THE TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
It was noon and every booth was full. Nobody was in a hurry to leave the air-conditioned diner. The rise and fall of buzzing cicadas outside signaled it was the high season. Residents in the small town earned enough money during the summer months to support their families all year.
Every conversation suddenly silenced when a thundering “Thud…BOOM!” sounded in the distance. Every eye turned toward the chalk painted windows. “Thud…BOOM!” It came again. There was no smoke in the distance and there were no highways or railroads for at least fifty miles. Several men started walking quickly towards the door. “Thud…BOOM!!”
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
The menfolk ran outside, hungry for their own tale of glory. They lined up, at least ten of them, each eager to play the role of the victorious, rugged, lone ranger of the wild frontier. After all, they had come here to be heroes.
A sleek, feathered arrow stuck in the saloon’s wooden porch pillar. The men crouched for cover and drew their pistols. A high-pitched war cry rang out and a war horse kicked up a swirl of dust as it galloped down the main street. The native warrior riding it looked no older than a schoolboy, but even so, he cut a savage figure.
The pioneers opened fire and the native slumped off his horse, rolling to a dead stop in the street. The thundering hoofbeats faded into the distance, and a nervous silence fell as the townsfolk eyeballed the body in the street.
“Injun’s dead!” Someone declared, and the street erupted in cheers and celebrations.
Before all of this, this land was sacred. From the mighty rivers, past the ridges and canyons, over the plains and to the Sacred Mountains, this was our home. Our elders taught us children to respect it. They showed us how the land provided us with everything we needed. Grandma showed us different grasses; the best for weaving, the best for rope. She showed us where and when the land offered black oak acorns, seeds, herbs and berries.
We learned from her to read the wind and the river banks, and move with the changing seasons. We listened and when the land yearned for respite, we moved on. When we returned next, it had regenerated and nourished us again.
At night we gathered around the flickering fire and watched the flames dance as Grandma told us stories of the bear and the wolf and the buffalo. We came to understand that every living thing has a place on this land, we are all connected. We walked these plains with harmony and gratitude in our steps, and in return it provided for us in abundance.
Then they came.
With their fences, diseases and bullets. First, they took the men as slaves and worked them to death. That’s how I lost my father and uncles. They went out to cross the land, and never returned. Next, they took the babies. Ripped them from their screaming mothers’ arms.
Then they claimed the land as their own, setting out make-believe boundary lines. We could no longer move freely to follow the flow of the earth. Caught in their invisible net, we began to starve.
In a few short summers, they had harvested more than their community could use in a lifetime. They took and took until they stripped the plains bare, and then they danced on her mutilated body, celebrating their wealth and fortune. She begged for respite but they could not hear her.
Were they so disconnected that they could not feel the drought and famine that was to come?
Grandma grew too weak to walk. My sister, Aiyani, would creep to the river in the cover of darkness, trying for an eel or a handful of acorns, always promising to return before the breaking dawn. But one morning, she didn’t return. By sun up, I knew she was gone. Grandma knew too. It was just me and her left. In her last breaths she reminded me not to mourn. Mourning would tie her here, and stop her spirit from being granted entry to the gates of Estom Yanim, the Sacred Mountains. I promised her I wouldn’t cry one tear and she would soar straight in.
Then it was just me. Lalook, the last of the Nisenan Maidu. I would not allow myself to cry for my beloved grandmother.
Ceremoniously, I set her spirit free and wiped ash across my face, arms and chest. I whispered my sorrow to the burnt earth, sharing my hope that it will find a way to heal and rejuvenate.
Across the dry, barren plains, the sound carried from their town. Music, laughter, the boom of the machines as they continued to decimate the crops. Rage boiled inside me. I whispered my last wish, that Grandma will meet me at the gates to Estom Yanim, and bring me to my family once again.
I put on my father’s grand, feathered headdress, took my hunting bow and our four remaining arrows, mounted my cherished spotted buckskin appaloosa, and rode out of our camp. Together, we galloped across the plains as one. The noon sun burned my bare back, the wind whipped our long plaited hair, and the smell of the dry summer air reminded me of a home that was no more.
I let out all of my pain in a cry of freedom and we soared right through the center of their dusty town and straight on to the Sacred Mountains.