Whiteface - Part II
by Jared Oliver Adams
. . . continued from issue 24 . . .
When the Curer was done talking, Otter slumped back home to his chikhee. He felt
numb. He understood now why his father had let himself starve to death those
many years ago. Nothing mattered. He had failed and nothing mattered. Why not
sit and wait for death to come? Why stave it off?
Lake-bloom sought to comfort him. She rubbed his back in great circles as he
looked outside at the village from his chikhee, watching people go about their day
as if nothing had happened. A pair of hunter-warriors were cooking a small
alligator on a rack above a fire. They were talking and laughing. Three chikhees
over, a group of men and women sat and plaited strips of palm branches together to
make mats. A few children who had chosen blue and would be crafters were sitting
with them, learning their future trade. To the side of their chikhee, a cloud of flies
hovered over the house's dung basket. One of the unclean would come at night and
take it for use in the fields the next day. One like Otter's son.
For days, Otter stayed in his house. He wanted to leave, to go far away, but he
couldn't bring himself to expend the effort. After a week, Lake-bloom announced
that she was going to visit Whiteface in his recovery. "You should come too,
husband, for he is still our son and visiting him now will help heal the rift between
us." She was wrong though. Otter had no son, and neither did she. The day of his
naming, infant Whiteface had caught an illness, and though Otter and Lake-bloom
had later thought they'd cured it, the illness turned out to be fatal.
Their son was dead.
He didn't tell her this though. Let her live her fantasy a little longer, let her hold
onto their son's corpse and pretend he was still inside. But Otter could not.
He started leaving the house to get away from her increasing demands to see their
son. He walked the woods and the fields alone. Occasionally he saw deer or rabbit,
but he never carried his bow and had no desire to shoot them anyway.
The worst thing was the people with their questions. Eldest found him in the woods
one day and asked him why Otter had let his son choose the white. Otter just stared
at the man until he went away. Other people asked similar questions though, and
not answering didn't keep the accusations of failure from cutting into him. He
wanted to forget it all and let his emotions rot away so he wouldn't have to feel the
pain, but he couldn't do it, not here so close to the village, where everything
reminded him of how he had lost his son.
He called together the chiefs and told them he was going east to the Tumuac tribe.
He made up some story about needing to stay strong against the Sopatke should
they attack again, and the council supplied him with food for the journey and
several bladders full of powdered dye to trade. Maybe the chiefs thought this was a
good step toward defense, or maybe they could see that Otter needed an excuse to
get away, but either way, they granted his request.
After he spoke to the chiefs, Otter informed Lake-bloom that he was leaving.
"Why not wait until Whiteface can walk unaided?" she said. "Then we can both
go, assured that he is well."
"I am leaving now," said Otter.
"Then you will leave without me."
And Otter did. He strapped the bladders of dye onto his back along with the dried
meats he'd been given, and left. He went east as he said he was going to, but he
encountered no Tumuacs. The villages he passed through were all abandoned,
hastily evacuated, as if in war. This evacuation proved to be thorough as well.
Besides a few hunters who were clearly Sopatke by their hair, Otter walked all the
way to the eastern ocean without seeing anyone.
He stayed at the ocean for an entire moon, eating what little he cared to forage
from the surrounding area and spending the rest of his time sitting on the sand as
the waves came in and out, in and out.
He camped on the beach, and some nights he saw giant turtles in the moonlight that
dug holes, laid eggs in them, and then went back out to sea. The eggs tasted good.
The time alone on the beach was good for him. His emotions were pulled out with
the tides, leaving him cold and hard. The sages always talked about shedding
emotions, shedding self-image. For them it was always in the context of bowing to
the needs of the tribe, but for Otter it was purely selfish. He wanted to cut off his
soul, to be just a body and a mind, no feelings.
When the moon changed, Otter went north, following the coastline. There was a
Tumuac village there not far from the ocean, but after seeing the hunters in the
woods, Otter was unsurprised to find that it had been taken over by Sopatke. A
man with a bow challenged him as Otter walked into the village, but Otter walked
right past him without speaking. He expected to feel an arrow in his back, but
instead the man ran off into the woods and returned with the chief of the clan.
"Otter-in-the-grass," said the chief. "Have you made a pact with the Tumuac then
so that you come to speak on their behalf?"
Otter recognized the man, but couldn't remember his name. Sopatke names were
meaningless sequences of sounds, put together for the music of the language rather
than any significance. Hard to remember. "I speak only for myself," said Otter.
"Good," said the chief. "Then I won't have to kill you." He smiled and then clicked
his teeth together twice. The Sopatke word for "kill" was also the one for "eat."
Otter realized then that when he had walked north, he had hoped to be killed. He
had known he would find some Sopatke, and had hoped that they would attack him
on sight. The thought was a dispassionate observation only.
Otter stayed in the Sopatke village for several days, accomplishing nothing from a
diplomatic standpoint except for an agreement that this particular clan would
inform the Ka-akin beforehand if they wished to take their land, instead of just
attacking and trying to kill everybody. "But if you go straight west," warned the
chief as they took their dinner together, "you will reach Jaegar's clan. And he is
not as gentle as I."
The next day, Otter went straight west. Jaegar did not kill him, but he didn't let
him enter the village either. Two men with spears pointed at Otter's chest kept him
on the outskirts while Jaegar was called. When he came, Otter asked for the same
offer the other chief had given and Jaegar laughed.
"He speaks our language like a child and he comes here and makes demands," said
Jaegar. The spearmen laughed along with him, but kept their arms firm and their
"Will not a man warn a child before he punishes him?" said Otter.
Jaegar threw back his head and roared with laughter then. "Go back home
fo-lalane. Go back home and tell your people that I will take what I want. Tell your
spirits too, for I am unafraid of them." Otter didn't know what fo-lalane meant, and
he didn't ask. He moved on to the next clan over, and the next, and then two
further north. The responses ranged from immediate agreement from chiefs with
fear in their eyes, to complete outrage that Otter would ask such a thing, to quiet
promises in the woods where nobody was listening.
In this way, Otter spent an entire year going from clan to clan, and only when the
summer rains started coming down in earnest did he finally decide to go back
He went to his chikhee first. It was odd to come back to it and find little changes: a
step at the front that sagged, a newly thatched roof that was still green in places. He
didn't find Lake-bloom though.
She would be angry, but Otter couldn't make himself care. On his journey, the part
of him that cared had shriveled up and died. The task of going from clan to clan
had been something to fill his time, not something he did out of any real love for
his tribe, and when the chiefs gathered that day in the meeting house to hear what
little he had accomplished, that too was simply a task, something to do. He didn't
even pretend to care about it.
Many of the other chiefs seemed alarmed though, fearing his work had riled the
Sopatke and undermined their past victory over them. Otter left when he grew
bored with their discussions. One of the chiefs, Blood-in-his-eyes, stopped him just
outside the entrance of the meeting house. "What has happened to you,
Otter-in-the-grass?" asked Blood-in-his-eyes.
"I saw the ocean," Otter replied, and walked back home.
His wife was waiting for him on the steps of their chikhee. She stood up when she
saw him and for a moment they just looked at each other. Then she shouted "I
divorce you." She looked around and shouted yet louder "I, Lake-blooming-flower,
divorce you, Otter-in-the-grass."
Otter just stood there. He could see the emotion in her eyes, but felt none in
"Say something," she said, and she was crying. He didn't, and she yelled out her
divorce proclamation again. People started to gather around the scene.
"You could have married somebody else by now," pointed out Otter.
She stormed towards him and came right up to his face. "No. I couldn't. Because to
divorce someone, you need them to be there. Some people care about the proper
ways, Otter." She spat his name. "Like your son, remember him? Your son, whom
you left in excruciating pain without his father. Well he cares about the proper
ways and I do too. I divorce you."
At the mention of his son, Otter looked around the crowd to see if Whiteface was
there. Lake-bloom caught the gesture. "No, Otter, he's not here. And you know
why? It's not because he didn't hear that you came back this morning, it's because
he thinks you hate him. He thinks that if he shows his face, you'll run away again."
Hate him? Otter had never hated him. The accusation ate at the corners of his calm.
In the past, back before he had left, the words would have enraged him. Now they
just tugged a little at the place in his throat where his emotions used to be, causing
him to swallow.
"How can you look at me with that dead face?" said Lake-bloom. She slapped
Otter hard and it caught him by surprise, making him stumble. "Are you alive in
there?" Lake-bloom screamed. "Are you taken over by a spirit?"
Otter supposed that was possible. He had eaten those sea turtle eggs. Maybe the
ocean had gotten into his veins that way, had made him uncaring and cold like the
waves. "Maybe," he said.
Lake-bloom hugged Otter fiercely then, but by the time Otter got his arms around
her, she pushed him back and slapped him again. "Then what will bring you back,
Otter? What will bring back my husband? Will this old body of mine?" She
grasped her breasts through her thin moss shirt. "Then take it. We can make love
like we did back when things looked good and bright and happy. Will that do it?"
But Otter knew it wouldn't. He had no desires like that anymore. He told her.
Better if she knew.
"Then what do you want?" She slammed her fists into his chest.
"Nothing," said Otter. He had wanted to die before, but even that desire had
eventually dissolved. There was one thing though, one last thing he wanted: to see
Whiteface. Maybe it was simply to look at him and pretend he was like he used to
be, Otter didn't know, but he did want to see his son before he left. Just once.
And he knew then that this would be his last night there, realized that had been his
unconscious plan from the start. He would go back to the ocean and live there until
he died, with the waves and the turtles and the trees with the long roots that stuck
out of the ground.
Lake-bloom shook her head, tears streaming down her face, and she stumbled back
to the steps of their house and collapsed there. Six or seven women from the crowd
came to huddle around her, giving Otter deep glares.
Otter walked over to the houses of the unclean then. They were separate from the
rest of the village, a circle of chikhees between the corn mounds and the tanning
pits. The corn he passed through was lush and ready to be harvested, which made
Otter think of his son working excrement into the ground the day of their great
argument. The memory of that day felt like it was from another life.
When he reached the ring of houses that belonged to the whites, Otter asked after
his son and was directed to a particular chikhee. "He'll be busy though," said the
woman. She had plaited hair woven around her head in a crown -- a Sopatke
hairstyle. A war widow then.
Otter approached the chikhee she indicated slowly, asking himself if he really
wanted to do this. Then he saw his son.
Whiteface's features had rounded and softened, and he had shaved off all his hair,
but he was still recognizable. Otter saw him from a few houses over and stopped to
watch. Whiteface was kneeling on the raised chikhee floor, trying to feed a very
Otter knew the man. Jay's-nest had been old even when Otter was a child. He was
a forager, and Otter used to go to his chikhee to shell nuts for him.
Now Jay's-nest was frail and dying. As Whiteface brought the spoon to his lips,
Jay's-nest didn't even follow the motion with his eyes, just gazed blankly to the
side. Except in the case of unclean infections, the Curers only sent somebody to the
whites to care for if the person could no longer carry out the most basic functions
Otter stepped forward. He would go to his son, talk to him, maybe embrace him.
"Scum," muttered Jay's-nest. Otter stopped in his place.
"No, no. Just a bit of corn," said Whiteface. His voice was different, more rounded
somehow, like his body. "Just a little spoon of corn."
Jay's-nest knocked the spoon out of Whiteface's hand. The corn mush splattered
all over Whiteface's bare, tattoo-less, chest.
"You are scum," said Jay's-nest. "Rotten. Mold." Jay's-nest had always been such
a kind man. No longer.
Whiteface didn't even blink at the insult. "Just a spoon," he said. He offered some
more corn mush to the man, and Jay's-nest took the bite and then spat it back into
his face. Whiteface calmly wiped the mush away and continued. Otter couldn't
stand it anymore though. He turned around and left.
Otter had no place in a society that made his son into little more than a log by the
chikhee steps that you used to scrape mud off your feet. The Sopatke might be
cruel, but at least they didn't degrade their own children like this. So the Sopatke
didn't have an enlightened idea of equality like the Ka-akin had? So they had a
Chieftain who ruled god-like over all the clans? At least among them you could
choose to be a warrior, or a sage, or a forager, or a crafter. You weren't imprisoned
your whole life by a ring of different-colored dyes.
Otter didn't bother saying goodbye. Who would he wish farewell to? His wife had
divorced him. His son . . . well Otter hadn't even had the strength to speak to him.
Otter walked east again, found his beach, ate his turtle eggs, and emptied his
emotions into the endlessly rolling water.
Otter-in-the-grass hadn't been on the beach for even two moons when a messenger
came from the village.
His son was dying.
Otter-in-the-grass had been working on building a house for himself when the
messenger arrived. "What is this?" Otter asked.
The man, named simply Indigo, was bent over with his hands on his knees, sucking
in air. Much of his hair had escaped its bun and hung around his face in sweaty
tangles. "It's your son," said Indigo. "Whiteface. He's been . . . hurt."
"How bad?" The words spilled out of Otter's mouth.
Indigo straightened. "We must. Go now."
Otter dropped the branch he had been trying to drive into the ground, and they ran.
As they raced over the clumps of grass in the open spaces, they watched for snake
and armadillo holes lest they catch their foot in one. Meanwhile, there was no time
for talking. Indigo was struggling for breath as it was, and Otter was not a young
man anymore, able to run and hold conversations at the same time. He couldn't
stop the questions from entering his head though.
How had Whiteface been hurt? In an attack? An accident? Whatever it was, it was
bad, but how bad was it? Would they arrive back at the village to find Otter's son
They ran until they could run no longer. Indigo stopped first. The young man
collapsed onto one knee and retched into the tall grass. "I think. We. Need to walk.
For awhile," he said.
Otter helped him up and they walked. It was torture waiting for Indigo to get his
breath back before Otter could ask him questions. "What happened to my son?"
Otter asked, when Indigo had recovered enough to drink water from a bladder
strapped to his chest.
Indigo passed the water bladder to Otter, but didn't say anything for a time. Otter
knew then that it was very dire.
"We found him to the north of the village," said Indigo. "He had been hit in the
head and lost much blood."
"But he was awake?"
"No," Indigo said. "But alive. Breathing."
"Did he wake up?" asked Otter.
Indigo shook his head, flinging his wet hair about. "I left as soon as he was found.
But it was clearly the Sopatke. Who else would do such a thing?"
"Have any others been attacked by the Sopatke in this way?" asked Otter.
"If there have been," said Indigo, "it was since I left. Whiteface was the first."
"And what did the Curers say of his wound?"
Indigo hesitated again, wiped sweat off his forehead. "They said to find you as
quickly as possible." Indigo looked away then. Like he was hiding something.
"What else did they say?" asked Otter.
Indigo didn't turn to him. "They . . ." he took a breath, let it out, ". . . they said they
would probably have to give him over to the whites to care for."
Otter remembered Jay's-nest, how Whiteface had to feed him every bite. "Was
there an infection?" asked Otter, but Indigo didn't know.
They ran some more then. For three days and two nights they ran, taking more and
more breaks as their bodies wore out. The only food they had to eat was foraged
from bushes as they passed, and there was precious little of it. Four times they
actually stopped altogether, collapsing onto the ground and sleeping for a time.
Always, when they got up, Otter felt ashamed that he had fallen asleep.
They arrived at the village during the night. People looked up from fires and then
stood and followed them to the Curer's huts. Some wailed, some touched him on
the back or shoulders, some put it upon themselves to inform him of what had
happened. Otter heard none of it over the pounding in his ears. When they arrived
at the Curer's huts though, several of the people with them pointed west, towards
the houses of the unclean.
Otter wanted to sprint then, but his legs burned and had no strength left in them. He
stumbled as he tried to run faster. The crowd pressed him on. When they got to the
edge of the corn mounds, Indigo patted Otter's back and then sat down heavily
beside a corn stalk. Otter kept going.
When he got to the ring of houses that belonged to the whites, the people following
him halted. Some were saying things to him, but he was not listening. Inside the
ring, an old woman was throwing wood into a heaping fire. She saw Otter and held
a hand out to him. "Come," she said. The fire was huge, like one used in the
winter. Or in mourning. Had Otter come too late? He wished he'd been paying
attention to what the crowd had said outside.
Otter allowed himself to be pulled along. The chikhee she led him to had its
braided mats hanging down as walls. Otter could not see inside. "In there," the old
woman said. In a daze, he mounted the two steps to the house and paused.
Inside, there were three men. One was holding a small torch for light, and another
was wiping feces from the bottom of a third. That third man was turned on his side,
facing away from the entrance, but Otter knew it was his son even so. His beloved
son. His boy. Whiteface.
The man cleaning him looked up. His hands were filthy, and he had a stinking
basket of leaves that he was using in his work.
Otter stood there, not knowing what to do or say.
"I'm almost finished," said the man caring for his son, not meeting his eyes. He
took some more leaves and wiped again. Baskets of fresh leaves lined the walls of
the hut, and the man took from them over and over again until Whiteface was
clean. Then the man tied Whiteface's breechcloth around him and rolled him onto
his back. It was then that Otter saw his boy's face, and all the detachment left him
in a rush. The frantic running had been dreamlike, but this, this was real. Despair
sucked him down like quicksand.
When Indigo had described Whiteface's injury, Otter had imagined a bloody gash,
a scalp wound. That was not it all. Half of Whiteface's forehead had been caved in.
A fist-sized dent pressed his right brow down into his eye so that it only opened a
sliver. Whiteface looked at Otter though, with his good eye at least. He tried to say
something, but only a drooled "aaaaaaaf" came out.
Otter went to him, went to him like he should have two moons ago. He knelt beside
his son, and he took his ruined head into his lap and wept. His grief was hot like
the fire outside, scorching everything. He remembered Whiteface as a baby in his
arms, precious, unblemished. He remembered teaching him languages and training
him in the use of the bow. He had been such a clever boy, and beautiful. And now
Seeing the wound, Otter knew why Whiteface had been sent to the whites. Half of
his head was gone, just gone. He would not recover. For the rest of his life, other
people would have to clean him, feed him, clothe him.
After a while, Otter looked down to find Whiteface had fallen asleep and the other
two men had left. Carefully, tenderly, he lowered his son's head to a ragged
deerskin pillow and lay down beside him. Otter quickly succumbed to an
When Otter awoke, things were fuzzy, indistinct. He didn't know where he was or
why his muscles were so sore. When memory came, it crashed into him all at once:
the message, the three-day's run, the dent in his son's head. He turned to the left
and there was Whiteface, sleeping. From this angle, the dent didn't look as bad. He
could almost imagine his son was whole and they were sleeping in the family
chikhee as they always had.
As Otter studied his son and felt the clenching pain all over again of knowing
Whiteface was permanently damaged, he heard somebody stomping on the chikhee
steps outside and realized that was what had woken him up. He turned to see a pair
of whites at the entrance, an older man and a younger. Otter was too drowsy to
drudge up their names.
"We must tend to your son now," said the older of the two.
Otter blinked. Why were they staying outside? "Come," said Otter.
The older white cleared his throat. "The work we must do, it is unclean work." And
then Otter understood. They were waiting for him to get out of the chikhee so he
wouldn't be tainted when they came in and started working.
Otter stood up. "Come," he said again, and when they hesitated he added "Am I
not a chief? I tell you to come."
They came up the steps then. The younger man carried a large bowl of water, and
the older a clean breechcloth and a woven basket. Otter stood out of the way as
they quietly woke Whiteface and turned him over. When they stripped off his
breechcloth and Otter saw that he was smeared with excrement, his heart crumbled
for his son's humiliation and he stepped forward. "Let me do this," said Otter.
The two whites looked at him in complete shock. "It is unclean," said the younger
"And it is our task to do," said the older, "not yours." The older man reached for
one of the baskets of clean leaves around the room as if it were settled.
Otter grabbed his wrist. "He is my son," said Otter. The older man's arm squirmed
to get out of Otter's grip, but Otter held it tight.
"Let go of my arm. You do not know how to care for him," said the older man.
"Then show me," said Otter-in-the-grass.
"And what?" said the older man, while the younger watched the exchange with
wide eyes. "Will you care for him for a few days until you are tired of having to
purify yourself every time you go into the village?" The older man ripped his hand
out of Otter's grasp. "We have enough of that kind of help. Families say they'll
care for a person and then we find that they haven't been out in a week and that
person is dead. So, if you please, let me do the task that the ancestors have
assigned me, and get out of my way."
Otter pulled the basket of clean leaves over to him, pulled out a few, wiped his son.
"I am his father, his ancestor. So, if you please, I will care for him and watch over
him as ancestors are meant to." He held out his hand and dropped the dirty leaves
into the basket the older man had brought. "See now? I am unclean like you."
The older man rose to his feet. "This is not your place, Otter-in-the-grass," he said.
"You are a chief."
"I am also a father," said Otter.
The older white walked to the chikhee steps and gestured to the younger one, who
was still crouched on the floor with his bowl. "Come, Drifting-cloud, we will leave
this man to his folly."
The young man, Drifting-cloud, looked at Otter, then looked at the older man and
shook his head. "I will teach him what he needs to know," said Drifting-cloud, and
Otter wanted to hug him. He was not much older than Whiteface, and that was the
kind of thing that Whiteface would have done, Otter was sure.
The older white threw the clean breechcloth he'd been carrying onto the floor and
"Thank you," said Otter to Drifting-cloud, and the man nodded.
After that, Drifting-cloud walked Otter through how to care for Whiteface. Every
few hours, his son had to be repositioned. "Otherwise, he will get blisters," said
Drifting-cloud. He also had to be fed, and washed. There were herbs to burn in
bowls, ointments to rub into his muscles, and poultices to apply to the great wound
in Whiteface's forehead.
It was Drifting-cloud too, who told Otter what exactly had happened to Whiteface.
"There was a man, Black-on-his-palm, do you know him?"
"A hunter-warrior," said Otter.
"Yes," said Drifting-cloud. They were sitting on the chikhee steps while Whiteface
dozed. "He was a brutal man. One of the foreign women who helps us with the
unclean work was pressing the dung into the soil, when Black-on-his-palm took
hold of her to rape her. Whiteface must have been nearby, for he came to her aid.
He attacked Black-on-his-palm and they fought while the woman ran away. It was
Black-on-his-palm who took his club and bashed in Whiteface's head. It was he
who dragged Whiteface's body north to make it seem as if the Sopatke had
Pride welled up in Otter, fighting the sadness. "He . . . died a warrior then?"
Drifting-cloud nodded. "A warrior and a servant both. He was a good white. He
did the work that nobody else was there to do and he took the penalty for it."
Otter looked back inside the chikhee at his son, sleeping on his back. His dear boy,
his noble boy. Otter-in-the-grass had thought that Whiteface had thrown away his
dignity when he chose the white, but Otter saw now that the dignity was still there.
He had been willing to die rather than back down to Black-on-his-palm. Whiteface
had never been a great fighter either, and he hadn't been armed. He fought that
man knowing he would lose.
"And what of Black-on-his-palm?" asked Otter. If he hadn't been killed already,
Otter himself would do it himself. He would start by castrating him.
"We believed his trick at first. We thought it was the Sopatke. But then somebody
searching for the killer found the woman who had run away. She explained what
happened and the tribe found Black-on-his-palm and set him before the chiefs.
They had the Curers cut off all of his tattoos one by one, for he no longer deserved
the honor of them, and then they killed him with a club as he had sought to kill
Whiteface. After that we fed him to the boars. His bones are scattered in their
Yes, that was proper. But there was no joy in it either. It didn't heal Otter's boy.
That night, though, Otter asked for some black dye. He mixed it and, with a blunt
twig, painted the tattoos of a warrior on Whiteface's skin. Otter couldn't actually
tattoo him. The pain would be too great. But he put the dye on his skin, and when it
dried it looked much like a tattoo. The ink would fade of course, but when it did
Otter would just reapply it. Whiteface had earned that. He watched Otter paint the
symbols on him with interest but little comprehension.
For many days, Otter-in-the-grass rarely left Whiteface's side and the only person
that came to help him was Drifting-cloud. Then, one morning, Otter awoke and
Lake-bloom was there, sleeping on the floor at the other end of the chikhee. Otter
stared at her for a time. She was lying on her side with her head rested on her
outstretched arm. Her face was lined but still beautiful, and she had taken her hair
down for the night as she always did so that it pooled around her arm. There were
some grey hairs among the black. Her hands and forearms were stained from
decades of working with dye, for she was a crafter, a blue, and that was her task.
Otter had driven her away. She had divorced him. Even so, here she was.
He decided not to wake her, mostly because he didn't know what to say. Instead,
he woke Whiteface and started cleaning him. Whiteface let out gurgled cries this
morning as Otter turned him over, and he held his son and whispered to him until
he calmed down. "I'm here," said Otter. "Your father is here." He spoke soothingly
as if everything was well.
When Whiteface quieted down, Otter started the task of changing his son's
breechcloth. Whiteface wept again, and again Otter held him. When he had calmed
him down a second time, Otter reached for one of the baskets of leaves and found
Lake-bloom there. Silently, she handed him leaves and watched him work.
For the rest of the day Lake-bloom stayed with them, but still they did not speak.
Otter wanted to tell her he was sorry for abandoning them, but there seemed to be
no words big enough. I should have listened, he wanted to say. I should have
listened when you told me to make things right with our son. The words just
wouldn't come out. It wasn't until nighttime that he and Lake-bloom spoke to one
another. Otter lay down on the chikhee floor and Lake-bloom wordlessly tucked
herself into his embrace as if they were husband and wife again. For a time they
said nothing, just watched the dim silhouette of their son breathing.
"I'm sorry," said Otter. The words hung empty in the damp, dark air.
"I know," said Lake-bloom
Otter didn't know what to say then, and Lake-bloom was quiet too. Otter was
drifting off to sleep when she spoke again. "Today was the first time I saw him
since it happened," said Lake-bloom. "I just . . . I saw his face right after he was
attacked and then I couldn't bring myself to see him again. It was too awful." Her
back was pressed against Otter's chest and he felt her take a shaky breath. "I heard
you had come back, that you were here among the whites, doing the work of a
white. I heard and I came because I didn't want to bear this alone. I couldn't bear it
Otter put his arms around her then. "You don't have to," he said.
Lake-bloom and Otter lived in Whiteface's house after that, made it their own.
When Otter and Lake-bloom were not helping their son, they helped others among
the camp of the unclean, rarely leaving the confines of the small ring of houses.
They had lived like that for nearly four moons when Otter started getting requests
to meet with the council. Otter ignored the requests until the Eldest chief came to
visit him. Otter was feeding his son when he arrived, Whiteface sitting up with his
back to one of the large wooden poles that held up the chikhee roof. The braided
mats that were usually down for privacy had been rolled up to allow the breeze to
come in, and to allow Whiteface to watch the goings-on of the people around them.
Eldest stood outside as he spoke. "Otter-in-the-grass," he said, "you cannot
continue to ignore our summons. We need our ambassador again, for one of our
hunters has seen the Sopatke moving into the land just east of here, and we fear
they may be planning to surround us. Their leader is a man named Jaegar, and he
has no love for peace."
"I am busy," said Otter, and he spooned some ground beans into Whiteface's
mouth. Some dribbled down his chin, and Otter wiped it off with his hand and
flicked it onto the ground beside Eldest. Let Jaegar attack.
"Otter, by ignoring us in this you are disobeying the ancestors. We need you to
speak with this man Jaegar. You are the only one who can do such a thing. There
are others to do the work of caring for your son."
Otter was tired of hearing such words. "Send someone then to be my student. I will
teach them what to say."
"There is not time to teach someone their strange tongue, Otter, and you know
Otter looked away from Eldest and back to Whiteface, fed him another spoonful.
"The only thing I know is that I am not leaving my son."
Eldest promised he would be back, and then left Otter to his work. When Eldest
returned a few days later, he brought with him two other chiefs. Otter had expected
them, for some Ka-akin warriors had been killed and earlier that day Otter had
helped bury them with their ancestors.
Chief Butterfly-on-a-thorn was one of the people Eldest brought. She was well
known for her persuasive speech. "This is serious now, Otter. Some of our people
have been killed. If we do not stop this, we shall have to go to war."
Otter had been sitting on the chikhee steps when the three arrived, but he didn't
stand to speak to them. "I saw the bodies," said Otter.
"Then you know that you must help us," said Butterfly-on-a-thorn.
"I am helping," said Otter. "I put their bodies in the ground."
"You know that is not what she meant," said Eldest. He was angry, his face a
darker brown so that the old scalping scar on his forehead stood out all the more.
Otter nodded. "Nevertheless, I will not help you." He wasn't going to leave his
son, couldn't they see that?
"What good is caring for your son," said Butterfly-on-a-thorn, "if Jaegar's men
burst into this hut and kill him? What have you accomplished with your labor
Otter stood up abruptly. How dare they try to manipulate him with such an
imagined scenario? "I will help you on one condition," he said. "Heal my son.
Make him whole again. Give him back his clever mind and his strong arms and his
smile. I will help you then. Otherwise, leave me alone. I have lost enough time
with him, and I will not sacrifice one more moment." Otter didn't try to disguise
the venom in his words.
"We did not do this to your son," said the third chief, Sun-bird.
"And the man who did has been punished," said Eldest.
They didn't understand. "Justice is a small thing," said Otter. "I want my boy
back." Sadness and anger and despair overwhelmed him then. He couldn't talk to
these people any longer. He turned his back to them and walked away. He didn't
know where he was going until he arrived at a clearing in a far wood, the spot in
the forest where he had trained Whiteface in the bow and the spear.
Suddenly it seemed very important that he find the weapons he had hidden. He
frantically looked for the oak tree where they were kept up in the branches, but
when he found the tree, the weapons were all rotted. The wood of the spear had
gone so soft that when he picked it up, it fell apart in his hands. The only part that
was still intact was the spearhead, and he sat at the base of the tree and gazed at it,
turning it over and over in his palm.
He remembered what it had been like to train his son. Such hope. Such joy. But the
other chiefs were right. Otter was being selfish. The tribe needed him and he
refused to help. But wasn't he due some selfishness? Wasn't that his right after all
that had happened?
He heard rustling and looked up to see Lake-bloom picking her way through the
palmetto bushes. When she drew close, he stood up and she hugged him, putting
her head to his chest.
"They sent you here to convince me, didn't they?" asked Otter, and she nodded
against his shoulder.
"They called a meeting for tomorrow," said Lake-bloom. "They will send
hunter-warriors to make you come." And what else could they do? Otter would
have done the same thing if the roles had been reversed.
"I will go," said Otter.
"And what shall you do? What shall you say to them when they ask you to leave?"
"I do not know," said Otter.
The next morning, while the ground was still wet with dew, the hunter-warriors
came for Otter. He went with them. They were all older men, men whom Otter had
directed in battle before. A subtle reminder of Otter's duty. At the meeting place
there was another reminder, less subtle. The chiefs, all eight of them, stood in a line
beside a circle of dyes, laid out exactly as if it were a naming ceremony. The chiefs
were dressed in their best garments, some of alligator skin, some the speckled hide
of a fawn, some an elaborate weaving of palm-fronds and moss. Eldest stood in the
center of the line wearing a sash made of black panther fur, faded and scuffed with
Many people were gathered at the meeting place, a great crowd from all the
villages. Some looked at Otter hopefully, others with malice. Behind Otter walked
Lake-bloom, for Drifting-cloud had stayed with Whiteface so that she could come.
When Otter drew up opposite the line of chiefs, Eldest spoke. "We will not waste
time with formalities," he said. "We understand your heartache over your son, but
the tribe needs you. Speak with the Sopatke. Stop the bloodshed. This is your place
in our tribe, and we need you to take it. In front of all the people I put this charge to
"And what of my son's needs?" asked Otter. Others could care for Whiteface of
course, but it wouldn't be the same. Whiteface recognized Otter now, he was sure
of it. And, when his son saw his face, some part of him had to know that Otter
loved him. What would Whiteface think if he looked up and Otter wasn't there?
That Otter hated him? That he'd abandoned him once again?
"Your son will be cared for," said Eldest, "but the tribe needs you more than your
son does right now. The burden is great, but it must be carried. You must fulfill the
calling the ancestors have placed upon you. You chose the yellow, the red, and the
purple, and we need you to honor those colors, Otter-in-the-grass." As he said the
names of the colors, Eldest gestured at each pile of dye in turn. "We need the
peace-chief to lead us, the sage who knows the foreign tongues, and the war-chief
who understands how to stave off the enemy with promises and threats."
The words piled on Otter like so many heavy stones, pressing him down. It was not
fair to do this, not right. He should be with his son for however many days
Whiteface had left. He shouldn't have to try to explain to him why he had to leave.
But he couldn't let his people die either. If he could negotiate peace, then he had to
do so. His son would want him to. Whiteface had let himself be dressed as a
monster, after all, even though it hurt him, shamed him. He had done it for his
people, just as he had protected that woman from her attacker.
Otter felt a hand on his shoulder. Lake-bloom. "Courage," she whispered, and he
knew then what to do.
Under the eyes of all the people, he walked over to the circle of dyes and stepped
into the middle. There he turned, looking at everybody gathered, scanning the faces
of the people he would save. He went then to the pile of white dye, wet with dew,
and plunged his hand into it. He stood up and held the wet mess above his head for
all to see. There was no sound but for the buzzing of the cicadas and crickets.
He took a deep breath and then brought the clumpy paint down, smearing it across
his face in a slash, feeling it slide down his forearm and drip from his chin. "I will
serve you," said Otter. "I will serve you as my son Whiteface served you."
There was a great stirring in the crowd, but Otter was not done. "Know this though,
if you lay this task upon me, then you take the care of my beloved son into your
hands. If you wish me to stand for you, then all of you must stand for him. You
must put the white on your face. You must be the offspring that he can never have.
You must make him your ancestor, so that his soul lives on. You must honor him
to take away the dishonor of this color."
His words echoed in the morning air and he again lifted his hand, the one covered
in white dye. The people were silent. Otter turned to Eldest, and for a time they
looked each other in the eyes. Eldest's eyes were misty with age, but they were still
full of force.
Then Eldest stepped forward. He walked into the circle, stood in front of Otter, and
tilted his face upward, looking at Otter's hand. Otter brought down his hand over
Eldest's face, painting a wide streak that started at the scar on his forehead, went
over his nose, and stopped at his chin.
"In the name of the Ka-akin," said Eldest, "we accept."
Otter stood in the circle as all the chiefs came to put white on their faces,
Lake-bloom beside him. That very evening, Otter left for the Sopatke. He did not
go to the clan to the east that had been attacking their hunters, Jaegar's clan, butinstead went north to all of the clans he had visited during the time of his
wandering. He did not go alone either, but took with him several Sopatke war
widows who had served along with Whiteface, including the one Whiteface had
saved from being defiled.
While Otter-in-the-grass spoke to the chiefs of each clan, the war widows talked to
the people, telling them of how Whiteface had honored the Sopatke by protecting
one of their own. In this way Otter tugged on the compassion of many, and even
when the chiefs remained unmoved, Otter always left a village with more people
than he arrived with.
When he had amassed eighty warriors from the clans that were friendly towards
him, he went to the more hostile ones. To these chiefs Otter spoke with all his
cunning, playing upon their greed and their lust for power. To some he groveled to
stroke their pride, and to others he blustered about the strength of the Ka-akin and
the ferocity of their spirits. He tantalized them with promises of trade, and scared
them with talk of Jaegar setting himself up as a Chieftain above them.
In three moons, Jaegar had such a force of Sopatke arrayed against him that he laid
down his war-club and retreated far north. The rest of the Sopatke followed -- the
greedy in order to watch each other, and the peaceful back to their families.
So it was that Otter-in-the-grass finally returned to his village and found it greatly
No longer did the whites live in their own separate place, but there were new
houses for them right there in the village. The people too, had changed, for each
one wore a small smudge of white dye upon their foreheads, and the people that
had chosen white as infants had their entire faces painted as if it were a badge of
Otter found Lake-bloom and Whiteface in their old home, and he embraced them
warmly. Then, and every day thereafter, Otter told Whiteface of all that had been
done in his name, of how his bravery had moved many men to come to the aid of
And though Otter did not know how much Whiteface understood of the tale, when
Otter reenacted stepping into the circle and putting white on his face, as he often
did, his son smiled in delight.
This was how Otter-in-the-grass chose his last color, his true color, and saved his
tribe. He is a great man, and nobody has any qualms about saying it, even his
enemies. He cares for his son in the same chikhee even now, Lake-bloom by his
side, and he cares for his people in a way that is similar. It is said that he is often
seen at the corn mounds too, pressing dung into the soil with his hands, or at the
tanning pits, working the skins into the putrid water to cure them into leather.
Just so, Otter's story does not end, but comes to its stopping point. He passed
through his crisis. He found his place. And it may not be a place of strutting and
riotous color, but it is an honorable place nonetheless.