all the gathered chiefs and sages. "Would such a
thing be fair in the sight of our ancestors?"
Otter fought down rage. Blood-in-his-eyes had five sons and three daughters to
carry on his line, and he spoke of fairness? How would he feel if he just had one
son and him a white?
Otter kept himself from displaying his anger. It was always better to appear as the
calm one in negotiations. Being the tribe's ambassador had taught him that.
"And where will the ancestors go if we all die because we are unwilling to
change?" said Otter. "What will become of them?" He let the question sink in. This
was the high point of his argument. "The ancestors need us as we need them.
Without us they will be forgotten, their mounds grown over with palmettos. They
need us to live and prosper. To do that there must be another ambassador to take
my place when I die."
"We do not know that," said one of the sages.
"Don't we?" said Otter. "Could we have faced the Sopatke any other way? Could
we have withstood their numbers?" Otter scanned the faces around him. "I tell you,
when I chose my colors, nobody knew how to respond. The council picked the role
for me that was best for the tribe. Will you now not do the same with my son, who
has likewise shown himself to be exceptional?"
Silence. Then everybody was talking at once. Eldest had to stand up to quiet them
down. "We must debate this new teaching," he said to Otter. "But we must do so
without you present to sway us one way or another."
"But how can I defend myself if --"
"You have presented your case Otter-in-the-grass," said Eldest. "Now let us
Otter left the meeting house that night with great fear in his throat. He had done all
he could, and now there was nothing left but to wait. For two whole moons he
waited. The chiefs spoke on the matter of his son whenever they met, but they
refused to tell Otter of their progress.
It came to pass though, that the chiefs reached an agreement. There would be a new
color added to the circle for ambassadors, a mixture of green and blue that would
be placed behind even the rare colors so that a child must reach over them to get to
it. And when Whiteface entered manhood at the age of fourteen, he would be
allowed to choose that color and be an ambassador himself.
The pronouncement was made at night, as all important announcements were, and
Otter rejoiced greatly. His wife, Lake-bloom, rejoiced as well, saying "the
ancestors have surely heard our cry. Our line will continue."
Whiteface himself seemed stunned at the news. As Otter and Lake-bloom prepared
a special meal, he walked away into the forest. Otter let him go so he could come
to terms with his new role in the tribe. There would be time to celebrate with him
later. In the meantime, Otter and Lake-bloom prepared a great feast and many
congregated around their chikhee.
The next day Otter woke early, eager to see his son. Whiteface, however, was not
at home. Otter didn't find him until midday, and when he did, Whiteface was
among the corn, pressing feces into the ground with his hands.
"Son," said Otter, "you no longer have to dirty yourself with work such as this."
Whiteface didn't look up. "I don't have to," he said.
His emphasis was strange. "Then why are you doing it still? You can set aside
these tasks. The ancestors have rewarded your diligence. You have new tasks
Whiteface muttered something that Otter could not make out. "Son?" asked Otter.
"Nothing," said Whiteface, reaching into a wicker basket for a handful of filth and
pressing it down into the ground so that it squished between his fingers. Why was
he acting so strange? The pronouncement must have shaken him. He was reverting
back to this because this was familiar to him and he was scared of the strange new
"Come son, purify yourself, and then we will catch fish and have a meal. We can
talk about your new place in the tribe and ease your fears." Whiteface picked up
his basket and moved to the next stalk of corn. "I know it's strange to have this
new direction, son, but it's not as if you are unprepared for it. Look at how you
dealt with Jhinn-alt. He will never threaten our lands again, and you are the reason
Whiteface ignored him, continuing to work feces into the soil at the base of the
corn plants. Whiteface went through moods like this occasionally, and they always
annoyed Otter. How could you help somebody if they were not willing to talk to
you? "Speak to me son. Your silence is disrespectful."
Whiteface said something as he picked up his basket and moved to the next corn
stalk, but Otter missed it. "Speak clearly," Otter said.
"I said: good."
"Good?" Otter asked, but his son was once again kneading the soil, his head down.
"You are making me angry, son," said Otter. "Stand and speak to me as a man."
Whiteface bolted to his feet then and his face was full of anger. "I said: good. I am
glad you feel disrespected. Now you know how I feel."
Otter reeled back at the sudden outburst. What was this? "How do you feel
Whiteface laughed then. "You can ask that question? You, who dressed me as a
monster just so you could feel proud of me? You, who represented me in front of
the council without even asking my opinion on the matter? How can you be so
careful to avoid disrespect with other tribes and not see how you disrespect your
Otter didn't understand these accusations, these biting words. How could his son
speak to him so after all Otter had done?
"You still don't see it do you?" said Whiteface, gesturing wildly with a hand so
that a wet glop of feces flung off his fingertips. "You have heaped dishonor upon
me and you don't even see! I chose a color and I accepted it, but you didn't. You
Someone had been putting ideas in his head, probably his tutor, Egret. Otter
calmed himself. "Is it dishonor to want my son to have a wife, a family, a happy
life? Is that dishonor?"
"It is dishonor to make my choice for me," said Whiteface.
"You are only a boy," Otter said. "My boy."
"Not for long," said Whiteface. "Three moons and I will be a man. I will make my
own decisions. And I will choose to honor the ancestors. I will choose white."
"Son, let us calm down and speak of this with reason."
"No," said Whiteface. "No. You use reason like a spear, goading people where
they do not want to go. It may have worked with Jhinn-alt and with the council, but
it will not work with me. There is no space left for reason. My decision is made."
Otter's calm broke then. "I will not let my only son be castrated because he chose
the wrong color as a child."
"But you will let the sons of others be castrated? It's suitable for someone else's
son but not for yours? And who says it's the wrong color?"
"But the ancestors would not choose to --"
"Who are you to say what the ancestors would not do?" said Whiteface. "Are you
in the ground with them to hear their words? Do you know their thoughts? No?Then look at me and tell me why it is you hate me so much, why it is you never
speak my name, calling me 'son' or 'my boy' instead of 'Whiteface.' Tell me why
you look down on the color I chose, look down on my place in the tribe. Tell me
these things, Father, because I think this has nothing to do with the ancestors. I
think this is you wanting me to be a great chief, so you can brag about me to your
friends. Well, I'll tell you now, I'm not going to be an ornament in your ear. I
won't be a tattoo, spread across your skin to tell of your great deeds. I'm not going
to let every other boy that chooses white be castrated while I walk around taunting
him with my very presence. I'm not going to do it and you are not only a bad chief
for asking me to, you're a bad father."
The words tore into Otter's flesh like arrows or knives or the teeth of an alligator.
A bad father? A bad father for wanting the best for his son?
Otter forced himself to take a deep breath, then another. He walked over to
Whiteface and put his hands on his shoulders. They would calm down and they
would get to the bottom of this and all would be well.
"Son," said Otter, "listen to me for just a moment."
Whiteface shrugged out from under his hands. "I'm done listening," he said. "I'm
not a child any longer."
"Then listen as a man." Otter replaced his hands on the boy's shoulders, but
Whiteface batted them away, spattering Otter's arms with filth.
"You think I don't know what my decision will mean for me?" asked Whiteface.
"You think I can't see the consequences?"
"You will never have children," Otter said. "Never. Do you know what that's like?
You will work and work and work, and when you die you will leave nothing
"I know tha--"
"No you don't. You don't know what it's like. You are young and having children
seems like a responsibility better left to others. But will you feel like that in five
years? In ten? Or will you think back to how you had a chance at a family and you
gave it up forever? Don't you see? That's what you have now, a chance. Take it."
Whiteface crossed his arms and glared at Otter. "I don't know what it's like?"
Otter nodded. This was where he would bring Whiteface back to reason, by
showing love here. "It's not a fault in you, son. It's simply your age. You can't
know what it's like at your age."
"But you do know what it's like," said Whiteface.
"Yes," said Otter. He was getting through to him. Whiteface was starting to
"Yes!?" Whiteface retorted. "You have nothing to leave behind? No legacy?
"I didn't mean --"
"You meant it," said Whiteface.
"No," said Otter. "I --"
Whiteface knelt, got his basket and stood up again. "You can't change my mind,
Father. Can you accept that? Because in a few moons I'll be fourteen and you will
have to." And with that, Whiteface turned and left, weaving between the stalks of
Otter wanted to call him back, to go after him, but what could he say? It was like
when Whiteface was a baby in that circle and Otter was made to stand in the
second row so he couldn't interfere. He saw it happening all over again, his son
crashing face-first into the white pile, coming up crying. That also had happened
too quickly. A single instant and it was done. And there Otter was, alone among
the mounds of corn. Flies buzzed all around, competing with the ever-present buzz
of the cicadas and crickets.
Three moons later, Whiteface was castrated.
When the day of the ceremony came, Otter and Lake-bloom stood in the front row
of onlookers as Whiteface took the vows of service and said the oaths of manhood.
Otter and his wife had tried everything to get his son to change his mind, even
introducing him to women of marriageable age to entice him towards a family.
Nothing had worked. Still, standing in the front row, Otter clung to one last hope,
that Whiteface would see his parents standing there, see how they loved him, and
turn aside from his horrible course.
It did not happen.
After the vows and the oaths, after Eldest embraced him as a man, Whiteface
walked proudly into the Curer's hut. Before he entered, he turned and looked right
at Otter-in-the-grass. Otter pleaded with him silently to turn around, to not go in, to
save himself, but Whiteface went inside nonetheless.
The Curers hut had walls of braided palms so that the grim work could be done
without an audience, but as the rest of the people at the ceremony departed, Otter
and his wife stayed behind. Perhaps his son would see the knife and run out of the
hut, begging to be an ambassador after all?
Time wore on though, and with each passing moment, Otter's hope became more
and more desperate. By the time the Curer came out of the hut two hours later, all
of that hope had died. The skinny Curer picked up a palm frond from a basket
beside the steps of his hut and scrubbed his hands with it as he turned to Otter and
Lake-bloom. His hands were tacky with blood.
"Your son faced his color with great courage," the Curer said as he walked over.
"He made no sound as he was cut. The task is done."
The Curer said other things too, but his words washed over Otter in a babble. He
caught a few words -- "recovery" and "herbs" and "resting" -- but his mind was
stuck on one sentence: "The task is done."
Whiteface had been unmanned. Otter-in-the-grass had failed.
. . . to be continued in issue 25 . . .