Little Tree
(first chapter)

by Forrest Carter


Ma lasted a year after Pa was gone. That's how I came to live with Granpa and Granma when I was five years old.

The kinfolks had raised some mortal fuss about it, according to Granma, after the funeral.

There in the gullied backyard of our hillside shack, they had stood around in a group and thrashed it out proper as to where I was to go, while they divided up the painted bedstead and the table and chairs.

Granpa had not said anything. He stood back at the edge of the yard, on the fringe of the crowd, and Granma stood behind him. Granpa was half Cherokee and Granma full blood.

He stood above the rest of the folks; tall, six-foot-four with his big, black hat and shiny, black suit that was only worn to church and funerals. Granma had kept her eyes to the ground, but Granpa had looked at me, over the crowd, and so I had edged to him across the yard and held onto his leg and wouldn't turn loose even when they tried to take me away.

Granma said I didn't holler one bit, nor cry, just held on; and after a long time, them tugging and me holding, Granpa had reached down and placed his big band on my bead.

Leave him be," he had said. And so they left me be. Granpa seldom spoke in a crowd, but when be did, Granma said, folks listened.

We walked down the hillside in the dark winter after-noon and onto the road that led into town. Granpa led the way down the side of the road, my clothes slung over his shoulder in a tow sack. I learned right off that when you walked behind Granpa, you trotted; and Granma, be-hind me, occasionally lifted her skirts to keep up.

When we reached the sidewalks in town, we walked the same way, Granpa leading, until we came to the back of the bus station. We stood there for a long time; Granma reading the lettering on the front of the buses as they came and went. Granpa said that Granma could read fancy as anybody. She picked out our bus, right on the nose, just as dusk dark was settin' in.

We waited until all the people were on the bus, and it was a good thing, because trouble set up the minute we set foot inside the door. Granpa led the way, me in the middle and Granma was standing on the lower step, just inside the door. Granpa pulled his snap-purse from his forward pants pocket and stood ready to pay.

"Where's your tickets?" the bus driver said real loud, and everybody in the bus set up to take notice of us. This didn't bother Granpa one bit. He told the bus driver we stood ready to pay, and Granma whispered from behind me for Granpa to tell where we were going. Granpa told him.

The bus driver told Granpa how much it was and while Granpa counted out the money real careful--for the light wasn't good to count by-the bus driver turned around to the crowd in the bus and lifted his right hand and said, 'Howl" and laughed, and all the people laughed. I felt better about it, knowing they was friendly and didn't take offense because we didn't have a ticket.

Then we walked to the back of the bus, and I noticed a sick lady. She was unnatural black all around her eyes and her mouth was red all over from blood; but as we passed, she put a hand over her mouth and took it off and hollered real loud, "Wa ... hooo!" But I figured the pain must have passed right quick, because she laughed, and everybody else laughed. The man sitting beside her was laughing too and he slapped his leg. He had a big shiny pin on his tie, so I knew they was rich and could get a doctor if they needed one.

I sat in the middle between Granma and Granpa, and Granma reached across and patted Granpa. on the hand, and he held her hand across my lap. It felt good, and so I slept

It was deep into the night when we got off the bus on the side of a gravel road. Granpa set off walking, me and Granma behind. It was cracking cold. The moon was out, like half of a fat watermelon, and silvering the road ahead until it curved out of sight.

It wasn't until we turned off the road, onto wagon ruts with grass in the middle, that I noticed the mountains. Dark and shadowed, they were, with the half-moon right atop a ridge that lifted so high it bent your head back to look. I shivered at the blackness of the mountains.

Granma spoke from behind me, "Wales, he's tiring out." Granpa stopped and turned. He looked down at me and the big hat shadowed his face.

"It's better to wear out when ye've lost something," he said. He turned and set off again, but now it was easier to keep up. Granpa had slowed down, so I figured he was tired too.

After a long time, we turned off the wagon ruts onto a foot trail and headed dead set into the mountains. Seemed Iike we'd come straight up against a mountain, but as we walked, the mountains seemed to open up and fold in around us on all sides.

The sounds of our walking began to echo, and stirrings came from around us, and whispers and sighs began to feather through the trees like everything had come alive. And it was warm. There was a tinkle and a bobble and swishing beside us, a mountain branch rolling over rocks and making pools where it paused and rushed on again. We were into the hollows of the mountains.

The half-moon dropped out of sight behind the ridge and spewed silver light over the sky. It gave the hollow a gray-light dome that reflected down on us.

Granma began to hum a tune behind me and I knew it was Indian, and needed no words for its meaning to be clear, and it made me feel safe.

A hound bayed so sudden, I jumped. Long and mourn-ing, breaking into sobs that the echoes picked up and carried farther and farther away, back into the mountains.

Granpa chuckled, "That'd be ol' Maud--ain't got the smell sense of a lap dog--dependent on her ears."

In a minute, we were covered up with hounds, whining around Granpa and sniffing at me to get the new scent. Ol' Maud bayed again, right close this time, and Granpa said, "Shet up, Maud!" And then she knew who it was and she came running and leaping on us.

We crossed a foot log over the spring branch and there was the cabin, logged and set back under big trees with the mountain at its back and a porch running clear across the front.

The cabin had a wide hall separating the rooms. The hall was open on both ends. Some people call it a "gal-lery," but mountain folks call it a "dogtrot " because the hounds trotted through there. On one side was a big room for cooking, eating and settin', and across the dogtrot on the other side were two bedrooms. One was Granpa and Granma's. The other was to be mine.

I laid out on the springy softness of deer hide webbing, stretched in the frame of hickory posts. Through the open window, I could see the trees across the spring branch, dark in the ghost light. The thought of Ma came rushing on me and the strangeness of where I was.

A hand brushed my head. It was Granma, sitting beside me, on the floor, her full skirts around her, the plaited hair streaked with silver falling forward of her shoulders and into her lap. She watched out the window too, and low and soft she began to sing:

'They now have sensed him coming

The forest and the wood-wind

Father mountain makes him welcome with his song.

They have no fear of Little Tree

They know his heart is kindness

And they sing, 'Little tree is not alone.'

Even silly little Lay-nah

With her babbling, talking waters

Is dancing through the mountains with her cheer

"Oh listen to my singing,

Of a brother come amongst us

Little Tree is our brother, and Little Tree is here.'

Awi usdi the little deer

And Min-e-lee the quail-hen

Even Kagu the crow takes up the song

'Brave is the heart of Little Tree

And kindness is his strength

And Little Tree will never be alone."

Granma sang and rocked slowly back and forth, And I could hear the wind talking, and Lay-nah, the spring branch, singing about me and telling all my brothers. I knew I was Little Tree, and I was happy that they loved me and wanted me. And so I slept, and I did not cry.

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